December 2017 Contest Winner
Kayla Kavanagh is a 19-year-old writer from Connecticut. She currently studies English at Boston University.
Self-Exploration in the Absence of Salt
Metal, smooth beneath fingertips. The turn of a handle, the squeak of a faucet. A stream of water flowing to life. Cold, slow to heat up, slower still to be hot. Quick to cool. A brief window. Narrower than the one on the wall, shut tight against the Colorado winter.
Slipping out of a maroon sweater. Zipping out of stiff jeans. Bare feet on tile. Overgrown toenails. Pale body in motion, stirring the moonlight, mindful of windows.
Neck to the left. Tongue to shoulder. A smattering of tinny water speckled across skin. A flood of metal to the mouth as tongue contemplates.
Neck to the right. Teeth to shoulder. Skin pulled taut like the head of a drum. Like the drumstick of a chicken just before it succumbs to the pressure of teeth, though in this case teeth make no such demands.
Hands wrapped around the neck. A bouquet of tendons straining in both directions.
To tell you the truth, what I remember most is the blue of it all. None of us owned very much black, so we buried all three of them in blue. Even I wore a navy blue knee-length dress to the funeral; I couldn’t bring myself to go out and buy a black one. And the flowers. Almost all of them were blue. Hydrangeas, irises, forget-me-nots, artificially dyed blue lilies. People knew it was my favorite color, so that’s what they brought. I guess no one paused to consider that blue is too morose a color for a sympathy bouquet. Or maybe they thought I wouldn’t be concerned with the traditional connotations of blue. Before the accident, I never concerned myself with silly things like that.
I had been in the shower when the doorbell rang. How unusual, I thought, for our doorbell to ring at nine thirty on a Tuesday night. It never rang—our house, tucked away in the hills of a Connecticut valley town, didn’t see many visitors, especially this late in the year. Had the sound not been so persistent, I never would have answered. But with each chime, I grew increasingly frantic to get to the door.
Blue light flooded the bathroom as I pulled back the shower curtain. Looking back, there must have been red, too, but only the blue sticks with me now. The doorbell seemed louder with the water turned off, more dire, and I ran to the front door in only a towel, blue light flashing in each of the wet footprints I left behind.
When I opened the door, the blue was so intense that I could only make out two silhouettes on our front step. Eventually, they materialized into police officers, wringing their hands, speaking words in random order. “…Been an accident…” Blue. “…Blind turn on Anderson…” Blue. “…Wrong side of the road…” Blue. “…Dead on arrival…”
I was on the doorstep of that house in the hills for years, it felt like, snowflakes sticking to my wet hair, wet hair freezing to my face. Breath catching in my throat, my towel falling to the ground, my body falling, too.
Descent. Fingertips atop a slick highway. It is so early, but no place else will be this certain; no place will make itself so available to you. Right hand traveling west. Left hand eastbound. A pause at identical pinnacles, then collision at the sheath.
My family was out late the night of the crash. We’d all been at my basketball game. After the game—a close loss which I considered entirely my fault, because, at seventeen, everything was my fault—my family found me outside the gym. I deflected the praise they offered, the “good job, Emilie”s. They hugged me like they always did and I brushed them off like I always did.
As we crossed the parking lot to the car, my brother suggested we order take-out for dinner, and my parents agreed, saying they didn’t feel much like cooking. I insisted on being dropped off at home before they picked up the food. I had a shower to take and a history test to study for.
My family complied. They always did when it came to school. I was midway through my senior year and barely clinging to the valedictorian title I’d claimed since I was a sophomore. Graduation was mere months away. I could feel four years’ worth of sleepless nights weighing on my eyelids, could see all the overtime paychecks my parents had forked over to SAT tutors. We had given so much for this. Why risk it all on one botched history test, one order of spaghetti? I dashed into our house, white flakes swirling in the car headlights. The first snow of the year.
To this day, there is one thing I can’t reconcile about the night of the accident: why all three of them went to pick up the food together.
Descent. Fingertips sliding down a plate. Always tenuous here, always sensitive to the touch. Both sides are padded with expectation but to slip through the center feels like keeping a secret. A precarious opportunity for honesty: ice before it is thick enough to be walked upon. Girlhood.
Details of the accident are still a bit too much for me to entertain. It took me decades to envision the crash, to allow myself to picture it. The road where it happened is locally notorious. Steep incline, winding curves, no streetlights. In the winter it’s closed from traffic with giant concrete barriers—not, of course, until after the first snow of the year.
My family collided head-on with another vehicle. No one was going too fast, necessarily. No one was doing anything wrong, I’ve been made to understand. Just a dark, slippery, difficult road on a hill. The driver of the other car made it out with a few broken bones and a lifetime of remorse; I’ve heard he still bikes everywhere. He was a newly-licensed boy from school. It was a big high school, I had known him only peripherally, and in my post-accident daze I continued to know him and began to know everyone else only peripherally. I’ve harbored no resentment toward him, excluding the brief flicker of rage I felt when he invited a teammate of mine to senior prom and she accepted.
I received my formal education in funerals that December. In colder regions, burials are sometimes delayed until the ground thaws in the spring unless the cemetery has the proper equipment to carve gashes into frozen earth, though that can require an extra fee. The weather was not quite cold enough yet to worry about that, my aunt and uncle were told, and besides, the cemetery in town had the proper equipment. Only the best for wealthy Connecticut bodies, which we were not, and their neighbors, which we were.
Descent. The keys of a piano. The folds of an accordion. Prison.
Some days, I pretend not to feel the ache. Other days, “Linger” by the Cranberries plays in the dairy aisle of the grocery store and I can’t bear the weight of my grief; twelve free-range eggs and one middle-aged woman in a sticky puddle on the floor. Ethan’s favorite song. Such an agreeable taste in music, for a fifteen-year-old boy.
Ethan always blasted the car radio when I drove us to school. We were running late most days. In the winter we wouldn’t wait for the windshield to defrost, scraping a hole just large enough for me to see through. I’d break the speed limit trying to make the first bell. We’d lean into the road’s curves, our backpacks sliding around my front bench seat, our shoulders knocking against one another. We would both sing along to the radio, horrifically out of tune with the music, though nearly in tune with each other.
It’s strange, losing a sibling. Like arms and legs and dreams and plans, they are natural extensions of you.
Descent. The prime meridian.
I began my sessions with Sarah a few days after the funeral. She had two kids in junior high when I met her, forty-one years old. The same age I am now. I think of her often. Poor Sarah never stood a chance. I didn’t let her in for even a second. Therapy felt like pushing together two magnets of the same charge, like ripping open fresh wounds I was trying desperately to sew. The way I treated Sarah at seventeen is one of my only choices from those days that I no longer stand behind. One of the only sins I’d atone for, if I believed in that sort of thing.
Sure, bereavement counselors hear some nasty stories, but I think my grief was too much for the both of us. I think it swallowed our sessions whole. Something in Sarah’s eyes told me she already knew the bitter secret of her profession: no number of psychology degrees, no amount of schooling, can qualify you to bring dead people back to life.
Descent. Soft bristles. If you have faith in narrative, the resolution is looming. The part filled with choices you were never emboldened to make. Like any fool, you awaited someone else to acquaint you with yourself.
My mother was a woman who’d had her heart broken: careful, inquisitive, often curious about motives. One afternoon, she ran into a man she knew in the post office parking lot. When they parted, her cheeks were flushed.
“Who was that?” I asked as we pulled onto the freeway. Her response—a mumble about some old flame, the one that got away—was lost in the roar of a passing semi-truck. “Always be with someone who loves you more than you love them,” she’d said, almost wistfully. This seemed to me, and still does, like the worst advice one could offer a seventeen-year-old girl.
There was a boy my senior year. We had been friendly before the accident. We sat together in math. I went to his football games. At the funeral he said his apologies and I placed his eyes to my list of heartbreaking blue things. In the weeks after, he kept his distance.
And then on New Year’s Eve, I invited him over. My aunt and uncle, who had temporarily moved in to see me through my senior year, had plans downtown. They invited me along, but I declined, having recently been gutted of my desire to celebrate endings. After they left, I, who had never called a boy’s phone, dialed his number on the home line. I, who had never let a boy into the house, led him through those silent halls. I, who had never kissed a boy, pulled him into my childhood bed.
That night, my mother’s advice became muffled beneath pillows and baby blue twin sheets. Her daughter, the girl who was just so good, who had done everything perfectly and was still robbed so ruthlessly in the end, disappeared. She was replaced by someone precisely alone in the world.
I can’t be angry at him. All he did was pick up the phone when I called, read the signs when I lifted them. But he had to have known I would have done anything to dilute the numbness in which I was enveloped. Christ, if I remember correctly I tried to crack a joke about ghosts watching us from the empty rooms. He had to have known.
Descent. Long and smooth and direct and simple.
I returned to school after the holidays. I figured getting out of the house for a few hours a day would be best for everyone. Discussions were being held and wills were being read and boxes were being packed and I was useless, sitting in my father’s closet for actual hours on end because I had always loved the way it smelled.
I completed all the work I’d missed. My teachers and I pretended to not to notice the new shakiness in my handwriting, like I was five again, or eighty suddenly. I jumped back into all my extracurriculars but did not finish out the basketball season.
I was nine when I tried out for my first basketball team. It went miserably—I missed every free throw, too weak to reach the basket from so far away. I sniffled the whole car ride home until my father made a proposition: shoot for a bit every day after school. Within a month, the ball was landing softly on the rim.
I made that team, somehow. I only scored two points the entire season, but I can still remember my father’s applause echoing through the gym.
By the time I was fourteen, I was the best shooter in the league. I tried out for an elite team that held practices two hours away from home. Somehow, I made that team, too, and my father drove me every single week. The rides were almost as important as the practices. We dissected every move I made on the court, every way I could improve.
Before the accident, I had been nursing a dream of walking onto the team of whatever college I ended up at. Afterward, I never touched a basketball again.
Back at school, classmates tried offering their condolences but no one could really find the right words. They would stand before me searching for what to say and I’d let them off the hook with a hug. I didn’t blame them. Seniors in high school aren’t supposed to know what it means to say goodbye.
Descent. Blisters and callouses. Soles burnt by winters so cold they felt hot. Nerves buried deep, dirt piled over grass instead of the opposite.
We weren’t perfect. I know that. We had fights and secrets and certainly not enough money saved for both parents to retire and both kids to go to college. We had a messy fridge. We could have lost a few pounds, we could have found our careers more enjoyable, we could have quit playing poker with friends for real money after we were told to stop. We could have cleaned our rooms, made our beds. Answered phone calls more quickly. Had more movie nights.
I could have done my homework in the kitchen instead of the bedroom. I could have played two varsity sports instead of three. I could have been less of a bitch when I was thirteen.
I could have reminded them about the leftovers in the fridge. I could have changed the route by not asking to be taken home. I could have changed the timing by tying up the basketball game, sending it into overtime.
I could have been in the car.
Descent. Cells, hair, dirt swirling in a gray water mosaic.
Descent. Millions of micro-you’s circling the drain. Something about dust and returning to it.
I gave my valedictorian speech the following June. Somehow I held onto that. Enough deadline extensions, I guess, enough teachers who wanted to see me finish what I’d started.
I felt uncharacteristically calm on stage. Standing before my town, I counted the ways in which things had changed, and the ways in which things were about to change again, and how many weeks it had been since the crash. Golden sunlight, a hue so sweet it felt toxic, glinted across the sharp edges of graduation caps. I’d been transparent, a wisp of a person, for months. But in that moment on stage, something about the way the light hit me filled in my outlines, my edges. It’s only when you’re standing at the precipice of something that you are really anything at all.
People spoke to me as I walked off the podium. People spoke, but that day, like so many others of my senior year, was a blur. Look at Emilie, I faintly heard. Effortless Emilie, lost-her-family-and-kept-her-grades Emilie, taking-off-her-cap-and-throwing-it-in-the air Emilie. Off-to-college-in-the-fall Emilie, and maybe it’ll be good for her, maybe she’ll get through this. Did you hear that speech? What resilience. She’ll get through this.
In the end, I decided on Wesleyan. Although I had been accepted by Harvard and Princeton and pretty much all the rest, I was rejected at Yale, and I wanted to stay close to home. Looking back, I’m not sure what kept me there. Probably the memories, the nostalgia, which can be so tangible. I’ve since moved west—my version of a terrestrial Mayflower, I suppose, seeking dry land as I fled the lingering persecution I felt in humid Connecticut—yet I still wake up after Colorado nights spent alone and hear my parents making coffee in the kitchen. Even now, that’s what I remember from my last few months in town: the grip nostalgia had on me, like a noose or a halo, I still can’t decide. I try, though, every night in the shower, when it all comes flooding back.
Ascent. Metal, smooth beneath fingertips. The turn of a handle, the squeak of a faucet. Steam clearing, hair dripping. Mosaic receding, overgrown toenails surfacing. Something about the cleansing of sin, something about salt and its flavor. Hands back to the neck. Fingertips on a bouquet, stems so easy to prune, but you let go every time.
Some years ago I started writing a short story. The inspiration came from my memories of first seeing my grandmother-in-law’s art studio. The story evolved as I wrote, with the studio based on reality but the characters all from my imagination. I was pleased with my effort but spent some time tweaking it. I read it out to my writing group and received very positive feedback. My tutor encouraged me to submit it to a competition.
I daydream about that ‘typical’ writing day often. Up early, four hours of serious prose, lunch, an afternoon nap, back for the editing … In reality, like most writers, my writing has to be fitted in around my money-earning job. There are days when I feel inspired (although on re-reading it’s often more like mania), and I write for hours at a stretch. But most of the time I need a bit of bullying. I belong to a group of writers who meet fortnightly to critique each others’ work.