“You know that you can’t always trust your parents, right?” Adi’s grandmother said this to her with a playful grin.
She often did this; she often made remarks that managed to cause in her granddaughter a feeling of amusement tinged with unease. Unlike most times, however, today she elaborated somewhat.
“What they do for you, they do because they believe it is for your own good, I mean. Which isn’t to say that it is. For your own good, I mean.”
Now as Adi was much older, her grandmother spoke to her differently. She could not remember how she had spoken to her as a small child, of course, but her father had told her one night after everybody else had gone to bed, as they shared a last glass of wine. He had said that her grandmother used to speak to her much as she did nowadays, but with the exclusion of tentative clarifications such as the one that she had made now. As Adi’s grandmother had grown older, she had become less sure of her own words, it seemed. She spoke less by her own initiative now, told fewer stories — even when prompted, because Adi as well as her parents had always loved to hear her stories —, and worded her answers to questions more concisely than when Adi had been a child. That is not to say that she did not speak quite often still.
Adi’s grandmother lived with Adi’s father in his apartment, and Adi herself lived on the other side of town in an apartment that she shared with Frankie and Dakota, although Dakota had recently made the sudden decision to relegate herself from her home, friends and family, and leave the country. She had imposed upon herself an exile with no clearly defined ending in sight, the cause of which had apparently been exhaustion, and the purpose of which had apparently been rejuvenation, and indeed, neither Adi nor Frankie had heard anything from her since. As the train could take Adi to her father's apartment within a half-hour, they were close in more ways than one. Adi frequently met up with her father after they both had finished the day’s work, to discuss anything and nothing at all, a comforting habit that Adi had only recently begun to truly appreciate. She had a habit of having dinner at his home once a week or so — a habit that she had managed to maintain ever since she moved away from home —, and occasionally, Frankie would join her.
This was one of those occasions when Frankie had changed his mind — as always at the last minute — and decided to come along. Frankie was in many ways the perfect roommate; he kept his surroundings neat, he had no loud or noisy pastimes, and he was pleasant company, at home as well as when going out, which they sometimes did with their mutual friends. But, even though they shared an apartment, and even though he at times joined her and her family for dinner, he somehow existed in the periphery of Adi’s life. As is the case with most people you meet, it was as if he had one persona that you saw the first time you met him, and a second — or third — persona found slightly deeper beneath the surface, which you discovered upon meeting him for maybe the fifth or tenth time. This second persona provided some depth to his personality, and suggested that there most likely was something more to be found if one were to dig deeper. After this, however, no such further discovery was, nor seemed possible to be, made. It irked her — slightly, not terribly — that he seemed to reflect on your every statement and at times judge you without ever speaking a word.
After they had both finished work, Adi and Frankie met at the grocery store and bought some things that Adi’s father had forgotten to buy for dinner, before heading across town. Though Adi was a fairly outgoing person, Frankie’s cool temperament and contented aura put her at ease and made her feel comfortable with the silence that she often shared with him. So their commute passed largely like this, with little conversation to disturb the buzzing and rocking of the train.
As always, they all prepared dinner together, this time with Adi slicing away on the cutting board, her father preparing the stew, and Frankie focusing on the frying pan. Adi’s grandmother was responsible for cleaning up the dishes and setting the table. As they ate, and Adi’s father and a friend of his that he had invited along were busy in a rather heated discussion that only partly involved Frankie, Adi noticed a strange look on her grandmother’s face. Her brow was furrowed and there was a hint of a smile that had very little to do with joy. She had finished her rather modest serving of cabbage stew, and was now making random patterns in the gravy with her spoon. She suddenly dropped her spoon, which fell noisily into her bowl. She glanced across the table towards Adi's father, who had not noticed, neither the noise nor the fact that Frankie two or three times had made unsuccessful attempts at interjecting a mediating suggestion into the debate.
“Hey, what’s the matter?” Adi asked her.
After a moment's hesitation, she spoke. “Do you remember Cameron? My college friend.”
“Sure! He is so sweet.”
Adi’s grandmother hesitated again, picked up the spoon and made an eight-figure in the gravy, while glancing across the table. Frankie was making an exposition that Adi’s father seemed increasingly skeptical towards and his friend seemed very eager to interrupt.
“Well, he passed away two weeks ago. Went swimming and drowned.”
Adi stared at her grandmother. “I’m so sorry, nani…”
”He did it to himself.” Adi’s grandmother kept making the same eight-figure pattern in her bowl, avoiding Adi's inquisitive gaze. She made as if to say something more, but seemed to change her mind at the last minute.
A few days later, when Adi and her father had both finished work, they went for a walk along a gravel trail in the woods behind Adi’s apartment building. The air had begun to turn brisk and the rich palette of their surroundings was changing. Adi kicked a rock ahead of them as they walked, and asked her father if her grandmother had mentioned her friend Cameron.
“No, what do you mean?” His good-humored smile turned into a slightly concerned frown. He moved his shoulder bag from his left shoulder to his right and dug his hands deeper into his pockets. He had always been very close with his mother, and had until the last couple of years felt that they could talk about anything with each other.
“She told me that he drowned himself.”
Adi’s father looked straight ahead, hands still tucked away deep inside his pockets. He gave the rock a frustrated kick as it bounced in front of him, and sighed. “No, she didn’t tell me anything.”
When Adi came in to the living room, her grandmother was sitting in her chair in the corner by the window, as she always did after lunch on the weekends. She did not look out through the window very much, at least not when Adi was there, but she seemed to like to sit there all the same. They smiled at each other as Adi put her phone on the coffee table and sank into the couch next to her grandmother's chair.
“How are you doing, nani?”
Adi’s grandmother closed the book that she had been reading and put it on her lap. She looked at her. “I don’t quite frankly know, Adessa.” She looked at the book on her lap for a few moments. “I miss my friends.”
“I know you do.” Adi said with the odd mix of a smile and a frown flashing across her face.
In her youth, Adi’s grandmother would often give new acquaintances the impression that her body was merely a container, struggling — and failing — to contain a pressurized personality. Even today, if she felt the inclination, and if she was given enough time and respectful attention during a conversation that happened to catch her interest, one could sense that personality. But she was older now, so naturally, her glow was dimming. Now, she looked at Adi with a trace of that brightness in her eyes. “Cam, Udeze and the others... We were the closest. We stuck together, you know what I mean?”
”Sure!” Adi’s face lit up reassuringly.
As she said this, the clinking sound of cups and saucers reached the room, soon followed by Adi’s father carrying a tray. “Well, anyway, they’re gone now. They left too.” Adi’s grandmother stood up and, smiling towards her son, helped make room for the tray on the table.
Adi met neither her grandmother nor her father for a few weeks after this. She spent most of her time at work, as most of her project deadlines that had to do with the refurbishment of the city's central railway station drew near. As such, she almost always came home tired and weary, with little energy left to spend on socializing, even on the weekends. One night, when the bulk of the work to gain relevant permits had been done, and mostly formalities remained to get the refurbishment process started, Adi picked up her phone somewhat surprised to see that her grandmother was calling her.
“Am I calling at a bad time? You sound more than half asleep… You know, it’ll kill you some day, if you don’t start sleeping properly.”
“I know, nani.” Adi walked to and fro in her bedroom, picking up a piece of clothing from the floor, only to place it on the bed or somewhere else where it did not belong. Her grandmother had that dramatic tone in her voice that Adi had noticed a few weeks earlier at dinner.
“Your parents never wanted me to talk about this with you, but this is important. You reach a certain age and find that all those thoughts and fears you hoped would go away with time lingered around somewhere in the back of your mind until old age left you defenseless against them. My friends — Cam and the others, except Udeze — and I first met in college. We were similar in a few but quite important ways, and with time, I think we sank into each other more than anything else. We didn’t really grow any closer after that. That part happened quite early on. Well, anyway, we made a sort of agreement amongst ourselves-…” She suddenly interrupted herself with a sigh. “Hey, what are you doing on Sunday? Maybe we could walk the walk while talking the talk?” Adi’s grandmother’s tone shifted as she posed the question. It was familiar — playful — again.
Adi agreed to meet, and they soon hung up, after having talked for a while about nothing at all, no doubt because Adi’s grandmother felt that she should smoothen the tone of the conversation before saying good bye. During the course of the rather short conversation, a strong jolt of electricity had struck Adi in the depth of her stomach and quickly spread throughout her entire body. The force of it nauseated her, and the feeling lingered after she had left her phone on her bed and now stood in the doorway leading to the small kitchen. She stared at the bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter with her eyebrows raised slightly and a blank expression on her face. She did not examine the feeling closer, but if she had, she might have noticed that it was akin to what she could have felt if the call had been not from her grandmother, but about her, about her having left, like her friends.
The following Sunday, her grandmother was running late for their walk, which was far from unusual, but it was not something that usually annoyed her as much as it did now. She had not thought much more about the conversation that they had a few days earlier, and that intense feeling had left her now. But something in her had changed. Or rather, something in her had reacted to a change in her grandmother, a change that had just made itself apparent to her. Her grandmother was no longer a figurant in a pleasantly mundane stage production, but instead an unpredictable apostate, lurking somewhere behind center stage.
When she finally arrived, she was smiling sheepishly. She said nothing at first, but after a few moments she apologized to Adi and confessed, which she had done innumerable times before, that she had always been like this; that she always did this. Shortly thereafter she recognized that this was true of the confessions as well. Adi was apprehensive and spoke little during their initial exchange. She was waiting to hear what her grandmother was going to bring up during their walk, which took them along the same footpath through the woods that usually framed the walks that she would take with her father. Her grandmother asked her about her projects at work and about how Frankie was doing. Several times, Adi caught herself being too brief in her answers, so she added short questions, elucidations or rather, as they really were, complications to them, often after rather unnaturally long pauses. Or maybe she was just hyper-sensitive to any and all faux pas, real or imagined, in her current, slightly discomposed state of mind. The footpath was soon joined by two parallel pairs of tracks in the mud and moss, but they quickly veered off again to the right as Adi and her grandmother walked past a small clearing in the woods, where all that could be seen was a small tractor parked beside a slightly smaller hauler.
They walked without speaking for a while. It was completely silent around them, apart from the sounds of the leaves being flattened beneath their feet, and the occasional rustle of the leaves still clinging on to the trees above them as an autumn wind passed through the forest. Soon enough, however, Adi’s grandmother broke this silence by taking a deep breath, filling her nose and then lungs with the crisp, fresh air of the forest.
“It was pretty much a pact, you know.” She stared ahead as she spoke, with her eyebrows raised to the wrinkles on her forehead, her shoulders raised to her ears, and her hands nicely settled in the warmth of her pockets. Adi just looked at her. “It’s not so much being gone as it is leaving when having lived. And never being able to change anything. We differed slightly in our reasoning, but we basically came to the same conclusion, all of us.”
Adi’s grandmother went on to describe her early relationship with her friends as initially being founded on sharing in the alienation that the scorn of college life brought upon them, though “voluntary exile” was what Paz had always liked to call it. She laboriously bent down to pick up a twig that was lying in their path. “She had a flair for the dramatic” Adi's grandmother said wrily, snapped the twig and threw it into the woods. Adi gave her a small, quite temporary, but genuine smile. “Well, we stayed in touch after college and most of us lived close enough to visit each other every once in a while. Wallowing's mostly what we did, though. What a waste.” They walked in silence for a while, listening to the wind. “We were at Jae-hee's place, inappropriately and probably dangerously drunk, when we more or less decided to 'take control'. The decision stayed firm once we sobered up, sank in gradually, and became a reality when Leslie left. She moved away with her sister, and we never heard from her again. Paz and Jae-hee did it together – they went driving in the mountains and swerved off the road. Udeze — always the quiet, cerebral type — became ill, and slipped away. I could sense her anguish. I don't think she ever accepted it, and it hurts the most when I think about her. Cam just hung himself.” Adi's grandmother smiled like she had done at dinner, her gaze fixed upon something in the distance.
Adi did not feel what she had thought that she would feel. In fact, she did not feel much at all, apart from the chill of a slight sweat on her forehead. That visceral and tingling, yet sluggish, feeling of intense anxiety and fear eluded her entirely.
“I always hoped that this feeling would go away, but of course, it's still here. I'm stuck, Adi.”
Adi just wanted her grandmother to stop. She no longer knew her, and a rather large part of her did not like what she had become. Another part of her, however, had all too clearly heard what she had said and knew that this was her grandmother, and that this had always been her grandmother, a realization which tore through all of Adi's memories of her, her idea of who she was, and all of her recollections of who she had thought her to be. Adi had perfect eyesight, but now Adi's grandmother looked to her as if she stood only a step too far away to be seen clearly. Adi stared deep into the ground. They finished their walk, hugged standing outside Adi's building after her grandmother had declined her offer to share a drink upstairs, and parted ways with a strained smile on Adi's part, an apologetic yet relieved one on her grandmother's.
Adi's grandmother had not lived a long life, though she was as old as anyone would be at her age. More accurately, she had a poor memory, which she attributed to the fact that she had never reflected much upon her past. Rather, she had often stepped into the skin of her imagined future self and looked upon the entirety of her life, laid out behind her. Memories were like friendships, someone had told her; only the very good ones survived abandonment.
Now, fear and doubt drove her everywhere, without ever allowing her to stop to see where she was. She had so desperately hoped that she would change, all while fearing the all-too-probable alternative. Eventually she had realized that she could not change; who else could she become? Her journey through time alarmed her now more than ever, and the fact that any doubts or last questions she had would remain unheard and unanswered by the ones that mattered, instilled in her an almost mindless panic. With time, her breathing became shorter and more hurried, and she was gradually overcome by increasingly fervent compulsions that forced her to question and reconsider her every thought, word and action, until she became nearly paralyzed at the very thought of a step in any direction. Yet, fear drove her on in all, without pause, and most certainly without rest.
Of course, while she believed that impermanence, with contrast and change, were prerequisite conditions for value of any kind, that belief did not in any way affect her fears. To her, the passing of time was not like the calm trickling of water, or even like the turbulent flow of a river, but rather like a fog rolling over hills and meadows, gliding over ponds, filtering through the trees, and dispersing over the ocean. The fog seemed to have a capacity for endless diffusion, and encompassed all of existence and creation, as it was created by all the tiny souls of the world, while trapped inside only slightly larger brains.
Why is it that you are born in peace and die alone? To her, dying was to be left behind in every respect, and to disappear in ignorance. There seemed to be, at the very least — for the sake of clarity and exaggerated simplicity — two parallel sets of tracks, with railroad switches connecting them at ostensibly random parts along the way. The tracks always ran together, but offered distinctly different views of the same scenery. Some people, she thought, switched tracks fairly regularly, others less so, and others yet again stayed on one or the other almost always. Simply being aware of the other track doomed her; though she hated and feared almost everything she saw from there, she loved the ride all the same, and would never be able to relinquish the chance to experience it.
Though, of course, what she really feared was not just death in and of itself, but, and to no small extent, some of the accompanying circumstances. She feared ultimate solitude, which she knew to be real; she just was not certain of whether or not it was necessary; whether it was potential or simply eventual and undeniable. Setting aside the obvious — the singularity that was breathing inside every person's own skull —, taking in the fresh outdoors air was a solitary activity as well. At the very least, the deepest breaths — the ones that reassured you that you were in fact alive; the ones that pushed you above the surface and rushed you into the sky — were taken alone, no matter how closely you pressed your face against another's. No one could breathe with you, and that was final. What if you were to realize what you had forgotten, what you had needed to have said, when you started to slip away and could no longer speak? That would be, if it were possible to say such a thing, the worst of it all.
Adi opened the front door while stuffing her mittens into her jacket pockets, pulled one shoe off with her hands, the other with the aid of her foot, and walked through the apartment, dropping her bag on the floor next to the narrow bookshelf on the way to the kitchen. Frankie acknowledged her presence with an upwards jerk of the head, barely looking up from his computer screen, and she nodded back in a mock-formal manner. She made a sandwich without using a plate, dispersing crumbs on the floor where she stood, and ate it while still standing, gazing out through the window at the canopy of rooftops laid out before her. Most of the buildings were at the same height as their apartment, apart from the closest ones, which obscured the clouds that hid the afternoon sun.
Frankie had just finished typing up a request for the publication of a research paper. It had become a routine procedure at this point, routinely invoking a somewhat sour taste in the back of his mouth. His feet were cold, so he folded his legs beneath himself on the couch, and rolled down his sleeves. He finished writing the request and sent it off with a celebratory groan, got up, and poured himself another cup of tea while he listened through Adi's bedroom door to the sporadic pattering of her fingers striking the keys on her computer. She had retreated to her room soon after finishing her sandwich. He heard her phone ring for a few seconds before it stopped.
“Hey. No, it's fine! What's up?”
Frankie took his cup and sat down with his own computer, skimming through the past week's news headlines. He opened several of the ones which he knew would interest him, and then a few that he knew to be utterly mindless, saving the interesting ones for later, for when he knew that he would not read them. He imagined that Adi mostly nodded her parts of the conversation, the occasional short affirmative being the only thing to indicate that the conversation was still ongoing. That is not to say that she did not speak at all; every ten minutes or so, she would hold a shorter, explanatory monologue that probably served as a solution to a problem posed during the previous ten minutes.
Frankie was reading about a dispute between a local housing cooperative and a few of its tenants, when Adi stepped out of her room, walked across the living room and into the kitchen, and began rummaging through the fridge. The tenants in the article were protesting the cooperative's choice of postponing renovations of the building's slightly damaged eastern facade. “How's she doing?”
Adi stood in the kitchen doorway, with her eyebrows raised slightly, shrugged and then spoke, while juggling half a cabbage from one hand to the other. “We were just talking about the usual stuff. She's doing pretty good, but she's older now, and you can tell”. Adi stepped back into the kitchen, put the cabbage on the counter, took down a small sack of potatoes from the shelf above the stove and started cutting the potatoes into small dice. Frankie nodded, mostly to himself, it seemed. He then unfolded his legs and stood up while stretching and yawning dramatically. Not having eaten all day, he joined Adi in her preparations in the kitchen. Somehow, his hunger had not made itself known to him until now.