The pages crackle with each turn, the paper brittle from years in the dry air. Although I knew the words by heart, I loved reading each story again. The words, written in shaky print here, flowing cursive there, childlike block letters in yet another place, conveyed life in a way my mind can’t really know.
My mother’s words, written in beautiful cursive, flow over the page in a wash of grief. “You will never know the music I’ve heard coming from the courtyard below,” she writes. “The guitar sounds fluttered up like butterflies, its wings tickling your ears only briefly before flitting away again. Your father and I used to dance to that music, here in the kitchen, imagining we were in a square in Argentina….”
Yes, mother was heartbroken at the end. Of course she was. She had already lost her husband, her youngest son, and her daughter, not to mention nearly all her friends. The only reason she and my grandfather lasted so long was because of me.
This story here, the one with the shaky print, was written by my grandfather. His acceptance of the fate of the world isn’t tinged with the despair evident in my mother’s stories. “Good luck, kid,” my grandfather writes, his words pressed so thick and deep into the page I can feel the impression on the back side. “You just got to survive. Reminds me of the time my buddy Mac and me were in the jungle, hiding from Charlie. Neither one of us knew what to do, we just knew we had to do it. Boy, but you shoulda seen the colors in that jungle! So much green I started to hate the color, but there were pinks and reds and sometimes a white streak to remind you something else existed.”
I laid the book back on its pillow and reached for the picture book on the ground. Flipping through the pages, I wondered if any of these flowers were ones my grandfather had seen. A flash of purple caught my eye, and I thumbed back a page. I had seen this flower before, the pinkish violet, the petals open like a butterfly, flowing down like a waterfall. My eyes dropped to the bottom of the page. Phalaenopsis (Moth Orchid.) I ran my finger over the petals, wondering if they felt as smooth and cool to the touch as the glossy page.
I placed the book back on the floor, the page turned to the Phalaenopsis. In my mind, I surrounded the Phalaenopsis with green, like my grandfather said. Is this what he saw?
I picked the book up off the pillow and turned the page. This story was my favorite.
“I kicked the ball today and didn’t miss! My toe hurts a little, but don’t tell mom, she might make me stop, and I don’t want to stop. Coach gave me a high five and told me I was going to be a good forward some day. Then Stinky Stevie threw water on me. He said it was a way of saying good job, but if so, why didn’t he just say it?”
My baby brother, so grown up at 8, would never see 9. He died a year ago. Mother died last month. Grandpa died last week.
I looked around the room, the plastic-sealed windows letting in opaque light, the layered sheets of heavy plastic hanging at the door, blocking any air particles that might come in. Mother had talked about the music from the courtyard, how I would never hear it, because the musicians were all dead. But I had never seen the courtyard, either. The picture in my head was as imaginary as the picture I had of grandpa’s jungle, based on picture books and the words of my family, just like what I thought of when I thought of butterflies, and waterfalls, and soccer. But I had seen that flower, the Phalaenopsis, through a part in the plastic sheeting one day. It was real. I knew it.
“Stay in here as long as you can,” grandpa said as he piled cans along the wall. “The plastic is the reason you’re still alive. Hell, it’s the reason any of us lasted as long as we did, because we had to be so clean to get in here to see you. You ain’t never been exposed to anything in here, and as long as you stay in here, you never will be.”
This bubble has kept me alive, but it prevented me from ever living except through the stories of my family. I had never been exposed to anything.
I closed the brittle pages and stood. I was ready to live, if only for a moment.
I parted the plastic curtain and saw it. The Phalaenopsis. Still in bloom.
Four steps. Four steps, and I would be able to feel it.
I charged the Beau with giving me a writing prompt today. I told him to pick a song lyric, preferably to a song I didn’t know. He gave me this: “Vicariously, I live while the whole world dies / You all need it too, don’t lie.” It’s from a Tool song – I’m not a huge Tool fan, so I can’t tell you which song.