Instructor: Faina Polt
The World is Quiet Here
The World is Quiet Here
Two girls running along a beach. Numbers on our arms, mine far larger than hers, but we pay them no mind. We scream, joyously, like twin banshees, oblivious, annoying all the people around us. We dive through the waves, giggling, splashing. We hang onto our parents as they try to shoo us away, but we stay, tormenting them. We build sandcastles, though they look like sad lumps of muddy rocks cobbled together. The details of the scene have long since faded, but my laughter, my joy, my giddy little grin as I ran through the waves with the other little girl are burned into my memory.
Then I'm crying, screaming as I'm pulled away, into my car. Sad the day is over, struck by the finite nature of joy. I wail as my mother fastens my seatbelt and drives us away from the beach, as the sun sets in a coral rage over the horizon. But soon the sun is overtaken by stars, the moon, and darkness, and soon, I am asleep.
As my earliest memory played in my head over and over, I tried, in vain, to remember the inky, black numbers on our arms, but in the cinema of my mind, the numbers were mere smudges. Though the sun peeked at me through my window, and its warm rays made a brash attempt to rouse me from my half-sleeping state, I stayed in bed. Wrapped in soft blankets, protected from reality by a shield of comfort. I was sheltered from pain and anger. I could pretend it did not exist, that I was invincible, that I would not be broken. But as much as I wished to remain in the sanctuary of sleep, I had to say goodbye, I could never live with myself otherwise. My dread crippled me, but I forced my covers off my body and inched myself out of bed.
I had only really noticed a few years before, the numbers on our arms. Sure, I was aware of their existence, how can one be oblivious to a prominent and consistently changing blot of darkness on their skin? But I never understood the misery it brought, I never knew what it meant. Now I knew, I had 29,984 days left to live. Ari only had one.
We knew this day would come, we spent the entire summer both dreading it and in denial. We would lay in the park, the grass tangled into our hair, watching the clouds as they crossed the sky, and simply talking. We would laugh heartily at some joke or another, then burst into tears, reality crashing in on us. Perhaps it would be better if we never knew, if death caught us by surprise, if we never had to say goodbye.
One day someone would just be gone. No suspense, no disbelief, just an absence. There would be grief, yes, but people could enjoy their last moments together, oblivious to the looming threat of the end. But that was not the way of the world, and we always knew. For better or worse, we knew.
I tried to walk out the door, but my mom caught me and forced a bowl of cereal down my throat. It was bland and dry, despite the pool of milk it sat in.
I finished my breakfast and attempted once more to walk out the door, but a wave of despair crashed against my chest, and I had to sit down. Suddenly hot tears streamed down my face and I wanted to scream although no sound escaped my lips. I couldn't tell why I was crying, the world just broke, and I couldn't tell up from down, it was just a spiral of pain. My head fell between my legs as I gasped for air. I tried to reach the surface of the ocean of my sorrow, but the waves beat me under, over and over, and the tears shot down my face, out of control. I was beaten under one last time, and I stopped trying to resurface. I sunk downward, no longer fighting, choking out sobs, hoping my family was far away, that they couldn't see me cry. I didn't like to be helpless. That moment, I was helpless. My sobs receded, but globs of snot painted my face along with my tears, which were starting to harden on my face. A weight still crushed my chest, but by that point it was normal. I grabbed for a nearby box of tissues, and hurriedly wiped my face before anyone could see.
Finally, I walked out the door. Fresh air filled my lungs, and the shining sun mocked my somber mood. As I walked down the sidewalk, I wallowed in self-pity. I think I deserved it, a moment to believe that I was the least fortunate person on the face of the earth. I wanted to believe that no one had it worse than me and no one ever could. No one else could possibly have their friend ripped from them far too soon, no one else could be constantly surrounded by misery. But, of course, it was far more than possible.
I made it to a little Ice Cream Parlor, one of the rundown but cozy ones, that made you feel at home. We had spent our lives at that little shop, the little fairy lights above the wooden stools were our stars on many summer nights spent gobbling down a scoop of vanilla custard. It looks different in the light, but it still is warm and inviting. I pull out a stool at a table for two and wait.
The owner, a bubbly woman named Sasha, walked over to me. I willed her to go away but my measly efforts were in vain, and she placed her hand on my shoulder. I wanted to shake it off, but I didn't.
"I know today's gonna be hard for you, lil missus." Though I loved Sasha, she called all the neighborhood girls lil missus, a name I have a particular hatred for.
"Yeah," I replied, unsure what else to say.
"Just know that if you ever need anything, well, I'm right here." As much as I wanted to be grateful for her, I just wanted to be alone. Thankfully she sensed my discomfort, and walked away. Despite how much I had wished her to leave, somehow I felt far worse when she left.
Soon Ari arrived. I tried so hard to capture how she looked that day, somehow staying strong despite everything, but I failed, in my near-perfect memory of the day, I cannot capture the style of her hair, nor what clothes she wore.
I forced a smile onto my lips and greeted her, and she did the same. We tried to start up a conversation, but every attempt fell flat and we sat in silence until Sasha came to take our order. I could tell she was uncomfortable, asking us, Ari's time limited, and I in mourning, such a lighthearted question as what flavor of ice cream we wanted. But she asked us regardless.
"What can I get for you each?"
"I'll have a blueberry cheesecake milkshake," replied Ari.
"And I'll have a vanilla custard in a cup," I added. Sasha left and I tried to spark conversation again.
"Bear's always has the best ice cream, doesn't it?"
"Yeah," her reply was halfhearted, her mind elsewhere.
"You don't normally get a milkshake."
"I guess I just wanted to change it up a bit today…" With that we trailed into silence again. We just stared at each other, tears brimmed in our eyes. I was going to miss her, I wasn't sure if I would ever be okay. She was my rock, I stuck to her, we loved each other. Certainly not romantic love, but it was love all the same. I had so much I wanted to say, but no words to express myself. I couldn't bring myself to say goodbye, to make this horrible dream any more real.
We waited, holding our breath, neither one of us quite sure what to say, grief weighed down my chest. Pity welled in my throat, but this time the pity was not for me, but for her mother and father and her little sister. I was beyond pain, I could only feel anything through others. It felt inhuman, my numbness and my pain. You would think that, by definition, you can't be in pain when you feel numb, but that is false. When you are numb you search for pain, you crave pain, because it reminds you you're alive. Without pain in grief there is just too much guilt, or perhaps it is shame, because you don't want to reveal that you feel nothing to others, to have them wonder at your callous lack of emotion. No, pain is far easier pain is finite, coming in waves, hurtling at your soul. Shame is constant and guilt is far far worse.
I couldn't handle it, I was full on crying. She was really leaving, and her face white with fear, she already looked almost like a corpse. I cannot imagine how hard it was to know she was about to die, to stare death in the face, in front of her friends, her family, trying to put on a brave face for their sake, all the while crushed by the certain uncertainty of her encroaching demise. I never asked her what she thought would happen when she died. That is probably for the best.
I wish I had spoken then, I wish I could've offered support or just reminisce about every wonderful day we spent together. I am constantly consumed by regret, I regret that I didn't bring up that time we rode down to the creek on our bikes and went on a hike, but once we came back both our bikes were underwater, we spent hours searching for them in this deep section of the creek, and once we found them we laughed about it for many more hours than we spent searching. I regret that I didn't ask her if she was ok, if she could ever be ok. I regret not speaking at all. But, most of all I regret tainting my last memory, of such a joyous, boisterous human being, such a friend, with tears and with silence. I wish I had never known.
After an hour of silence and quiet tears, we each went home. Ari died the next day. I never said goodbye.