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The Slow Death of Wilbur Otsuka
It’s late afternoon.
He watches Chana stumble, the toe of her Teva sandal catching the lip of a tree root and sending her tilting forward. Instinctively, he reaches for her, but she regains her balance long before he’s needed. Wilbur stands, for a moment, and watches her work her way down the bank until she looks back up and smiles.
The air is as stagnant as the waters of the Sudbury river below him. Chana looks stifled, rubbing absently at the back of her neck. She plops down beneath an elm, finding a gully between two verdant clumps of undergrowth. Summer has arrived; it’s churning in the air. Eventually, Wilbur joins her so that they’re shoulder to shoulder beneath the tree.
“You should give yourself a tiny ponytail,” Chana says, reaching over to grope at the hair spilling over his collar.
He tries and fails to hide a smile. “That is literally the worst thing I can imagine.”
The day is coming to end. What was green is turning shades of blue in the waning light, and the glow of the supermarket down the road is throwing threads of neon onto the surface of the motionless water.
“I don’t want to go, just yet,” Chana says softly, once the sun is nothing but a memory. He thinks of all the things she might be trying to avoid—her sister Yael, new emails, the thought of a place that is not this one—and decides that her reasons are her own. The summer will end, regardless of where they are. And it’ll be the shortest one yet.
“So we’ll stay,” he replies. His voice far more level than he expects.
“Good.” She leans against him, a finger tracing the line of his neck. Their eyes meet.
It’s evening, now, and her lips are chapped. He kisses her anyway.
The last bell rings and the exodus begins. Today, though, Wilbur feels something crystalline in the movement—perhaps the world doesn’t pause, but he does. There’s something immemorial in the mass of people trotting towards their cars, in the rituals they all simultaneously conduct. Keys are extracted from pockets and bags, goodbyes are waved and hugged and hollered. All of high school melds into the same moment, each body in motion but not yet gone. It is the second before the first car starts, before they flood out into something else. And Wilbur finds himself stopping to savor it, if not for himself than for Chana. Yes, he’s doing it for her.
She’s the one that’ll be gone soon, after all.
It’s just like any other day. The moment he slips into the passenger seat of her muddy Subaru, she’s pulling away from the parking lot, ahead of the bottleneck forming behind them and into the clear. The school fades, and Wayland proper begins to pass by. Cochituate Road stretches off to his left, toward the lazy Sudbury and the emptiness beyond.
“Where are we going?” he asks, unconcerned.
“We’re just driving,” she replies, switching lanes superfluously. The car is warm from six hours in the direct sun. A recent, unexpected heat wave has only compounded the delirious pleasure that always accompanies the end of the long, gray winter. The warmth swirls between them, and he relishes the way it swaddles the two of them together. Then Chana cracks a window and the feeling fades.
“She says she wants to invite Breana over,” Chana admits, after a moment. She’s chewing at her thumbnail, eyes stalwartly on the road ahead.
Wilbur frowns. “Why would she do that?”
“They were friends when they were my age, apparently,” Chana says. “But I think she’s mostly doing it because she’s a psychopath and lives to see me suffer.”
“Aren’t you over Breana?”
“Yes,” she retorts. “But I’m still fucking angry.”
Wilbur raises an eyebrow. “Okay.”
At the next red light, she tosses him her phone. “Check my email, please,” she says crisply. He swipes the phone unlocked without missing a beat and refreshes the mail app. Then he checks for any missed calls too, for good measure. There is a general lack of specificity regarding how the communication will arrive, if it will arrive, which seems particularly cruel. A process designed to create a sourceless, nagging paranoia.
“Nothing,” he says, and looks away so he doesn’t have to watch her shoulders droop. “Yet,” he tacks on, haphazardly.
“Nothing yet,” she parrots, her tongue settling hard on the last syllable. Yet seems to be the key word, these days. Chana is not off to California yet. Wilbur is not alone. Yet.
They keep driving.
In Framingham, Chana abruptly swerves into a Stop & Shop parking lot. Wilbur does not ask why they have stopped, but climbs silently out of the passenger seat. He steps around the caved-in front corner of her bumper, where last month she’d tried to make a three-point turn while eating a Reuben. He’d been in the car at the time, as per usual—one of their afternoon drives, the ones that have been lengthening lately. They’d been laughing about something when she’d hit the curb, but he can’t remember the joke.
Inside the store, Chana spends twenty minutes pondering her cereal options. The squeak of her Nikes sends him into a coma by her third pass through the section. He’s staring blankly at the joint between the floor and the ceiling when he senses another store patron turn the corner. And then Chana’s fingers are tightening around his wrist, yanking him roughly behind a pyramid of Capri Sun boxes at the end of the aisle.
“That’s her,” Chana hisses, leg muscles tensed like a sprinter waiting for the sound of the gun.
Breana is perusing the Froot Loops, her dark braids pulled into a hefty bun atop her head. She looks, approximately, as he would expect from the few images he’s seen floating around on social media over the years. But, still, there’s something different in the angle of her cheekbones, in the flick of her wrist. Something sharper. He realizes that he’s created a whole mythology around Breana, thanks to Chana. Seeing her now sparks a little cognitive dissonance—she’s both real and unreal. Past and present.
Peering around the corner at her, Wilbur says, “What do we do?”
A split second after the words leave the safety of his mouth, Breana’s head turns. Chana has just enough time to whisper an emphatic “Fuck,” before she’s molding her face into the grotesque approximation of a smile. “Hey, Bree, how are you?”
Bree. His eyebrows raise.
Breana’s response is slow, and Wilbur hardly hears; he’s watching the way her eyes roam over Chana, appraising her. “I’m doing alright.”
There’s a long silence during which Breana doesn’t seem to register his presence at all.
Chana fumbles. “Um, well, we’ve gotta run, but Yael said something about—”
“Yeah, I’ll see you around.” Breana’s eyes are narrowed in concentration, like she’s listening to another language and missing every other word. Like Chana, two years older than when she and Breana were at their closest, has become a mystery to solve. There’s something desperate, pathetic even, in the way Chana’s chin is held so high. A plea and a challenge all at once.
Breana gives no indication that she intends to leave, so it’s Chana that has to turn on her heel. Wilbur follows without a word. They pass through the cool crosswind of the frozen department before they reach the exit, and he doesn’t take his eyes off the bob of Chana’s loose bun for the whole journey.
In the car, Chana lays her head against the steering wheel. Wilbur opens and closes his mouth a few times, but in the end says nothing.
Her eyes are on the road; his eyes are on her.
The curls have begun to escape from the bun at the nape of her neck. They hang down past the olive skin of her brow and turn glossy in the red glow of tail lights. Surely, she feels his gaze, but her thoughts are elsewhere. Maybe she’s thinking about Breana, or California, or something else sacred and out of reach. Things that can only be understood by someone who has reached the point in her life where all things both end and begin.
He has never asked why she’s only interested in colleges on the other side of the country. His ignorance, somehow, feels safer, and he’s never had much difficulty accepting the unknowable. Chana is the relentless one. There is an orange sticky note on her dashboard displaying the schools she’s been properly accepted to: Pomona, Pepperdine, UCLA, and UMass Amherst. Amherst has been crossed out; he recalls her father forcing her to apply to at least one Massachusetts in-state school, and her indignation at the thought.
And then there’s the wildcard, the reason her email is refreshed at every opportunity. The waitlist hangs over her, taunts her. He can still picture the Chana of a month ago, hunched over the notification from Stanford Admissions, blinking the tears from her eyes and swallowing back the shake in her voice. They’ve been driving ever since.
Summer has not yet begun, and yet the end already looms.
Palo Alto is 3,118 miles from Wayland. Los Angeles is 2,965 miles. When he quantifies it, it feels a little less real—but it is very real and, theoretically, it is also very imminent. Sometimes, he doesn’t think about the waitlist at all.
“I think I need to get home soon,” he says, face pointed out into the encroaching blackness. They’re passing a country club golf course, the sand standing alabaster against the dark of the lawn. The two-lane road is clogged with commuters leaving the city, heading home through tunnels of overhanging foliage. The grainy red glow of brake lights melts off the road and onto the new spring leaves. He feels the natural world, the kind that only exists in the exhaustion of the late afternoon, beginning to recede.
Chana doesn’t say anything, just turns left at the next light. Eventually, her gaze flickers over in the twilight between them. When she stops in front of his house, he meets her eyes, and finds in them something warmer than he expects. Something so casually amorous that it makes his chest ache, though he can’t imagine why.
“Breana used to carry around a copy of Paradise Lost when she was in high school,” she says, after a long moment. “She used to read out little incomprehensible passages from it.”
Chana shrugs, her eyes unfocused. “Just to fill silence, I think.”
“That’s the most pretentious thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Isn’t it?” Chana laughs. He’s not sure if the fondness in her eyes is directed at him or the memory. Regardless, he kisses her goodbye, and slips out into the night.
If they’re not driving together, than they’re sitting together in Chana’s car, linked hands draped over the gearshift. He has skipped half of third period to spend lunch with her. Wavelengths of heat undulate between them as they lie with their seats reclined. The engine idles, keeping the air conditioning on, but the sunlight flowing in still turns the air thick and viscous around him. Chana has checked her email four times in twenty minutes; Stanford Admissions remains silent.
“Has Yael invited Breana over yet?” he asks, without turning his head.
Chana props herself up on one arm in order to adjust her sunglasses, but when she settles back down, she seems restless. “Not yet. I may have to dig a tunnel to your house when she does, though.”
“When’s the last time you and Breana actually talked?” He looks over at her, but her expression is obscured by the tint of her glasses. “Like, real words.”
“She came home for Christmas her first year at Brown,” she mutters, in a monotone that is almost certainly deliberate. There’s a quiet moment where he suspects they are both contemplating the same thing—the Breana of two years ago. Promising her undying love and affection for Chana before heading off to Providence, vowing to keep the relationship alive despite the hour on I-95 separating them, and within a month letting all of Chana’s calls go to voicemail. That Christmas, Breana had claimed that they should still be friends; Chana still laughed bitterly at the idea whenever it occurred to her. Wilbur has heard the tale a few times—on those especially dark nights when they’re alone and there’s no engine noise, only the sound of Chana whispering and tearing at her thumbnail with her teeth.
Wilbur hums sympathetically. He’s going to great lengths to seem completely at ease with this conversation. Luckily, Chana isn’t really paying attention to him.
“Quite possibly the only sincere piece of advice Yael has ever given me was to not date a senior,” she sighs out. “But at that point it was too late, I suppose.”
“College is just really different, I guess,” Wilbur offers. He’s not sure of the meaning of his own words. It doesn’t feel quite right to do anything but agree with her, but something twists in his gut as he contemplates it.
“Yeah, I guess.”
He squirms in his seat when she joins their hands again.
Later, as they trot back toward class, Chana says, “I won’t be here tomorrow, just so you know.” She’s shoving her keys deep into the pocket of her hoodie, not looking at him. “Dad’s making Yael and me pick up our grandma before graduation.”
“You’re abandoning me?” he asks, with mock panic. Still, it’s possible that the teasing smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. Chana looks at him and, for a moment, there’s a rawness between them; everything that went unsaid in the car simmers, but doesn’t boil.
Finally, she gives a small smile. “Tragically, you will have to endure the school day on your own.” She bridges the distance between them in half a step, then cups his face in her hands and kisses him, soft and warm. He stops thinking.
In her absence, he spends the day stagnant. His mother, Junko, picks him up from school, having already let out an indignant sniff that morning at the mention of Chana. “Don’t you think she’s a bit old for you?” Junko had asked, as she often does. It’s almost a moot point, these days, given Chana’s impending departure, so Wilbur hadn’t bothered to reply. Without Chana behind the wheel, the ride home is suffocatingly short.
When the light and heat of the day begins to wither, he makes his way into the backyard and lays down in the dry grass. Above him, the sky is a clear, darkening blue. An indigo night is creeping in around the tops of the trees. He nods off to the sound of a high altitude breeze ruffling the greenery above him, shifting the new spring leaves in swirling, incomprehensible patterns.
He sleeps, but not deeply. Soon, his eyes are fluttering open again, and he’s wondering. Wondering why there’s so much fear inside him. Where it’s all come from, and where it’s all going. Wondering what’s to be done with it when the summer ends and he’s alone. These are all the sort of thoughts that occupy the space between sleep and consciousness, and they turn in his mind like rotisserie chickens.
The leaves are black against an even blacker sky, now. He doesn’t sit up, but his phone finds its way into his hand. He texts Chana something banal--are you awake?—and gets no answer.
Chana is back in Wayland by Friday afternoon, and then they’re driving again. They pass over the river, and the lush verdure of the swamp flows past in a green blur. “I forgot my charger at home,” Chana says, motioning toward her phone in the center console. Wilbur realizes a moment later that they’re slowing down, that the Baroukh household is rising up in front of them. When they pull into the driveway, though, there’s an unfamiliar Nissan hatchback already there—unfamiliar to Wilbur, at least. He looks to Chana and sees her knuckles have gone white on the steering wheel.
“Is that—?” he begins, squinting.
“Yes, that’s hers,” she replies grimly.
Chana, her jaw set bravely, is climbing out of the car. “Come in with me,” she says, tone close to pleading. He follows without question, thinking of Breana, sharp edged and imposing among the cereal. His memory of her is distorted by Chana’s reaction; Breana, beyond her general essence, is in soft focus by comparison.
Stepping into the foyer, he can immediately hear the low hum of voices coming from the kitchen. Chana looks back at him for the briefest of moments, then steps fully inside. He stays on her heels, in some combination of solidarity and morbid curiosity.
Breana and Yael are seated at the breakfast table, glowing in the early afternoon sun. They look like fully evolved humans; like creatures that inhabit some impossibly far away world. Far away from Wayland High School and Wilbur and the slow, murky waters of the Sudbury River. Chana pauses on the threshold, like she’s noticing the same thing. Wilbur wants to leave, wants to step back into the heat of the day, but Chana doesn’t move.
“Hey,” Breana says, perfectly inscrutable. “I hear you’re heading off to California soon.”
“‘Soon’ is relative,” Chana replies, not quite friendly.
“Still, that’s pretty far away.” For the first time, Breana seems to register his presence. Her dark eyes settle on him; an eyebrow raises. It’s not a gaze that he can hold for very long.
“I think you would know better than anyone that distance isn’t always terribly relevant,” Chana says, just the edge of a bitter smile curling her lip. It’s bold; she must still be riding the high of her own audacity when she adds, “Can I talk to you for a moment? Outside?”
Wilbur doesn’t know why she asks. Doesn’t know why Breana agrees, or why he ends up alone with Yael, watching Chana and Bree through the window over the sink as they settle across from each other in the verdant, unmowed backyard. Yael is sitting sideways in her chair, eyeing him as the two outside begin to speak. He can’t make out any individual words—only the obscure melody of syllables as they squeeze through a crack in the window.
“‘Change in all things is sweet’,” Yael says, scratching at the back of her short crop of hair. It’s the same black as Chana’s, but all the curls have been shaved off. He’s never known much about Yael, besides the fact that her smile has an infinite number of teeth and that it often unsettles him for strange, unknown reasons. “Maybe not for you, though.”
She smirks a little; there might be some distant sympathy in it. All that swirls inside him in response, though, is an off-kilter, eruptive mix of things he can’t quite understand.
Wilbur turns back toward her. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
She withdraws in mock-offense. “Feisty.”
Yael rises to her feet and is rummaging through the fridge by the time he focuses his attention back on the scene unfolding outside. They’ve moved closer. Breana’s hands are gesticulating calmly, like she’s outlining the structure of the universe or illuminating Chana regarding the composition of the ground beneath her feet. Chana is watching her with wide eyes. Eventually, Breana lays a soft, conciliatory hand against the younger girl’s cheek. He can see the way Chana leans into the touch even from this distance. He looks away.
Not much is said after they come back in. Chana looks at Wilbur, then down at her phone. He meets her eyes for a fraction of a second and sees only the same far off place that Yael and Breana inhabit. Soon, they’re back in the car, in the heat, in the past.
Darkness shrouds Route 20 soon enough. They roll down all four windows, and the silken night air seems to pad the spaces between the two of them. The sweat in Wilbur’s hair begins to cool. There’s no discussion necessary regarding their destination. Chana pulls off to the side of Pelham Island Road, the bridge over the Sudbury River just visible a few yards ahead of them. She turns off the engine, but doesn’t move to open the door.
“I can’t make you the promises Bree made to me,” she says, after a long moment. The crickets have gladly filled the silence. Her shoes slip off, and she rests her feet against the dash. A greenish bruise adorns her fleshy left calf, and her toenails are painted a gunmetal gray. “It’ll only make it worse for both of us.”
Wilbur watches her feet flex in the moonlight and fingers the edge of his denim jacket. “I know.”
His hand reaches for the door. He’s halfway down the embankment before he looks back to see if Chana has followed. She has, her bare feet soft against the wet earth, her phone left in the car behind her with her email open but unrefreshed. The glow of nearby businesses slithers between the leaves but, despite this, all feels quiet and undisturbed. The glow is as much a part of the landscape as the soft movement of the water and swish of the trees. His mother has told him, more than once, that there is a spark of the sacred essence in all things. He thinks he catches a glimpse of something of the sort out of the corner of his eye: something divine lurking in both the shadows and the light.
Chana catches up with him, clasps his hand in both of hers. Once the sun rises, he thinks, things will be different. Time will begin to flow again.
Promises or not, it’s going to hurt. Right now, though, it doesn’t hurt at all.