Three roses lay in a vase before us, once rich and red as life, now suffocating from white walls and colored pills. I’d come to a point in my life–my five years of life–where I could barely recognize my mother’s own voice, intoxicated with fatigue. Sometimes she would speak with tears. Sometimes her face just dimmed cold. The world had by then become a vacuum of time as I’d wait by frantic nurses two hours or maybe eight.
He had lived at home for a while, at least until he was too sick. Things were nicer when he was here. I would sit beside him and recite the poems I had learned at church the past day. He would laugh or cough in reply. Eventually the two sounded the same. Other times, I would pick petals for him. He loved the smell of roses. Now I could only see him through scarred emotions on mama’s red face.
“Maro–” My mother half-choked, using my Armenian nickname.
My small, bony legs tattered from the wooden floor where my dolls had all lined up together for our evening play.
I never said much. So I just stared at her. The clock’s gentle hum reminded us we were here, together and alone.
“Where is Bapa?”
We looked at each other, paralyzed. Our eyes faded with acknowledgement. I’m not sure if I let out a whimper or a soft cry, but my mother’s arms pulled my body to hers. I felt her heart against mine. Neither of us said a word. What else could we say? So we just stood there until the sun had abandoned us and I drifted into darkness, awaiting the morning kiss that would awake me.
I’d like to think I’ve moved on, but darkness is an ambush. Even when the dark is darkest, it gets darker. This always surprises me. How can I feel pain more acutely as time endures? Sixteen years later, my mother is still the target of “time heals.” She still curses his name for leaving us. Everything around us still reeks of loss. The smell of roses in our small garden, too, has faded. Nearing two decades, and I’m increasingly confused with life and love and meaning.
I never consciously noticed his absence, yet the sound of ‘bapa’ still feels uncomfortable, unnatural. He was a father, but was he really mine if I barely remember? Sitting in the car, nine years old, I looked at my mother behind the wheel.
“Do you remember when he took us to that Christmas tree place?”
Mom’s face scrunched confused.
“Ove na?” Who is ‘he’?
A panic arose. My chest tightened the way it does when you think you’ve said something you shouldn’t. Something forbidden.
“Uhm.” I stuttered. “Bapa?”
Maybe that’s what childhood is at times. A couple years of discomfort, sadness, obsessive attachment? Two years after his passing, I found myself in a quaint home in Armenia crying in the cramped bathroom. Mama, who was in the city for a week, had just called. Her first, relatively stress-free vacation in five years. I said my choked “I love you”s without a tear and chucked the phone to my sister as I proceeded to down a box of tissues before anyone would catch me gone. Wallowing in my mother’s absence, I could hear my sister frantically conversing with mom about the paintings she’d just completed. I even caught the staccatos of her laugh. Envy twitched my face. A month after “daddy” passed away, my sister refused to attend school for a month. She seemed better now, content at least. But how the hell would I know.
Sitting in car rides, through family dinners over the years, I’d constantly hear stories of reflection. My uncles would say, “He was brilliant! You both must get your brains from him.” My aunts would say, “He was the kindest soul always trying to help out.” My grandpa–his father–never once brought him up. And me? I felt isolated by Time. My mother had become my father too. She was the only parent I cared for, thought of even. It shocked me then in eighth grade when I quietly and quite randomly began to cry in the middle of the night. I didn’t pray for him to come back. He was gone, I accepted that. But I prayed for something to heal the growing scar. The bandage of childhood had begun to weaken, peel off.
Before we all became too caught up in the business of life, my mom would take me and my sister to visit his grave.
“Tell Bapa what you’ve done,” my mom would tell us, trying to hide her tears.
My sister would sit there for endless amounts of time and talk. She was a star student, first in her class for everything. She told him about her projects, her grades, her friends. My mom would smile at her, listening. I usually just turned my eight year old self around and walked by the other hundreds of grave stones and read each name, trying to imagine what these people’s lives were like, who they were. When my mom would ask me if I had anything to say, I would just look down and shrug awkwardly. What was there to say? He couldn’t hear me.
I often marvel at how people naturally gravitate to others who mirror their emotional state. I never thought I’d find this person until I realized my best friend is equally fucked up. Often, we’d commended ourselves on cures for our “numbness” condition. Insanity was the common drug of choice. We manipulated boys together, one of whom gave us two grand over the course of a year for a five second kiss. We founded companies together, though our current project went to shit. We partied together, wallowed together, regretted unspeakable things together, hell we even stole a car together.
In honor of the 23rd post-celebration of Sarah’s 18th, Sarah and I spontaneously decided to hit a club. We drove 40 minutes into the city, screaming rap lyrics out the windows and swerving dangerously through San Franciscan traffic. I thought we might die. Sarah’s ability to drive is about as good as the smell of fresh fecal matter.
Yet we drove on, imagining what the club would be like: girls in cute outfits, boys in dressy date wear. A DJ would bump up the music and the lights would flash elegantly throughout the room. Our arrival entailed nothing less. Except we faced a beaten brick building with the club name stretched over the half-painted entrance. About two hundred girls lined the outside walls, dressed in black lingerie and bunny ears. The guys puffed their chests in oversized hoodies with boxers stretched to their necks and pants hitting their knees. The bouncer resembled a dementor from Azkaban.
“Uh, are you sure this is it?” Sarah asked me, looking down at her black leggings.
I couldn’t bring myself to reply. Where the fuck were we? We drove back and forth past the building four times to confirm we had located the right address. Finally, we parked and just kept staring at the line of people we hoped never to become. A bang on our window made me knock over the coffee I had been drinking the past hour.
“Nice ride, shawty.”
Two boys? Men? Twice our age? One hadn’t shaved in maybe two years. His hair resembled Mufasa’s–straight outta the Lion King–with his gloved hands mimicking the paws of wild animals as they pounded on our window. The other, a taller man, had impeccable fashion with a black leather jacket, shorts resembling my trash bag, and the exquisite detailing of a half-toothed grin. We watched them, for a second, as they traced the hood of Sarah’s polished black BMW. Coming back from a strike of reality and holy fuck circulating our thoughts, Sarah and I sped from the lot, ravaging over the curb as we skidded onto the next street. Mentally and physically shaken, we crackled in terror. What had our lives come to.
I’d like to believe my friendship with Sarah has made me less impaired in my ability to communicate. Sometimes, I think it’s fostered my lunacity. Our lust for reckless trouble might someday land us into just that. We seek to defy any regulations, whether social or familial or legal. I wonder if my spurts of crazy are crumbs of my broken self. Maybe they’re just a false sense of euphoria, a break from the anesthetized life I’d otherwise be living, a form of reckless relief.
I snatched my heels and pivoted to the left, scanning the room. My face brushed up against Sarah’s tequila-stenched hair. Dark, glowing bags under her eyes flashed against the blinding sunlight. The deformed night stalked my thoughts.
I could still hear the policeman asking for the homeowner. I’m fucked. Red cups flooded every inch of the marble floors with the contents of one splashing onto a shrieking girl. The corner crew voraciously inhaled the green bhang. One kid had some powder on his nose? Even the ugly dog reeked of marijuana.
While admiringly chatting with the college boys in the back, I noticed Sarah had gone missing. I swear I searched every corner of the marble-laden house. Of course, after my hour of anxiety from our temporary estrangement, I found her by the pool. Intoxicated and gleaming.
“Sarah. Go inside.” She distanced herself from me, crying an absolute NO. I guess some boy was too hard to resist.
But that was last night and right now, we had to get out. I’m not sure either of us knew how we ended up in this house yet we just ran out, quietly, into the scathing sunlight.
“Grab the keys.”
I peered at Sarah, horrified. I didn’t know how to drive. She didn’t either. What if we crashed? No matter. Sarah was talking more to herself than me. She grabbed the key from the pile of counter-top junk. I’m not sure how we found it, but we did. My heart thundered. He could find us any second.
With a polite click from the keys, the vehicle doors opened. We were in.
“Oh my god,” I heard Sarah whisper to herself as she positioned herself at the driver’s seat. Maybe boulders of delirious laughs rolled off our tongues. Maybe I just hallucinated in shock. The engine ignited and Sarah quickly sped off the freshly cemented driveway.
“Shit. I hit something.”
“Sarah… this isn’t our car.”
“What do I do? What if he comes out?”
“We’ll figure it out. Just drive.”
“I hit his car. I crashed it.”
The gardener looked at us. I forgot he came in on Saturdays. We waved, smiling and pretending that we knew what we were doing. He stared back at us, confused. If the cops came after us, we were surely done for.
I slapped Sarah’s arm. We had been staring at the empty driveway in contemplation for a few moments. Sarah’s face read disbelief.
This time I’m sure we laughed as tears of insanity spilled from our eyes. Rolling away on our new ride, we snuck a peek at the bare driveway and the young man (who had “rescued” us from last night’s extravaganza) now standing there, half-awake with no shoes and his mouth widely extended. This isn’t the fucking dentist, dude, close up. I snickered and turned away, propping up my feet and collecting the mascara I’d left in the cupholder three weeks ago.
“Some real good therapy,” she told me. We needed some real good therapy.
I still call Sarah when I lay in my bed alone, wishing for a distraction from the bouldered tears I’d controntrollably let loose. His image would come to me as if stalking me, preying on me until I was alone and vulnerable. I’d feel grief as I internally scream to God asking why he has shackled me to knives of sorrow. Why can’t He let me go. Why won’t he.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love him. I always will. The separation becomes increasingly monstrous to handle. When the daring interruptions come to pass, I grip even more tightly onto him. He who is but a silhouette of a memory. He who is but a stone that as a reminder: Life comes to collect what it once gave.
Why do we work so tirelessly to do something worthy with our lives? I constantly stop and evaluate my life thinking we will all die. One girl might get cancer like he did and her life ends there. One boy might catch himself in an accident and his life ends there. Another man might make it to the wrinkly stages of his nineties, in which case he will have been lucky enough to undergo more death, pain than I could even imagine. So why do we do it?
I wouldn’t consider myself a pessimist, but perhaps a realist. I continuously ponder why it is that our lives are consumed by other people. Social groups, political groups, religious groups. If we all end up in the same place after a couple of years, what’s the point? Despite years of trying, I still cannot comprehend why people obsess with belonging. If we all just accepted one another, wouldn’t we all “belong”?
The first couple weeks of freshman second semester college were encapsulated by my friends in Greek rush. I’m not sure why but I’ve always been deemed a group therapist. Ironic? In any case, girls would come to me and complain about how they got cut from their #1 or how they hated a certain someone in their pledge class. I’d turn to them every time and ask, “Who gives a flying fuck?” then return to my work. They’d look at me for a minute then start laughing, acknowledging how ridiculous they sounded. I’m good at that–putting things into perspective. If not for myself, then for others.
Death is an odd thing. Cliched, almost. We come to either fear it or ignore it until it bites us. I’m just confused by it. I don’t understand what it is. A week before my grandfather passed away three years ago, I went to visit him in the hospital. I hadn’t seen him in four months at that point as I’d been overseas. I didn’t know even he had cancer until I came back. His face had aged more in those few months than it had over the past three decades. His coughs were courser and gruff. His voice, once buoyant and strong, was now raspy and frail. Days after my visit, my mother told me he passed away. She was driving me to school.
“Don’t tell your sister,” she said. “She’s not as strong as you.” I sat in the passenger seat, awkwardly. What was I supposed to reply? Should I fake some hint of grief? I asked when it happened, trying to seem vaguely interested. Death is only a big deal if you make it one. A woman at my grandfather’s funeral took offense when she heard me say that to my mother. I didn’t care. I’d known death before.
I can remember every fucked up thing I did as a child. Stealing a Barbie dress from my friend when I was five and returning it days later out of guilt, scribbling over classmates’ projects for no reason and crying about it for two years afterwards, creating that embarrassing game in kindergarten where I would chase my friends in a game of tag yelling “mama.” Middle school there was less to remember than my episodes of boy crushes and endless sleepovers with my friends who I still tell all my “secrets” to (i.e. the crushes). High school? It’s all the same, except of course my time with Sarah which may take up 64 pages of summary to get just an overview of the twisted episodes of our life.
I do remember the casual days. Writing in my journal, sitting on my bed with homework, staying out with friends laughing. A fairly odd pastime, I love to clean. To organize. Perhaps if I order the physical world around me my mental and emotional realms will follow suit. I am eighteen years old, undergoing the usual obsessive cleaning day. I shuffle the books, dust the collections of pens and journals, scrub my drawings off the walls. As the papers scream around me, a small box falls out. Black, cardboard. Nothing special but I pick it up. I know this box. I open it. Five dollars and sixty-eight cents. When I was four, I thought if I could gather enough money, I could somehow help save him. So for a year, I put every penny and every dollar I found into this box. Once I even stole a dollar from my mother’s wallet.
A laugh races from my lips as I recall the desperation that leashed me as its pet.
“Janikus,” my mom calls from a distance, my sweetheart. “Dinner’s ready.”
Even now in college, I wonder who thinks about him more. We don’t really talk about it. Maybe if we don’t talk about it we won’t feel the pain as much? I don’t really know.
Entering the kitchen, my mother looks at me and smiles. I smile back, wondering if my face looks disfigured by the unfamiliar feeling of my muscles curving upwards.
Mom made salad—the only thing she likes to make—and some rice. Normally we sit around the couch and turn on a random show. Today is no different, except the three roses that lay before us, once rich and red as life. The withering petals make me wonder why we don’t throw them out. My father’s picture looks down upon his empty seat beside us.