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Submitted as a Gawad Ustetika 2013 Fiction entry
It was the universe’s biggest joke that they began in a place that stood for the end of life. How they met was an elaborate web of chances and circumstances, and no one could really explain how everything happened. There was life, and there was death, and in the midst of the vicious cycle, they met.
Their first encounter was at the start of the coldest of winters, the gentlest of first snows. The layer of white powder covering the dead grass was still too thin, too fresh to cover the newly upturned earth and newly carved marble. Too fresh to hide the pain, too thin to hide the tears. Too fleeting to cover up the tightness at the corner of his mouth, the gritting of his teeth and upward-downward motion of his Adam's apple as he tried to gulp down a sound that was half sob and half scream.
On the cold stone were a few words; a short epitaph and a name, so common it was almost generic. But more than a name, it was a person. His girlfriend, his partner. His person.
Under the name was a pair of months, days and years.
Date of birth.
Date of death.
Daniel gently placed the bouquet of flowers (tulips, her favourite) in front of the marker where her body lay, under six feet of unforgiving, unyielding dirt. He brushed away the small amount of snow that had settled over her headstone, his fingers lingering over the depressions that spelled out his girlfriend's name.
It was snowing that day too, one year ago. The police said that the roads were too hazardous for driving that day. Obviously, because then he wouldn't have to listen as they break down something so horrible as a death into a bunch of cruel facts. Slippery roads, zero visibility, and drunk truck drivers on the wrong lane were the ingredients to the recipe of her demise. The snow at the scene of the accident was dyed rose pink, and closer to the epicenter of it all, a bloody red, staining the stark white street.
The next days (and weeks. And months. Now, a year.) were a blur, a hazy collection of condolences and too many of her belongings left at his place and too many memories of her around every street corner, within every book he tried to read to forget and every song he listened to as he tried to ignore the echoes of her voice. Memories of soft whispers, things like how she hated being called his girlfriend and insisted being called his partner instead. Their last conversation. The last sentence she ever said to him.
"You don't have to bother coming over, really; your greeting was more than enough," Daniel protested. He could hear her car keys jingling from her end of the line, as well as the smile in her voice before she replied.
"That's what you're saying, but you really want to see me don't you?" she asked amusedly.
"…Guilty as charged."
"I want to see you anyway, I'm just making your birthday an excuse," she said lightly, making him laugh.
"I'm sorry for making you go out when the weather’s like this—the news said it's going to snow. Be careful, alright?"
(Until now, he still remembers her last words.)
"Don't apologize; you don't have to be sorry! It's not your fault. See you in a bit! Love you."
The universe is not a good comedian. That, and he never wanted to understand its jokes.
A dog barked in the distance, and when he turned there was a girl in running clothes with a big dog on a leash blinking curiously at him from the sidewalk.
But that was not all he saw.
When he turned around he saw a lone figure jogging away, blond hair washed white in the moonlight. For a stupid moment, Daniel wanted to believe it was her. He wished it was her.
A cloud drifted past the moon as the figure faded into the fog in the distance. The girl with the moonlight-blond hair was now a faded vision, an uncertain illusion. Looking up at the starless night and the full moon, his face contorted into an expression of pain and unadulterated hatred; a private audience between him and the moon.
"Hello… whoever's up there? If you're finding my life to be a practical joke, well, IT'S NOT FUNNY!" he screamed, throwing snow at the moon's direction. The snowball, not reaching its target, promptly fell back down and hit Daniel's face. After coughing out the snow that got into his mouth, he sat down dejectedly in front of the headstone.
"What am I doing…" he muttered to himself.
It was still snowing when he decided to leave. When he closed his eyes, he could imagine the patterns his girlfriend's blood had left in the snow. When he opened them, he could see, out of the corner of his eye the jogger from the graveyard with his girlfriend's hair. Both were not really there.
That night, he started thinking it might be a good time to start leaving memories as they are. When he turned to leave, he decided to live.
Their second encounter was around the start of a new school year, the third week of September. It was the opening of the windows of opportunities, the doors of possibilities. A million different promises for tomorrow, and yet Daniel was riding his bicycle to the graveyard. The day was in transition between summer and fall, and he was only starting to think it was going to be a pleasant afternoon when the first raindrops decided to fall.
A week ago was the eleventh of September, and there was a downpour of ash and burning rubble and fallen bloody bodies and tears. Until that day, Emma never knew that different kinds existed.
There were the tears that were accessories, glistening unshed in eyes and worn by the people numb with shock to remember that the despair they felt inside would show in the windows to their soul. There were the tears that accompanied pounding fists and hysterical sobbing as they screamed for justice, for an explanation. And then, there were the tears that silently rolled down cheeks as the people who shed them fell apart from within, like the buildings that crushed the people that they care (cared) about. Just like how a lot of things got crushed that day.
Dreams. Ambitions. Families. The nine boxes of pizza that the department on the eleventh floor had ordered, along with the delivery guy. A chance at love, a chance at life. A chance. Those tears, and their sadness and pain.
Emma's tears never came.
She had bitten her lip hard enough to draw blood right after she got the phone call. After they asked her to identify the body, she had locked herself in a bathroom stall and silently screamed into her hands. He was not her brother anymore; just another body to sign for, just another corpse to dispose of. He ceased from being a person to everyone else the moment the plane decided to make contact with the building he was working in. The memories didn't matter, and neither did his favorite color, or the way he laughed, or his promises to walk her down the aisle since they didn't have a father to do that. He was now just a bunch of forms and a cold body in the morgue. A lot of paperwork and an empty shell in a white coffin.
But she never cried. Throughout the funeral, while everyone was saying their goodbyes, her eyes were dry. As they were lowering the coffin to the ground the sky darkened, and everyone but Emma scrambled for their umbrellas. They tossed flowers (tulips, his secret favorite) into the hole after the coffin, and the sky with its rain gave her share of tears and showered the white box that contained her brother.
Until the final pile of earth was shoveled over her brother's body, she still couldn't believe that this was all over. His life, or what it had been. Of how he would never again exist in now or tomorrow but only yesterday, all past tenses like was instead of is. Her back was rubbed comfortingly, condolences were murmured into her ear, her arms were gripped supportively and her body was hugged protectively. Eventually, the skies cleared, and she was left alone with a mound of freshly turned earth and what was left of her brother six feet under the ground. Left with his memories, unsaid I love yous dying on her lips with the regret of giving an improper goodbye.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, and for the second time that day the skies darkened to give way to rain. Big, fat drops of water fell from the sky onto everything: her shoulder, the flower arrangements, the new headstone and the mound of earth that separated her from her brother.
A bicycle bell rang in the distance, and when she turned she saw a guy riding away. The hood of his jacket was pulled up over his head and he was pedaling in a hurry to outrun the rain. Emma looked up, and followed the guy on the bicycle with her eyes until he was out of sight. She thought of how the mystery guy in the hoodie looked just like her brother, of how the stranger could get sick in the rain but at least he was still alive.
She didn’t remember how her knees made contact with the ground, but before she knew it she was sprawled in dirt and fallen petals. Her hands bunched into fists in the dirt, and raindrops landed on her cheek, running down her face, and soon she realized that the drops were not coming from the skies alone.
Emma’s tears finally came.
The third time they met, the warm colors of autumn were just ending, winter was coming, and they were buying coffee in a stall that said Old Man Tom’s Coffee: Get ‘Em Fresh and Get ‘Em Hot! Old Man Tom was the homeless man that slept in the unlocked crypts of the cemetery. Everyone loved him and his coffee, even though everyone knew it’s just instant coffee that he overcharged them for. It was a cold day, and a warm cup of instant coffee that actually tasted good was their cheapest way to avoid frostbite.
They both had tulip bouquets in their arms, and their eyes met as they tried not to scald their tongues with the welcome heat from the drink. A smile was shared, and two cups of coffee later they were sharing jokes with Old Man Tom. They heard each other’s stories, never knowing how they almost met and always missed it. After five paper cups of coffee they bid reluctant goodbyes and visited the graves of their loved ones, their thoughts lingering back to Old Man Tom’s stall and their conversation. The stranger with the same tulip bouquet and that strangely nostalgic smile.
They met in the weekend after that. And the weekend after that. They exchanged contact numbers eventually, but they always met in the graveyard. There was something soothing about the silence that they heard; how for miles they were the only ones around. Their lives were a series of moments and circumstances, each leading up to this; to him and to her to probably, maybe being them.
The graveyard made time and life outside stop, made it seem like it didn’t matter. The graveyard gave them more time to meet and know each other. The graveyard made them laugh at how they were living their lives. The graveyard made them wonder at how they even met, and why they were still meeting. The graveyard made them stop and ask themselves why they kept meeting. Was it the bond of grief from the great beyond? Or was there something worth keeping being formed between dead grass and headstones?
They decided one day that they wanted to visit the graves together. Daniel was first. He knelt down and closed his eyes, trying not to think of her final words and trying not to think about his words that could probably be the last ones he would ever say to her grave.
I’m here… this time, I have someone with me. It’s okay, right? I’ll still remember you every time it snows. Probably forever. I miss you… but with her here, I miss you a little bit less.
Is that okay? Will you ever forgive me?
He knew it was not the best decision to wish for second chances when you had barely started on your first, but humans need reassurance sometimes. Not everyone would be willing to take the risk of the freefall. Some people still like that rope around them. Around their waist. Sometimes, around their neck. His rope was guilt, the weight at the other end the memories of blond hair riding out amidst snow, car crashes and blood splatters on the ground the shape of tulip petals.
Emma was next. Gently placing the bouquet over her brother’s name, she crouched down in front of his headstone and closed her eyes, biting her lower lip and holding her hands together to keep them from freezing, and began to think of the things she wanted to say.
He’s just like you… warm, comfortable, and he makes me feel safe. Is it okay to trust him…? Is it okay to feel these feelings for him? You’re older; you know the answers more than I do. I need you here now. I’m too scared to make this decision alone. You were supposed to walk me down the aisle, protect me from all the wrong decisions I could make.
Why aren’t you here when I need a big brother the most?
She was scared of time, and how fast things were happening. One moment she was scared of death, the next she didn’t care, as long as she was with him. She ignored the shadows that lurked at the back of her mind, all the dead they chose to leave behind. She was scared about how she was feeling so much, but how something choked her throat every time she tried to say those words. She was scared that if she lets someone into her heart, she wouldn’t know how to let them go. She was scared that this time, the tears won’t stop.
She made to stand up, and suddenly Daniel’s hand was there, offering her help. She looked up at him, his hand. Taking his hand, she stood up and they walked hand in hand to Old Man Tom’s stall.
With him there, the snow was warm and the graveyard was a place she had come to love.
Maybe it was okay to admit they were beginning to feel something.
He was there. She was there. Somehow, that was the reason for everything, their meeting and beginning.
Their dates were at Old Man Tom’s stall, where the old man would smile over his coffee maker with gaps in his yellowed teeth as Daniel and Emma held hands over their warm paper cups of coffee and talked about their day. Soon they would discover different ways of sharing warmth, like embracing each other with so much intensity that their very souls shivered, or walking through the graveyard with hands in each other’s coat pockets. Or the feverish feeling of stolen kisses, their hands meeting more of each other, and the most basic sharing technique of human warmth.
"I have a theory," he said sleepily into her hair one night. They were at the graveyard’s hilltop, at an empty crypt owned by some rich family they didn’t know. Emma nuzzled into the warmth of the circle of Daniel’s arms, gently nudging him to make him elaborate. The stars spelled out his words as a gentle night breeze made itself felt, listening in to whispered conversations between lovers as dictated by its nature.
"Endings give way to new beginnings... I call it the Graveyard Paradox," he mused. She sat up straight, pulling on her shirt and his sweater and wrapping a blanket over her like a shield.
“You sound like an epithet,” she said lightly.
“I’m serious! It’s like the two of us. We lost somebody important to this graveyard, but then we met. Equivalent exchange, also something I’d like to call as ‘good job universe’,” he said, sitting up beside her and covering their bare legs securely with another blanket before slipping on his own shirt and coat.
“It does make sense,” she said in agreement. They were quiet, but most of the time they didn’t need words between them anyway, just his arm around her shoulder and her head on his, the weight of their unspoken words hanging between them. They did not know how important what they discovered that night was, and they probably would not understand. Something began that night, and from the distance came the sickly sweet smell of figurative snow storms and an unfortunately literal impending end.
The universe was in action that day, making them crave to relive their beginnings when they were so unknowingly close to the end. They wanted to buy coffee one day, but they couldn’t find Old Man Tom’s stall and his trusty instant coffee. The graveyard’s caretaker stopped them on their way.
“Where’s Old Man Tom?” Daniel asked.
“Didn’t you know? He died a few days ago. Somebody tracked down his family and they got his body… sorry kids,” the caretaker said, catching the expressions on their faces. “Everyone misses his coffee already. Who knew that old man actually owned about a hundred Starbucks stores? I don’t understand human beings… they’re easier to deal with when they’re under six feet of earth.”
The caretaker walked away after that, shaking his head and muttering about vandalism and the reports of weird noises from the empty crypt at the top of the hill.
Death was a funny thing, like how the universe usually thinks itself as is. Time stops, and yet the whole world goes on. People leave and people arrive at the same time, entering and exiting from lives at a daily basis. One leaves, and things are suddenly put into a frightening perspective: reality.
Emma didn’t notice how hard she was gripping Daniel’s hand until he winced quietly and she let him go with a whispered apology.
“…what are we doing…” she said, her mouth set in a straight line. She began walking, up the hill, and a bewildered Daniel hurried to follow her.
“Wait, what’s wrong?” he asked, alarmed. “Did you really want coffee so bad? There’s a convenience store a few blocks from this graveyard—“
“No! Don’t you see? This is wrong!” she said, her voice rising with a panicked undertone.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, catching up to Emma and grabbing her by the arm to turn her around and make her face him. She quickly wiped at the tears streaming down her face.
“Why are you crying?” he asked, more confused than ever. She shook off his arm and turned around, stopping five steps later in front of a headstone. His dead girlfriend’s headstone.
“This is wrong. We shouldn’t be doing this! We shouldn’t be meeting or be together, especially here of all places!” she said, a few decibels away from hysterically shouting.
“Why are you saying this now?” he asked. “Did I do something wrong? I thought you were comfortable here so—“
“That was it! We’re just two really sad people who happened to have their loved ones buried in the same graveyard. We don’t even know if we really like each other!” she shrieked. He looked at her incredulously.
“So you think this… us… or whatever we are… everything is just a fluke?” he said slowly. “Are you out of your mind?”
“Maybe I am,” she said, rubbing her arms to keep herself warm from the sudden chill. She had to keep talking and ignore how much she wanted to cry and stop from talking and let them forget everything. “But this is wrong and you know it.”
“Why are you doing this? We’re great together—“
“Yes, maybe, but when we’re not sad anymore, where does that leave us?” she interrupted. “If we met in a different place and a different time, would we even give each other a second glance?”
“Just because we met in a graveyard doesn’t have to mean we’re doomed from the start. We can make it work, and we’ve been doing just fine—“
“That’s what’s wrong: Us. ‘Us’ wasn’t even supposed to exist,” she said, biting her lip and willing her tears to go away. Daniel looked so lost, but this was not how they should be. Even if it hurts, she had to tell him the reality about the two of them.
“I’m not your dead girlfriend, Daniel,” she says quietly. He stood so still, she made her unsure. He was just like who he was yesterday: broken, yet beautiful. She might even love him, for real. But everything that surrounded them was so unsure.
“Look into my eyes and listen to me,” she continued, stepping forward and meeting his eyes. They were hurt and confused and asking her for answers. “I’m not her. I never will be. I feel safe with you, but love… love is more than just comfort. I can’t compete with a ghost. And I can’t make you compete with mine. You’re not my brother, and you deserve more than to be just a stand-in for somebody else.”
“I love you,” he choked out. “I don’t care who died before, what matters is now and us. Please don’t do this to us.”
“Love? Are you really sure about that?” she asked. It was infuriating, how calm she sounded. He wanted to answer yes, but when he blinked he saw Emma’s face change to his dead girlfriend’s and back. He shook his head, cleared his throat and tried again.
“I’m sure about what I feel now,” he answered.
“You thought you loved me because it was convenient. Because I was there. Because somehow, I made things right for you again. Maybe because I was the proof to your theory.
Maybe I thought I loved you because I wanted your theory to be true.”
His next words sounded like half a sob and half a scream.
“This is it? This is how we end?”
She had to force herself to say the words. She had to force herself to admit the truth.
“This was how we started. So yes, this is how we end.”
The way the both of them were so still, so silent, made it seem like yesterday never happened; like all their yesterdays were melted snow and dried up rain puddles.
The clock was ticking, inside and outside the graveyard. The only difference was that this time, they noticed. They knew. Their time was over. They turned, and they walked away.
They were over.
After that day, he refused to live cautiously. Even if the forecast called for rain, he would not carry an umbrella.
He remembered her that way. Snow, and now rain.
He didn’t hear the screech of tires over the deafening thunder of raindrops and the sound of his own heart, being crushed into a million irreparable pieces.
She walked inside from the rain. Disappointed it hadn’t worked. None of her troubles had been washed away.
She was still pregnant.