I always knew the time would come for me to lose you. I don’t mean death, like how everyone’s supposed to die eventually. I mean I knew our friendship would end early. I never told you this but after graduation, I went to a shaman and asked her what your future looked like. What I really wanted to know was whether I’d be included in yours. I gave her your name and birth date, and she told me you were going to be powerful, that your rise would effect a monumental change on the world. She didn’t say what kind of change, but I knew what she meant because I felt it too with you. You had a gold star to your name, marking your ascent even before you entered this world. You’d probably say it’s bullshit, she was a charlatan enjoying her moment, because if anyone truly knows the future, they’d know too that the knowledge isn’t theirs to share, without permission. To even things out, I gave her my name and birth date, and she told me to let you go.
There was a conversation we had a long time ago, on your twenty-fifth birthday, when you’d just moved to a continent with three extra seasons, and you blew out your wish over video call. You were holed up in your spartan room, encircled by the light pouring through a window just out of frame. The cake from your housemates sat incongruously on your table, a cream triangle haphazardly mounted on a paper moon. Outside the window of your little shelter, stencilled through the dusty gold flush of the afternoon, was a skyline woven from the grandeur of bygone power, its spires watching over you, breathing cold love over the outlines of your hair, the slant of your cheek, the cloud of white sheets spilling over the edge of your bed at the bottom right corner of the screen. For a moment, I wondered if you’d spent the night with someone. But you mentioned you hadn’t slept the night before—you’d been working in the lab.
Even on your birthday, you’d proudly chosen to maintain a level of austerity to your day-to-day existence. Work to you was meditative, a reflection of who you were becoming even more: the serious thinker, sustained only by necessity, leagues above the frivolity of material excess. There was an air of dread and excitement that year brewing through the summer gold; a continent was to be remapped, and the ground was swelling with the arrival of a new social order, a stage that kindled the combustion of progression and resistance, where all players risked capitulating to the adult forces of their childhood insecurities.
I figured your wish was something noble, like the mass eradication of ignorance. After all, it bothered you greatly that most people don’t think very deeply, if they do any thinking at all.
“It’s endemic,” you said, wrapping your arms around yourself against a chill I couldn’t feel. “You’d think people would be more careful.”
“Overthinking screws up your instincts,” I retorted, for the sake of it. “I mean, the point of life is spontaneity. Look at what’s happening around you. You’re in the second act of a revolution. Take it in.”
There was your gaze, studying me closely.
“I’ll take in the carnage of the third,” you said, smiling to curb your dissent.
“Alright, I was kidding,” I said. “Just a little.”
“I wish everyone had more time.”
“Neal, if all goes well, you have a good fifty years left.”
“No, I mean enough time to actually understand ourselves, and then live it over, with all the right decisions. So the second time round, we don’t hurt anyone as much, while living out our fullest potential.”
“So a life that’s careful.”
“And risky. Being careful allows you to take the biggest risks. Deliberate ones, of course.”
“Who knew you were into reincarnation?”
“I meant the same life, not a different one,” you smiled patiently. “It’s just a wish.”
You sat still at your screen, head bowed in prayerful thought. You did this whenever you were in serious thought. I took a silent screenshot of you, as if it would have captured your mind.
“I think the future opens up to those who risk being ignited by it,” you said finally.
I was conscious of the clutter on my desk: the surplus stationery haphazardly scattered around my laptop, my old cardigan tossed over the back of my chair. In contrast, your taste was minimalist and refined, compositions distilled down to their purest essentials: a desk, a super single bed on a frame without a headboard, a ceiling fan with a lightbulb at its centre. It was your code for living, for seeing things at their core, returning to base, starting over, starting clean, on surfaces so smooth and seamless and timeless that the influence of any one person or thing or event would slide off. Perhaps you’d hoped the past would be washed away, leaving only what binds all of life through the ages—time, or some semblance of it.
“And what do you think happens after people make these really ignited decisions and everything falls into place, as I assume it peacefully would?” I asked in jest.
You crossed your elbows on the table and tucked your chin into your arms. “First, peace like you’ve said,” you grinned. “As for the rest that comes after, I wildly reckon it’d be an elevated sort of living.”
“Trusting entirely in the goodness of human nature, I see.”
You laughed off my derision. But your eyes had veiled themselves, and you shut yourself away behind another door in your heart.
“Sorry, I really should think before I speak,” I said. “That would teach me, when you finally win your Nobel and I’m still having to clock my nine-to-six.”
“A Nobel’s a long way off,” you chuckled. “But thanks for your vote of confidence.”
We were silent for a while, and you hugged your arms around yourself tighter so I could see who you were as a little boy. Shy, awkward. Unsure of why he’d been born at all. This was you the night your mother left; when you’d sat waiting for her through the night even though you knew she wouldn’t return because she’d taken the suitcase with her. She wouldn’t return at all, because the taxi she’d gotten into would an hour later swerve into the path of an oncoming truck. It was quite impressive she’d even tried, you’d said dryly.
The sight of your vulnerability unlocked an honesty within me, and I found myself telling you, “On occasion you meet someone, and you know that they’re going to be somebody important to the world. They’re going to move on to do great things—they’re going to move on to greatness. It’s a rare quality—you only see it in one or two people in a lifetime. But you can feel it in your blood when you talk to them, when you witness the way they work. And everyone else who meets them can sense it too: that this person is set to be the point at which history diverges from what it’s been barrelling blindly towards. They will seize the future and sear it with greatness while the rest of us won’t ever make it to the footnotes of history, even if we try.”
From the window, the brilliant afternoon light cast a halo over the crown of your head, shielding your features from sight so they seemed to be continually dissolving in gold. I sketched in your expression. At the turn of an invisible hand, the light receded, and as a gentle affection traced the corners of your mouth, I saw that you were moved, your lips parting lightly, ready to break your code of distance, surrender the sovereignty of discretion to sentimentality. You were beautiful and spectacular—perfectly made for loss. In the bated silence, I longed to step into that golden light with you, to keep history waiting forever behind a window. Everything would stay the same in that light. Everything precious and yet to be fulfilled. But as you wavered in your deliberation, the call of the world came rushing back, shutting your mouth to keep your heart a secret, so only the world would know it.
Tropical heat softens people. Back home, the humidity made them languid, forced them to take cover in cavernous air-conditioned shopping malls which made them comfortable enough to forget human endeavour. They could continue to talk about food, shopping, insurance, kitchen renovations—tangible, concrete details that didn’t matter after dark, but which distracted enough from the vacuum of non-ambition, the pre-made future for the well-behaved. This softness made citizens obstinate, made them not leave even if they fantasised about doing so. At night, they didn’t look up at the stars. They didn’t see the point of it.
I felt the grip of fixed-ness whenever I took the train to work. I felt it most when people pressed in beside me, listless and unseeing, plugged into their phones to hide themselves. They and I travelled at an automated pace, in a hive-like swarm, passing industrial estates and high-rise flats where laundry hung along corridor rails and windows were little stamps of ceiling fans and television glow. It was no wonder people tended not to look out at the view. I thought those who loved the heartlands were desensitised. I thought their desensitisation happened gradually and unwittingly—perhaps mid-way through secondary school, or while they were still children—when they surrendered imagination to the Lego-block landscape, to the geometry of concrete pathways, to punishment or humiliation whenever they failed to follow a rule. In order to thrive here, they had to find something to love about the place: the food, the twenty-four-seven convenience, the hard resistance to tenderness that passed for love. I stayed because, perversely, I was fascinated by the willingness of people to embrace something that was, clearly to me, killing them inside. I thought I could hold up a lens to their travesty of settled existence; expose it, shame it into changing.
After graduation, I joined the national paper, with the crusading hope of breaking a story that would reset culture—or everything I hated about it. Instead of the foreign desk, I was posted to the lifestyle section. I reported to Warren, my supervising editor, who had a penchant for camel blazers and penny loafers. For gravitas, he sported a five o’clock shadow and a genteel finish to his speaking style. He spoke with passion about how most people lacked the discipline to see through their ideas. If they only pushed themselves more, he wagered, they’d actually finish things. Warren’s maxim was that talented people weren’t the ones who would succeed because early attention made them complacent—but the hardworking ones, they would rise in the end. He followed briefs from the Editor-in-Chief to the letter, and preferred trends such as listicles or historical soundbites that were government-friendly enough to be mildly fictitious—articles that came without implications. Here, potential wasn’t meant to be fulfilled, it was meant to go unseen, shelved as some vestigial offshoot of the Un-Adult, as inconvenient as a tantrum devolved from a child’s attempt at make-belief. It was transgressive to aim for anything higher than what had already been established as acceptably competent, a standard several paces removed from the seismic threat of novelty, so everyone could reach it, this communal level that was fair to all. When you write, think of the Common Man. Think of the masses. It was difficult to fault Warren for thinking within orderly lines of obedience; slowly but surely, he’d built the foundations of his world according to state-approved self-actualisation. He had a weekly column, Dinner With The Editor, in which he interviewed a rising profile over dinner at a restaurant of their choice, and asked questions about their favourite childhood memory or the food they missed most when they were abroad. Because he loved the country just the way it was, none of the content he oversaw should have been life-changing. Instead, it would shed light on the literal things that mattered for a good life here—an espousal of the status quo in preservation of the build-by-numbers pathway he and many others had trodden, to be inherited by his children and his children’s children to come, and if people were disgruntled in a city as easy to live in as ours was, it was because they hadn’t suffered enough early on in life to appreciate what they had today.
Editorial meetings were where he could hold court competitively. He had a habit of perching on the table while leading discussions such that whenever a suggestion floored him, he had enough legroom to give his ankle a good wiggle, a tic I suspected he’d never shaken off since boyhood. “Come on, what’s the buzzword?” he’d say, snapping his fingers for pizazz. The point would then circle back to a trending article he saw online or a viral something his wife had watched. It was moments like this that made me miss your unintentional sweetness, your proclivity for quiet understanding. And it was during these moments that I’d feel the urge to tell Warren what a poseur he was, that his work was a pastiche of ideas stolen from the weak or unsuspecting.
Your wife will leave you eventually, I thought cruelly whenever I caught him frowning in concentration at his screen. She’ll leave you when she realises you’re a sham of who you try to be.
Over time, I ceded my convictions to the uniformity of working life. I wrote mindlessly about whatever was assigned to me: red carpet fashion, home interiors of local celebrities, Ten new cafés for that Valentine’s date! After work, I spent more than I deserved to on things I didn’t need. It was as if my absorption into frivolity had set off a voracious need to self-preserve by consumption. I bought dresses and shoes I didn’t wear. I went to dinner at the restaurants that were chronicled in the listicles. I rented a room in an apartment close to the centre of the city. It had a pool and a gym. It wasn’t lost on me that the softness I’d detested had billowed into the chamber of my most malleable beliefs and altered without resistance the way I’d existed in the world. The suffocation happened slowly, and by the end of my second year at the press, I no longer had the motivation to leave. My submission to the system surprised me, and I wondered if the heat death of my initial drive to report on something groundbreaking—to be a part of something bigger and purposeful and worthy of sacrifice—was ultimately due to the shapelessness of my own potential. It wasn’t specific enough, like yours was.
Initially, I found it funny to rant about how banal my assignments were—how corny, how derivative—but I stopped sharing details about work with you once the chances of any grand escape from its ordinariness steadily dimmed. I couldn’t shake off the uneasiness that I’d failed to fulfil an implicit obligation merited by our bond; I was afraid if I articulated fully the foreseeable permanence of my regime, you would see me for who I had become. Then I’d lose you the way I was losing myself—as a stranger.
But to you, things were constantly in the making, even if they didn’t seem to visibly progress. Most events were improbable in the first place. Wars began and ended. Empires rose and fell. A decade ago, no one could have predicted the detours they would undertake today.
When I was posted to the London bureau to cover the peace summit for two weeks, you smiled and said it was what I should have already expected.
Nothing could pull you away from the enormity of time and space.
I knew you’d been troubled by work, though you never disclosed details. You were enamoured still by the sprawling dream-singed capital you’d landed in. You’d watched in awe as the sun sunk low over bridge towers, navigated with pride the underground maze we’d willed to a playground of parks and theatres and museums, whispered in my ear an incantation of faith. But in moments of quiet, you often drifted into that immense place beneath the tide. You’d taken to shutting yourself in your apartment whenever you weren’t in the lab.
Beyond the walls of your mind, a procession of zeal had taken hold of the city as it awaited a truce between nations or a deadlock among men. A reclamation of power was taking place, to be witnessed and recorded and summoned again for posterity. The crowd lit their flares, white as starlight, and crossed the gridlines of ordinary restraint into Westminster. Their messages merged as they rallied in a chorus of shouts and pleas, each voice echoing the one before it, each person a canvas for the passions of others. I tried to memorise everything: The woman standing on the podium, a pilgrim, a magician in disguise, her garland of pearl-grey tendrils blowing in the wind as she chanted her song of restoration. Daffodils that had been distributed as tokens of peace, fallen by the wayside and trampled into cinder. Every face I photographed, unmasking only solidarity or hostility. But an event can never fully be captured, only re-imagined—and in its first retelling, the story would always be as extraordinary as the instant life first began.
As soon as the summit was over, I raced over to your place, breathless from the wilderness, the great feast of life I’d partaken in simply by observing, and firmly convinced that the outcome in the room had been transformed by everything outside it. To sustain the fullness of the extraordinary, to share it with you before it could perish into understanding, I had to reach you at the speed of light.
I found you at rest.
Your bedroom door was open, blown against the wall like a sail. You lay upside-down at the foot of your bed, staring at the ceiling, blinded light from the window splayed all around you like wings.
You stayed still, waiting—for intervention, for truth.
I sat down beside you. “You missed the whole thing. Do you want to see the pictures?”
A decision turned in your mind like a pebble.
“Renee.” Your voice was audible, but only just, so it was closer to thought than speech. “Why haven’t you walked away?”
You sat up, and your hair fell over your eyes. It was difficult to read your face in the semi-light. Through the blinds, a blue dusk was deepening across the aether, high above the snow-painted branches of a tree. The whisper of an answer hovered just beyond reach—around you, within you.
Far out into the streets where frost was melting into new grass, the throng of marchers were reassembling themselves, galvanised by the same call to devotion. The quest to assume a higher nature, to fall into our rightful, honoured places in time, until everything falls to darkness, until the point at which we reach equilibrium. Did you know it then? How things would end?
“Do you want me to?” I asked.
“No, it’s just a question,” you mumbled. Your gaze fell past the edge of the bed towards the shadows on the wall.
Elsewhere, the distant sound of sirens. The speeding towards something dramatic, towards the climax of an ending or the beginning of some unwanted descent into truth.
I lit a cigarette.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” you said.
“Then you shouldn’t ask questions that necessitate smoking.”
“It’ll set off the alarm,” you murmured, taking the tab from my fingers. You took a brisk drag, then opened the window to stub out its smouldering glow on a bed of frost that had bloomed along the sill. Winter screamed into the room, constellating with sparks of ash and ember, little runes of time blown back to their source with vengeance. Wasn’t it Leibniz who proposed that every individual substance contains the entire history of the universe including its ending? The marks and traces of the world’s story, gleaming beads of drama and spectacle, each one unspooling with calculated precision, each one its own remarkable contribution to humanity, each one descending from the previous—Would it be different this time? The next time?
With every breath, the world grows less coherent, undoing itself atom by atom, in a slow dissipation of potential. But our lives provide an energetic substance so rich and dense and complex that by the time the universe contracts, it would implode into new galaxies, new variations of us.
Elsewhere, a Molotov arced its way through the air. Glass-cut skin pressed up against riot shields. The story was already drifting across the airwaves, eddying through the minds of those who would repeat it, until it congealed into something fictive enough for belief. I should be there, send my version of it to the holographic fragment of my life back home, where Warren and the rest were awaiting my expected, fail-safe return, this foreseeable arc of destiny I was bound to and behind which my part in your story would end.
But life with you felt the most real—it was the only life that mattered.
I would have to leave eventually, but not now. Not when the air was sweet with cigarettes and winter, and the dusk was deepening steadily, approvingly, as you stood by the window wrapped in the dusk-glow. I stood with you, so we were both now wearing the light, to look into the mirror of the world. Your face was close enough to mine I could feel your breath on my cheek. Smoke ghosted its vanishing voyage between us. The draught bore through our clothes. Neither of us made to close the window.
“I should go,” I said.
But I reached for your face instead. You remained stock-still under the winter light. I slid my hand under your shirt, over your heart. Your entire body tensed, then surrendered. Your heartbeat pulsed through the warmth of your skin, every beat in proof of time. The opening of a valve. The rush of blood, unconstricted by expectation. Life opens, briefly, and closes as quickly as it begins. You didn’t own this force, not physically. It derived its continuation from a prior covenant through which it had welded its authority with yours, so you were now powerless to its honouring. How much time did you agree to? How much time remained? You were made aware of it, absently, through your dedication to truth, to the answers you’d demanded about why you’d chosen to live. Caged under your ribs, the life within you coursed freely, on its own time, immune to any change of mind. It wasn’t meant to be outrun.
Elsewhere, the chanting began again. Amidst the roaring invocation of change, the woman on the podium knelt down to pray. I should be there. The reel would hurry on without me, and I would lose my place in the world; perhaps the next opportunity would be something less vital and defining, divine punishment for my resistance to providence, for my stubborn collusion in the rearrangement of my own destiny.
But as your hand closed over my wrist, you looked at me and dissolved all other wars.
Hours later, I awoke through a fog of sleep to a presentiment of empty rooms. Around me, frissons of darkness had settled in thick, grainy layers. The blinds were drawn and the blue had all but disappeared, as if the earth had withdrawn its love to compensate for an overextension of generosity earlier that evening, and drawn you along with it, along with the echoes of the crowd. Stretched across the other half of the bed was an aching absence that rested in your place.
What time was it?
Perhaps you’d gone off to the lab, for a walk, for a visit to a different realm in search of an answer to whatever kept you up at night. I should have expected it of you. I should have known better. A formless dream clawed through my mind, and the only conscious thought that remained was a passing realisation that I needed to live more years before… Before what, exactly? An understanding of my own life?
It was too late for questions and far too early for answers.
The next morning, as if to indicate that the scale had been balanced by whatever had been taken in the night, light threw the room into stark relief, and I found you in the kitchen making coffee.
In a science trivia interview, you said your favourite experiment of all time was the twin-photon experiment in Geneva: When a stimulus was applied to one of two photons of light that were separated by several miles, both photons simultaneously moved along the same pathway, even though there were equally possible alternative paths to choose from at random. No matter the distance between them, they remained connected, identical in movement.
You said it functioned like a prayer.
You first found Clauser in a storm drain, on your way to work. But you were in a hurry, you didn’t stop to act. When you headed home that evening, she was still there. Collarless, motherless. Fur matted with mud and dirt. You took her presence as a sign. You wrapped her in your jacket, carried her back to your apartment. You let her sleep at the foot of your bed. You joked that she was your wolf pup, said she was frightened of her own shadow so she followed yours.
When you disappeared, it didn’t take her long to go missing too.
Every year, you got closer and closer to the centre. A television interview. A press conference. Your permanent move to London. Your visits home. My visits there. Then one day, you reached it: an innocuous pivot into what had once seemed impossibly possible, and suddenly, predictably earned, a secret of the world was yours. The weight of it crashed through your apartment, seeped into the tiny breaks in your routine, pulling and twisting around the grids of tables, burrowing through the neat airy fissures separating coffee mugs and paper folders, before curling up on each of our shoulders, anchoring us to opposite sides of your living room. I had broken the comfort of ambiguity between us, spoken what was supposed to be sacred, unutterable. I thought it would have unlocked you.
“Why now, Renee?”
“Then when? The next life?”
You looked away. “Not now.”
You turned back to me. “You have to be careful with time, Renee. It’s only enough for the greatest thing you’re meant to do with your life.”
“Not everything’s about accomplishment.”
“It is when it means the difference between life and death.”
“Well, not everyone’s like you. Not everyone ends up changing the world.”
“You will if you try!” you thundered. Almost immediately, you drew back. “Sorry, l didn’t mean it like that—” You took a few steps forward, reached for me. “Renee, I’m sorry—”
I backed away from your touch. “Why are you so afraid of intimacy? Because it’s the one risk you can’t take?”
Your flinch was barely perceptible, but it was there, otherwise you remained perfectly still, your features curtained by shadow. Suddenly, I was afraid that I’d gone too far, pushed you further into yourself. But it was impossible to hold back now.
“You shut the warmth out. You’re contemptuous of it.”
“I’m not contemptuous of it.”
“Then why can’t you tell me what you feel?”
The air grew still. Everything waited. We stayed like this in interminable silence, unable to look at each other. The distance between us was now insurmountable, spanning the countries we’d each travelled to, calls that were never dialled, texts that were never sent, thoughts that were conveniently, cowardly pushed aside for a false sense of self-respect. It was the knowledge buried behind your gestures that hurt most; the buttoning of coats, the wrapping of scarves, the way you reached into a warm wool pocket for your phone as it rang, as your thoughts hurtled towards the obligations of your destiny that awaited you after you made your exit.
It was your ride. You answered the call haltingly, told the driver you were sorry, you were on your way down. Quietly, simply, you gathered your things and left the room. I watched your shadow halt briefly before it disappeared altogether past the slit of crystal light under the door.
I met Ben at a company reception. He’d walked up with two glasses of champagne, said he hated the pretend-fun of corporate shindigs, but hey, that’s life, so why not humour it? I liked how unguarded he was, how he carried himself without any hint of self-consciousness. His view of the world was unadorned and direct, just like his reporting. He was unfazed by global anxieties—too much worrying, not enough doing—and had dedicated himself to spotlighting positive entrepreneurial advice for the local business beat. The bombings and sanctions, the demonstrations, the violence—these were far-flung events that hung loosely on the periphery of the everyman’s priorities, and they would surely occur again, whether or not anyone was watching.
After I’d lost touch with you, settling for contentment seemed essential, even radical. As if the next steps had been preset, he moved into my rental within a year and we put in a ballot for a new flat. Gradually, unabashedly, his possessions took over the spaces that had once been wholly mine, and the practicalities of our lives melded and fitted together like ready-made parts of a dollhouse—accessories included. His books on game theory and pluralism closed out the gaps along my bookshelves. The wardrobe displayed a new row of immaculately pressed linen shirts, arranged according to hue and marked with the breezy arctic scent of his aftershave. Jointly taken photographs were framed along the mantelpiece in the living room and gladly replenished with ever more recent ones. I was intrigued by the way things fell into place, as antipodal points on an unfinished map.
With Ben, the world was regular and dependable. I didn’t have to second-guess. We cooked dinner together, saved each other’s schedules on our calendars, made plans to travel to Hokkaido for the ski season. He made it a daily habit to tell me he loved me. To complete the ritual, to keep all of it, I said it back to him. His confidence, his sureness that we had everything to be grateful for, seemed enough to keep us both safely moored to a well-marked shore.
Just once, while lying in his arms, I asked if he was afraid this was all our lives were ever meant to be.
“It doesn’t get better than this for most people,” he reassured. “We’re the lucky ones.”
But I knew I had mistaken a different set of expectations for simplicity.
When I told Ben I was leaving him, he was in the living room working on an article. He looked up at me, confused. “We’ll lose the deposit,” he mused plainly.
Then he stood up and asked if there was someone else.
The fear of freedom—it was in everyone who stayed. It wasn’t the chaos or anarchy they’d imagined would someday come, but the illumination of what they’d forsaken for a proximation of fulfilment. The pain of it lay dormant, feeding quietly in the recesses of domestic squalor. It was there, every day on the news. The phantom reach of childhood, appearing as a turntable of recycled incidents, one household at a time. The threats. The arrests. The recriminations. Progress, delayed once more, on the road to peace. The rage was waiting to be set free, whether or not we were paying attention.
He didn’t see it coming either. It happened in a flash—so sudden and stunning it seemed not to have come from him but the hand of God.
I froze, the ache in my jaw reverberating the knowledge that this was true, this was the preset event, the shattering of the illusion he and I had built around ourselves. He was frozen too, in horror. The angst, the propensity to hurt—it was in him, as much as it was in me. It freed us into being human again.
When I walked out the door, he was seated on the couch, hugging his knees tightly to his chest as he rocked himself back to a stolen point in time.
If I asked you, perhaps you would have said I should have been a better person, that I should have been more careful with my thoughts. Or maybe you would have thought it silly. But I happened to be writing at a café in town when I spotted Warren’s wife entering, dressed in the striped wool dress she wore in the picture on his desk. She seemed smaller in person, and for all her posed girlishness, was strikingly womanly. For a moment, I thought about leaving in case Warren walked in. But then her lover entered, and slid into the booth beside her. They erupted in raucous banter like old friends, his arm around her shoulder, her heel sliding up against his shin. As she traced his fingers with hers, a new burden was released into the world.
When you won the Nobel, people started seeing the future differently. You’d quantified the existence of life after death. You’d proven the existence of a continuing consciousness in each of us, separate from the brain. Many were comforted, uplifted by the validation of what they’d already believed at a primordial level to be true. But your calculations also deduced that our souls were not eternal—that consciousness would end once the universe reached maximum entropy. You found that the same equations governed every living system, even the most sublime. Everything would cease to exist. Until then, we had a hundred trillion years more to make meaning out of existence, to understand the purpose of its finiteness.
Perhaps it unsettled you that the equations were within us, controlling the decisions we made but eluding observation by slipping under the many guises of conscious reasoning, so by the time our truest intentions emerged later, our destinies would have already been fulfilled. Date of birth, date of death, every thought, event, action—these were all predetermined, if what you’d discovered were to be believed. You insisted in interviews that we still had free will—even if its operations were confined to the outer folds of a churning fate machine—because no one could remember all the details of their contracts, and so couldn’t see through the end of their lives. If people remembered anything, they caught only glimpses in dreams or in rare waking moments when the future collided with the present. Elsewise, choice was created through the forgetting.
Back home, people took risks more frequently. They quit their jobs, started their own businesses. They stood up to their bosses. They loved more openly and spoke more tenderly. They broke away from old relationships. They made amends. They reconciled themselves to the prospect of faraway death—not just of themselves, but of all thought and feeling and belief. It was a shift so subtle it would have gone mostly unnoticed if not for how your name fed into conversational justifications for these decisions. Every school you grew up in claimed you as their poster boy. Parliamentary speakers often quoted you when they brought untested policies to the table, because your words imbued their arguments with the glamour of free-thinking morality, regardless of your approval. Your existence made people hopeful. It freed them into dreaming. Even if you hadn’t asked for it, the rigid mores of the previously dreamless softened enough to cloak you in something close to motherly affection: national pride.
I saw your father for the first time, at the press conference the night your car was found. It wasn’t my assignment, but I’d asked to go. In the lobby of the hotel, local reporters jostled for space with those who had flown in from elsewhere in the Asia Pacific. There were representatives from AP and Reuters. A photographer from SCMP.
A hush fell over the press pack as two officers sympathetically ushered him to the centre of a long table which was covered by a white tablecloth and upon which rested three microphones. He sat in the middle seat, flanked by the two officers, as the cameras devoured micro-traces of grief in his countenance. He wasn’t how I’d expected him to be. He was tall and rail-thin, and wore a grey polo tee dampened by rain. He spoke haltingly in Mandarin, in short, inadequate statements. He referred to you by your Chinese name, which was the first time I’d heard it spoken. Someone asked him to speak up because the rain was beating down on the windows. But everyone was so quiet. Whenever lightning flashed through the glass, faces illuminated softly.
He said you were a good boy. You studied hard. You did well in school. You were always careful, so he thinks it must have been an accident not through any fault of your own—you could have been distracted by the high beams from a passing vehicle. Those things could be blinding. Maybe your car had malfunctioned. He said he hadn’t known how to reach you, he hadn’t known you had returned. But it was a good thing you had come home. It was what fate had ordered. It brought everything to rest.
When I got back to the office shortly after midnight, only the intern, Carolyn, had remained. She offered to transcribe the recording. I told her not to come in the next day, and sent her home.
I broke your story.
I chose the most visceral photograph of the crash: A deformed sculpture of crushed metal, silvery and river-soaked, hanging off the crane that had been sent to retrieve it. A fringe of torn leather hanging off the seats. An etching of stones and minerals along the grooves of the bonnet. Spidery cracks in the crumpled windshield like the replica of a dragonfly’s wing.
I wrote about the certain impossibility of your survival. I backed it up with the officers’ report blaming the shitty weather that made the roads too slick. I translated your father’s statements. He said you were careful. You were always too careful. I included too the undocumented fact that you could never bring yourself to speak in Mandarin.
After it went to print, I tendered my resignation.
I started smoking again. Initially, I tried to keep it to a pack a day, but you know how it goes. I read somewhere that in Greenland, tobacco leaves were used by the Inuit as a medicine for the heart. They’re supposed to help release pain and gratitude. In the aftermath, I tried doing that whenever I was on a smoke break—release expectations of you back into the world. Be grateful for everything I had. The peace usually lasted for about fifteen minutes. Then the thoughts would come flooding back again.
Sometimes, I’d look up forum discussions online to see if I’d missed out on any new updates. Most theories had already been dissected repeatedly. Commenters uploaded stills of the crash site, tribute videos that edited these montage-style with an analogue filter—the same pictures that had been frozen in newsprint: Your car hanging off the bridge, the driver’s door open in mid-swing over the glistening, roiling river that surged out to sea. Theorists argued over discrepancies in weather conditions, the timestamp on surveillance footage, the blank pages of your boyhood on the foreign equatorial island where twelve-year-olds were cultivated to rank globally in test scores for math and science. There’s always a motive, they reasoned, for someone so exacting. It was poetic that you’d returned to the place of your birth without telling anyone—A homing instinct, wrote one—and driven to the heart of the city in the middle of the night to enact upon it the death of possibility.
They were all in consensus that the crash was unsurvivable—it was an accident, suicide, or an assassination by deep state actors. I resisted the theatricality of their conclusions. But no matter how the discussions threaded themselves, they led only to the kernel of myth that seeded the lure of its mystery: the belief that illustrious lives did not—could not—produce ordinarily simple ends.
Friendship to you was a sustenance of your different social needs; those you let in you’d selected carefully over the course of at least a year, so they each fulfilled one emotional or physical aspect of your being. To contact another from this circle would be tantamount to something worse than an intrusion, a gross violation of the sacred spheres created between you and each person. No one spoke of what you meant to them. To say anything would be to unravel a mystery that was true only in imagination. To speak would be to question the mutuality of their feelings for you—and what then was the basis of an insecurity so unbecoming? What you felt for one friend couldn’t be broadly applied to another—that was the unspoken lie we’d blissfully sheltered behind, away from the reality that you had taken care to treat all relationships that mattered with a fixed standard of consideration.
Everyone in your circle was replaceable as long as you treated them the same. If one was gone, you’d just have to find another who could be initiated into a friendship within the same amount of time it had taken you to get close to us. Not that you certainly made such calculations deliberately, but I suppose if each person was a variable instead of a constant, curiosity of all parties except you would be inevitably reduced. In the event of an accident, or a disappearance, or the confidence of a secret, you could leave without a trace. You could fall away any time you wished and the equation would dissolve on its own, taking your secrets with it. This was your form of social encryption.
But Lydia’s different. She was in the grey zone between acquaintance and friend, someone from our undergraduate years, the only other person I was acquainted with whom you’d allowed into your life. Lydia, whom I’d been in classes with, who’d greeted me with a friendly embrace whenever our twenty-year-old selves passed each other on the walkway to our classes. She was a woman beyond her years even then—certain of the way she thought, in possession of the way she moved. When she spoke, her sentences were devoid of qualifiers. Even the way she dressed spoke nothing of indecision; a leather jacket or red lipstick was brought out not on special occasions but on a random, otherwise inconsequential day so that one couldn’t help but wonder if this was the girl, the one with the spontaneous, celebratory existence. Lydia, whose presence itself commanded a celebration.
I’d been afraid to ask what your friendship with her had been like, whether she’d provided a crucial outlet for your thoughts that I couldn’t, whether you’d felt understood by her in ways I could not reach, if she needed you less than I did and thus your friendship with her had been freer, her companionship more warranted. I saw how you were comforted by the motherly touches she gave to you and those around her, her nurturing words, her reassuring calmness. She did everything right, didn’t cave to ambiguity. She wasn’t as assailable to intemperate compulsions as me. It was why I never kept in touch with her after graduation; I’d feared I’d fall short in her eyes—and the fall would have been inevitable, contained in a moment of lapsed propriety like an off-colour joke or showing up late for an appointment—so I kept my distance.
Until I got a call from her about your memorial service—the one she’d been organising.
We met up in town. When I arrived, she was already seated by the window, draped in a blush sheath dress and buffered from the glass by a black Birkin tote.
“I ordered you a coffee, hope you don’t mind,” she said, rising for a quick hug.
I’d forgotten that the light here was white and harsh in the mid-afternoon. It reflected sharply off the tiny silver studs in her ears, the delicate crucifix hanging from a thin chain set against the tanned skin of her clavicle. As she reached for her mug to take a sip, my eyes followed the glint of her gold wedding band. Against the sun, her face revealed only practical, angular stories: A young child her schedule orbited around. A husband making his steady climb up the civil service. The down payment on their new flat. An eventual upgrade to a condominium. Then ideally, a transplant to the States, or Western Europe, or Shanghai. Their current life in the city was temporary, a stepping stone arranged on a manicured hill. Lydia had worked for the right to that mobility. For all the approved frills with a touch of substance. Her daughter would be raised as a global citizen—she would see to it. Lydia’s life would renew itself, flourish through the lifeblood of her descendants in the order of increasing elegance.
“I hope this wasn’t too out of the way for you,” she said.
Fine creases appeared at the corners of her eyes whenever she blinked, fleeting reminders of years of information we weren’t privy to about each other. It’s a funny thing; when you don’t see someone for over a decade, they just don’t look as real. Seeing Lydia, it was hard to remember exactly what we had been like as students. It was as if she and I were in costume, playing ourselves as who we’d thought we would be at our current age. A double-exposed assemblage of the person in imagination and the person in their present physical reality, one layered self over the other. We were only half-present, half-real. The other halves of ourselves belonged to the kids along the walkway to class, who were embracing lightly, who trusted in the future, trusted that they would always do the right thing, who believed they would permanently remain on the right side of history. They were still out there, standing on the threshold of adulthood, living out the moment of goodwill over and over.
“It’s been, what? A decade?” I asked.
“More. It’s been thirteen years. You and I. I’ve always wondered about you,” she said warmly. “Are you still with the paper?”
“No, I left. Decided to take a break. And what about you? How’s your family?”
“He’s met my daughter, Sophie,” she said, looking down at her hands. The beginnings of a smile tugged at the corners of her lips as she recollected a memory I didn’t want to know.
“That’s really lovely.”
“She turned four in August.”
Beyond the spread of families, the lotus petals of the ArtScience Museum rose in perpetual mid-bloom. Somewhere in the children’s section, her husband and child were playing with light projections in a darkened gallery. Thirty-two dollars for an adult, sixteen for those twelve-and-under. Later, Lydia would join them for dinner in a nearby restaurant overlooking the river, overlooking the lights of the commercial buildings and the lit bridges and the tourists who crawl all over the bank like ants. They’d drive home later in their car, with their child securely fastened in the child seat. In private moments with her daughter, she’d speak of you, a mythic figure, her mythic friend.
“She’ll be there on Saturday, so you’ll finally get to meet her. The programme starts at ten. At the Good Shepherd.” As if it were the thoughtful thing to do, she added, “It’s walking distance from City Hall.”
“He’s not religious.”
“It’s just a venue. The logistics were easier,” she said lightly. “I’m giving the eulogy. But if you have something you’d like to say, let me know, and I’ll include you in the line-up.”
“It’s alright, I don’t have anything prepared,” I said. It was hard to look her in the eye. “But thanks for asking.”
Outside, the children’s voices rose feverishly, small footsteps pummelling frenzied blows onto concrete. Their grandparents sat close by, staring, but not watching. Age had vaporised any kind of distinguishing feature that made them part of the recognisable. If they went missing, would they go unnoticed by members of the public?
I turned back to Lydia.
“You’re attending, aren’t you?” she asked.
“I’ll try to make it.”
Back in school, it was always easy to spot someone who had been raised solidly by the ease and assurance of their interactions with others. Theirs was an etiquette that was calmer, steadier. They graced social spaces with poise and skill that seemed to flow from a vast emotional resource. They could assert themselves without hesitation, effortlessly fall within behavioural margins that connoted being on the right side of social order: Show up on time for class. Knock coolly on a door and wait to be called in. Greet professors with deferential admiration. Infuse emails with an adequate supply of Ps and Qs. Volunteer with the most desirable social causes, endeavours both virtuous and profile-enhancing, their Rumspringa into communes of harder-won survival, exotic terrain upon which benevolent life purpose could ascend. But these sojourns into disorder were part of the ecosystem of securely cultivated upbringing—they were orderly in essence and lacked the stickiness of desperation that grows from neglect. The most successful recipients of the parental lottery turned out confident and enterprising, privileged but self-aware. They could witness abjection, participate in its alleviation, but never plummet into the hot centre of toxicity that unleashed its primal scream.
Lack of nurture shows up desperate and ugly. It grows up wild. The goals of the maladjusted were the same, the stakes different. The jagged edges of hypervigilance, the commitment to a different set of rules, to instinctual rebellion against control, against structure not their own. I saw it in you, too—a similar shame, which you disguised as coolness. You were careful to avoid anything that would inadvertently lead to the disclosure of who you really were—too tightly bound by self-repulsion. In light of your discovery, you could convince yourself, for the duration of its relevance, that you existed on the cusp of newness. Discovery kept you newborn, allowed you to move further away from yourself, become the version that was closer to some bright, numinous divinity, so you could arrive at a new point of origin.
Lydia wasn’t acquainted with the impulse to make up for what had been lacking—the need to mess up, to be irresponsible, to welcome an invasion of immaturity at unpredictable intervals in adulthood. Lydia wouldn’t understand. She’s never known neglect first-hand, never had her life even mildly affected by it, even though she heads the manpower ministry’s poverty reduction campaign. She sees the first signs of irresponsibility as an uncorrected aberration, an inexcusable weakness of character. She wouldn’t understand that a decade after graduation, lack shows up as the difference between ordering a coffee for a latecomer and flaking out on a corpse-less funeral.
“I understand it’s difficult,” she said. “But I know it would mean a lot to him. It’s a proper goodbye.” She reached into her purse, and took out a sealed brown envelope the size of a postcard. “He wanted you to have this.”
The envelope was pristine, carefully taken care of. It was padded inside with bubble wrap, and carried a small solid object.
“He made me the executor of his will,” I heard her say.
I felt my throat constricting.
“I felt seen by him too. He had that gift,” Lydia continued, gazing out the window at the light that haloed the children playing outside. “Gosh, I used to think—” She stopped, then looked down at her mug, unable to shrug off the thought. “I used to think I was in love with him. But I realised later on, after I met my husband, that I was mistaken. With Neal, I felt privileged—Just so special, you know?—that he’d let me in. I never wanted to let go of that feeling.”
“Do you think he loved you, at some point? Neal.”
She took a sip of her coffee. Took her time. Searched for what to disclose, what to keep. “Renee, he means a lot to a lot of people,” she said finally. “I know it’s not an easy thing to accept.” She reached for my hand. Her palm was soft and warm. Was that why you kept in touch with her all these years? Because her presence pulled you closer to the soothing hearth of normality?
“And you’ve accepted it?”
“You know what I’ve learnt as a parent? A person can power through anything. Anything, Renee. As long as they have a sense of self. If they don’t, and they lose a sense of purpose, they’re either forced to become a different person or they break apart like a porcelain doll. He was a boy in need of guidance. Instead of that, he found enablement. People who saw only his brilliance and what it represented, and they found it difficult to say no to him. But there’s a limit to every kind of momentum, no matter how blazing it begins. When he discovered he couldn’t bend the universe to his will, he decided his greatest act of revolt would be to leave by choice. Now, I know you’re afraid to know this, but truth doesn’t hide—it grows. It invades every corner of your life. It makes sure you acknowledge it. When you don’t, it destroys you.”
“You didn’t stop him.”
Lydia froze. A flash of pain swept across her face—only for a second—but she composed herself with the poise of a dancer in a duel. “Could I? Could you? He was trying to disprove his calculations, Renee—He wanted to prove the existence of eternity—” She covered her mouth to suppress her sob, and dropped her voice. “I’ve gone over this in my head every day for too long and I’m not here to apportion blame. When it comes down to it, we’re all equally accountable.”
She gathered her bag, and stood up gracefully, becoming fully the woman she was always meant to become. “I’ll see you on Saturday. Please don’t be late.” Wiping her eyes hurriedly, she put on her sunglasses, then strode briskly out into the blinding sunlight where the children were still playing, their laughter tearing through the air in joyous, life-filled shrieks.
I blinked back the blur of my reflection.
I unsealed the envelope.
Nestled at the bottom was a key. Attached to it was a note in your handwriting, spelling out the address of your old apartment.
After your disappearance, I dreamt frequently of a murmuration of starlings, a black spell across a coast I’ve never been to. The flock freewheeled, dipped, swerved, billowed in a smoky shape-shifting orbit to the sky, higher and higher, in a synchronised beating of wings, until a sudden decision came to roost upon them, and the shadowy swell disappeared back into the marshes, sucked to the ground as breath.
I understood this to be a part of you—a seasonal pattern, an inborn instinct towards flight, towards visibility of the highest order and sudden oblivion. It kept you out of reach of anyone.
In the still hours of night, I’d imagine being you, wherever you were. Sometimes you were back home in the city, standing in the evening train, incongruent in a trench coat, tall and serene amongst the proletariat who were herded and washed-out and desperately focused on the nearness and sureness of tangible, concrete pleasures. Sometimes you were in that dream marsh, alone and at peace with yourself. These inventions of my anxieties barricaded me against the prospect that you had been wrong: maybe consciousness ended with physical death so you were now permanently nothing.
It was oddly comforting then, that whenever I lay submerged in anything close to panic or fear or rage, I felt I could single-handedly tilt the direction of the future a fraction away from any kind of prediction, wrestle it from the minds of others, by an assertion of thought. I could fracture the power of the collective just by wanting something else. I believed if I desired your return enough, a trail would be set outside in the world which would lead me to the sacred place that held your presence.
Equally so, you could follow it and come back.
On the cab ride from Heathrow, your voice played from the radio. The station was doing a revival of your podcast in recognition of World Science Day. I took it as a signal that the distance between us was closing. Through the mouth of a tunnel, cars were swallowed whole and spotlit, their bodies shimmering like iridescent beetles as they slid along the rain-washed tongue of asphalt with limitless haste.
As the cab glided further into the turn of the decade, your voice spoke about compassion and restitution in an age where it was fashionable, appropriate, to be cynical. I almost remembered how you’d sounded when you were young and familiar, in a moment locked in the past, when you were still seated by the window that light-filled afternoon, permanently and unalterably hopeful. But there was an edge to your voice now, coarsened by years, vacillating between resolution and regret, the steady cadence of your words dissembling a tide of anger, the pauses between your sentences drawn out by the weight of your disillusionment. In my mind’s eye, you were in a room, large and hollow, isolated from the outside world, speaking in the darkness, hunched over by the weight of your mortality.
There’s hardly enough time, your voice was saying. But we make do with it.
A profound grief for the past lodged itself in my chest and soldered its way through my throat. I was alone. I was alone in the world because I’d become separated from myself. Yet here I was, halfway across the globe, bent on retrieving your presence—the success of which was predicated on how much I trusted in your previous self-belief. What could I have told Lydia? That your existence hadn’t been diminished, but in fact had become amplified by the circumstantial probability of your death—and why the fuck so? That to listen to her eulogy for you would somehow send you across the threshold, make Heaven and Hell real places, beatify you and absolve you of all your choices so you would no longer be fallible, reachable. You would cease to exist, completely.
After this, I resolved, I won’t be tethered to anyone else. You would be the last.
The cab emerged from the tunnel. Up ahead, lights polluted the sky.
I watched the meter cross the sixty-pound mark in glowing red numerals and mildly regretted not taking the rail. The heat from the vent cut a warm channel through the centre of the cab, but spread unevenly out towards the sides. I put on my earphones.
“Here for holiday?” asked my driver.
I pretended I couldn’t hear him.
He turned off the radio and concentrated on the road. Around us, traffic had slowed to a glacial crawl. In the car next to us—a red Vauxhall pulling slightly ahead—the angelic face of a child peeked out above a row of miniature teddy bears lining the rear window. She placed a palm against the glass. She looked at me, then breathed into her reflection. An exhalation of life, her whole future ahead. The Vauxhall accelerated and the child disappeared from view.
My driver made a left and our cab parted ways with the commuting ensemble as we entered a quick-flowing turn lane. A traffic officer in a neon green vest stood at the axis of the junction, waving us on.
“There was a protest a few hours earlier,” said my driver. “You missed the excitement. Group of yobs with Swiss Army knives—the whole lot of ’em arrested. I saw it from out here. Roads jammed all the way to the park.”
We slowed down at another turn, and his eyes met mine through the rear-view mirror again. I averted my gaze.
“You speak English?” he asked.
My driver shook his head and smiled. He hummed a ditty to himself as we stopped at a red light, and drummed his fingers on the outer curve of the steering wheel.
We rounded a corner into a private cul-de-sac where several of the window fronts were pigmented with festive lights in the colours of birthday cake sprinkles. I heard the tires crunch through the frost that glazed the road. I sensed we had circled into a dark snow globe, one which had stood still for too long, waiting to be shaken by the right confluence of person and circumstance and will.
The cab pulled up along a row of white terrace houses, all harshly lit by LED streetlamps that burned with cloudy mist. All the windows were dark, revealing only the mirrored version of the street: lines of white and black, speckled with streetlight. Yours was the third door from the end of the street. Snow covered the steps to the front door. I could hear my own breathing. I could feel my pulse throbbing through my neck. My own mortality figured as a separate presence beside me.
“Home sweet home,” my driver announced.
I stepped out into your world. On the ground, shards of gold and silver smeared across black tar like glitter spray on a child’s wet hair. My driver helped carry my luggage to the steps outside the door. He searched his pockets, then presented me his name card; dark gold serif engraved on waxy card stock. “When you need a ride to the airport, you call me,” he said kindly. He gave a little bow, said goodnight, and with a last affable smile, turned and got back into the cab with a lilt in his step. I heard him pull away only after I’d turned the key in the lock.
As the cab vanished round the bend, an active quiet hung over the street, starless and milk-grey, and I was made aware of my singular existence in the landscape of your mind. I had slipped into your reality and broken the links to all others. It was as though the top layer of the world, deadened and reflexive, had been pried open to reveal what had always been there: a river of aliveness that coursed through the centre of a great being. Everything was as it was, materially the same, but meaningful, purposeful; an elevation so slight it was only noticeable with the sudden intentionality of every innocuous action, such as the unlocking of a door. There was no going back. I was to be here for an indeterminable amount of time, setting in motion the course of your will.
I pushed open the door and felt for the light switch. There were footsteps, quick and light—an animal’s.
Temperate weather is highly textured. It’s a cold that’s dry, that moves in currents across your cheeks, nose, forehead. When you inhale, it scrapes against your lungs, shocks you into conscious breathing. It makes you think you want to survive. You walk out, you need a jacket or you’d feel a stronger sense of your own mortality, for even though it’s not cold enough to freeze to death, it’s cold enough to remind you that you’re on your own. So you get familiar with the presence of this alien weather as it terraforms a home around you, a displaced adult, unlovable and grotesque in your constantly mutating pangs of abjection and loneliness and neediness, caught in incremental stages of a half-baked self-care routine: buying the same groceries, throwing out the trash, reheating last night’s dinner, replying last week’s text from a friend. These are the bare necessities of a functional life, enough to hoist you over the parapet of passive annihilation. It’s movement that almost always saves you, sweeps you up in its hurry towards finality—Of what?
It keeps you curious enough to live.
It was snowing today, a continent away from home. Here was where the stairs leading up the underground were lined with dirt-caked gold, where lines of poetry were plastered intermittently between carriage ads, and the air got cold enough for people to notice the brevity of being alive.
Every evening, Clauser and I would head to the park before it got dark. She slept by the front door every night. She was brave like a wolf now—no longer your scared wolf pup. But she missed you, and I didn’t make up for it.
Outside your apartment, time flowed unreservedly.
I stopped at a kiosk to buy a pack of Marlboro Silvers and peanut butter M&M’s, and walked into the dry cold with Clauser tugging ahead. The crowd—mostly tourists and families—was headed the same way, towards Green Park. A shaft of light cut through the foliage. Bathed in its luminosity, the crowd slowed—time morphing into a freeform spectre, pulling away from the dictates of consistency in rebellion of its own purpose, time enacting its own death. The light shifted again, tracing a path straight through the crossing ahead.
I thought of you.
You tended to surface in my thoughts at odd moments. At a street junction. In a crowd. In traffic. Traffic always sounds like the wings of a plane taking off. I sometimes pretended I could hear the traffic in someone else’s mind, most of the time yours. It was nothing more than a game, not unlike the feeling that comes when you’re standing still in a moving crowd, the feeling that one could be in a vast many places at once. First, the drumbeats, pounding in my ears as I crossed the road just before the light turned red. I blinked back a snapshot of you, barely past the quarter turn of your life, a figment of potential, closing years and distance by smiling, running, embracing. Every movement, every breath, falling in photographs around me. You with your hood pulled over your head to block out the wind where your hair didn’t fall over your ears, the lapels of your coat folding over your mouth like wings so your thoughts, with their startling blinding clarity, fell through the air like powdered glass. We can change the future. The insatiable wish, more potent than the sum of eight billion inarticulate desires, cutting through everything except the truth. I watched you smiling. So happy, so golden. I knew if we both stayed at rest just a little longer, I would still eventually believe those words. But you didn’t choose to linger, because once the lights changed and the crowd dispersed, you disappeared into the stream of people with places to go.
The park was awash with a forlorn prettiness, a lace of bare trees and autumnal shrubs wrapped around a partially frozen lake. It had started to snow lightly, and ice shavings fell and disappeared into the furred hood of my parka. I took Clauser off her leash, and she bounded happily towards the edge of the lawn. Up ahead on the lake, a flock of swans had gathered where the ice allowed for rest. As I moved towards them, I tripped over a branch. I put my hand out to break the fall and braced for a hard hit. But when I made contact with the ground, the earth crumbled softly between my fingers. I stooped down at the edge of the embankment to wash the soil off my hands. The water was a bottomless grey sky where the ice had shaved off. My fingers plunged in, and the cold bit at my skin. All at once, a strange fear of drowning flooded me. My face stared back at me, features rippling and distorting as if to accommodate the shadows of my thoughts, but never to a point beyond recognition, so I was always the open reflection of what I hid.
I pulled myself up and glanced over at the ice patch. There was an ugly scratch along the surface leading up to the flock. The mark tore along the ice, razoring through the violent stillness of an immobilised current, its tributaries fanning out in opaque threads of smoke—the aftermath of a crash. Was this part of the thread you had weaved with your thoughts?
I lit a cigarette, and inhaled deeply.
The light was fading. The last rays touched the surface of the lake, tingeing the rippling edges with a deep fiery glow. This was how life would end—consumed by a magnificence that was continually burning itself out.
In the distance, Clauser barked. I exhaled, and called out to her.
We needed to keep moving, keep up with the future until its radiance ate into the present.
Once you were officially presumed dead, people back home reverted to their old ways of living. Mourning took place stoically, as an acknowledgement of your humanness after all. Your absence created room for the sudden awareness of futility, as everyone else edged closer towards distant extinction. It confirmed their earlier fears that big dreams came with a price tag; you’d died young because your triumphs were incompatible with the smallness of your station. To wish for more than realism was greed. Those who lived pragmatic existences lived longer, were given the chance to leave things neatly in place, to leave nothing unsaid—wasn’t that what mattered in the end?
They did this in preparation for the death of the universe, though they did not consciously know it. They did this to guard against losses they thought too great to bear, even if they themselves would become the losses of others. Before they decided to meet, fall in love, say the rites that would seal a union, build a home, have children, leave a legacy in the minds of those who would remember them, become a memory in order to prolong existence—they had a knowing that was still within them, that made them feel: The will to live and the will to die both indicate the existence of something eternal, even if it’s nothingness. You know this.
Back in your apartment, I sat in your living room where time stood still. Where all risks had already been taken, and all that was left to ignite was my belief in the possibility that your greatest discovery was yet to come—and that your future, and mine, were still unfolding.
So I waited. I lit a cigarette.
A wintry breeze swept inside the room and crested along my cheek.
I noticed the window, bordered by a white casement frame, a landscape of glass where faint light poured gently in, to be refracted in a rainbow beam visible only if one stood at the right spot, viewed it from the right angle. And through the cloud of light, the bare branches of a tree in its final chapter, patterning the multitudinous courses of life, ready for renewal.
I felt the smoke clear, felt the vanquishing of thoughts. An intimation of your arrival.
I watched the light shift under the door gap—the shadow of footsteps, weightless and unhurried. As silence cast its spell over the fading evening light, Clauser ran towards the door.
I stayed still, and felt.