My eyes are trained on the sidewalk where the darkness of my boots smothers the fiery leaves that scatter the ground. The soft crinkle with every step serves as a harsh reminder of mortality. It feels as though a thick rope has been draped across my chest and then pulled too tight. I try to focus on my breathing, but it’s becoming harder with each inhale. My lungs seem to be only filling up halfway. The people who walk around me on the sidewalk take no notice. They may glance at me, sometimes resulting in awkward eye contact, but they cannot see the struggle.
I look at the storefronts on my left, then to my right the pattern of tree-lamppost-tree-lamppost that spans the curb. The lampposts – they’re the old-fashioned kind with a frosted glass around the light that’s held between a small black crown and a tall, detailed black post which is cemented to the ground. This time of year, they’re easier to spot as the trees starts to smolder in their death.
Autumn used to be my favorite season.
After an agonizingly long four-block walk, I’m finally in front of my usual Starbucks. I push the door open and welcome the warm, brew-scented air. It’s in between the morning rushes, so there’s only a few people waiting in line and speckling the tables throughout the store. The espresso machine roars to life and the image of the machine exploding and a piece of shrapnel flying into my chest becomes lodged in my mind. I force myself to pause and breathe. I have to remind myself that I have never heard a story about an espresso machine exploding, let alone killing people. I turn away from the machine, force the thought to stay behind, and walk toward my favorite table in the front corner windows. Ezra is seated at the table with his back to me, leaving my seat in the very corner open. He’s holding his cup so that the top rim is pressed against his lips, although any thought of sipping it has long since diminished due to the book clasped in his hand.
“Something interesting there?” I ask as I slide into my seat.
I study the cover of his new book for the week, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, while I set my large bag on the ground and unravel my scarf from my neck. I consider taking off my cardigan but think against it when my elbow brushes the chilled window. I tuck my long, wavy brown hair closer to my neck for warmth without the overwhelming scarf.
“Hm?” He looks up so quickly that his Ray-Ban glasses slide down his face. He sets his cup on the table in order to move the glasses and a few loose strands of his curly auburn hair back into place. “No. I mean yes, it’s very interesting. Sorry, I didn’t hear you come up.”
I laugh at his uneasiness. “It’s okay.”
He reclaims his cup while gesturing to another sitting in front of him on the dark wooden table. “Tall pumpkin spice, no whip.”
“Thank you,” I say as I lace my fingers around it for warmth.
“I know how much you love fall and all the fall flavors.” He allows a small smile on his lips at my attempted happiness for something that’s so simple.
I nod in response but can’t bring a smile of my own to my face. My eyes lock once again on the trees that stand so starkly against the blanketed sky. Most of them still have a decent coating of leaves, but there are some that aren’t as lucky. All the city streets are lined with maples, even the blocks that contain fat skyscrapers, as part of a green project. While they do a lovely job at livening it up, I can’t forget the death that comes with them; the death that comes with everything.
“Josie?” Ezra’s hands are now wrapped around mine, his book and coffee forgotten.
I snap back to him. “Yeah?”
“I asked what time you’re trying to get to work today.”
“Oh,” I fumble and grab my phone from my purse. It’s seven fifty-nine. “Um, I was thinking eight-thirty today instead of nine.”
“Perfect, that’s when I want to be there. Are you still on for tomorrow night?” His eyes are crinkled from his hopeful smile.
It takes me a moment of shuffling through my thoughts to remember the release party. This is the first time that he’s been the head of the marketing team, and after the six long months he’s finally reached the completed project. Even though I didn’t help in the editing process of this one, he made sure to invite me. Part of me wants to say no because I don’t want to spend an evening celebrating a novel that focuses on death.
Since we started dating a couple months ago, Ezra has excitedly described to me the way the novel is centered around a mom and daughter who suffer from a genetic disease that is slowly killing them. The mom is further along than the daughter, but she’s still faced with watching her daughter start to succumb to some of the early signs. Apparently, the mom dies about three quarters of the way through and then the rest of the story is the daughter trying to find some balance of normality.
I usually have to focus on something else when Ezra talks to me about the plot. I miss the days of last year when we were assigned to the same project and the novel topic was easy, even if we were just friends during that time.
“Yeah, of course,” I muster out.
His smile grows, his eyes practically twinkling even though I’ve already told him several times I can go. “I’m so excited for you to see this party. We’ve worked so hard on it and even got a local painter to create some pieces that fit the theme.” He chatters on, but these are details I’ve already heard.
Instead, my eyes focus in on the jaywalker in the middle of the street. After he attempted to dart across the street toward the Starbucks, he realized that he wasn’t quite fast enough and wound up stuck on the narrow concrete median instead. At every gap he looks as though he’s ready to cross the street, his draw-string bag held tight to his back and his sneaker-coated feet prepared to run, but then his judgement gets the better of him and he waits for the next gap. Truly, there hasn’t been a single break between cars yet that would be large enough for him to safely cross the street. Yet after a moment I see him start dancing from foot to foot, and then he sprints out right in front of the oncoming traffic. I hold my breath. I see him get smacked by the large SUV that’s in the lane closest to me, the car in the adjacent lane coming to a screeching halt while the SUV swerves into the sidewalk and hits one of the beautiful lampposts, mowing it to the ground. The man is on the windshield unmoving – but I realize he actually made it to the other side. The cars slowed enough for him to cross safely. He barely looks unnerved as he saunters into the Starbucks and orders a dark roast coffee with caramel flavoring.
“And we have these fantastic string lights that will be hanging from the ceiling,” Ezra is saying in front of me. “It’ll have the atmosphere of an outdoors literary and art show without actually being outdoors. The author is totally enthusiastic about all of this, too. She has some wonderful visions, but then again she’s also an interior decorator for a living.”
I nod my head. “That sounds amazing.”
He catches my higher-pitched tone immediately and tilts his head. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, definitely.” I take the first sip of my coffee. It’s hot enough to be a little uncomfortable but not to scald my tongue. A small smile forms on my lips at the bitter sweet pumpkin aftertaste. At least one fall thing remains safe.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Why do you ask?” I arch an eyebrow.
“I don’t know…” he rubs his fingers along his jaw line. “I guess you’ve just seemed a little distant recently. I mean last year when we were working on the same novel you were always there and fully present one hundred percent of the time. But since we’ve started dating… I don’t know, Josie. I know I’ve been busy, but you just seem like sometimes you aren’t mentally here with me.”
I run my finger on the sharp edge of the plastic lid, my eyes trained on the way it digs into my almost-as-white skin without breaking the surface. “I am, I promise I am. Work is just a little frustrating right now.” I take my time with each word, mostly because they’re flowing out of my mouth as soon as they enter my brain. “I’m struggling to find a manuscript that is worth publishing and continuing with. Or when I finally find one and I send it to the group meeting, the other editors don’t agree with me even after we spend some time working on it together. It’s hard to find the stuff that’s selling right now, especially when I’m only getting a small slice of all the manuscripts that are being sent.”
“I understand, you know? I mean yeah I don’t have my head totally wrapped around grammar and all the technicalities of writing, but I understand the frustration of the book process.”
My eyes are trained on his hazel ones, which seem so endearing yet so infuriating because if I tell him the truth he’ll think I’m crazy. I try to push the negative thoughts aside – because at least he cares enough about me to not leave as soon as something doesn’t seem right.
“I know.” I offer a small smile and check my phone. “It’s eight-fifteen. You ready?”
He nods his head while bookmarking his page and tossing it into his leather briefcase. When he stands up, my eyes catch his white button down with thin, navy-blue grid lines going through it, which is tucked into navy slacks and finished with brown Chelsea boots. I smile to myself, proud to have found a good man with style. I make a mental note to remember this as my simple happy moment of the day.
Once we’re outside and I’m fully wrapped up in my scarf, Ezra offers me his hand. “You look beautiful today.”
I smile and glance down at my outfit, which is really quite simple considering my accessories, the plain grey knee length dress, and my sheer black tights. “Thank you.”
“You’re so bashful with compliments.” He laughs and pulls my hand toward him so I’m closer to his side. Our shoulders bump, momentarily filling my heart with something resembling joy.
“I’m not that bashful,” I say.
“Mhmm, so that’s why you tuck your chin, avoid eye contact, and attempt to hide your smile every time I give you a compliment?”
I stare straight at him, which only makes him chuckle a bit. After a moment of walking in silence, he talks about an art show that is coming to town in a month, about how we should go together especially since the theme is Día de los Muertos. He describes the intricate artwork of the skull designs and the culture behind the celebration, but I can’t seem to reconnect with the version of myself who considered it one of her favorite holidays.
We come to a stop at the end of the block where the orange traffic hand glows. I can see the publishing house only a few blocks down, its glass upper stories peering out over the stone buildings directly in front of us. From here, it looks as though there’s two long streaks along the top windows, but as I see spots start to move I realize it’s the window cleaners. My heart instantly freezes, and I resist the need to reach up to feel my blood throbbing in my neck so that Ezra doesn’t question it. I watch them hang so precariously, held up only by wires and a thin metal platform. I try to fight off the image of a wire snapping, of one of them falling. My heart starts racing, but I feel no rhythmic beat. I need to feel my pulse.
Rather, I get tugged along out into the street with Ezra.
“Oh, sorry. I thought you were paying attention,” he says quickly as I try to walk off my stumble.
I shake my head in an attempt to rid the thoughts. “It – it’s okay.”
But I can still see him falling. My blood seems to freeze again when I think of what comes next after death. I’ve never been much of a religious person, but there has to be something – I mean there has to be, right? It can’t all just end and be done and over, but then again look at roadkill, we don’t look at dead racoons and think about them in heaven do we, so what about humans what about us are we special or have we just made up a bunch of bullshit in a bad attempt to keep ourselves sane when in reality none of it is actually keeping us sane and the world is falling apart and terror attacks are everywhere and –
A large, deep breath.
My lungs fill up, I hold it there for a few seconds, and then I let it out. Ezra doesn’t seem to notice it over the traffic and conversations of people passing around us. I focus in on the intricate stone buildings, the cracked sidewalk, the orange trees, the old lampposts, and Ezra. I hear the woosh of cars driving by, a car horn in the distance, footsteps on the sidewalk, and a conversation in Spanish. I can feel the hardness of the concrete below my heeled boots, the crisp coolness of the air against my exposed skin, and Ezra’s warm hand laced with mine. I can smell car exhaust and hotdogs from a nearby street vendor. I can taste the pumpkin spice latte still on my tongue. Five… four… three… two… one.
I breathe again and take a sip of my drink, focusing all my attention and senses on the one task.
Slowly, my muscles begin to relax again, and in the silence of our walk I realize that Ezra has wrapped his arm around my shoulders. I lean my head against his shoulder momentarily but lift it as we enter the building. I don’t remember crossing the last two streets.
After our badges are scanned at the marble security desk and we make it to the central lobby, Ezra stops me. He seems taller and more intimidating in the large, arching room with floor-to-ceiling windows.
“You’ll find the right manuscript today,” he says. His voice is gentle, not enthusiastic to the point that it annoys me. “Try to avoid stressing out over it so much. When the right one crosses your desk, you’ll know.”
I wrap my arms around him and hug him tight. I can tell that he’s a little thrown off by my intensity, but he wraps his arms around me nonetheless, his briefcase resting against my back. He kisses the top of my head just before I pull away.
“I’ll see you later.” He smiles and walks to the west-wing elevators.
I stay in place to watch him walk away for just a few seconds, but then the clock catches my eye – eight twenty-six – and I half-jog to the east-wing elevators while forcing the image of the elevator plummeting twenty-five stories out of my mind.
I’ve been reading for over an hour about how Elise and Jackson’s forbidden romance is about to become even more forbidden – at least that’s what the proposal said. I’ve made a lot of notes already in my two reads of Chapter 1 and my skim of Chapter 2, but I’m struggling to keep going. The first chapter was all about how they finally made their romance work despite coming from rival families – which seemed cliché enough – but now Jackson’s job is being moved overseas. Sometimes I wonder how these manuscripts make it to my desk. Either someone below me doesn’t have good taste in novels, or I’m being too cynical.
With a groan, I plop the manuscript down on my desk and pick up the next one in the pile. The pros and cons list one of the assistants made shows more pros than cons, so I skip the proposal and go straight into the manuscript. Just on the first page, I learn that the main character’s best friend has cancer. I feel myself start to freeze up a little bit at the details: leukemia, stage four, chemo is becoming less and less effective. I try my best to mark it up, noting that the first pages are more of an info dump and try to continue, but I can tell that my fingers are starting to become fuzzy and shaky.
Cancer is uncontrollable despite the ridiculous number of treatments that exist. My grandpa passed away from lung cancer. I know my mom grew up around her father’s smoke and used to smoke as well, but I also know that she isn’t concerned about any of the side effects. If I still lived in the same state as my parents rather than half a country away, I would force them to have scans done and to keep up with their health. I would convince them to have screenings done for anything that could be genetically linked so that I know my risks, as well. I would tell them that I know they have the money for it and in the long run it would be worth every penny. But I live in Illinois, they live in Georgia, and with our mismatched schedules and my mistake of telling them too many times to have tests done, I hardly hear from them unless I call first.
I set this manuscript down, as well. I’m imagining the cancer and the long, slow death that is usually inevitable along with the sickness and weakness. I’m imagining everything I shouldn’t be while deciding the fate of this author’s work. My eyes close, blocking out my pine desk that’s piled high with papers and the empty light grey walls. I give myself a minute to let my chest muscles relax, to let the tension in my arms and shoulders go. With a long exhale, I open my eyes and pick the manuscript back up.
It takes a while, but eventually I finish the first chapter. Despite the bad first few pages, the story ended up going in a decent direction. The papers are now covered in green scrawled comments, along with the proposal that I finally looked at. I’m adding my final remark when a knock at the door draws me out of my world. I look up to find Ezra leaning against the door frame, arms loosely crossed over his chest and sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
“Hey,” I say.
“Did you find one you like?” He asks.
I look at the papers in front of me. “I think it has potential but definitely needs some work. I’ll probably have to get a second opinion on it.” Mostly because my mental state is telling me no but the writer in me is saying there’s a chance.
He shrugs his shoulders. “That’s better than nothing, right?”
I offer a light nod and lean back in my chair. “So, what made you enter the world of literary nerds?”
“I’m on break and thought I’d see if you’re available to take yours.”
It’s already twelve-thirty, and at the thought of food my stomach starts to grumble. I know I should be more focused on my work, though, since it’s driving me insane knowing that I’m falling behind.
“Umm, where do you plan on getting lunch?”
“I was just gonna head down to the lobby and pick something up from one of the cafes,” he says.
“I think I can make time for that.” I stand up from my seat and grab my bag from the coat rack in the adjacent corner. I join him out by the cubicles and close my door behind me. “Can I ask you something?”
“Why does it seem like all of the stories we’re receiving deal with death?” I keep my voice light and add a small laugh at the end, even though I genuinely want to know why.
When my makeup brush juts out too far from the corner of my eye, I drop it onto the vanity, covering my journal of happy moments with eyeshadow. I snatch a tissue from the box on the corner, but even it shakes too much when I try to wipe away the inaccurately placed brown powder around my eye. My light eyes look lopsided now, almost crazed when combined with my mascara-less eyelashes and shaking hands. I attempt to hold my hand steady out in front of me, but it’s useless.
Sliding my tights-covered legs out from under the table top, I place my hands on my knees and lean forward. In through the nose; one, two, three; out through the mouth; one, two, three. My mind feels too numb and exhausted to race, but my body is still feeling the tensions of another day spent editing morbid manuscripts. I feel like my mind is on the outside, like I’m watching all of these emotions go through someone even though I can feel each drop of adrenaline coursing through my veins. Tears threaten my eyes, but I don’t let them come. I don’t have time to fix my makeup even more.
Once I have a grip on myself, I wipe away the smudge, add eyeliner, and sweep on mascara before my hands can get too out of control again. Ezra will be here within the next five minutes. I’m still worried that my black butterfly-sleeved shirt and forest green velvet skirt aren’t dressy enough, but I go with it anyway. As I clasp the hoop earrings into my lobes, I scan my necklaces hanging on the mirror before landing on a simple heart pendant that rests on my collar bone when worn. It’s always been one of my favorite pieces for how simple it is. I grab it and rub the small shape between my fingers. If only all hearts were created like this.
The buzzing of my intercom stops my thoughts before they can get carried away. I quickly hook the necklace around my neck, grab my coat and purse from the couch, and let Ezra know I’ll be down.
It seems with each night that the air is more biting than the last. I nearly wince as I step outside to greet Ezra, and he’s standing with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his black pants, his burgundy suit jacket barely offering any warmth. He offers me his arm when I’m next to him.
“You look great.” He smiles.
Even though I’m now buttoning up the peacoat that covers most of my outfit, I return his smile. “I’m glad you approve.”
“Not so bashful this time, huh?” He stops to give me a quick kiss, and I savor the sensation more than I’d like to admit. It brings me back down to the ground. It all feels real.
When we reach his Jeep on the next block over, I relax into the passenger seat as he closes my door for me.
“Are you excited?” I hold my hands over the warm vents and he starts to maneuver out of the parking space.
“Totally. After we finished decorating the space this afternoon, it was already looking great. The artist’s paintings are these phenomenal abstract pieces that fit the story perfectly, which seriously impressed me considering we could only give her a summary and the basic themes. When the author got to see the room all set up, I swear she teared up a little.”
Perhaps my favorite stories are the ones when the authors get to see the finished deal. The release party designed specifically to their liking, the decorations chosen, the numerous tables filled with their books. This is the moment it all clicks into place for them.
The truck in front of us slams on their brakes as the light turns from yellow to red. Their tires squeal. Ezra’s hand reaches out to brace me against my seat as he breaks as hard as possible. My eyes are locked on the taillights screaming in the darkness at us. Growing larger, larger, until we’re so close I can barely see them over the hood of the vehicle. My chest has constricted. The pressure of Ezra’s arm is barely noticeable in comparison. My hands grip the passenger door and the middle armrest. Knuckles and fingertips are white.
The car isn’t moving but it still feels like we’re flying forward, trying to brake but there’s not enough time. The Jeep’s hood crumbles like tinfoil into the back of the truck. The airbag slams into my face. My head slams into the headrest. Ezra’s head is bleeding profusely from his airbag. My vision is getting blurry.
I can see the first responders showing up, finding me unconscious. My body is limp and my pulse weak. They’re struggling to help me, to revive me. Paramedics shout at each other. Ezra is helped out of the car, taken somewhere else away from me. My body is alone.
My breath catches in my throat as I take my first breath in what feels like minutes. The rush of oxygen makes me feel a little fuzzy. We’re okay, stopped just a foot away from the other car. The night is still dark; the yellow lamps and fluorescents from the sky scrapers light the streets.
“Josie, talk to me.”
I look at Ezra, whose eyes are zoned in on me. His bushy eyebrows are pulled tight in concern; the fine lines around his eyes creased. Ever so slightly, his square jaw moves as he chews on the inside of his cheek. His palm is clasped on my shoulder. I breathe deeply. A green light pours over the cars and he still doesn’t move.
“The light’s green,” I whisper.
A car that has come up behind us honks as if on cue, and Ezra quickly returns to driving. He keeps glancing at me with pinched eyebrows, to which I offer a faded memory of a smile. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to reach the gallery where the party is being hosted. Ezra snags the last available spot across the street and quickly turns the car off.
“Josie.” He’s facing me completely, one hand on the steering wheel, the other placed on top of the middle armrest.
“Yeah?” I slowly unbuckle myself. My mind feels distant.
“Are you okay?”
I nod. “I’m fine.”
He looks at me incredulously. “Are you sure?”
I know I can’t tell him. I can’t tell him that at least once a day I feel like I’m going to have a panic attack or that I actually do have a panic attack. I can’t tell him that my thoughts keep spiraling on possibilities of death, that I can’t even step into a room without the thought of someone carrying a gun crossing my mind. I can’t tell him that despite knowing how illogical all this is, it’s nearly impossible for me to stop thinking about it.
What will he think of me? He’ll probably tell me I’m over exaggerating; that I’m okay and I’m just thinking too much. Or he will freak out because there is something wrong with me, and he can’t stand it. More than likely he’ll ask what triggered it, but I’ll have no answer for him because I don’t even know what triggered it. I mean, how do I explain that to someone? How do I explain that slowly over time my stress built up to manifest my life in places outside of work and outside of naturally worrying life situations? How do I explain that my thoughts broke the dam between rational and irrational and it’s all one muddy flood that I don’t know how to contain?
It wouldn’t be right for me to tell him, anyway. Putting this on him will probably make him feel responsible or like he needs to help. Saying all of it out loud will make it true, and I can’t stand the idea of these agonizing thoughts floating in the air between us. He will probably leave me if I tell him, and then I will probably struggle to find another man to accept my faults as my body slowly deteriorates until it runs itself six feet into the ground.
“I’m sure.” My voice is too high, too quiet. I press a hand to my neck and let my fingers hold on to the rapid beat of my heart.
Ezra doesn’t push further than that simple question. Rather, he gets out of the car and jogs over to my door to help me out. He wraps his arms around me for a few seconds before we cross the street to the main event.
Even with all the descriptions that Ezra gave me, I’m still amazed as I walk into the dimly lit room. The bottom floor of the art galley has been sectioned off for the party, and though it’s not big, it’s the perfect amount of space. Upon entering, I’m immediately greeted with a long display table of Summer Rodham’s novel Devotion of the Living, complete with a few of the artist’s cards in a small holder.
The space itself is comprised of vintage hard-wood floors, a tall ceiling, and sporadically placed eight-foot tall white walls filled with the abstract paintings. Warm string lights stretch from wall to wall under which people are milling about, and small white lights are placed above each oil painting so they can be viewed in correct lighting. The walls closest to Ezra and I contain canvases covered in vivid colors across the entire spectrum, but I’m able to glance from a slight gap in the walls the dark, monochrome pieces that cover the back wall. Summer is near the front, unable to step away due to the number of people who keep approaching to congratulate her. While I take in the setting, Ezra kindly hangs my jacket on the coat rack next to the door.
A waiter appears at my side, tray of bubbling flutes in hand. As Ezra grabs one for me and one for himself, he insists that this will be his only drink of the night so that he can drive home.
“So why the art gallery?” I ask Ezra as we begin to maneuver through the space with our arms linking us. He offers Summer a wave but lets her continue in her conversations. “Why not something more traditional? Like at a small bookshop signing or something.”
“Summer wanted an event that complemented her writing, and when she said she had the money to hire an artist, we couldn’t really argue with her. She already knew exactly who she wanted and was ready to pitch ideas.”
I nod and take a sip of the champagne as we slow in the middle of the gallery. I’m able to see from this vantage point that the canvases in the front and back are far larger than those in the middle, which bounce between intense and neutral colors.
“The canvases represent the journey of the mom and daughter,” Ezra tells me when he notices my gaze tracking the start to finish.
They’re truly beautiful paintings – probably thirty or so in all. Each one contains a random splattering of colors that somehow make sense. There are some that come together in a spiral, some that are more horizontal or vertical, or others that are so scattered in brush strokes that it truly looks as though the world is colliding.
We both turn to see a group of suited-up guys standing near the entrance with Summer, a few of whom I recognize from the marketing department.
“Is it okay if I join them for a little while?” Ezra asks.
I smile at him, surprised that he’s even asking since it’s partially his party. But I’m also concerned after the incident in the car, since he probably saw too much. “Of course.”
He returns the smile and walks off, excitedly congratulating the team. I spend another moment in front of the swirling piece of blues, reds, pinks, and greys before following the colors to the back of the room. For some inexplicable reason, I find myself attracted to the darker paintings even though I don’t want to be. I’m walking past the final row of scattered walls – all filled with different shades of grey, blue, green, and purple – when I make it to the back wall. It contains five paintings. Four of these are full black and white; they’re made of scattered lines, nearly incomprehensible. The outer two contain more grey streaks while the inner two are comprised of more black. It’s almost overwhelming, as if I’m facing the sporadic ending of death. Yet the middle painting of the five, which is on a larger canvas, doesn’t contain a single trace of black, white, or grey. It’s as if the rainbow exploded, with every pastel, neon, and natural color displayed in a burst that’s erupting from the center. It stands so stark against the others, like the way that life is supposed to be brighter than everything else. It’s the trees, plants, animals, and humans that make up the world; the earth, the water, the air. Everything that makes this life and this world beautiful. All the things that I can’t bear to miss. I can’t move my eyes from it.
A woman comes to stand beside me after a while, and I find myself startled when she places a hand on my arm. I quickly wipe at my cheek when I realize a tear has slipped out.
“It’s okay, dear,” she says as she drops her hand. Her eyes are focused on the middle painting. She’s just shorter than me, and with her black and grey hair pulled back into a braid, I have a full view of her wonder-filled face. I recognize her from the artist’s cards.
“What’s that?” I ask. My voice sounds weaker than I’d like it to.
“It’s okay to cry.”
“Oh.” I can feel my cheeks heat up. “I apologize. Are these your paintings?”
“Yes.” She looks like a proud mother at her child’s elementary graduation. “Surprisingly enough, it only took me a week to craft all of these. I shocked myself. A normal painting for me takes at least a week in itself. Yet here I crafted thirty.”
I grin. “Perhaps when the book comes out in paperback one of your paintings can be incorporated on the cover.”
“Oh, no dear.” She laughs. “That’s not possible. At least not in my life time. It’s such a lovely thought though, isn’t it?”
I feel my expression fade to something resembling dread and confusion as I study her. She looks perfectly content with the light and the dark. Almost happy with it.
“What do you mean?” I say.
“I mean that my breast cancer will have gotten the best of me by then.”
My blood freezes. “You’re sick?”
She laughs at my expression. “Oh, it’s nothing really, dear. Or, at least it’s something that we all inevitably face.”
“What about treatment?” My words come out on top of one another.
“That stopped working a long time ago and I got tired of being tired. So, I figured why not live a little before I can’t anymore?” There’s a mischievous look in her face, almost playfulness.
It makes me nauseated.
My eyes find their way back to the painting, to the burst of energy. It could be the world; life, love, all emotions exploding to hide the darkness. It’s everything except the end. Yet the darkness that surrounds, it’s suffocating. It sits at the edges of my eyesight and it smothers me every day. I hate it. I hate how uncertain it is, how inescapable it is.
“How do you deal with that?” My voice is barely a whisper.
“With facing death?” she asks. “Everyone faces death, some just decide to acknowledge it while others ignore it, and some find methods of dealing with it.
“For me personally, I identify the most with Japanese culture. In their system of beliefs, death is just another stage of life. It’s not an ending, it’s the start of something new. I think that’s nice.”
My throat feels thick. My lip is trembling. I try to grab onto one of the millions of thoughts that fill my mind with each passing second, but I can’t make sense of any of it. I excuse myself and walk quickly to the front of the building, discarding my champagne on a standing table along the way.
It’s strange following the light colors back to the front when I feel the darkness in my mind. I weakly try to put a polite smile on my face as I squeeze through the crowded front, and I refuse to meet Ezra’s eyes as I pass by the group he’s with. But once I’m outside in the cold air, I let the tears fall. I let the chilling air cloak my skin, my body. I let myself feel the earth.
There’s a bench in front of the office space next door, and I find myself sinking into its wooden seat and allowing my body to collapse on itself. My tears come on stronger than I had thought they would. I choke back sobs. It’s hard to live happily when I’m constantly in this plaguing, paralyzing fear, yet I can’t imagine not living. I can’t imagine not existing and not having all of these bright vivid colors surrounding my eyes. It hurts to imagine it. It hurts to live constantly with the panic of something so far beyond my control dancing on the edges of my mind. This is something that is so common and is feared by everyone, but I feel like I am the only one suffering from the fear. I feel like no one else is crumbling under it the way that I am, that no one else is as weak as I am.
I ache and I choke and I can’t breathe.
How can this short glimpse of the world just be it? How can this all be over in a matter of maybe eighty years? How can I go on so happy and be blissfully unaware like everyone else? How can I trust that there’s something beyond all this when the evidence we have says otherwise? How can that lady just move on as if it is no big deal? My shoulders feel heavy constantly, as if the desperation of world is pushing only me down.
The sound of quick steps takes me out of my mind long enough to see Ezra running in my direction.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he says softly and sits beside me. Immediately, he wraps me up with his suit jacket. He pulls me close to his chest, letting my head rest against his neck.
“I just don’t get why no one else hurts like this,” I whimper when I’m able to get a breath, but then I feel like I’m choking on a sob again, and I fall to the full body convulsions with each strenuous breath. The feeling of not being able to breath properly only scares me more, causing my sobbing to hurt as it rakes through my chest.
Ezra doesn’t ask why. He doesn’t ask what’s wrong, doesn’t ask how to help. He just holds me, keeps me close, lets me talk as I feel I need to. He lets me feel this fear in a manner that’s all too real for me, all too overpowering. He just lets me go through the emotions in the way that I should. The way that I’m meant to and the way that I fear to. His hands rub my arms and keep me close to him.
“I don’t want to feel like this anymore.” I feel a little bit of self control coming back. But then I lose it again. My throat feels raw and eyes are running dry even though the emotion is non-stop. I don’t understand why I am going through this. All I wish for is to go back to who I was a year ago, when I was able to be happy and carefree. I miss that person and I miss the feeling of joy.
Again, he doesn’t ask any questions, and I mentally thank him for this. I let the fear consume me, but I can feel my strength at the bottom of this pit. I can feel my determination. I can feel my heart and my love for Ezra. And perhaps that’s why as I focus on the fall leaves that are beneath our feet, I find myself thinking that it will be okay. That I will figure it out and eventually rebuild the dam. That there is a light beyond, just like the lampposts hidden in the trees. Maybe one day I will find myself enjoying my job and throwing myself into the happiness around me again. But all that starts with accepting the flood that is drowning me.