By: Karla Kale
Song: At the Bottom
Artist: Brand New
(Picture taken from http://ukiahcommunityblog.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/the-presence-of-absence/)
He couldn't sleep.
Night was like the relative he'd never liked who came to visit on a regular basis. It showed up without fail and let itself in. It paraded around his apartment pointing out all the little things that anyone else would have been too polite to mention.
My... how quiet it is in here.
My... what empty rooms you have.
Night chased him to bed and left him with thoughts that nagged at him in a tone disturbingly like his mother's. They told him that he had to put up with night. Sleep was biologically necessary, after all. The sun fell, the moon rose and the diurnal world closed its eyes to dream.
So he laid in bed and reminded himself of all the things he needed to do. It was easier to make lists than think. Most of the time it worked. It was his very own version of counting sheep.
But tonight, sleep wouldn't come. Night might have barged into his apartment uninvited, but he didn't command sleep. It was a fleeting visitor, an elusive lover who refused to share its secrets.
He had a small fan in the corner. It whirred softly as it scanned the room like a watchdog. It covered up the fact that no one else was breathing. He could hear the alarm clock beside him. The blue glow that lit the shadows was accompanied by a constant hum. They ate away at his lists until finally, giving up in the oppressive emptiness, he peeled himself from the bed.
He padded softly to the bathroom, unsure of what he was doing but very sure that if he stayed in bed a moment longer he was going to lose his mind.
It amused him that one's grip on sanity could feel so frail.
For a while, he stood in his bathroom, the lights on, leaning into the sink. The man that looked back at him from across the counter was almost like company. As they stared at each other Zach found himself wondering if that man had always had those grey hairs at his temples. Had there always been wrinkles in the corners of his eyes? It didn't matter that the reflection looked like a stranger. The man in the mirror spoke only when Zach spoke, so they could never sate each others’ needs.
Zach opened the medicine cabinet, knowing that nothing he was looking for was going to be inside.
Amongst the Tylenol cold and ibuprofen, the razors and eyedrops, there were little orange bottles labeled with a name that wasn't his. Zach had passed over them time and time again as he cleaned the apartment, so they sat there, cluttering the shelves, useless. Not for the first time, he fingered one, tipping it in one direction and then the other. He stood there considering the contents inside, pondering what would happen if he swallowed one... many? He flirted with the idea the way he might flirt with someone in a bar who he had no intention of going home with.
He shut the cabinet and wandered, without aim, through his apartment.
Every room was like a digital picture frame so that the memory Zach walked into was constantly changing.
The physical reminders were few and far between. Zach had been convinced to get rid of most of the things that Damien had left behind. But Damien's name was still written in places where no one could see. There were hints in the little food stains on the furniture and clues in the movies Zach owned. The songs on his ipod... the clothes in his closet...
Damien had influenced too much of what he was.
It was impossible to truly erase someone from your heart. Once you'd touched, your path was altered, for better or worse.
Zach would stand in the kitchen and remember the way that Damien would perch on the counter while Zach cooked. Zach tried to remember all the different things Damien had prattled about that Zach hadn't taken the time to actually listen to. He'd been too busy focusing on what he'd been doing, as though the choice of oregano versus sage mattered more than what Damien had to say.
Zach had heard the clichés, the idea that it could feel as though a person could still be waiting for you around every corner. He'd had never felt that. Zach had never looked up expecting to find him standing at the kitchen counter reading Chekov while his breakfast sat forgotten. Zach had never rolled over in bed and been surprised not to brush up against the warmth of him. He remembered what it had been like, but it had never been the promise of Damien's presence that haunted Zach.
Zach's obsession had become the startlingly bleak reality that Damien was always gone.
At times, when it became overwhelming, he tried to force a happy memory into his mental picture frame. He tried to assure himself that there were things that had made his current reality worthwhile.
Unfortunately, in the shadows of an empty apartment, the hard conversations were easier to remember.
"Zach, I've decided I want you to see other people."
Zach's response had been to blink at him and smirk.
Damien hadn't smiled back.
"You want me to see other people..."
"Yes. I'm breaking up with you."
It was so blunt that Zach had no response. They'd been sitting on the couch, watching Some Like It Hot because it always made Damien laugh. He had always declared that 'one day'--when he finally made it big as an actor--he would embark on remaking it without changing a thing.
Zach should have known something was wrong because Damien hadn't been laughing.
"You're breaking up with me."
"Yes. I'm completely and utterly sick of you."
Zach hadn't left the apartment for weeks except for Damien's doctor appointments and work. At work he made sure he called at least twice a day to check on things. Damien didn't always answer. He'd been sleeping a lot by then and Zach knew that sometimes Damien just didn't want to talk.
They were still, the two of them, frozen. Zach's heart was beating hard because in all their years together, sometimes he still wasn't sure when Damien was kidding. He had to look hard, make a study of Damien's expression, to notice how glassy Damien's eyes were.
"I'm setting you free. Like a bird. Poof. Gone."
It would have been his solution. Sticking it out was not something Damien would have ever considered an option. Most of their relationship had been Zach hanging on as hard as he could.
So Zach sat there, trying to absorb what Damien was saying. He didn't want to think it had anything to do with the fact Damien had caught him jerking off in the shower the day before. Sex had always been a big part of it for Damien... the only part of it, really. But the meds he was on, the fact that he was so tired all the time... The fact that every once in a while there was a grunt of pain that broke his lips in a way he couldn't control...
Neither one of them had moved, both their positions made perfectly clear.
"I'm saying you can go."
"And I'm telling you I choose to stay."
Zach would always regret not saying that he wanted to stay.
But even then he'd known what was coming.
So he'd chosen to stay. That was honest because it had already started to hurt like hell.
Sometimes you lost someone a long time before they were actually gone.
They hadn't talked about it again. Neither one of them mentioned it until the very end.
Zach had used needles because, by then, Damien had a hard time swallowing and the pain killers were always administered by injection.
Damien had been sure to point out how much he hated to be assisted with anything as Zach emptied the seventh syringe into Damien's port.
Zach had watched Damien sigh and close his eyes and, even though he'd promised he wouldn't, Zach had started to cry.
Damien had smiled as he peeled his eyes open one last time, words already slurring.
"Hey, you don't have to cry. I already broke up with you, remember?"
Zach had laughed through his tears.
He'd held Damien's hand until it was cold.
At first emptiness was full of sweet nothings. He'd been immediately surrounded with people needing to look after him to appease their own sense of guilt at the fact there was nothing anyone could do.
Oh, this is horrible...
He was so young...
The sympathies set Zach's teeth on edge. 'Horrible' was not being able breathe. 'Horrible' was having your heart beating so fast it was as if you were running a marathon when you were doing nothing but trying to keep your own body alive.
Definitions varied depending on experience. Zach didn't think death was so horrible anymore. Death was a release, like sleep. Death was a visitor more elusive, more secretive, but far more tender because unlike sleep, death could be invited.
Now 'horrible' was trying to figure out what to do with him gone.
"You should get a dog."
It had been a friendly suggestion, as though having the centre of your world ripped away could be fixed with something cute and fluffy. Damien's absence was like a gaping wound. Not exactly something you stuffed a Chihuahua into.
"It gets better with time."
It got easier not to think about, maybe. The distractions like work and life came more to the forefront over time. But almost a year later, Zach had begun to wonder if maybe that was just because he wasn't suffering the constant reminders of 'heartfelt condolences'. People stopped calling to check on how he was doing. Everyone else moved on or forgot about it, so obviously it got easier.
Except that every time Zach thought about him, Zach still felt like he was going to drown. The verse of a song on the radio or someone quoting a line from a particular play and suddenly there was this huge abyss where his heart used to be.
He'd come to realize the heart doesn't heal. It beats on, wounded, and the altered rhythm simply becomes a part of who you are.
Zach went back to bed because there wasn't anything else to do. He began to remake his lists. He started again from the very beginning, waiting for sleep to join night in his bed. And in the stillness that was a little too empty, the silence that was a little too deep, he knew there would always be that ever present absence.
Karla Kale currently works at a living history museum playing with animals, wearing costumes and teaching children. Since she practically lives in the past it's appropriate that she's utterly technologically challenged and doesn't have Twitter or Facebook. She has, however, managed to figure out email and that's the best way to get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org