by KK Braza
Before I launch into the story you really need to hear, I’ll let you snack on a brief anecdote from my childhood. Jacksonville, Florida: my family and I are at the neighborhood swimming pool. I’m sprawled across an inner tube with a string across it. Suddenly, I spaz out, and my head slips between the string and the tube. My head is caught underwater. My neck is choked. I wriggle around sharply to try to swim free. “Dad,” I yell when I buck up for air for a split second. “Dad!” He doesn’t notice; he’s chuckling at something with my little brother. Nobody in my six-person family notices. I’m a panicked nine-year-old, and I’m starting to wonder about death when, in a stroke of sheer luck, one of my own thrusts breaks me free, and I swim out from under the tube.
As I later informed my family, I came fairly close to drowning, and somehow, none of them had noticed. There you go: my very first flirtation with the idea that even the people who claim to care won’t always be there. I, along with everybody else on Earth, have the ability to become essentially invisible. It’s not Harry Potter’s enviable invisibility cloak; it’s one of the most lasting forms of pain out there.
But there’s a second part to this lesson, and I didn’t learn it until I observed the much more harrowing experience of a fellow classmate. I’m hoping my secondhand account of what happened might teach people almost as vividly as it taught me.
One of the most memorable nights of my life, February 4, 2015—and “the scariest thing that has ever happened to me,” as the victim later confided—took place in a roomy, high-ceilinged cabin at a mountain research station. It was somewhere remote, north of Boulder. My block five class took a three-day field trip there.
2 a.m. I had finally begun to drift off after an hour or two of tossing and turning. Dull rage flared within me when Gabe, a guy in my class, charged into our bedroom.
Go away, fuck you, get out of the room—“Have any of you guys seen Emma?” He asked. He sounded like he had just woken up, and his voice will remain forever imprinted in my memory.
We all stirred in our beds. “No,” we all said. I was half-asleep and flooded with inconsiderate thoughts like, If he’s looking to hook up with her, he should get out his own damn iPhone flashlight. I didn’t even know to which Emma he was referring—there were three in our class.
“We haven’t seen her anywhere since hiking this afternoon,” said Gabe.1
Okay. That’s strange, admittedly. My half-conscious self felt instantly chilled.
“Emma L.? Straight brown hair?”
Who even is that? Too early in the morning…can’t fucking think…
“Oh yeah!” said my roommate, whose name is also Emma. “I know her! I was walking back down the mountain with her after the lab. And…that’s the last time I saw her.”
“Really? Then that’s the last time anyone has seen her,” said Gabe. “She’s gone missing. ”
I was flooded with a recollection of that afternoon. Of course I knew Emma L, of course. She had been very friendly and had lent me her gloves yesterday when my cotton ones had become soaking wet in the cold. She always wore a blue hat and a white coat. I had been there with the two Emmas myself—I must’ve been one of the last people to see her.
My blood actually felt like snow in my veins for a second as I realized all of this. I felt 110 percent awake.
“Gabe, what time is it right now?” I began.
“And when did she, like, presumably get lost?”
“A little after three this afternoon…?”
Shit. My eyes started watering uncontrollably. I was so stunned that I actually couldn’t move for a couple seconds.
Gabe explained that they had already scoured the entire cabin for Emma, so she wasn’t just off watching Netflix somewhere. No, this girl had probably been alone, in the snow, for half a day now.
Obviously, this fact was terrifying in its own right. Yet what petrified me to the core was the simple fact that, for all this time, no one had noticed she was gone.
It’s not as if Emma was this silent über-introvert who never breathed a “please pass the ketchup” to anybody. Emma seemed like a kind, normal girl. She made conversation with her peers, answered questions in class with remarkable intelligence. She wasn’t the invisible type by any means, yet when she had fallen under this cloak of invisibility, it somehow took eleven hours for anyone to notice. I was suddenly saturated with adrenaline and quandaries. How could she escape the notice of all 24 classmates? Would no one have noticed me if I had been gone? Who would’ve been noticed in our class, if gone? Why one person, and not the other? What was wrong with us?
What was wrong with me? I shouldn’t sit around criticizing humanity; I was a hypocrite, because I hadn’t noticed either, and I’d been right there. I sat upright in my top bunk feeling as ill as a perfectly healthy person can feel.
When you start to grasp the concept of our anonymity, our ephemerality in this world, by experiencing a lesson as concrete as this one, it changes you a bit. It feels like all of that positive encouragement people have fed you over the years—the “you matter in this world,” “I’ll always be here for you,” “I’m listening,” “you’re unique”—dissolves. It just dissolves. A lens you hadn’t even noticed falls away from your eyes, and you’re left with this dizzyingly sharp notion of how severely you may have been lied to. Maybe you’ve been fed a stream of perpetual bullshit about your ownm“significance” among these seven billion other people. Who knows?
Soon, all 24 of us in the class had mobilized. Blazing searchlights colored dead trees bright orange, and sirens and barking search dogs mixed a haunting soundtrack for the cold weather. We students radiated a unique brand of adrenaline and naïve, arrogant confidence, with our HMI diplomas and WFR certifications. If we were splitting into moonlight search parties at this satanic hour, we clearly cared about Emma…right?
I tormented myself by pondering over this thought repeatedly as we stumbled across the uphill ice, taking orders from a fellow freshman, a bossy but effective NOLS graduate. It’s funny, because we invest so much time, money and strength into a milieu of elaborate certifications and “life experiences” that theoretically equip us to handle nightmare scenarios, and here we were, planted directly into the heart of such a scenario. Ah, a perfect way to utilize our training. But what if we were better at observing other people in the first place? Paying attention? Being mindful? We would’ve been far less likely to lose a person. We wouldn’t need to memorize weird, convoluted acronyms for search tactics.
At least the moon was full, and its light latticed with tree shadows across the unblemished planes of snow. Ironically cheerful bluegrass tunes tumbled on repeat through my head (I will never, ever hear “Every Time You Say Goodbye” by Allison Krauss and Union Station the same way again). We belted out “EMMA!” once every half-minute or so. I remember absentmindedly wondering if any of my classmates had ever had a lover or sister or good friend named Emma and if yelling that name felt especially personal to them.
My mind continued reeling through everything I knew about her, which I realized wasn’t much. About five minutes before the last time I had seen her, Emma and I had been complaining about the cold, and she had said how she would much rather study tropical ecology, and how her fingers and toes had terrible circulation when it was cold out. Painfully ironic, then, that she had been the one to get lost.
I was practically spewing with this uncontained hot slop of thoughts as we struggled up the ice, when another group suddenly found her. It was easy, abrupt. They just found her, and that was that. It was after three in the morning; twelve hours since she had become lost.
When we saw Emma, this person we all had obsessed over for an hour (to make up for half a day of ignoring, I suppose), two people gripped her shoulders. She was swaddled in layers of fabric like a mummy.
“At the time [of getting lost],” Emma told me, “I went through moments when I thought, ‘This is how it ends. I’m going to die on this mountain.’” She said she had been panicking, shaking, crying—all, of course, extremely reasonable reactions to the horror of the ignorance her classmates displayed. “Every noise I heard, I imagined…some animal was coming to get me.” Plus, “knowing that no one had noticed my being gone was a painful thing while up there.”
She didn’t display any shadows of her panic, though; she laughed at a fellow student’s jokes about how hot the search-and-rescue guys were. She said she was fine. My friends made her quesadillas, and I made her chamomile tea. At 4:30a.m., we were all sitting around on the cabin couches, still wide awake from what happened, trying to mask it with laughter and late-night tacos.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but I was left wondering if we all internalized the same lesson. What I learned most deeply in block five wasn’t anything relating to science or snowpack or visible light physics. Instead, I reviewed that simple yet difficult notion that we all need to pay attention to each other. It’s an essential idea, but it’s haunted me since my innertube accident nearly a decade ago. Now it’s certainly going to haunt Emma.
“Since getting back,” she said, “I haven’t been able to stop myself from wondering, Would you have noticed if I had disappeared? whenever I look at someone.” She had never felt so alone in her life, she continued, and hasn’t been able to shake a general feeling of invisibility since returning.
I could apologize incessantly to Emma for being right there the whole time and ignoring her. In fact, that’s what I really feel like doing; this was a block ago, and I still feel rattled with guilt whenever I recall the incident. Instead, I’m writing this article as a sort of apology and, also, as a personal reflection I desperately need. I’m mostly writing to forewarn other happy-go-lucky CC students about what happens when you turn a blind eye to the people surrounding you. We can, and should, really try to pay attention to one another.
All of us are going to experience some form of invisibility at some point in life. You’re going to get your head stuck under water for a solid minute, or, far worse, you’ll be lost in the woods for twelve hours in the winter. And you’re going to hope that people truly gave more of a damn, so that, just maybe, the invisibility would scar you a little less. I know I am sorry for not truly seeing when it mattered.