Opening the door, a fresh sight greets me: bags packed and ready on the mat. I scan my memory for any mention of visitors I have overlooked but nothing comes to mind. A figure walks into the room, my father.
"What're the bags for?"
"I'm leaving for a bit, going out east."
"What for?" There is a grim look in his eyes that betray some unspoken sentiment. He beckons me to the kitchen where we both take a seat around the table. He explains to me his reason for leaving as well as the short notice. I am not shocked, nor is there a turning of my stomach or otherwise. Instead I listen carefully and ask questions when necessary. Time is of the essence, he tells me. Dutifully, I tell him to say hello for me and I get up to leave.
"Wait." The tone of his voice commands me more than the word. I turn. "Isn't there anything else you want to say?" I understand what he means yet am unable – or unwilling – to add anything.
"No. I understand."
"It's not a matter of if you understand or not, it's a matter of do you have anything to say. At all." I am surprised at the seriousness he is showing over something so minor. Usually he is more articulate.
"No, I'm good. Why?"
He leaves the question unanswered and I walk away, glad to be able to resume an otherwise normal night. I watch TV until I fall asleep, all thoughts of our previous conversation washed from my mind.
The next morning I wake up as scheduled, shower, brush my teeth and eat a dreary breakfast, all according to an integrated routine chiselled into my mind from years of use. I leave the house exactly ten minutes to seven and wait silently for three more minutes for the bus to arrive. As usual, it is late. I sigh and step up the once-enormous steps. The bus driver does not turn to see if I am seated before he roars off to the next stop. I find a seat and wait patiently for the school to appear in the window. As soon as it does, I get up and wait once again for the line of students to clear the aisle of the bus so that I may get off myself, stepping down onto a muddy patch of grass facing the glass doors to the school. Classes roll by slowly, like a bead of condensation on a mirror, revealing more and more as it cascades over uncharted regions of glossy surface. The bell rings for lunch and I congregate with my friends outside, all of us crouched down in a corner of the yard. Conversation inevitably turns to the weekend.
"So, you guys gonna be there, or should I just skip it?"
"I dunno, the parties he throws aren't exactly the best."
"Yeah, but what else are you gonna be doing? Got some hot date?" The crowd titters as the conversation goes on as such until someone singles me out.
"I dunno, I got some thing I have to go to. You know how it is."
"No, I don't," comes the reply, lightly painted with mockery, "tell us how it is."
"Some family thing, you guys wouldn't care."
"What's a matter, did your puppy get hit by a car?" This followed by the sound of loud, mocking sobs. But the noise is tuned out. There is a twisting in my midsection I can't ignore. They laugh as I walk towards the school doors for the second time that day, my faked excuse of the need to use the bathroom hanging heavy on my head. The rest of my day is silent save for the monotonous drone of the teacher.
Opening the door, I see numerous pairs of foreign shoes on the mat. This time visitors for sure. I decide to avoid them and sneak off to my room quietly, careful not to creak the steps as I creep up to sanctuary. As I enter the room I immediately sink into a ritual, plugging a pair of earphones into my amplifier and snatching a worn guitar from its stand. An hour later I put it back and sit down in front of my computer, forcing myself once again to sink into a wave of homework. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, all these names of men that mean nothing to me. All these people that spent their entire lives hunched over a piece of paper, writing countless pages on the meaning of life and man's place within it. All I could think of as I poured over these texts was the eternal stupidity of it all. Why bother questioning what you can never answer? Why not just live your life and when it comes time for it to end, just let it. Needlessly – I felt – I read on.
Finally a knock on my door wrestles me out of a literary stupor. A voice, belonging to whom I don't know, informs me it is time for dinner. I don't answer; instead I pack up my books and slide them onto the bookshelf. For later, I tell myself, although I know already I won't pick them up again for another two days.
The scene in the kitchen is a bleak one, everyone dressed for the occasion, everyone staring at everyone else as they chatted incessantly. I try to walk calmly over to the counter, to the food, without meeting anyone's gaze, but I can feel their eyes boring into me. As quickly as possible I fill my plate with grey food – for that's all there seems to be – and walk briskly towards the door. Unfortunately, the crowd seems to notice my attempted escape and closes in on me. My uncle drags me to the side, his withered hand grasping my sleeve firmly. We exchange hellos and he gets right down to business:
"Are you coming on Sunday?" he asks, his eyes holding my own tightly in their grasp.
"Yeah, Dad says I should."
"And rightly so. It's important for people your age to see these kinds of things."
The severity of his tone irritates me. "I guess."
"Young people have got to understand these things before it's too late." I can feel my nerves grinding at the condescension.
"I understand, I'm only going because I have to." The outburst surprises even me. One does not speak with such a tone to one's superiors in my family.
"You understand? You think you understand – "
"I do understand," I reply, forcing my voice to stay as low as possible.
"You can't," he says, matter-of-factly. I move away from him and towards the doorway. He grabs my arm once more and turns me around forcefully. "You won't."
I look him straight in the eye and well up all the courage that I have left in me for one last stand: "I don't care."
With that I jerkily make my way through the crowd and up to my room once more, my plate laying forgotten on the counter I had left it on downstairs. I knew I would regret the slip, but I felt it was worth it. A smile dances on my lips as I slip my earphones over my head and strum the first chord of the rest of the night.
The next day there is no one in our house except myself and my mother. We avoid each other as much as possible, neither of us eager to begin any sort of conversation; we can tell it won't end well. I take my meals up to my room and watch TV all day, drowning myself in the repetition of weekend sitcom marathons. Joke, laughter, joke, laughter. I don't feel the need to laugh as it is already being done for me.
At noon the sound of the doorbell resonates through the house. I begin to rise to answer it but remember my mother and settle back into my seat. Her footsteps make it to the front door where I hear the lock turning. Two voices now, dripping with fake sympathy, both greeting each other in muffled tones. My attention fades as the commercial break ends.
The next three hours are spent as such, swimming in a sea of over-rehearsed plots and poorly taught actors. The characters become so familiar that one doesn't notice when a show is cancelled, or when the show's creator dies; there is enough of the same to fill the gap, so I never worry. There was a time when I had a favourite show that I would settle down every Saturday morning to watch diligently. Now, however, TV has become a favourite show in itself, providing entertainment – or at least distraction – as well as companionship. I cannot remember a time when I had not watched TV. I don't feel I should have to.
My thoughts are interrupted by a knock on the door, a cruel awakening. My mother's voice asks calmly if I would kindly step outside to speak to our visitor. My mind races for a few seconds before I realize that I had completely forgotten about the doorbell and the muffled voices. I sigh and open the door.
My uncle, the one who had pulled me aside yesterday, was standing in front of me, his ancient hat held delicately in front of him with both hands. I notice for the first time that he is much older than I had originally taken him for. There were bright green veins on his hands, accompanied by a number of dark liver spots. As soon as these observations register in my mind I stiffen up. I know why he is here.
My mother – practically a teenager compared to the man who stands before me now – leaves, walking calmly down the stairs without looking back.
"May I come in?" he asks, eyeing me reproachfully, as if I were about to slam the door in his face. The thought crosses my mind but I know my mother would never stand for it. I back up and he walks in. I point him to the chair in front of my desk. I sit on the bed. We sit in silence for what seems like forever.
He looks at me as if startled out of some daydream. His eyes shrink to slits as he stares at me. His mouth is a hard line. "Do you remember what we were talking about yesterday?"
"We weren't really talking," I point out.
"Well we should have."
"You have the right, the responsibility, to know what is happening…what has happened."
"I know what happened and neither of us can change it, so why bother talking about it."
"There is much more to it than that. I realized last night after returning home that I might have been a bit forceful in my words, but it is important for you to realize what we are all dealing with."
"Look, it doesn't really matter to me, alright? I didn't know…I mean, it just doesn't feel important to me, okay?" I hope that he will understand what I am saying, although it doesn't look likely.
"Don't you feel anything? Can you not reach out to feel what is beyond material life? Can't you have compassion for more than meaningless television programs?" He points a shaky finger to the TV, which is still on. His face is slowly turning red; I make a point to stare at it coldly.
"I guess not." I do not feel any depression or realization at this, only a sturdy wall of truth. He must understand; some things are simply not as important to some people.
He stands up and walks up to me, looking down on me with an expression of anger to come. "What happened to you? What led you astray? How can you say that you wouldn't feel anything at such news, at such a tragedy?" Then, as if to no one in particular: "Why have we gone so far off the path?"
Suddenly he makes a quick movement towards me and grabs the front of my shirt with his dry, pasty hands. With amazing strength he pulls me up to eye level. My heart races, pumping in my ears; my chest heaves. He whispers in my ear, his breath smelling strongly of garlic. I can see tiny veins drawing patterns all over his face. When he is finished, he drops me on my bed and walks out, looking back as he does. He glares at me and closes the door slowly. I continue to stare at it even after it is closed; his words are burning in my head, eating away at something inside. The scent of garlic is still strong in the air.
Sunday morning I am told to get dressed in clothes my mother has set out for me. Dutifully and somewhat solemnly – for that seems to be the occasion – I comply. The clothes are stiff, ill-fitting, but I put them on anyways, somewhat prudent as to avoid any more incidents. For a moment I smell garlic and shudder.
Breakfast is eaten in silence, my father absent from his usual Sunday morning post at the kitchen table. I read the comics from today's comics as my mother fidgets around the kitchen, rearranging things already arranged, trying to fix things that don't need to be fixed. The sound of her tinkering begins to get on my nerves but I try to ignore it. Thoughts of the weekends events float in and out of my head, some of them standing out more than others: strange shoes on the entrance mat, grey food, black. An image of a swarm of black flies pops into my head, all of them buzzing around a heap of clothes and heads of people I've known. Suddenly I feel a wave of nausea come over me and the cereal I am eating becomes a giant chasm of white. I fall into it, swirling into a never-ending spin, the world around me turning white.
My mother calls my name and my eyes fly open.
"What on earth are you doing?" I can see her own eyes looking at me, wide and alarmed.
"I don't – know." My nose is nearly touching the bowl of cereal, my neck stretched down as far as possible. There is something about the milk that pulls me towards it.
"If this is some kind of trick to get you out of coming today, you can forget it." Her voice is stern now, her eyes no longer soft.
"It isn't," I reply, carefully making sure my tone of voice doesn't stir anything in her. "Is it alright if I go to the arcade after with the guys though?" I do not know why I say this, for I have no plans as such. Something tells me to go through with it though, if only to see what will happen.
"No, absolutely not. You have to come back here and visit with your relatives. Everyone needs you to be here."
"Why do they need me here? What am I going to give them that they can't give themselves?" My voice rises now, as if the refusal of my proposal had awaked something powerful inside of me. "Why can't they go cry by themselves in some corner? No one is going to miss her anyways!"
"Watch your mouth, young man!" My mother has put her hands on her hips, the ancient sign of danger to come. Somehow this does not stop me from saying what I say next:
"Are you? You never do anything together anyways, so why would it matter? This whole thing is so stupid. So what if one more person goes? No one even cares." It seems I am talking more to myself than anyone else.
My mother stares at me for a few seconds then declares that I am grounded for two weeks. I can't help but not care.
That afternoon we walk down the aisle towards the box, everyone in front of us pausing for a few seconds to look in. I make up my mind not to follow suite. Although I follow my mother and my father – who has now returned, collected, it seems – I do not follow their gaze. Small things catch my eye and I follow them instead, keeping careful time with a ball of dust of a speck of pollen in the air.
Time passes slower than normal, the white of cereal milk and the grey of bland food mixing into one to somehow make black. The black swirls around, forcing the grey and white to recede. All I can see is black now, a veil covering my eyes, demanding that I see nothing but the basic form of all beings: light cannot reflect off of black.
When my vision finally clears I am looking at the face of a dead woman, pale and sterile. My grandmother. Her eyes are closed. In more ways than one, I envy her.