You are not here.
I glance at the watch on my bedroom wall, and sigh. Twelve minutes left. You always came here early on my birthdays, up until what happened. You always brought presents, you always wore a cheerful smile.
I remember how it started. Or maybe I should say ended. They were the same, in a sense. I remember what I did after. I see it like it just happened a second ago. The bathroom is dunked in cold fluorescent light. I stare at the mirror. My pale reflection stares back. I stand there, my hands on the sink, smooth tile against my skin. The sleep in my eyes is slowly being washed away by the cold white light.
You’re not here.
You are not here.
I continue to stare at my reflection and for a brief slip of a moment reality escapes me, and I’m away somewhere else. I remember what you said. Word for word, every syllable you uttered.
“I’m sorry.” “Me too.”
“I can’t do this.” “I know.”
I didn’t realize how your responses were always so one-sided. You know, you said. You know. You knew. You were the only one I told. And your reaction? Your response? Absolutely nothing. Just silence. Just a look. Not even sympathy, not compassion. Not something I would expect from a friend. I like to tell myself it was pity, because that would at least mean you are capable of it. It would mean that you tried. I know you didn’t.
It’s sunny in here, and the room is practically glowing, yellow and bright, like a drawing from a children’s book. I’m sitting on my bed, watching the clock hands move, tick, tick, tick. Time flowing. It looks so different from how it did before… the room, the clock, everything. I close my eyes, and go back to then. There’s just a little bit left. Just a sentence or two. A minute or so. I know what happened, I went to sleep. I know how I remember it too, the same as every other time.
I think about all this as I get back into bed. I pull the covers up to my chin even though it’s almost summer, and I try to sleep. It comes unnaturally.
This is where the thought ends. In my head it’s the part where everything fades to black and the curtain falls. In a perfect world after such a thing people would get up and start clapping. But this isn’t a perfect world. That didn’t happen. Instead, I woke up the next morning, three hours later, and went outside. Life went on, just without you. I knew you were okay, living your life, happy and smiling and so obnoxiously nice to the people around you, but that didn’t stop me from grieving you. And I did that for a seemingly long, long time.
I open my eyes, and get up, go over to the mirror. It’s a vanity, with light bulbs. I rarely use them because they’re too bright, way too bright, but I like them. I like my room. More than I like yours. I try to remember it, they way your clothes were all over the place even though you had someone clean it for you almost every week. I remember your bookshelf, and all the familiar titles you had on it but never read. I know your makeup. You had enough to match every shade of eyeshadow to every dance costume you owned, and probably even more.
I liked you because we were, on some level, similar. Not too little, not too much, just right. I have to admit, I liked that we both traveled a lot. Not usually together, but in our own ways, we did the same things. Hit up museums and shops for souvenirs to smuggle through airport security when your suitcase is too big and your eyes are heavy with sleep. Handing you those little gifts wrapped in kraft paper with foreign words on it neither of us understood were moments I remember so clearly. I wonder sometimes, was it the gratitude that brought you joy, or just the attention?
I’m looking at myself in the mirror, looking at my eyes, my hair, my face. I look happy. And I am.
I wonder what changed between now and then. A lot of things, but somehow, also, almost nothing. My mom sold the house. By the time I found out people were already moving in, and just like with you, I cursed myself for not doing something sooner. Not asking about it. Not saying goodbye.
Of everything that happened, that’s what’s bothering me most, still. The fact that you didn’t say goodbye. Not because you didn’t mean it, or weren’t ready– you were way past that, I know. It was because you wanted me to wait. You wanted me to stay. And it worked for a while, I know it did. Well not anymore. Because you know what, I’m done waiting. I watch my reflection closely.
I know what it did to me, everything you said.
I didn’t believe in ghosts.
You proved me wrong.
I always thought of ghosts as people who are dead.
You proved me wrong again.
The clock on the wall is still ticking.
It’s another reminder of the fact that time never stops.
But then again, time is a foreign concept to you. It always has been, and I’m starting to think it always will be. You never understood foreign concepts. You never even tired. I know you.
Even now, especially now, I know you. You never understood art. Or music, even though you played an instrument, or passion or expression, even though you still dance.
For a moment, I wonder if I’ll ever feel the same as I did before. I don’t think I will. I don’t think I can. I’m not sure if I want to. I know what I do want.
I want you to leave me alone. I want what you did to leave me alone.
I want some peace and quiet from what you’ve done. I want to forget everything you said last time. I want you out of my head. You’re not here.
But you are.
I know what’s waiting for me in the kitchen. Colors, happiness, a cake and candles. People I love and people who love me. You used to be both. Now, I can’t seem to make up my mind as to where you should go in my head. I still love you, I do. I love you. But I don’t trust you. I don’t like what you did, and I don’t understand why you did it, and I wish it never happened and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It hurts, but it’s the truth. Honesty was something I didn’t get from you. During the last four years, there were moments I dreaded coming home.
Even though it was filled with nothing but love and comfort and warmth, my whole flat, every room, was tainted by your presence. If I tried hard enough, thought hard enough, I could see you. Not really, of course, just like a memory, brief glimpses of you, walking, sitting, watching TV. Everything you did in here. And then, slowly, things changed. I didn’t notice at first, I was too busy to see, but they did. Mugs broke, new appliances were bought, furniture was moved. We painted the walls a different color. I got a new schoolbag, I got new clothes. It wasn’t until I sat down one day, exhausted and completely worn out, that I realized it was all different. This wasn’t the same kitchen you helped me make cookies in.
It wasn’t the stovetop that almost caught on fire after a failed attempt at pancakes. Or maybe it was. That part stayed the same. There are little bits of our shared time that remain unbroken. Crumbs, shards, shrapnel, chipped paint from a canvas painting. I don’t mind anymore.
I used to think about this a lot. How your actions affected me, my perception of everything around me. It’s a little silly to say, but my view on the world changed. A lot. Songs had meanings, movies made me cry, and books felt more alive. Stories. The one things you were always good at were stories. Not telling them though, but showing. You were an effortless storyteller, even though you’re not completely aware of it. You’re a good actress. I’m sometimes surprised at how, even I, who knew you for so long now, didn’t realize it was all just that – an act. Or maybe it wasn’t. That’s the part I get stuck on. I’m still not sure. As I said, I don’t think it was all fake. What makes you so dangerous is the way you get people on your side, by giving them bits and pieces of yourself, of who you are, of things you do. You make them feel so loved that they become dependent on you. That was my mistake. I let you do it, I let you in, completely, and you ruined me. You’re not here.
I pick up my hairbrush and deftly brush my hair. There’s a pile of papers on my desk, words written on paper, something I haven’t done for a long time. I think about the way I stacked them yesterday, unevenly and in a hurry, because I had things to do. I had things to get done, I thought. Essays to write, problems to solve. Things to finish. There’s pages and pages, stories from real life, stories from my head. You always somehow managed to find your way into both. There’s one that I love, a story I mean, only it isn’t really a story.
A memory, perhaps. It’s on two sheets of paper, neatly stuck together with a small yellow paper clip. You always liked yellow. The color of sunshine, of happiness, of bright early mornings and mid-afternoons in the beginning of summer. Yellow like the sun. It makes sense when I think about it. The sun is a star, shining, glowing, keeping us alive, but if you get too close, it burns. Sometimes I remind myself that that’s what you did. You burned. It’s what you’re still doing, even after me. Other people, I think, people around you, they have no clue. They have no idea. They just don’t know. But I do. But I know. You made me aware.
I understand now, that just like the sun and its importance, just like this tiny piece of metal holding together two pages’ worth of us, there’s some sort of limit. And you don’t need to say anything to be able to cross the line. Silence is an answer too. I’m done walking in front of you, always making sure you never reach that line. I should’ve stopped two years ago. I wish I did. I’m also glad I didn’t. There are some good things I got out of this. Perspective, being one of them. It’s something that people lack, something that you lack.
Someone calls me again, tells me to hurry, that everyone is waiting. My dad, probably. I smile.
There are people I want to thank. People I should thank. I just don’t know how. People I know, who I admire or respect or sometimes think about. People I want to trust. People who told me to be happy. You made me doubt myself, you made me cautious. You made me wary.
Is it okay that I want to ask them for advice? Is it okay that I want them to listen like you did?
I sometimes get scared that by the time I’ll find the courage to tell them the truth it’ll be too late. I won’t see them again. They’ll never know how much their words meant to me. They’ll never find out I listened to what they said, even though I did say anything then.
You’ve done so much damage, I think to myself. You made me doubt myself. You made me doubt everyone else. You made me skeptical and afraid. And now it’s almost too late.
Almost, but not quite.
So how do I do it?
How do I say thank you when I can’t even explain what it is I’m saying it for? Not everyone knows about you. Not everyone knows what you’ve done. I feel like I want to cry. I’m not sure if it’s in a good way or bad, but things are ending, chapters, books, things I’ll never get to do again.
It’s okay though. Because this time I know, at least, that I get to leave on my own terms. I get to be the one to walk away this time.
Unlike my mom’s house or the thirteen years of conversations we had, I can finally leave willingly.
As my fingers brush over the two thin pages I pause. I stop. And I think.
What it says on there, is exactly what happened. Not when you ended it all, or made me walk away, but what happened another time. A different day. There was no sun, just clouds, it was summer.
It was daytime, late afternoon, around five, and there was no one there. We went on a kids ride, some sort of ferris wheel that stopped once you get to the top. I remember what you asked me up there. About the future. About what we would be doing one day, about how our lives would turn out. We talked about college, then. College, and friendship, and silly little things like the kind of hair shampoo you used and the kinds of sweets we liked and the way the grass swayed in the wind from up above.
It was so peaceful, I thought.
I never imagined that seeing the one person I felt safest with, the happiest with, years later, would make me stop and turn away. I’m done letting you do that. Amongst those silly little things we talked about that day was symmetry. How everything needs a sort of balance to keep things alive, a scale, a beating heart.
I take the two pieces of paper and slide the paper clip off. The pages fall to the floor in that unpredictable swirling way papers always fall, like tiny butterfly wings, nonchalantly fluttering.
To flutter. A lot can do that, I think. A heart can flutter, ribbons can flutter in the wind. Can time do that too? Maybe it can. Not scientifically speaking of course, but it some vague metaphorical way, it can. It moves linear, flowing and effortless, but it feels like it fluctuates. Like it oscillates. Some moments feel longer than others. Bad memories. Good memories. Tiny glimmers of hope in between. I always stayed quiet, I always listened more than I said. I guess I hoped, in some vague way, that someone would notice. It’s why I liked you.
You noticed. You always noticed. It would be nice to stop there. But I’m being truthful here, so I’m sorry, but I can’t. I’m sometimes slightly surprised by the sheer amount of ridiculous things that people tell me. Being quiet seems more trusting, or something like that.
It makes me laugh a little that no one has yet thought of the possibility that I might lose it one day and spill all those secrets, yours included. Or I could write a book about it like Sylvia Plath. Of all those books in your bedroom, little glittering literary trophies you never earned, that is a book I know you would read.
I sigh softly. There’s little time left. I need to go in there and sit on one of those chairs you used to like and close my eyes and make a wish. I don’t yet know what it’ll be. I knew last year, and the one before. I guess I can tell you since they didn’t come true. I wasted three years on you: three cakes, six candles and something over seven hundred days of things that could’ve been. Things we could’ve done, together. Things we would’ve done.
I hear cutlery clanking, metal against china, and glass against wood. My mom calls my name, and tells me to hurry up. I’m ready, I don’t know what I’m waiting for. The next part will be easy, I know that. Singing, smiles, photos and chocolate. I can almost taste it.
I take another quick glance at the mirror and fix my hair. Friends are waiting. Family is waiting. My future is waiting.
I put down my hairbrush and run my fingers through my hair, fix my necklace and leave the room.
I go down the hall, I walk into the kitchen. It’s sunny in there as well. I sit down. I help my mom light the candles. When they’re all alight, tiny flickering flames, colored wax starting to drip onto the chocolate, I pause. I stop. I breathe.
I take a moment.
It’s then that I realize the things that really changed between now and then. I’m here, sitting at my kitchen table, the same one we used to sit at, the one I’ve been blowing out candles on my entire life. Every year, I’d sit down, in the same place, in the same spot, and do the same thing. It happens on other days, too. I sit down in the morning, and I drink my coffee. I stare at the wall and I think.
I keep doing that, over and over, and every time I sit there’s new memories in my head from what happened in the meantime. Coffee, then school. A latte, a trip to the park, a trip to another country. Then I’m back, alive and well and happy and tired and absolutely exhausted, and I drink another cup of coffee. Cold in the summer, warm in the winter, but always the same. Does that really mean that time is fluttering?
Would that really mean that, after all, what I do between then and now is irrelevant? No. It does matter. These things do matter. The little things. The seemingly unimportant things. It’s all about the in-between.
I lean a little closer. I can feel the heat on my face, and I’m sure whoever’s taking the picture can see the flames reflecting in my eyes.
I sit quietly, and think. Of you, of my family, or the people I want to thank, and I am overcome with a sort of realization. My life, as it is now, is good.
It’s not just good, it’s great.
I don’t need you here to be happy again – I already am happy. I think about that day on the ferris wheel, and what we talked about. I think about my bedroom, and those pages I’ll have to pick up off the floor. I think about that paper clip, and how I don’t even know where I left it.
Where did you leave us?
I should find it later, I tell myself. I should pick it up again and put those pages back together just like they were before. I don’t know what that’ll bring me, but it’s okay. That’s what life is. Picking up scattered pieces of paper and scattered memories, stringing it all into a book.
That’s what I wish you’d understand. Perspective. Truthfulness. Foreign concepts. Art.
That’s something I feel extremely grateful to have.
That’s something I’ll never forget.
The worst and best of us, sparkles and confetti and birthday candles and tears. Flower bouquets and fallen leaves and petals lost in the wind. A cherished someone, their hand in yours. Love. True, frightening, comforting love. The feeling of belonging and feeling special, entwined hands and glittering stars. A joy so deep in your heart it almost feels like fate.
I know what I’m doing. Finally, content, and with ease, I take a deep breath.
I make a wish and think.
Breathe in the smell of flowers, blow out the birthday candles.
I keep my eyes closed for a moment, breathing in. I smell sugar from the cake, alcohol I won’t even touch, and a fresh gust of a breeze from the open window beside me. Smoke.
I open my eyes. There’s smoke, from the candles, swirling and lingering, and laughter from the people around me. I take it all in for a little while, just for a couple of seconds. The clock on the wall is still ticking. It’s time to cut the cake.
I look around.
You aren’t here.