I. 2 am on the dance floor. Bathed in the pale blue light, I run my fingers through my hair; I sway my hips in a way I never would sober. The bass makes the air feel heavier in my lungs and breathing becomes a chore. When the beat climbs, I hold my breath, I tap my heel and pump my hips a little faster, I let my head dip until the bass drops, and then —
Bodies surge around me, shoulders and fingers gliding past my sides as the chorus shakes the walls. People upstairs chat over the bass, and even if they stopped to listen, they might not hear the waves of limbs crashing over me. I close my eyes and slip in. I throw myself from side to side, avoiding rhythm of any kind. My neck aches a bit when I thrash my head, but the drunkenness dulls the pain until the morning.
There is no feeling like this, like holding your breath and letting the tide suck you in. This sea of heavy breath and damp undershirts surrounds me as I bob about the dance floor, my feet getting stuck on the beer-soaked floors. This is the moment when all the atmospheric noise comes to a hush, when all the neuroses are put on pause, and I hear only what is not in my own head.
My friends come find me and yank my arm. “We’re going to Frist,” they shout over the music. As if awoken suddenly from a deep sleep, I stumble off the floor and follow them past groups of drunken classmates pouring into the club. I grab my coat and step outside. I remember getting out of the community pool on a summer afternoon many years ago, suddenly cold, suddenly shivering. The water in my eyes made it hard to see, and I panicked. I jumped back in.
II. When I was ten, my family took a trip to Puerto Rico. Our hotel rooms smelled of sea water and Banana Boat sunscreen, and we made it a point of drinking coconut juice on the shore every afternoon. My older sister and I played a simple game that we somehow never got tired of.
Okay, here are the rules. Jump into the ocean during high tide and dunk your head. Whoever comes up first loses!
Diving into the ocean is never as benign as the movies make it seem. Salt water seeps into my nostrils, and I worry that if I open my eyes, they’ll singe and shrivel and fall right out of my head because of the salt. But I refuse to come in second place, so I keep my head under, bobbing up and down in a sinuous rhythm. After a while, it becomes calming; I let the waves carry me. Breathing no longer feels essential. Being submerged feels safe.
“You can’t stay down there forever, silly,” My sister’s hand yanks me out of the water. “Otherwise you’ll drown!”
III. The bathroom in my old house was close to my parents’ bedroom. One night, I drew myself a bath, and in the silence of the bathroom, I picked out my mom’s voice, yelling something at my dad. Their fights never that loud. I sometimes wondered if the neighbors ever heard.
I pushed off the corners of the tub, back and forth, creating tiny waves in the bathwater and slipped my head under. In the waves, their voices were softer.
IV. If I find comfort in the sea, does that mean I’m afraid of the shore? I feel no urgency to fight the gravity of the tides. I let myself slip under. In practice, it’s safer than staying afloat
I. I used to be terrified of the evening news. My parents always broke their own no-TV-at-dinnertime rule to hear about the horrible things happening around the world. I didn’t want to hear it. I could feel the darkness creeping out of the TV screen and crawling towards me. One story in particular haunted me for weeks: “KILLER ON THE LOOSE,” I remember the tall red letters screaming. A man had broken into a Manhattan apartment, stabbing a random woman and her three children to death. I couldn’t sleep for a while after that; I was certain that I was going to be this killer’s next victim. He was last spotted somewhere in Washington Heights, but he could cross the bridge to come find me. It would be easy.
Every night when I went to bed I’d shut my eyes tightly, wrapping myself in a cocoon of covers that I hoped would protect me. I wished for sleep to come quickly; then I could at least escape the fear. How could I stop the killer? He could pop out of my closet or climb in through the window at any second. If I woke in the middle of the night, I’d flee to my parents’ room and shake my mom awake; I couldn’t face the darkness alone. She’d perch by my bedside until I fell asleep.
If I heard a noise I’d bolt upright, frantically searching in the deep blackness. I almost wanted him to come out already, if he was there. Just kill me and get it over with. Waiting left me paralyzed. Perhaps my mind was just playing tricks on me, convincing me of things that didn’t exist.
“Don’t be scared,” my mom would say softly. “There’s nothing there.” But maybe that was exactly what I was afraid of.
II. I have a recurring dream where I fall down an elevator shaft. I’m riding down from the 26th floor of an office building when suddenly I’m plummeting.
Although I know a horrible crash awaits, the fall itself isn’t scary. It shimmers in the way that only dreams can. In my free fall, time almost stands still as I float underwater. Though the car falls fast, inside I’m weightless, free. I look at my hair fanning out around me, the contents of my purse suspended in the air, and paddle around the space. Hopefully these seconds of serenity will make up for the upcoming splat.
I always wake up just before I hit the bottom, though. There is a glistening flash of white and I return to the blackness of my bedroom. My dreams spare me goriness. The world’s often a little prettier when I’m asleep, even in my nightmares.
III. Freud would say my dreams are forms of wish fulfillment. Maybe I just wish for something other than darkness. The worst nights are the ones I don’t dream at all.
The real world is much harsher, and rules aren’t so easily broken. When I fall outside of my dreams, I have to face the impact. Thing hurt like they’re supposed to. I look forward to my dreams, basking in the glimmering light before it fades.
IV. When I wake to darkness and wait for my eyes to adjust, I’m still scared. You never know what’s waiting in it. But I should know better by now. Darkness is a childish thing to be afraid of.
I. We spend summers in Costa Rica, on Grandpa’s farm in the hills of the central valley region. My sister and I spend our days out in the hills — climbing trees, finding rocks, hitting things with a machete.
Every animal serves a function. This is how it is here: pets are only worth keeping if useful. The dogs scare off strangers and coyotes. The cows give milk each day. The chickens lay eggs.
One day Grandma develops the fear that there are rats. I have never seen one. Still, she brings home a black kitten — a black omen of death for the invisible, scampering pests.
I fall in love. He’s tiny, playful, adorable. I’d hate for him to run away.
“Keep him indoors for two weeks,” I tell Grandma, “so that he learns that this is home.”
But Grandma doesn’t listen.
She lets him go outside. Two days pass, and we find the kitten dead behind the couch. He tried to eat a poison toad.
Grandma never listens. She doesn’t seem to even care! And I start to question how much she even feared those rats.
She tosses the black corpse down a dirt slope by the house, a narrow ditch covered in brush formed by a passing creek.
I spend the next few hours indoors, weighed down by a sick, heavy feeling in my chest.
I walk over to the ditch and stare down at the cat. I decide to go down to look at it closely one last time. Maybe it’ll be alive when I get near! Maybe — if there is any magic in a child’s suspension of reality, in this lonely verdant ditch in Costa Rica — it’ll be alive.
But it isn’t. Its corpse is stiff, its eye milky white. The ants got to him before I did.
II. Late in the afternoon. The sky melts into an orange glow at the horizon, giving way to a darker, bluer sky. All the green in the valley looks more intense.
Something catches my eye: a baby snake curling and sliding among blades of grass near me. Its scales are shiny blue, metallic. It looks harmless.
I call out for my Grandpa. “Abuelito!” He’ll also find this cool. My sister follows him out.
“What is it?”
We stare at it for a while. It’s neat-looking. I know we can’t keep it as a pet, but I wait for my sister to ask the stupid question instead.
“Can we keep it?”
There it is.
“No,” says Grandpa, “Oscar — kill it.”
I stop. “What? How?”
“Like so,” and he cuts the snake’s head off with his own machete. “If you let it live, someday it might grow to kill you.”
III. Tropical midday sun beats down on the vibrant valley. Clearing brush in a ditch. I stop to swat a bug. I look down — the ground teems with them. A spider scampers nearby — bulbous, white, grotesque. Machete keeps swinging, but I can’t ignore them. I feel them on me. Every leaf that brushes my ankle might as well be one of her brood. Her swarm is coming for me —
I run far from the sweltering ditch.
IV. Family reunion in the valley. Cousins coming from a distant town. Some of them are older, some much younger. The youngest is easily scared. The others and I are telling him:
There are goblins in the hills.
I. She is falling. Head hits door. Brain collides with bathtub floor. The tiles aren’t shiny. They aren’t dirty either. Where there is life there is mess. This house has too much life and too much mess. It is inside her head and it is spinning. Sucking her in, the rules of gravity don’t apply to her flailing limbs. Constant up and down.
We can’t feel her dizziness. Yet it consumes her, consumes us all. My mom spends hours on her glowing iPhone screen. WebMD is her homepage. My father goes into detail with everyone he meets. The more he gets out, the less he holds in.
We catch glimpses of it. Sometimes it comes at the dinner table. The meat got cold. But who was I to complain? I’m rarely with her anyway, off in my fantasyland. The next meal we ate picnic style. She lay down. We camped out on the wood paneling.
When she runs to the bathroom I can hear her youth leaving her. She’s in bed for hours, headphones in ears, curled up in yellow sheets. Too old for those sheets, screamed in too many hospital waiting rooms. Sixteen and wise. I want to ask what she thinks about all that time. Is she fast asleep or slowly breaking?
Once I sat on the edge of her bed, forcing myself to be there. It was too hard. Her body would tense and relax, limbs coiling anxiously. This was the room we shared for ten years; bunk beds of Polly Pockets and apples with peanut butter. Now it was all she saw.
“How was your day” is answered with her medical diagnosis. A simple “good” would have worked for me. Easier to ignore, smoother to pretend.
I don’t know who sleeps and who doesn’t. When I called drunkenly at 3 am someone was up. Guilt.
II. It was a year ago. The car that took her away from the hotel, up the windy Peruvian roads, was a makeshift ambulance, more of a white van with red stripes than anything real. The mountains had played with her fragility and won. Her body couldn’t handle being so close to space. The pilgrimage to visit me had officially failed. My abba scrunched up his face and looked down at the ground. So far from home we had no grasp on what to do and how to do it. That night I wanted to show him around, walk the streets familiar to me and foreign to him. Introduce him to this town I was pretending was home. But my father sheepishly refused. He had to cook, feel the inside of an avocado, the edge of a knife. Too much to fear; we needed food to sedate us.
III. Adina is eleven and alive. She’s pudgy in the stomach like all us Gerwin girls and does karate. She understands the shadows creaking in the room next door. Pain won’t discriminate between night and day. When it comes, it comes. We are powerless. She ignores the hushed voices and cheery guests who arrive in cycles to babysit her. Not responsible, yet so involved. The sole sister remaining. She is witness to it all.
IV. She isn’t going to die. She isn’t the sickest of them all. I’m here. She’s there. I’m moving living rushing. She’s sinking groaning disappearing. What if my sister never gets out?
I. I know what I want to say. The finished form of whatever I’m about to write exists in my head as a complete organism, designed and constructed without flaw. The page is blank, though, and by the time the page is not blank, what I want to say will be mutilated and disfigured beyond recognition, peppered with cliché and stone-footed turns of phrase.
Imperfection is a constant of my writing. It is a constant of all writing, regardless of the author, but I am narcissistic and therefore understand it best as it applies to my own lack of fluency with language. What I mean to say and what I end up saying are two unrelated entities. I know that I have something worthwhile to write about, but when I put my mind onto paper, that something worthwhile becomes garbled to the point of inanity and incomprehensibility. I have words, and I know the right words exist, but I do not have the right words, and so I have to make do with inferiority.
I am sure that if I can somehow scoop the incandescent matter of my ideas directly out of my brain and plop it onto the page, people will understand exactly what I am trying to say. That my thoughts are compressed and filtered through 500 or 1500 or 5000 words inevitably renders them imperfect: concepts, images, and abstract generalizations do not translate well to text. If I could possibly present my vision in unadulterated form, those who see it — myself included — will finally understand the complexities of whatever it is I am trying to say.
II. I convince myself that I know what I want to say, but what if my professed clumsiness with the English language is just an excuse for a lack of substance behind my fumblings? My words are imperfect, and try as I might to believe otherwise, I do not know if my thoughts are any less imperfect. I understand things best through the words others (and I) use to describe them; I do not know if those words coagulate into anything more coherent inside my skull. My thoughts may be incompletely and spottily formed, and the language I employ to describe them may be a reflection instead of an inconvenience.
When I fail to adequately express myself, I do not know which deficiency is at fault. I can blame the breakdown on not having the right words, but the right words may never have existed. The problem may be my words; it may be my ideas; it may be me.
III. What happens if I never figure out what I want to say? What if my ideas, imperfect as they are, will forever be imperfect, will always be inexpressible even in purest form? What if it’s not my words or my ideas at fault — what if it’s just me at fault? What if I will never be able to encapsulate those ideas I want to express in any way not because it is impossible but because I will never be good enough to do so? What then?
IV. I do not have the words now. I may have the words in the future, or I may not have the words in the future. The possibility keeps me writing — and that is what matters to me.