Tributaries.

19th February 2014

I am sitting on the subway listening to the pressure of air squeeze against the stainless steel train.

When I look across to find my reflection I notice the woman sitting beside me, a crease of concern between her eyebrows. The lines on the woman’s face stand out against the black of the tunnel, like tree roots against the glass. Something deep inside of me flickers, like a match that almost catches against emery, and fades.

I’ve never met grief face-to-face, but I can easily pick it out of a crowd full of memories; when you rested your wrist on the side of the bowl as we mixed and watched the raw eggs and flour clump together. Why are you tired? I asked. When your eyes misted and then flowed over, the tears resting in the dark cushiony clouds underneath. Are you crying? is a question I never asked out loud.

You used to bake cookies for every person on our street, and even when you were sad, this made you happy. Sometimes I would come home to cookies overflowing off the counters, stacked on top of each other like cookie sandcastles. The image of you in a pink, frilly apron against the stainless steel world of our kitchen would mock any 1950s housewife ad; holding a white spatula, crying and laughing at all the cookies around you. Me, laughing too, but feeling something else as I surfboarded with you through the highs, and prepared for the reef-cutting lows.

When you said you were going away, I memorized the lines carefully etched under your eyes, as if your skin was made of Play-Doh. You told me that Grief follows you most places and you needed to run away. Grief sang me softly to sleep that night, the wood of your bed moaning under the release of your absence and I wondered why you didn’t take me with you.

At some point I convinced myself that I didn’t need you, and Grief would keep me company even on the brightest days, when the sun hit the sizzling concrete and pooled behind me in a shadow of inky blackness. I stopped trying to safeguard memories and told myself I didn’t need you, or the moments of your highs and lows; they only sailed me out into the middle of an unforgiving ocean, leaving me bobbing on a horizon where the sun didn’t wait for the earth to turn, instead rising and setting whenever it wanted to.

Grief has not left me since. It sits in crescent moon hollows under my eyes and contorts my body into the shape of flat notes and sharps. I can always feel it seeping through the cracks of tomorrow.

The woman has caught me staring, and pats down the twist in her hair and adjusts herself uncomfortably. I wonder if she’s seen you, riding the subway or through the grease-stained window of a cheap dim sum restaurant downtown. I scan faces in large crowds just in case you appear, even though I know you won’t. I imagine what you look like now, having outrun grief. But all I can picture are the lines below your eyes, some forking off into tributaries that catch your tears when you cry, others lone but strong.

It occurs to me then that too much time has passed for memories to conjure on their own anymore like they used to; me, doing algebra when the image of you suddenly appeared, laughing hysterically as you rubbed a red balloon against my hair so it stood straight up. Dropping a hanger while I shopped for maternity clothes and remembering that time you smashed a glass. Its tiny shattered pieces glinted in the sun and made our kitchen floor look like it had been sprinkled with a million broken icicles in the middle of summer.

I tell myself you have escaped Grief, but part of me will always know this is not true. It will always be there, in the straight rivers and tributaries of your skin, always flowing across your face and branching off in different directions. Sometimes it will rush towards you with such force you won’t be able to avoid it. Other times it will shatter unexpectedly in your hands. You will try to put the pieces together but you’ll forget how they fit. More time will pass.

Years from now, I will wonder- how am I supposed to preserve moments so precious they were always destined to break?

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