Embers

By Arielle Bernstein

Essay

When Adile and I see each other for the first time in five years, our embrace is awkward. “I forgot how tiny you were,” she says to me. There is nothing specific I can point out about Adile, immediately, that has changed. My memory of her is distant and charged with sentimentality, an echo of her voice emblazoned on my brain, a silhouette impression in the back of my eyes. Big black curls cascade down her shoulders. She isn’t wearing glasses like she did in high school so her eyes stand out even more than usual. Her black eyeliner is thick like an Egyptian goddess. “I didn’t remember you were so blonde,” she says to me, touching my hair as if I am a little doll.

We are at the airport in Vilnius, where I have been studying writing for two weeks.

This year, I turned more inward. Since my Grandfather’s death, he became a kind of martyr figure within my family and, while my brother looked like him and actually spoke some Hebrew, I felt firmly that as the more liberal and adventurous sibling, I had a bigger stake in seeking him out. I imagined myself removing all elements of my past life, just as he did when he arrived in Havana, shaving off his beard, and speaking in Spanish, rather than Hebrew.

On his gravestone in Washington, D.C., my family had written his trajectory. Poland-Cuba-America. Initially, I thought this was tacky, but, over time, I grieved by accepting the fiction that my grandfather was larger in death than he actually was in life, and these points in space and time became markers of the hero’s journey. I imagined my Grandfather an Indiana Jones figure cleverly fighting Nazis, or a Don Juan, seducing my Grandmother in the lush, romantic, tropical landscape of Havana, or, a Luke Skywalker, destined to fight in a revolution.

My friendship with Adile had always been similarly dreamy. We met when we were teenagers in high school and were artsy and irresponsible misfits, drawing, painting and writing our way through adolescence. Adile wrote comic strips highlighting the absurdity of high school life, with cheeky cameos of boys we liked, and a constant plot to see Radiohead live in concert.

Adile told me the comics burned in a fire. There were boxes of her things which she left in the garage when she went back home to Turkey. She lost a lot in that fire. Adile laughed when she told me this and I started laughing too. I told her how one of my ex-boyfriends wrote a series of poems called “My House on Fire,” and how they were my favorite in his entire collection. In each poem, he chronicled which items he would take if his house caught on fire at different stages of his emotional and intellectual development. They were very effective poems. I didn’t know what things I would take if my house caught on fire. “Fuck the fire,”Adile said, “I know those stories by heart.”

***

We had a plan. To travel a capital a day throughout the Baltics. The first day Adile and I saw each other we sat outside in a café, which overlooked the skyline of Vilnius. We laughed and talked about how we used to be such angsty teenagers when we were younger. We talked about how much we had grown up, as if we weren’t entering a new phase of life we would look back on similarly ten years later.

Adile had respect for the older cultures. She was learning Persian. She had been to Iran. She told me details. The colors of food, the manner of dress, the skyline. Everything is exotic the minute it is far away from you. Unlike Adile, I had no respect for old traditions. I only liked new things. I hated looking back.

Once, when visiting my Grandfather, I asked him what he missed most after moving from place to place and he told me, “nothing.” I was stunned by this answer. We were sitting in his apartment, a place filled with physical representations of things he loved from his past. This from a man who would take books he found on the ground and give them a home in his bookshelf. This from a man for whom memory should have meant something. Grandpa shrugged, “I did what I had to do. I love where I am and who I am with.” No baby pictures. No pretty blank verse poems. No wedding ring. Just my grandmother and him sharing breakfast. The same thing every day. Shots of espresso, toast, bananas. Everything split right down the middle. They broke everything in half- bread, cake, fruit. They would split a single bowl of soup, even if I insisted I could give them their own bowls. I love where I am and who I am with. Everything they ate, they shared until it was gone.

***

In today’s paper, they are reviewing books of poetry written by women. They all say the same thing. These are poems that deal with issues women go through. Love, abandonment, rape, and abortion.

When I first had my work read aloud in class, a boy came up to me afterwards and told me he couldn’t relate to it. He said that the story I read had been a “girl story”andI told him he heard me wrong. That what I wanted to write about was hunger, honor, being free.

But, in reality, the first things I wrote were, in fact, all about lost love or anorexia. This is because I was told time and time again, “write what you know.” I wrote stories that had no concrete details, that were simply waves of feeling, because what I felt was like a wave of feeling.


***

In Helsinki, we spend full days on the beach. We lay on blankets, like lovers who are fighting, our bodies away from each other. We bring yogurts, bananas, sandwiches. We don’t talk for hours. The sun is bigger than I remembered.

At night we talk about everything we used to talk about, but we are harder now that we are grown and we can’t use metaphors to describe how we are feeling. If you don’t see someone in a long time, there are a lot of details to fill in. We talk about God and our mothers and our brothers and how scared we are of marriage because our families don’t seem enviable now and we don’t want that for ourselves, but we kind of do also.

A lot happens over time. You don’t know it even happens, it’s just all happening so quickly and then one day you realize you haven’t changed at all. That you are still that small and fragile teenage girl, throwing out the peanut butter sandwiches your mom has made for you because you are just angry at everything. You used to feel things so much stronger then.

We don’t talk about this.

We don’t let the world hurt us any longer.

***

Adile cares more about animals than I do. She is still a vegetarian. When she asks me why I started eating meat again, I don’t say I don’t care about animals anymore. I say, “I thought about it and there are other things that concern me more, like human trafficking. Like the fact that my clothes have probably been made in sweatshops.”

Years ago, Adile told me the story of how she went to India for a friend’s wedding and met their servant, a boy who couldn’t have been older than nine or ten. He slept by the refrigerator. At the time this made Adile hopelessly unhappy. She said that she confronted her friend and told him she thought that it was awful. Her friend replied that she was just naive–that they were merely giving the boy a good home, that he could sleep in places much worse than clean kitchens in nice houses.

Adile says she looks back on these moments now and realizes his side of the story and she feels no anger any longer. These are small injustices we reconcile everyday. She tells me this is what it means to grow older.


***

I learned when I first started writing that you need to work up to heartbreak. You can’t just throw it all over the page, even if you feel that way. It’s the same with anything sentimental. Writing is like administering drugs. Start slow. Gradually build up.


***

I don’t want Adile to stop fighting for that boy sleeping by the fridge because that was something I loved about her, and I’m sure I have disappointed her in some way too since I now am eating meat, but, you know, you can’t write the story beforehand. You can’t treat the people in your life like characters in a story you want to keep deep inside you, like a favorite song you know by heart.


***

Adile and I walk on cobblestone streets, we eat from street vendors, we keep getting asked how we know each other and what we are doing here. We plan future adventures. We will meet every summer. We will visit beaches, dance with strangers, photograph mountains, stare at the stars.

At the art museum, Adile and I disagree on everything except the exhibit made out of children’s toys from Japan. She likes the exhibit with the train that just keeps going in a single circle which I find myopic and dull. I like the photographs of couples kissing which she finds sentimental and not worthy of an entire full floor exhibit.

I learn not to ask too many questions. We talk about God, guns, abortion, rape, faith, films, alien life on Mars, the cycles of the moon. We share what we want to share. We keep moving forward.

***

I used to think that if I loved someone enough I could be part of them, but you can’t be close to people all the time, even if you want to, and I know that now because I am a grown up and when you are a grown up, you are okay with the idea that love is not this mystical, larger than life thing. That it is something very normal that you can achieve through every day experiences of being with someone and knowing them very well, so much so that you want to split everything right down the middle from your heart to a chunk of banana that you are eating for breakfast and sometimes when you get so close to a person, you feel you really are them and that’s why it is okay not to take anything when a fire comes and swallows everything up, because the things you love you always carry with you and you don’t want them to change because they can’t change without you because that isn’t fair. You need to change together because the world looks different without you beside me to help me interpret it because there is a lot of fucked up shit in this here world and I need you to be my other half like in those ancient Greek myths where people are looking for their other half so that they can be whole again, except I don’t believe there is only one person who you can connect with like that. I think there are many people you can be puzzle people with, but that makes me feel very sad also because I don’t want to think about the millions of people I could fit with because that is kind of overwhelming and exhausting to think about and I just want to fit.

***

In the airport going home, Adile and I share a last fantasy. We decide to bring all our friends and family and cart them around with us so we are never lonely, so we can have the best of both worlds, being far away and being very close. We say we’ll learn the language. We’ll be rich because we’ll have tons of American money. We’ll fix everything in the world we’ll have so much money. We’ll bathe in rivers, we’ll walk in moonlight. We’ll be surrounded by interesting and exciting people. We’ll never ever go home.

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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, South Loop Review, The Ilanot Review and Press Play (Indie Wire). She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests . She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

3 responses to “Embers”

  1. Simon Smithson says:

    “In the airport going home, Adile and I share a last fantasy. We decide to bring all our friends and family and cart them around with us so we are never lonely, so we can have the best of both worlds, being far away and being very close. We say we’ll learn the language. We’ll be rich because we’ll have tons of American money. We’ll fix everything in the world we’ll have so much money. We’ll bathe in rivers, we’ll walk in moonlight. We’ll be surrounded by interesting and exciting people. We’ll never ever go home.”

    And what a sweet fantasy it is.

    If nothing else, I’m glad you got to see your friend.

    I can’t help but read about things like comics written in high school and think Damn. I wish I’d thought of that.

  2. Marni Grossman says:

    This piece isn’t JUST waves of feeling, but it has that too. It’s beautiful.

  3. Arielle Bernstein says:

    Thanks for the feedback! I’ve been trying to hone these types of lyric and mosaic essays for awhile now. It’s so heartening to hear that the movement here is successful.

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