The Noisy Water Review

Another Life

Kara Johnson

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they are confronted by their beliefs, or in my case, disbeliefs. Because I spent my childhood in a hospital, I didn’t believe in God. I saw people coming in and out, and sometimes only in. I, myself, never wanted to go out for good because I knew it would be with a sheet or a body bag over my head.

I never believed in fate, or in goodness. Most patients see the good doctors and nurses, the volunteers, and their faith is restored. They see people being healed, or they see loved ones gathering around, and they believe.This wasn’t the case for me.

I was born in a hospital, and it soon became my second home. After finally being released from the hospital with a cured Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia, I had a few good, barely-remembered years of normality before my lungs again decided to turn on me and develop cancer.

It’s all I’ve ever known, really. My parents are both doctors, so we basically live in the hospital. I mean, we have another house a few blocks away, but I could count on my left hand the number of times the three of us have been there together. My parents come visit me between shifts, but they never stay too long; they deal with enough sick people already. I was instead raised by the constant flow of smiling nurses, and my crazy nanny-turned-second-mother, Helga.

Helga always said I was too bitter, and that I should be lucky I was even alive. My snide and sarcastic comments would stop for a while, because I knew Helga had lost one of her boys when he was younger, and that she missed him everyday. I used to wish that I was Helga’s son, because then I could have an ordinary home, and maybe I wouldn’t be sick.

Helga had a son named Jose, and we had been friends since before I could remember. He took the bus to the hospital or my house, whichever one I was at, everyday after school, bringing Helga and I food. We would play video games, and talk about life beyond the walls of my room and the borders of our city. Jose always had a new girlfriend, and he would bring them to meet me when I was in the hospital after a surgery. I laughed everytime he came in the door with a new girl. But I always remembered their names. They were polite, but I saw the pity in their eyes. I saw them notice my bald head, my yellow eyes, my bones that stuck out against my skin; I saw their eyes dart away from mine as I caught them looking, and I saw apologetic, pitying smiles turn their faces towards the floor.

Jose brought new girls every couple of weeks. But his senior year there were a few months without any girls.

It’s not like we didn’t talk about who we thought was hot, in real life or otherwise. Jose had a thing for Megan Fox, but I was more of a Scarlett Johansson kind of guy. We would laugh and joke, and it was nice, just the two of us. I could tell there was something though, a reason to why no girls had come by, and Jose seemed to have more purpose and wisdom in his words as he spoke to me.

“Dude, whats up? You aren’t bringing me any girls anymore! You ran out of pretty ones at your school?” I joked, but still wondered about the sudden change.

Jose laughed. “Nah, we got lots of pretty girls. But man, there’s this one girl. I can’t get her off my mind.”

I nodded. “What’s her name?”

“Amanda.” Jose smiled when he said her name. “She moved here a few months ago from a small town a few hours away.”

“So,” I said, “You lost your touch? Why haven’t you brought her here? Why aren’t ya’ll dating?”

Jose sighed. “This one’s special, man. I gotta be careful.”

I saw the look in Jose’s eyes, that glow that held hope and light. That was the first time my view of the world was challenged.

*
The moment that absolutely confronted my belief in the world’s indifference came later on though, a long time after Jose finally brought Amanda to see me.

It was about a month after Jose had first spoken of her. We didn’t talk about her too much, because I knew Jose was serious, and somehow that scared me. If Jose started to become serious, wouldn’t that mean everything in my life would turn and do the same? I did ask about her a few times though, and Jose would just smile and say he was ‘making progress’. Whenever Helga was around during these times she would just swat him on the head and tell him to make a move already; she wanted to meet this young lady!

It was a Tuesday, and I had no warning. I had gone through chemo a few days before and I wasn’t feeling so great so my parents had reserved a hospital room where they could keep a closer eye on me. A nurse was in changing my IV fluids and another was giving me my after-lunch pills when they came in. Her hair was the first thing I noticed, because it was red, and very long. Her smile was next, because it was so genuine.

“You must be Ian!” She came over to where I was sitting up in bed and gave me a light hug. “I’m Amanda.” She smiled bright, and I blinked a few times.

“Oh, hey.” I said when I regained my composure. Her easy comfortability in my hospital room and with me being a sick person had surprised me.

“How long have you been here at the hospital?” Again, her straightforwardness caught me off guard.

“I’ve been in and out of treatment for almost six years.” I gave her a small smile. “I’ve lived a lot longer than they expected.”

Jose laughed at this. “He’s a beast. They keep telling him he’s gonna die, but then he surprises them. My mom thinks he must be waiting for something.” Any other girl would have been shocked at our easy talk of death and sickness, but Amanda just nodded, and even laughed.

I explained more. “It’s whenever they take me out of this damn hospital that I get worse. We’ve learned that it’s better just to keep me here.”

“His parents also work here, so they actually end up seeing more of him when he’s here.” Jose added.

Amanda’s eyebrows rose. I nodded. “Yes,” I said, “I live quite an ironic existence.”

Amanda smiled at me, though her eyes showed me she recognized my pain, and questioned my bitterness.

“My sister is staying on the fourth floor right now.” For the first time, her voice didn’t emanate confidence, and her eyes shifted. “We moved here a few months ago so that she could have better treatment.”

“I’m sorry.” I said, and I was, because I knew what it was like, and how it affected people. I gave her a smile. “What’s her name?” I asked, trying to be a comfort to this beautiful, sad girl before me.

I saw her hand reach for Jose’s, and I saw an idea developing behind her eyes. “Emma.”

*
I hope I haven’t mislead you, because Amanda is not the one who changed my life and who made me believe. It was her sister Emma. Emma, who was an identical twin and shared Amanda’s smile, her eyes. She also shared a confidence with Amanda that didn’t dim under the stress of her sickness, but instead grew.

I learned later that Jose and Amanda had from that very first moment that I heard her name, been thinking about putting us together.

The day that I finally met Emma, I thought it was pure coincidence. I would have never have gone so far as to blame it on fate, but I knew something was at work.

It was at my next chemo session, weeks later. I always arrived early at the hospital on chemo days, to prepare my room since I usually responded badly to the treatment. I arrived early, and after settling my things in, went early to the third floor chemotherapy wing. The room was always rather empty, but I had always liked to observe the few familiar faces. One caught my eye.

It was Amanda -but it wasn’t Amanda. She had the same face, the same light in the eyes, but the red hair was gone, because all hair was gone and she seemed a size or two smaller than Amanda’s abounding presence.

“Emma?” I couldn’t help but ask.

She looked up and into my eyes, surprise igniting in her expression. She wore a pink bathrobe and blue slippers. A darker shade of blue hung around her head in the form of a silk scarf.

“Hi,” she said, “have we met?”

I shook my head, beginning to feel embarrassed.

She laughed at me. Then gave me her hand to shake. “Nice to meet you then. I see you know my name. I’m beginning to think I know who you are too.” I raised one eyebrow. How would she know me? “Are you Ian?”

I laughed, beginning to sit down beside her. “Yes,” I stared into her green eyes. “I am Ian.”

Emma’s smile grew wider. “I was wondering when I was going to get to meet you.”

*
To save time, I am going to fast forward my story a year. This year, from that moment onward, was the very best of my life.

There are many love stories where the protagonists die suddenly and miserably at the end; a tragedy. But what does one do with a love story in which the protagonists are already dying, and fully aware of that fact? Perhaps most would think it boring. In reality, it’s exciting; no one wastes any time.

My year with Emma was difficult. She saw me at my worst, and I saw her at hers. I saw her in and out of surgeries, and she saw me dwindling into nothing more than bones and sallow cells that failed at making themselves into believable skin. Countless times we had to watch each other retch until our stomachs were weakened and withered.

But I held on to life — and to Emma.

Each day I thanked the universe, or someone, somewhere, for giving me Emma. And each day I cursed the world and everyone in it that I was sick and Emma had to be too.

I didn’t believe in a God who could miraculously make us all better. I didn’t believe in grace, which would have healed Emma ages ago if it were able to. I didn’t believe in purpose, since I had spent my whole life in and out of a hospital bed. How was I a benefit to the world at all?

But I did believe in love, if nothing else.

Emma looked at me and saw my bitterness, and she understood it in her own way. She got mad herself sometimes, but still she always seemed at peace. When I looked at Emma I saw her love and her anger at her situation and yet, occasionally I would catch in her eyes a look of gratefulness, which every time I witnessed opened my mind to curiosity.

The day I finally understood Emma’s gratefulness was the day I was tested in my disbelief of fate.

We were taken to the beach, by Jose and Amanda, because they knew Emma was nearing the end, and we wanted to experience something beautiful. It was planned to be a surprise.

“Emma.” I whispered close to her ear.

She opened her eyes at me, light igniting behind her pupils. “Hey-” She smiled at me, her bottom lip catching on her one crooked tooth as her lips opened wide.

“We’re going to the beach.”

‘What?” She began a shaky effort to sit up, and Amanda came over to help her. Emma looked up at her. “Are we? Is it true?” There was such hope in her features: a bitten lip, eyes wide, face turned up.

“Yes, honey. Ian’s taking us to the beach!”

Emma turned to me and gave an attempt at a playfully seductive look, batting her eyelashes at me as she always did when questioning my motives, and I laughed. She tried to laugh, but I could see the effort catch in her throat. She reached out her hand and I took it eagerly.

“Thank you.” Her voice was just a breath escaping her mouth, so light and quiet. A whisper the world carried up to my ears.

I just smiled and shook her hand.

Jose drove with Amanda in the front. Their voices were quiet as Emma and I sat delicately in the back. Emma fell asleep a few minutes into the trip, while staring out the window at the city passing by. Her body fell against mine in her sleep. The city outside my window gradually got smaller, and sparser. Each beat of my heart grew faster, excitement and thrill taking over my nervous system. My hands balled into fists on my lap in an attempt to calm myself; so much happiness was usually a drain of my energy.

Wheelchairs don’t mix all that well with sand. Jose pushed me, while Amanda pushed Emma. It was a hard effort so we didn’t end up making it out that far towards the water.

It was late spring, still a little chilly, but the sun was shining. I wore a jacket still because of a light breeze. Emma wore her fuzzy pink bathrobe that she wore almost everyday.

Amanda and Jose stayed for a while with us, but took my and Emma’s silence as a sign and started a walk down the beach, hand in hand.

“Ian?” Emma was staring out at the water, my name was just a whisper on her lips.

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.” She turned to me and I could see that her eyes stung with tears. She turned back to the water.

I joined Emma in looking out over the sea. Birds were flying out over the water and I saw Emma’s eyes follow their progress through the sky, dipping and diving and flying around. “You know, in another life we wouldn’t be sick. We could run around together, down to the water. Splash around. Do you remember what it was like to run?”

Emma smiled. “It was freeing.”

I let out a sigh because I actually did not remember what it was like to run. I couldn’t remember if I ever had. Too many memories of machines and medicines and long nights with sterile smells blocked out any memories of the wind rushing past my face, and my feet pounding against the earth.

We sat in silence for a time, taking in the beauty of the world, because we would soon have to leave it.

“It’s endless.” Emma whispered.

I closed my eyes for a moment. Because the ocean was endless, and it frightened me in a way, how infinite and immortal something could be.

When Emma spoke again, her voice carried a bitterness that I had yet to hear in my year with her. “You were wrong in what you said before. About in another life. We wouldn’t be able to run here together. We wouldn’t even know each other.” She turned her body away and a visible chill shocked her spine.

I didn’t know what to say.

But she was right. We had met in the hospital, because we were both sick. I remembered the first time I ever saw her, with her fuzzy pink bathrobe tucked snugly over her hospital gown.

Even in that first meeting, with that smile, that handshake, that confidence, and that stupid pink bathrobe, I had loved her.

“You never know,” I whispered, almost solely to the wind, “We could have met each other eventually. Maybe in a park, or a coffee shop.” Was I now the one who believed in fate?

Emma turned to me. “We’re sick, yes. But things happen for a reason, Ian.” She looked back out at the ocean. “You’re the reason I’m sick, Ian. It was for you. Otherwise, how ever would I have met you if I hadn’t moved here for treatment?”

Her words shook me. I was the reason she was sick?

Emma’s words washed over me as I stared almost blankly out at the sea. I was the reason Emma was sick? That must mean that she was the reason I was sick. At this thought my spirit calmed and I watched a seagull suddenly dive under the water’s surface.

“Don’t worry.” Emma’s words awakened my mind once again to the world spinning around me. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” She reached for my hand and met it at her lips with a feathery-light kiss.

*
Emma taught me that there is purpose, and destiny, and no coincidence. She hoped to befriend me to fate with the same gratefulness that she had found in our circumstance. She had believed so unshakably that she was mine, and that I was her purpose. We spent our lives caged up inside a hospital that prodded and tested us, so surely there was a reason for that. Surely she found what it was when, that very first day, her face turned up to see me, a young stranger, calling her by name.

But fate is a fickle friend.

I go back to that beach still. There the years that have passed seem to grow transparent and I can almost reach back to the young man I used to be. I sit on the sand and play through my mind the scenes of Emma and I on this beach. When she had stopped treatment and the red that used to fill her cheeks was slowly slipping away. I sit on the sand and watch as waves crash against the shore, just like that day.

I feel Emma in this place as if her spirit dwells in waves. Or maybe simply in the air that is sweet flowing down my throat. Some things are simply timeless, and this beach, along with Emma’s love, will live forever in my soul.

I hear the seagulls call and watch them fly down to the water.

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