The changes began on a Wednesday, miércoles, the day that sounds like miracles.
My younger and only sister, Paula, had gone away, leaving the apartment directly below mine to test the reach of her voice. I stayed behind, with my eleven televisions, waiting for her to come back.
I was teaching myself not to feel.
In the room with the televisions, there were no voices: I had silenced them all. Instead I heard: a clock that ticked like a snapping twig; the hum and push of cars passing on the street; a neighbor's dog barking at the arrival of mail; the refrigerator purring; my own breath, in and out. All the rhythms, in and out. And inside my head: a melody from before, when my sister trained her voice to soar, when I listened to the notes float and resonate. I believed sometimes that I could see them.
Paula was auditioning, sending her hopeful music into the arms of Copenhagen, Prague, Vienna---places I had never seen and never expected to. I lived in the safe embrace of my apartment, whose windows overlooked a park and a playground and a street.
I had collected broken televisions and fixed them, one by one, sometimes guessing at the way to put things back together. I had no manuals to follow, no map. I made good guesses, I had a feel for those things, a kind of blind instinct. In the end, they all worked, although the colors were never exactly right. Some were always a little too green, others a little too violet. It didn't matter. The scratchy growl of their voices didn't matter either, because I often kept them very quiet. I spent most of my time watching the images, letting them tell me stories. I let them distract me from every terrible truth until nothing touched me at all.
It was never a decision, never something I asked for. It simply belonged to me, like a second skin. No. Like my only skin. There was no choice, no letting go. And if there had been the chance to refuse?
If I'd been asked?
I would still say yes.
It was my father's grief. It was what he gave to me, his only son. He didn't mean to, but it came to me without his permission. He gave up his language and his homeland, everything he could leave behind. But he carried his sadness with him, under his skin like blood. It wasn't his fault. He would have taken it back if he could. But it was mine now, as if I had lived it all.
At times, even my dreams felt inherited, as if someone else had owned them first. There would be dogs barking, murderous voices in the distance, smoke filling the dark air.
His actual stories I never heard. My father held all the shards of glass inside, where the edges cut him to pieces. When he looked at me, it was not so much into my eyes as through them, as if I were a clear window to the past. I looked back at him, I listened to the wordless dark. What else could I do? I believed this was what I was here for, to be the receiver of that gaze, to swallow it completely. The broken glass? I swallowed that too.
Here is what I knew how to do: how to get away. How to save myself by taking flight, by vanishing. My voice was a ticket of escape, one way to anywhere but where I was. I tried to take my brother, Julian, with me, to help him escape too, but it was more weight than I could carry. Only one of us could make it out alive. I didn't choose myself, not exactly, but the truth was, I had a ticket and he didn't. I had to use it or die.
"I'm going away for a while," Paula had announced the previous Monday over lunch. For once she didn't try to prepare me for a shock. "I'm taking myself on a Grand Tour," she explained, her arms flourishing, "hoping some opera company will give me a chance. According to my agent, I'm going to become quite famous." She sighed a little, eager or worried, I couldn't be sure.
Excerpted from The Speed of Light by Elizabeth Rosner Copyright 2001 by Elizabeth Rosner. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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