I am walking down the weedy four-lane highway that cuts through a certain rural Pennsylvanian town, clutching a dripping chocolate ice cream cone. The single traffic light swings in the hot, still air like a heavy necklace. There is not a car in sight. My boyfriend of six months ambles next to me, slitting blue eyes against the glare of the afternoon sun. Ahead looms a high, grassy pinnacle: the man-made dam that cuts across the Lackawaxen River. I like to think of all that water, millions of gallons, foiled and trying to find a way around that wide wall upholstered in seamless green. Houses and buildings lay under the surface of the lake, a whole town submerged and silent. Jet skis crisscross over the expanse of unbroken blue-brown water, trailing white wings of flume. A few swimmers linger in the sunlit shallows, paddling lazily and watching out for copperhead snakes. I’m still stepping over the curb as my eye catches on an unfamiliar shape lying by the side of the road. It isn’t the crumpled red of a coke can, or the sad squiggle of a drinking-straw wrapper; nothing you would normally find tossed out the window of a moving car. It’s cool and flat and mottled chestnut, a little like those glasses I had in freshman year, like…“A turtle shell,” I say dumbly, crouching to inspect the palm-sized oval that once housed some spindly and ancient living creature. Staring down at it, part of me doesn’t want to acknowledge that something small must have died here. A secret wrapped in a little concave box. On an impersonal road that could be anywhere in America in the summer, some turtle carried its own translucent amber Airstream trailer much too slowly. Ben tugs at my hand, shepherding me away like the shocked witness to a gory car crash. He does this every time I see something ugly – a bald, transparent baby pigeon sprawled on the sidewalk, a vacant lot strangled in weeds, a flyblown fawn on the median of the highway. Surely he knows that I’ve seen dead things before. Surely he knows that there’s nothing he can protect me from, that a full ten more months of life on the planet doesn’t count for much. I let him lead me away, up towards the ridge of the dam. Ice cream drips from my hand and forms abstract splatters, staining blades of grass and red-brown pebbles, coating familiar shapes in a flood of chocolate.
I let moments like this slide past in a quicksilver blur, because I can sense vague, stillborn half-feelings crawling all around those brief instances. Just for a second, you’re confronted with something totally unexpected; you turn the corner and end up in the middle of a funeral for someone you’ve never met. There is no polite social convention for death; we have no way of dealing with something so fundamentally alien. How do you console something wordless, something that came stumbling out of nature one day, complete and fully formed, and just recently disappeared back into that leafy void? I am shamefully soft-hearted; the kind of sick sap who rescues cat after cat and volunteers to intubate baby birds in an equally insane woman’s apartment on the upper west side. It’s filled floor-to-ceiling with recuperating pigeons, motherless baby sparrows, all gaping mouth and sooty feathers. Their hearts beat so fast inside my clumsy fingers. I don’t know what else to do – I wish I could pass them by and get on with my life like everyone else, but something’s there, the specter of death, and I can’t do it. Once you realize how very fragile the people around you are, how little it takes to snuff out a consciousness, there’s no other way to see things. Reality becomes a vibrant still-life, a basket of beautiful wax apples. You’re always waiting for some piece of news, some momentous occasion to disturb the cloudless calm of your life. But sadness doesn’t work that way; it trickles, it creeps, sad and soft as threadbare gray velveteen. Life is full of quiet pain when you see the fragility inherent in everything. Life is a clear blue sky, the runny, brilliant yellow of a fried egg, finding someone who might possibly think in the same strange, elliptical shapes as you. It vibrates with bright energy and the purr of katydids and cicadas, festooned in the night trees like stars made of sound. But it’s hollow, fist-sized, and the inside is amber and concave.
Age 17, Grade 12
The Brearley School