‘Tell me a story,’ Savannah says. It always starts with a story. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, it ends with one.
I ask her what kind of story, and she shrugs. ‘Paint me a picture,’ she says, moving closer to me on the sofa and leaning her head on my shoulder. Then she closes her eyes, as though blocking out the coffee shop around us. The scratched glass table in front of the sofa, covered in board games. The upright piano in the corner, with an A key that sticks, and the armchairs next to it. And further away, the bar and an ever-revolving cast of customers, sitting down with their laptops at the small tables lined up through the main lobby. Savannah rests there, eyes closed, and I tell her about standing on my balcony the evening before, watching as a storm swept in over the bay. How within a few minutes the perfect view of downtown Seattle, skyscrapers sparkling in the sun, faded as the storm clouds rolled in, and then disappeared entirely behind a veil of white as the curtains of rain fell. I like that. When the rain becomes the fog becomes the cloud and you’re no longer sure if you’re above the earth, or beneath the sky, or maybe, just maybe the earth is floating above the sky, and you’re floating on it, and when the clouds around you disappear, there won’t actually be anything there at all. And it’ll just be you, standing on a small patch of earth, lost in the sky.
Sometimes I’ll imagine I’m walking on the clouds. Or swimming through them. And I’ll hold my breath and swim and swim and then suddenly I’ll plunge out the other side and take a deep gasping breath of beautiful, clear, refreshing air. And then fall. I don't mind falling though. Not from on high anyway. The ground looks so beautiful and delicate and untouchable from a distance, just a patchwork quilt of life. Sometimes I’ll imagine I can fly too. Easiest thing in the world, flying. The trick is in letting go at just the right moment. And then letting go again.
And I’ll fly and swim through the clouds, with them swirling all around me, until suddenly I’ll burst out and the world will reappear, washed clean, the buildings tinged red as the sun dips down behind the mountain peaks in the distance. Find your moments of wonder and cling to them, Savannah. I look down and see she’s fallen asleep here on my shoulder.
I keep talking though. Sometimes stories are meant to be told, and whether they’re heard or not becomes inconsequential. I tell her about the feeling of walking here this morning. Of experiencing a world washed clean. Made new. Sometimes it takes a storm to reveal to us what‘s been there all along, only hidden beneath a layer of dust on the surface. And I took a familiar route, but looked out on a changed world. And then, as I walked through Capitol Hill, mind wandering aimlessly even as my feet led me directly here, I came across a sheltered patch of sidewalk with the chalked words, ‘I am simply happy that you EXIST.’
There’s your picture, Sav. The one I’ll paint just for you.
Savannah woke just as my arm fell asleep and has been staring across the cafe for a minute now, gazing out over the rim of the coffee mug held halfway to her lips. I follow her gaze and see a middle-aged woman, red-dyed hair peeking out from beneath a black-sequined cap. Glasses perched on her nose and raincoat still on, she’s looking absently out the window, cigarette held in one hand with her elbow propped on the table. And the ash has burned down halfway, but somehow still clings there. Death clinging to life. Finally the woman glances calmly down, taps an ashtray, and takes a drag on the nearly spent cigarette. Savannah turns to me and laughs. ‘Thought she was going to lose it there.’ I watch her now over the rim of my own mug.
And out over this curved horizon, the world begins to skew. I look past Savannah and see a wind sweep a swirl of autumn leaves into a figure who bows to a passing stranger, asking her to dance, and they twirl off down the street in one another’s arms. And the oil paintings on the wall begin to dissolve, figures swimming through them, twisting, turning, reshaping the canvases while a single shaft of light pierces the clouds and shatters into a thousand pieces in the glass of water beside me. Then I catch a glimpse of my own face reflected in the window and realize I’ve been holding my breath. Or maybe there’s just been no air to breathe, and suddenly, in that instant, the world falls again into a recognizable order.
‘Want to know what I dreamt just now?’ Savannah interrupts my reverie, turning to me with a serious expression. I stay silent, listening, and after a deep breath, she continues. ‘I died. I was in a car, driving along the coast, and crashed through a barrier, over the edge of a cliff towards the ocean below.’ I look down at my hands, typing the words as she’s speaking. ‘Know how they say time slows down in a crisis? That‘s how it was. And so as the fall stretched on and on, I had time to wonder if I’d survive. Not a chance if I hit the rocks directly below, but maybe, just maybe, a slight chance if I was gusted out over open water by the wind. But there wasn’t any wind, the fall kept getting longer and longer, and I realized there was no hope. And then the impact, and the world went dark.’
Savannah has a faraway look in her eyes now and I ask her if she woke up at this point. She shakes her head. Then she picks up her mug and returns it to her lips, holding it there and staring out over the top, into the distance. ‘No. That’s the funny thing. I didn’t. I’d always heard that once you died in your dreams, that was, you know, it. But I did die. The world went dark, and then a few moments later I slowly opened my eyes to see the same world around me, the same movement, the same colours, only no sound.’ She shivers, without shifting her gaze. ‘Then classical music started playing and I forced myself awake.’
I sit in silence for a minute. ‘Bullshit, no?’ she says, laughing. ‘What happened to good dreams?’ An espresso machine whirs in the background, interrupted by the grinding of coffee beans and clatter of dishes. Then Savannah turns quickly away, abruptly drains her coffee, sets the mug on the table, and stands up.
‘I have to go,’ she says, pecking me on the cheek. Then she picks up her book bag and weaves through the crowded tables. Reaching the door she turns and calls back across the room. 'Hey you!' I raise my eyebrows and she smiles slightly, but with a faraway, sad look in her eyes. 'Don't fall away.' I wasn't planning on it dear.
I've only just gotten used to standing.
That was existence then. Those moments. And we cling to them now, long after everything else is gone. Long after Savannah is gone.
We call it life. What happens in between the living. In the interstitial spaces. We put all our focused effort into where we think we’re supposed to be, and what we think we’re supposed to be doing, and we wind up tiptoeing around the things that really matter. Those fleeting moments that weave the tapestry of who we really are. Not the things with which we choose to define ourselves, but the things that choose to define us. A sudden laugh, a quiet sigh, the unconscious tapping of fingers on the table, while our minds float a million miles away...
And now when I think of Savannah, it’s those moments I think of.
Who really were we then? And why did life have to come to this particular moment? This moment, to which every conscious and unconscious decision of the past two years has led. This moment, the culmination of a thousand thousand chance encounters. This moment, the gusts of a breeze from the wings of a butterfly in the Himalayas… I guess what we really should have said is that there’s always a story at the start, but it doesn’t always start with that story. And there’s always a story at the end, even when we don’t want the story to end.