When we were very young, California summers were my vision of infinity. I remember asking from under the covers one night at bedtime how long it would take to count to infinity. Dad said it was impossible. No one ever could. Not even if the first person on Earth started counting and each subsequent person picked up where it left off when he died. I tried to imagine the concept of everything there had ever been to count. I pictured the hills from the back deck. I pictured every blade of yellowing grass. I pictured the sepia sunlight that illuminates every memory I have and is the only real way I know to distinguish what was reality from what was a dream. That was truly the only uncountable thing I knew. Sunlight. It was nothing and it was everything.
Growing up, I thought people existed with a singularity of purpose. That the universe was wholly utilitarian and the unending struggle against entropy was largely tipped in favor of order. Our physical lives are geometric constructions set starkly against a wild and organic backdrop, and I believed that our internal lives could be conducted in much the same way.
I guess at some point every person realizes that a life drawn in neat lines is untenable. Just as water and wind erode buildings poured in sturdy concrete, growing up erodes the belief that we are predestined towards order in who we are, what we do, who we love. Maybe it’s acutely destructive, like an earthquake, the sudden jolt of losing everything. Maybe it’s the steady drip, almost imperceptible until the day you find yourself drunk and untraceably lost in the cab on the way home from the bar, reflecting on the vast “why” of disappointment under a staccato ticking of passing streetlights. Night day night day night.
We fail. We win when we shouldn’t. The universe is reckless and arbitrary when we need it to be orderly and kind. We fall in love with the wrong person, or the right person at the wrong time. The best friend you know would be perfect never comes around, the girl never calls, the stars never align.
After you lose everything for the first time (or everything has lost you), you latch hard and fast onto a worldview. Something intangible, un-losable, permanent. Something that you think will forever define you in a place inclined towards chaos. That nothing in existence has intrinsic value; that everything does. That self-respect means being unyielding; that self-respect means choosing which places and people to walk away from. That no one will ever understand us exactly in the way we want them to; that we want no one to ever fully understand us. We think “it must be.” We know “it must be.”
What we don’t expect is for words of infinite magnitude in our lives to mean nothing in another person’s. Please, I need this job. You made me want to die. You are literally all I have. I love you. I hate you. Met with the blinking eyes, the turning cheek, the implosive silence not of someone who cares enough to oppose you but of someone who will never, can never take ownership of what you’ve said. Communication is inherently ambiguous. We choose only words, not how they will be received.
Show me pictures of 100 people, and I will pick out the one dead person among the 99 who are still alive every time. It’s something in the eyes that says “I always knew.” After she died, I couldn’t look at those pictures. The eyes consumed me. I lay in bed for days at a time, trying to will her alive with my tears.
Then I tried to will myself dead with my anger.
It’s not that I wanted to kill myself, but I wanted a physical reason to feel the way I did. It was a strange combination of infinite and nothing at all. I checked my pulse periodically. Sometimes I swore I heard nothing but echoes. When neither worked, I got up. I smashed the frames of all the pictures. I screamed until I forgot who I was, until I forgot I was human. I drove too fast down empty roads, flirting with reckless abandon, teasing death. Sometimes I wished I would get caught just to appease a misplaced desire for justice; I never did. I destroyed everything in my power. I stopped when I reached a line at which I would have to proceed inwardly or not at all. She had a personality like autumn sun and smooth stones in a river. I could not destroy that. I could not define that unambiguously, universally, perfectly.
Now I’m older and I still don’t know if I know better — if I’ve ever done anything unquestionably right — but there are a few mistakes I’d be willing to make twice. In college, everyone is at a crossroads, stuck in a balancing act between a past they cannot change and a future they’re desperate to. The challenges seem to increase every year: growing up, moving away from home, meeting people, losing people, trying to constantly define yourself as something unique in a world where everyone must be special to fit in. It’s easy to become nostalgic and to feel more safe in the past than secure in the future. Things that were difficult in the past seem bittersweet; as though everything was sand then, rough on the knees and golden to the eyes.
The best lesson we learn in growing up is also the one we are most hesitant to use. People are inherently resilient, far beyond what we give ourselves credit for, but we’re afraid to fail. We learn that almost nothing is so permanent that the future will not change the course we’ve set, and yet we’re afraid to make mistakes. Balance isn’t static. It’s a constantly tipping scale between order and chaos.
Everything and nothing has changed.
Julia Zarina can be reached at email@example.com.