Escaping the Black

April 30, 2010
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This black dress was supposed to make me feel sophisticated and beautiful as I celebrated by fifteenth birthday downtown at the Drake. My older sister, Elizabeth, helped me pick it out with her best friend, Isabelle, both of whom pooled their paychecks to buy this dress for my special day. As I rub the thick embroidered fabric between my fingers, I imagine myself spinning around on the shiny hardwood dressing room floor, feeling the high-waisted skirt flutter around my knees as I close my eyes and laugh.

“Claire bear!” Not one guy will be able to take his eyes off you!” Isabelle shrieks as my sister pipes up in agreement.

“You look gorgeous, Claire,” she states as if there is not a doubt in her mind. I roll my eyes at my sister’s comment, but secretly hope it is true. As I stop spinning and regain my balance, I look out to the street. The window is open, letting in the golden sun and sounds of chirping birds. I breathe in the last of the summer air until my lungs are full, hopefully enough to last me the next few months. Summer was just coming to an end, and the air was starting to turn crisp. That did not stop Isabelle, Elizabeth, and I from pretending it was still the middle of July, running around and letting our skin be splashed by the sun, which could barely stay out of the sky. We were like the sun, only ducking down to sleep for a few hours, all the while dreaming of tomorrow.

Everything about this day has been perfect, from the three of us taking the train downtown, to ordering huge chocolate covered waffle ice cream cones with sprinkles and hot fudge, and asking countless strangers to take our picture. We would line up in the same order every time, myself, Isabelle, and then Elizabeth, letting the smallest of us stand in the middle. This was going to be our last year that us three musketeers would live on the same street together. Isabelle and Elizabeth were going off to separate colleges and I would still be at home, but this year, we decided, would be perfect. Nothing was going to stop us from having the time of our lives. At least, that is what we thought. I guess life does not always go according to plan.

Now as I pull the dress out of my closet, I let out a sob I had not realized I was holding back. This dress was bought only one week ago, but it carries a weight and a memory so heavy that I wish I could forget, almost as much as I wish I could remember. This dress signifies the last perfect day. As much as I want to take every detail-every word, smile, laugh, and hug-and save it forever, the remembering only reminds me of what is gone. I will not be wearing this perfect dress for my birthday lunch. I will not be laughing with my two best friends until my face locks into a smile and my stomach aches. I will not feel like I have been blessed with everything I have ever wanted in life with people who love me all around me. Instead, its flower-embroidered fabric will be worn for a funeral- Isabelle’s funeral.

The dress feels like an anchor in my hands, weighing me down until I crumble to the floor and hold the dress against my chest. Why? Why Isabelle? I faintly hear a car pull into my driveway and my mom walk into the house. I hear the shower turn on and I hear it turn off. I hear the hairdryer running and cabinets opening and closing, closet doors creaking back and forth. I even hear something I feel like I shouldn’t. I silence my tears and listen closely, leaning towards my bedroom wall, and immediately feel intrusive when I realize that this sound is Elizabeth’s quiet weeping. As I quickly pull back, I notice the music softly playing in the background-music, no doubt, designed to drown out her crying. I sit there, silently sobbing, surrounded, and yet so alone. Elizabeth is just a few feet away from me, but I know that my pale blue bedroom wall is not nearly as strong as the one she has built around herself since Isabelle’s death.

My mom is only a few steps down the hall, the one I used to fly down in my socks with Isabelle and Elizabeth, seeing who could slide the farthest, but I know that she is just as distant. We always joked that Isabelle was my mom’s third daughter, but now I can see that is has always been true. The three of us sit in separate rooms, brushing our hair, finding something black to wear, and trying to mask our eyes, red with tears, but also with anger and grief. We each face the worst day of our lives together, but in solitude. After finally mustering the strength to stand, I quickly slip into the dress and try not to think about how Isabelle demanded I try it on, much to my initial objection. I tie my hair into a ballerina bun and secure the elastic around the knot of hair, focusing on controlling the few brown strays and not how the three of us used to help each other with this every day before ballet. Eventually, we silently file out of our rooms one by one, down the stairs, and into our shiny black sedan as a trail of black fabric barely containing the grief we hold inside.

This line of black only grows as we stand in the old hilly graveyard where Isabelle’s casket now rests. I stand with Elizabeth on my right and my mom next to her, each of us trying to protect her, as if we could reverse the actions of the drunk driver by simply surrounding her. I refuse to look at the casket and make the moment real to myself. Instead, I look straight ahead at the sea of grief stricken faces dressed in black-the absence of color, of life. The priest begins to speak of Isabelle’s beautiful life, cut too short, and I bit down on my lip to desperately hold back my inevitable tears. I know I have to be strong for my sister, who no doubt is even more affected than I. I keep my eyes locked on an weeping willow tree in the distance and see the long, thin branches start to move back and forth in a rhythmic dance. The wind picks up and suddenly, something interrupts my staring. Pieces of black cloud my vision and tickle my face. Blinking, I realize that Elizabeth’s hair, usually held in a high ponytail, has been let down. I can barely see through the field of black. This was the color I was supposed to feel beautiful and chic in, and now it is the one color I would do anything to escape.

* * * Six Months Later * * *

Black. It always starts the same way. The world turns not only dark, but a deeper shade of black than I could ever imagine. Slowly, there is a small hole in the darkness that turns from black to deep purple to navy blue to forest green. The green grows lighter and lighter as the hole widens to fill my entire vision. The hazy image of a weeping willow finally appears, mocking me as it sways its lazy sway without a care in the world. The instant black startles me as it jumps in front of my eyes. As I remember that it is only Elizabeth's long dark hair, something changes. The shiny black starts to loose its glimmer as it is tossed back and forth by the relentless wind. It becomes a matte black, then the dark pigment starts to bleed out. I look up in search of rain to explain why it looks as if chalk was blending out of its bright shapes on the sidewalk. The black trails off the end of her hair and falls in a teardrop to the dry, brown grass. The hair turns lighter and lighter, from chestnut brown to blond as bright as the summer sun.

My heart seizes in my chest as the color stops at this shade. I know this color, and it does not belong to my sister. I move in degrees, pivoting centimeter by centimeter until I am staring at her profile. Her head is bowed and a single tear streams down her bronzed skin, stopping right on her collarbone. Her black dress is too long, as if borrowed from someone slightly taller than her. She is barefoot and her toes are painted with hot pink polish. Her eyes look hollow as she closes them, releasing another tear that was held back by her lashes. Isabelle then turns towards me, and I hold my breath. I want to reach out to her, to see that she is really here, but my body is frozen. I try to speak, but no words come out. Isabelle looks at me with her pale blue eyes and sadly shakes her head. What, Isabelle? What is it? What are you doing here? She wordlessly raises her tan right arm and points to the casket. Is it empty? Is that what you are here to tell me? You never really died? Seeming to understand my thoughts, Isabelle says one word: “Elizabeth.”

My lungs empty the breath I had been holding and in a fraction of a second, I understand what Isabelle is saying and my body is jolted into action. I kick off my black kitten heels and feel my feet scratch against the dead brown grass as I use every ounce of strength I have to sprint to the casket. My body crashes into it as my momentum reaches its highest point. I reach for the handle to open the heavy wooden box, but it is locked. Peering into the clasp, I notice a small keyhole. I look to Isabelle in panic, and she simply places her hand just below her neck, slightly above her heart. I mindlessly mimic the gesture, one we have often played over and over again to each other, and feel the cool metal of the locket. Isabelle, Elizabeth, and I have each worn the same locket for as long as I can remember. I remove the necklace and open its tiny clasp, then place it into the keyhole. Pushing the locket into the space, the casket unlocks. I throw open the top and almost collapse with sadness when I see Elizabeth peacefully inside in a white cotton dress, holding a pink Gerber daisy in her hands and a smile on her face. When I turn back to Isabelle, in search of an explanation, she is gone.

Black. I wake up drenched in sweat, my heart racing, with the rest of my body paralyzed with fear. Was this the dream again? Or has it finally happened? Slowly, my eyes adjust to the darkness and my heartbeat calms down. This time, I can turn on the light to escape the black. With the room illuminated, I see that everything is just how I left it before I fell asleep. With some sense of normalcy, I tell myself that Elizabeth is fine. I still wait to hear her steady breathing from between the wall before allowing myself to be at peace. Every time I have the nightmare, this happens the exact same way. What is worse is that it is starting to feel like less and less of a dream.

Ever since Isabelle’s death six months ago, Elizabeth has been fighting with a demon on her back, telling her that this life is not worth living. I have been watching her kill herself: pulling away from me and mom, skipping meals, exercising constantly, and looking like more of a skeleton than the big sister I have always seen. It terrifies me that at any moment, it could be her last. As I turn off the light and try not to fall asleep again, I realize that something about this dream was different. When I turned back to look at Isabelle, she was gone. In every other dream, she was standing there with her head bowed, but at least she was still there. This is when it hits me. I have loved Isabelle all my life, just like Elizabeth has, but she is really gone. There is nothing anyone can say or do to bring her back, no matter how hard we try. This is not a practical joke or mistake, and if I walked downstairs, I wouldn’t see her eating from our fridge or watching TV because she couldn’t sleep and no one was home at her house. It is time to accept that Isabelle is in Heaven now. Even more so, it is time to accept that if we do nothing, Elizabeth could be too. I jump out of bed and turn the light back on. I have to talk to Elizabeth.

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