The water was cold, tearing across my feet like the ocean was trying to suck out my soul through the beds of my toenails. It was September. The sun was high in the sky, but it was starting to feel like fall, and the water was cold. We stood in a close circle, and you handed me your piece of paper because your sentences kept collapsing with the weight of your tears, so I took the wrinkled pages from the fading strength of your fingers and started to read. Calmly. Steadily. Rhythmically.
I heard my voice empty out into the air, and it felt as though it were just lying in a stagnant puddle, pooling and festering, suspended level with our chests in order to soak us in its stench. I sounded like a sociopath. I tried to conjure the images that made me human, tried to remind my brain to care, but it took every muscle in my chest to send my heart back to a place where it could break because... my heart had been broken. And broken. And I wanted to feel, but every time he choked, and every time he fell, and every time he couldn't prove that there was life behind his eyes, that he still existed behind the frozen façade, I gave up just a little more feeling because it hurt to feel. You could see him, you could see him trying fight, but the disease was crushing him. He was being wrapped in cellophane, and we couldn't help. We couldn't reach him, we couldn't save him. We just stood there, and watched as he disappeared, as he suffocated.
I wanted to remember his stories. His sense of humor. I wanted to remember the way he teased us when we hadn't brushed our hair, or the look in his eye over cocktails as made those elegantly crude innuendos. I wanted to hear him laugh us off as we ridiculed him for donating his leather couch to his pampered dog. But I was just an observer back then, waiting for my turn to take the stage and garner more valid attention than cooing or polite laughter. I never let him engage me because I didn't feel like I could prove anything to him. And by the time I was ready to stand my ground and be the contender he always had seen in me, he stopped seeing. He stopped absorbing. All he could do was struggle to hold the ground the disease hadn't taken from him yet.
So, as though my wrists were cuffed to a damp cellar wall, I watched him fight until there was no fight left, and every time his breath got heavier, I felt my heart harden just a little more: this might be it. This might be the round that kills him. And he'd make it to another round but he'd fade just a little more and I was further away from him. And further. And he had been so far away for so long that it just didn't matter any more if he was there. Because he was already past saving. He was already untouchable. He was already gone.
So I watched my voice stumble and land with a tickle upon unwelcoming ears. And I ushered in the water as it ate away at the sensation in my toes.