I grew faint from the perfume of frankincense and the priests chanting in their loud solemn voices, pacing down the aisles of the church, the clinking of their censers haunting the air. From the corner of my eye I saw Emma chewing the bottom of her lip to keep from crying. My father sat next to me, stonily staring ahead, and my mother next to him, her face pink and puffed, nearly unrecognizable.
At thirteen, I was old enough to fully absorb the idea of death. What I was grappling with was the senselessness of such a thing. I had never known anyone who had died so young, nor had I anticipated it the way I had when I was seven and my grandfather was put in a hospice for terminal stomach cancer. His gradual decline had helped ease his death for all of us. Sitting in church with my fists clenched in my lap, I remembered my brother leaving his bed unmade the morning he died, and what I could not tolerate was realizing that he would not ever be there again.
Ashod and I sat in the backseat of my father’s 1987 Buick, our grandmother wedged between us – the referee during most car rides when we were younger. There was the musty smell of cigarettes when we first piled in; weeks ago, my father had quit smoking. The heat, even at nine o’clock in the morning, left the air pungent, smelling like an ashtray, and we rolled down the windows, waiting for our father and mother to get in.
It was our ritual every summer to drive to the beach on the weekends, where our very extended family would always meet. My mother would occasionally suggest driving to the other side of the ocean, where there was bay water, and where she could relax without worrying about keeping an eye on us. We would immediately complain about the ocean floor being too rocky and the stillness of the water not offering the fun of waves we had grown accustomed to.
“You can wear water shoes,” she had suggested once.
Ashod and I had turned to each other, our faces sour with disgust; we had seen people wearing water shoes, and aside from their unfashionable contrast to our swimsuits, we enjoyed burying our feet in the warm, powdery sand, clutching and releasing the velvet feeling between our toes.
“You can make your own waves,” she had said.
This particular morning we also had Emma with us. She lived three houses away from ours, and came from a strict Polish family. Although we were Armenian, we knew that her parents, the Resniceks, felt a kinship to us. Emigrating from Poland when Emma was only five, they too, were concerned about their daughter becoming too Americanized. She and Ashod went to the same high school, and walked there together in the mornings. Sometimes I would trail after without them noticing, and I would watch them hold hands when they thought no one was looking. Although Ashod and I were only a year apart and spent more time together than most brothers and sisters, he was secretive about his feelings for Emma.
As we rode to the beach that morning, I stared out the window and my grandmother did the same. Ashod and Emma sat cramped between us, and I noticed their knees touching, attuned to their self-conscious desire to sit so closely together. Emma and I were not friends, but I liked her. She was too quiet for my taste, and we usually ran out of things to say to each other if the opportunity for a conversation arose. Despite the age difference between Ashod and me, perhaps she felt I was his little sister, and regarded me the same. She was an only child, and had no experience with the dynamic between siblings.
My mother’s tendency of over-packing always made us the last to arrive. We lugged the large cooler, two duffel bags, and two large umbrellas across the parking lot, while my grandmother complained about the heat, and Ashod and Emma walked ahead of us. They seemed unto themselves. At fourteen, my brother was taller than our father, and the messiness of his long brown hair lent him an air of indifference that made him seem older. Emma was only a few inches shorter than him, and she too had long brown hair, longer than my brother’s, and it hung loosely almost to her waist. They were picturesque, and in the midst of their awe for one another, they were unaware.
I looked up at the sky. The clouds were large, pillowy, still. From a distance I saw my cousins Araxi and Sophie and waved. I looked forward to the predictability of these summer afternoons. My cousins and I would run into the waves screaming, and take enough lashings from the ocean that we made us return to our parents claiming exhaustion and hunger. After too much eating, we would lay under the sun and promise each other that we would lie still for at least half an hour – our notion of loveliness was inspired by the Bain de Soleil commercials where a very tan, expressionless and gaunt woman would appear wearing a fashionable white bikini and over-sized sunglasses, and lie on a lounge chair applying suntan lotion to her arms. We never lasted longer than fifteen minutes, when someone – usually myself – would suggest burying each other in sand or seeing if one of our fathers would help us build a castle and moat. Ashod would usually lie under the sun and eventually go back into the water. He was a strong swimmer, and had recently joined the swimming team at school.
My mother will always blame herself for Ashod’s disappearance. As the years progressed, she had nagged us less about being careful when we swam in the ocean, sensing that we were responsible enough to know better. Emma accompanying us that day must have given my mother an even stronger sense of security, assuming she and Ashod would not leave each other’s side.
I remember seeing him wading into the ocean. He wore his dark red bathing suit, and before diving in he turned and waved. I knew he was waving at Emma, who was sitting on her blanket, leaning back and smiling, her cheeks flushed. That was the last time I saw my brother.
A while later I saw a shadow form across my sandcastle that I had been busying myself with for a while. I turned around. “Where is Ashod?” my mother asked.
I had no sense of time, and guessed he had been gone for over forty-five minutes.
“Swimming,” I said. I bit into the falafel sandwich she had handed to me.
“For how long? Where’s Emma?” she asked, and squinted towards the shoreline, scanning nervously. “Go ask her where he is,” she said.
Emma was still sitting on her blanket.
“Have you seen Ashod?” I asked.
“He’s swimming,” she said. “He should be back soon.”
“He’s been gone a long time,” I said. “My mother’s worried.”
“How long has it been?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You’ve been sitting here longer than I have.” I hadn’t meant to, but I sounded like I was accusing her of something.
“I’m not wearing a watch,” she said, almost defensively. I could tell that suddenly she was concerned. She put her hand on her forehead like a visor and peered at the ocean. “I don’t see him. But that doesn’t mean anything. He could have swum to shore not too far from us. You know how the ocean can drift you.”
I knew she was right. There were many times when I would go swimming, and when I would come out I wouldn’t spot my family right away. Sometimes I would have to walk for a while before finding them. It had scared me the first few times.
“I hope you’re right,” I said. We stood up and were quiet for some time. We stood by the water, waiting for Ashod to emerge, his hair plastered across his face, wearing a satisfied grin.
“It’s not like him to disappear for this long,” I said finally. Emma stayed quiet.
My father came over to us. “Your mother said Ashod has been gone for a while?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’re standing here looking for him.”
“Did he say how long he’d be?” my father asked, turning to Emma.
“Not really,” she said, pools of tears in her eyes.
Time did not stop for me, but grew very still. While my mother alerted the lifeguards, and motorboats sped out looking for Ashod, I stood in the very same spot until night came. I watched the sky turn colors, unmoved by the magenta streaks across the sky, the deep indigo that shone from the bright stars I ignored.
Even after hours of waiting on the sand, well after night came, I stood with my mother and father, Emma, my cousins and aunts and uncles staring at the ocean, waiting for the loud, angry waves to deliver my brother from the depths of the waters where he had disappeared.
They never found his body. I imagine his limp figure washed up on the shore. I imagine it is daylight, and the dim sun rising shines on him indifferently. They searched for his body for a week, and declared him missing.
The priest faced us and made the sign of the cross with his hands. I crossed myself and watched as my four cousins approached the casket and gripped each side to carry it to the hearse. My father tried to stand but collapsed in his seat. My mother clutched him to her chest, and for the first time I can remember, I saw my father cry. Emma stood beside me, taking deep, spasmodic breaths, and finally walked out.
I knew she had headed towards the bathroom and I found her standing outside the door, looking out the window. The sky was hazy, and the dim sunlight made her fair skin seem ghostly.
“We have to go,” I said.
“I know,” she said, and kept staring out the window.
I stood behind her, unsure of what to say.
“Emma – “ I began.
“I think it’s my fault,” she said quietly.
“What do you mean?” I asked. I knew what she was trying to say. I guessed she was being dramatic, and felt irritated.
“He swam further than he should have,” she said.
“How do you know that?”
“Because he wanted to prove something to me.”
She stared ahead.
“What are you talking about? Prove what?” I tried to keep my voice steady.
“To prove he loved me,” she said. There were pink blotches forming against her pale skin. I suddenly detested her. I detested her quiet, guileless charm, when in fact she knew much more than she was letting on, and had kept it from us for over a week now.
“He said he loved me, and I told him I didn’t believe him. I told him he’d have to swim to the middle of ocean, to where there was this large ship, and then I would believe him.”
I remember the large ship she was referring to. It was there sometimes when we would go to the beach. Our family would joke about how long it would take to get there on the small kayak one of our cousins sometimes brought along. It was so far away that at times the morning haze would camouflage the top half of it, depending on the weather.
And now Ashod’s wave to her became more significant in my memory. Her flushed cheeks – the blush of hearing for the first time that a handsome boy loved her. Why had she not thought anything of it when his figure vanished? The haunting images of all his deaths now evaporated into one: Ashod swimming longer than he should have, his muscles tiring, maybe paddling just enough to keep himself afloat, until his body could no longer bear the force of the waves.
“Maybe he’s still alive,” she said.
At first I didn’t hear her. She had her fist pressed against her lips.
“Maybe he’s still alive,” she said again.
She wouldn’t turn to me, but still faced the window and stared at the parking lot as if we were on the beach waiting for my brother.
“What are you talking about?” I spat out my words. “What kind of romantic bullshit is this? ‘Maybe he’s still alive,’” I said, mimicking her small, thin voice. Then she turned to me, and I was glad. I wanted her to see the cruelty in my face, for my words to penetrate her stupid notions of love.
“I hate that you’re making me say it loud: he’s dead. He didn’t sail away somewhere like a fucking pirate and he’s not going to come back for his long-lost love. You asshole. He died because of some horrible dare to prove that he loved you!”
Her face crumpled and she started to sob. I kept going. “It was a dare. How could you tell him to swim all the way out there in the middle of the ocean to prove that he loved you? You stupid girl.”
She slumped to the floor and buried her head in her knees. I left her there, and walked out of the church to find my parents.
For months after, I dreamt of Emma. They were sadistic illusions I wished I could carry out. In one dream I am in front of her house throwing rocks at her, while she willingly stands still receiving each blow. In another, I am holding her head in a plastic beach bucket filled with water, watching air bubbles escape to the surface. Each sequence so blatantly literal that I wake up shaken and exhausted.
After that summer, I began my first year of high school. When Ashod had started the previous year I imagined the two of us walking to school together when he became a sophomore. Now I walked by myself. I always crossed the street to avoid walking past Emma’s house. Sometimes I had the strong sensation that she was watching me from behind the curtain of her front window, waiting for me to disappear before she headed in the same direction.
It wasn’t until late October that we saw each other. I had stayed after school to finish a painting for art class, and as I walked down the hallway to my locker I saw her walking in my direction. I was busying myself with a snag in my sweater, and by the time I looked up she was standing only a few feet away from me. I turned to my locker and ignored her.
“Hi,” she said.
I opened my locker and dumped my books inside and slammed it shut.
“Can you please not do that?” she asked.
I turned my back and headed towards the exit. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“What?” I said, practically yelling, and turned around.
It was the first time I had looked at her in months, and her image startled me. Her thin, slender frame was now bony, her face fragile and paler than I remembered.
She stuttered before the words could come out, “I’m…sorry,” she managed.
I wanted to scream, You killed my brother! I knew how naïve it sounded. I knew it wasn’t true.
“I know,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she said again.
We stood for a moment longer, and finally I turned and left.
It was almost dusk when I stepped outside. A hush of leaves swept across the campus. The expanse of the sky reminded me of how night fell on the beach the day Ashod drowned, and I felt an ache so sudden and acute that I had to stop walking. The fall air smelled new and fresh, and I realized that I would be moving through the coming seasons without my brother for the first time. I wanted to scream like I almost had in front of Emma. Instead, I sat under a tree and leaned back and felt the cold grass beneath me.
Niche Magazine – September 2012