I wrote this short story for a class in college. It still holds a special place in my heart! I hope you enjoy it.
A Scarlet Scarf
Emmie sat on a dock in Istanbul, dangling toes, emptying dreams, and saying goodbye. Half way around the world, somehow, time left behind became clearer, as if the distance magnified the memories. Goodbye childhood, future, and that little step in between. Goodbye high school. Goodbye seizures. Goodbye first stay in the hospital. For each goodbye she ripped a rose petal from the tattered blossom in her hand and let the red flutter from her fingers into the Bosphorus waves below.
Everyone took the path she was on, at one point or another, but still, it made her an outsider. Her journey was earlier than she had hoped, but even so, later than many others. Walking slowly, she noted the footprints of these who went before her. Some rushed, some dawdled, others walked straight ahead and she imagined they never looked back or to either side—soldiers. Soldiers in the flesh and emotion. Some people knew; they walked. Others rushed and were taken by surprise when they reached the destination. She traveled alone with the masses, as everyone did. It was tradition. At times, she thought she glimpsed a fellow traveler in an old hunch-backed man walking slowly along the street, or a figure lying cold on a park bench wrapped in two tattered long sleeved shirts and covered by a sheet of cardboard, but she never could be sure. There seemed to be many paths leading to this same place.
Looking back, she remembered the forked road so clearly: her change in destinations. That day was somewhat vivid, but mostly she couldn’t explain it. Sitting in geology class at the end of her sophomore year, everything changed. The class was silent, taking a test when suddenly she was gripped. Emmie had never thought about what it would feel like to be totally helpless. She had no control of her body. She tried to call out, but her brain was detached from her mouth. Her body moved, but it wasn’t under her control. A contorted grimace froze her face and her hands tucked close to her chest. There was vague movement around her, but most vision disappeared. At first, she clearly heard the normal class movement—“Look at me! Help me!”—she screamed in her mind, trying to will someone to see. She sensed there may not be much longer until she lost even thought, so she fought to keep thinking. Within a few seconds, Luke turned—“what’s happening to Emmie?”—and a buzz of voices rose. At least they knew. They were not frozen, shaking. “This is what dying feels like”—the thought flitted thought her mind with astonishing calm. Everyone goes, there’s nothing to do anymore. She felt detached from her body, outside of herself and above—although she still couldn’t see, she sensed. Like a dream. Separated in two pieces, stretched, pulled—a trembling, blind, convulsing shell and a trapped mind grasping to hold onto each other. The class buzzed around, noisily running for the nurse, talking and nervously rattling legs of desks against the new linoleum floor. Emmie slipped into noiseless darkness.
It was a fight, a struggle to come back. She didn’t even know why she even wanted to go back or where she was going, but she fought to open her eyes. Her lids felt like they were made of cement. Panic shot through her mind. She was frozen, a stone, but she knew she had to move, wake up. Those moments still haunt her in her sleep. Her mind finally won. Opening her eyes, her surroundings were unfamiliar. Voices were far away; she should have recognized them. The world was spinning like it spun once summer twilight when she was five and she’d gotten the wind knocked out of her when she ran into the curb on her bike. It wasn’t a curb; it was another person, much bigger, probably a neighbor. Why did it matter? But the thought slipped through before she could think about it. She looked around, but couldn’t really see for a few minutes. An unfamiliar dark face swirled in front of her eyes. That voice! You should know it, she told herself. Think! She had it and it escaped. So close, but gone now. She caught her breath as if it held back the panic. The voice didn’t belong to the dark face, but instead to the pale hand that held onto hers—actually she clutched those hands. Her knuckles were white as talc power and the fingers she clung to were beet red, but the voice didn’t complain. “I’m right here with you, everything’s going to be okay.” She could hear the voice long before the room came into focus. She looked at the face but it was blurred, finally her mother came into focus.
Emmie sat numb in the hospital all morning with her mother at her side. The world was bright, but hazy somehow, like a seeing an early morning for the first time, crisp, but blanketed with fog. Too loud and fast in a muted sense. Loud with sounds she couldn’t quite place—beeping respirators, occasional sirens, urgent voices—muted by the weakness and confusion in her mind. “I have to go to the bathroom. I’m fine.” Her legs felt strange as she stood, weak, but heavy against the tile. She found the bathroom door, gripped the handle, cold and solid steel, and for a moment felt too weak to go inside. Her body seemed too heavy, but the white porcelain supported her somehow and as she got up to leave she noticed the red flow. Her blood decided to come today. “Coming and leaving all in the same instant,” she thought. “Strange to say it’s coming as it leaves my body.”
Walking shakily back towards her bed she heard a calm voice, quiet, but very clear above the crazy bustle of the sound around. Almost monotone, combined with the faint tick-ticking: a few pills bouncing around a medicine bottle. “How many did you swallow, Mrs. Morgan? Can you tell me how many pills were in the bottle?” The nurse sat beside the bed of an old woman, whose eyelids fluttered, revealing the whites of her rolled back eyes. The nurse quietly, but steadily repeated the questions, over and over as she gripped and shook both of the old woman’s frail hands with her own free hand. Mrs. Morgan’s pale arms were covered with wrinkles and sunspots and loose skin that sagged off the tiny bones of her wrist and fingers. Was the slight woman fighting to return? Emmie wondered if she could hear and do nothing, trapped inside as she herself hand been a few hours earlier. She wondered if the overdose had been intentional. What had driven her to take so many? What did she have to return to? She still wonders.
She remembered that day, as she sat on the dock. Certain elements were so vivid, but try as she might, she recalled nothing else of that day beyond those scattered images. The beginning of the end. But that was years in the past. The first of many seizures, back when that was all they were. A year ago, they’d gotten worse, her balance was noticeably awkward, and she couldn’t remember the names of her best friends, or what she’d had last night for dinner. A visit to her neurologist revealed the worst. Both CT scan and MRI showed the tumor.
Then, of course, there were surgeries. “It isn’t easy to remove the tumor completely because we need to be careful not to take the parts of the brain you need,” the first surgeon informed her. A biopsy, an exploratory surgery, and two other operations followed in, what seemed to be quick succession. Chemotherapy interspersed the operations, trying to kill the cancerous cells while their numbers were down. Sometimes things looked hopeful, but nothing worked well enough.
All that seemed to come of it was that Emmie was tired. Tired of the hospital, tired of causing problems for everyone around her, tired of wasting time and money, tired of pretending, tired of being pitied, tired of that constant urge to make every minute count and the continual realization that she wasn’t, tired of being a failure, tired of the scarf.
That long slip of fabric began to haunt her; it was the reason she sat where she did. She felt she had to run to a place where she could hide. Blend in. Be something she couldn’t be anymore: normal. That’s why she was here, on the other side of the world. A plane ticket, a note to her family, a taxi ride—she knew they’d understand, actually, she thought, they’d be relieved because it was proof that she herself understood. Understood both life and death and saw strength among the fragility of dreams. Strength to move, go, search, understand, discover and seize the day, hour, second, and live even when she had no strength left. It was too early. She was supposed to have everything, be everything. She had been happy. She had been family. She had been secrets, laughs, hugs, mischief, tears, stories, memories. She had embraced life. Now life was limiting. Her friends pretended like they understood, but they didn’t know what to say and filled the moments together with awkward silences and excuses to get out of her way. “Get out of your hair,” they’d often say without thinking, then blush and stammer and inch towards the door. Even if she laughed and blew it off, they didn’t know how to handle it. She understood completely; she’d always been bad at handling that kind of situation. Plus, she didn’t fit into anymore. They had lives of their own, errands to run and things to get done.
That was just it. She had an urge to run away, just for a few days, from that society that measured worth by a college degree, successful job, money, and social status. She never would have those things, but many of her friends were getting close. It was their driving force. That’s why she liked to breathe in Turkey. People here didn’t live for the future in the same way they did in back home. At least it didn’t seem that way. They lived for today; they had to. She loved the Turkish people she met. A beautiful people formed the beautiful air about the city. This spirit was found down winding cobblestone roads, tucked inside the cool, shady courtyards outside of intricate mosques with soaring minarets, and seeping from the beautiful rainbows of roses, daisies, lilacs, carnations, and countless other blossoms sold by women sitting on overturned white buckets on docks and street corners, peddling flowers for pennies. This air was also found in the tiny, one room grocery stores, paper shops, and carpet sellers’ stalls where the owners offered her glasses of Turkish cay and talked casually for hours in broken English, elementary Turkish and expressive hand gestures. The economy crumbled, but they had family, neighbors, and today. People is all they had; people mattered. They didn’t have to be perfect or successful. They had to be.
Emmie wandered around the city, wrote, observed, smiled, and cried. She sketched because photos seemed to intrude and she was too tired to move much. The world came to her as she sat on a bench in a park or on the bus—riding anywhere because it felt liberating to move unrestricted. Her emotions perfectly matched the feeling of a ferry ride between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. That was how she felt. Caught on rough water between two major places of activity and beauty. When it came to Istanbul, the Asian side, vibrant with color, scarves, and culture, didn’t disappoint. Hopefully, the same would be true for death, she mused.
On the last day, Emmie bought a large bundle of red roses from a flower seller on the Asian shore. Wandering to the water, she dangled her legs over the stone ledge by the dock, wrapped her left arm around a wooden pillar for support, and leaned back on a cement block, enjoying an occasion spray of water on her bare toes. She plucked the petals and tossed them one by one into the waves below. They were goodbye petals. Goodbye family, sunset, love, wedding night, Ariana and Nathanial—names she picked for her children, make believe games, nephews and nieces, nights out, family reunions, Christmases, birthdays, jobs, raindrops, travel… The list went on and on and she wrote each one in her notebook. Hours passed and thousands of petals hit the waves, disappearing from her hands and slowly flowing red into the water. It was childish, she knew, but soothing.
The sun sank warm and orange, gleaming off the European shore and silhouetting the squat domes and spindly minarets of mosques with a magical glow. Sea gulls gathered and circled, cawing as they lunged at bread chucks tossed overboard by ferry-goers, heading home and entertaining themselves by dumping the day’s excess stale loaves overboard. Darkness crept in swiftly, as if carried by the sharp, rising breeze. She would take the next ferry, but there was one last thing she must leave: her scarf. She traveled half way around the world to listen in a land where she didn’t understand a word, be lost in a city of 15 million, blend in in a world of head scarves. The city was comfortable somehow, but still she felt uneasy. She didn’t want to hide. Even here, especially here, the scarf hid and concealed, trapping women in bondage.
Emmie slipped off her scarf. The orange glow highlighted a shiny bald head, lumpy with growths and etched with scars from cuts and countless stitches. People turned and looked, then kept moving. She smiled weakly and let the wind tug at the crimson disguise draping through her fingers. She loosened her grip, and the wind carried the slip of fabric, up in the air, and plunged it into the waves.
(Originally posted on my old blog, Interim Arts, on July 19, 2014.)