When I thought about faking my own death, I thought about the Florida swamps and the glamour of crocodiles, like the cars that prowl Delmar every Friday night. I would abandon a car. I would walk back through the pulp pines that crowd the roadway. And that’s where my fantasy ended. I hadn’t figured out the rest. Just the dying part.

Faking your own death kind of runs in my family. A relative of mine disappeared in the pull-you-under currents and paralyzing waves of Ocean Beach off San Francisco in 1936. His name was Walter. He was a Jesuit priest. Walter left a towel in the sand; he left his glasses on the towel. He couldn’t see, my grandmother tells me, without his glasses. The Jesuit community car was found in the lot. It was an easy assumption he had drowned. That is, until he resurfaced in New Mexico in the 1970s.

Before I resolved to fake my own death, I spent a lot of time living other people’s lives. I would come home after work and watch Wallander. And while I watched, I was Kurt Wallander, the gruff chief inspector of a Swedish seaside town. I was on season one of three, taking my time through the episodes. Kurt worked a lot. When he wasn’t working, he’d go for a walk. When he was lonely, he’d open a bottle of wine. I walked with Wallander along that Swedish beach, letting my dog run ahead. I held that wine in my mouth and swallowed it slowly. Like Kurt, I worked a lot. And when I wasn’t at work, I spent time with Wallander.

It’s a little embarrassing, but I worked as a greeting card writer. I wrote condolences. But I didn’t really know how to console another person. I’d paraphrase Frost. I’d dummy-down Donne. I’d hock them some Hopkins: “Glory be to God for sickly things.” And these paraphrases passed. They did the job. Not that they did the job for me when I was inconsolable. What could I tell them? Go home and watch Wallander? Buy a large bag of blue corn chips and a bottle of red table wine? “During this difficult time, lie in bed alone in blue television light.” “I’m sorry for your loss; Wallander lost his wife, too.” It was the same around the office—we were supposed to be finding the right words for people in the most difficult moments of their lives, but nothing all that awful had ever happened to any of us.

It was during this time that I’d wake up in the middle of most nights in a panic. My lungs felt bottled up in brown glass. It was as if I’d woken up homeless in some field, some scattered encampment of tarpaulin and toddlers’ clothes. Life as I knew it was a deranged retirement of resting on the curb behind the Whataburger. But I wasn’t homeless. I was still in my little studio in Florida, surrounded by verdant darkness and billions of encroaching insects. And I knew I had to change my life. But I knew, too, I was a coward.

That’s when I started getting sick. First my knees felt a little stiff. Then my ankles and hips got cranky. My elbows and shoulders and wrists and fingers became brittle, and I couldn’t extend them completely. I was converting into a chrysalis, or, less poetically, my limbs were contracting like one of those newborn birds that slides dead out of the eggshell. It turns out I was one of those people you hear about with a rare disease that makes its big debut in the mid-twenties. This was the big event that would revise the story of my life.

It was after I got sick that I really got to know Wallander, how each day at work was one day closer to his retirement, for him, his irrelevance. His wife was dead. His daughter wouldn’t talk to him. He had his dog. He had long walks at dawn and dusk along the bracing beach. He had an awkward infatuation with the district attorney who lived down the road with her two teenaged children. But, really, he just had his work. He was Wallander, the sometimes avuncular, sometimes harsh, chief inspector. Most of all, he was brave. I got through season two in less than a week.

***

This is a story about watching a television show, as much as anything. We all probably watch too much TV. But after all those hours, what does our experience of television add up to? Where does it go? We sit there, alone with our thoughts and good intentions. Another kid goes missing. Wallander searches a field and finds a candy wrapper. We’re still in our living room. We’ve gotten no closer to our life goals. Wallander breaks the case. What do we have that’s ours? The day is twenty-four hours, and still we’re sad.

When I was a kid, we’d sometimes go to a pizza parlor after little league. The place had a small arcade that would quickly fill up with little boys in bright t-shirts sponsored by auto dealers. I was too young to have money and too young to know how to play, so, as the demo played upon the screen, I’d move the joystick and slap the buttons with my greasy hands, pretending that I was playing. The demo would end and run through its script again. Back then I could fool myself into believing I was actually playing the game. I’m not young enough for that anymore.

***

That spring, my company sent me to a conference in Indianapolis. I don’t mind conferences. I sit behind a skirted table and hand out free greeting cards and trinkets. This year we had key-chain flashlights. My company comps me for meals, so I usually live it up a bit. Sometimes I wake up at 5 a.m. just so I can order room service and sit in the window. It was during this trip to Indianapolis that I met Carol. And it was with Carol that I made the deal to fake my own death.

Carol had wandered into the conference hall that day, killing time during her lunch hour. She came by my table wearing her red coat, and it’s going to sound like I’m making this next part up, but Carol picked up a condolence card on my table, one that I had written (with the help of Hopkins), and she told me that she had received that same card earlier in the week. Carol, as it turns out, was sick, too.

***

I’m not a religious person. I don’t think Wallander is either. But the thing about being sick is that it makes you feel guilty. You feel the guilt even though you’ve done nothing wrong. Usually, when you’re sick—with the flu or strep throat or something small––you can just wait it out, surrender for a couple days until you feel well again. You can just ignore yourself and all the awful thoughts, and you know that you’ll recover. But I had been sick too long to wait it out. For a long time, I didn’t know if I’d get better at all. By then, I had begun to believe the things I was thinking about myself and my life.

There was a lake we’d all go to as kids, where I would practice being dead. If one is to put on a real show, one cannot respond to the phantom shadows on the lake floor, the phantom fish-startles, nor the phantom mother’s calls that one might think one hears in one’s submerged ears. One must let oneself drift beyond the yellow rope, beyond the bobbers and buoy. One must leave oneself alone, as one’s been left alone. One must raise some concern. Let the legs wilt through numb realms, into a green corridor of submerged light. In this way, I had been rehearsing my death ever since I was a kid.

I gave Carol my business card, and that afternoon I caught a flight back to Florida. And the thing is I almost didn’t give her my card, because I was embarrassed of my job, and I was afraid that she didn’t love me, as I immediately loved her.

***

Near the end of my first flare-up, I decided one bottled-up night to look for my relative Walter on the Internet, and I found a newspaper article about him with a picture. The article said that he was on the beach that day because his physician had recommended daily sunbaths. The next day, I called my grandmother, and she told me Walter was always ill, always recovering from some surgery. She said he would complain sometimes that he was too weak to lift his own hand. It was psychosomatic, she told me. My grandmother had a theory: Walter had entered the priesthood at fifteen after his father died, and his illness was a symptom of his cloistered life.

Most of us know what it’s like to spend eight hours each day cloistered in a drafty cubicle. Not that there are daily hymns, beyond the Top 40 hits playing on a loop from someone’s personal radio. Not that anyone at work is worth talking to, anyway. Still, we learn the sounds of one another’s footsteps by heart. We spend the majority of our waking hours in silence, merely feet away from one another. What could be more intimate?

Watching television, it’s easy to forget what we really want in life. Maybe we have days when we tap into that. And maybe we feel as if our life, through hundreds of small choices, has branched from what we really believe, what we really want, and we just don’t know how to make the leap, because by now the two branches—the life we want and our fake life—have grown so far apart. And we realize that we don’t believe in ourselves anymore, and we no longer want our lives. We don’t want to die. We just don’t know what else to do.

***

When I got back from Indianapolis, I had two episodes left of Wallander. Wallander’s daughter had been kidnapped, and he was the only one who would be able to find her. By this time, the other officers were catching on that Wallander had begun to forget things, get disoriented under stress. And I hope I’m not spoiling this for anyone, but his doctor diagnosed him with Alzheimer’s.

A head of darkness, walks with his dog along the seashore, wine, afternoons with his grandchildren, and that dark. More darkness, less flowers.

***

Walter had a sister named Camille. On January 23rd, 1922, Camille received a telegram from a man named Harold. The telegram was one-sentence long. It read, HAVE YOU DECIDED THAT FRIDAY IS THE DAY. “The day” Harold was referring to was the day the two of them would elope to Sacramento. My grandmother showed me her parents’ telegrams one day during the spring after the conference. In my hands, they felt as if they’d just arrived.

Immediately after Indianapolis, Carol and I began our correspondence. And when Carol and I talked about our plan, we talked about crocodiles. We talked about bridges. We talked about hidden bank accounts and paper trails. But more and more it became clear that our plan to fake our own deaths was really a plan to be together.

***

What do I do with myself after the credits roll on the final season? Do I finish this bag of tortilla chips? Do I try to fall asleep? Do I let that call to action dissipate like faint electricity over the surface of my body and harden in my stomach?

Maybe what I really mean about prolonged illness is that it rearranges your life story. Maybe you had confidence at some point. Maybe you thought you could always rely on yourself. Maybe you had no need for courage. Then again, maybe the story you’ve always told of yourself won’t work out. Maybe you’ll lose your job and never get another. Maybe you’ll never find a partner in this life. Maybe you’ll be that uncle, renting a small apartment with a smaller dog, living on cigarettes and canned chili. Maybe you realize that you can give up the old act you’ve put on out of fear. Maybe fear is tiresome and that fever will burn it all away. At some point, you have to stop faking it.

Sometimes just the sweetness of a forgotten memory returning, that flower in the dark, can save us. It doesn’t matter what memory—just the presence of life within. Even now, remembering that lake as a kid, where I practiced being dead. With my face toward the lake floor, my breath nearly gone, and the sun on my dropletted arms, there was always the turning point in my performance, when I’d have to head back in. And I’d look up, as one should not, for distance-muffled applause, from some toddler or someone else’s mother. And I’d realize that no one had noticed at all, that all had done their very best in their own performance. That was when I could finally swim back to shore. That was when we all could be forgiven.