May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
November 23, 2015
It had been three days since her sister had been rolled out the front door. Hiding behind the banister at the top of the stairs, Maia had listened as the body of her sister was taken away. The clicks of cart and wheels were the only ceremonies of sound to signal her sister’s passage from here to there, wherever there was. The days that followed were marked only by light and dark exchanging glances with her through draped windows. Maia wandered through rooms made strange, bending and stretching, the familiarity of her home lost in fog and haze.
She ate Cornflakes at the table, the microwave glowing 3:07 a.m., filling the dining room with cool green light. Maia saw her mother’s feet shuffle by, heard her father’s clutter of bowls just after she’d left the kitchen. No need to see their faces, to see their eyes and get swallowed in the questions that their dark centers poured into anyone who came near. But when she did, always by accident or in surprise as they met coming around a corner, her mom’s and dad’s eyes were like the sun, pulling the mass of her grief from its cold, safe distance in the soles of her feet. Maia’s grief was packed into her toes, kept at bay through dim early-morning meals, the folding and refolding the sweaters in her bottom drawer, a constant motion that went nowhere. Like the frantic spirals of hands and feet that keep one’s mouth free in an undulating ocean, Maia’s movement knit cords to tether the loss. In these mundane moments she would retie the ropes and hang iron weights to force it down again, the grief buoyant, dislodging itself in any moment of too-still quiet.
She knew the gravity of those deep brown eyes was too much. On the morning after, she asked her mom, “Where could I find your . . .” but before she could finish, a look into her mom’s eyes drew up the weight, through the sinews of her calves, bulging through her intestines and stretching every bend and corner, pushing aside her lungs, pressing out pockets of air in short violent gasps. Quickened breath and dewy eyes were the first tremors of absence swelling within her. And before it could crawl from between her lips, she would hide her eyes and shuffle quickly around the corner, hands to mouth, beating down the space that seemed to grow each day.
But on the third day, Maia opened her front door. Hungry for air that came from somewhere (anywhere) else, she stepped into the wet-cool color of a November morning and felt the air pour over her, waking her to a world alive. Her green Mustangs sweatpants hung over house sandals. Only a soft gray tank top between her and this world, she wrapped herself in her arms and began to smell for the warmth of other people’s lives.
Breathing the elsewhere air, she walked toward Fifth Street, its lines of shops and sidewalks restless with bundles of bags and jackets milling up and down. Maybe the jackets were talking to her as they brushed by, grumbling something about “slow” and “what is that girl wearing?” But the words fell apart and wisped into a din of air pushed by passing cars and tires pressing on pavement, bird whistles and bike chains. She couldn’t tell if it was one car or four, three people or ten. The brush bys and child cries melted into one long song as occasional wafts of coffee and sugar escaped from a nearby door that rang open then shut. Dizzy from the flood of sound and sight—“It is so loud,” she thought to herself—she picked a line in the sidewalk to follow and watched her feet exchange places in front of her.
She had been walking for twenty minutes (or was it only five?) when the cold-wet turned to rain. She ducked under a green awning to avoid the pelts and, just for a moment, looked up from her feet, inadvertently catching eyes with a woman who was passing by. She wore a quilted green jacket and tattered jeans and black garden boots, but it was her bright yellow scarf that caused Maia to find the woman’s face. There, Maia saw, just for a moment, the flecks of brown-black and a hint of her own reflection. But the woman saw only a destination, a task around the corner. She did not look upon Maia with mourning or faux consolations. The woman’s glance did not reach knowingly into her deep places. In her glance, Maia tasted something, her own body as an elsewhere body, an unmarked face. Starving to be seen without the absence in her eyes, Maia passed back into the rain, fixated on every approaching face. She’d stare at them until they looked at her, startled at the hunger in her gaze. Maia drank up the ease in their eyes, their blindness to the empty bed down the hall, to the bloodstains and treatments, to the whispers and weeping, each look another clutch of rope bringing her back to life.
She had just passed Bell’s Diner, where her father had taken her and her sister for breakfast for every birthday she could remember, the booth in the corner and pancakes with blueberries on the side. The memory floated from nowhere and lingered on her lips, the melted sugar and cinnamon folded within her sister’s laugh. There was the swell in her feet again, of packed grief breaking loose beneath her, and then she felt the shoulder of a young woman in a blue knit cap, yoga mat in hand, sweep against her. The woman caught Maia’s glance, carelessly. Maia stared, looking to press down the absence again. But these eyes did not see her. They were filled with their own to-dos, their own joys and burdens. And like a gust of wind through a wisp of smoke, her sister’s presence scattered, unseen.
The woman in the blue knit cap was the first drop from a pregnant sky, the comfort of blindness condensing into pain and disregard. She was caught now. She had wanted the memory tamped down, but she did not see herself in the woman’s eyes, and each face she searched only poured streams of someone else’s life into hers. She could not pull a coat over her head or duck into a sheltered cove as every eye rained reminders that Fifth Street had not registered her loss.
She wanted to scream, “Don’t you know someone is gone? That this world is one person lighter? That everything is different now because Omi won’t see thirteen?” But she couldn’t make the words come, couldn’t risk giving the absence a crevice to creep up through. So she clamped her mouth tight and let the words ring upon themselves in her head, mingling with the sounds of life outside—the cars passing by, door chimes ringing coming and going, and muffled conversations and stinging laughter. She was alone.
She saw it coming now, felt it rising from her soles again. One after the other, they came. And then it began to pour. These people’s gazes of unknowing crashed through the streets, a flash flood. The rush of Fifth Street was a deluge, distant rain clouds unfurling themselves through a ravine, yanking her from the ground and tumbling her in the waters of others’ unaffected lives. The torrent of everyone’s everyday spilled in, moving up her ankles, to her knees. The cold wet sent chills when it kissed her navel. The weight pressed her chest until the drops joined into one great wave, driving her down to the bed of the sea where the liquid quiet filled her ears. Immersed in silence, she walked down Fifth Street submerged, watching from below distant lives that kept buying and running and laughing, eyes that did not see that her sister was no longer here.
Sound stretched, her chest fell still, holding the last breath she could gulp before being pulled beneath the surface. After a moment she found her bearings, felt her two feet on the ground, her weight buoyed and her motions slowed. She felt every particle of air resist her forward movement. How could they walk so quickly, living like nothing had happened, like a life had not slipped from one place to another?
She walked for two blocks more and then stopped, causing the man behind her to curse and swerve. She couldn’t move another step away from home—she knew she didn’t have enough breath left. She’d run cross-country enough to know when it was time to turn back, when your body burns and your lungs pull in a little less with each step. She could not breathe this air anymore, could not stay in this sea of stretched sound and unknowing glances. But did she want to go home? To the hollow house with its carved out people moving from room to room, whose eyes asked her to fill them, even though she felt poured out?
She stood still for a while, not sure where to go. Wanting air in her lungs, she turned back, back through the busy street, through shoulders carrying the shopping, tiny wheels carrying tiny feet. “Don’t look up” she told herself. To glance at another was to gulp water with air and be sent scrambling for an edge, a branch, anything to keep from going under again. So she watched her feet plow through others’ everyday, instinctively turning left on Crozier, two blocks, right on Oak, drawing in familiar air, relying on feet that always knew the way. The farther she got from Fifth, the more sounds fell again from the sky, the weight of submersion falling off her ears. The dinned sound untangled—the sound of a bird whistle separated from the rumble of passing cars, children’s play from dog barks—and the waters seemed to recede. Her steps quickened, and without realizing it, she was running, galloping, her chest heaving with air that had no silence and streets that had no eyes pressing their lives upon her.
She opened the door and met her mother leaving. Her mind and body exhausted, she didn’t realize she was looking at her mother’s eyes, drinking her gaze. She felt the grief rise from its hidden place, a balloon full of hot breath, its cords unfettered. It rose through her calves, her stomach. It squeezed her lungs aside, expressing every last corner of air that was left. She tried to swallow it, to break her mother’s stare, but it pressed the wet through her eyes and climbed out of her body in wails.
Her face wet with mourning, her body heaving with the unsaid—she was enfolded with cries that were not hers. Her mother’s wool coat kissed her face, its arms wound around her, drinking up the rain that had soaked her barely covered body. As warmth radiated from mother to daughter, Maia’s mother’s voice swelled and fell with hers, mingling dissonance and harmony into one moaning song. Filled and surrounded by this song, Maia let her body’s grieving unhinge in her mother’s holding.
In the arch of the front door, on the boundary of here and there, caught between drowning and drought, they looked at one another, feeding upon a feast of loss, letting it rise from themselves and setting it upon the table not sure of anything else to do but share it.
Brian Bantum is an associate professor of theology at Seattle Pacific University where he teaches and writes on Christology, anthropology, and identity. He is the author of numerous essays and chapters as well as Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Christian Hybridity (2010), a christological exploration of race and identity.