As the credits played out at the end of Avatar: The Way of Water, my boyfriend Ethan took off his 3D glasses and looked at me. “Are you crying?” he asked.
I nodded and wiped my cheeks.
“Aw,” he said, “You liked the movie, huh?”
“Yes,” I sniffed.
Then a fresh wave of tears ran down my face.
Ethan immediately stood up and came over to me. “Oh baby, I’m so sorry, I understand why you’re crying now.”
He tried to sit in the same theater chair as me, to hold me and soothe me, but instead he accidentally sat on the large Pepsi in my cup holder, knocked it backwards, and got soda all over his butt. He pulled me to my feet, away from the mess, and held me in the aisle.
I hugged him and giggled a little—both at the situation and because I loved him so much.
In a matter of like ten seconds, he had already comforted me immensely, for two reasons. The first, because he didn’t let the awkwardness of soda-soaked pants distract him from his mission. And the second, because he knew that I was crying over my brother Zach, the heartbreaking scene in the movie that had triggered my tears.
It’s awful to admit this, but I initially never expected Ethan to play this role in my life. I never thought that my boyfriend would see me crying and automatically assume it was because of Zach.
We met at an interesting time in my life—just one day after the one year anniversary of Zach’s death. Once you get past the one year mark, it’s kind of an awkward and terrible season of life to be in. It’s like you have an expiration date on how long you can be grieving, on how long you can hold the identity of “sad sister of dead brother.” Most people stop asking how I’m doing in regards to that and don’t think to bring him up anymore.
The shock and raw grief is gone, but the ever-present pain of having to live the rest of my life without my sweet little brother constantly bubbles under the surface.
Ethan is very simple and straightforward in his comfort for me: I know you miss your brother. I’m here for you. Let me hold you.
“I love you,” he says, and Addie wonders if this is love, this gentle thing.
—V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
After the movie, later that evening, I accidentally spilled red wine on Zach’s white hoodie, which I wear almost every day.
Ethan immediately looked up how to get red wine stains out of white fabric and went to work. Soaking the stain in white vinegar (“not red vine vinegar?” I weakly joked). Scrubbing laundry detergent into the spot. Rinsing it out in hot water.
The stain was gone.
I clutched the warm, wet sweatshirt in my hands and thanked him and hung it on his desk chair to dry overnight.
The next day, back at my parents’ house, I examined the spot outside in the late afternoon sun, in better lighting. The wine stain truly was gone, but I noticed that the area was a bit frayed now. Threads popped out where Ethan had vigorously scrubbed the sweatshirt.
My heart melted. I sunk into this little patch of white fabric and pinned the moment and the feeling into my memory.
This is what it feels like to be safe and loved.
After he had cleaned my sweatshirt for me, Ethan was a little bit restless. It was getting late, I was cozy in bed, and we had planned to watch something together on his phone until we fell asleep. But he was unable to sit back and relax.
“Why aren’t you getting comfortable?” I asked. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, hunched and cross-legged.
He stood up and paced a bit. “Because you were crying earlier over your brother and then you stained his sweatshirt, and now I’m just in full on protection mode.”
. . . we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe for the night.
—Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
It was a place where I knew I was loved.
—Claire Oshetsky, Chouette
Title: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
Author: V.E. Schwab
Quoted In: Wine stains and heart mends
Description: A 23 year old girl in 1700’s France dreams of independence, art, and travel, but is being roped into an unwanted marriage to a widower and father of two. Panicked, she flees the church and runs into the woods, begging the gods for help. A dark god appears, offering her the freedom she desires, in exchange for her soul when she tires of her new life. Unbeknownst to her, he uses careful wording to add some curses to her wish. And so her life becomes a game, a battle of wills.
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What is a person, if not the marks they leave behind?
At home he is a quiet man, committed to his work, but on the road he begins to open, to unfold, to speak. And when he speaks, it is to tell her stories. Those stories he gathered, the way one gathers wood.
She will not remember the stories themselves, but she will recall the way he tells them; the words feel smooth as river stones, and she wonders if he tells these stories when he is alone…
She goes from stall to stall, eying the pastries and the cakes, the hats and the dresses and the dolls, but in the end, she settles on a journal, parchment bound with waxy thread. It is the blankness of the paper that excites her, the idea that she might fill the space with anything she likes.
“Heaven is a nice spot in the shade, a broad tree over my bones.”
Adeline is sixteen now, and everyone speaks of her as if she is a summer bloom, something to be plucked, and propped within a vase, intended only to flower and then to rot. Like Isabelle, who dreams of family instead of freedom, and seems content to briefly blossom and then wither. No, Adeline has decided she would rather be a tree, like Estele. If she must grow roots, she would rather be left to flourish wild instead of pruned, would rather stand alone, allowed to grow beneath the open sky. Better that than firewood, cut down just to burn in someone else’s hearth.
There was no danger in it, no reproach, not when she was young. All girls are prone to dreaming. She will grow out of it, her parents say—but instead, Adeline feels herself growing in, holding tighter to the stubborn hope of something more. The world should be getting larger. Instead, she feels it shrinking, tightening like chains around her limbs as the flat lines of her own body begin to curve out against it, and suddenly the charcoal beneath her nails is unbecoming, as is the idea that she would choose her own company over Arnaud’s or George’s, or any man who might have her. She is at odds with everything, she does not fit, an insult to her sex, a stubborn child in a woman’s form, her head bowed and arms wrapped tight around her drawing pad as if it were a door. And when she does look up, her gaze always goes to the edge of town. “A dreamer,” scorns her mother. “A dreamer,” mourns her father. “A dreamer,” warns Estele. Still, it does not seem such a bad word.
There is a rhythm to moving through the world alone.
Addie thinks of her father and his carvings, the way he peeled away the bark, whittled down the wood beneath to find the shapes that lived inside. Michelangelo called it the angel in the marble—though she’d not known that as a child. Her father had called it the secret in the wood. He knew how to reduce a thing, sliver by sliver, piece by piece, until he found its essence; knew, too, when he’d gone too far. One stroke too many, and the wood went from delicate to brittle in his hands.
Books, she has found, are a way to live a thousand lives—or to find strength in a very long one.
Adeline had wanted to be a tree. To grow wild and deep, belong to no one but the ground beneath her feet, and the sky above, just like Estele. It would be an unconventional life, and perhaps a little lonely, but at least it would be hers. She would belong to no one but herself.
“I do not want to belong to someone else,” she says with sudden vehemence. The words are a door flung wide, and now the rest pour out of her. “I do not want to belong to anyone but myself. I want to be free. Free to live, and to find my own way, to love, or to be alone, but at least it is my choice, and I am so tired of not having choices, so scared of the years rushing past beneath my feet. I do not want to die as I’ve lived, which is no life at all.”
Funny, how some people take an age to warm, and others simply walk into every room as if it’s home.
But Addie has never seen his work, and even if she had, she is not one to blush at fame. She has lived too long, and known too many artists. And even still, or perhaps more to the point, Addie prefers the ones who aren’t yet finished, the ones still looking for their shape.
Addie has always had a fondness for museums. Spaces where history gathers out of place, where art is ordered, and artifacts sit on pedestals, or hang on walls above little white didactics. Addie feels like a museum sometimes, one only she can visit.
And then, Estele’s voice rises to meet her in the dark. How do you walk to the end of the world? she once asked. And when Addie didn’t know, the old woman smiled that wrinkled grin, and answered. One step at a time.
She pauses at MEMOIR, studying the titles on the spines, so many I’s and Me’s and My’s, possessive words for possessive lives. What a luxury, to tell one’s story. To be read, remembered.
There is a defiance in being a dreamer.
She stands there until she realizes she is waiting. Waiting for someone to help. To come and fix the mess she’s in. But no one is coming. No one remembers, and if she resigns herself to waiting, she will wait forever. So she walks.
Home—it is a hard word to let go of, even now, when there is nothing left to bind her to it.
Live long enough, and you learn how to read a person. To ease them open like a book, some passages underlined and others hidden between the lines.
“It is a crime,” he says, “that women are not taught the same as men. Why, a world without reading, I cannot fathom it. A whole long life without poems, or plays, or philosophers. Shakespeare, Socrates, to say nothing of Descartes!”
“You strike me as someone not easily restrained. Aut viam invenium aut faciam, and so on.” She does not know Latin yet, and he does not offer a translation, but a decade from now, she will look up the words, and learn their meaning. To find a way, or make your own.
“And some people are fine with that. They like knowing where to put their feet. But if you only walk in other people’s steps, you cannot make your own way. You cannot leave a mark.”
It is a novel, that new word, though she doesn’t yet know it. Addie peels back the cover, and tries to read the first page, manages only a line before the words crumble into letters, and the letters blur, and she has to resist the urge to cast the cursed book away, to fling it down the steps. Instead, she closes her eyes, and takes a deep breath, and thinks of Remy, not his words, but the soft pleasure in his voice when he spoke of reading, the delight in his eyes, the joy, the hope. It will be a grueling journey, full of starts and stops and myriad frustrations. To decipher this first novel will take her almost a year—a year spent laboring over every line, trying to make sense of a sentence, then a page, then a chapter. And still, it will be a decade more before the act comes naturally, before the task itself dissolves, and she finds the hidden pleasure of the story. It will take time, but time is the one thing Addie has plenty of. So she opens her eyes, and starts again.
Food is one of the best things about being alive. Not just food. Good food. There is a chasm between sustenance and satisfaction… So much of life becomes routine, but food is like music, like art, replete with the promise of something new.
She can speak German, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, but French is different, French is bread baking in her mother’s oven, French is her father’s hands carving wood, French is Estele murmuring to her garden. French is coming home.
But this is how you walk to the end of the world. This is how you live forever. Here is one day, and here is the next, and the next, and you take what you can, savor every stolen second, cling to every moment, until it’s gone.
The magic is in the movement.
Somewhere between a question and an answer, it fell apart.
“I am the one who sees kindling and coaxes it to flame. The nurturer of all human potential.”
She moves among the books as if they’re friends.
“And in the photo, we all look so … happy. I remember seeing that picture and realizing that photographs weren’t real. There’s no context, just the illusion that you’re showing a snapshot of a life, but life isn’t snapshots, it’s fluid. So photos are like fictions. I loved that about them. Everyone thinks photography is truth, but it’s just a very convincing lie.”
“Art is about ideas. And ideas are wilder than memories. They’re like weeds, always finding their way up.”
He likes the white noise that comes with driving, the steady concreteness of going from here to there, the directions, the control. Most of all, he likes the inability to do anything else but drive, hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, music blaring through the speakers.
He always liked learning. Loved it, really. If he could have spent his whole life sitting in a lecture hall, taking notes, could have drifted from department to department, haunting different studies, soaking up language and history and art, maybe he would have felt full, happy.
She throws the shutters open and finds herself face-to-face with the woods. The trees stand in a dark line, tangled branches clawing at the sky. Their roots are inching forward, crawling into the garden and across the lawn. A slow and patient advance.
Addie was raised to kneel in the little stone chapel in the center of Villon, spent days folded into Paris pews. She has listened to the bells, and the organ, and the calls to prayer. And yet, despite it all, she has never understood the appeal. How does a ceiling bring you closer to heaven? If God is so large, why build walls to hold Him in?
“You know,” she says, “I think I’d rather live and wonder.”
She has gone so long without roots, she doesn’t know how to grow them anymore. So used to losing things, she isn’t sure how to hold them. How to make space in a world the size of herself.
“I love you,” he says, and Addie wonders if this is love, this gentle thing.
Quoted In: Wine stains and heart mends
“Do you know how you live three hundred years?” she says. And when he asks how, she smiles. “The same way you live one. A second at a time.”
Addie has said so many hellos, but that was the first and only time she got to say good-bye. That kiss, like a piece of long-awaited punctuation. Not the em dash of an interrupted line, or the ellipsis of a quiet escape, but a period, a closed parenthesis, an end.