Either you are there or you are not. There is no “close.” For example, when I was ten the biggest earthquake in anyone’s memory hit two hours away from my house. On the television screen there were elevated highways lying on their sides like resting greyhounds, buildings fallen face first in the dirt. At my house the little aquarium in the kitchen sloshed half its water onto the floor. I was asleep on the carpet. By the time my mother dragged me under the table, it was over.
Or here’s another one. Once I was at the beach when a little boy drowned. They said he didn’t know how to swim out of the riptide. They said his parents ran up and down the beach, calling his name, looking for his arms to reach above the waves. And what did I see? Afterward, on the drive home, a little splash, a hint of skin.
Or take my dog. If ever there was an animal that knew the truth about distance, it would have been that dog. Quiet nights sitting together on the carpet, my mother reading a book while my father and I played chess, the dog would arrange his body so as to touch a part of all of us. His nose against my knee, left forefoot against my father’s back, right hindfoot against my mother’s toes. If you wanted to, if you were feeling mean, you could slowly move away from him, inch by inch, so that even in his sleep he would stretch out further and further, like a prisoner on a rack.
Or else the nights when there were thunderstorms or fireworks from the lake. My dog with his wide eyes flitting between us, whining whenever one of us got up to use the bathroom or otherwise moved out of his anxious reach.
The month before I went away, I got a lot of advice. Such as—
My cousin, pinching the skin around my stomach: Don’t eat too many burgers and fries over there.
My uncle: Don’t get shot. He says this seriously. Says something about a kid in Texas a few years ago who knocked on someone’s door just to ask for directions and got blown to pieces by a double-barreled shotgun. It’s legal, my uncle said, to blow people apart in America with a double-barreled shotgun if they are standing at your front door. Don’t knock unless it’s someone you trust.
My aunt: Don’t forget us. Even though I know it’s expensive to call I promise we’ll try not to talk too long so you won’t go broke. This is when I explain to her about Skype. I say I promise to call if she promises to set up an account so it will be free. I say distance isn’t as big a problem these days as it used to be.
Let’s not exaggerate. Let’s not pretend a little scratch is a lasting wound. Seat 29B on UA35 somewhere above the Marshall Islands. To the right of me is an old man asleep against the window. To the left is a girl with her bare feet flush against the seatback in front of her. Before me is the latest release of Fast and Furious, or maybe it’s Godzilla, or The Parent Trap. Nothing is happening anywhere else. I am missing nothing.
But before I board the plane, when I am still waiting at the gate and I get a call from an impossible number, something like 08100540001, I feel my stomach churn.
Distance. Someday my parents will die, or my friends will die, and I won’t be there. Late nights, calling home and listening to the ring tone go on and on, that’s what I think.
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