Photo Credit: wellcome images
The first time we speak, he leans against a vending machine, his forearm against the glass, his head against his forearm. He asks me about animal crackers: if I like them, if I’d like to share some with him. He’s not a complete stranger; I’ve had class with him, so I say yes, I will. Then he asks to borrow a quarter. I hand him one and his fingers, cold and hard, take it from my palm. His nails are unusually yellow, his skin dark.
“What are you studying?”
“Political science,” I say.
He smiles a slow smile, only one side of his mouth turning upward. “Oh yeah?” He turns his attention back to the vending machine, searching for the animal crackers, his pointer finger dancing around in circles against the glass as he does. His tall frame leans delicately against the cool surface. “I thought about political science for a while.” He finds them and taps the glass once. “But I decided against it.”
“I don’t know.” He bends down, the vending machine snapping as he reaches in for his snack. “I guess I never cared enough.” There is a light honesty to his words.
We share animal crackers and talk about his wardrobe, his family, his grades, his commute to school. He wears clothing pulled from the folds of a magazine, the colors vibrant, the buttons of his sweater fragile and small. I tease him effortlessly about the way he dresses, sophisticated and expensive, and when he laughs but does not take offense, it is loud and it bounces off of my skin, the walls, the chairs we sit in. He has the kind of laugh you hope someone will have, the kind of laugh they mean and don’t use unless a comment has truly earned it.
About halfway through our first conversation, he announces that he is from a different country. He says it right after I say the word “calendar,” my Chicago accent bleeding through the simple word. “You guys and your accents,” he says, dismissive.
“Well, what about you?” I ask.
He brushes his hands against his pants, invisible crumbs falling to the ground, and chews as he talks. “I’m allowed to have an accent,” he says, noting that he comes from a part of Africa most Americans couldn’t find without a labeled map.
“Oh,” I say. “Then why are you here?”
I notice the way he looks away when the question strikes him, breaking eye contact. “School,” he says. “A better education.”
It is not until months later, after missing two days of classes here, two days of classes there, that he casually says he’s sick. When he says, “I have Sickle Cell,” in plain English to a class full of twenty, he does it with the confidence of someone who’s born with it, that unflinching prowess that those who lack it seem to envy. He tells us not to worry, that modern medicine will have him healthy in no time, and we believe him.
But at home, under the foolish protection of three in the morning and the privacy of a laptop computer, I research Sickle Cell. Something pulls at my stomach, a nervousness that feels like betrayal, as if researching a potentially fatal disease goes against his unspoken wishes, but I do it anyway. I read about the blood disease, the one that develops from childhood, the one that is far more common in African children than American children, the one that leads to death if treatments don’t work.
The next time I see him, a hospital identification bracelet wrapped around his wrist, I don’t tell him what I know, and he doesn’t tell me what he knows.
What are you supposed to know about death?
Everything I know, everything I’ve experienced, deals with sudden loss: complications from alcohol, heart attacks, all-but-hidden cancer that spreads like wildfire. I have never had the privilege to experience the slow turn from healthy to sick in a loved one. I have never seen the threat of death and sickness—cancer detected early, dementia that runs in the family—flex its muscles for show periodically, reminding you that the possibility for terror is there, allowing you to come to whatever peace you’ve created, giving you the chance for a goodbye.
I assume eventual death—drawn out, over time—unfolds like a flood. Over an eclipsing number of days—a winter transitioning into spring, eight weeks of a brutally wet summer—the water comes and never leaves. Residents of the floodplain notice it, perhaps pass whispered remarks about it, but choose to ignore it. It won’t get bad, they say. It can’t get bad. There’s hardly enough water here to become a problem.
And then one day they open their front door, and the water’s knocking. It’s murky and it’s dangerous and they should have noticed it before—why didn’t they notice it before? They cannot comprehend, cannot explain, how a few feet of water here, a few feet of water there, lead to ultimate destruction. Their properties, filled with cameras and books and unorganized memories, are left destroyed; their sense of security, this false understanding that they’re safe from excess water—so long as it does not rush in and overwhelm at once—shatters.
Beneath the sun, he seems fine.
I ask him if he’s warm, his body wrapped tight, safe in his sweater, but he shakes his head and comments on the lovely afternoon. That’s the word he uses: lovely. It does not fit his demeanor, his tall frame, his threatening eyes, which is likely why he chooses it.
He is teaching me to make the perfect paper airplane as we sit on the quad, the grassy needles beneath our legs poking through the fabric of our clothes. He folds the paper exactly, using his thumbnail to sharpen the creases he’s created. This will allow the plane, formed from old notes, to fly further.
He looks at the plane I’ve created. It’s too simple, he says. It won’t fly. “Do you not understand how to make a paper airplane?” His intentions are playful, but the sound of his voice, scratchy and quiet, makes him sound serious.
Still, I say I’m doing the best I can. “Making paper airplanes isn’t exactly my forte.”
He stands, reading his hands for the first throw. “Neither is answering your phone.”
I smile at him, but do not protest. “You always feel like having hour-long conversations about beer.”
He returns the smile. “I’m keeping you well-rounded.” He tosses the airplane, a simple flick of his wrist, and it soars about ten feet before it dives headfirst into the soft grass. He cocks his head towards the paper crash and tells me to retrieve it.
“What if I really needed to talk to you?” he shouts.
I bend to pick up the airplane, shrugging as I do. “Beer isn’t urgent.”
When I close the distance between us and hand him the weightless airplane, his eyes are pointed toward the ground. His mouth hangs open slightly, as if he has something to say, and he shakes his head.
I know what he wants to say, so I finish. “Fine. I’ll answer the next time you call.”
When a death occurs suddenly, the pressing issue becomes the aftermath.
When you wake up one morning and your father is missing and you call the police, the only thing you have to worry about then, really, is your reaction when the responding officer, located at your front door, tells you that your father’s passed due to a heart attack while jogging. And when the officer apologizes, his long eyes and frown teetering on the edge of genuine and professional, the only thing you can do is thank him for his help and lock the door behind him when he leaves.
Sudden death crosses your life absent of that drawn out, tired demand. You don’t feel those long nights, cold and desperate, after second opinions and third opinions and treatments that only worked in passing daydreams of desire.
He calls me late one evening, on a weekday, and breathes in deeply before he says anything. No “hello,” no “how are you,” no “what’s going on,” just a long pause, breathing breaking the silence.
I let him talk when he’s ready.
Once the silence ends, his raspy voice cuts sharp. He talks quickly, says he’s at the hospital, says he’s not feeling well, says he doesn’t know what’s next. I try to stop him, desperately wishing he would explain what he’s talking about, but he continues. He says he’s sick, says he’s dying quicker—“I’m dying quicker,” he says, just like that—says he doesn’t know what to do.
I say: “Like, now?”
“Are you dying now?”
I think he shakes his head. “No, I just—” He stops.
I want to ask him when, want to ask him how, want to ask him how much time he has, but I don’t. I never do. It doesn’t seem appropriate, has never seemed appropriate. The questions, the medical questions that are so often asked, are too formal for our relationship, too final for the friendship we have. To spring them on him now, to bring those words into reality, casts a shadow of discomfort over everything.
“Where are you?” I ask.
He swallows. “No. I’m not telling you.”
“You can’t see me like this, nobody’s allowed—” A pause. “I’ll see you soon.”
There is an air of false hope in his voice, one that I’d desperately like to cling to and comment on. But I don’t.
After one last uncomfortable pause, he talks as if he’s smiling. “So there was this girl, at the bookstore, who I want to ask out—”
“Oh.” I breathe. “Yeah?”
There is no telling how long floodwaters can take to recede. You have to consider certain factors: how much water there was to begin with, how dry the air is following the downpour, the forecast for the coming weeks.
For a long time, after a flood occurs, you stand there, helpless. You stand there with your hands on your hips and you look at your house and your possessions, all of them, floating visibly by windows, buoys in the stagnant water. The devastation leaves you breathless and confused, the firm footing you had weeks before, shattered by something as necessary as water: something you drink, something you bathe in, something you’re familiar with.
A sudden death doesn’t understand, and instantly shatters, the idea of creeping, steady movement. A sudden death is violent and shocks your senses quickly; devastation is its intent from the beginning. A sudden death yellows the face of an elderly grandmother overnight, wakes her husband beside her in a cold sweat, alerts him that something is desperately wrong, and leaves him years short of the solution. Deaths like this leave you disoriented and wholly convinced that, maybe, you could fix things if you could just, impossibly, return to yesterday, the day before, whatever familiarity you once had.
But a gradual death, over time, becomes part of you, a warning-light in the back of your mind. You think about it and you obsess and you question and you shake your head. It weaves its way into your conversations—yes, I picked up groceries, yes, I mowed the lawn, no, I don’t have any updates about his condition. Gradual death very nearly melts onto the surface of your skin, burdening and impermeable. It leaves you standing there helpless, your hands on your hips, watching the unfamiliar destruction sweep away your sense of calm and ease, with the unusual effect of still weight, light on your skin, heavy as you resist it.
Samantha Abrams studies creative writing as an undergrad at the University of Iowa. This is her first published short story. Email: sabramse[at]gmail.com