“You don’t know how it feels to be alive, until you know how it feels to die.”
~Noah and the Whale
The first Tuesday in South Africa, I started seeing her everywhere. I had been prepared for weeks of playing with small children and shaking hands with pastors and orphan directors. I had been prepared for how beautiful the beaches were, the Waterfront, how the townships suddenly popped out of nowhere, as if they had grown there overnight and decided to stay. The sun was hot, persistent, and Table Mountain often hogged half the sky. I had been welcoming the culture—humoring the missionaries, drinking their Rooibos tea, accepting hugs from the small children. I didn’t expect to see her there, in the schoolyard of a daycare, one of the daughters of a missionary. The cheekbones were the same as hers and the hair color and eyes and small ears. They could have been twins. After two years of solitude from her, I had begun to forget how quietly she had died. Maybe she had sensed me slowly releasing her, a long process, and had decided to finally speak up, in a place where many were so easily forgotten.
I snapped my head up to find Jackson staring at me. His camera was clutched in his hands tightly, his Cardinals hat crooked. I stared at him for a few moments before he spoke again.
“We’re about to stop.”
I moved my eyes from his face to the windows behind him, shocked to find the colorful landscape of the Cape Flats Township sprawling outside the van. Last I knew, the ocean was still visible, the landscape dotted with white, Victorian buildings. I looked down to realize I was clutching my reporter’s notebook in my hands, where a few questions were scribbled for the missionary we were about to work with for a few days—what was her name?—Lucy, Susie? I had been dreaming about Caroline again, and couldn’t shake her name to remember the others.
Jackson, seeming to read my mind, said, “It’s Lana Marshant.” I let a barely-there smile cover my face before returning my eyes to my notebook. The pages were crumpled from use and tie-dyed with my scribbled handwriting, looking like paper that had been left out too long in the sun and had melted. Questions for Lana dripped down one page and onto the next, the spaces between them becoming slow echoes of Caroline’s name.
The van came to a sudden halt. Before we could even pretend to open the door on our own, Johann, our Afrikaans driver, hopped out of the driver’s seat and opened the side door quickly. He was smiling as he motioned for us to get off the van. I stepped onto the dusty ground, tufts of tan-colored dirt immediately floating up around my ankles as I moved a few steps away to make room for Jackson. Once he had straightened himself out, his six-foot body loomed awkwardly over me. Facing us were a row of bright-colored houses, a nice change from the worn-down ones we had visited last. We made it only a few steps before a row of young children ran up to us in a flurry of excited chatter and giggles. They started touching our hands and pointing at Jackson’s camera as he started taking pictures. I smiled and started touching their hands in return, the excited chatter filling my ears. They threw questions out to me in small, stilted English, and when I stated my name for them, a few tried to wrap their mouths around the syllables.
“Jack-son.” I heard pronounced, slowly, behind me, followed by the same aftershock of repetition I had received. None of them looked like Caroline, not this time.
A few of them grabbed my hand in theirs and started tugging me in the direction of a small house a few yards behind them. I let myself be moved, feeling Jackson’s camera on my back just as much as I could feel the mid-afternoon sun seeping through my thin jacket. The children continued to talk to me with the little English they knew. Their smiles never faded. What was it we had been told in elementary school, that it takes more muscles to frown than smile? The teachers never talked about the other option, the non-smiling or non-frowning, ignoring fear, anger, sadness, with one big swoop.
When we were just a few feet away from the house, a small woman ran out of the front door, waving at us and smiling. She put her hand over her face to shade it once the sunlight hit her.
“Hi, hi there,” she said, her voice breathy and cool. A few of the kids moved their attention to her, crashing into her thighs to give her hugs. She touched each of them gently, keeping her eyes on us the whole time. “I’m Lana. And you must be—”
“Jackson. And this is—”
“Marley,” I chimed in. “It’s Marley.”
“Oh, well, what a beautiful name,” she said, her voice maintaining a cool energy. “I’m so glad you’re here, why don’t you follow me.”
We followed her into the house, the kids staying attached to our hips and ankles, their smiles jumping out so fiercely I had to look away, afraid I would start to see Caroline in them anyway, regardless. She opened the door to the small house for us, the hinges creaking and releasing a rush of musty air.
It took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the change in light, but I was soon able to make out a large room, poster-covered walls, and dozens of small, red folding chairs. A few windows on the opposite wall let in beams of light. We moved through this room to a kitchen attached in the back, where a large table took up most of the room. She motioned for us to follow her, and it wasn’t until we tried to sit down that we realized the children were going to be a problem, as they tried to sit down with us, or under us. Lana quickly caught on to this and yelled something in Xhosa over her shoulder. Almost immediately, a young black girl, surely still in her teens, came rushing into the kitchen. Her hair was wrapped on top of her head, and she was wearing a long summer dress.
“Okay, okay!” she yelled, clapping her hands together. “Move, move, move,” she said, in a flurry, then saying the same thing in Xhosa to the children, who quickly, yet disappointedly, obeyed, unfolding themselves from us and following her. In a matter of minutes, they were out of the kitchen and sitting in the red chairs in the large room.
“Sorry about that, they get so excited when visitors come,” Lana said, smiling.
“We don’t mean to put them out,” Jackson said, quickly, sincerely. I often wondered how he had gotten to be as sincere as he was. Was he born with it? Was it natural? I didn’t figure it was just something you found on the side of the road and tried on like a suit. It seemed too natural for that to be the case. Caroline had been the same, helping me with basic math our freshman year before we had even really become friends.
Lana shook his worry away, waving her hand as if rearranging smoke. “Oh, no, don’t worry, they go home soon, anyhow.”
“So, they’re all from the surrounding townships?” My brain took a few seconds to catch up with my words, shoving images of Dr. Roberts and his whiteboard covered in math equations out of my mind, replacing it with images of kids, desperation, smiles.
“Yes, they are. They come here every day for, well, pre-school, I suppose you would call it,” Lana said, her smile never fading, like the children’s. Was the smiling an African thing? Lana continued talking, I started writing, Jackson took pictures. This image of an old-timey photography popped in my head, with Jackson holding the cumbersome flash, the one when you snapped the photo, a white cloud consumed the air, like smoke in pictures of 9/11. But when I looked back, he was still holding his Nikon.
Caroline had loved taking pictures.
“You see right there? Right there.” You pointed your finger harder, digging it into the paper, smudging pencil, as if that would erase years of bad education in my math classes. “Well, that’s the Nu power.”
I nodded my head in false understanding, pretending not to notice the smile of accomplishment that covered your freckled face. It was spring, and you had developed an early tan from running outside. I was in my second semester of trying to pass college algebra, which you were only taking to pad your GPA for your sorority. I leaned back, the silence of the study room we were occupying in the library consuming us.
“So, is there anything else?” Your voice was warm.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I mean, if you want to just take the test next week for me, or find someone who looks like me….”
Your laugh, a crescendo on a piano, filled the room for a moment. I smiled.
“No, I think I’m good.”
You smiled too. “Great. Well hey, I gotta run, I have to finish an assignment for photography class before tomorrow and I want to catch the light before it gets too dark.” You stood up, started collecting your things, before you stopped, looked at me. “Hey, say, would you care to model for me for this assignment?”
I folded the word in my mouth, treating “model” like it was a strange concept I had never encountered before. “Caroline, I don’t know….”
You probably noticed my grimace, but looked past it. “Oh, come on, all I need you to do is stand for me. It’s just an assignment where I have to experiment with light. Plus, if I ask one of my sorority sisters, they’ll just think I view the rest as less attractive.”
I smiled along and agreed. You pulled me out of the library into the overwhelming sun. We found a location near the bell tower, and you told me to stand.
You took picture after picture, and I remembered that when you found the perfect shot, you smiled, a smile that matched the little girl’s at the daycare perfectly.
I could feel Jackson’s eyes on me. He had been this way for the past ten minutes, ever since the hotel owner had left us with a tea tray and a selection of biscuits in the small sitting area. I was leafing through my reporter’s notebook, trying to decipher the scribbled notes I made while at the Marshant Daycare. The pages were curling at the edges, and I smoothed the sheet of paper out. I wrote “girl that looks like Caroline” on a page a few days earlier, but I refused to face it, wanting to have full control over my thoughts tonight, tired of the way Caroline’s presence was growing from the back of my brain, like weeds on a large rooted tree. I glanced up at Jackson to find him absentmindedly cleaning his camera with one eye on me.
“Jackson.” I said, sharply. He blushed and moved both eyes to his camera. Before I could move my own eyes back to the notebook, one eye darted back to my face.
“Jackson!” I said, louder this time, smiling. “Stop it, you’re creeping me out.”
He blushed more, pink spreading to his ears. “Sorry. You’re just—are you okay?”
“What do you mean?”
Jackson took his hands off his camera and let them rest in his lap. “Well—you’re starting to kind of worry me lately. You’re all quiet, it’s weird.” He paused. “I mean, I haven’t had to sit through one story about your boyfriend or your crazy family, and while I relish the peace, believe me, it’s gotten quiet.”
I laughed, realizing only then that it had been days since I had last talked to my family. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Jackson said “okay,” slowly, still smiling, his eyes remaining on me longer than usual, as if he was trying to read my brain. Would he see Caroline? But he didn’t ask any questions about the girl in my mind, instead, “So did you see that little boy today with the Tron shirt? He said his favorite song was ‘Every Breath You Take’ by the Police band.”
“Wait—didn’t he start singing to you?” I closed my notebook and hugged it to my chest, crossing my legs in the process. I could smell the lemon in the rooibos tea clearly.
“Yeah, he was singing the Police band to me, he kept reminding me of that.”
We laughed together for a few seconds, but Jackson started talking prematurely, bringing it to a stop. He always did that—as if the five seconds of laughter was enough. “It’s kinda sad—did you see some of the houses we passed? Some didn’t have roofs.”
“It’s more than sad.” I had been trying to overlook this for days. The tattered soccer balls they played with, the shirts we would look over in a second at a garage sale in the States. I fingered the fabric of my shirt and noticed Jackson’s, wondering if they had been jealous of our 100 percent cotton, or even knew what that was in the first place.
Caroline had loved fresh cotton.
“You notice the way they follow us with their eyes too?” I asked. Jackson nodded. I hadn’t been able to get their starkly white eyes sunk into their deep black faces out of my mind, their pupils slowly moving as we passed, taking notice of how we disturbed the air around them.
“I’m not missing D.C. so much yet, though.” Washington, D.C. was where our newspaper was stationed, and they picked a writer and photographer each year to send overseas to work on a long-term international project.
“Me either,” I said, even if though I wasn’t sure on the truth of that statement.
“Phone’s free.” A woman we had met earlier that night breezed through the room.
I pointed back in the direction of the phone. “Do you mind?”
He shook his hand in front of me, and said, “Nah, go ahead.” He picked his camera up, although I knew his eyes would be on me the minute I walked away.
It was 9:30 our time, which would mean it was 3:30 Clint’s. I proceeded through the international phone call information until the connection made a few funny noises and a fuzzy telephone ring started. After a few rings, the phone clicked.
“Hello?” Clint still answered the phone to an unknown number like he didn’t know who was going to be on the other end, even though I had been calling from unknown numbers for a few weeks now.
“It’s me.” My voice took on that pitch reserved only for significant others.
“Oh, hey, babe,” Clint said. His voice remained the same.
“What you doing?”
“I’m out on call.” He worked for a tobacco company, having to drive around to gas stations or drug stores and remove their old products from the shelves.
“Oh, well, can you talk?”
“Yeah, I’m driving right now.” I could tell he was switching the phone back and forth between ears, his voice going in and out.
“Oh, ok, cool, where are you going?”
“This gas station out in Gibson County. Haven’t been able to reach them, so I’m going to go and put the fear of God in them so they’ll keep restocking our cigarettes.”
I laughed. “Nice, good luck with that.”
“So, how was your day?” The engine revving muffled his last word, just as Jackson’s camera equipment clanged against the floor in the other room, disrupting the eerie silence of an African night.
“It was fine,” I let out with an extra exhale. Caroline had pushed her way to the front, as if she knew I was talking to Clint, eager to speak to him too. I kept going. “Jackson and I started another story today, working with this woman who owns a daycare in one of the townships. She was nice, we had tea with her this afternoon.” I move to mention the children, but realized we hadn’t spoken since the young Caroline a few days earlier. She had become one of those unspoken topics for us, since she had been the one to introduce us in the first place. We mentioned her just as much as we mentioned threat levels or distant relatives we never saw.
“So, hey, the other day, my boss came in my office and said—”
“I’ve been thinking about Caroline a lot lately.” My words forced their way out on their own, taking my brain a few seconds to catch up.
Moments of crackly phone silence passed between us. “W-what?”
My voice broke. “I’ve been thinking ab—”
“I know, I know, I—just—why?” Normally, such a question would seem cold. Why are you mourning so long for your grandmother? Why do you care about another lost soldier overseas? Why are you thinking about your dead best friend?
Why haven’t you been thinking about her before now?
I cleared my throat. “I saw a little girl that looked like her.”
Clint audibly gasped. “Oh, Marley.”
“Yeah,” My face was burning up. “I just—I think it’s because of how people struggle over here just to survive, and she died for no reason.”
“Oh, Marley, she didn’t die for nothing. You don’t really think that, do you?”
“But don’t you sometimes think we could have done something?”
“All the time,” Clint burst out, and the three words seemed to register with Caroline, as she leaned harder, like she was trying to peer out of my eardrum. “But—look, I wanna talk more about this, but I have to go.” I noticed the car had come to a stop.
“Oh—okay.” My stomach sank, uncontrollably reacting to his having to hang up as a personal attack against me. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“I love you.” Clint accentuated all the sounds, as if this made them mean more.
“I love you too.”
The line fuzzed for a few seconds before going dead. I felt more alone than I had before the phone call, unable to shake the feeling that Caroline had died for nothing. In the end, she had become insignificant, there one day, gone the next. A life extinguished like a candle at the end of a Christmas dinner.
“How much time will you need with Lana today?”
“Hmm?” I focused my attention on Jackson, instead of where I was absentmindedly drawing on a page of my notepad, the pen digging canyons into the paper. It was early and we were the only ones in the breakfast room.
“How much time with Lana? I need to get some pictures and, no offense, you can’t really be in them.” Eggs muffled Jackson’s voice, and the laughter I normally returned for his jokes turned into more doodling, my eyes drifting over the page.
I felt Jackson move closer. “Mar, you okay?”
I looked up to find his nose inches away from mine, and I moved back, shook my head. “Yeah, I just—think I had a bad dream last night.”
Jackson accepted this, eating more. “I had a dream once my ex-girlfriend was trying to get back together with me and I told her we couldn’t talk about it at the current moment because I had to go fight the Transformers.”
I snorted, small pieces of saliva collecting on my notebook.
“What was it about?”
I shrugged my shoulders, played with my long braid. “Oh, nothing.” Instead, a montage of the small Caroline at the daycare, tugging on my shorts and smiling, had taken my hand and led me into a hallway in a house I did not recognize, pulling me down one hallway after the next. I allowed myself to be pulled, and at some point, the small Caroline turned into a real Caroline, and we turned a corner that opened into a large room. I walked the circumference, fingering the clothes strewn over furniture, the books stacked in piles, the plant leaning toward a window covered with blinds. Caroline simply looked at me. I had woken up shaking, having realized that I would not have been able to navigate myself out of the maze of hallways that had led us there in the first place.
But I tell him none of this.
Jackson finished his food, letting the silverware clang on the plate.
Caroline used to always do the same thing.
“Johann should be here any minute, do you think he’ll want some fruit?”
More doodling. The dream must have meant something.
“Maaaarleeeeeyyy!” I returned my head to the upright position, dropping my pen again. Jackson’s eyes were even wider this time, and he was smiling, goofily. He almost looked worried. “Dude, I think you need more coffee, you’re totally zonked.”
I shook my head again, quickly, and straightened my body in the chair, as if this would straighten everything else yet. Caroline did the same with me. “No, no, I’m good on coffee.” I had drained the first cup, the liquid the only thing residing in my stomach.
Jackson eyed me, pointing his finger. “I think you were really fighting the Transformers last night and kicking ass, you just don’t want to admit it.”
“That’s it, Jackson. In dream world, I’m secretly awesome,” I smiled as he returned to packing his things, pulling my messenger bag and raincoat off the table.
Jackson downed the rest of his coffee before standing up. “You are awesome. But wake up. I’m not letting them send someone to replace you. I’ll pretend I’ve forgotten how to speak English, if that’s the case.”
I followed him out of the dining hall, through hallways, light streaming in on us anywhere it could find a place to peek through. The hallways ended quickly and we emerged into daylight.
The dream had to have meant something.
“Are you kidding me?”
You laughed as I hopped over a pile of jeans in front of your desk, skirted around an open pile of history books, and collapsed on your bed beside you. My feet connected with a pair of boots at the end of the bed and I kicked them off.
“How are you doing this? It’s a good thing the girl you were supposed to live with ended up not coming, she would have suffocated under your sweater monster over there.”
“No, I’m serious, she probably heard about all the crap you had, I bet that’s why she dropped out.” You started laughing, and I was too, and we lay down flat on the bed, our legs hanging off the end. You were living in Nashville for a semester as a legislative intern for the State Senate, and I was on my first of many visits to a city you spent the next year trying to convince me we have to move to after graduation. I was floating between journalism and biology classes, trying to figure out which ones interested me the most. I envied your passion, the fact that you already knew what you wanted.
“So, what do you want to do tonight?” You sat up, the bed moving underneath.
“I don’t know, this is your town.” I kicked my legs up above me.
“But you are from Tennessee, you may have spent some time in this city before.”
I sat up, blood rushing to my head and back down as I straightened up. “Sure, but you have to remember, my parents hate Tennessee. I mean, these are the people that say ‘thank God’ and do a Hail Mary when a Dolly Parton song goes off the radio.”
“So the country bars it is, then,” you announced, decidedly, laughing.
If only I had known then you were on the drug, that that was the only way you were making it through exams and early work hours and a full class load. Maybe I would have done something differently.
“How long do we have?”
Jackson shook his left arm out to get a look at his watch. “Ten minutes.”
I looked at my own watch, too, as if I needed to confirm that he was telling the truth. “Damn. I like these guys.” We simultaneously turned and started walking through the large crowds that had descended on the Cape Town Waterfront as night fell, leaving the Jamaican-African drum circle we had been watching behind us. Their music hung over the crowds, washing out most of the passing conversations or noise from incoming and outgoing boat traffic in the waterway. Our last two days had been free ones, and we spent the first one communicating with our editors followed by a visit to Table Mountain, where the view of Cape Town nestled into the landscape below gave the appearance that the town simply started growing out of the ocean and up the sides of the mountains. Robben Island was visible in the distance, and Caroline joined me again, as I tried to arrive at some conclusion for why I had never said goodbye, why instead I had let her take up residence in the deepest corners of my mind, hidden behind a maze of walls of my own problems that she was quickly proving didn’t matter as much as her life.
The second day, we spent on the beaches and waterfront, counting down the hours until we were due to have dinner with Lana and her husband.
As we walked, Jackson pulled his camera to his front and started clicking through the pictures. “Got some good shots in the past few days.”
“Watch it, you’re gonna run into something.” Caroline had always been my protector, until she couldn’t anymore. “You’ve taken hundreds of pictures, how do you have them all on there?”
“Oh, I always keep my favorites from an assignment on here.”
“See, that’s not fair, because there’s no way to do that for writers.” We moved around a decorative gazebo we had passed earlier that day, people gathering on it.
Jackson didn’t respond at first, clicking through his pictures. “Oh, here’s a good one of me at the daycare.” He leaned the camera toward me, where a small kid with a wide smile was tucked underneath Jackson’s arm. He moved it back toward him and I thought of the notes scribbled in my notebook, the handwriting blending together to form one confusing language, Caroline’s face filling the holes between the letters themselves.
“Oh, a good one of us at the reserve.” A picture of the two of us smiling with lion cubs between us, and I smiled at the distant, still familiar visit to the reserve our first week in Africa. “Oh, a really good one of you and that girl at the daycare.”
Suddenly, small Caroline was right in front of my eyes, and in my eyes, and in me. I had forgotten about the picture we had taken, her small body curled up beside me, both of us grinning. But despite the difference, all I saw was Caroline. Caroline, from pictures of us at college parties. Road trips, visits to each other’s homes, with other friends. Pictures that I had boxed away in my parents’ house before moving from Tennessee to D.C., hiding them away with my old notebooks, Dad’s dumbbells, Mom’s dusty set of Encyclopedia Britannica, reducing her to just another possession to have but not to hold. Things that you want to keep but that are physically too hard to have around every day. To have and to dust off occasionally when looking for something else.
I didn’t even realize I had stopped moving until Jackson put his arm around me and pulled me out of the line of foot traffic. I saw him lean down, ask if I was okay, did I want water, was I dehydrated. I squeezed my eyes together, tight, shook my head, opened them. His mouth moved, his camera swung from his neck. I shut my eyes again, only to find Caroline imprinted on the insides, like the sun when you stare at it for too long.
And when I opened them, all I saw was her. In every single face passing us, in the molecules of sweat in the air, in the windows of the shopping malls. All I saw was snapshots, the only thing I had left of her, and the same thing I had disregarded along with everything else with her name on it.
I hadn’t needed to ask you about the pills in the plastic bag, or why you weren’t hiding them away in a better fashion. You had told me weeks before that you had been using Adderall for a while now, claiming you liked being able to stay up all night if you needed to, or that finishing a paper just as the sun was coming up was thrilling. How was I to believe anything but what you said? I couldn’t. You were all I knew when it came to these matters, and the “you” I thought I had known was a part of me, that I couldn’t ignore.
“Mar, it’s common on college campuses. Hell, the kid in our Contemporary Fiction class sold it to me! And who knows how he got his hands on it in the first place?”
Your weak defense saddened me, but I kept the words to myself, knowing I was the only one you had confided in, letting me into your secret world.
You pushed your way through the doors into one of the central academic complexes, and I followed obediently, trying to make sense of what you were telling me. It wasn’t the need to get work done in a timely manner that bothered me, no.
“He probably had a prescription for it, Caroline; Clint says they prescribe that stuff to kids like Thermaflu for colds.”
“Oh, what does Clint know.”
I didn’t respond. Had your eyes already been crying out for help then? We were making our way to the library to study for midterms, and the pill I had seen you tuck away in your jeans before leaving the room was worrying me, not understanding why you couldn’t have just taken it before leaving, or not taken it at all.
You pushed through the library doors, waved at a few people you knew by the first stack of books. It wasn’t the need to study that bothered me, not at all. It was that you disappointed me more than anyone ever could, turning to a drug to heighten your productivity when I had been under the impression that you could do everything, no pressure, all along.
The sun was setting as we made our way to Lana’s house. I could feel Jackson nervously looking at me as I watched the surroundings melt into watercolors. I had never meant to neglect her. I had only meant to help her, and when I couldn’t, I proceeded with the only other coping mechanism I knew—not coping. Shoving away. Clint hated when I did this in arguments, but we managed to eventually reach some kind of compromise in the end.
But there was no way to easily compromise with Caroline.
The ride was short, our bodies responding like rag dolls to the bumps in the road, quickly taking us from the Waterfront to a neighborhood that looked like suburban America, except for the bars on the windows and fenced-in front yards on houses.
“You alright?” Johann asked as I stepped out of the van, behind Jackson who turned to make sure I made it out safely, as if I were a child who needed constant attention. My skin was numb to the cool air, and I nodded, my voice small. “I’m fine.”
A compromise with her wouldn’t be easy.
The living room looked pretty normal, and I don’t know why I expected it to look any different. For a moment, I almost forgot I was halfway across the world, until I was reminded by the thick black bars casting shadows on the living room floor
Once inside, Phil, Lana’s husband, handed us iced teas. I clutched the iced tea in both hands, the glass already sweating through my fingers.
Caroline hated iced tea.
“Well, sit, sit,” Phil’s voice seemed projected from miles above. “Lana will have dinner ready soon.”
“So, what’s your position at the daycare?” I asked.
“I’m more the financial side, Lana is all about the children and scheduling activities,” Phil said, warmly, smiling at us.
You should smile back.
You don’t smile. You don’t know how to smile.
Yes you do. Remember? Like the photographs? With the bell tower behind you?
“But do you ever make daily visits?” My voice spilled out, turning into letters and shapes before me, spelling the very name I was lost on.
You never did. You neglected.
That’s not true.
Tell it however you want to, but you know you dumped your duty as the best friend. You think so. Clint thinks so.
“Yes, I try to when I can, but I also own a carpentry business a few blocks over, so it makes it hard.”
You don’t know what hard means. Everything hard in your life, you’ve dumped to the side.
That’s not true.
Your relationship with your parents, any guy that made it hard, taking care of me.
Taking care of you.
“Alright, dinner’s ready, join me in the dining room?” Lana said loudly. I gripped my iced tea between my hands, the only thing that was reminding me to stay focused, that it was all going to be okay, that I was still here, in this beautiful city.
But it’s not going to be okay.
Stop it. Just—stop it.
It will be okay when you stop pretending I’m not here.
“Marley, sit by Jackson, why don’t you.” Looking at Lana’s face, I saw Caroline’s. I sat and pulled my legs close to me. The voices complimenting Lana on the meal turned into a mess, like when a painter mixes all the colors together on an easel.
I focused on the glass in front of me, the rolls, Jackson’s warm presence beside me. But even that wasn’t enough.
I had needed a clean break afterwards. Not mentioning her name, pretending for long periods of time that she simply hadn’t existed had made this marginally easier.
Clint answered this time saying hey in the way that signals he knows it me.
“Hey babe,” I cradled the phone to my ear, wanting to hug it and not let go.
“Sweetie.” His voice was soft, asked me how my day was.
“We went to the Waterfront, it was pretty.” The Marley he had fallen in love with had been a portion of Caroline. Had he loved me the same after her death?
“Oh, is that the nicer part of Cape Town?” I could hear cars in the background on his end.
Had he understood my need to move on and not carry Caroline with me?
“Yeah, it was a good change, the water was beautiful.”
Should I bring up Caroline?
You know you should.
Will he understand?
You know you should.
“What are you up to?”
Clint’s voice crackled. “Oh, just gotta deal with a complaint about our Camel Lights at a gas station.”
I liked Camel Lights.
“But I have to run. Could you call me tomorrow? I would like to talk more.”
I would like to talk more too.
I tell him of course, and we say our I love yous simultaneously. When the phone goes dead, I only think of Caroline, of the way “dead” was used cavalierly, not reserved for those things really dead, not saved for the things that needed the most reverence.
You only think of me.
You left us so quickly, I couldn’t make sense of it for days, half expecting you to show up one day laughing and yell “Gotcha!” That the whole thing was one big joke, the death, the drugs, all of it. But when days had passed and you remained buried in the earth, your eyes closed forever, I tried to pretend it all made sense to me, and I tried not to hate the kid from our Contemporary Fiction class, and I tried to pretend none of it had ever happened. Before I knew it, I was pretending nothing about us had ever happened, erasing our many days and nights together as friends like marker on a dry erase board.
Erasing the fact that Clint had to call the police for me, and that I was too stunned to believe your cold body, the hidden pill bottles, the reports of “waves of combined after-effects” that led to your “accidental suicide.”
Your mouth, still open, as if you had finally cried out for help in your last moments. Moments that I should have been there for.
I had left you.
Like you, the impressions of that marker never go away, instead becoming a part of the board, just as the board is part of the wall, and the wall a part of the building, and the building a part of something greater altogether.
I was trying to pinpoint the exact location where the Indian and Atlantic oceans collided, becoming one. That had been the focal point of Johann’s preparation for us about Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, and I had determined that was my mission for the morning. Johann had assured us this was the location where the collision occurred, and I remembered lessons in school about the tip of South Africa. Caroline agreed.
I didn’t mean to leave you.
I squinted my eyes in the bright sun, watched it dance on the waves below, play on the rocks of Cape of Good Hope’s surface, visible from Cape Point. The pale blue sky dipped down to greet the dark waves, conjoining at the horizon and disappearing. I walked to the edge of the point, rocks loosening underneath me, the sound of crashing water combining with Caroline, the sunlight sinking into my skin.
It would be so easy.
But it’s never easy.
It would be too easy. Giving up was not what Caroline had done. She had been lost. I stepped back and focused my attention on the waters again, desperate to find the location where two oceans became one, wishing it was marked with some kind of guidance.
But it’s never that easy either.
“Whatcha doing?” Jackson approached softly and was suddenly beside me.
I sighed. “Well—I’m trying to find where the oceans collide.”
I looked at Jackson to find him smiling. He stumbled over his first few words. “Well—it’s not something you can so much see, I think.”
I tried not to let disappointment sink in, and surprisingly, it didn’t, as if my body was okay with this response.
I’m okay with this response.
“It’s just something you—know.” He coughed, cleared his throat. He seemed nervous, still. “Something you know is there, inherently.”
I squinted my eyes at him, at the waters, back at him. “How do you know this?”
“Johann told me,” he responded simply, picking up his camera to take more pictures. “He said it’s so that way you can decide what the collision looks like. You know, if it’s dangerous and crashing, like everyone says, or peaceful, or nonexistent.”
He smiled at me, the wind blowing at his hair. I looked back at the waters as he turned to take pictures of Cape of Good Hope. The water was moving and waving and crashing. I still couldn’t locate a specific place where the oceans conjoined, but knew that, for a moment, they became one, embracing each other, embodying each other, accepting all parts of each other not necessarily because they had to, but because they wanted to. And, despite all the things I remembered from history books in elementary school about ships not being able to make it around the Cape, crashing and sinking below the depths, I decided to think the coming together was peaceful, the oceans interloping in a way a sailor trying to cut across the waves obtusely would never understand.