1. Death is one of them
There are certain things you have to accept. Death is one of them. But when you are seventeen and your mother sits you down and says what my mother said it is really hard to accept death. When you are sixteen and your best friend vanishes without a trace it is hard to accept death. You keep thinking there has been some kind of mistake. Or that you can do something to stop this thing that is so much bigger than you are. Or that, at least, you can make it go away by pretending it isn’t there, like a child who covers her eyes and thinks she is invisible to everyone else.
But death is stronger than that and when you cover your eyes you are the one who can’t see the dark. The dark still sees you.
* * *
My parents hadn’t agreed to let me go away to Berkeley the day they sat me down on the couch in the living room to tell me my mom was sick. We never really used that couch because we liked to hang out in the kitchen, or sit in the den and watch TV together. The living room couch was overstuffed and pale enough to show stains. We saved it for company and important talks. It is where we sat when my parents told me that Jeni had not come back from the school trip to UC Berkeley, the trip I should have gone on with her. It is where the detectives showed us her image from the dorm surveillance camera as she went out alone. It is where we sat the day my mom told me she had cancer.
“We have to talk to you about something,” my dad said. His eyes looked puffy and he was holding my mom’s hand too tightly.
“What’s wrong?” My heart beat faster. It’s like your body always knows before you do.
“I got back some test results,” my mom said. “There is a problem but we’re going to do everything we can to take care of it.”
When I was little I used to ask them how long they would live and my mom always said, “We plan on being around for many, many years.” I realized, then, for the first time, at seventeen, that it was the perfect answer because I could never accuse her of lying to me, just in case. Now she hadn’t said, “We’re going to take care of it.” She had said, “We’re going to do everything we can…”
My right hand fumbled with the bracelet on my left wrist. Jeni had made it for me with baby block beads, and one for herself that said my name. I never took it off. Besides the postcard that arrived after she disappeared, it was the most important thing of hers I had left. “What’s wrong?” I didn’t really want to know but I figured that was what I was supposed to say.
“I have a small growth.” My mother was looking directly at me and she wasn’t crying. She sat up straighter, smoothed back her hair and then leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. I wanted her to hold me and also I didn’t. Mostly, I wanted to run.
“A tumor,” she said. “It’s not benign. They have to do some procedures.”
“I think I have to go.” I swallowed back the huge lump of sand that was getting bigger every second at the base of my hourglass throat.
“Okay,” my dad said. “But if you have any questions, we’re here.”
Part of me wished they had made me stay. I wanted them to grab me and hold me down and reassure me, but they didn’t. They were looking at each other with so much love, sealed up in this bubble where no one could touch them. It was the first time I hadn’t been in there, too.
It was hard to move; it felt like there was a mass in my chest, weighing me down, and my arms and legs tingled as if they were expanding to the size of a giant’s, but I made myself stand. As I did, I felt the photographs watching me. My mom never put up paintings, just family pictures scattered among the rows of books on the bookcase. There were artsy black-and-whites of me as an infant and huge glossy prints from their wedding. There were all my silly school photos with the swirly blue backgrounds and our professional Christmas shots with the good lighting. There were photos of me in costume for my ballet recitals. A picture of me and Jeni, laughing as she held my waist-length braid under her nose like a moustache. In the pictures before the previous summer I looked hopeful and smiling and even pretty, I guess, as my mom and Jeni always insisted I was, but in the few taken after that, the ones taken after Jeni vanished, I looked pale and lost beneath my too-long hair, wraithlike you might say, fading away. But I realized that the girl in all the pictures—the ones before Jeni and the ones afterward—was different, suddenly, than the girl the pictures were watching.
I walked past all those eyes to the door and stepped outside. It was a hot late spring afternoon. The sky burned blue and the eucalyptus trees gave off a smell like medicine. One black bird strutted across the grass in front of our house. He paused and turned his head so I could see a cold black eye.
That was when I started to run. I ran and ran as fast as I could along the pavement. Sweat poured down my face, mixing with the tears that had started to come. I could run fast. But you just can’t run faster than time, not faster than death and, as I’d find out, not faster than love.
Copyright © 2012 by Francesca Lia Block