Saturday, October 29, 2011

Technicolor dreams

Dream in Black and White
Live life in Technicolor
Perish in Sepia
-          The Book of the Unknown

My mother’s screeching voice woke me from my listless slumber.

“Omar, it’s almost 8 am. If you still want a ride to school with Rashida and me, you’ll have to hurry.”

I really didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t want to get up at all. If it had been up to me, I would have crawled back under the covers and slept forever. Anything would be better than my living nightmare, but I had no choice. I had completely exhausted the goodwill afforded to me after the accident, and now my mother had finally laid down the law. So back to school it was.

I went through the motions of getting ready for school, feeling like a stranger inside my own body, like a marionette, being controlled by an unseen puppetmaster.

Brush your teeth. Take a shower. Comb your hair. Wear your clothes.

I was shrouded in a fog of deep melancholy, a man drowning. I felt like the sun had set on me forever. I looked around my spotless, almost antiseptic room. Everything was neatly packed away, including a Vintage Camera, an Argus C-3 Match-matic. It looked out of place next to its more illustrious brother, a Nikon D7000. I scooped both of them up and placed them reverently in my satchel.

A few deep breaths to calm me, but still, leaving the room was like leaving a fortress. The past 6 months, after the hospital, this room had been almost everything I’d known, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready yet to be back out in the world.

The walk downstairs was interminable, but I put on a brave face, if only for my mother. She didn’t need any more stress. I spoke silent words of encouragement to myself, staving off the rising waves of anxiety by sheer force of will.

One step at a time. Down the stairs. Pour the milk, then the cereal. Look your sister in the eye. Sit down at the table. Pretend you’re okay.

It almost worked, but the whole charade came crashing down, when my mother asked the simple question, ‘Omar, are you okay?’

I tried to reply, but all that came out was a choked sob. Before she could come over to my side, I got up stiffly and announced. “I’ll be in the car.” 

I walked to the car, shoulders slumped, barely able to think. 5 minutes later came my mother with my little sister in tow. They entered the car and she looked pointedly at me. 

“You don’t have to go to school if you don’t feel ready. Dr. Chao said that the first day would be the hardest.”

I said nothing. It was a strange tableau, my mother looking tenderly at me, me trying my best not to meet her eye, and my 11 year old sister looking slightly bemused. We sat like that for what felt like a lifetime, until finally she turned the ignition and we were on our way.

It was a short ride and we were at school far too soon. Mom pulled up at the loading zone and turned off the ignition.

“If you for any reason, you don’t feel alright, call me and I’ll pick you up right away.”

I nodded and she continued. “I know how much you miss her, but you have to stop blaming yourself. It wasn’t your fault.”

I said nothing and was about to leave the car, when Rashida held out an outstretched hand. It held a single daisy.

“I picked it for you. It’s supposed to bring good luck.”

I took it from her, smiled tightly and walked out without looking back.

“I love you, honey.” My mother’s voice sang out at me as I entered the school.

I felt radioactive as I walked through the halls. I could feel them staring at the freshly-minted scars that criss-crossed my face and entire body. Like Moses, the sea of students parted as I made the lonely trek to my first period class. I could hear their muffled whispers as I arrived at class.

“Omar’s back, Omar’s back.”

Yeah. It was going to be a long day.

The time slowed to a crawl, but eventually came lunch. The photography club which I had co-run what seemed like a lifetime ago would be having a meeting and I didn’t want to miss it. I made my way to room 304 with dread anticipation, not knowing what I would face. I shouldn’t have worried. For the longest time, this had been the only place where I felt comfortable and just entering the room allowed me to achieve a sense of peace that had been stubbornly elusive. 

As soon as I entered, I was swarmed. Diana gave me a hug which I returned. Wallace, Dozer and Kaizer bumped fists with me. I knew this would be hard, but I had to do it quickly and painlessly. I took the Argus C-3 out of my backpack and held it reverently in my hand.

I spoke quickly, dispassionately, my voice sounding hollow, like it was coming from far away.
“This camera was hers as you all know. It took everything that I had to do it, but I restored it back to its former glory. I want the club to have it. It’s what she would have wanted. This was her home away from home, and we, all of us here, were like her family. We were all here, through the blood, sweat, toil and tears, and we were here through the happier times. Maybe this camera will inspire the passion for photography in someone else as much as it inspired her.”

I took a deep breath to compose myself and continued.

“I also wanted to tell you guys that I’m leaving the club.” I could see the disappointment in their eyes.
“Just coming here this once, has been almost unbearable. This place holds too many memories, of better times, when things were simple. I can’t stay anymore. Every time I stand here, I see her. It’s too much. I’ll be fine, in time, but I can’t do it here. I’ll never forget you, and I’ll never forget the debt that I owe to the club. You really did save my life, but for my own good, I have to leave.”

They were clearly stunned, but I left before they could ask any questions. I had made up my mind, and nothing could change it. I hadn’t told them yet, but I was also changing schools. They’d learn soon enough. I almost didn’t have a choice. Everything here reminded me of her. It might be the coward’s way out, but if it meant surviving, then that was what I would do. 

I had two more classes after lunch, but they could wait. I had one more thing I had to do today and nothing would stop me, not even the steady drizzle that was coming down as I began the long walk. 

I pulled my coat closer as the rain beat a staccato rhythm on my face and I finally allowed my mind to wander to the events of the past year. Dr. Chao had said that it would eventually help me heal, but I hadn’t felt ready then. I was ready now.

One year ago, I had only just met her, but even then she’d had an outsized effect on me. I had been so stoic, so closed off, angry at the world. I had turned that anger inward and it was slowly festering. Then, miraculously, everything seemed to change. My grandfather had given me an ancient Polaroid Camera that was in pretty bad shape. I had always been good with my hands and I was trying to restore it, but I didn’t know the first thing about photography. Stopping by the photography club on that fateful day changed my life. She’d marvelled at the camera and I had been smitten with her and with photography. Her passion for it was infectious. I stayed, and in time, she would teach me everything she knew about photography. We made a formidable team. She was the consummate photographer, able to see the story in every panorama, to bring the subject out of every frame, to wait for the right moment, when the shot would be perfect.

Her passion and zest for life had drawn me out of my shell, and in time, we’d got close. I remember with vivid clarity, the good times. The never-ending treks in search of the perfect shot, the long conversations about nothing and everything. I’d always been good with my hands. It was one of the things she loved most about me. She would watch me for hours, intently, as I tinkered with an old camera. She had a basement full of them, and nothing made me happier than working with them. Each camera had a story and I felt duty-bound to honor their rich history. The most important thing she had taught me was that photography should never be a substitute for seeing the world, and I had taken that to heart. We complemented each other perfectly, but like every good thing in my life, it didn’t last.

We’d been driving back from a photography exhibit. That had been one of the best days in my life. The exhibit had finished early, and we had spent the entire day exploring Toronto, watching the people, buildings, the interplay of light and shadow across the cityscape and then trying our best to capture it.

The sun was just beginning to set when we left. We were stopped at a stop sign, when everything went blank. Later I would learn that a drunk driver had run the stop sign, lost control and hit the passenger side of the car. She’d died instantly. I was gravely wounded, but somehow, thanks to modern medicine, I had survived along with fragments of her camera. When I woke up 2 weeks later, I could barely remember anything. My memories came back slowly over the next weeks, first a trickle, then a flood, and as I slowly began to remember just what I had lost, my will to live evaporated. I wondered why I hadn’t been the one to die. She had so much to live for, so much left so see and do, but now she was gone, her life cruelly snatched away.

Dr Chao called my desire to die survivor’s guilt, but I didn’t feel guilt, just anger and an unrelenting despair at the gross unfairness of it all. Just when I needed her most, she was there for me again. My unrelenting and almost irrational desire to do one final restoration of her pride and joy, the camera that she loved more than anything in the world was the only thing that got me through the dark days of rehab, when the pain was almost unbearable. I would never be the same, but for her sake, I knew I had to carry on. That labor of love took me months, but eventually I completed it.

Just before the accident during one of our long conversations, we’d made a pact to each other to take one photograph a week for a year and give to the other. It would be something special, that we would be the only ones privy to. I reflected bitterly that it  would never happen now. She was gone. All I had left were photographs, mementos, fragments. They didn’t seem enough. She’d taught me to live, to love, but those opportunities had been denied her. The world could be so cruel.

I slowed as I reached my destination. The rain had stopped, and slivers of sunlight snaked their way through the sky. I stopped at the grave, her final resting place, bent down and placed a hand on her grave. I would do this every week. I had made a promise and I would keep it, no matter the cost. I took the photograph from my coat pocket along with the daisy Rashida had given me and laid them down. A simple cross adorned her headstone which read:

Vania Romeo
Dec 28, 1992 – Jan 16, 2011
Beloved Daughter, Sister, Friend
Because life is dark, I choose to dream in Technicolor – Vania

Photography had brought us together, and it had separated us, but somehow, once again it had saved my life when everything seemed lost. In time, I would be okay and though the feelings were still raw, I was grateful that even for a brief time, I had bathed in her light which had shined so brightly. I said a quick prayer and began the lonely walk back home.

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