The air grows hot. The water grows hotter. It will reach boiling point and tip-topple-bubble over, and the floods will paint your world anew.
Will you sink or will you swim?
There is a pandemic.
And then, all of a sudden, there is not.
The city rises from its slumber. The white mask-loops come off your ears and the black tie loops around your neck. The children go to school and the adults go to work, and you’re stranded in that in-between stretch of hourglass sand that they call growing up, that is infinite but infinitesimal.
Tiny waves lap against your feet, trying to pull you into the sea. The grains of used-up time try to hold you in place, gritty-sticky around your ankles, but you can’t stay forever on this tiny strip of nowhere. You’ve only got so many decade-seconds in your hourglass. How much do you want to pour onto the sand at your feet?
University, they say, is when you get to build your future.
You’ve got to take everything in steps. Wrap your hands around your ankles and peel the flimsy-clingy manacles away from your skin. Stand up. Start walking. Step by step, your strides a little longer, your footfalls a little surer.
Hard work got you this far, and if you keep working at it, you'll go further than anyone else. As you start walking, then running, down the millimetre-mile-long shore towards the sea, the clouds part and the golden sun winks, like there's a god smiling down at you. You've got a plan, you've got steps. Step one: Good grades. Step two: Great job. Step three: Greater life. When everyone else is giving 100% and you're giving 101%, you’ll be walking on water.
The first time you walk through the gates, you try to look like you know what you're doing. Some of your friends came with you, but they won't-can't-shouldn't be with you forever, and university, they say, is the time to make new friendships.
This place is strange and the people alien. You’ve had familiar people to lean on for the last three years, but you've been separated from the rest of the world for so long that the sight-sound-smell of so many people is like a slap of salt-sharp waves to the face. There are so many people when you walk into class, when you try to answer the professor’s question, when you turn to the person sitting next to you and say hello nice to meet you. They say a stilted hello back, and then you sit in awkward silence for the entirety of the lecture and never speak again.
This is how it goes for the first week that seems to last decade-seconds. You are running blind. Stumbling around lost. People are making friends all around you and you tell yourself that alone is not lonely, because it’ll take time to find the right people and maybe you just haven't met your forever friends.
You have turned eighteen. Somehow, miraculously, you run-stumble-fall into the surf, splashing shallowly in the water. There is salt-sting in your eyes but maybe this is the price of growing up, and when you look up into the future, the playground of the adults is so much more magnificent. More beautiful, more sophisticated, so much more than the children's sandcastles, millimetre-miles away on the shore while the adults dive from the cliffs into the sea. Here in the world of the adults, the blue waves crash down on the surface and sunlight glints off the water like pennies, and when the sea is calm again - the ones who resurface reach for the sun and pocket the gold-gold light.
Alone is not lonely, you remind yourself, and wipe the salt away from your red-rimmed eyes.
You don't need friends, anyway. Not now, at least; they're not necessary at this stage of your life. Friends can come in the decade-seconds. Success - all one-hundred-and-one percent of it—success is now. You take a step forward into the surf. The waves flinch back in one great motion, like a pendulum swung too far to one side has been thrown into them.
You slip beneath the water, into the adults' playground.
You want your movements to be textbook-perfect. You want to be smooth and sinuous like an Olympic swimmer. You want the adults to see you like the real Olympians of old, confident-intelligent-perfect. You want to be worthy of the sunlight that you’ll take handfuls of, the golden glow of success that you’ll pour into the black canyons on the bed of the ocean floor.
So you bury yourself into something familiar, folding yourself into book-spines and leaning into the silence between the shelves. Into the rhythm of study and revision and examination. It is safe. It is something you know how to do, and something you know how to do well. It is the only thing you will take into your new life as an adult, and you will leave everything else - all your naivete, all your shame and mistakes and embarrassments - all of it gone, sloughing off your shoulders like a weight you've got to get off your chest.
You break the surface with a gasp and dive back in, squeezing your eyes firmly shut against the salt. You move through the water, propelled by a desire to be better, to excel, to leave being a child behind. It gets colder the further out you swim, so you can't understand why your lungs start to burn. Currents try to tug you off course, deliciously warm and distracting, but you won't be deterred. Your hands are moving, fingers flying over a page, pen gripped so hard it hurts, ink bleeding out onto the paper as if from your veins. Your body may whine and complain and throw temper tantrums, but you're an adult now and you are better than this.
Your eyes grow black-shadowed.
You falter a little. The sweep of your hand through the water comes a little slower, and your legs kick with a little less fervor. When you turn your head to take in air and snatches of the gold-gold sun, seawater bleed-sluices between your teeth. You keep swimming. Perseverance and consistency—they set the dreamers apart from the doers. You won't settle for second best. As long as you keep to your plan and keep walking up those steps, you'll get there.
High school is the stepping stone to
university is the stepping stone to
an entry-level job is the stepping stone to
a management job is the stepping stone to
a senior-level job is the stepping stone to
a life of gold-gold success.
You're coming up on the heart of the playground now, muscles burning, but maybe that's a good thing, because if there wasn't fire in your blood right now you'd be freezing in these icy waters. You walk into the exam hall, self-assuredness oozing from every pore. You are prepared. You are ready. You are confident-intelligent-perfect.
The other adults look at you askance, and you look back at them, aglow with the confidence of youth. You've made it. You're going to be right here at the cradle-heart of success. You’re going to plunge your hands into gold-gold light and hopefully-possibly-definitely the success will be so bright that it burns away the gnawing hungry darkness of alone-is-not-lonely.
Treading the frigid waters, you look up. The sun is almost at its zenith and it's so bright and beautiful it hurts to look at, but it's blurry-fuzzy-vague even as you stare at it. Maybe it's an adult thing, wanting to reach up and pluck it from the sky. You think this is what Icarus must have felt when he flew, up and up and up, burned-his-wings-away, snuffed-his-life out.
The timer goes off. There is a sudden desperate riffling of pages, from one hundred young bright minds each wanting to gain that millisecond of advantage. But you've been giving one-hundred-and-one percent from the beginning, and you're beyond silly childish tricks like this. You smile to yourself. Pick your pen up. Turn the cover page.
Stare down at the paper.
But you've forgotten what they told you, darling, which is that you should never stare directly at the sun.
Your vision goes white-bright-gone, and you taste-not-see the wave that comes plunging down over your head.
You're blind. You're a piece of flotsam in the great sea, a child who thought themselves fit to venture into the adults' playground. The wave hits you with earth-shattering force, drives you under and forces you into the deep cold dark and you're thrashing-struggling-screaming with water in your mouth in your lungs can't-see-can't-breathe.
You are the last one to leave the exam hall.
The sun has long since set, draining the warmth from the black water. There is no gold here. Not anymore.
Somehow, you make it back to shore.
There's an imprint of ink pressed into your index finger, and when you hold your hand out it shakes. You feel numb-nothing-novocaine, but maybe this is just what failure feels like. Disappointment coats your throat and rasps your voice, slow and sticky like molasses, and no matter how much sand you rub onto it, the stuff just doesn't come off.
They call this piece of paper a transcript. You want to stuff it in the sand, so deep no one will unearth it. Or maybe ball it up and throw it out into the gnawing-hungry sea. No one wants it. And by proxy, no one wants you. It is a spanner in the works, an extra few steps on your path to success.
The numbers sneer sharp-black-cold at you. Hard work is what got you here, but your name is staring accusingly back at you on the white paper, and hard work has betrayed you. You look up at the sky, wanting to see a glimpse of what you’re working for, but the success you've chased has long since sunk beneath the waves.
You cannot see the gold-gold sun.
You’re looking down at the water-drowned steps and not up at the staircase. What you don’t realize, darling, is that you’re walking your stairway to heaven, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The ice water is cold in your veins, so you replace it with fire.
University, they say, is when you get to live.
Alcohol tastes like freedom, like you are flying. It tastes like starlight on your tongue and fire in your blood, the explosion of it like the slam of a lecture hall door behind you. Why would you need to walk on water, when you can fly?
You’ve got friends, now that you aren’t holed up in a library all the time. There is laughter and cheering and whooping, vomiting into toilet bowls and pounding hangovers, and this term passes in a blur. You spend your time knee-deep in the surf splashing about, stepping on a sandcastle or two. Acts of wanton destruction have taken on a strange appeal, now that the consequences have been stripped from them. You wonder, if you take a torch to the sandcastles, whether they will turn to glass.
They do not.
But it is laughably easy to turn the torch onto the book of your life. The fire in your blood seems to have spread to your hands, and wherever you trail your fingers, you’re burning your legacy away, leaving scorch marks on the page and ash that disperses in the water.
And you’re in the water, so you’re technically in the adults’ playground. Maybe maturity isn’t chasing after the gold-gold sun; maybe it’s as simple as chasing after all the vices of adulthood. Here in the shallows, you can see the tiny heads of the foolish ones who venture out after success, bobbing up and down in the storm-dark sea as they wait for the waves to come crashing down.
You laugh at them, at yourself. How stupid they are, to waste away their lives between the bookshelves, in the salt-sharp abyss of alone-is-not-lonely, trying to capture a piece of the gold-gold sun before they’ve even learned how to swim properly. You couldn’t reach it even when you were giving one-hundred-and-one percent.
So you stopped trying.
You turn away from the young bright hopefuls and tip the bottle of beer into your mouth. Your eyes do not grow less black-shadowed, but you feel more awake. Your deadlines pile up, but it’s easy to ignore the red-red warnings when you don’t care.
You cannot call yourself happy, exactly, not when your happiness comes by the bottle-cap. These fleeting dark moments of joy - they’re like fireworks in the night sky, all smoke and flash and nothing of substance beneath.
But it’s better than when you were writing out the steps to success and didn’t realize you were using your own blood as ink. Better than being bruised and battered by the blue-black waves, with ice in your veins rather than the fire that keeps you warm and alive now.
You go out drinking the night before your final exams, liquid courage burning down your throat, burning the sticky-molasses disappointment away. The gold-gold sun rises, majestic and inevitable like the arc of a pendulum swinging from one side of the sky to the other. By the time you wake up, the sun has set.
They put you on probation.
You stand knee-deep in the surf, wanting to be still. You will not move. Your feet are planted. You will recreate your sand-glass manacles and turn your blood to fire, and no one will ever dictate the way you live again.
But you’ve forgotten, darling, that a life without motion is a stagnant pool.
University, they say, is a time to relax and do nothing.
Staying still does not work as well as you’d hoped it would. You spend the three months of probation sitting in bed, on the couch, or on the ground. Your mother throws all the beer out of the house and you go cold turkey, and after you’re done crying and whimpering and generally being a nuisance, you thank her.
Then you go back to sitting on the ground and doing nothing.
The black shadows disappear from underneath your eyes as you make yourself comfortable on your stretch of damp sand. Relaxing and doing nothing makes you feel better, but it’s also—a bit boring.
Better than when you were burning your synapses away with drink, better than when you were bleeding ink, but it’s not really living. You watch the children make sandcastles and make a few sand-angels of your own, but they come out a bit lopsided because you haven’t got a guardian angel to model them off of. You make a paltry attempt at swimming. You venture out beyond the shallows sometimes, but maybe-never-maybe-tomorrow not yet to the place where the sea swallows the gold-gold sun.
Your mind clears but does not sharpen, like a soft muscle devoid of fatigue but unused to exercise.
The bottle-shards have not lost their edges, exactly, but they have been smoothed out by the sea. You sit in the shallows, unburdened but not quite content with doing nothing. Your life is ticking away by the decade-second but you can’t hear the pendulum ticking, and that’s because it isn’t moving, and you haven’t moved in three months.
You watch the children make their sandcastles and the adults wade back with liquid gold cupped in their hands, and you think that perhaps, it is time you were doing something.
The sand clings to your feet as you walk down the stretch of damp sand, balancing on one foot, then the other.
Too much of either and you’ll tip over.
Stay still and you’ll be balanced, yes, but then your blood will pool in your legs and your heart will falter in your chest and you’ll tip-topple-bubble over.
Whether you crawl, or you walk, or you run or you swim or you fly - as long as you’re moving, darling, you don’t need to chase the gold-gold sun.
It’ll find you.
You go back to university.
When your friends ask you to go partying, you decline. They tell you they love you, and they’ll be there when you need them, and you think that maybe the black canyon of alone-is-not-lonely is filling up with warm, radiant gold.
When your phone calendar tells you you’ve got two dozen career events to attend, you mute it. You’ve got an assessment and a few applications coming up, all to prepare you for the day you’ll dive back into the adults’ playground and watch golden light swirl through the water. But not today. Not before you’re ready.
You sit down on the damp sand, considering the sandcastle in front of you. One of the turrets has been knocked clean off - by a stray child, perhaps, off-balance like an out-of-control pendulum. You reach out and pile some sand back on top, making a clumsy mimicry of what this child intended.
But at least you’ve done something.
You will face hardships that try to knock you off course, but you’re a human being and you know how to adapt.
When you hit rock bottom of the black chasm, the only way to go is up. You’ll always find the way up because you’re growing up, and all you have to do is follow the gold-gold light.
You stand and walk over this stretch of time, which is millimetre-miles wide and decade-seconds long. Your pendulum ticks away and you feel alive, now more than ever.
Hazelmist is a dyslexic writer based in Hong Kong. Her work has appeared in Genesis. She is pursuing a BBA-JD double degree at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Hazelmist is working on her debut novel, addressing issues including diversity and inclusion, mental health and destiny. Find her at hazelmist0.wordpress.com.