In heaven, people eat burritos, and not particularly authentic ones. Or you can get a Slushy from the slightly unclean convenience shop on Easton Avenue. There’s an uninspired falafel hut as well.
“Heaven” is actually a place we create, collectively. It’s the stuff of dreams. Not sweet Disney dreams of a prince riding up on his steed, magical kiss in his pocket. The kind of dreams you wake from, edgy and confused. You’re in a place. You think you know it. It’s familiar, but not quite. A childhood home, only now it has an elevator and a shark tank. The scene shifts to your office at work, only the floor is lined with banana peels.
Those nightly dreams are all tiny slivers, slices, momentary peeks at our final destination. Heaven is created from our collective, unconscious crap.
In fact, “Heaven” might be a misnomer. Afterlife is better. The life that comes after this one. When the curtain goes down, the little beep on the monitor goes flat, and your loved ones start to weep, this is where you go: New Brunswick, New Jersey.
I know all this because I’ve been there.
The remarkable part of the experience is how unremarkable it was. Before the EMT gave up, before anyone even had a chance to cry, I was gone, walking casually into Burrito Bill’s with my roommate Jeanie by my side.
I could be frightened by the sirens, still sounding vaguely in the background, or shocked to be walking next to a girl who's been dead for twenty years. But I’m not. I’m starving, and while half aware that Jeanie and I have been a little distant lately, I’m more concerned with sinking my teeth into a fried chicken, blue cheese, and bacon burrito.
Buffalo Bill’s uses the word burrito liberally. College students aren’t that choosy about the cultural integrity of their munchies.
“You’re going to order that? Again?” Jeanie’s lip pulls down in brief disgust, and she inspects her nails, always well tended. Shapely, but discreet. No long, gold-painted nails for this girl—she goes with simple white tips, extra moisturizer on her cuticles. These are the kinds of things you know about your college roommate. She doesn’t smoke, but when she does it’s menthol only. She hates cheese because it constipates her, has small but perfectly formed breasts, and eats half as much as I do, of anything.
And she loves me. I know this because she brings me a bagel in the morning if my hangover won’t abate, she helps me make flash cards for the science class I’m bombing, and she makes my bed when I’m out. Although, that may be more a symptom of her obsessive tidiness than love.
She also keeps our fridge stocked with light beer and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. My favorites. I supply the weed, the condoms, the art posters, and often the bulk of the conversation.
“The burrito looks smaller,” I say, realizing that maybe it’s been a while since I’ve had this particular concoction. We grab a table near the front so we can people-watch, as always, hunting out interesting boys or girls wearing cute clothes.
“You must not want it as much as you think you do,” Jeanie answers, nodding to the burrito. “I mean, it’s probably more than you need.”
As if that makes sense. I’m too busy forcing this large burrito in my mouth to respond.
She drinks an extra large Sprite.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” I ask her.
She shakes her head. Her long hair, always on the fence between brown and blonde, looks shiny and clean, as usual. Again I have that nagging feeling that we haven’t been communicating much. Did we have a tiff while we were high that I forgot?
But she looks sanguine, at peace with her soda, so tall it almost touches her nose. “My appetite has dwindled,” she says. “But I still love Sprite.”
“What class do we have today?” I ask. I’m surprised I don’t remember. I really must have partied last night. The burrito is getting away from me. Blue cheese dressing drips down my chin. I wipe it absently with the sleeve of my sweatshirt.
“You’re such a slob,” Jeanie says good-naturedly. “The class is Peace, Conflict, and Global Inequality.”
Why don’t I remember taking this class?
“Really? I thought you hate classes that require writing papers,” I say. “That sounds like an essay class.”
“Your priorities shift here,” Jeanie says.
“I haven’t noticed.”
It’s unlike her to speak in obscurities. Jeanie is an accounting major, with business as her backup. She has a perfectly balanced checking account, keeps track of all the birthdays in her enormous Polish family, and creates her own nativity each year from toothpicks and marshmallows. She is crafty, clever, and pragmatic.
I am none of those things, my talents more cerebral. I have all the Grateful Dead lyrics memorized, and I write them on bathroom walls in the local dive bar when I’m inebriated.
Had we not been thrown together as roommates, we wouldn’t have had anything in common. But three years in, we are an old, married couple kvetching about the rising costs of dorm fees and worrying about our future student loan payments.
“This burrito just tastes different. Not as good. Like almost healthy. It’s disappointing.”
“You’re not in New Jersey anymore,” Jeanie says dismissively as she stands up and gets me a handful of napkins.
I laugh. “Oh really? Then where am I?”
She winks at me and tips her head to the door. She’s ready to go. “Paradise, of course.”
I smile. We have a running joke that Jersey is the “promised land.”
Lennie the homeless man sits outside the burrito shop on the dirty sidewalk, as always. I give him the second half of my burrito, wrapped up in foil.
“God bless you,” he says.
“You too,” I answer. We have a routine.
I whisper to Jeanie, as we head down the street towards campus, “I think he smells a little better lately, don’t you?”
Jeanie frowns. “Maybe your senses are slipping. First the burrito tastes healthy, then Lennie smells good.”
“I didn’t say good.”
She’s walking a little too fast, and I almost have to skip to keep up with her. We get back on campus, where the early grass pushes through the last of the melting grey snow. We pass the rundown houses on fraternity row and cross the street, narrowly avoiding the wave of a passing protest march. There are so many protests here—it’s hard to keep the atrocities straight. This is a group of black students, their shirts tucked in, eyes up front.
“100 Black Men,” the banner says as they march by in a militant silence. One hundred black men, marching through the stone-and-ivy courtyard.
“Don’t they usually march in the evening?” I ask. “So they don’t miss class?”
“They march all day now,” she says. “But it isn’t helping.”
Her steps are clipped, quick. I scurry to stay behind her, keeping sight of her tight blue jeans, pale blue ski jacket. Her hair lifts and falls in the wind as if waving to me. I almost lose her in the crowd of hopeful high school students touring the campus.
“Why are we rushing? My stomach is about to explode.”
“Bacon in the morning always does that to you.”
“What building is the class in again?” I ask grumpily. I don’t want to admit I can’t process bacon, or that I don’t remember the last time I made it to class.
“The humanities building,” she says, in a tone that says it should be obvious. “And I’m rushing because we might be short on time.”
“We might? What time does it start?”
I feel in my pocket for my phone to check the time, but there is none. I have a curious sensation that I didn’t forget to bring my phone; I simply don’t have one. No one does. And then, like a breeze slipping through a crack, the thought is gone. As is all memory of phones that fit in one’s pocket. I’ve never even heard of it.
Inside the building, we almost run up to two flights of stairs, because Jeanie is so determined to get to class on time. It’s one of her more annoying traits, this insistence on being prompt. And prepared. She probably has paper, pencils, pens, a highlighter and the textbook in her backpack. I, as usual, have nothing but indigestion.
The lecture hall door is wide open, and inside, a crowd of students mills about, grabbing seats, popping open their cans of Diet Coke, lining up pens on the tiny desks.
I’m frustrated, climbing over the long legs of jocks to get a seat. “Fuck, this class is crowded. There must be four hundred in this one.” I usually take strange classes no one else wants. French Enlightenment Theorists, for instance. That way I get to be one of fifteen students in a class. “Why is this class so packed? Is it a GE?”
“It should be required,” Jeanie says, “But it’s not. It is the most important class you take here though, so pay attention.”
I sink into a hard wooden seat, borrow a piece of paper from Jeanie, and try to settle in as a professor enters the room, strapping on a microphone. The feedback screeching through the loudspeaker is our notice to shut up and listen. The professor is an older woman, short cropped grey hair standing out against dark skin. She might be Asian, or Latina—I can’t tell. I glance at the syllabus Jeanie has slipped me and see the professor’s name is Bea Goodman.
“She speaks like four languages,” Jeanie whispers to me. “And she’s a vegan.”
The professor is talking about pedagogy, a word I never understood, and the dialectical bind found within all societies.
“I don’t get it,” I scribble on my paper, then poke Jeanie to show her my note.
“Just try to listen. And remember.” She doesn’t sound bored, as I expected. Not ready for a game of tic-tac-toe on my notepad, or to share a stick of gum. There’s a note of urgency, even desperation, in her voice.
I glance at her, seeing for the first time today that her eyeliner has been applied carefully, as always, to accentuate her narrow green eyes. She is prettier than I ever realized. Even beautiful. I look away, embarrassed at a sense of longing I feel. I want to reach out and hold her hand, to stroke her cheek, to tell her, all of a sudden, that I love her too. Very much. Even though I never make the bed, and I forget birthdays.
I force my attention back to the professor, who is waving her arms somewhat hysterically.
“We have systematically shifted all the power from the haves to the have mores, disallowing the poor a voice in the political process, in effect, returning to a system of slavery within our own country. It’s financial slavery, but people are in chains nonetheless. We are losing the battle, people. We are at the point of moral Armageddon.”
I take a few notes: Slavery. Poor. A voice. Did she say Armageddon?
And then the professor switches to Latin, which I do not speak.
“Radix onmium malorium est cupiditas.”
I assume she will return to English and translate her phrase. We will then know that whatever she said is very important, because it was said in Latin. Something like Carpe Diem. Or Semper Fi.
But she goes on, continuing the lecture in Latin. Or is it Greek? I’m lost. Did I skip a prerequisite for this class?
“Why is she doing this?” I ask Jeanie. “I mean, I get it. She’s really smart and speaks lots of languages. But we don’t. So what’s the point?”
Jeanie looks at me, her carefully trimmed eyebrows lifting. “What do you mean?” Then she glances at my notes, where I have tried to write a word in Latin.
“Oh, God. You’re not even going to hear the rest of the lecture. Shit!”
Jeanie rises, pulling me from my seat and down the aisle, over the legs and feet of a variety of annoyed students. Her hand on my sweatshirt is strong, insistent, and she pulls me out into the hallway like we are escaping a vacuum.
It’s cooler in the hallway, and I shiver for a minute. On the wall are the portraits of college professors of the past, dour looking men. I look closer and see one woman as Jeanie pulls me by. She looks curiously like my grandmother. But Nana never went to college or even spoke English.
“That looks so much like my grand—”
“Listen. You’re leaving.”
Jeanie has her arms crossed and bites on her small lower lip. “You don’t have all the credits, I guess. Or some shit. You’re not going to be staying here.”
“At…here. It’s not Rutgers. It’s like graduate school, sort of. I know it doesn’t makes sense, but you have to go.”
My eye starts to twitch, like a migraine is coming on. “Go where?”
“Look, this isn’t what you thought.”
I hear her but I don’t. I’m noticing that I’m barefoot, which is very strange. It occurs to me for the first time that I could be dreaming. But her hand on my shoulder presses down. It feels real. I try to hear what she’s saying.
“This is where you go if you die.”
I look down the long, empty hallway. The windows are open, and a chilly breeze is pushing in.
“Why is it so much like college?”
“Because that’s where everyone wants to go when they die. Back to college. People miss it, I guess. When they get older. This world is mirrored by their desire. Sort of.”
“I miss it. College.” Awareness comes in, things I don’t want to know. That college is over, that I’m older than this. That Jeanie hasn’t aged with me. I stare at her fresh, young face, her perfect eye make-up and unblemished skin. “You’re here because you died here.”
She nods again as if I’m stating the obvious. “I guess I lacked the imagination to go somewhere else.”
“And I’m here because you’re here.”
She shrugs, her left shoulder lifting gently, for just a second. It’s the shrug that sends me over, that makes me know it’s really her. My girl. My bestie. My morning stretch and end-of-day goodnight. The girl who shares my paperbacks, shoes, and boxes of tampons. My confidant, my second mother, my sister. My first love, in some ways. My roommate. My friend.
“But I don’t want to leave.” I reach for her, but I know it’s already over. I can feel pain shooting through my chest, hear the sounds of earthly chaos coming closer.
“No one does.” She reaches over and tucks my loose hair behind my ear. Her skin brushing mine pulls tears from my eyes. Oh my God, I realize. I've missed her so much. I try to form her name with my lips, to say it once more to her face. To say goodbye this time. Jeanie. But I can’t speak.
“Don’t forget to study your notes!”
It’s the last thing she says to me before I fall asleep. Or wake up, depending on how you view things.
Two weeks later, I am discharged from the hospital, leaning heavily on my family. I wobble with a walker around my apartment. I eat tasteless, mushy food, even after the wire is removed from my jaw. And I watch too much reality TV.
I stop telling anyone I died and went to college. That I saw Jeanie. That if I just spoke Latin, I might have a crucial message to share. About pedagogy and poverty and some other things I can’t recall.
I tell them instead to eat well, while their taste buds are fresh. And visit their old colleges once in a while.
A month after the accident, I bring a burrito to the homeless man near my office, my first day back on the job. He accepts it reluctantly, says, “I don’t really like Mexican food.”
I look at old pictures from college, tracing our outline with my finger. Jeanie and me, dressed up as Simon and Garfunkel for Halloween. The two of us sitting in the fresh grass of a spring day, her arms thrown up in the air. Jeanie laughing in the back of someone’s car, high.
I find a radio station that plays only the Grateful Dead, a kind of heavenly oasis as I drive home from work every night.
I cry easily.
I tell a few old friends that I love them, to make sure they know it, and to sign up to vote for Bernie Sanders.
I pull out my boxes from college, brushing off my translation of Rousseau. I read it in the woods, under a very old tree.
I donate to a scholarship at our Alma Mater.
I begin a Latin class in the evenings.
I try to study my notes.
Joanell Serra MFT lives and writes in Northern California. An award-winning playwright, novelist, and short story writer, she has published stories in Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Poydras Review, and elsewhere. In 2015, she won a full scholarship to Santa Barbara's Writer's Conference and also attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
Karen B. Golightly is an assistant professor of English at Christian Brothers University, where she teaches creative writing, Victorian literature, and lots of other courses. She has a PhD in Nineteenth Century British and Irish literature and an MFA in fiction. She has taken graffiti photos all over the United States, in an effort to change the face and perception of this most public art. Her work often focuses on textures as well as the interference of the urban world on graffiti. Her writing and photography has been published internationally in literary journals, newspapers, and magazines. She lives in Memphis, Tennessee, with her three children.