Chapter 1 that sadness feels heavier underwater
I’ll hold my breath and tell you what I mean: I first discovered the Fading Girl two months and two days ago, soon after summer began dripping its smugly sunny smile all over the place. I was with Alan, per usual. We had fallen down the YouTube rabbit hole, which was a thing we did from time to time. Generally speaking, I hate YouTube, mostly because Alan is all, I just have to show you this
one thing, yo,
but inevitably one thing becomes seventeen things, and before I know it, I’m watching a sea otter operate a vending machine, thinking, Where the fuck did I go wrong?
And look: I am not immune to the allure of the sea otter, but at a certain point a guy has to wonder about all the life decisions he’s made that have landed him on a couch, watching a glorified weasel press H9 for a bag of SunChips.
Quiet, and a little sad, but in a real way, drifting through the Rosa-Haas pool—I fucking love it here.
I would live here.
For the sake of precision: the Fading Girl video is a rapid time-lapse compilation of photographs clocking in at just over twelve minutes. It’s entitled One Face, Forty Years: An Examination of the Aging Process
, and underneath it a caption reads: “Daily self-portraits from 1977 to 2015. I got tired.” (I love that last part, as if the Fading Girl felt the need to explain why she hadn’t quite made it the full forty years.
) In the beginning, she’s probably in her early twenties, with blonde hair, long and shimmery, and bright eyes like a sunrise through a waterfall. At about the halfway mark the room changes, which I can only assume means she moved, but in the background, her possessions remain the same: a framed watercolor of mountains, a porcelain Chewbacca figurine, and elephants everywhere. Statues, posters, T-shirts—the Fading Girl had an elephant obsession, safe to say. She’s always indoors, always alone, and—other than the move, and a variety of haircuts—she looks the same in every photo: no smile, staring straight into the camera, every day for forty years.
Always the same, until: changes.
Okay, I have to breathe now.
I love this moment: breaking the surface, inhale, wet hair in the hot sun.
Alan is all, “Dude.”
The moment would be better alone, to be honest.
“That was like a record,” says Val. “You okay?”
A few more deep breaths, a quick smile, and . . .
I love this moment even more: dipping beneath the surface. Something about being underwater allows me to feel at a higher capacity—the silence and weightlessness, I think.
It’s my favorite thing about swimming.
The earlier shots are scanned-in Polaroids, but as the time lapse progresses and the resolution of the photos increases, the brightness of the Fading Girl begins to diminish: little by little, the hair thins; little by little, the eyes dim; little by little, the face withers, the skin droops, the bright young waterfall becomes a darkened millpond, one more victim in the septic tank of aging. And it doesn’t make me sad so much as leave an impression of sadness, like watching a stone sink but never hit bottom. Every day for forty years.
I’ve watched the video hundreds of times now: at night before bed, in the morning before school, in the library during lunch, on my phone during class, in my head during the in-betweens, I hum the Fading Girl like a song over and over again, and every time it ends I swear I’ll never watch it again. But like the saddest human boomerang, I always come back.
Twelve minutes of staring at your screen and watching a person die. It’s not violent. It’s not immoral or shameful; nothing is done to her that isn’t done to all of us, in turn. It’s called An Examination of the Aging Process
, but I call bullshit. That girl isn’t aging; she’s fading. And I can’t look away.
There it is, the inevitable shoulder tap.
Time to join the land of the breathing.
Copyright © 2018 by David Arnold. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.