You At The Very Center

You might not know this, but a human body falls unnaturally fast when dropped from a great height. Faster than any could move at an intentional pace. So fast that it’s actually pretty hard to identify it for what it is. It’s barely a person, and not one you could recognize. It just looks like a flash of color and shape. But there’s something uncanny about it, something that strikes you as just askew enough to be wrong, and you say to yourself: What was that? What moves that fast? A pencil when dropped. A ball when thrown. But, that wasn’t a pencil or a ball. And that’s exactly how it was for me when the woman two stories up jumped out of her window.

The sound came from outside. It was a man’s voice and it said Get down! Get down now! I sat up and looked for Steven. He was at the window, looking up, and then down, up, and then down. Get down! What came next was an indiscernible series of shrieks. They sounded female. I kicked off my covers and asked Steven what was going on, but he didn’t answer me. I looked down; there was no one on the sidewalk. Looking up, there was only the darkness of the building across the street, and above that, the indigo sky. Get down! More shrieking. A slam. A sharp yell.

Steven grabbed me and covered my ears, but I felt the impact with my whole body. He had me pressed up against him so tightly, it was hard to breath. My stomach felt heavy and frozen. Kind of like a giant ice shelf that had broken off into the sea, but hadn’t yet begun to drift away. The sound of that woman was all wrong. Something that soft was never meant to hit the ground that hard. It’s a sound that, the moment you hear it, makes you know something you wish you could un-know. The moment you feel it, and you do feel it. It rattled me in my teeth. At least, I’d like to believe it did. I’d like to believe that, despite the compression of Steven, of the tiny apartment, of the whole year, my body still moves with the world at all. 

I didn’t even think to go outside. A year ago, even six months ago, I would have. Without a second thought, I would have grabbed my coat and supply bag and ran downstairs. Steven too. We heard the voices of neighbors through the walls, some crying, some yelling, but mostly just chatter. I heard someone yell something about calling the cops, and another yell about calling an ambulance. We heard the sirens as we climbed back in bed. It was one in the morning, but it took me another hour to fall asleep.

In the beginning, I loved that Steven was a quiet sleeper. He didn’t snore, make any gurgling sounds, talk to himself, or toss around. He didn’t even breath heavily. I used to brag to my friends about it, even though later I’d regret sharing such personal information. Watching him sleep, I felt such adoration. Later, his silent sleeping made it easier for me to turn away and pretend he wasn’t there at all. As the sirens started up again and faded away, I pressed my ear into my pillow. It was like listening to the ocean; deep and mesmerizing. I could hear individual threads rub up against each other. And then it was as if I could feel the threads rubbing up against my mind, cutting cross sections, letting me reach in and put reality in a mold that felt cozy and safe. Parts of me drifted out, snowing down outside. A sound so quiet, I could count along with it.  

The call came in at 9am. Steven answered because I was still asleep, so he told me the news an hour later, when I wandered into the kitchen to make coffee. My name had made it to the top of the list; it was my turn to get a vaccine. I said I’d get ready to go, then I went to the bathroom and Steven held my hair back as I vomited.

I’d never had any cause to question his judgement. He’d made it his profession to be a protector of life. A savior. Why else would a person become a firefighter? He once ran into a burning building because a tenant had left their dog inside. He cared about the people in his community. And he cared about me. That’s what he said, anyway. He said that when I told him that I’d signed up for the vaccine. Before I quit my job. Before it wasn’t safe to go outside anymore. Before we knew what the vaccine really was. At least, before I knew. He didn’t seem to believe me. He didn’t even talk to me about it anymore. For him, getting vaccinated would be a positive step. He didn’t believe it was dangerous, he didn’t understand how it would alter his DNA. It was such unreasonable thinking for a reasonable person like him. I’ve wanted to slam his face every day for the past six months just to try to make him a little more recognizable.

I brushed my teeth and then told him that I wasn’t going to go.

“Erin, come on,” he said, “It’s gonna be ok.”

He pulled me toward him but I pushed back. He pulled me in harder, but finally gave up. I felt the ice shelf start to drift away.

I asked him if he wanted to get infected, if he even cared that getting vaccinated could mean our entire population would be ravaged by a virus that we, so far, had managed to avoid catching.

“Oh, so you don’t care about us anymore? What do you think you can do from in here? It’s been months, Erin! Don’t you care about that, about seeing your friends? Your family? About ever going outside again? How can you be…I don’t know…so reckless?”

I told him that he had some nerve calling me reckless. He’d been the one who’d kept going to work, who went out walking in the neighborhood. The city was rampant with this virus and he put himself at risk every single day. I told him that if anyone was being reckless, it was him.

“Erin, I care about staying safe! You know I do! But, baby, come on, this is all overkill! Those articles you read, those social media pages you follow…honey…you gotta know, it’s all nuts! The world can’t just remain—”

I cut him off and told him that he didn’t have any idea what he was talking about. That those social media pages printed real information that was being withheld from ordinary citizens. That he just couldn’t understand what was going on, because it was moving too fast for him.

He rushed toward me and was on me in two steps. He grabbed my wrist.

“Erin, baby, this is nuts!”

Steven was 6 foot 2 and muscular, with thick brown hair that I used to run my fingers through. I watched him staring at me, his eyes wide and probing, like he was trying to see something that was very far away. He looked exactly as he always had, but the color and shape of him had changed. His brow was wrinkled and the corners of his mouth pulled downward, like a scared old man. He vibrated with anxiety; it made him seem frail. He’d seemed frail for a while. It made me want to shake him like an 8-ball so I could get a different result.

I told him to let me go. I glared at him, but it wasn’t him. At some point over the past year, I’d stopped being able to find him. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so much pity and so little love.

He dropped my wrist and stepped back. “I shrank my world until it was the size of just the two of us. Then I shrunk it even more. And put you at the very center. Now it’s like…it’s like you’ve gone over the edge.”

I told him that I didn’t have a response to that.

He put on jeans and a sweater, boots and a coat, and grabbed his bag. The entrance was in a small nook which, with the blinds of the living room closed, was dark. There was a mirror and I stood there watching the grey, dimensionless blur of my face. My features, as far as I could make out, were all there, but they looked soft and squashed. It was hard to identify them as belonging to me. There was little to compare them to. Steven rushed passed me in a blur. He shut off the lights as he closed the door, leaving me in blackness.