“You Never Know When You’re Gonna Live” by Nathaniel Whittemore

Nathaniel Whittemore


Sarah was a chronic masturbator;
An attractive, dynamic and inexplicably unattached young woman
With hair the deep, bruised color of a five o’clock sun.
She taught art at the local high school for the last several years
And in her spare time sold paintings on sunny pavement in Venice Beach.
After much thought and years of intense personal reflection
Sarah had managed to whittle-down and pro-up the sole purpose and
Intention of her life between two hard and fast “philosophical” tenets.
One was to masturbate chronically, daily, hourly if she could manage it.
“Because,” she said, “it focuses the mind and revitalizes the body
And dammit, you never know when you’re going to die.”
The other was to vividly contemplate death over her orange juice
Every morning before work; specifically her own death, the hows and wheres of it.
“Because,” she said, “It focuses the heart and revitalizes the spirit.”
And if one considers the fact that one might possibly die, she explained,
If one daily accepts and in fact expects it to happen then it most assuredly will not!
“All those poor souls,” she’d say, “launched through their car windshields
On impact or randomly caught in gang crossfire or even collapsed of heart failure
On filthy gas-station bathroom tile, I bet they didn’t sit at their breakfast tables
With a short glass of O.J. that morning before leaving home and
Consider the possibility that they might not ever be coming back again.
So if you ponder, at least for a few minutes every morning, the idea:
I am going to die today, I am going to die today, I am going to die…
You can be sure—You can KNOW with 100% certainty—that you won’t!”

One morning Sarah woke up late.
And in scrambling around to beat the clock and make it to work on time she
Didn’t have the opportunity to masturbate or drink her orange juice
Or to stoically contemplate her own demise.
But she raced out the front door, keys in mouth and juice in hand, and
Made it into her classroom—still alive—and with 19 minutes to spare before first bell.
Out of breath and a bit out of sorts from her broken morning rituals,
Mind and heart unfocused, body and spirit weary, Sarah decided that, with
Her last 19 minutes of spare time, she was going to reclaim control of her awkward,
Anomalous morning and compress her two longstanding “philosophical” tenets into one.
So with her juice in one hand and her padded leather desk chair in the other
She slipped into the art supply closet, a large room in the far left corner of the class,
And shut the door behind her. Checking her watch against the time
On the wall-clock once more, Sarah shuffled some loose artwork over into a pile and
Set her orange juice down on a stilted pallet of dried paints which
Sat across a large bright drawing board that she had since she was thirteen-years-old,
A gift from her father that she had never been able to part with.
Then she slid her pants and underwear down to her knees, leaned back into
That padded leather, and went to work. And in the process of vigorously rubbing herself,
Taking periodic sips of juice and mentally musing upon her own passing,
A single, glaring contradiction embedded within her two-tenet life “philosophy” emerged
And it faced-off with her at the back of her mind:

How can one justify masturbating chronically, she thought,
With the premise that you never know when you’re gonna die and at the same time,
Justify chronically contemplating death with the premise that if one does such a thing
One can conclusively know for a fact that one will not die,
Thereby negating premise number one?
When these two climactic ideas collided into one
Spontaneous insight and cancelled each other out her knees buckled and came together.
Still sipping, still rubbing, still feeling good and glorious pleasure
But tempered with the painful awareness of this terrible paradox under which
Her whole existence had been futilely operating for years.
At this supreme moment of tragic enlightenment and orgasmic epiphany
The closet door swung wide and Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez stood on the other side of it,
Only a few minutes late for their meeting with the art teacher
Regarding their son’s declining grade in her class.
Later that afternoon, when all the students had gone home,
Sarah returned to the school to gather her personal effects and to
Turn in her room keys and lesson plans to the front office.
She walked into her classroom and sat two small, empty cardboard boxes
Down into her padded leather chair and, with a strange look
Of lostness and wonderment in her tiny eyes, she
Surveyed the length of the bright, silent walls in her room.
She picked up her sticky, cracked mug from the floor
And set it gently into one of the boxes, then
Walked into the closet and back to the drawing board.

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007


Nathaniel Whittemore: “I wrote this particular poem to give some comfort and a belly-laugh to a woman with green eyes who, like most of us, often finds herself struggling furiously with the uncertainties of her life, those things that we can never know for sure and have no power to control. And, again like many of us, she searches exhaustively for that power, for traces of transcendence left in the world, for those immutable parameters, absolutes, and definitive assurances that are rarely there when we need them to be. Unlike most of us, though, this woman with green eyes has a light and a strength and a fearlessness within her that could sustain an army of existentially nauseous orca whales. She just didn’t know it was there, untapped, inside of her. I wanted to ‘tap it,’ vigorously.”

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