In What Capacity

By Mazin Saleem

So it was towards the end of the party and there was just me and this older girl left in the living room, pretty well out of it, so I got on the settee close to her and we started chatting, and I fiddled about on the laptop so we’d have the right kind of music playing in the background. I’m asking her how long it’s been since she moved to the city, how she’s finding it, who she lives with etc., when she jumps back but from the laptop. She’s raising her head to look over the top of it like when you’ve walked in on someone naked, and she even starts shooing at it and asking me to close it. The laptop’s on screensaver: a slideshow of space photographs.

Obviously I thought this was a bit weird and awkward. Plus if I closed the laptop it’d switch off and the music with it, but she looked scared, like she was going to cry even, and she kept saying ‘please’ in that firm tone of voice that when it comes from someone you don’t know too well it always comes across as a little bit rude. I didn’t want her to get stressed out though, so I compromised and turned the laptop round to face the other way. When she saw me looking at her she must have thought I wanted her to explain.

“When I was a girl, my parents made me and my sisters go to sports camp, and you’d have to do different sports or exercises each week, and one week it was swimming. But because the camp had been really popular that summer, with parents at least, the pool had two classes running at once, one going widthways, the other going lengthways. Our class was on widths, doing lifesaving practice. I was on my back, with someone’s hand under my chin pulling me as if I’d been drowning. Except the teachers had messed up and our group ended up getting crashed into by the other one. In all the mess, I went under the water and kept getting kicked under. I think I must have nearly drowned, or had a panic attack or something, because I remember afterwards I couldn’t explain to the teacher what had happened because my breath was so short. What I wanted to explain was this: when I was drowning, I did not see a light. I saw a hole. Through the hole was deep space.”

I didn’t reply straight off, though I wondered whether I should shake my head and whistle. In the end, I went with, “Is that where you think we go?”

“That’s where I think we go back.”

Given her state and the whole situation, I said a fib about this guy who’d been hypnotised and reckoned he could remember being born, and how when he was looking back, past the umbilical cord, he’d seen the dark – maybe even space.

She said: “Yes.”

Too bad this gave her the go ahead to really go off-road. I managed to make out something about heaven and hell not being made up but coming from your memories and premonitions. Heaven comes from the memory of floating up to the stars. Hell comes from the fear of being stuck in a black void where you go mad from doing the only thing you can do: think about your life and everything you did wrong. I tried my best to look understanding.

Staring hard at the back of the laptop, she went, “I can’t help it but I imagine myself as an astronaut sometimes, on a mission in deep space. And I get cut from my cord and I start drifting out, and you don’t know what a fear of heights is till you’ve looked down during a space walk. There’s no bottom, or top for that matter. I can’t tell whether I’m completely still or flying at high speed. Weeks go by until I notice even a speck of light; then I realise it’s not a star, it’s not the nearest solar system – it’s the nearest galaxy. What’s more, with my suit being futuristic, with batteries and air tanks and nutrient tanks, I’m going to keep going for some time. I could just pop open my helmet. But I can’t build up the courage. But neither can I stand to carry on drifting. Out there.”

She pointed at the laptop, which, to be fair, with its back turned, did look like it was up to something. But there were other photos on it I wanted to show her, ones of Earth. I got closer and reached for the screen, telling her, “When you see it from space, aw: it’s so small and fragile-looking, but despite that – or because of it? – so precious and, you know, beautiful.”

Didn’t work though. Before I even got to the part about our island home, she’d caught my wrist. Her hands were all sweaty.

“Don’t you get it? The difference with Earth is it’s so full of things that when you’re surrounded by them it feels like they are the universe. But when you’re surrounded by deep space, when you see what space you’re in… Against that, before that – forget actions, how can even our words mean anything? Not mean as in matter, I mean mean? What are verbs even doing in the middle of all that darkness and silence? Darkness and silence, for millions of light years, till you reach one measly dot, where there’s arguments and minicabs and the royal We and nose hair removal and and fucking party snacks; then darkness and silence again for millions more light years. So how the fuck can anyone believe in connection, in love, in understanding-”

Things, it seemed, were getting properly flaky. I jumped in to try talk her down: “But since when does the fact that you’re small and space is big make you and what you do not mean anything? That’s like saying if I kill someone in a small room, it’s bad, but if I killed them in a big room, it’d be less bad. While if I killed them inside a room as big as the universe, it’d be meaningless.”

She said: “Yes.”

“But size doesn’t matter! Age isn’t the standard. The universe isn’t like this giant set of scales, with you as a bit of fluff that skims off it. It’s not something you’re up against – it’s not even something you’re in or on. You’re a part of the universe, aren’t you?”

“I suppose.”

“And you’re conscious, aren’t you?”

“I suppose.”

“Then you are the conscious part of the universe. The universe is conscious: through you.”

“I… Yes.”

Finally.

“See? So the universe can’t be empty or heartless.” She’d stopped staring at the laptop. I went for broke. “In fact, everything means something. Understanding has to happen! Connection is real! Love exists! And why?”

“Um.”

“Because you do. You’re the universe’s opening eye. You’re the-”

“Um, can you not do that please?”

“What? Oh, that.”

“That makes me feel really uncomfortable.”

“Sorry. But I thought. Sorry.”

*          *          *

Mazin Saleem’s fiction has appeared both online and in print in Litro MagazineThe Literateur, as well as The May Anthologies. He has also written non-fiction for Little Atoms and Medium.

A new flash fiction piece from Mazin Saleen appears in The Open Pen Anthology, available for purchase here.

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