Purgatory

Image of Rachel Evans

Rachel Evans

5 readings

3

I. I once had this dream that a meteor was going to crash into earth and that we only had one day left. Upon hearing the news, my friends and family apathetically retreated into waiting rooms. Waiting rooms in airports and hospitals and restaurants, they all sat in uniform chairs, anticipating the end. My person became furious at everyone I loved, I screamed and cried and shook their shoulders, only for them to stare blankly back at me.
Please, they would say, calm down, sit down, there’s nothing we can do, just wait. I begged them to drive around with me, to explore the places we’d never seen and to listen to our favorite songs with our favorite people. But despite my futile efforts, no one moved, and I sat in one of the chairs and wept until the explosions started. The insides of my eyelids turned white and I woke up in a cold sweat.

II. I heard about this boy, a friend of a friend, who worked as a photo developer in college. He’d go into the dark room right after class and wouldn’t leave until midnight. Being in the center of a city, the demand for hand-developed photos was high, especially from students who sunk their teeth into a vintage anything. Sophomore year, the boy was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer and decided to refuse treatment. When I asked my friend why he made that choice, she shrugged and said that he didn’t want to live the last bit of his life stuck in some rat cage of a hospital room. As it turned out, he continued working at the photo development place for about a year until they fired him for coughing up blood onto a roll of exposed film. He died a few weeks after they let him go, and I think about that often.
I think about what happened to the blood-stained photos, and whose they were. I think about how my grandmother had cancer, and how my mother had cancer, and how I will probably be next and what I will do when that happens. I think about this boy I never met and how he spent his last years under a deep red light, looking at photographs of other people’s lives. Pictures of them smiling with loved ones, dancing and peppered with disco lights or dying leaves. I asked my friend if I could see any of his own film photographs, if he had taken any. She could only find one, and it was of his cat staring out the window at morning snow. It was a nice picture but it made me feel lonely. I think about what I would want to leave behind, if I would want it to be a book or a film or maybe a painting. What would the world see if they asked about me? It seems daunting, the idea that when I’m gone, the things I create will culminate and become the essence of my life to those who never knew me.

III. Another dream I had. Two unknown girls, my best friends in the dream, and I were swimming. We were in a narrow hallway with the floor, walls, and ceiling painted a deep indigo. The far end of the corridor glowed as if there were light behind a transparent back wall. All of it, a dim, blue tint. The hallway was filled about 3 quarters of the way with clear water. The girls and I wore white silk nightgowns, which moved gently with us as we swam. Everything was in slow motion, the only sound being an atmospheric synth track, playing and playing loud. I had never felt such an intense serenity in person, nonetheless in a dream. I wish I could replay it for myself in its entirety, but trying to recall the scene is like knocking down a vase and staring at it shattered by my feet. Fractured reflections lying with a lone flower: delicate, lovely, and sad.

IV. My mom’s side of the family is from the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes I get upset she moved, for I would have loved to live among cold pines and cloudy beaches. Sometimes if you catch it at the right time, Virginia offers a similar air, especially in the fleece-lined pocket between fall and winter. I thrive in that cozy, post-rain smell that invites blankets and folk music and hazelnut coffee. My friends and I used to drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway on these days, bringing loose-leaf tea and whoever’s dog was available. On the way there, Joey would always drive; he was an artist and played the harmonica with one hand and held the steering wheel with the other. Peter would ride shotgun, singing songs he wrote himself and plucking the strings of his acoustic guitar. My best friend Alice and I would sit in the back with the dog, picking grass out of his mane with our fingerless gloves.
There was a spot we liked to call Purgatory. It was a small stone seating area on the edge of a lake, adjacent to the Roanoke River Watershed. I don’t remember how we stumbled upon it, for it requires walking down the mountain a bit, and there’s no defined pathway to get there. If you were sitting on the rim of the semicircle, the part that laid on the water, the mist rose up and tickled the back of your arms. We would set a small fire in the middle, lay out serapes, and forget that there was any more to the world. On the left of the lake was a dam: the water crashed loudly but not intrusively. Above us and to the right was a bridge with a railway. When trains went by, we could feel the air speed down, and it wavered the flames of our campfire but never burnt it out. Many hours were spent there, and I consider them some of my favorite. After the sunset, we would try counting stars and speak in hypotheticals.
Driving back one time, the air was tender, and standing in it felt like wiping your palm along glass condensation. Joey and Peter were having their usual jam session in the front, and without them knowing I began recording their song onto my phone. I lied it down in the backseat under the protection of Blue, the dog, and Alice and I stuck our heads out the roof. The moon was full and the trees blurred past either side of us as we sped down the one lane street. I’m looking for a word similar to ecstasy, but stronger and safer. Pure, boiled down happiness. Our hands extended straight up and pressed against the wind. I looked over at Alice, and before I knew it she kissed my lips and laughed, turning back to the open road. Though it took me my surprise, it didn’t bother me. In fact, I wish she had done it again. Not because it was romantic but because in that moment, it was the only thing that could express such an overbearing love for each other, our friends, and the night.
I often long for these times to come back to me, especially because I think they never will. Joey moved to Milwaukee with his girlfriend, Mary. Alice lives in Richmond and we write each other letters. Hers are often coffee stained. Though we have been able to reunite during school breaks, I worry what it will be like when we both get jobs in different places. Peter’s father got a promotion and is moving the whole family to Washington DC next spring, so I won’t see them over holidays anymore. The last night of last summer, Peter and I went to meander around the city. We stopped in Hotel Roanoke and found our way to the grand piano. Although I’m not very good, he was understanding and kind, and gave me a sequence to play. Before we began, I secretly started taping the music onto my phone so I could enjoy it later. C, F, A, G. As I repeated the simple series, he performed an extravagant symphony on the other side of the piano, each sound perfectly complimenting my notes. There are few things more intimate than making music with someone. I’m not sure if there is a term for a sensation of such grandeur, and I almost hope there isn’t.

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