By David Karp
I jolt upright from the rush of my own blood and the rapid beating of my own heart. The light is dim, mimicking the sunset that ended an hour ago. The T.V. is playing some sort of crime show. The volume is on it’s lowest. The only thing I could really hear was a ticking, quick but harsh, from the clock across the room with it’s wide face staring me down.
It’s been like this for a few weeks now. Sleep, work, hide in my living room, repeat. Sleep, work, hide in my living room, repeat…
…living in the quiet.
“What was it?” I think to myself as I try to dig in my mind for the dream that woke me so violently and loud, as if someone was screaming in my own ear.
I lick my lips a couple times as I come to, trying to wash the nerves and the silent screams from my mouth. But it’s dry. Not desert dry, but long slumber dry.
My eyes sweep the silent room with it’s smoker’s teeth yellow walls and it’s dim dance of the light.
And then my eyes travel to the ledge of the fireplace that hasn’t been used once. Amidst a couple pictures of me and my mother and a few knick-knacks from places I’ve traveled to (a sea shell from key west, an pivo bottle from Prague, etc), my eyes fall to the birthday card.
I still didn’t get rid of it.
My mind told me to do my daily reading, my sad sadistic nightly ritual.
“Quite sad,” I said to myself right as I realized that I had already made my way across the room to the mantle.
It shines it’s shiny gold layer like rough glitter over a slab of thin cardboard, like a light stuck in time from those better days.
For some reason, every time I go and read it, I open it quite slowly. Like in sync with the quiet around me, as to not wake anyone in the room. Though of course I was alone every time.
When I open it, I see the purple penned handwritten note.
The word “love” is written in it twelve times, which was just enough for me to believe it. Especially the ending.
She grabbed me right as I had finished reading it and kissed me softly on the lips.
“I love you. You know that, right?”
The sun made its final peek over the breezy Malibu beach as I listened to a flock of seagulls flying overhead, without a word, towards the darker side of the sun.
An car shot through like lightning on the pavement, but it was very occasional at best. Even Neptune’s Net was empty for a Thursday night. A couple cars and a group of Harley’s in the parking lot, but this still left most of the lot sad and lonely, despite the shine of its white and red neon sign welcoming in all of the highway.
The waves crashed gently, rushing with the beat of my heart; the same way it did everytime she said she loved me.
Because I loved her back, with every beat of my heart, louder than any crashing waves and deeper than any ocean could go.
And that made me hesitate, and she picked it up quickly.
She looked at me for a few seconds, with some sort of pain in her eyes, took a breathe, and asked me if I remembered the Christmas card she gave me last Christmas, the first card she ever gave me. It was red and green, with Mickey and Minnie decorating a Christmas tree. In that same purple pen, she put my name under Mickey and her name under Minnie. She bought me a Christmas tree that year to go along with it; my FIRST Christmas tree, something I never had growing up. My mother was atheist, and with good reason after the cancer took my father. She never really recovered from that cold stretch of dark days. And it never hits you as a kid (I was seven). But when you get older and older, it seems to sneak up on ya like an earthquake. And it shakes you awake and destroys what it can.
“I do.” I tell her. “I still have it.”
“Remember when you told me that you had to read it every day for a month to believe the words in it?”
The breeze suddenly felt a bit colder as doubt, that bastard of a side effect to my anxiety, entered my heavy thoughts. That same doubt I remembered feeling that Christmas night, like a shot of adrenaline that made everything more quiet than it already was. The one I had to deal with all my life.
And for some reason, “Love” was the hardest word to read for me. It still felt like cursing in a church. It just never happened because it wasn’t supposed to. It went against your foolish beliefs.
So yes, I remembered. And yes, I did read that card over and over. Especially “Love, Emma”. When she left that night, I brought the Christmas card back to my apartment, sat at the chair that overlooked Howard Hughes Boulevard, and read it over about ten times in the light of the nightlife below me. My heart felt something new and strange that put a then-rare smile to my face. I read it so much, my eyes starting tearing up as I processed something I had been waiting for my whole life.
I looked out the window. Culver City shined bright back at me.
She pulled me back to the reality of the nighttime on the beach, and gave me another soft kiss.
“Promise me you’ll only have to read it once to believe me.”
I looked her right in the eyes, stuck in the quiet of honesty.
“Alright, MAYBE twice.” she said, with the soft breezy chuckle that did things to my heart nothing else did.
A gust of wind beckoned me, and within my silence, I smiled at her and nodded.
I knew tears wanted to come, but before they could, I got up and took her soft hand, telling her to follow me with my smile.
I let the wind guide me to the edge of the ocean.
“Are you nuts?! It’s gonna be so cold.”
I started humming a tune I had heard on the radio on the way here and we chuckled our way into a waltz, whether she liked it or not. I knew from her laugh that, despite her not wanting to get her feet wet, she would go along with my foolish antics so long as we were together.
So long as we were together. And we were together. Deeper than reality. Another moment of happiness for my soul. It was getting easier. And as we danced, the water that wasn’t cold enough to make us scream touched our ankles. I looked up to the night sky, with all it’s darkness and mystery, and I held her close. And after taking a deep breath of the cool summer ocean breeze, I prayed, with all my doubt.
That doubt that leads to honesty, whether we like it or not.
“Thank God this is getting easier.” I said to myself, towards the night sky.
I looked at her and with that honestly, I said “I love you” to her with all the songs in my heart, letting the adrenaline of happiness carry me into the night.
“Love, Emma.” I read.
I hadn’t noticed the T.V. had lost its signal.
I let the words on the ink carry me to a few tears.
Of course I broke my promise. I’ve read the card every night for the past month and a half, trying to find the honesty in the words.
Normally, I would tear up more, go back to the couch, get the signal back on the TV and eventually drift into sleep in the prison walls of my living room; no sunlight required.
But then I remember that she too broke her promise.
And I tried so hard to believe it back then, but she got in her car and drove down the PCH towards Los Angeles until she disappeared into the night.
And the night ate her up. And she never returned. For all I know, she could still be out there somewhere. But she made up her mind, and I had no choice but to say OK to it.
And you know, whatever the dream was that woke me up this time…I realize tonight that I’m starting to accept those too. The dreams. Manifests of my overworked “what-if” scenarios, I’m sure. But I was sweating less this time.
Time is long, but it does heal, even if it is a lifetime.
It sure felt like a lifetime.
All of a sudden, the lights from the window seemed to shine a little brighter. It actually got a smile out of me.
I turn to the card one last time and read “Love, Emma”, and I close it gently, placing it back down on the mantle, but not upright.
I walk to my window and take in the city. Bright. If you can’t find the stars in the sky, at least you can find the city lights.
I think I’m gonna try and remember that more often.
Something in me feels a little lighter now, and my eyes widen.
Those first moments of moving on are such a high.
I grab the only light jacket I own from the hallway closet, and make my way back to the mantle. Looking at the card, laying on it’s side, tired from all it’s nighttime readings, I reach for it and put it in my wide jacket pockets.
As I head towards the door, I open my phone and turn on my GPS.
The traffic isn’t bad, the night isn’t too cold, and I could make it to Malibu in less than an hour if I took Ocean Park Boulevard instead of the 10.
Writing Exercise: “Through The Senses” by Robert Olen Butler