I saw her wearing flowers in her hair once. She didn’t know I was watching. It was a warm day, the first truly warm day of the year. The professor had spilled the contents of his coffee pot on a stack of books, so she had dutifully taken them out to dry in the sun. But they couldn’t be left alone, the professor insisted. So she sat in the grass on the edge of the sidewalk upon which were scattered rows of tattered manuscripts smelling of coffee and a vanilla and must perfume. I read once that the great perfumers added sour to sweet, juxtaposed musk to rose. So now she was surrounded by vanilla and mildew, grass and mold, and the bitter warm tang of coffee, all reminiscent of a drawer long closed upon its opening. The sun stirred the air, coaxed forth hidden odors.
The grassy strip on which she sat was too thin for the riding lawn mower and therefore escaped the brutal crew cut which uniformed the sparse lawns, few and sickly amongst black tops and streets. At the edge of this little oasis grew an intrepid tangle of weeds bedecked with white blossoms, veined with blue and purple. A handful had opened, unfolding petals as delicate and soft as skin, soaking up sun. This handful she had gathered, had twisted their stems together, staining her fingers green and sticky as the plants’ lifeblood leaked through broken fibers.
This crown she set upon her head, lightly atop honey gold hair, messy with wind and frizzy with moisture. I had never seen her like this, sitting in the grass, shoes kicked off and pants legs rolled up, pale freckled face shimmering with a thin sheen of sweat. I had always thought her elegant, poised, mature. But now, sitting amongst her books with a light smile on her face and flowers in her hair, I saw child, witch, god. They were nameless flowers, weeds, a perfect crown for this nondescript queen.
A year later, I picked a bouquet of these flowers and laid them at her tombstone.
Last autumn was cold. You could smell it in August’s winds, feel it in September air. The cold stole in like an assassin until it announced its presence on a banner of ghostly breath issuing from my mouth. The next morning I awoke to find fingers of ice etched on cars. But then came an unexpected reprieve, a short Indian summer. The ice crept back from windows and the edges of ponds, released its clutch upon the air.
The cold had driven most animals into hiding, but now the undergrowth of new fallen leaves, brown and bronze, rustled with hidden life. There was a tiny wilderness, a scrap of trees, not big enough for a forest, which blocked the highway from my apartment. In it flowed a little stream. It was to this stream I walked on this last warm day. I had my camera, hoping to shoot a few birds, or, if the light was right, the last of the red and gold leaves. I walked for a while, taking nondescript pictures that have long since drifted into oblivion. As the light grew lower, I returned and sat by the stream. I was reluctant to return to the apartment, knowing that tomorrow the cold would no longer be held at bay. I watched the water tumble over mossy stones, the last rays of the sun glinting on them, in an almost meditative trance, camera forgotten by my side.
I felt it before I saw it. It was a change in the world around me, as if every stone, tree, every drop of water had suddenly inhaled a deep breath and had grown hushed. I slowly lifted my head from considerations of the stream and rested my gaze upon the far bank. A flash of gold-red caught my eye, coat of a small, sleek body. A small amber and gray face regarded me with two gold eyes. One ear swiveled, cocked to a noise that I did not hear. As suddenly as it appeared, the fox vanished, and by the time I thought to raise my camera, all I captured of the silent dazzling moment was a bronze blur in the sun.
How came a fox to that tattered scrap of wilderness I will never know, but I had not seen it before and never would again.
I never loved her, but I will admit I wanted to. And if I had been able to overcome my apathy. I might have been very good for her and she for me. As it is, I make this effort, this final grand gesture in writing this for her. Too little, too late, as eulogies always are. But no, I tell a falsehood. I do not write this for her. I write this for the world; as a photographer, I understand the importance of capturing a moment. A moment represents a whole. And she is a moment. And as a photographer, I understand that shadows are as important as light; as perfumers understand contrast, so do I. The character is in the contrast.
I never notice spring until the ends of trees burn green. One day I look up and instead of gray I see a green haze in the forest. I always regret the changing of seasons. Though I appreciate the warmth, I suddenly find myself missing the cold. I guess it sinks into you after a while, latches on, until you feel a bit lost without it. I remember the day before she died was just such a day. It was a Tuesday, a Tuesday filled with the sudden awareness at the passing of time.
That Wednesday dawned with the promise of spring. I could see it as I drove into campus. I could see the green mist on the gray slopes. Had I looked westward I would have seen the storm clouds on the horizon. But no one, it seems, looked westward that day, and the storm clouds stole in and opened an unforeseen rainstorm around six in the evening.
That day I arrived at the library a little after eight. I wasn’t there for any reason. I had no reason to be anywhere. I hid away in a corner where I could watch people come and go.
Eliza arrived for her shift around nine. It was dark outside and I could see the rain gleaming in the streetlight beyond the window. Eliza’s hair was wet. The rain had caught her by surprise as well and she hadn’t had time to return home. Her pea coat had no hood and was soaked through. She draped the coat across a chair and shook out her hair. She spoke for a moment with the person whose shift was ending and then took up her station behind the desk.
She spent most of the time reading, twirling a strand of honey hair between two fingers. Occasionally she would absently chew on the end of it. She always became engrossed while reading. I liked the look on her face when someone would approach and ask a question. It was sort of startled, like a dreamer shaken awake. It took her a moment to respond; she had to remember who and where she was.
Looking back now at the hours I spent watching her, I feel I should have foreseen what was coming. It seems so obvious now. She walked about replacing books on the shelves like a doe about to be shot. She was a Gatsby, a stupid, tragic Gatsby. I can see it plainly. Such a character could never survive long in this world. I see now that she would have died soon no matter what. This apathetic world was never for her.
“Excuse me,” she said. I had nodded off. “The library is closing.” I stood up quickly, a little embarrassed. Her eyes seemed pitying.
I gathered myself. “Ah, yes. Thank you Eliza.” She looked a little bemused and I realized that she didn’t know me. “I’ll go,” I said, and, picking up my bag, walked brusquely out. She was already turning out the lights as I left.
The pouring rain had petered to a cold drizzle. I had not parked far from the library, near the bus stop. As I got into the car, I could still see the lights in the library windows going out one by one. Eliza would be leaving the building, wrapped in her damp and ineffectual coat, locking up on her way out. I waited for her to reach the bus stop. I didn’t turn on any lights because I didn’t want her to think I was watching her. The bus was late. I waited with her, watching as she hunched in the dark against the cold, her hair becoming plastered to her face.
The bus finally came. The doors opened and she pulled out her wallet. She stopped before the open doors, suddenly realizing that something was missing from her wallet. She rifled through her purse, said something to the bus driver, bobbing her head apologetically. The doors closed and with a loud hiss the bus pulled away. She shivered, pulled her coat tight about her. I watched as she walked into the night, under pools of rain-dashed light, until she disappeared.
I sometimes wonder if one of the cars I passed on the way home that night was the one that hit her.
The power lines crackle overhead, filling the air with the monotonous buzz that characterizes the old house site. The cicadas sound like heat. It’s the dog days, a hot July. The beer I sip is warm and bitter in the back of my throat.
There are no certain, indisputable human truths. There are no women, no men, just chains of molecules forming tissues curling over minds and stretched taught across stomachs. I see the world as scatterings of atoms and it would be as foolish to look for meaning there as looking for shapes in the random scatterings of stars in the sky.
The rain had worn away by the day of her funeral. The sky refused to mourn for her as it had mourned for the heroes of fiction. There weren’t many people at her funeral, just her parents and a handful of students from the college. I looked around at them and I remember thinking, You’re fake, you’re rubberneckers, you didn’t know her. But perhaps they were thinking the same of me, sitting in the back row of mostly empty folding chairs, silent. But hell, at least I brought flowers.
For some reason I had always believed that Eliza was an orphan. But now I could see her parents, and they seemed so ordinary. Her father a gray haired salesman, red around the eyes but stoic, the mother with the same honey gold hair (though hers shone with strands of silver) bursting into fresh tears every few minutes.
When I went up to the coffin and set the scrappy bouquet of wildflowers there, the mother began to weep again. I heard her say something to her husband about “our baby’s favorite flowers.” That made me mad. I had wanted the flowers to be a secret, something only Eliza and I knew the significance of.
After the ceremony had ended, we all stood around, not sure what to do. I heard the students talking.
“It’s so sad,” said one “what was she doing out that late?”
“She was walking home from her shift at the library. She didn’t have bus fare,” I said quietly.
They turned toward me, and one of them said “How do you know?”
With their eyes on me, I felt uncomfortable and wished now I hadn’t spoken. “I was leaving the library at the same time she was. I saw her walking from the bus stop as I got into my car.”
A brunette with shaped eyebrows spoke up. She had cried throughout the ceremony, but had managed not to ruin her makeup. “If you saw her leave,” she sobbed, “why didn’t you give her a ride home?”
This struck me. I had never been anything other than a spectator, in my own mind. This was Eliza’s story, not mine. I began to see that it had never been the apathy of this world. It wasn’t the apathy of the bus driver or that of the driver of the car that killed her. It had always, and always will be my apathy. My apathy, my detachment, killed her.
The sun pools mirages in the dips of the pavement stretched out before me. A light buzz fills my brain with the aftertaste of beer. I do not drink and drive in order to fulfill some angsty teenage destiny. Suicide is a bitter cliché. Perhaps I am trying to awaken something with my reckless behavior. Perhaps I seek to pull myself from the darkness of apathy, to feel alive for once. But no, in reality it is apathy that caused me to drive. I drive because I know these roads well. I drive because it is 3pm on a Thursday and the road is empty and I have the freedom to drive slowly.
Eliza is dead. Driving faster won’t change that. I will die too. I said earlier that we are all just moments, but are we even that?
The universe is constantly expanding. Entropy increases. Like continents separating, the memory of her is receding. I’m standing on the shore and watching her go. I can’t bring myself to care about that which I cannot change. Her death was as inevitable as the changing colors of leaves, the only difference being that we do not grow beautiful as we die.
I returned to the city; parked my car in the garage. My footsteps echo against the low concrete ceiling. I step from the harsh glare of fluorescents to the dull throb of street lights. The pavement retained the day’s heat and fills the night with warmth despite the breeze that rustles trees under the yellow glare of street lamps.
Nothing is inherently meaningful. We only endow things with the façade of meaning in order to make ourselves feel less small, less alone. To pretend that we have some kind of understanding of the world in which we live. Take stars for instance. We pretend to see shapes in them, stories with which to fill our existence. But Leo looks nothing like a lion. If God was such a great artist, you’d think he would’ve done a better job. Sky gazers would have it seem that we are the intended audience of the heavens. We have long ago cast out the idea that we are the center of the universe; with it should have been dismissed any idea of our own cosmic significance. These stars were not intended for us. It is far more logical that they just happened. I reject significance. I reject meaning. I reject any God that looks down and gives a shit. I set my feet on the path of this bright and burning northern star and stake my convictions that it will lead me to no knowledge, no freedom, no meaning.
The moon is dark. A glittering handful of stars dominate the sky, the northern star burning palely among them. And I follow it, slave to my convictions, seeking some kind of escape, knowing that I cannot outrun my own mind. The city is empty at this time of night. The occasional car drifts past. The city is dying. I see the shops with boarded up windows, the for sale signs, the silence. It should never be silent in a city.
There are only a few walkers out tonight. We don’t look at each other, don’t want to see, because we are dying too.
I walk all night in a fever, my feet sore and my muscles tense. I am reaching the northern sprawl of the city, following the star down back alleys, until I reach an abandoned lot. I stand there, sweating and shaking. I look at the flickering street light on the broken glass and fall deep into my convictions. I am right.
On the edge of the desolate plot, a tangle of weeds seek refuge. There is something white on the ground there, orange in the street light. I kneel by it and pick it up. It is a single blossom, faded, wilted, but it is there. Its presence fills me, and I do not know what to think. Nothing is certain.