ג ז י
A young man sat down next to me, and as he set his coffee on the table, an older man turned to him from a neighboring table and said, “You have a big equation on your shirt!”
“Excuse me?” the young man asked, puzzled.
“You have a giant equation! On your shirt!”
“Oh, yes.” The young man looked slightly uncomfortable. It seemed to me that he felt a certain obligation to continue the conversation. “It’s the equation for escape velocity.”
The older man, who did not appear to me to be completely sane nor entirely insane, chuckled and joked, “Well, now we all know how to do that, don’t we? We can go that fast on our bikes or something.” He then let out a hearty, almost maniacal laugh.
The young man eased up a bit and laughed, too.
The older man would not let the conversation float away. “Did you catch the last episode of ‘This American Life?’”
“No, what was it?” the young man asked.
“It was on Valentine’s Day, a lot of physicists were trying to determine, scientifically, their chances of finding love.”
The young man laughed awkwardly. The older man would not give up.
“What’s in your bag?”
“Oh, just some notebooks and textbooks.”
“What are you going to do now? Are you going to drink your coffee first or do your homework?”
The young man seemed a little flustered. (I, myself, was finding it hard to focus on the book I was reading. How odd, the old man wondering at the younger man’s course of action.) “Well, I think I’m going to sit and drink a bit to get in the mindset of doing my homework, I suppose.” He was a second year, a math major.
“Are you the kind of person who just memorizes equations, or do you understand what they mean?” the older man asked.
“I’m terrible at memorizing things. I have to work hard to understand the equations and where they come from. That’s how I learn them.”
“I’m glad. That means you’re doing it right.” The older man smiled.
The continued to chat. The younger man introduced himself as Nick, the older man was named Robert. They shook hands. I heard mention of Galileo, of Kepler’s laws, of ice crystals and the moon and light. I smiled to myself and hoped they weren’t aware that they were becoming the newest characters in a story I would probably never finish writing anyways.
I thought to myself, I have probably heard enough. I will let them speak in peace.
After all, some conversations, some stories progress too quickly. I ought to let them revel in their escape.
as I watched you walk away, I thought about how we met.
we had sat next to each other, by chance, in an enormous auditorium where a small man was talking to us about the vastness of the universe.
he told us, practically shouting, “you see, the universe is expanding!
but not only is it expanding, it’s expanding faster and faster every moment!
galaxies that were once close to us are moving farther and farther away!”
we had all gazed at him in awe, wondering how he knew this, and why it mattered.
one timid hand went up in the air, and the small man politely gestured toward it.
the hand’s voice asked, “if the universe is expanding, and if galaxies are moving farther and farther away from us, why haven’t we expanded? why do we stay as we are?”
the small man at the front of the room smiled as he paused to think about how to answer such a question.
“you see,” he said to us, “the forces holding us together are so incredibly strong that we don’t expand.
we are tiny enough beings that the universe’s expansion bears no effect on us as human beings.”
you didn’t see as I quickly turned to look at you.
you didn’t see that I saw awe paint your face.
you once told me that my rosy cheeks reminded you of the sun, and I thought about how far ninety-three million miles is.
the next day we woke up closer than we had ever been, and I thought to myself that we could never be universes in and of ourselves.
I thought we were too small, that great forces kept you and I together.
I was wrong: we were—we are the universe running away from itself.
you are the nearest star, and even that is light years away.
I think about how nothing is faster than the speed of light, except, perhaps, for how quickly you’re leaving me.
the small man in the big room was right—the galaxies that were once nearby are now long gone from us.
some are afraid of the universe collapsing in on itself, but I’m not (if it brings you back to me).
The first time you kissed me, I had to pull back suddenly because the words came rushing out, more words than I’d ever said to you in my life, words like, “hello, darling, hello, how are you, your hair looks nice, I like your sweater, your hand looks like it’s the perfect size to hold mine, I like when we walk side by side, I’m so glad I met you, have you noticed how alike we are?”
Up until that moment when your lips met mine, our exchanges had been short, few and far between. You’d say something, I’d say, “Yeah?” and you’d smile and say, “Yeah.” I’d think about that movie we both love, and the theme would play through my head as you told me about how you’d taken up drinking coffee and playing Chopin nocturnes on the weekends when everyone is out. I told you about where I was working and the interesting people I was meeting, and then we were silent for a moment. I crossed my legs. You fidgeted in your seat. The waiters began to clean the tables and glanced at us with a “please leave” look in their eyes, so we did.
It was freezing outside, and every time I tried to talk, my voice shook because of the cold. You told me you didn’t have many friends. I told you I liked spending time by myself, mostly. We walked a little closer to each other than usual, but, then again, the streets are narrow in this little town.
When you walked me to my apartment, we had been going on three minutes and sixteen seconds of silence. (I counted in my head.) (I always count the seconds of silence in my head.) (That’s why I’m terrible at thinking of new things to talk about.) I whispered, “Good night,” and put my key in the lock of the front door. You said my name, and I turned around, and you gently put your frozen hand on my frozen cheek and kissed me. I pulled back suddenly because the words came rushing out, more words than I’d ever said to you in my life, words like, “hello, darling, hello, how are you, your hair looks nice, I like your sweater, your hand looks like it’s the perfect size to hold mine, I like when we walk side by side, I’m so glad I met you, have you noticed how alike we are?”
The second time you kissed me was shortly after the first.
What separated the two encounters was about ten seconds of me staring at you in disbelief and you staring at your shoes in quiet astonishment. I stared and stared and stared at you (you can imagine my surprise, can’t you?) (no one had kissed me like that in a long time) (and by “a long time” I mean “ever”). I started counting the seconds again, and at fourteen you abruptly looked up at me, and this time it was me who put her frozen hand on your frozen cheek. Even if I had raised myself on the tips of my toes, I would not have reached your mouth or your cheek or your forehead, so you kindly helped me by leaning forward a little bit. You kissed me again, and this time, I felt you smile as you did it. I wanted you to see me smile. I wanted you to see the smile that I smile only for you.
“Goodnight,” you whispered. Then you took my frozen hand and kissed it.
“Goodnight,” I whispered back.
The fifty-seventh time you kissed me was an apology.
We had gotten into our first serious argument, and you were afraid it would be our last (you were more afraid that our romance would be short-lived). You had walked behind me the whole way from the Italian restaurant we had been dining at to my apartment, but you didn’t try to stop me. You followed me right up the stairs, and we stood exactly where we had been fifty-five kisses before, when I had shown you the smile I show only you, and you had told me, “Goodnight,” with a new gentleness in your voice.
As I had done that night, I put the key into my apartment building’s door, and as you had that night, you said my name, and as I had done that night, I turned around.
“I’m so sorry,” you said. “I didn’t mean what I said, and—”
But I opened my door and stepped into the apartment building. When I walked into my apartment, I looked out of the window and saw that you had not moved. I started to think about what we had argued about. You had said something, and I had taken it the wrong way, and you had tried to rationalize it, and I had remained hurt. We had finished our dinner without another word, you had paid, and I had stormed out of the restaurant without waiting for you to put your coat on. I started thinking about what it was you said. Then I started thinking about your apologies. They really were genuine. I looked out of the window again and found that you were still standing where I had left you. It was freezing outside. I knew this would happen many more times, but I also knew that I would live through them.
I came back down to the front door and stepped outside. We stood facing each other, and I noticed that your eyes and nose were red.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—” you started, but I interrupted you with an “it’s okay, it was nothing, it was silly, I’m okay now.”
You half-smiled and took me in your arms. Then you kissed me for the fifty-seventh time. It was a gentle kiss, and I could just faintly taste the tears that must have traveled from your eyes to the edges of your lips. Or perhaps I was just imagining.
The three-hundred-and-seventy-eighth time that you kissed me was after I said, “I love you,” for the first time.
The three-hundred-and-seventy-ninth time, I kissed you after you said, “I love you, too.”
The four-hundredth time you kissed me was my favorite.
We were lying on your bed. The rubber band that held my hair back snapped, and as I propped myself up on one elbow, my hair cascaded down down down, just barely grazing the covers. I told you about a boy I had once loved and how, to him, I had been nothing more than a stepping stone to something bigger, something better. “I was no boulder, I paled in comparison,” the bags under my eyes pleaded. You gazed at me with your solemn, all-knowing eyes, and you said, as you brushed away some of the strands of hair that had fallen on my face, “What he didn’t realize when he walked away was that he’d left behind a diamond.” And I wept because it hurts in a good way when someone tells you for the first time just how much you’re worth and you believe their words to be true.
You kissed me for the four-hundredth, four-hundred-and-first, and four-hundred-and-second times as you wiped away my tears. “Don’t be sad,” you whispered in between the four-hundred-and-first and the four-hundred-and-second kisses. I looked at you and said, “I’m not crying because I’m sad. I’m crying because I’m happy.”
The six-hundred-and-thirteenth time you kissed me, we were naked and it was summertime. A soft breeze floated in through my open window and caressed our skins. Our feet were touching, and your fingers traced the stretch marks on my hips and breasts. I told you they embarrassed me, and you told me you loved them. I asked you why. You said, “because they mean your body got bigger, and the bigger it is, the more room there is for your love for me.” I blushed, and so did you.
You asked me to live with you.
Our six-hundred-and-fourteenth kiss was how I said, “okay.”
Note: last year, in my Brit Lit, we had an assignment based on the part of Paradise Lost that we had read. I decided to write a short story, but I eventually forgot about it. I found it a few days after writing “Deda” and decided to read it over and fix it up a bit. I was surprised at how it resembled “Deda” (or, perhaps, “Deda” resembled it), especially since I used another memory from my grandfather’s childhood (his sister actually did perish in a fire). It’s been sitting in my drafts since September. I’m not sure if I like it, seeing as it’s so similar to Deda and I feel like all I do is repeat myself constantly, but here it is nonetheless.
Samuel was a very small, old man. His skin was withered, but not from age. His eyes were murky and pale. He had chunks of bald spots on his wrinkled head, and his back was hunched in a most irregular fashion. I saw Samuel every day on my bus ride home from work. He would sit, by himself of course, in the window seat on the right side of the back of the bus, every single day. After about a month of seeing him daily, my curiosity (coupled with my exhaustion) (with perhaps a hint of delusion) got the best of me, and I decided to sit down next to him. I wanted to know his story.
What surprised me was that he did not make any gesture acknowledging my presence. He just stared ahead, though he really wasn’t looking anywhere in particular. I held out my hand and said, “Hello, it’s nice to meet you,” and instead of shaking my hand, he jumped and looked around frantically.
“Get away,” he growled. He still wasn’t looking at me.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you or anything. It’s just that I’d like to get to know you, please. This probably sounds strange, but I see you on the bus daily, yet I know nothing of you, and I think I ought to since you are subtly a part of my daily life,” I spurted out. A few people glanced over their shoulders at me.
He was about to snarl at me again when his demeanor shifted. His face looked surprised, yet his eyes showed no emotion. “Oh.”
“Tell me about your life,” I said. By now, I had realized that he was blind, so he wouldn’t mind if I leaned back on the seat a bit and closed my eyes as he talked. I don’t know if he talked more for himself or for me.
“No one’s ever asked me that before,” he started. I noticed he had an odd accent. He simply started telling me all about his life, from his early childhood in Ukraine to “the terrible day.” He stopped at the mention of “the terrible day.”
The silence startled me, and my eyes fluttered open. I turned my head. He was still looking somewhere but nowhere. I asked about the terrible day.
“When I was fourteen, my sister and I were playing in the basement of our apartment building in Kiev when a fire broke out. We didn’t know about the fire— it was on the third floor. Everyone had been evacuated, and everyone had forgotten that my sister and I were there. When my parents, who were outside the building, realized, it was too late.”
He paused to breathe. He began breathing harder. His voice shook. I reached over and put my hand on his hand, which was resting on his knee. He twitched a little but let me keep my hand where it was.
“Soon, my sister and I began to smell the peculiar, burning smell. I asked her what it was, and I noticed she was starting to cry, and as I reached to grab her hand, there was an explosion. I went flying and fell on my face. I quickly flipped over, frantically looking for my sister. I heard her scream, and then the mirror hanging above me shattered. Bits of glass fell on me, on my face, on my head. In my eyes. The last thing I saw were flames, tall flames, taller than I could have believed. Then blackness.” Samuel began to shake with silent sobs. By now, we were the last two on the bus. No one was left to glance over at us.
He told me how he woke up three days later. He awoke in darkness. The rest of his life was darkness. All he remembered were flames. His sister had perished, and, in anguish, his mother had killed herself.
“Not a day goes by,” he told me, “that I don’t feel the burning pain on my face.” He moved his hand from his knee and placed it on his face, wet with tears.
“Not a day goes by,” he told me, “that I don’t recall how happy my sister and I had been. And now, blackness. Bitterness.”
His voice shook as he told me how he threw and broke bottles in his kitchen, how he walked into the apartment building’s courtyards and screamed, screamed into the air, at the birds, at the children.
“I am a monster. I have been a monster for very long,” he said, sadly. “For very long.”
I sighed. Perhaps he simply needed warmth. I thought of the irony—flames had frozen his heart, and now all he needed was a warm hand on his.
“My sister and I used to play a game with books. Do you have a book with you?” he asked.
“Do not tell me what book it is. Give it to me,” he asked. So I did. He opened it to a random page and touched his finger down on a line of text. “Read,” he told me.
“Receive thy new possessor: one who brings/ A mind not to be chang’d by place or time.” I started.
“Milton?” he asked.
“How did you know?” I was surprised.
“When I was a young boy, I learned English by reading whatever scraps I found. Anything. Everything. Arthur Conan Doyle. Mark Twain. O. Henry. He was my favorite. Old poetry. New poetry. Everything. That very sentence you just read to me, it was written on the back of a photograph caught between the pages of an American book I found. I read it over and over, until my tongue knew it better than my eyes. Continue.”
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make—”
“A Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
I looked at him. He put both hands on his face, as if to hide completely.
“What matter where, if I be still the same.”
Growing up is exhausting, but it’s not nearly as exhausting as stopping, turning around, and realizing that you’re the one carrying the babies now. I miss how things were, but I wouldn’t change a thing about my life as it is. I just heave a tired sigh from time to time when I think about how rapidly everything flies by me. I’m not ready to be clapping from the wings instead of receiving the applause on stage.
I may or may not submit this to a writing competition at Cal. The topic is “gravity” and the submission cannot exceed 500 words. I’m not really sure what kind of style they’re looking for, so I’m taking a chance with this:
The very first thing they taught us about gravity is that it holds on to you when no one else will. There was mention of accelerating at a rate of nine point eight somethings per second per second. I can’t remember what the somethings were, but nowadays I think they said “heartbeats” because that’s how the heart screams me tersely. I went home and laid down to think about gravity. Sure, you’re sleeping alone, and his arm no longer holds you close, but at least you’re not floating away. I fell asleep and dreamt about green chalkboards smeared with inconsistent curiosity. The chalkboards disappeared and I found myself walking through a garden. There was an old man sitting in a chair. He was holding a teapot in one hand and two teacups in another. A second chair appeared, so I came closer and sat down. The old man handed me a cup and poured a hot, blue liquid into it. “Drink,” he said. He had a thick accent, maybe from Germany or Russia or France. “What is it?” I asked him. “Gravitea,” he responded. As soon as I took a sip, I felt heavier, almost as if the chair I was sitting in was tug tug tugging me down. I woke up thinking about the word “tug” and how we all know that it’s just “gut” spelled backwards. And we all know that when I think of you my stomach sinks because you drag me down. You are the Earth, and I am the Moon still loyally orbiting you.
The next day, they taught us about escape velocity, and I felt small. There was mention of a gravitational constant, but all I could think about was how I constantly gravitate towards the memories of you and me. No matter how quickly I run in the rain, the water droplets and I still end up in the same spot—spilled across the ground. Last night, I dreamt that I was standing at the top of a well, and something pushed me in, or maybe I lost my balance, so I fell fell fell and landed in your sure, strong arms. I tried to look into your eyes, but you disappeared, and suddenly, I was sitting at a desk with a paper in front of me. The instructions at the top of the paper said Calculate the rate at which you need to run to escape the gravity of this situation. I was about to whimper, “What situation?” when my father walked into the room and shouted, “GO!” and my right hand began to furiously scribble out formulas that I didn’t know I knew.
Gravity is the parent always yelling, “YOU’RE GROUNDED!” as if you needed the cruel reminder.
I panicked. I got out of my desk and ran towards the only exit in the room.
Gravity is the “PULL” sign on the door that you end up pushing anyways.
Waking up has become harder. Even my dreams hold on too tightly.
It had been a particularly odd spring that year because the rain had neither begun nor ended. No one could remember the first day it rained, and it certainly had not stopped for a long time. The older women, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren curled up in their arms, would say, “It is God’s tears. He is weeping for our people.” The electric lights reflected off their necklaces and sparkled in the youngsters’ eyes. The young mothers worried about their babies getting sick of their husbands dying in car accidents on the way home. Few let their children go to school and read to them instead. They’ll learn more this way, they thought.
It was particularly hard for the couple who lived in the little house on the end of Currant Street. They had been married for a little over a year and were expecting their first child. The pregnant Missus prayed each and every day that the rain would let up on the day she was due, which was April 22. It rained. She prayed. It rained more. The baby stayed inside. Mister went to work every day, taking a moment to pray for safety every time he got into his little car. He also prayed that his wife would not go into labor without him by her side. He prayed. She prayed. It rained. He came home every night. Every night they went to bed, only Missus didn’t sleep because the baby kick kick kicked all night long. The kicks became the rhythms of her song-like prayers: Rain, stop. Rain, leave. Baby, come. Baby, please.
So April came and the rain remained and the young couple living in the little house on the end of Currant Street prayed. Half of April passed and the Missus became restless. The Mister took leave from work to be there for his wife, just in case. April 19, no baby. Good. April 20, no baby. Good. April 22 felt like it would never come.
But then, the Mister and Missus woke up on the morning of the twenty-first day of that year’s April and their ears rang. Their ears rang because the din of falling rain they had heard for months and months was gone. An odd silence had taken the place of the pitters and the patters. This realization surprised them both, and the Missus felt her water break. Then she noticed the peculiar pains. It was happening.
The Mister carried her out, put her gently into the car, and drove her to the nearest hospital, which was about twenty minutes away. She groaned in the backseat, but she knew something good was coming. Her prayers had been answered, and she was content.
The birth was a rough one and lasted over ten hours. The Mister had to take off his wedding ring because he had lost feeling in the fourth finger of his left hand from how hard the Missus squeezed. She apologized. He simply kissed her sweaty forehead and whispered, “Keep pushing, baby. Keep on.” He glanced out of the window in the room and noticed a willow tree swaying in the wind.
They had a beautiful girl, a healthy little baby. The nurses all fawned over the little angel, and the young parents were happy. The Missus was weak, though, and the doctors told the Mister that he had to leave her for a bit, just so that they could do some check-ups and make sure she was okay.
He spent most of the day looking at his new little girl and thinking of his tired woman. His heart swelled and pumped a message to God: thank you, thank you, thank you. The doctors came to tell him that his wife was very fragile. Her tiny frame had not taken the birth well, and she would have to remain in the care of the hospital for a week. No visits. She was to be left alone to rest. The baby would be taken care of.
As the Mister’s spirits sank, the doctor extended an arm, laid it on the saddened man’s shoulder, and said: “Get to work, son. You’ll need the extra money for the two little ladies you got there.” When he noticed the Mister’s sullen expression, the doctor added, “Don’t worry, Mister, they’ll both be just fine. Your wife just needs to rest, is all. Oh, and uh—” Mister looked up, alert. “A window is a fine thing, ‘specially in a hospital room. A fine thing, for sure.”
The Mister was confused, but he decided to think it over later. He got in his car, drove back home, washed up, and went to work. In his little office, he unbuttoned the top button of his dress shirt and loosened his tie. He rolled up his sleeves and thought about windows.
He went home early that night and felt odd in an empty home. For once, he missed the sound of rain. The bed felt too big, so he went to sleep on the couch. He woke up sore and exhausted. He went to work for the day. He ate at a cheap diner. Nothing compared to his Missus’s cooking. He came home and slept on the couch again. The next day was the same: wake up in pain, go to work, eat bad food, come home, sleep poorly. When he awoke on the fourth day, he got up slowly and walked over to his window, opened it, and rested his worn hands on the sill. A light breeze caressed his neck, and he thought he smelled his wife’s perfume. He wanted to visit her badly. He thought he would just take a walk to the hospital, maybe walk the perimeter of the building his wife was in and come home.
It was only when he was standing beside the willow tree that the young man understood the doctor’s words. Sure enough, the very window through which he had looked while taking off his wedding ring—he instinctively checked for it now and found it where it was supposed to be—was open. He hurried to it but stopped short when he noticed a ditch right in front of it. Over the ditch was some metal grating that looked neither stable nor safe. But the man loved his wife, so he carefully stepped onto the grating and grabbed the window sill. His head just barely reached over the sill, and he looked inside to find his wife sleeping peacefully on a large bed facing him. His Missus had a gentle expression on her face, and he could tell that she was recovering well. Maybe she would need only five days and not a week. Let it be five days, he prayed. I’ll take the rain back if it means my wife and baby can come back, too.
The Missus stirred a little and slowly opened her eyes. She sat up a bit abruptly at the sight of a man at her window.
“Shhh, baby, it’s me!” a familiar voice whispered.
She sighed, relieved. “Are you crazy?” she whispered back sharply.
“A lil’ but I think that’s why we got together in the first place, huh?” He grinned at his Missus. She smiled back.
“How are you?” he asked her.
She told him she was feeling much better: “I’m healin’ up nicely, the doctors says so themselves even.”
He was happy to hear that.
They talked for at least an hour, maybe more. He told her about sleeping on the couch and she told him about the dreams she had and how she woke up one night crying and screaming because she had dreamed about losing their baby but the doctors told her those dreams were normal and brought in the little girl to show the mother she was safe. The little one, she told him, was beautiful and so very sweet.
“I’m luckier than other ladies here,” the Missus said. “They don’t even get notes from their man, not even flowers, and here’s mine, talkin’ to me straight outta that window like he’s just beside me or something.”
The Mister smiled. He asked if they had a name yet. She said, “Naw, you gotta think of that. You’re the one who writes.”
“I’ll tell you the first name comes to mind when I hold her, alright?” he asked.
And suddenly, with what the Missus thought sounded like a clang, the Mister was gone. Just vanished.
“He-e-ey?” she called. No response. She began to worry. She threw her covers off and swung her feet over to the side of the bed, ready to get up and look out the window.
She didn’t have to, of course, because his head popped back up again, almost as quickly as it had disappeared.
“What are you doing?” the Missus asked, irritated.
The Mister chuckled and brushed it off. “I just thought I felt something brush up against my leg so I figured I’d check,” he laughed. “Musta been a cat. Now get into bed, you hear? I want you back already, and maybe if you seem healthy, they’ll—”
“Let her go?” said the doctor, laughing as he walked into the room. “Yes, yes we will, actually. I thought I heard voices coming from here.”
The Missus blushed a bit, as did her husband. A nurse came in behind the doctor, and she was holding the newborn. The mother’s face lit up, and she reached her arms up to hold her little one. The Mister watched from the window, and he smiled at the sight. He watched as his wife’s eyes glowed and her entire spirit came alive. Eva, he thought. We will name her Eva.
The Missus was released the next morning, and the little family came home together. It wasn’t until they had settled in the living room, little Eva in her father’s arms, that the Missus noticed her husband’s leg was bruised and cut. She pointed at it and said, “Baby, what happened?”
The Mister, caught up in his joy, had forgotten all about it and the throbbing pain suddenly returned to his leg.
“Oh, that?” he said, chuckling. “You know how I disappeared for a bit when I was in the window?”
“Well, there was this metal grating or something over a ditch right under your window, and I was standing on it, and I s’pose it just fell at some point because one minute I was looking at you and another I was in a pit with my leg all cut up and bleedin’. Must have been the grates that cut me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Aw, baby, I didn’t want to worry you, it was just a lil’ fall! You had other stuff to be worried about, like getting better!”
The wife didn’t say a word. She went to the bathroom and opened up the medicine cabinet. She got some rubbing alcohol and gauze. She came back into the living room and dropped to her knees to clean the wound. As she cleaned she began to cry very quietly, so quietly that her husband didn’t even notice. She wasn’t sure if she was crying from the smell of the alcohol or the remnants of her nightmares, but she had a feeling it was neither of those.
No, it was not the sharp smell that made her cry. It was not the dreams or the dried blood on her husband’s leg. Rather, it was the two hearts beating in the room with hers. One was the heart of a man who wanted nothing more than to love his girls, the other was a new heart, a little pump beating: I’m alive, I’m here, I’m new, I’m yours.
The Mister didn’t even flinch as his cut was being cleaned. He smiled and planted kisses on little Eva’s face.
The three inhabitants of the little house on the end of Currant Street didn’t notice that the rain had started to fall again outside.
Jimmy and I wrote a story together after seeing this photograph on the internet:
It had not been a particularly good year for William Poole. His mother had been terribly ill for several months, and she had passed away, rather restlessly and in much pain, in the middle of spring. It rained on the day of the funeral. William went to visit her every day, always leaving a rock on her miserable tombstone.
Nothing really terrible had happened otherwise, but it seemed that tiny things kept going wrong every day, and enough grains of sand will eventually make a desert.
He had just meant to go to the bar for his evening drink, like every other summer night. But something in him clicked that night. He left his watch on the bed, grabbed a heavy coat and didn’t bother to lock the door. He always locked the door.
All he needed was one more drink to make it through the night, one more drink until dawn, but as he approached the thick wooden doors of the bar, his feet defied him, commanded him to move on, and he resigned. He passed the doors and kept on walking.
He found himself at the docks, legs dangling off the side of the shorewall, the quiet rocking of the dark waves murmuring up to caress his tired ears. William stared out towards the invisible horizon, out towards the ocean, out across the ocean to the other shore, the one that they dumped him off at, his standard issue boots sloshing in the union of rain and mud. He didn’t want to be there, hell, none of them wanted to be there, but there they were.
And they fought. And they killed. And some of them died.
But all of them died.
Dolce et decorum est pro patria mori.
He fingered the dogtags hanging around his neck. If he closed his eyes and concentrated hard enough, he could still hear the sound of gunfire. He often imagined what it would be like to stop a bullet in its path. Many of his friends had died that way.
His mind began to race, as it always did when he thought about the war. What ifs and whys took control of his mind. He began to sweat and his breathing grew uneven. Shaky. Shaking hands. Shake shake shaking so hard he accidentally broke the chain around his neck. He jumped, startled by what he had done. He looked at his right hand, which was clenched tightly. He loosened his grip and realized the metal plates had dug into his palm and cut it slightly. The blood crawled between the imprinted letters. He looked at his name outlined in red. William Poole in blood. William in a pool of blood. Stop it, he told himself. He stood up, about to throw the dogtags into the murky water, but then he noticed the static sound of an old, flickering neon light.
William turned his back to the sea and met the source of the noise. Wedged between two empty buildings, their faces weathered by wind and rain, was a small photobooth. The electric sign crowning the booth advertised, ‘PHOTOMATIC 25¢’ and blinked a couple times. The wind picked up, sliced through his jacket and cut him to the bone.
He shivered, slipped the dogtags into his coat pocket, clumsily undoing the large button with his right hand, and walked towards the booth. The wood ached beneath his feet and his legs responded in kind.
He stood in front of the photobooth. He eyed the contraption with tired suspicion, his hands thrust in his trousers, shivering against the night. It was big enough for one person, maybe two if they squeezed in tight, and it was just like every other photobooth he had ever seen. Pinned to the inside wall were two notices, which he couldn’t read from the outside. His eyes were getting worse every day, and things at a distance were unclear to him. It was hard to focus. Hard to focus.
William stepped into the booth, ducking his head so as not to hit it on the ceiling, and settled comfortably on the bench, resting his weary back upon the wood.
He felt overwhelmed with exhaustion. Forgetting, momentarily, about the signs on the wall, he placed his elbows on his knees and leaned forward. His head rested against his right palm and the stump that remained of his left. He had not gotten used to his missing left hand, and he still occasionally thought to himself, I really ought to learn another nocturne or two. The last one he had played was in f minor. He thought of something he had read once, a quote from Chopin himself: “It is dreadful when something weighs on your mind, not to have a soul to unburden yourself to. You know what I mean. I tell my piano the things I used to tell you.” William began to feel angry at the thought of his impotence. He could no longer control the eighty-eight black and white keys. He could no longer control many things, to be honest. He missed the smooth ivory.
The entire photobooth creaked a little. It startled William. He jerked his head up and the glowing screen in front of him blinded him momentarily. The momentary lack of control over his senses made his heart pound. Suddenly, he heard his mother’s voice in his head. Calm down, darling. Calm down. Breathe, darling. Breathe. He obeyed. It was all he knew how to do anymore.
He remembered the instructions on the wall. He turned his head to read them: Insert a quarter, turn crank handle until light bulb is hot and pull rope. The words had been printed onto the yellowing page by some sort of typewriter and the black ink had faded to gray. Underneath them were scribbled alternative directions in thick, clumsy pencil: Or anything you have to spare.
William sat in the booth and stared at the screen, which glowed unchanging. There was a crankshaft handle to the side of it. He tested it, tried to turn it, but it was locked. Above it was a slot labeled ‘25¢’. Anything I have to spare. Instinctively, he raised his left stump to his coat pocket and the frustration welled up inside him as the skin grazed the button. He freed the dogtags with his remaining hand, his fingers sticking to the dried blood spotting the metal.
His hand was trembling as he took the tags and aligned them with the slot to the side of the screen. They were a perfect fit. He pushed and they slid down the slot, the thin chain slithering behind them until the entire necklace disappeared altogether.
There was a shuddering in the booth, or was it his imagination?
He tried the handle once more; it was unlocked and he began to turn it clockwise. As he turned it, the screen glowed with more intensity.
Brighter brighter brighter. And then…
Nothing. The screen returned to its original state. William felt his stomach drop. He stared at the screen. What had gone wrong? What is going on? he wondered to himself. He leaned back and sat upright. He thought he saw his mother’s face at one point. Or maybe the faces of his fallen friends. Or maybe it had simply been his own reflection in the screen. Suddenly, the screen flashed. It was the whitest light William had ever seen.
A group of young boys had been walking by the docks when they noticed a bright light flashing between two buildings. Curious, they ran to see what it could have been. They found a photobooth with a neon ‘PHOTOMATIC 25¢’ sign. They walked towards it cautiously and were relieved to find it empty.