the things i still remember

“Wait for me,” he’d said that day…

I still remember his eyes. Amber-colored, soft and gentle. They lit up at the edges when he smiled, and then narrowed and seemed to draw forward when he was being intense, thoughtful, or serious. He’d gazed at me with those narrow eyes that day – the day he left, the day we both made promises we could not keep, knowing that he would not be coming back.

I remember his hair. Long, compared to most boys back then. Slightly ruffled, thick, and dyed in all the colors I never dared. I’d admired him for his hair, something that sounds stupid now. Sometimes, when I dream, strangers with unknown faces show up framed in his hair.

I remember the way he talked. When we talked about life and death, suffering and the universe, it was slow, thoughtful, heartfelt. When he talked about music it was different – open and passionate, and rising steadily in volume, although he wouldn’t notice it. He’d talked about music a lot, and I’d listened, letting him share this part of his heart.

These are the things I still remember. Now, after all these years, they are outnumbered by the things I do not.

For some time I thought I would just let this happen, this slow deterioration of memory. But today, for some reason, I want to fight it. And so I will start by writing these lists of the things I still remember. He had talked about writing a lot back then, whenever he’d talked about composing music. “You have to write it down,” he’d say. “Take what’s in your heart and what’s in your head, and find a way to articulate it on paper. Then later you can look at it and think about it and still remember.”

I wish I could find a way to articulate the things I now forget.

Care

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Hanna registered the sound of a door opening and then slamming shut. She remained in her bed, eyes closed, refusing to acknowledge it. A few moments passed.

“Hanna,” a firm voice called. “I’m here for a visit.”

She didn’t reply. She didn’t want to. She didn’t have the energy for it.

“I brought tea and cookies,” the voice said.

Hanna rolled over to look at her friend. He stood quietly at her bedroom door, regarding her with gentle eyes.

“It’s okay,” he said after a moment. “I know you’re tired. You don’t have to say anything. I’m just gonna leave these in your kitchen.”

He paused and watched her thoughtfully. “I’ll come back tomorrow, okay? I’ll stop by on my way home from work. And if you need anything, you can let me know. You can text me or write me a note or anything, whatever you feel up to.”

Hanna was grateful.

“I hope you know that this is a normal and healthy part of life… don’t let anyone tell you different or make you feel bad for feeling down. Well, anyway, I’ll be going now. I don’t want to be a bother. See you tomorrow.”

He left in a flash, the door once again opening and closing, the same familiar sounds echoing through the hall. Hanna lay on her back for a moment, staring at the ceiling. Then she rolled over and went to sleep.

Ella

“Listen,” he murmured softly. “I want to thank you.”

“There is nothing,” the younger man replied. “It is what we are meant to do.”

“This is… wonderful.”

They sat for a while in a soft silence, feet dangling over the edges of the rocks, gazing out at the rocking sea. The waning crescent moon hovered high above in the misty, slightly overcast sky. The air was crisp, the view was beautiful, and the younger man was content. And Haku was dying.

It was in their custom to ensure that a dying person’s desired last sight was met. If that could not be achieved, any universally beautiful scene would suffice.

“Listen,” Haku said slowly. “Is there anyone… anyone you want me to see?”

The younger man thought about it. “Will you visit my sister?”

He nodded. “I will visit your sister.”

“I don’t get to see her so often now…”

“Is there anyone else?”

“Make sure you go see Ella.”

Haku did not reply.

“Go see Ella,” the younger man maintained. “She’s probably lonely. It’s… the least you could do.”

“… I will see her.”

At this slightly reluctant agreement, the younger man relaxed. He turned his face toward the sea and sighed. Haku lay more heavily against his shoulder, and he wrapped an arm around the man to better hold him up.

“Does it hurt?” he asked.

“No… it does not hurt.”

He could not tell if that was true or not, but he accepted the words regardless. Even people who are on the brink of death can have valid reasons to lie.

“Do you think…” Haku began. He shut his mouth and closed his eyes for a moment. “Do you think Ella died like this?”

“I suppose so. I can’t imagine anything else.”

“She was staring at the sea… like this?”

“I’m sure someone brought her.”

“I… keep thinking about it…”

His voice faded off into the rocking of the sea. The younger man held him, soft and silent. Haku would not last the night. It was unbeknownst to them then, but the younger man would not either. Below them the waves crashed and fled in a steady rhythm, and the waning moon above continued to shine. It was a scene that could not be captured, in images or in words. But it needed no capturing.

Their feelings in the moment were enough.

Kindness

The little girl sat beneath the tree and cried.

The tree was beautiful, tall and expansive and glorious, piercing the blanket of the sky with its numerous branches. It was also dead. It wasn’t just a lose-your-leaves-in-winter, plant-hibernation kind of dead; it was actually, truly dead. There was no more life to be found within its armored body.

It wasn’t the tree for whom the little girl was crying for, but it may as well have been. And as she poured out her grief beneath its stone-cold frame, the other children in the schoolyard ignored her. Not that it mattered – they wouldn’t have understood even if they tried. But she still wished that for once in her life, someone would at least play the part. And finally, after some ten or fifteen minutes of her quiet sobs, someone did.

A boy a few grades higher than her approached with obvious hesitation. She didn’t look at him, absorbed as she was in her whirlpool of sorrow, but he didn’t let the lack of recognition stop him. He walked onward until he too was standing beneath the dead tree, just a foot or so away from the girl.

“Haku,” he said slowly. “What’s wrong?”

The little girl shook her head and continued to cry. He bit his lip and frowned a little.

“Do you want me to get the teacher?” he asked.

Another shake of the head.

“I’m just going to sit next to you,” the boy said. “Okay?”

She didn’t respond, but she didn’t shake her head, either, so he took that as a yes. He sat down beside her and silently stayed with her as she cried, and that simple, loving action meant the world.

If only, she thought.

If only more people would be like this.

reasons to stop talking

“Tell me something, Haku,” they say quietly.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Did you mean it? That day, when…”

I’m taken aback. “When what? I don’t know what you mean.”

They sigh, obviously struggling to find words, and I level my gaze with theirs in uneasy concern. I don’t know what brought this up all of a sudden, and I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.

And yet, maybe I do know after all…

“Why’d you stop?” they ask.

I choke. “What? Stop what?”

They shake their head and deflate a little. “Never mind…”

“No, wait, tell me,” I say. “What do you mean? What’s wrong?”

“Never mind,” they repeat. They seem abruptly quite tired.

“Please tell me,” I plead. “If something’s bothering you…”

They lay back again and close their eyes. “Let’s just stop talking, okay?”

Stop talking?

Sela

“If I could tell you one thing, I’d say… you’ll never be alone.”

We lay on the floor side-by-side, quietly gazing upwards into nothing. Soon, everything we had would cease to be. And we knew it.

We were just waiting to see who would die first.

Sela breathed, slow and rhythmic, her sharp mind turning in ways familiar to me. I thought about our life together – everything we were, everything we could have been if not for tonight. There was no use dwelling on now-impossible dreams, but I couldn’t help myself. And I was sure Sela was doing the same.

“Haku,” she said after a while. Her voice was soft and thin, holding none of her usual strength.

“Yes?” I replied.

“Does it hurt?” she asked.

“No. You?”

“No.”

I blinked slowly, letting out a partial sigh. “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay.”

“Sela, tell me something.”

“What’s that?”

“Just tell me something.”

She wasn’t sure what I was asking, and I wasn’t either. I guess I just wanted to hear her voice.

She thought about it for a few moments, then began, “If I could tell you one thing, I’d say… you’ll never be alone. Even when I’m gone, even when you’re gone, even when all of this has gone away… you’ll never be alone.”

It wasn’t a promise – it was a fact. I processed her words silently.

“Thank you,” I said after a while.

She didn’t say another word.

Ritual

“Just follow me,” she’d said, and I’d followed her without looking back.

Today is our one-year anniversary. Technically, we’ve known each other for much longer, but exactly one year ago, we’d made it official. Sometimes it matters to make things official – something about the formality, the gravity of it, the sudden sense of responsibility. I don’t know. I’m not the type to wonder about stuff like that. I’m just saying that today is our one-year anniversary.

In the morning she surprised me with flowers and my favorite breakfast foods; in the afternoon I surprised her with flowers and a lunch reservation at her favorite restaurant down the way. Our apartment is filled with flowers now, and we’re stuffed with great food that took a lot out of our wallets, but no matter. Rituals are important, and flowers and food are ritual.

Tomorrow I’m going to surprise her even more. I have all kinds of things lined up – presents I’ve made, experiences I’ve ordered and reserved. I can bet she has more surprises for me, too. And that doesn’t come from any narcissistic, self-important heart I might have; we both just have a penchant for surprising each other with gifts, especially on important days like our one-year anniversary.

Anyway, right now, we’re cuddling on the couch. She has her head buried deep into my layers of polos and button-up shirts – it’s been incredibly cold lately, so don’t you judge me – and I have my arms around her. That’s what’s happening, nothing more, nothing less. People don’t touch each other as often anymore, that’s what I think. Hugging, holding hands, touching, cuddling. Never see it. Especially among people who aren’t in a relationship. Isn’t it sad? We could all use some more of this stuff, don’t you think?

So there we were, all cuddled up on the couch, and after a while of this my girlfriend suddenly lifted her head up and looked me in the eyes.

“Haku,” she said.

“Mmm?” I replied.

“I’m glad I met you.”

I smile a little. “I’m glad I met you, too.”

She reaches up to touch the side of my face; I close my eyes, savoring the touch. Then, as usual, she starts to play with my hair. Long and brown and curly, some typical nondescript girl’s hair. She twirls it around her slim fingers, studies it for a while in great concentration. I watch her and wonder what it is about my hair that she could possibly find interesting.

Well, when you think about it, there’s a ritual contained in that, too. She knew it, and I knew it, and that’s all that ever mattered. Right?

That’s all that ever mattered.

Borderlines

“You will not remember me.”

You will not remember me.

It wasn’t the words themselves that gave me pause; it was something in the way he said it, the way he spoke, the way his mouth moved to give form to the sounds. The boy looked at me and said, with absolute certainty, “You will not remember me.” It wasn’t arrogance, or stupidity, not a false assumption nor some dumb superficial pride. He wasn’t trying to impress or intimidate, either. He was just stating a fact. He spoke his line in exactly the same way he would have recited Newton’s universal law of gravitation from last year’s physics class. You will not remember me.

It gave me chills.

It’s not that foreign of a phrase. Maybe I’ve read it in a book before, I don’t know. Maybe I’ve heard it in a movie. But those were always fake, always on the other side of reality, and this boy was certainly here, on my side, and he was very real to me.

“Wh-what’s that?” I managed to reply.

“Don’t worry,” the boy said. He patted me on the arm in an oddly mature, adult way. “I’ll be gone soon, so you don’t have to worry about anything. Your work, your girlfriend, nothing like that.”

I shook my head. “Okay… But I don’t understand.”

“I just wanted to see you,” he said. “I’ve missed you.”

I choked a little in surprise and confusion. “Sorry, but I don’t know you. You have the wrong person.”

“No, no,” he said. “See, Haku, here’s the thing – we haven’t really met. Yet. Right now you don’t know me, but one day you will. Except you won’t remember.”

“What?”

“I just came to see you,” he said. “And I wanted to tell you this: it’ll be alright.”

What will be alright?”

“Everything. School – you’ll graduate, promise. Work – you’ll get a good job. And then you’ll get fired, but you’ll get another one. Family – they’ll come around eventually. Your mom will love you again. She still loves you now, and it’s very hard, but one day it won’t be hard anymore. When your girlfriend dies she’ll realize how much you loved her. Your girlfriend’s death will be alright, too, by the way. And eventually yours. You’ll get through it all. Everything will be just fine.”

I shook my head again, speechless. The boy gazed into my eyes and smiled gently.

“I have to go now,” he said. “You won’t remember me, but that’s okay. We’ll meet again. I just wanted to tell you that it’ll all be alright.”

It’ll be alright…

He nodded and walked away, and that was that.

Connection

“Who are you?”

“Um… My name is Kohaku…”

The young man studies me. “Okay, but who are you?”

“I live in the apartment above you,” I say. “I just moved in.”

“Oh.”

He scratches his head for a second, turns to glance over his shoulder, and then looks back at me. He opens the door slightly wider but still won’t let me in. I shift my weight uncomfortably.

“What do you want?” he asks warily. Immediately he winces, recognizing that his question came off as rude in a way he didn’t intend.

I let it slide. “I just want to get to know my new neighbors,” I say.

“Oh.”

“I missed your name,” I suggest politely.

“Brandon.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Brandon.”

He nods in return.

By this point it’s clear he’s never letting me in. That’s okay – I understand. People generally aren’t willing to let strangers into their apartment, even strangers who live with them. But all I want to do is make friends with him, and how else are we going to do it?

“Do you want to come over to my place for coffee sometime?” I ask him.

He thinks about it. “Um… sure, I guess.”

“When are you free?”

He thinks some more. “I can do tomorrow afternoon. Around two o’clock. Is that okay?”

“Sure. Absolutely.”

“But I don’t drink coffee,” he adds suddenly. “Tea?”

I smile happily. “Tea it is.”

We say goodbye, and I head back up the stairs, rejoicing in my slight victory.

Shilah

Our paddles sliced through the water in unison, cutting the blue-green surface and setting the kayak on a smooth, silent glide. I gazed at the back of Shilah’s head, moving my arms in time with hers. The minutes flowed quietly by.

Shilah spotted the private beach and started to angle in towards shore. I followed. At a certain distance we both stopped paddling and let the waves carry us in. Then Shilah jumped out into the shallows and pulled the kayak up onto the sand.

“Been hot today,” she said, speaking for the first time since we’d set out.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “Glad I remembered to put on sunscreen.”

I got out of the kayak and stretched. The sand was incredibly soft and warm beneath my feet. Shilah splashed around in the water, and I watched her.

“When are we going back?” I asked.

She laughed. “Who cares? Whenever we feel like it. I hate planning. Life is better if you just go.”

“Hmm, yeah, I guess you’re right.”

It still gives me anxiety to not have a schedule. I guess it’s something I’ve yet to learn.

“Come over here,” Shilah said.

I went over to her, stepping into the briskly cold ocean. She extended her hands to me and I took them. Without warning she started to dance, pulling me along, and I followed her lead with surprise.

I guess a private beach is a pretty romantic setting for a dance. But I’ve never been good with romance. Shilah was always the more sensitive one.

We danced for a while and then fell back into the sand, tired. Shilah was beaming. I smiled at her, breathing hard, and part of me wanted to do it again.

“Haku,” she asked, “what do you dream of?”

I thought for a moment. “I don’t know.”

She lay on her back, looking up at the clouds, and nodded. “I dream of tiny little stars in the ocean that glitter and shine brighter than the sun.”

I laughed. “Why? What does that mean?”

“Whatever you think it means,” she replied. “It’s my dream, but you’re still free to interpret it however you want.”

She closed her eyes, leaving me with that.

“It’s kind of weird… but I like it,” I decided.

“When I die, I’m going to turn into one,” she said.

“A tiny star in the ocean that glitters and shines like the sun?”

Brighter than the sun. Yeah. You should turn into one too.”

I laughed. “That’s kind of cute, actually.”

“I don’t think it’s cute. I just think it’s important. But if it’s cute to you, that’s alright.”

She opened her eyes and sat up.

“Let’s dance again,” she said.

“Okay. But the sun is starting to set. How long are we going to be out here?”

Shilah looked at me seriously.

“Who cares?”