Is it strange that I want to touch her? To make sure it’s not some sort of mistake? Everything feels so unreal. I will never know what ended her that afternoon, her love for him or his misuse of it. I am lying in bed now and I’m not sure if it’s worth it for me to ever come out again.
And as my family collapsed into a form of togetherness the next morning, I felt I could not be sad with them. I think the mourning part was already half way for me, and I had perhaps come into a state of acceptance, or blank realization. Psychologically, my sister had probably died a few weeks ago, and it had nothing to do with the condition of her pale blue body today.
The idiotic thing is that people actually ask me really intense questions about her and who she was and who he was. I think they want to know more about that day but what do I know? I overheard a few girls talking at uni today, it went something like this:
– What reasons could she have, to kill herself?!
– But did she really kill herself then?
And a third one said:
– Isn’t it impossible to drown yourself?
She sat outside on a bench, one of those that wasn’t exactly comfortable, but more comfortable than sitting indoors in this weather. Extraordinarily pretty she was, in an alien kind of way, eyes a bit too far from each other, but a face almost fully symmetrical. She was one of those girls that did not recognize themselves as beautiful, because that was not a standard she was looking for. The dreamer, she felt him immediately. In a sad way, this could have been the decisive moment in their story: stay or go? She chose to stay and therefore proved her trusting manner, looking up from her schoolwork and smiling at him. She wouldn’t know why she did this, but then, from now on, she wouldn’t know herself anymore. Simply following him would be enough.
“Hi,” he said and he came very close. She felt tiny, sitting there and staring up at this man standing in her sunlight. He moved up his arm and for a minute she was so sure he was going to hit her. She couldn’t move. His hand moved closer very slowly and she felt the warmth on her cheek when he suddenly very carefully slipped a lock of her blonde hair behind her ear. Anyone would have slapped his hand away. She shuddered. The beaming light of innocence, she was now lost.
“I’m sorry,” she said, though she wasn’t sure what she was sorry for, “do you come here as well?”
He fascinated her deeply and she couldn’t stop longing for another touch and at the same time loathe him for this wild intrusion. He owned some common facial features that lots of girls would find handsome. A nose that was kind of big, a lot of tangled hair, a mouth that owned a bottom lip bigger than the upper one, a pair of bushy but well-shaped eyebrows and some stubble on his chin. She found him clean. He was wearing a plain t-shirt that didn’t look cheap. His intentions could not be read.
He smiled. She didn’t know if it was a real smile.
“I just really like this spot,” he said.
She had been coming here for all her three years but had never noticed him, even if this was a favourite spot of his. He made a move as if he would come to sit next to her but he didn’t. His knee was very close to hers and she wondered very much about this tiny gap between them. Why would someone leave a gap that small? His presence was very obvious, though he was so ordinary. His hair had no particular colour, he wasn’t autumn or spring or night or dawn; she didn’t quite know what to make of that.
“So you don’t study here,” she tried again.
He sat down suddenly but the bench didn’t move or squeak.
“I study here,” he said and she was satisfied for a bit.
“I study the people that go here and the mistakes they make in their communication.”
His eyes went through her skin and into her head and she had to look away.
“Oh. I took a course once, on the aesthetics of communication,” she said, hesitating.
“There are more errors, I believe,” he said pleasantly.
“I don’t actually think there are rights or wrongs in speaking.” She shifted.
“Yes, well.. that’s what they teach you so you speak up.”
She never spoke up, she sat in the back of the group; listening. She didn’t think she’d ever risen her hand or voluntarily spoken to someone she didn’t know.
The back of her neck felt tingly and she discovered his arm was resting on the bench behind her. It wasn’t casual because she felt he couldn’t be casual. He picked up a ladybug from the back of the bench and threw it on the ground. She was nearly as far as commenting that he shouldn’t have done that and that she was in a hurry and should go somewhere, but he didn’t give her a chance to.
“I don’t expect you to understand though,” he went on quickly, daring her.
This was an insult and she was so annoyed by his behaviour that she took the risk of being blunt.
“So then, explain it to me,” she said. He had waited for that, obviously.
“I feel like there is such a thing as good and bad, you know. Through people’s communication I can find out whether they are the one or the other. Whether they are suitable.” He looked quite confident.
She felt a little nauseous about this. And his arm, so close and so warm.
“Okay,” she said. She didn’t ask.
It seemed to start him off as he laughed really hard and withdrew his arm and turned towards her and their knees touched.
“So you’ll swallow anything, hm?”
This was a confusing night, cause little Emma was going out. Fine, I knew I was two years younger and all, but it has felt like this for a few years because she’s such a brainy late bloomer. She actually studied on weekends.
At the moment, Emma was standing in my doorpost. She would do this quite regularly, just paying me little visits, pretending my music was too loud or something. She chewed on a strand of blonde hair.
“Where are you going then?” I asked her. I went out every weekend and it would be kind of weird bumping into her.
She shrugged and kind of blushed, as if going out was something to be ashamed of.
“Emma,” I said, “Is someone taking you? You will get lost, you know.”
I’d never in my life known someone this dreamy. When she was younger she would often get so absorbed walking home from school – which took about five minutes – because she was distracted by a pretty tree or something, and would then come home an hour late. Our parents lost the will to worry.
“Yes!” she sort of cried this out, “a guy from uni.”
A guy. Suddenly this all made more sense. I stretched out on my beanbag and pretended to look really impressed.
“High five!” I said.
She slapped my hand away and darted up the stairs to her room.
She went from student who sat alone to object of fascination so fast she thought they could have been in a zoo, cages opposite each other, two gazing creatures. There was no spark, merely an extreme curiosity. A need.
She liked that people now looked at her because she was with him, and that she could not read their expressions anymore because it didn’t matter. She felt like she should tell her parents or her brother because this was her first official love, but what should she call him? An intellectual companion on romantic terms?
Sometimes when they were together she wanted to sink into him, to be absorbed and exist from within him. Two become one. She wanted to be wise with him more than anything. Though, when he embraced her she would get so cold and shivery she had to really shake her head to snap out of it.
The first time he brought up the subject of dying she was very confused. She knew he was sceptical on most topics, but this was an entire new level of complex.
“I don’t know,” she had said, “I think everyone is curious about how it feels..”
He looked at her in that overly familiar way that said ‘cute answer, but no’. His opinion will was more important than hers and she wanted to go back in time and choose her words more carefully.
“I’m not talking about feelings.” He touched her cheek, “I’m saying it doesn’t exist.”
“Life doesn’t exist?”
She envisioned the leaves that fell from the trees in autumn, lying next to the road – untouched, colourful – and she thought they could not be dead. What if, after winter when those leaves would vanish, the trees would start drinking from the ashes they left behind and would so gain new life and those leaves would appear again, at the end of the trees’ branches in spring. Endlessly.
“Isn’t that the same, though?”
“Possibly,” he said, “But think about this Emma, what is everyone saying? You only live once? What if life is never ending? What if it doesn’t stop after you die?”
“Like some sort of immortality?” Why would he bring this up?
“Well, you would officially have to die first to start a new chapter of your new life. So life and death are not finite, they’re intertwined. The terms wouldn’t exist anymore because you wouldn’t be able to talk about ending a life when it’s like an ongoing process.”
Her head was spinning but she wouldn’t let it.
“But how do you know it is an ongoing process?”
“Come on, Em, don’t be naive! Do you really think this is all?” Scoffing.
She thought all was quite nice, perhaps a bit bland. If he was right though, they would be like seasons. Starting, ending, changing, beginning again. Trees.
He looked really confident, yet absent, when he said:
“Let’s just test it in a few weeks.”
I threw my bag on the kitchen table, but of course-
“Max, your bag goes in your room,” my mum said immediately.
“Right,” I picked it up again, “What’s for dinner?”
Mum kind of lit up because she loved cooking so much and always expected me to not care about her hobbies. I didn’t, really, it was just the food that I’m interested in.
“I’m making a lasagne with zucchini and minced meat. Thought it would be nice for a change,” she was shuffling through drawers and picked up our big wooden ladle. It was a gift from Emma, who was of course much more considerate about our parents’ likes and dislikes.
“Meat?” I was confused.
“Could you go and get Dad? He’s upstairs.”
“Sure, but why are we eating meat?” I asked again. Mum turned around from her ladling.
“Darling, Emma’s not staying here this weekend, she’s staying at her boyfriend’s! Didn’t she tell you?” She looked really proud; look at my daughter, all grown-up!
Well, I didn’t care. It was not like we ever really did anything together anyway. Just watched television or something. I sprinted up the stairs into my room and threw my bag on the floor. It was really dark and I noticed the curtains were still closed because that was something Emma would do because she couldn’t stand “the smell of a teenage boy cave”. More darkness for me, then! I turned on my Playstation and flopped down on my beanbag.
“MAX!” My Dad called. Oh, right, dinner.
He called her big words, like ‘beloved’. She felt really, really mature, sitting on his grey couch that matched the taupe walls, looking at a television screen that was too big for the room, or any room. It hung on the wall in the centre of the living area, like a big statue for conformity in a house that was already so IKEA. They weren’t watching the television though, because there was no reason why they should lower themselves.
“Dearest,” he said and handed her a glass of what she thought must be really expensive red wine.
“Let’s intoxicate our minds.” He grinned but it was neither cheeky nor sexy.
She looked at his eyes and discovered that they were a mix of green and brown. When he looked back she glanced down at her wine.
“Em,” he said, worried wrinkles on his forehead, “You’re not uncomfortable around me, are you?”
She didn’t know. She was perhaps afraid of the feeling he gave here, a feeling that she thought didn’t fit with being in love. She didn’t want to kiss him or have sex with him, she just wanted to know what would happen if she would touch his skin and trace the contours of his body. If he would be like a statue, emotionless.
“No!” she said, unconvincingly. He took her in a really warm embrace and it surprised her completely. She had thought he would be so much more awkward but his arms were around her quite affectionately and not stiff in any way. She could do that thing where she nuzzled a bit in his shirt and smelled his scent and it comforted her. And it really did. His grey couch suddenly changed from being designer to being snug and she felt her lips hovering over his neck.
He drank his expensive wine and they lay stretched out, like content cats, sometimes really stretching out their arms and then finding their embrace again. They draped their bodies off the couch onto the big, white rug, shuffled themselves under the glass table and looked up as from in a fish tank.
The topic was hers.
“I know it’s a bit ridiculous and I don’t really believe in those daily horoscopes or something, but my birth horoscope looked really pretty,” she said.
He stroked her hair and shook his head in mock despair. “What am I doing with you! You and your affection for pretty things, even if they have no value at all!”
“Well,” she said, “in my defence, I have never in my life known anyone who thought stars weren’t pretty.”
“Right. I do believe in stars, of course,” he answered.
“But don’t you think it’s strange that we’re both water signs then?” she said. She had thought about this a lot because she didn’t think water signs could go together, officially.
“No, I do not think it is strange that we were born in different months of the year and that our signs look like water animals and are then both placed under the element of water,” he said, being his, somewhat annoying, sceptical self.
She slapped his arm.
“It means we’re both really emotional, stop being so sarcastic.”
He all of a sudden looked serious.
“Do you think I’m emotional?”
She thought about the way she felt around him and about his ever still face and believed that she was, definitely, the more sensitive of the two.
“Not really,” she answered honestly, and cringed a little because it wasn’t such a nice thing to say. As if he was empty. She realised that was what scared her and so it was a good thing to have told him because she sometimes read that communication was everything in a relationship.
He didn’t flinch; he actually looked a bit proud of himself, as if hiding his emotions was a wonderful trait he’d taught himself. Hiding his emotions in this modern apartment, under expensive designer pillows and next to his ice cube maker, his abstract paintings that didn’t show anything, his lightweight MacBook and his en-suite bathroom. She thought this was typical of his irony.
“See, I’m right. Astrology doesn’t mean anything,” he said. Then he looked up at the table and discovered his glass was empty and hers was still full. He slid up and sat on the couch. She followed his move.
“Em,” he looked really stern, “you can just tell me if you don’t like your wine.”
“No,” she said, “it’s just-”
He had already jumped up and had snatched the full glass of wine from the table.
“We can’t let it go to waste, right!”
She watched in horror as he emptied the whole glass above his perfectly white rug, the red fluid happily streaming down like a slow-motion waterfall. A big red stain on the only soft area in his clean home. He laughed really hard.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry!”
She wanted to go home.
It was Monday. Mondays were always a bit difficult in our household. Dad and Emma would always be pleased and chirpy and frolic around the kitchen, while Mum and I would sit at the table and not speak to anyone. We weren’t morning people, certainly not on a Monday. Our table was huge, with lots of humps and bumps that were filled with lost crumbs and sticky drops of spilled lemonade or jam. I thought Mum once planned on having lots of dinner parties here, but was too much of a scatterbrain to actually organise something. I got annoyed doing my homework at times, because there was always stuff clinging to it. But hey, I wasn’t going to clean anything myself.
Today, Dad was the only one who was cheery.
“Another week has begun!” he sang whilst making himself an omelette.
We said nothing. Mum looked annoyed, Emma didn’t even have her eyes open and I was chewing away on dry toast. The crumbs were increasing.
“Emma dear, when are we meeting this boyfriend of yours so I can ask him what his father does for a living?” Dad joked.
Emma opened her eyes. I saw she noticed the mess around my plate.
“Never,” she said.
I put down my toast and looked at my parents, who were grinning like they had hit a homerun teasing their daughter. Hadn’t they noticed Emma’s tone? She hadn’t spoken in a grumpy I-don’t-like-Mondays kind of way, but rather matter-of-factly: we were never going to meet this guy.
Today they were out and about and she missed class for it but it didn’t matter, because he would know all the answers anyway. To anything. There was a nearby forest lurking for them to explore, which was full of trees very much alive and green. One particular line of oaks intrigued them, the branches growing towards each other at their ends, forming a tunnel. There was even a light at the end, she laughed.
“I almost feel like I’m in a clichéd wedding photo,” she joked, posing in the opening. It was a sunny day and she was wearing a sunny dress in a faded orange. She never wore dresses, but today it felt appropriate.
They walked up the tunnel path and he picked her up gracefully and carried her to the top. She wasn’t sure if he was joking too, he felt serious. A sudden thought overwhelmed her. She would probably have said yes.
“How’s your rug?” she asked teasingly.
He rolled his eyes but laughed.
“It’s ruined. I know, I shouldn’t have done that. But whatever, it’s just a rug.”
They went to climb the biggest tree. They didn’t help each other, just climbed like squirrels on each side of the tree, the first one to the top branch would win. The views were wide; meadows spreading out to the east, oak wood intertwining to the west, their tunnel beneath them.
“You know what we were talking about the other day? I want to feel infinite,” when it was just them she wasn’t afraid to say ridiculously big things.
He reacted immediately and pushed her. She felt her feet slipping from the branch she was standing on, suddenly nothing vast below them, a gasp leaving her mouth and her fingers reaching for any branch, anything. He held her back. The second she realised he was holding her she wasn’t sure if she should be mad or sad, or happy that she had just felt infinite for a split second. Not knowing where the beginning was, or the end, just that she would’ve fallen and couldn’t have saved herself.
“God! That was..” she couldn’t find the words. Powerful? Idiotic?
“It was just what you needed, really. Plus, it was some practise for our experiment.”
He looked confident. She could have probably pushed him off a branch and he wouldn’t have cared. He would have fallen with some sort of sophistication. A smile permanently on his face. Whatever, it would say, I know better than this. She felt small again. She could’ve just not tried grasping for that branch so desperately.
“But what if you hadn’t caught me?” she dared asking.
He looked at her with a smirk on his immaculate face, as if the question really annoyed him.
“Yes, what then?”
She started climbing down without saying anything. His presence usually comforted her so but his mindset was completely out of her world. Her feet were wobbly, but luckily the branches grew thicker near the bottom of the tree. She walked down the path again, finding an opening between two trees that lead to a big field of grass.
The boyfriend in the magazines would have followed her by now and indeed, she felt him clutching her wrist and turning her around.
His fingers found hers and softly stroked them and the sun was in her face and it was all so sweet. She felt repulsed.
“Hey. Don’t you trust me?” he asked, and brought her fingers to his mouth.
“You haven’t been home for three weekends now,” I said stubbornly. I didn’t know what was up with me but I felt a brotherly kind of duty.
Emma turned around in the doorway and sighed so heavily I was afraid she would melt into a puddle of weakness. I folded my arms.
“You can’t just go to uni every day and never come home for dinner or for anything and then just never talk about anything.” I must have found speech somewhere in my body.
She just stood there, deciding whether to leave and run for the bus, or to engage in this frenzied conversation with me. I demanded the latter.
She rolled her eyes and tucked at her dress. Her legs were bare and they looked blue and pale and new, as if she’d just bought them somewhere. I guess they were never out and now she was suddenly all grown-up and womanly and her legs had to be out for that.
“It’s not dumb, Max. You don’t know what it’s like, you’ve never been in love!” she said.
And I didn’t believe her. She didn’t look in love. She looked weird and wrong.
“Well, whatever. Just bring him home then for once so we know what it’s like.” Compromise.
“No,” she shook her head.
“ WHY not?” I didn’t get this part, was she ashamed of him or something? Was he some sort of super geeky math student she met on the internet?
“You’ll understand one day, okay?”
She was just being vague again. Then suddenly something hit me. The way she had looked at me just now, how she had rolled her eyes at me, how she had looked in horror at our messy table, how she had groaned at Dad singing in the morning-
“Are you ashamed of us?” I said.
She didn’t say anything, she just stood there in her stupid dress, with her stupid pale legs and I pushed her through the doorway and grabbed the handle and slammed the door close.
I snatched a bottle of water from the fridge quite furiously and stomped up the stairs. Upstairs, I looked down from the window in my parents’ room. Emma was still standing in front of the door.
Today was the day they had chosen for the experiment. He, the practical one, wanted a school day and she, the romantic one, wanted to see a bit of sunshine.
She had never been chosen for anything. She had been watching other girls perform the Spice Girls on stage at elementary school, she had seen guys run after less shy girls and lovingly tease them and seen her friends get Valentine’s cards, secret text messages and first kisses. She had seen her friends actually reject the guys they didn’t quite fancy enough.
She thought she might have been too boring. For anyone, really. She wished she just could have chosen to play Ginger Spice for once, just because she wanted to.
He gave her lots of choices and seemed to open up to her way of thinking. After all, she was the one that had come up with this plan. It wasn’t so much a plan as well as a feeling that she wanted to achieve, and a state of importance.
They drove up the car park and she blinked at the sun beaming at her through the car window. She was wearing a sundress again, for the occasion. The light was so bright it made her smirk a little, such clichés! The light at the end of the tunnel.. Why would anyone want to experience that while there was such a thing as the sun?
He opened the door for her and his watch glistened. It was only noon, nobody would be around at this time. She got out of the car as if in slow motion, as if climbing out in front of a herd of paparazzi; significance.
They walked up the little path behind the car park, along the ticket booth and up to the fence. ‘Closed on Mondays’, a sign read.
“Not for us,” he said, and he jumped over the fence. She followed, a little afraid her dress would get stuck and tear.
The pool was glistening pale; the water looked chemically blue. Like a dolphin basin in a marine park. The fence was surrounded by trees and conifer needles were spread out on the concrete and sun beds. She went to lie down on one but when he tried to tip over the bed she knew he meant business.
“Can’t we have a little fun first? It’s such a pretty day,” she asked lazily.
“Fun!” he exclaimed, “we’re doing a huge scientific experiment!”
“Don’t forget religious experiment,” she added, pointing at his chest playfully. “It’s all in one!”
“Yes, alright,” he checked the area around the pool with hawk eyes.
“Relax a bit, will you,” she said. It was a pleased mood for her today, he shouldn’t ruin it.
She walked over to the pool and slowly lowered her toes into the bright blue. The water felt soft and lukewarm and she walked on to the shallow end of the pool. Then she stepped in. The water came to her knees and she felt like sitting down and having a picnic there or something. They hadn’t brought any food or juice but she sat down anyway, feeling the silkiness of the water on her skin. It made her feel at ease. Unlike him, who was still standing at guard in a corner.
“You don’t know what you’re missing!” she said. Her dress flowed around her waist onto the surface of the water.
He came into the water as well and sat next to her; his green shorts coloured a few shades darker. They had spoken about this dream of infinity for days and days and had come up with tons of scenarios to prove they were right, though neither of them really wanted to test out dying.
So she came with the idea of nearly dying. The tunnel-idea. The supposed blissfulness of a feeling that should be beyond time and space, beyond science or religion; a feeling just about floating. And, she had said, floating would feel double as floaty when they would be in water.
The plan was that she, the emotional being, was the chosen one of them because she longed for such a floaty feeling the most and because he was the stronger one he would hold her back when she would go too far. Too deep.
“It’s time,” he said.
“Yeah, you’re right,” she said.
She waded through the blue until the point she had to stand on her tiptoes to hold her head above the surface and then she let her feet go. Under the water she had to keep her eyes open, she had promised that to herself, without her eyes open it wouldn’t be much of another world, it would just be solid darkness. The chloral cleanliness of the water stung her eyes a bit but she didn’t mind. The world was different under the surface, it was slow and she could twirl around and see the movement of her limbs following the circles she made. She could also see his legs, which was kind of funny, as if he just existed as legs. She swam towards him and tugged on his shorts and snorted out bubbles from hidden laughter. Everything was simple here but she started feeling like she needed to breathe.
“You are crazy, you know that?” Max’s voice. She was startled for a second, but it was also kind of nice, having him around to talk to her.
“I thought you were supposed to be the sensible one,” he went on. She pictured him in her mind, always joking and teasing their parents, going out every weekend, drinking, hanging with his friends..
“Why?” she thought. “Why does that matter? You are the smart one, the social one. It’s not like anyone notices me doing crazy things anyway.”
Her brother shook his head in her head.
“No,” he said, “You are completely wrong. Everyone notices you. You are the loved one, I am the goofy little brother.”
Funny, how they all thought different things about themselves, things that didn’t matter or shouldn’t matter because what really mattered were the thoughts of their loved ones. She thought she did good. Behaved well. She had never purposely been rude to anyone. She sometimes did kind things for no reason.
She realised she had closed her eyes and tried to open them but the force of the chlorine was too much. She was in desperate need of oxygen and so she kind of splashed around until she found the pool’s edge and the stairs that lead to the surface. She clung to the stairs. Yes, she thought, this way she could easily stay down but also get up again.
“What are you trying to prove, seriously,” Max said. What was she trying to prove? That she would feel infinite under water? That she was like the seasons and could exist endlessly? That there was indeed a light at the end of the tunnel but you could choose not to go there? That her love for him was really strong and made her do strange things? That she was significant enough to have people care that she was doing this?
She shook her head really slowly and tried to make sense of it all. Maybe air was better than water. It was only emotion that kept her here, in this soft cage of blue. She didn’t feel her legs anymore and could not tell if she was standing on something or just floating around. Again she noticed the forced shut of her eyes and when she opened them a little she couldn’t find his legs. Inside her head felt extremely bright and extremely black, like she had looked into a lamp for too long. She needed air. She wanted the freshness of air and to see the trees and the concrete and the sun in their real colours. They were all purple inside her head. Everything was purple. Her head went all heavy and she started floating up to the surface and coughing, coughing a lot, there was water in her mouth and in her throat and it burned from the chlorine and she had to go to the surface where there was air! She splashed about and finally her fingers found air and it was deliciously dry and warm and cold at the same time and she stretched out her fingers but then they were in the water again. She was back under, something was pushing her, but she needed to go to the surface. Her throat was burning and she was coughing and coughing, the water went in and out at the same time, invading her. Air! She tried to open her eyes but all was black and inside it a bit of green trousers. She felt herself getting tired of needing air. Maybe floating was good enough. There was nothing around her. There was no light.
© copyright Imme Visser