By Howard Choo
When did we know? Well, at our age, some certainties and borders lose their old importance. The day she arrived, it was hot even indoors, despite the air conditioners, their constant drip and drone. The outside was getting harder to ignore. What was coming was coming for us all.
The tv was on in the rec room, a clip that would soon go viral: that scientist standing on the ice, saying polar bears were gone from the wild, his voice cracking on ‘forever’. My back throbbed dully. My wheelchair needed adjusting. I was stubborn about asking for help.
She introduced herself around, collected names, offered her own: Maya. By then I was losing my bearings in the present more and more, forgetting for long moments how much more lay behind me than ahead. Places I’d wanted to visit but never reached. A stone skipping across a wide black lake.
Did I make a gesture, give a sign? Her fingers tapped upon my wrist—once, twice, a third time, so softly that I wondered if it was my own quickened pulse. It stopped me short.
I looked to check.
I looked again.
The staff didn’t make a fuss when we started sharing a bed. They had bigger things to worry about. The old rules were breaking down. One morning, voices came from the fan in the corner of the room, trailing incomplete phrases: assimilation … flows … readiness unknown. Maya nudged me, murmured that we were finally losing it, at least it was happening to us both at once. We both laughed. How wonderful that the world could still surprise!
I leaned on her for support as we shuffled nearer. Not knowing what to expect, we touched the fan’s metal guard. The broad curved blades kept spinning. The voices stopped mid-sentence. Not long after that, all the fans in the facility were replaced with newer models.
We didn’t talk about the past. In the circumstances, what would have been the point? But she found the stories in others; not the usual recitations of this happened, and then that, and so the other, and now here I am, but little epics sprung from details, revealed in the retelling to have held outsized meaning all along: a lost gym bag, a radio interview, a dream about a hotel room, an adult daughter’s shoplifting spree. They expanded unexpectedly. They ended, always, with a greater lightness than when begun. I saw it over and over, the miraculous became ordinary, the other residents recognizing themselves, seeing themselves more clearly and with greater kindness.
Yes, there were trumpets.
Just like anyone, she had bad days, but even amongst those the blackouts were different. Imagine a still afternoon: cups of tea, backgammon and Go, no one else around. Then a disturbance, arriving as if summoned—a subtle change, yet even sitting my knees buckled, my grip on myself loosened. When I recovered, she was gone.
That was the first time, and that was how it always came, an undertow out to sea. No time passed while she was away, not for her, just the usual slipping between moments. I didn’t tell her how long the intervals really were, and I still think that was right. There was nothing that could be done. I’d thought I’d long since learned to live with gaps and silence, but realising that less of her came back each time, that was the hardest thing. It turns out you’re never really ready for what comes next.
This I recall, as if through a haze. We’d been walking, the two of us, for as long as I could remember. My legs were working, and that would only be remarkable afterwards. We left no footprints on the dusty path. A stone rotunda, vines between its white columns. I knew, without knowing how, that inside was my father’s study; his heavy desk, his snow globe, the one with nothing in it but snow. Three figures stood further back, motionless and half in shadow: a horse, a lion, a woman drawing a bow. Water arced into a pond, and small rapid bubbles broke our images into pieces. A threshold approached, thick mist across a plain. The statues were closer than before. I tried to resist but it was useless. I was carried away with everything else.
The last thing I remember: sitting in the sun, soft grass downhill. All day we’ve drifted in and out of sleep. Now she reaches down, weight on her crutch, and though she winces at the stiffness of her hip, she won’t stop until she’s done what she means to: retied the shoelace I can’t reach myself. That lace always comes undone.
Finished, she straightens. Her eyes are bright. Everything is so bright. I feel her shoulder against mine; we hold hands shakily and we look up. Strange shapes bend overhead, all moving towards the same point on the horizon. Like the sky is falling, but slowly. Like it’s the end of the world.