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As We Saw It

by Sydney Hartle

We watch the beings on a planet far away from our ever-churning Solar System where the world spins more rapidly on its axis, hurtling around their sun. We live much longer than they do. One hundred of their years is an hour of our day. One of their lifetimes can be contained in sixty of our minutes.

Each time a new story concludes, we gather at our screens.

“Have you seen Ayumi?” we ask, and the answer is always yes.

Someone always pipes up, “Ayumi the book was so much better!” but none of us respond.

It’s not that we don’t like books. We read everything they ever wrote. We read their first words, the pages upon pages of practiced alphabets, the school worksheets, the notes passed in class, the flirty text messages, and the hundreds of forgotten birthday cards. We have read their signatures thousands of times—on contracts, receipts, and art projects only ever exhibited on refrigerators in their mothers’ kitchens. We read their book reports, essays, and even their grocery lists. We feel especially lucky when they leave us diary entries, because we know we are reading a life not as it was, but as they wrote it.

That’s why we prefer the biopics. We love when their diary entries line up with the events. We watch everything they’ve ever done, and sure, sometimes we consult the texts to understand it all. They learn to walk and we call it “character development.” We think of their first loose tooth as a loss of innocence. We’re on the edge of our seats when they work up the nerve to say hello to a crush and sometimes we’re disappointed when they never speak to her again. Not every event leads to something else, as we have learned from the films. We watch the childhood events they won’t ever write down or remember, and we see how even the buried past informs the future. Still, we know not to expect any particular arc for the plot of their lives. We are not disappointed when they don’t overcome every obstacle. Failures and successes say nothing about them. To us, they are just events of a story that can never be told twice.

We’ll see them in their friends’ stories. In Amelia, we’ll see one of them as a blur over Amelia’s groom’s shoulder instead of from where they stood as his best man. They’re in the background of that shot, melting behind Amelia’s happy tears. We see them as a watery blur in a lot of their friends’ stories: sometimes they’re happy, sometimes they’re sad, sometimes they’re just a story through the eyes of a weeping child at the mall who was denied a rainbow lollipop.

We’ll see them in a big role in a lot of films that come out close together and then we won’t see them for a while. We might have to wait until their daughter’s film comes out, small eyes adjusting to the outside world and focusing on our hero’s youthful face as she’s being held for the first time. She looks back over her shoulder at them the first time she rides a bike, and she looks back ahead once she knows she’s got it. She’s mesmerized by their large hands and long fingers, the way they nimbly cut and fold as they show her how to wrap a birthday present. She scans the crowd to find them at her high school graduation, college, medical school. She checks back in on them one day to find they’ve gone gray. She worries when they stop remembering the details she’s sure they’d never forget, she worries when they’re in that papery green gown that’s loose and dry like old skin, she can barely see them at all behind the waterfall when they lay them into the ground.

That’s the thing. Sometimes we have to wait a long time for their cameos, which become fewer and farther between. But we see them in so many films and we read their description in so many books that each of them is unforgettable to us. We wonder at the parts of each biography where they feel so alone, when we’ve seen them in films before theirs was ever even released, and we continue seeing them again and again long after your biography is done.

We go home at the end of the day and reflect on them. We choose our favorite character—maybe everyone is our favorite character—and we try, sometimes, to imagine their stories playing out in any other way, but eventually it becomes too much to imagine at all. So we go to bed and replay the events exactly how they happened. All the triumphs, the failures, the tears, the grins, the singing, swearing, cheering, lying, sweating, drinking, the sacred hours alone with their thoughts. And as we fall asleep, we feel sorry that it happened so fast.

Sydney Hartle is an alumna of the University of Michigan undergraduate creative writing program living and writing in Naarm (Melbourne, Australia). Follow us on Tweeters @sydney_hartle


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