After university, Emma and I moved to an overpriced and under-square-footed apartment on the hipster (i.e., moderately less expensive) fringe of downtown Vancouver to try to break into the film industry. She immediately got a job as a production assistant on a popular TV show through the father of a friend of a friend, while I bounced between internships and fucked around with a screenplay until eight months later I landed a communications job at an art-house theatre that doubled as the headquarters for Canada’s second largest film festival, updating the website and social media, and sending out weekly e-newsletters with film listings. “Basically,” I explained to Emma. “I’m a cut-and-paste technician.” I was required to do few tasks that involved actual communication skills or knowledge of independent film. Still, I was twenty-three and making 36k plus extended benefits in Vancouver in the arts. “We’re living the dream,” Emma said, raising her pint. “I love it. Rhee? I love being on set.” She leaned in. “So you know that guy I was talking about, Will? The assistant cameraman? The cute one, with the eyebrow ring and the hair. We talked again the other day, we’re becoming friends. I’m just waiting for an opportunity, when it isn’t awkward, or too awkward, and I’ll be like how did you get your job?” Emma’s game plan was to become a cinematographer. It was the basis of our friendship—I wrote and directed, she shot. Before moving to Vancouver, we’d made five student films together, two of which had screened in small- to mid-sized festivals across the country. We wanted to make more films, but by moving we’d cut our post-secondary umbilical cord; without easy access to equipment, an editing suite, and an endless supply of eager film and theatre students, we didn’t know where to start. Still, we were confident that this was the beginning of figuring it out.
I tapped her glass with mine. “Cheers.”
One month later she confessed that she hated her job, and maybe this wasn’t the career she wanted. She hated the hours, hated the assistant director—“Which one?” I asked. “All of them,” she said—hated all the standing and waiting, and she’d just read on Indiewire that only two percent of Hollywood cinematographers were female. Visions of Emma shattering the glass ceiling were replaced with visions of Emma as a bug crushed against a windshield. We could both see it (she was good, but was she two percent good?), and after another month she convinced her boss to lay her off and went on unemployment. She set up a portfolio site and tried to make it as a wedding photographer, but had a rough go of it. In Vancouver, there are more photographers than weddings. She started sleeping in late and watching hours of sitcoms. She used the word “ennui” a lot, but that was nothing new. I’d known Emma five years, and had begun to think of her as a brilliant but loose lightbulb, forever flickering between the most amazing light and consuming darkness. I had to wonder whether she was weary because she was bored, or bored because she was depressed.
Our apartment was on the twelfth floor and faced southwest, overlooking three blocks of low-rise rental buildings. The building was the same age as our grandparents. A concrete thumb poking up from the city. The rooms in the suites jutted out of the building as half octagons and the walls met at the front door. Our two-bedroom suite, I liked to joke, was shaped like a three-breasted woman.
“Maybe in a cartoon,” Emma said.
“Yeah, like if Jessica Rabbit had a third breast, in the middle.” I pointed to my own chest.
She laughed the first time and so I drove that joke into the ground. When she got quiet or awkward or was re-watching The Mindy Project for the tenth time and I began to get worried, I’d make a joke like, “I’ll be in Jessica Rabbit’s left boob, knock if you need me.” I came home from work one day in late June to find all the furniture in Jessica Rabbit’s middle boob stacked on the couch near the front entrance, except for my two bookshelves, which had been dragged against two of the six walls of my bedroom, and the television, which had been relocated to the right boob, next to Emma’s bed. “The fuck?”
“You’re always watching Netflix on your computer anyway, but if you want, we can move the TV in with you,” Emma said. She was crouched in front of an elaborate diorama made of plasticine, construction paper, canvas, yarn, pipe cleaners, and other dollar store items. She positioned her camera close to one scene, her neck stretched out and her eyes pinched. She moved the camera less than a centimetre every time she adjusted it. Emma had an eye for angles, for details. Even unemployed, she was obsessed with aesthetics, always stylishly dressed and wearing light make-up, whereas on a good day I showed up at work in what is best described as “business grunge.”
“It’s fine,” I said. I peered down over her shoulder as she snapped a photo.
The camera was focussed on a model of a living room. A plasticine doll sat on a couch and watched a blank piece of turquoise construction paper on a plasticine television. “I’m going to green screen something in later,” Emma explained.
“Is this a film?”
“Yeah.” She moved the character’s arm by a hair, took another picture.
“What’s it about?”
“How we’re willing to destroy ourselves to be loved.”
I watched her for a bit, until it became awkward.
“Well,” I said. “I’m going to go hang out in Jessica Rabbit’s left nipple. Knock if you need me.”
“God, shut up,” she said. “Do you even know what boobs look like?”
The summer heat turned into a summer heat wave. The sun burned through our floor-to-ceiling windows and cooked our apartment. Emma’s cast and set began to melt in her fingers.
“You could just work it into the plot,” I suggested. She threw a cushion at me.
Emma opened all five windows as wide as they would open—less than the width of a starfish-ed hand—and replaced my pink curtains in the living room with thick, white linen. We didn’t have air conditioning, so I bought three fans and put one in each breast. Emma was worried that the fans would knock over a character or prop and wreck her continuity, so I had to face all three away from her, not that they made much of a difference to the temperature anyway—they only churned the hot air around the apartment.
We both slept in our underwear, with our blankets and sheets in balls on the floor, and our bedroom doors open.
“Have you lost weight?” I asked as she stretched one morning.
“I’ve been going to the gym,” she said.
“When you’re at work.”
“Are you eating?”
“Of course I’m fucking eating.”
She glared at me.
“I mean, that you’re leaving the house. Um. Exercising. I should go to the gym more.” I pinched my bicep, which was noticeably flabbier than it had been a year ago. Since starting at the theatre I’d gained five pounds and a persistent muscle knot next to my right shoulder blade that sometimes caused tension headaches.
“Stop staring, it’s weirding me out.” She stuck her tongue out at me and closed the door.
When I got home that evening, the long sliding panes from four of our five windows were stacked on the couch. The whole apartment buzzed with the white noise of city life; wheels grinding against pavement, pedestrian conversation, buskers and car radios blasting music. I found Emma in her bedroom, watching Planet Earth, the volume high. It was noticeably cooler with the windows gone and for the first time in a week she was wearing more than a tank top and a pair of lady briefs.
“Aren’t you worried about the wind?” I asked.
She looked up and paused her show with the remote. “Hey!” She bounced out of bed. “Check it out! Isn’t it so much better in here?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But what about your film?”
“What about it?”
“Won’t the wind knock things over?”
“Nah, I finished my scene. Going to wait til it cools down before I start the next one. I put all the characters in a Tupperware.” She pointed to a large plastic container on her desk. “Isn’t this great? I got the idea from one of our neighbours. I was out—getting groceries—and I looked up and saw that someone had taken their windows out and I was like, whoa, now there’s a solution. I left yours in, but I can show you how to take it out, if you’d like.”
“No!” I said. “Thanks.”
“Suit yourself.” She walked around her bed to the window.
A bubble of anguish squeezed its way up my windpipe and out of my mouth. Emma glanced over her shoulder at me. “What was that?”
“Be careful,” I repeated. I realized my hand was stretched out to catch her.
“Be careful of what? The window?” she said. “I’m not going to fall out of the window, Rhiannon, I’m not a toddler.”
“It’s big enough to fall out of. You could trip,” I added. “Or roll off the bed and out.” I demonstrated with my hands, stabbing my fingers downwards to animate the fall.
Emma shook her head, then suddenly she tipped back manically like she was about to take a pratfall out the window. I opened my mouth but no sound came out. At the last second, she shot her arms out and caught herself on the wall and the remaining pane. “It would have to be very catastrophic,” she said, laughing.
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
“Don’t be such a pussy.”
“Seriously, Emma. Put them back in. This freaks me out.”
“It’s my window.”
“Yeah well, we share the ones in the living room.” Emma looked at me and slowly nodded. “Okay, fine. I’ll put those back in. But you’re being ridiculous.”
“I’m not being ridiculous, there are enormous holes in our walls, then a twelve-storey drop! What if an earthquake threw you out of one? What if you got drunk? What if you were to sleepwalk?” I picked up speed as I spoke; I could feel my face turn red from exertion. “You have to put yours back in too.”
“What if an earthquake—”
“We live in an earthquake zone! That’s why I don’t hang framed pictures above my bed!”
She looked at me like I was psychotic. I felt a little psychotic, so the way she was looking at me made perfect sense. I was gripped by an irrational sort of fear I couldn’t quite twist into words. Emma was right— the opening was less than two feet wide, it was very unlikely one of us would accidentally fall through and plummet to her death. I’ll show you who’s a pussy, I thought, and I imagined myself vaulting over Emma’s bed and diving out the window. By the time she realized what was happening, there’d just be the soles of my feet and my flexed toes, and then the sound of my body splitting open, my bones splintering, my organs bursting like…water balloons?—I studied film and general arts at university, I don’t know how bodies burst—the screams, then the sirens, and the swooshing sound of photos uploaded to social media. #Splat.
I took a huge step back, so I was under the door frame. Then I turned and walked to the middle of the living room, where I stood for twenty minutes, my arms crossed and sweaty, my foot tapping like a drummer, staring down, godlike, at the little world Emma had created in our apartment while on the other side of it she slowly reattached the window panes. When she finished, she reopened the three windows as far as they would go, less than the width of my hand.
I started making up excuses to text Emma while I was at work. Hey do we have toilet paper? If not I’ll get some. Want to get sushi for dinner tonight? What’s our postal code again I’m filling out a form. I just emailed you about a cool job did you get it?
Her responses left little room to continue the conversation. We’re low awesome see you tonight. Sure! Google it fuck wit. Yep thanks. I kept one hand on my phone as I clicked-and-dragged, copied-and-pasted, and waited for her to text me back.
The fall before we graduated, Emma had a bad case of the sads, as she called it, and told me that she didn’t want to be alive anymore. “I don’t want to kill myself,” she said. “I just don’t want to continue living. There’s a difference.”
Is there? I wondered. I spent an hour counting all the things Emma had to live for, until she booted me out of the house she shared with three of her friends. “I fucking know, Rhee. I fucking know all this. You’re making it worse. You need to go.”
Nearly two years later, the incident still rattled me. Emma’s moods have always been precarious. I once joked, behind her back, that light reflected off her face differently when she smiled compared to when she frowned, like the two-face girlfriend in that classic Seinfeld episode. When she was happy, she was radiant, magnetic. But when she tipped into black moods, she pushed people away (sometimes literally, with her hands), her face all shadows like there was a cloud above her head that only she could see and be shaded by. Still, before that night, Emma had never said anything to me that suggested her delicate moods were more than lingering adolescent angst mixed with an artistic temperament. I don’t want to be alive anymore. You don’t just forget shit like that, when you care about someone.
It wasn’t that I worried Emma was currently suicidal—not entirely. But when I went to work the next morning it occurred to me that if I came home and learned that Emma had gone out the window, I would never know whether she jumped or fell, and then I started thinking about whether it was worse for someone to accidentally or deliberately fall to their death. On the one hand, if it was an accident, then there was nothing we could do to prevent it, but she would have died when she wanted to live. On the other hand, if it was deliberate, then we would obsess over how we could have helped, how we could have saved her, but she would have died because she didn’t want to be alive anymore. Or was it that the sads prevented her from realizing she wanted to live? I went back and forth on this for days, Googled article after article about depression and suicidal thoughts, and in the end the only thing I knew for sure was that not knowing would drive me insane.
How we’re willing to destroy ourselves to be loved.
I asked her what she meant.
“When did I say that?” she said.
“When I asked you what your film’s about.”
“Oh,” she said. “I meant it literally. It’s about a person who physically destroys herself for love. Like, takes herself apart. It’s a claymation,” she explained, like you would to a child.
“Is it about Alex?” Alex was her ex. They’d broken up just over two years ago, before Emma’s last bad case of the sads.
“No,” she said. “It’s just a story. Is every story you write about someone you know?”
“No,” I lied.
Across the room, the window taunted us with its open mouth.
July came and went and the sun continued to throb. The local newspapers encouraged citizens to conserve water and ran weekly updates on forest fires in the Okanagan. “What a fucking dumb city,” Emma said. “Spends ten months bitching about the rain, the other two freaking out about a drought.”
I nodded. I didn’t know what Emma did while I was at work, but I couldn’t imagine anyone staying in that apartment all day without popping like a kernel. My job was mind-numbing as fuck, but at least the office had air conditioning.
She grew impatient and decided to start shooting her next scene, fuck the heat. The set expanded to take up most of Jessica Rabbit’s middle breast. She left me a narrow path from my bedroom to the kitchen to the front door, but Emma had to climb over the couch— and her window—to get in and out of her own room.
It hardly mattered: as the days grew shorter, my work hours stretched longer and I spent less time at home. Festival Madness was upon us. The staff quadrupled; contractors were brought on board and took over a chunk of my year-round responsibilities (all the ones that required even an iota of brain activity). I copied-and-pasted text from emails into our website, and text from our film database into MailChimp, eight, then nine, then ten hours a day plus weekends. I started to give zero shits when I saw spelling or grammatical errors. When my officemate was out, I closed the door and watched Vimeo screeners of festival films in a small window in the corner of my monitor while copying-and-pasting. It only slowed me down a little.
On my lunch break, I tried to teach myself French using an iPhone app because I thought it might make me more employable. Qui habite dans le château? Who lives in the castle? C’est une nouvelle frontière. It is a new border. Tu n’es pas à ta place ici. You do not belong here. I screen-captured the last one and sent it to Emma in a text message.
She responded immediately. Et toi, Duolingo? Il sait. Il dit la verite.
I stared at my phone for minutes, trying to think of a way to continue the conversation, but then my bento box was ready and I took it back to the theatre to eat it at my desk.
When, after forty-seven days, the sun finally quit, it quit with a vengeance. I stared out the window with my officemate and the communications intern we’d picked up in late July as wind and rain tore at the building, watching hungrily for lightning after every groan of thunder. “It’s not dark enough to see it,” Marie said, after a while. “But I bet it’s there.” It was nearly eight p.m.
I didn’t have an umbrella or a coat, so I hugged the sides of buildings as I rushed home through the city core. I was soaked through to my underwear within a block. Every few minutes I stopped to check the sky. I wondered what it felt like to be hit by lightening. Though I realized, peering up between the buildings, that if it were going to happen it probably wouldn’t happen while I was standing in the middle of downtown Vancouver, at sea level, since lightning always strikes the highest place. Then again, I thought I remembered reading somewhere that that was a myth. Probably on the Internet.
When I opened the door to our apartment, I was dismayed to see Emma’s window still propped up on the couch. “Emma?” I said. I didn’t expect an answer. She must have left before the storm hit. I could see her curtains billowing into her bedroom, the foot of her comforter dark with rainwater.
I climbed over the couch—carefully, so I didn’t drip on the sprawling film set—then reached back to pick up the window pane. It was heavier than I expected and I had to take a step to steady myself before I could spin around to dump it on Emma’s bed. I inched my way towards the window, and cautiously pulled the curtains apart. Cars streaked past on the street below. No sign of Emma, I noted, then felt ashamed. I won- dered how far I could propel myself if I jumped, could I make it to the roof of the low-rise across the street? Or could I even make it past the driveway of our building’s parking garage? The storm spat at me with contempt.
I tried to think back to when Emma had replaced the three living room windows. How did it go in? I glanced back at the bed. Which side was up? I felt nauseous. Why was I trying to help Emma anyway? She was the one stupid enough to leave a gaping hole in her bedroom in the middle of a rainstorm. She wasn’t home, so she’d obviously accepted the consequences. I realized I was crying. Why was I crying? I sat back heavily on my ass. Fuck this. No one was making me solve Emma’s problems for her. I didn’t have to do anything. I stood up and rushed out of her room. As I brushed past the door, I felt something soft and cool beneath my bare foot. I’d stepped on one of the houses from the film set. I peeled the muddied plasticine off my foot and carried it back into Emma’s room. I sat on her bed, my ass against the window pane, and sobbed onto the handful of clay.
I don’t know how long I sat there for before I heard the door. I looked up from my knees as Emma climbed over the couch to her bedroom. “Rhee? You’re home! Oh my fucking god, this storm, eh? Is my shit okay?” I nodded, dully. Really, what harm can a little water do?
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“What? What is it?”
“I stepped on one of your houses.” I held up the handful of clay. “The one near the door.”
“Oh,” Emma said. “Oh my god, don’t cry. I can make a new one.”
“I wrecked the continuity.”
“No, no you didn’t. I didn’t start shooting that bit yet. It’s okay.”
“I was trying to figure out how to put the window back.”
“It’s really easy. Look.” She picked up the window pane and stepped around me to lodge it back in place, inserting it into the top groove first, then jamming it back on the bottom track. She tested it. It slid open easily. She closed it again. “Thanks for trying,” she said. “I know you’re scared of heights.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I thought I was going to puke.”
“Oh gross, can you image if that landed on someone?”
“Hah, what’s the velocity of falling vomit? Depends on the size of the chunks, right?”
“No, size doesn’t matter. Physics, yo.”
“Rhee? Don’t cry. Seriously, it’s not a big deal. It’s not like you stepped on the protagonist.”
I nodded dully. “I’m okay. It’s just the rain.”
“I read this article the other day,” Emma said, sinking down next to me on the bed. “About something called the high place phenomenon. It’s the urge to jump or thoughts about jumping when you’re standing in a high place looking down. It’s super common. Apparently, it’s the reason a lot of people are scared of heights.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I get it all the time. Like, I look down, and I think, what if I jumped?” She laughed. “Maybe I’ll fly. Only one way to find out.”
“One hundred percent,” I said. “You won’t fly. Physics, yo.” I made an awkward gangster-like sign with my free hand and smirked.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Emma said. “Your eyes are red.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m fine. I’m just tired.” I dropped my head onto her shoulder.
She rested her head on mine and ran her fingers through my hair. I pressed the plasticine between my palms, again and again, until all the colours bled into one.
Photo by Flickr user Niv Singer