Specks of Nothingness
When I was growing up, I would stare at the ceiling. I must have been eight years old when I started to do this. I would tilt my head up, focus on one spot, and stare. My eyes would begin to water as I tried not to blink. And I would wait. After a couple of minutes, little specks and shapes began to dance before me. I’ve seen television screens turn to static when there’s a power fuse. The white noise would crash into the room and the black and white fuzz would be enough to drive anyone crazy. That’s what I saw.
I would stare at the off white ceiling of my living room and watch the static of nothingness jump in front of my eyes. I would follow each small pigment until bursts of white would start flashing like fireworks. They were rare but I looked at them with wonder.
Now, when I think back to those days, I understand that my eyes were playing tricks on me after being pried open so wide but back then, I didn’t know what it was or if anyone else could see it. Since I was a shy kid, I never mentioned it to anyone in my family. I was the youngest, the baby, and didn’t want to be laughed at. And so, I continued on quietly. Usually at night when everyone else was asleep.
Some of my most prominent memories from childhood begin in the dark. My bedroom would be as silent as it could be. My sheets crisp. My pillow soft. I would listen to the soft snores of my older sister sleeping in the bed next to mine. Sometimes I peaked outside the window to make sure robbers weren’t trying to break in. Mostly, I would stare at the ceiling.
In the near blackness, the leaping particles would appear faster and louder. I would watch them and try to fall asleep. Counting sheep never worked for me, so I counted spots. When my eyes started to doze, I would catch that spurt of white and my eyes would jolt open and look for it again. “What was that?” I asked myself. I would question whether it was real or my imagination. I would wait to see if it would return. When it didn’t, which was most times, my eyes relaxed again. But while my eyes were tired, my mind was not. I could not stop picturing the moving specks from the ceiling. Did the ceiling mind that they were there? Did it welcome them? And then I would remember that the ceiling didn’t feel. The ceiling was the ceiling. The bed was the bed. The alarm clock was the alarm clock. These objects were real but they were simply objects. Before I knew it, the tall walls started to crawl into themselves and shrink in on me. I would take a deep breath. Then another. And another.
I was breathing but the stuffed whale next to me was not. And one day, I wouldn’t. I would cease to breathe. And so would my snoring sister and my sleeping brother and my loving parents and all my friends. I was eight. I should have been dreaming about new dolls or thinking about the play date with the best friend of that year. I should have been but I wasn’t. Instead, I let my breathing get heavier, My arms were now tingling deeply with nerves. There was sweat gathering on the back of my neck that I did my best to ignore.
People say that one day, it will all be gone. The material items that we so desire will be meaningless and the forced family dinners will no longer exist. But as I lay in bed, I realized that I was being lied to. It wouldn’t be gone. I would.
Who would wrap themselves in my favorite blanket? Who would wear my clothes? Who would live in my house? Or would it crumble to pieces after we were all gone? Were the beating hearts of my family the very foundation that our house stood on? I didn’t know. I didn’t know what would happen to any of it. I have never felt the thud of my heart more vigorously than in my eight year old body. Like a
prisoner trying to break free, it would pound fiercely in my chest. It was like it knew that one day it would stop. It was pumping. It was pumping. I was alive. Right now. This moment.
I’ve heard it said again and again that kids believe that they are invincible. That they can surpass injury and do whatever they please. I was the opposite. I grew up so keenly aware of death that it made shutting my eyes hard. If the world would one day be black, why miss the opportunity to look at it now? I would stare at blank space for the sake of staring. I would feel myself sink into my bed and wonder how it would feel to no longer feel.
When we’re gone, we can’t speak and those who loved us can’t ask us out to dinner or which movie we preferred. When the ones we love leave, we can’t hold them in our arms or tell them a joke. It’s the law of life. But what are the laws of death?
My young self refused to believe that it all came to a halt. There had to be a world that allowed the dead to miss the living. There had to be a place where the long gone could laugh and dream. I refused to believe these kinds of places didn’t exist. But it didn’t stop me from thinking the unthinkable: what if they didn’t. I began to feel so hard when that thought crossed my mind. I would try to feel everything at once just to feel. I would breathe in such heaps that I would choke.
I can feel her blue bathrobe against my cheek. I can feel how unconvinced I was at her kind words of false reassurance. I can feel.
When I was growing up, I would stare at the off white ceilings of my house and watch scraps of nothing hiccup around me. And every so often, I noticed small white flickers of the unknown appear and disappear so fast that a blink meant missing it. I would lay in bed and let the whispers of death crawl into my ears.
Now, I am twenty-two years old, and so much of me is still that little girl who was afraid. The little girl who would hold on to belief. The little girl who would lay in bed wide awake while the rest of the world slept. The little girl who was grounded in reality while everyone else floated in dreams. The little girl who told herself that those white glimmers were messages from a world that could only be reached by death. Our little secret.
But so much of me is not that girl anymore. And while I still lay in bed at night with my eyes staring up at the ceiling, I don’t think of death. I think of life.
I had to write to you and tell you about the dream that came to me last night. I actually began to write it down as soon as I woke up. Impressed? How many mornings did we spend over coffee (no milk with three sugars and heavy on the milk with no sugar), trying to remember our dreams? How many mornings did we curse ourselves for only remembering details like “a squirrel with a top hat” or “the clouds above me turned deep red?” But this one jolted me awake the way unexpected thunder does. It had me reaching blindly for a piece of paper and pen, both of which, luckily, I have been keeping close to me since I arrived here.
I was in a hallway. I have no idea where. The walls were annoyingly off-white and there were no windows or paintings. In what felt like four steps, I was walking through an open door and entering an elevator. It was carpeted with ugly floral and had handsome wood panels for walls. There were no buttons. No up or down, no 1, 2, 3. This didn’t bother me.
I stood in the center and let the doors close automatically. I took a deep breath. I took a shallow breath. I went on breathing. It was a matter of seconds before I realized I was falling. The elevator kept going on and on. Startled. I think that’s the first feeling that came to me. I didn’t know where I was going and I held my breath in anticipation. The elevator stopped. It came to a halt so fast that my neck whipped forward and back. The way it does when you slam on the brakes at the sight of a bunny crossing the street. When I collected myself, I let out a breath of relief. And then I was falling again. For as long as I breathed, the elevator would fall. It was as if my existence was the button that allowed the gears to turn. I went on for miles. Or so it seemed. And then the very floor I stood on, covered in hideous flowers, turned to glass. My feet felt the transition, slick and fast. Out of painful curiosity, I looked down. Below me, maybe two hundred feet away, was concrete. Solid concrete. And I could do nothing to stop it. Unless I could cut off my own breathing, that is.
We spend the majority of our time imagining our futures. Endlessly frustrated that we can’t know for sure what’s going to happen next.
Well, I knew. My future was that concrete getting closer and closer with each unsure breath. I could finally see what was ahead of me and what was ahead of me was the end. I closed my eyes. I could feel the skin fold over and try and save me. I opened them. Felt my lids lift with hesitation. I wanted to see but what was there to see? Dark wood straight ahead, grey concrete below me. My eyes shut themselves once more. There were only a few more feet.
I saw you. I saw your ginger beard that tickled my cheeks. I saw those green eyes that I compared to creek water. I saw those ripped up shoes that you refused to let go. I saw the smile of a fox. I saw you getting smaller and smaller as the escalator took me up. The promise of revisiting “us” upon my return lingering between us as I waited for you to walk away. But I was off and moving before I could see if you ever did. I have a feeling you didn’t.
I saw you, Elliot.
And then I woke up.
Side effects include: vivid dreams.
It’s on the label of the pill bottle. The anti-malaria ones. Riding in the car with you after picking up the prescription. Laughing at our made up side effects all the way home.
This one is real.
I hope all is well. I’ll see you soon,
Leanne Carman is a graduate from the State University of New York at New Paltz. It is there, in that vibrant town, that she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing. She loves words, spring air, and a perfectly cooked egg. Her work has been published in On the Rusk.