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What I Know Now
The girl stopped. Dazed, she ran a hand through her ash-blonde extensions and squinted up at the sun. A loud, frustrated wail erupted from her lips and her pudgy, orange hands balled into fists. Huffing, the girl shuffled forward and immediately fell face-first into the sand. Her tanned friends came clucking and flocked around her. This was everyday living on the Jersey shore.
I shook my head, wiggling my toes into the couch cushions. “I can’t believe these people are supposed to be in their twenties. Why do we watch this show again?”
My sister – chocolate eyes and smooth brown skin – cocked her head and looked at me knowingly. “Because we love this show.”
“Oh yeah,” I laughed. “That’s it.”
I blinked. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. I could hear voices, subdued and heavy. Somewhere beside me, my mother squeezed my hand. On some impulse that managed to wade through the thick syrupy matter of my perception, I squeezed back. My vision blurred again until the tears rolled down my cheeks and I tasted salt in my mouth. Even they seemed sluggish.
There were about twenty of them. They were dark figures lumped on the sofas in our sitting room and silhouettes crowded against the walls whispering in hushed tones. A moan rose in my mother’s chest and dissolved into sounds I’d never heard her make – raspy, broken whimpers. And they were coming from me too. Between sobs, we gasped for air, suffocating in the density of our own grief.
Time broke off in fragments and drifted away. The pain was too big, too much to feel for more than little chunks at a time, so my mind wandered. I was elsewhere, the place where nothing mattered and there were no thoughts. My mind touched awareness without warning and receded just as abruptly. I was trapped in a diving bell at the bottom of the sea – locked inside myself, inaccessible to the world.
I think I lost my mind a little bit. Images shifted and shapes warped. Nothing was real and nothing made sense. I sagged in the couch, aching and distant. I couldn’t move. The energy it took to speak didn’t seem worth the effort, and there was nothing left to say. My mother’s hand had never seemed so frail and brittle. I sat beside her and held that hand for what felt like eternity. I was numb. Comatose. Elsewhere.
“What are you doing?”
Odi pulled the thermometer away from her mouth and looked at me. “What?”
I tried not to laugh. “That’s the thermometer that goes in your armpit.”
She sighed, pulled up her tank, and tucked the stick into her underarm. Her eyes closed softly as we waited, and I played with the sleeves of her hoodie. Finally, three muffled beeps came from the thermometer. I pulled it out of my sister’s armpit and read the digits on the tiny screen.
“Hmm,” I murmured, touching the back of my hand to her forehead. “Your temperature’s not even that high. It says 99.8 degrees, but you feel more hotter.”
“Thanks,” Odi smiled, and then shivered. “I feel cold and hot at the same time. And my stomach hurts.”
I was worried. Kids got fevers all the time, but she in particular never really did. She was mostly plagued with severe allergies, and they had never before given her fevers.
“Well, Mom took you to the clinic, right? What did the doctor say?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Stuff. We got some medicine, too.”
“So do you feel a little bit better?”
“Yeah…a little bit.”
“Okay. Well, I have to get everything ready for my speech tomorrow,” I said, picking up my bags. “Eat something and then go to sleep.”
Eventually, I stood. It wasn’t anything to do with strength or will. One moment I was sitting, and the next, I was on my feet. Two dozen pairs of eyes were on me. Family. Friends. Strangers. I must’ve looked like a ghost to them. I felt like a ghost – a faint, lingering reminder of the person I used to be. The door opened and my cousins filed in, sniffling and shoulders shaking. The one in front – Kelle – met my eyes and it was as if our grief multiplied. It was big, bigger than the world and too big for our living room.
Things happened in parts. We, all four of us, held each other tightly, as close as we could without hurting one another. Three men stomped their way around us and up the stairs. I heard the snapping of cameras and shuffling footsteps. My father came down with my brother and little sister Kosi, who had just woken and were rubbing their eyes. He led them into the kitchen. There was whispering, and then Kosi cried out. My dad put his arms around her and led her over to the rest of us. My brother Lotanna followed, tired but otherwise unaffected. He sat on one of the couches and turned the television on. His face was immediately bathed in changing lights, moving colors dancing on contours of his nose, eyes, lips. As I watched him in cold disbelief, his eyes grew blank and for the rest of that day, I hated him.
I put the blow dryer down and stepped back, fingers spread wide apart. Perfect. My nails were painted a shade of ‘passionate plum’. I smiled in satisfaction, wondering why people paid for this if they could do it at home.
Nails – check.
Outfit – check.
The only thing that wasn’t ready was the most important. The speech! I exhaled slowly and picked up my cue cards. Turning them over to the blank sides, I ran through my intro as smoothly as possible without looking.
“…and it was the worst dream I’d ever had. After decades of research, scientists still can’t conclusively say why we dream or what dreams mean. But by the time this speech is done, you all will know several riveting things about dreams I’m sure you’ve never heard. First, we’re going to talk about the biology of dreaming…”
In the room right next to mine, Lotanna, Kosi, and Odi were asleep. I stared at the mirror and listened hard, not sure what exactly I’d heard.
There. The sound came again.
I put down my cue cards and walked into their room. Lotanna sat up, his eyes on Odi in the bed next to his. I slipped in between the two beds and stood at the head of the frame, looking down at her with a frown. As I watched, it happened again.
She moaned. My heart dropped into my stomach. It was long and low and deep. She was moaning, but she was asleep. I’d never seen anything like it before.
“How long has she been doing this?” I asked my brother evenly, my eyes not leaving her.
“She just started.”
“Odi.” I stared at her, just waiting.
She moaned again, louder and more urgently this time. The sound of it alone pulled the air out of my lungs, and I began to panic. I called her name again, and threw the thick comforters off her warm body. She was only in a shirt and a pair of underwear. As I peeled the cover away from her, the moaning grew even louder, and her back arched. And still, her eyes didn’t open. I tried to think straight. Her lips parted as the air blew out. An arm flew up and I caught it while simultaneously placing my other hand on her forehead. The only thing I could feel was cold sharp fear.
My dad opened the door to my room. I peeked out from under the blanket.
“The coroner called. It was viral myocarditis.” He walked out.
After a second of sitting in silence, I got up and switched on my computer.
As I began to scream for her, my mother appeared at the top of the stairs with my sleeping baby brother Osina in tow. The panic in my eyes was instantly reflected in hers.
“What?” she asked, looking at me, looking at my hand around Odi’s wrist.
“I don’t know,” I replied, trembling. “Something’s wrong.”
She must’ve put the baby to sleep, because when she returned almost immediately, he was gone. I moved as she slid into the narrow space between the two beds.
My mom looked down at her as she twisted on the bed, her legs bare. Mom called her name. Odi. She called it once. Twice. Each more frantic than the last, she called her name. Suddenly, Odi stopped – she stopped moving and moaning, altogether. My heart stopped. My mom screamed her name once more, but it was so quiet. Then she looked at me and said, “Call 911.”
It happened in parts. I was already moving out of the way as she scooped Odi out of the bed and laid her down on the carpet. I was shaking as I headed for the stairs.
My aunt came running up the stairs. We passed each other as I went down. The phone was in my hand and I was dialing. The phone screen blurred as the tears started coming.
“We need an ambulance!”
“Ma’am, I need you to calm down and tell me what’s happening.” It was a woman’s voice, kind but stern.
“Umm…” I began, trying to gather my thoughts into something coherent. “Um, my little sister was making noises in her room, but she was sleeping, but she was moaning, so I called my mom, and now she’s in there with my aunt.”
“And who are you?”
“How old are you?”
“And how old is your sister?”
“Eleven,” I said in a small voice, and after that, I just lost it.
I was upstairs. I took a deep breath and walked into the room. It was something I’d never experienced before or ever wanted to again.
My mother, eyes wild and red-rimmed, was knelt over my sister. My mother, the respiratory therapist and registered nurse, pumped on Odi’s chest, and my aunt held her limp hand.
Odi’s eyes snapped open and she pulled herself up into a sitting position.
“If you understand what I’m saying,” my aunt began calmly, “squeeze my hand, Odi.”
“Can you hear me?” my mother asked.
“Yes, mom,” she said, and collapsed again.
“What’s happening?” I screamed.
Odi’s mouth flew open and closed, and in the back of her throat, we could hear her gasping for air. My mother started CPR again. Odi rasped some more and then fell still.
She began convulsing violently, every muscle in her body tensing with spasms.
“She’s seizing!” my mom cried.
“Will you do something for me, please? Just picture your life for me? Thirty years from now, forty years from now? What's it look like? If it's with him, go. Go! I lost you once, I think I can do it again. If I thought that's what you really wanted. But don't you take the easy way out.” The two lovers stared into each other’s eyes.
“Damn,” I sighed. “Ryan Gosling is so perfect.”
“Where has this movie been all my life?” Odi asked, mesmerized by the couple on the screen.
“I don’t know,” I laughed. “It was playing on Oxygen and I just recorded it. I knew you’d like this movie – you love everything with romance in it.”
“That’s because unlike you,” she said pointedly, “I want to get married someday and have sexy babies.”
“Don’t worry, you will,” I assured her with a wry smile. “That is, if you can find a guy who can compete with your huge brain.”
“I am a little bit of a genius,” she shrugged in agreement.
My mother was ushered into the living room by her friends, shivering and moaning incoherently. I asked her what was wrong, but she moved right past me. My heart racing, I ran outside. My dad was getting out of a red van. He looked up and met my eyes. I slowed down, then started walking again. He walked towards me slowly, and as I approached him, he said it.
“She didn’t make it.”
A kamikaze of bright lights exploded behind my eyelids; at the same time the world dimmed and the temperature dropped about twenty degrees.
I stood before the casket and looked down. The lights flickered and I was swept by a wave of vertigo. I didn’t want to leave but I couldn’t stay. Eventually, someone led my by the arm away from her body. When I sat down again, I looked to my left.
“Yes?” she replied, her voice trembling.
“What did they do?” I broke down. “It doesn’t look anything like her.”
I stood in the doorway for some time. The light form the hallway spilled into the room. I could just see my brother’s form under his covers, fast asleep. Sleep was a distant possibility for me. As quietly as I could manage, I slipped in under the covers of Odi’s side of the bed that she’d shared with our younger sister. I tried to assume her weight, tried to feel her there and understand what had gone so wrong, and everything she’d felt. Kosi stirred beside me and opened her eyes. She blinked and stared. For a moment, I imagined she knew just what I was doing because maybe she had done the same, but as her eyes closed again, I couldn’t tell if she had even seen me at all.
I looked for you in the stars last night.
It’s November. The leaves are changing colors and dropping. I’m standing at the bus stop, and as usual, the bus is still not here. Some things never change, but I think I need that right now. Last night’s rainclouds make the sky a silky grey. My breath leaves me in swirling, white puffs and dissipates into crisp fall air. I shiver and cross my arms over my chest. There’s a Billie Holiday song playing in my head. Her voice and the rich, lilting peel of the saxophone blend in beauty and sorrow so real that I can nearly see Billie herself in a smoky bar in New Orleans. I’ve been listening to a lot of her music lately.
Even now, none of this feels real to me. I don’t know that it ever will. Will it feel real when I have to check the fridge and write the shopping list myself, and I miss something that you would’ve never forgotten? What about when I have to stop recording all the shows we used to watch together because they’re just not as good anymore? I thought I’d be used to missing you by now, that it would be real to me once I stopped thinking about you and instead starting thinking to you, telling you in my head how things are going down here. Now I can’t stop doing it.
This whole time, I’ve been missing something – something big. Something true and important. It’s keeping me tired and weak, but now I know what it is.
We are all just moments apart.
We are moments apart.
And it’s those moments that are important, the ones that happen every day. If I’d known that after that day, you’d be gone – well, I don’t know what I would’ve done. My biggest fear is forgetting your face, your eyes, your laugh. So I try to remember. I remember the way you would press your lips into a thin line, trying not to cry when all you wanted to do was be mad. I remember your loud, loud, voice and God, that laugh. It hurts to remember, but if I don’t, I am so, so scared I’ll forget.
I hope one day, I will be able to look back on our moments together and smile, or even laugh. I hope there won’t always be this lump of yesterday in my throat that won’t let me swallow, but right now, it just hurts. I don’t know where you went. I looked for you in the stars and you weren’t there. The only things that keep me going are the little things, the things I know I can count on, like November being cold and the bus being late. And this too: There is no way to know what tomorrow will be like, but in this moment, here and now, I think I am okay.