Children know that I never lock my door before twilight. I hear them scamper along the corridor towards my apartment, their shoes shuffling over the concrete and excited giggles turning into high-pitched laughter. However, the sound ceases as they near my door and then there is a careful knock, soft and polite.
“Please come in,” I say.
They push open the door and spill into the living room, a sight of buck-toothed grins and flushed cheeks.
“Hello, Miss,” says Jamyang, the most talkative of the lot.
“Kids!” I say. “Hi.”
They grin at me for a few seconds before fidgeting and nudging each other to say something.
“Come here,” I beckon. “Sit down.” More nudges.
“Miss,” Yoenten says, scratching the back of his head. “Our parents send fruit.”
Loud giggles erupt from the rest of the kids. “It’s vegetables,” Kinley Zangmo points out.
Yoenten’s neck becomes scarlet. Then Jamyang holds out a paper bag for me. I take it and peer inside. “Why, thank you.”
“Miss,” Jamyang says. “My mother knows miss like broccoli.”
“Yes indeed, she does.” I head towards the kitchen. “Make yourself at home. Sit down, turn on the TV. I think it’s almost time for Spoongeboob.”
“No miss,” comes the reply. “It’s time for The Simpsons. Miss always get timing wrong.”
I laugh. “Sorry, sorry.” I put the fresh vegetables in the fridge and start making popcorns. With the sound of TV and popping of corns in the background, I pour orange juice in a dozen of glasses.
There is suffering, and it’s true. It is absolutely pervasive in the universe. And I think we are aware. Of course we are. Probably that’s the reason we stick our head in the cloud of ignorance. We shatter people and things and ourselves, and then as if nothing happened, withdraw into our world of vast negligence. In one of my youthful and more fragile years, I came face-to-face with reality. Until then there had only been scrapped knees, paper cuts and small scratches. I didn’t know that a deeper, more profound pain existed. The kind of wound that you couldn’t see which only made it impossible to tend to it with factitious anesthetics. I could only feel it, and feel it oh did I.
They said it was osteoporosis, those people clad in spotless intimidating white gowns and surgery gloves. I didn’t know what to think. My attention was drawn towards their immaculately shaven chins and the way they shared jargon with an air of extreme professionalism.
“What’s an osteoporosis?”
They looked at me as if I was an alien. One of them, the lanky man with ginger brown hair and horn-rimmed glasses was kind enough to explain it to me.
“It’s a condition of the bone,” he said. “A person’s bone becomes extremely fragile and even a slight fall might result in fractures.”
It took me a moment to sink in the information. My mind was trying to reason out why the lanky doctor had only mentioned human. He said a “person’s” bone becomes extremely fragile. Did that mean animals didn’t suffer from osteoporosis? Their bones must be really strong. Humans have always been brittle.
And then realization struck me like a shower of sharp pebbles. Wait, osteoporosis and my boyfriend? His bones were so weak he could get fractures if he fell?
“Do you mean–”
The nice lanky doctor must have sensed the sudden anxiety and urgency in my voice because he calmly smiled and said, “Oh no. He’s not suffering from acute osteoporosis. He’ll be fine as long as he takes care of certain things…”
As soon as I came to know that Rabten was not in danger, I tuned out. While the lanky doctor droned on and on about what were the things Rabten needed to tend to, I averted my gaze towards the other three men. They were brothers. A doctor would be kind to people no matter how poor their background knowledge in Biology was. They looked bored and tired. Mostly restless, like they couldn’t wait to get the hell out of here. I didn’t blame them. The stench of bleach and medicine, dying cries and the stink of fear with the added dreary grey wallpaper of the hospital was more than I could stomach. I needed to get out of here.
The doctor stopped talking – I think his name was Landon – and for the first time the three brothers looked at me with kindness. Dr. Landon had an expectant expression on his face. When I had no question, he said, “Yes, Miss Drami?”
“Can I please leave?”
He looked slightly taken aback. What an appalling girlfriend. If he thought that, he didn’t let it show. On the contrary, he smiled and extended a hand. “Yes, of course.”
I carefully shook his hand and left.
I turned a corner, took a right and then a left. Then an odd door caught my attention. It wasn’t as much odd as it was ominous. The door was typically white and flung half-open. Only the sudden tingling feeling that crawled down my spine at the sight of it was unsettling. I took a step towards it, and then another. A few seconds later, I was pushing the door wide ajar and walking in.
What had I expected to find? A sick dying old person? Definitely not the girl I used to adore like mad in middle school. Never the most glamorous Jampa Choeden.
I felt as much stunned as she looked. Did she recognize me? She couldn’t have. People like Jampa Choeden weren’t bothered by the sad existence of the likes of Drami Chokey.
She looked different, sallower. The long glossy auburn hair had lost its sheen and it hung in sweaty clumps over her shoulders. Her eyes that had once been bright brown were sunken and dark moons hung below her eyes. Her collarbone was sharper than ever, sticking out of the skin like lethal sticks. Skin on her face sagged a little. What had happened to the most popular girl from my childhood? What sickness could be so cruel?
She stared at me, her eyes a pair of shadows. Slowly her lips stretched into a smile.
“Drami.” Her voice was thin and gruff at the same time, like she hadn’t used it for a really long time. She probably hadn’t. But her husky voice was the least of what surprised me.
“You know my name.” I heard myself say.
A memory flitted through my mind. The street outside town’s only public library was sleek and shiny with rainwater. The sky was overcast and leaden, grey clouds shrouding the sunlight. A group of older girls walked past me. One of them was Jampa. Even though she was a freshman, she always got her way into the senior popular crowd. I wrapped my arms around myself, pressing the pile of books to my chest, trying to make myself appear as invisible as possible.
Suddenly Jampa stopped, turned around and said, “Hey, do you wanna hang out with us?”
Surprised, I looked around to see if she was talking to somebody else.
“Yes, you.” She said.
I shook my head, suddenly aware of what I was wearing. I should have worn my favorite pair of jeans and the coral pink top with a peplum. They made me look older and more sophisticated, I think.
“Sure?” Jampa said, raising an eyebrow.
Did she think I was dumb? Of course I knew what this was all about. These girls only needed someone weaker and less pretty than them to pick on. Well I apologize but I would not allow it.
“No.” I quickly doubled up and ran away.
Presently, I did just the same. Before Jampa could respond, I turned around and started running, taking myself as far away from that room, from her as possible. A strange heat rose within me, something like a molten lava snaking its way up my chest. I felt sick. I don’t know how I found my way out but there I was, fumbling for the car keys. Hardly had I closed the door when tears came spilling.
She was dying.
I should not have been crying. This was absurd. I had a boyfriend who adored me.
She was dying. Jampa Choeden was going to disappear from the face of earth.
The lava came slithering up my throat and suddenly I threw up all over the steering wheel.
She had breast cancer. It was hard to believe.
Dust particles floated in the shaft of sunlight streaming in through the window. They never seemed to settle. I fixed my eyes on them, not daring to blink too hard. After what felt like forever, she spoke.
“How are you?”
I almost burst out laughing. “Fine.” I answered. “How are you?”
“Great!” she said.
I turned to look at her. “No really, how are you?”
What little sparkle was left in her eyes disappeared. “Breathing. It’s not the same as living, if you’re wondering.”
“No. It’s not.”
There was a silence that stretched on and on. Then she broke it, her voice rising a note towards cheerful. “My family should be here any moment now.”
No sooner did she complete the sentence than I sprang up on my feet, glad for an excuse to leave. “Right. I’ll go.”
She opened her mouth as if to stop me but instead just smiled.
“See you.” Before Jampa could form a response, I was opening the door and stepping outside. The lava had returned again and my chest felt like it was on fire.
I thought it was an owl. It was white and fluffy, wispy by the edges. It was moving, transforming. Turning into something else. A wolf, perhaps. Wings were sprouting from behind. The dragon breathed out fire, only they came out in little puffs of smoke. Perhaps the flame within her was dying as well.
The ringing of phone whirled me back to my senses. I averted my gaze from the clouds. I’d been gazing at things a lot lately. Looking down at my phone, I saw that it was Rabten. I placed it back on the ground, facedown.
“Is it him?” Jampa asked.
As birds chirped on and a light breeze rustled the leaves, I realized that there were so many things I wanted to say, so many questions that needed to be demystified. But the more I tried to form the words, the more they eluded my mind. It was like handling a delicate contraption, a slight nudge in the wrong place and screws start coming loose.
“Why did you run away?” Jampa broke the silence again. Her voice was much clearer now.
“I don’t know. It was… sad.” That was the only word that came to my mind. It was such a basic word.
“What was so sad about hanging out with me?”
I looked at her, surprised that after all these years she remembered. She only smiled. There was a weight to that one simple smile, like it pained her to do so. How could something as natural and frivolous as a smile become so confined?
“I don’t know,” I repeated. Looking back, it’d been a stupid reason. “I was intimidated.”
She gave a low chuckle. “You were?”
“You don’t believe me.”
“Because you weren’t.”
“How do you know?”
“You were smart, and independent,” she said. “I needed a crowd of admirers to feel good about myself. You probably couldn’t care less about what people thought about you.”
That wasn’t entirely true. I hadn’t come out for a reason. I was as much a social weakling as she seemed to think she was.
“Maybe,” I said instead.
“I like your name,” she said unexpectedly.
“Yeah. It’s sad, no? The never-ending knot?”
I’d never thought there was anything unhappy about my name. Sure it was an unusual one.
“You don’t think it is?” she asked, teasing me with a raised eyebrow. I shrugged. “I think it’s very sad.”
“Do you ever think of dying?”
She was on her sixth month of chemo. Her lips were chapped and skin loose and dry. I tried not to stare at her head. It reminded me of that afternoon at the Kimey’s. As locks of hair fell on the marble floor of the saloon, Jampa visibly shrunk in her seat. I looked at her eyes in the mirror. They were dry. Where were all the tears? Then I realized that she must bottle up all the fear and sorrow and frustration inside that tiny fragile body of hers, the emotions slowly consuming her like the chemo drugs that ate away at her cells.
“Sometimes.” I answered now.
Her eyes were almost close.
“Are you scared?” I asked.
Her voice was just a little louder than a whisper. “Of dying?”
“No. Only of this emptiness.”
“This, you, me, us. Everything.”
There is suffering, and it’s true. Even though it doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with depredation. It was when I was in my most vulnerable self that I realized often one needs to be plagued and hurt to assimilate that pain is real. And there are ways, no matter how insignificant they may appear to help someone else if not overcome, make it easier for them to navigate through it. I don’t know if Jampa felt about me the way I did about her. I guess that’s what she meant by emptiness. What did it matter if she told me that she was in love? It was only going to hurt me more.
“Miss,” Jamyang says, almost jumping on the couch. “What are we doing tomorrow?”
“What would you like to do?”
The kids explode with their own ideas about what they should do in class the next day.
“Okay, okay,” I laugh. “We’ll do all of those. For now I think you should go back home. The sun’s almost down.”
“That’s just what the sun is like,” Kinely Zangmo’s little sister says in a small voice. “It’ll come back up again tomorrow.”
“It’s sad, no?” I hear myself say. “The never-ending knot?”
Yoenten turns to look at me. “Yes miss, I think it’s very sad.”