What if humans lived for 90 days instead of 90 years? My eyes pop open, only to be covered by a thick blanket of darkness. The air seems calm and silent, but tension hides in the blackness.
It was a question my old friend Jesse had shot at me out of the blue as we sat uncomfortably on our slippery plastic lunchboxes one day. That was back when I attended St. Heliers School, back when I could experience the refreshing freedom of 30-minute recesses, back when I could whip through my homework in 10 minutes and dash outside to bath in the ravishing sunlight. Back when I could be a roamer, a dreamer, whenever I desired.
The question rings sharply in my head, conquers my thoughts. Would life be less valuable? Would society be full of betrayal, murder, and law-breaking? Would no one care about the nasty scars they left on the world because life was too short? Or would life be of the same value, just of less time, because no one would know any better, longer life?
Jesse was wild, crazy, impulsive, spastic. My other friends had made fun of him, treated him like an inferior pet. To them he had simply been an annoyance, a little mosquito always buzzing about their heads, threatening to bite. But I loved him. I loved him because he was unique, reflective, and philosophical. I had always sat with him - whether he was crying or screaming or clamping his mouth shut angrily. Salty tears nearly burst from my eyes when I saw him for the last time before he moved back to China.
Where is he now? Who is he now?
I squirm and twist under my covers until I can see the fluorescent numbers of my clock. It’s 2:58 a.m. I still have two and a half hours until it’s time to drag my body out of bed. For a while I lie there listening to the soothing white noise of the rain drumming down on the roof, the punctuation of the TINs and BLOOPs that the drops make when they worm their way inside and float down to the metal bucket my grandmother has set on the floor. But I can’t sleep. And I know why. The race is today - the daunting, intimidating, beautiful race.
Am I excited or apprehensive? Nervous or confident? Intrepid or terrified? The questions bounce around in my head. I force myself to squeeze my eyes shut, but they slowly creep open again to reveal the luminous circle of my projection night light. It is a small, round, blurry picture of the Milky Way, seeming to cut a bottomless hole in the blank ceiling of my bedroom.
I jump out of bed and yank the nightlight out of the wall. I have always hated the dark - it’s thick, menacing, mysterious. But it will put me to sleep.
After I dump out the drip bucket and intently watch the water swirl down the drain like a snake, I crawl back into bed. Darkness. Peace. Silence. Finally.
* * *
I awake a second time, this time to the merry music of my Wallace and Gromit alarm clock. I vaguely remember my mom handing it to me when I was a little boy, her eyes gleaming in the bright lamps of our family room. Now I live with my grandparents; it is a lonely life. I hate being trapped in this house, letting the emptiness surround me and choke me.
I leap silently out of bed, throw on some tattered old jeans and my London Underground T-shirt, and make for the door. Tiptoeing towards the kitchen, it takes me a while to realize that I’m holding my breath. I let out a sigh of relief and almost chuckle at myself for the feigned suspense. I’m alone; my grandparents are probably with the hiking club by now, pushing deep into the forests of Auckland.
On most Friday mornings, I love to wake up early to watch the sun inch its way over the horizon, imagining what I will do that weekend, what I will explore or create or wonder. There’s something about that bright, radiant ball of orange fire illuminating the crisp blue vastness of the sky that’s so inspiring and enlivening. It reaches out to me, calms me, renews me.
But not today. Raindrops are shooting down from the sky like bullets; the sky is a mat of gloomy gray. The trees look sad and dull against their backdrop. Besides, I’m too jittery and agitated today. There will be no relaxing.
After I eat my breakfast in a silent bubble of deep thought, I snatch up a jar of peanut butter, an apple, a sleeve of Ritz crackers, a tub of Mediterranean hummus, and two chocolate chip biscuits from the cupboard. It should suffice. I toss everything into a faded Sierra Club backpack that belonged to my mom and bolt out the front door.
I practically skip to my bicycle under the carport, the puffy clouds dousing me with fat drops. It’s an old and rusty bike, a 1985 Motobecane Mirage that my father carried home from France. My father had been adventurous, daring, passionate.
I hop on the light metal frame and pedal down the steep black slope that’s my driveway, exploding out into the open-mouthed circle of the cul de sac.
Here we go. I dread the steep, treacherous climb up Tarawera Terrace. The street is named after Mount Tarawera, and I definitely understand why. A few years ago, I couldn’t even make it up the slope on my bike without hyperventilating. Now I can conquer it, but it takes a heavy toll on my strength.
When I finally crest the ex-volcano, I turn sharply onto Long Drive. I let out a frustrated sigh when I see the shards of glass strewn on the concrete, the jagged void in the window of the bus shelter. It seems to be smashed almost weekly.
What angry wanderers have so much pressure built up inside of them that they must erupt this violently? Of course, I was once in such a state.
I decide to take the scenic route through Dingle Dell Reserve, a small isolated park in the middle of suburban Auckland. Dingle Dell has always fascinated me, amazed me. Stepping into the reserve is like plunging into the Amazon rainforest, especially today - fresh drops of water roll and glide down the brilliant green leaves; creeks flow gently through the trees. The paths are worn and squishy with thick mud.
I vigorously pedal my way through the peaceful community of nature. One day I will journey to the real Amazon, descend from the clouds in a tiny airplane. I will marvel at the diverse wildlife: the vivid colors and delicate feathers of the birds darting through the canopy, the blurs of growling pumas and playful orangutans. I will breathe in the damp, humid air, smell the aroma of the rich soil.
I slam on the brakes. The bike halts to a grinding stop, cutting a deep slit in the mushy ground. I climb clumsily up a small cliff, yanking on the wiry strands of ivy until I poke my head over the top.
There it is - the old, thick rope that my dad had used to make our tire swing. I remember it being an exhilarating swing, sweeping over the small lemon trees in our backyard and shocking me with an electrifying thrill.
Then a more gruesome memory flashes across my brain. I recall running into the arms of these trees, begging them to let me kill myself. I had the noose around my neck like a fatal leash and was preparing to make that final decisive leap off of the log. And then a creature appeared at my feet - a sweet, elegant, peaceful little creature. It was a robin with a wriggling worm trapped in its beak, holding it up to me interrogatively as an offering. It was then, as I watched the bright orange feathers on its breast twitch, that I realized I couldn’t rebuke and chastise Mother Nature. It hadn’t been her that had ruined my life; it had been fate or some stronger force. I would have to forgive her.
* * *
The school day creeps by slowly, painfully. Usually I am engaged and excessively attentive, but on this day I am lost and tangled in my own thoughts. It’s like I have already climbed into the boat, I have already transformed into the dreamer that I become on the water.
“That began in which year, Stephen?” Mrs. Davidson inquires suspiciously. It is a loud knock on the door, a quick snap to reality.
“Uuuuuhhh….1873?” I take a tentative shot in the dark. The class tries to stifle their subtle laughs and toxic comments.
“Not quite, I’m afraid. Stay with us, please,” she chides. Mrs. Davison was typically kind and sympathetic. I could tell she liked me; I was almost alway respectful and diligent in her class.
Glendowie College is a diverse school, packed with students of all different races, religions, attitudes, and financial backgrounds. Streams of chatty, obnoxious kids flow through the wide hallways; it’s easy to become stranded in the current like a helpless salmon.
In my eyes, the school is as ugly and joyless as a prison: the windowless classrooms with colorless plaster walls, the heavy metal gates that fall after school hours to block off the halls, and the generic linoleum tiles littered with greasy food wrappers. As I listen and watch each day, I witness the classic archetypes: giggly girls with heavy globs of mascara inflating their eyelashes who peer into tiny mirrors to examine themselves scrupulously, buff football jocks with sandy hair and blue eyes who joke and laugh cockily, awkward nerds with froggy glasses and tinny, nasal voices.
Who am I? I wonder for the first time.
The bell rings, sharp and clear. I dash down the stairs, two by two, and dive into my car. I race to the reservoir, where my buddies are waiting eagerly on the dock. These are my real friends - my old, loyal, accepting friends who will always forgive me and never turn their backs on me. We jump into a boat and wait suspensefully for the Auckland Junior Rowing National Championship to begin.
The gun fires, piercing the still air. We push off into an isolated world. No one can harm us, no one can touch us, and no one can tell us how to live when we’re stuck in the rhythm of the oars. As the skinny boat slices through the calm water like a knife through a block of blue butter, our bodies glide across the seats in unison.
It is not long before I feel a slight tingle in my arms, and then a sore ache in my legs. I use the rhythm to drift off into my dreams as I watch the scenery flick by: the stone monument of One Tree Hill stabbing the soft sky, the steel point of the Sky Tower poking through the clouds, the gradual green mound of Rangitoto in the distance...
I had always loved the island of Rangitoto until three months ago. Although it was once an active volcano that exploded violently and wreaked havoc on its surrounding environment, I viewed it as one of the most peaceful places I had ever visited. Birds chirped a hypnotic song every day from dawn to dusk. The dense forest made me want to forget the troubles that lay on the other side of St. Heliers Bay and instead bask in the freedom of the luscious greenery and the wondrous wildlife. I had once read in a brochure that there were over 200 species of native trees and flowering plants on the island. On Rangitoto I could hike for hours on end, all the while contemplating the life ahead of me. I secretly wished that it was like the land of the Lotus-eaters from The Odyssey, that there was an addictive, delicious fruit which would lure me in and trap me there forever.
All these feelings changed on May 9, 2004. My family had decided to take a Sunday day trip to Rangitoto. By the time we reached the top, the sun was baking the clean New Zealand air. The strong wind felt refreshing as we bounded up the final stairs. My dad was exhausted from carrying my little sister, Emma, who was three years old. I was 14 at the time, and I hated that our ages were so far apart - I felt like we would never be able to bond like most siblings.
We took our usual rest stop at the overlook and ate our lunches silently. The view was breathtaking - the entire city of Auckland was spread out before our eyes against the deep blue sky. I felt like I was looking down from an airplane, but I didn’t have to sit in a shabby old seat and peer through a tiny plexiglass window while breathing in stale air.
My parents departed to fill up their empty water bottles at the sad, weak drinking fountain.
“Keep an eye on her, please!” they shouted back at me. It was one of those things that parents couldn’t help but blurt out, just so they couldn’t blame themselves later if something happened. I barely heard it, waved it away ignorantly. Didn’t even notice when Emma climbed curiously onto the railing and began to walk hesitantly, advancing slowly as if she were balancing on a tightrope. Two minutes later, I glanced up from my camera to watch my beautiful little sister float down to her death like an angel, crash into the trees like a lightning bolt. One bone-chilling gust of wind, and she was gone.
Although my parents naturally didn’t blame me - how could they? - I began to dream more and remained in my own fantastical world to lift the burden of my sister’s death from my shoulders. I soon found my scrawny neck being held prisoner by that noose in Dingle Dell Reserve. But my attitude changed when I saw the bird at my feet.
Two weeks after that incident, my parents were killed by an earthquake in Christchurch. I was staying with my grandparents for the weekend, and on Saturday I threw open the front door to find my grandpa lying heavily on the sofa, shattered bits of his cell phone strewn all over the carpet. He was clutching a bottle of scotch as tightly as his shaky fingers would let him. His eyes were bloodshot and under them lay sagging, dark, crescent-shaped bags. I knew something was up.
When I heard the news, I promised myself that I would never step foot in my old house again. I didn't want to experience the memories it might arouse; I was too tender and emotionally bruised.
And that's when I began to row. Rowing gave me silence, time to think and recover. It let me forgive nature and begin to love it once again. The sweat that dripped down my acne-ridden skin was comforting somehow, and I enjoyed the company of the other guys. They were hard workers, self-punishers who were all motivated by their own weaknesses and conflicts. I formed a quiet, everlasting friendship with them.
We are suddenly 500 meters from the finish. I glance around us hopefully. Second place. It's time to pick up the pace; our coxswain is shouting commands at our exhausted bodies.
400 meters. The sweat forms a slippery film between my hand and the oar. In my peripheral vision I can make out crowds of anxious spectators cheering wildly on the grassy hills that slant up and away from the water.
300 meters. My leg muscles are burning, stinging. We're neck and neck with the other boat; we take turns inching ahead of it and then falling back again in a seemingly endless cycle. I stare blankly at the ovular head of my friend sitting in front of me, Awais. The light brown tone of his Pakistani skin seems to glow as the sun reflects off of the surface of the reservoir.
200 meters. All of the sounds around me are muted: the light splashing and dipping of the oars, the creaks and clashes of the boat, the panicked panting of the crew members.
Focus, Stephen, focus! I shout at myself as I struggle to synchronize with the oars around me.
"POWER TEN IN TWO! ONE...TWO!" The coxswain's voice rips over the water. Everyone groans and yells as we almost tear our muscles, pushing harder and harder to produce ten powerful strokes. Somewhere in the distance, I know my old house sits patiently, waiting for my return, for some familiar foot to step across its threshold. Maybe I will finally go visit it today, maybe I will go grab that rope from Dingle Dell Reserve and rebuild that tire swing. Maybe I will hike up Rangitoto for the first time since it claimed my little sister's life. Maybe.
I let out a puff of hot air and collapse on my seat as we soar over the finish line.
We have taken second place. Most of our crew look defeated, disappointed. But not me. As I make my way to shore and claim my silver medal, I realize that I can't care less about whether we have taken first or second or third place, about the color of our medal, or about our fame and glory. All I know is that I have overcome the impossible: I have truly forgiven Mama Nature. And I am sure she is smiling down on me today.