It is a dark summer night when I find the photograph; it falls from an old drawer and tumbles to the worn crimson carpet, where I pick it up and balance it between my fingers. As I sit and let the sticky air cling to my Pajamas like plastic wrap, I find myself fixated on the image, but more specifically your eyes- giant blue saucers. And I begin to smile, as scene around you unfolds in flavors of sepia and bagel-colored sand.
We are squished like plump sardines into a pink beach chair that threatens to collapse beneath our sun burnt bottoms. Your toothy grin is speckled with what looks like sand, and directed towards the camera while I smile madly at a seagull hovering to our left, a hungry looking bird that is eyeing my sandwich. Our skin is an identical pasty-white, painted in shades of milky SPF 45. Our grubby hands are clasped like rings, golden and indissoluble. There is some ancient happiness wrapped in our smiles that I wish I could excavate and bury in yours now that you are no longer an exultant princess/doggy hairdresser/superhero.
My first impulse is to call you because there is something implacable that makes the picture permeable; suddenly I am wrapped in memories of dusky nights and summer sunsets, sand fights and popsicles. I want you to see them too; I want you to return to those days when we were five and weightless. But before I can grab the phone the memories pulsate through my veins, with the force of fifteen years perched on my chest like a weight that pulls me up and holds me down all at once.
“Hulio,” you said- we were eight and into code names-“Hulio, I think that boy is looking at you weirdly.” I picked up a bag of Doritos and hid my face behind it, peering in his direction behind the red plastic. He was staring at me. Bizarrely enough he seemed to notice that there was a person behind the plastic bag, and his mouth curled in a confused sort of grin.
“Carol!!” I cried, instinctively using her fake name, “I think he saw me!”
“He did! Oh my god he totally saw you!”
“What’s he doing now?”
“He’s walking towards the skittles…now towards the M&Ms…now towards the– Hulio, I think he’s coming over here!”
We simultaneously ducked below the snack bar.
“I don’t even know him!” I exclaimed.
“I wonder what he’s going to say…Maybe he knows that we’ve been tricking the 25 cents machine into giving us two toys!”
“Or that we’ve been stealing sugar packets from the concession stand!”
The sound of the boy’s barefoot steps seemed to ring through the crowd with a distinct ‘thud’ that set our hearts on fire with a childish excitement and fear.
“Maybe he knows that I refilled my coke without buying another one!”
“Or that I accidentally, but sort of on purpose, tripped that saleslady who wouldn’t give us more ketchup!”
The boy froze beside the row of candy, and searching the throng of bikini- clad girls with pink streaks and artificial tans, finally rested his eyes upon a pair of strange-looking girls who sat, suddenly quite silent, under a table of Dorritos.
“He-hello,” poured out of his pudgy lips like a gooey marmalade, “I was just wondering–“
That’s when you turned to me and snatching my pink cotton dress, sprinted full speed towards the exit.
“Carol!” I complained, once we were in the cover of the beach crowd, “Why’d you do that? Now we’ll never know why he wanted to talk to me!”
“We won’t,” you said, “but who really cares? I want to swim, anyway.”
The thing about being five and six and seven and eight is that you’re allowed to care about everything and nothing at once; the world is a game that you tend to win, and losing is like a bee sting whose pain fades with Mommy’s kiss. We hovered like pixies in the azure limits of earth, perfecting our somersaults at zero gravity, because there was nothing to hold us down. It was only later that a giant weight was placed on your back and you were forced to crawl.
I try to hold back those memories, the ones that don’t make me laugh, or even smile- I take another look at old photograph.
What is most striking- even more than the ridiculous yellow hat balanced on my head like a colossal banana- are your giant saucer eyes. Because they are not wide with bewilderment, anguish, or anger, but pure unadulterated joy. As if your smile could not contain the delight that pulsed through your thin veins in spasms of rage and excitement, the leftover bliss seeped into your eyes until they inflated like helium filled balloons, ready to fly off your face and float into the limitless cerulean sky.
I have not seen your eyes like that since August 15th 2007, when the blue saucers rolled down your soft cheeks at the innocent age of 12, cracking against the cement street, and you threw their porcelain corpses into the dirt to be buried alongside your father’s copper coffin.
With the photograph in front of me and a phantom of you at fifteen hovering in my mind’s eye, I see that ‘Then’ has come to pass.‘Then’ was a time for sunscreen and sticky white skin, for silly hats and sand; a time for herculean grins and mythic bliss. ‘Then’ was a time when we ran around like savages, laying siege to snow forts with patterned mittens; we were secret agents, shooting rubber bands and running around the kitchen floor as we chased each other in circles. We were heathens, hedonists, we were children.
Now is our new eternity, an eternity of atramentous ink. Now is the time for skirts that cast shadows, for dim suits and dreary adulthood. It feels indefinite, this new black.
It carpets my vision in memories of you as you crumbled to the wooden floorboards when the phone call came, as you pressed your stony lips to the ground and imagined that this was your goodbye, that the plaster of your apartment was Daddy.
And I watched this happen like a movie. I was an observer who wanted nothing more than to pull you from the ground into your father’s arms. I used to hit the glass screen and beg you to let me in, but after a while I caught on; you were trapped. Only time could tell if you would ever dig yourself out.
The night Peter died, I was at home. It took me awhile to pick up the phone and call you, and when I did, I didn’t say much. There wasn’t much to say.
“Hey,” was what came out at first, and it was more of a statement than an invitation for conversation.
“Hey,” you echoed.
“How’s school been?” I asked after an uncomfortable pause.
“I haven’t been going.”
“It’s not like I’m being lazy or anything, I mean my Da-”
“No, of course, it’s great that you’re not going!”
“Well not great, but you know, you should take all the time you need! I’m sure no one will care, I mean they get it. I mean, I’m sure they care about you! I bet everyone misses you a lot, I just mean they support you and stuff and they’ll support you if you’re home as well which is where you should definitely be.”
“Julia, why are you acting so weird?”
“I’m not acting weird…”
“The last time I remember you being this chipper was when we were eight, right before I sat on a whoopee pillow in synagogue.”
“Oh my god… I almost forgot about that!”
“I haven’t, it was awful!!”
“Do you remember Rabbi Roli’s face? Oh my god. He looked so confused…”
“No, the best was that women sitting behind us-”
“Yes, the obnoxious orthodox lady-”
“She glared at me. She literally glared.”
The line was filled for a minute with our laughter that seemed scoop us into a mutual sphere and despite the distance I swore I could feel your fingertips extend and touch mine. And just as quickly it was silent and you were stuck a million miles away in a completely different universe. But I wasn’t ready to let you go yet, so I said,
“Have you heard about the viking funerals?”
“The guys with the funny horn hats?”
“Well, I’ve heard of the Vikings, but I don’t know how they bury their dead or anything…”
“They don’t bury their dead. They put them in boats and they send them into the ocean.”
“Oh.” Your voice suddenly seemed small, swallowed by the weight of the past week.
“That way they don’t know what happens, you know, after.”
“But they do know,” you whispered, “they’re dead. They’re gone. Where could they go?”
“Anywhere. Alaska, Hawaii, Heaven…”
“Do you really believe that?”
“This coming from the girl who announced she was an atheist in first grade…” You said, unconvinced.
“So I don’t believe in god. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in an after.”
“But do you believe in Heaven?” Your voice was desperate, and yet I knew that regardless of my answer, I would never be able to satisfy the craving in your heart.
“I believe in reincarnation.”
“Like…Jesus and stuff?”
“No, more like Buddhism.”
“The religion with the fat guy?”
“Yes,” I laughed.
“Well…what does that mean?”
“Reincarnation? Well, I think it means that we never die.”
“What happens to us, then, after we’ve passed?”
“I guess we become birds or something.”
“Okay,” you said.
And you hung up.
One day, about a month after his death, I slept over at your house. We baked cookies, gave each other mani-pedis, and annoyed your brother to the best of our ability.
In the morning, I woke up and found your sleeping bag empty. I tip-toed to the kitchen where I expected to find you crouched over a half-eaten roll of cookie-dough, but I found the white marble room empty. Your baby-sitter, Jaz, came in with a broom and said quietly,
“Outside?” I echoed, awe-struck. We were New York City girls- we didn’t go out in the dead of winter unless absolutely necessary, and especially not at 8 in the morning.
Jaz nodded, and pointed at the window. I followed her finger to find a figure whose golden locks and bright green eyes gave away your identity. There you were, shivering under your mom’s winter coat, with a bag of what looked like bread crumbs.
“What’s she doing?” I asked Jaz.
“Feeding the birds.”
Sure enough, a swarm of Pigeons surrounded you almost instantly. I watched your face, waiting for the disgust to dirty your flushed cheeks and bright eyes, but instead I saw a peace settle in as you fed the dirty birds.That’s when it came to me; my own words rushed back with the force a moving car.
“What happens to us, then, after we’ve passed?” you asked.
“I guess we become birds or something.”
Your father’s memory was among the throng of New York City Pigeons.
Even tonight, when it is so dark I can barely make out my own silhouette, I am able to see with the clarity of a hundred streetlamps what has been. These memories- of Peter, of friendship, of childhood- will be etched in indelible ink on our faces, our limbs, and in the depths of our hearts, for an eternity. So I enter the transparent world of this photograph, where we leap over waves and chase the ocean in a stupid bliss, where the coffin in our future is about as threatening as the seagull that hovers in the distance, waiting to snatch our food. We chase the bird away with giggles, our arms flailing with naive jubilance.
Age 15, Grade 10,
The Fieldston School High School