It was an accident! Not even sure it was My accident. One moment, she was playing with it; the next, it was in pieces. For weeks, all I heard was, “Mummy! Why did you break my toy?”
She’s only three…still…Weeks?!
My dear brother,
It’s not true you know – well, probably not entirely true, in any case – that your life flashes before you when you are dying. Your life, at least the parts that have touched others, flash before everyone else too when you are dying. I can’t of course claim to know about the first part, but I can tell you, the latter is true. Why else would I be sitting here at 4:00 a.m.?
I’m stuck really. This is what I do when I feel really strong emotions – I write. But when all your memories of one person come rushing at you at the same time, where do you begin? Should I start with the big warm grin that used to greet us when we came to your house to visit during our summer vacations? The long walks through the fields nearby? Perhaps of the time I discovered your beautiful singing voice when I heard you discussing music with my mother? Then there was the time you stayed with us when you were interning at my father’s office. And how everyone in our little township found out about and enjoyed your beautiful voice too. I was so proud, although I may have been too young to actually realize what I felt was pride.
What about that time you got so annoyed with the loud music playing in the bus (we were on our way to some family function, I think). Here’s another one: a letter I wrote you when I got back home from meeting you after a long gap. I sent you the link, and the next time we met, you told me you’d printed it out and put it under the glass on your table. Then there was the time I came to your place in Bombay and saw a picture of you holding your baby boy.
All this is not even a scratch on the surface of that deep well.
When I first heard of your illness, I thought, “It’s not real. It’s probably nothing.” Of course, I was wrong, and I knew it. Someone else I knew had beat just such an illness (never mind that her illness came back for round 2). I lived in denial. I’d just met you…what…less than a year and a half ago. How can it already be stage 4 cancer with no hope of recovery? No. It wasn’t possible, I told myself. You were too young; your family was too young. Your boy is too young (I see that he sings, by the way. No doubt, as beautifully as you).
Then, when I could no longer live in denial, because your condition worsened dramatically in a matter of months, it was about how I didn’t have the courage. And now, by the time I worked up the courage to finally come and meet you, you let go. I am sorry I didn’t make it in time. I really wanted that conversation with you.
The very last memory I have of you is you telling me with a wide grin that I’d put on weight. At Anu’s wedding. And then you looked at yourself and said, “Of course, so have I. Then I guess we’re both living happy lives.” And we both started laughing.
I’m sorry. Sorry, that I wasn’t brave enough, sorry I never came to hold your hand while you suffered. Sorry, that I didn’t get to tell you that I love you. But I’m not sorry that my last memory is of a healthy you, laughing.
I will miss you.
“Until the day I die, I’ll never forget those glassy, unblinking eyes,” she said, pausing. Then, after a moment more of looking out of the kitchen window in front of her, she sighed and resumed cutting the vegetables for dinner.
I looked around. I’d heard the story before.
“Come on, Shirl,” I said, getting up from the breakfast table in her kitchen and moving towards the bookshelf. “Let’s talk about something else. Who are the new guy and company?”
She turned around briefly to look at the picture I was looking at. “Oswalt,” she said, “Do you like him?”
“Looks alright. Married, I’m sure, judging by the ‘ready-to-run’ look in his eyes,” I said, turning around. She burst out laughing, and I remembered why I came to see her year after year. It was that laughter. Not that it was elegant, or like tinkling bells, or any of those other mushy romantic things they write about a woman’s laugh. But it was…it was honest, like everything else about her. And after a year of breathing the lie that was my life otherwise, I would crave a whiff of that honesty.
Maybe it comes from growing up together. Technically, we only ever spent summers together. The rest of the year, we lived in two different worlds. But when you’re a kid, your whole life is that summer vacation. We never talked about the rest of the year. Just picked up where we left off, as though someone had just un-paused us. The only time that unwritten rule was broken was when she first told me the story six years ago, over a bottle of vodka and three boxes of tissues.
“Another drink, Dani?” She was standing next to me, looking at my face intently. I realized I’d been staring at the collage of painting cut-outs over her desk.
“Yes, I’d like that, thanks,” I said, smiling at her.
She took the empty glass from my hand and poured me another drink. “Why don’t you sit down? You look really tired.” She handed me the glass and motioned me to the sofa. It was a small apartment, with the rooms melting into each other. The only doors were the bedroom and the bathroom doors. I looked around again. The apartment was full of her, it was her open book.
She sat on the other end of the sofa and started telling me about what she’d planned for us for the next few days. I stopped listening again. Instead, I heard a 17-year-old Shirley sobbing. It was how the summer started that year. I’d just met her parents out on the beach, and they’d said she was in her first-floor room. I found her between the bed and her nightstand on the far side of room, hugging her knees and shivering and sobbing. I felt a sharp pain in my chest and then my heart broke. Later, as I sat there next to her having moved the nightstand more to the corner, holding her, I looked around the room trying to understand what had happened. Nothing seemed out of place.
I snapped back to the present. She was still talking about plans for the next few days, and all I wanted was to sit squeezed between the bed and the nightstand, sobbing, with her holding me close.
“Or we could just stay home,” I said.
“And do what? You hate the indoors.”
“We could talk.”
She smiled. “About what? What do you want to talk about?”
We could catch up. We never catch up. We only meet and do things together. We could talk about what happened in the meantime, I wanted to say.
“You never told me why you stopped sketching.”
She laughed again. “You never asked,” she said playfully. It made me smile.
I couldn’t sleep. I got out of bed and found myself once again staring at the collage above her desk. A portrait of the man of sorrows; a pair of hands; the feet of a kneeling man, the portrait of a Venetian woman, another old woman, a few self-portraits of an intense looking artist. And there, almost covered by all the other pictures, was a sketch – a half-finished female nude.
“Lena! Lena! Elena!!”
Lena found herself back in the room, gasping for breath. She sat up straight, trying to steady herself with her hands, coughing and sputtering for air. She could still feel it – the darkness and the water closing in on her. The headlights of the car had flickered before dying out.
“You’re safe. You’re safe now, Lena,” she heard the man saying, “Here, have a sip of this.” He handed her a glass with clear liquid that tasted like burnt orange. “Feeling better?”
She nodded slightly, and handed the glass back.
“What did you see?”
“I…I don’t know.” She started to feel the panic rising again.
“Okay, okay,” he said, trying to soothe her, “Take a deep breath. Just…relax.”
She breathed in a long, ragged breath, and leaned back.
“Now, remember, you are safe here. When you are ready, just start anywhere…”
Elena took another deep breath, closed her eyes. “Think of me; think of this room to come back” she heard him say.
“I have no story to be told,” She began, “they are just…At first, I just thought they were dreams, you know. They seemed so…well, nothing like my life.”
“I mean, I live in an apartment. In fact, I’ve never lived in a house with a backyard, or a sandbox. I’d see toys, little buckets and shovels. I would wake up at the sound of a cat I don’t have. Flashes of dinners in ovens, open refrigerators, school buses…it was all so strange.
“Then, it started encroaching into my life, you know. I would have periods of time I couldn’t remember anything about, save for these images of a house with a backyard. No people. I never saw any children, or men or women. Just the house, and the things in it.
“Slowly, I started feeling things. A child tugging at my T-shirt, a man caressing the back of my neck, an ache in my stomach, a cut on my finger. I thought I was going crazy. Then it got worse.”
“You had the nightmare…?” he asked, softly.
“It was more than a nightmare. The only time that I’ve seen a full sequence of…of…,” she sighed, “I don’t know what to call it. But it was the only time it was not a series of broken images without a sequence,” she said, “And I didn’t just see it, I…” Elena struggled against the panic that was coming on again.
“Alright, alright, Lena. I know this is not easy for you. But I promise you, this is going to help. Why don’t you have another sip of this drink,” he said, offering her the glass again. “Come on, now,” he coaxed her, “just a little sip.”
“No,” she shook her head. “I can’t do this anymore. Not today. I…I can’t relive it.”
“But it wasn’t real, Lena. You said it yourself,” He said, trying to calm her down. “Whatever you saw…felt. You said, that it was nothing like your life.”
She shook her head no. It was not just a nightmare – the desperation she’d felt, the fear, the screams of agony. No. She shook her head. “No. I can’t. I just…I can’t. I can’t help feeling…”
“Alright, okay, okay,” the man said, “You don’t have to. We’ll stop. Okay? Calm down. You’re safe here, remember? Breathe…take a deep breath. There. Again…” His voice soothed her fraught nerves, and she felt herself calming down.
Ten minutes later, she was walking down the busy street in the fading light. The clouds shifted, casting an ominous shadow on the ground. The city was expecting rains, but that didn’t slow anyone down. Elena was still shaken from the session and just wanted to get home.
She looked over her shoulder. “No one is watching me,” she told herself. She had to believe that. She couldn’t keep living like this. She kept walking till she reached the bridge. She leaned against the railing and looked at the waters below her.
Her nightdress had got caught on the door stop. She tugged it free, ripping the hem, and ran to the end of the backyard. There, near the freshly planted rose bushes, she started digging with her bare hands.
Elena shook herself out of the vision. The bridge, the waters. This was real. She put on her headphones and turned up the volume till the music drowned out everything else.
At the other end, a car’s tires screeched, skidded dangerously close to oncoming traffic and flew off the bridge.
Word Count: 749