Age: 15, Grade: 10
School Name: Spence School, New York, NY
Educator: Gina Stevensen
Category: Short Story
The Human Condition
1. pastime with good company
It’s early afternoon and I’m seated outside a café at one of those round plastic tables with the hole in the middle for an umbrella. Across the table there is an empty seat and I enjoy its company as I sip some orange juice from a glass. Some people are having a heated conversation nearby about tax cuts and whether this girl named Mary has the rights to “Uncle Ray’s fortune”, whatever that means. I bet it’s important, of course, but nothing means anything without context. A singular moment collapses when you try to understand it by itself. I look back at the empty chair, slowly swishing my juice around with a coffee stir.
2. ordinary pain
Given God’s existence, the Bible acts like there is no doubt He would be a benevolent being. I’m not quite sure if I believe that–––if God is really supposed to love us and shelter us from harm, why would He let bad things happen to good people? Why would any sort of God let that happen? I asked my mother about it and she explained that God ultimately has a bigger plan, bigger than us all, a plan with a capital P which is too complex and all-encompassing for any of us to understand. She told me that these sorts of bad things need to happen in order for the Plan to be carried out in the long run. I run my fingers along the surface of this explanation, feel it’s cold weight pressing against my palm. In the summer before ninth grade my best friend laid on the creaky floorboards of her parents’ apartment and tried to kill herself. Did God love her? Did God want her to die?
3. déja vu
I’m back at the café two days later, except it’s a little bit later in the afternoon, around 4pm I think, and there are two people sitting at my table and I am now having a cup of coffee in a pristine white mug. They’re talking and they both look a bit worn out, as if they’ve been having this conversation for ages, or as if they’ve had this conversation before.
“––Look, Mary, I just don’t think he can handle it. Just put him in the grade below and be done with it. No need to set up the boy with false expectations, okay? Just keep it nice and simple.” The person sitting closer to me, a man with a large nose who looks like he’s in his fifties, slowly takes a sip of what looks like Coca Cola from a wine glass.
“You think anything about this is simple? I think that’s ridiculous.” Mary, a large woman with small and watering eyes, spits the last word across the table at him, staring right through me. Her bottom lip quivers and I think I feel sorry for her.
After a brief pause the man clears his throat and wipes his mouth with a napkin. “You think it’s ridiculous?”
“Yeah, of course things are hard for him right now. And of course we can’t all be geniuses, Raymond.” Her voice drops down to a whisper. “It’s just because of the boy’s grandmother. She’s very ill, I’ve heard. Heard he cooks for her and does all sorts of odd jobs trying to get enough money for textbooks and things. And he’s only twelve.” She sighs. “Of all the things you could do right now the best one would be to just give him time.”
“Mary––do you seriously think we have more time? Do you think he has more time?” Uncle Ray sounds like he’s trying his best to remain calm even as his voice builds to a small, barely suppressed shriek. A few people glance at our table anxiously.
Mary’s forehead, worn with creases like old leather, knits itself into a frayed frown. “Yeah, I guess not,”she says softly. Her lips are being dragged down towards the core of the earth by some invisible force.
She sighs and leans her weight across the table as if to tell a secret. “––Life just goes so fast, I don’t know if he can keep up with it––”
“To be honest I don’t think anyone can––”
4. allegory of the cave, retold
I wish that, for a moment, all of us could look up from whatever is so important and see each other for the first time, recognize the value in existence. There is no need for anything more, except to regard each other and smile, secretly relieved that we are alive; to remember that life is brief and fleeting; to rejoice in the fact that we remain the lucky few, at least for now; to remind each other how fortunate we are to breathe; to remember to breathe.
5. Look, Mary, you’re not listening to me. What I’m saying is that we can’t hold him to normal standards right now, okay?”
“Nothing about his situation is normal.”
“Yes, I––uh, that’s what I said. I just don’t think it’s fair for the boy to have to deal with an institution that keeps expecting students to––”
6. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
I think life itself is perhaps the most peculiar and nonsensical piece of literature ever written. It’s also technically a tragedy, since it ends with a death––––my death, I suppose. But on second thought, maybe not. I mean, who says I’m the main character? Who would play the main character in a story about life itself? After all, life is a beginning and an end which we all share as a collective status. Maybe the thing is that we’re all playing supporting roles for each other; or maybe it’s that we’re all the main characters in our own tragedies, and all of the arguments we have with each other are really just conflicts of interest. (Maybe we are God’s discarded dolls which are now coming together and putting on a play of their own.)
7. how to breathe
You’re back in high school, reliving the sweat and acne and the moment of anticipation right after you tell Daniel from English class you have loved him since fifth grade, waiting to hear his reply, heart thumping so thickly in your chest you swear he can hear it over the phone and you look down and on your lap is the last page of a book you’re reading for the first time and your eyes can’t help but jump to the last line in a wild, unrestrained leap like how reckless twenty-somethings jump between rooftops looking for a rush and now you’ve taken the leap too (only it was more like a fall) and now you’ve fallen, you’ve fallen you really have you’re so far from the edge of the next building and oh my god oh shit oh shit you’re not gonna make it you’re not gonna make it you’re not gonna make it you’re on the verge of tears and you have a flashback to when your cousin Samuel pushed you into Aunt Ellie’s pool in the backyard and you can see all the way to the bottom as you hurtle towards meticulously laid tiles looking like an array of blinding square teeth just like you could then, and you’re getting closer and closer and closer to being devoured by those chlorine-concrete jaws but all you can do is stare back at the gaping blue abyss of nothingness and sky-water and think what a weird way to go that little bitch pushing me off a building I hope it doesn’t hurt when I smack into it I hope they remember me when I’m gone, I’m going I’m going oh my god oh my god oh my god as it rushes towards you, far far far too fast––––and you were living so hard you had forgotten to breathe, time frozen still.
8. and suddenly I am in the cafe again, in the early morning.
I look down at the spotless table where I’m seated and am surprised and confused to see my reflection looking back at me from the depths of a glass of red wine. Am I even of age? And what sort of café serves wine, anyways? Someone must have brought it here and poured me some. My head is still jumbled from a weird dream I had. Something about falling off a building and splattering my brain matter against some concrete…I could throw my wine glass at the nearest wall right now and achieve something to the same effect. I look across the table and find myself in the company of a boy who looks like he’s about twelve or thirteen, gesturing theatrically as he speaks. Though punctuated amply by his facial expressions, his actual voice is barely more than a whisper, and I lean in to hear what he has to say.
“I’m telling you, they think I’m stupid! You should have seen the looks on their faces after they got back my results from that little test.” He has a high-pitched voice punctured with a thick, almost indecipherable accent which sounds vaguely Nordic. “And then they said, ‘Fiachra, we’re going to put you in the fifth grade for now. We’re going to just keep it nice and simple.’ As if I don’t know what that means! What, well I just said, ‘are you serious? You think I worked so hard to take care of my granny after school every day that I’ve gone stupid now?’” He throws his hands in the air in frustration. “They think I’m stupid just because I can’t do their silly little maths. That’s ridiculous!” I frown, slowly swishing around my drink. If the only person around is this twelve-year-old boy, then where did I get the wine? Did I pour it for myself?
I brush the question aside and speak to Fiachra, gently as I can. “You think that’s ridiculous?”
The boy glares at me. “Of course! Of course it’s ridiculous.” His eyes are blue like night, the darkest kind of blue, holding on to anything they can and swallowing it whole. Right at me, so much I become painfully aware of the crushing weight of my own existence, and for the first time I think I understand that I am real, too. For a moment Fiachra burns with quiet anger, smoldering and red-hot, silent but loud. Then he unclenches his fists and sags limply into his seat. Like a discarded doll.
I hold my glass of wine to the light and slowly swish it around.
What is the meaning of life? The question is so classically and timelessly cliché that it’s almost never taken seriously, but I think deep down there must be something special about it. After all, what’s preventing mankind’s most annoyingly iconic question from being something else equally as pedantic and unanswerable, like “which came first, the chicken or the egg”, or even “why did the chicken cross the road’? What made that question in particular achieve pop-star status in the world of trite metaphysical questions? I guess life was an ordeal so singularly strange and unpleasant (like some sort of exquisitely expensive cheese) that people just had to imbue it with meaning and complexity to explain their love for it (again, like expensive cheese). But then again, maybe it was the other way around: that people had to imbue life with meaning in order to give them a reason to live. (Like trying to convince yourself to eat a particularly putrid block of cheese by telling yourself that that’s what makes it exotic and enjoyable.) I don’t know which one it was, to be honest––––but I do know that, considering the alternatives,
being alive is about as good as it gets.
I’m back at the cafe. I look up and notice that it’s just me and the chair again, no one else. I slowly trace its outline with a coffee stir. For a moment I am on the brink of a confession, poised on the cusp of actually he didn’t seem stupid at all, he was really wonderful and I think I understand it, I think I understand it all now and maybe there isn’t a deeper meaning to it all after all and also that bitch had some nerve pushing me into a pool but I’m afraid if I say these things out loud that they’ll escape from my mouth like winter breath and I’ll forget just how important they are. So we sit there for a while in comfortable silence as if we were old friends, the trees whispering secrets which tickle our ears, unintelligible, intimate. Then I drink what’s left of my coffee and leave.