She was twenty-two when her parents died – too young to be on her own, but too old to fall to pieces about it. The house had been left in her name, as the oldest child, and she couldn't help the sick thrill at suddenly owning her own home. The home she grew up in was now hers and hers alone. But in the weeks following her parents' deaths she found herself tiptoeing through the house, racing past the master bedroom, screaming when she couldn't find something and had no one to ask. Before a month had gone by, she packed a bag and left. She had no destination in mind, though her best friend insisted that she return to him. Come back home, Colin's emails said. Come back here and let me take care of you.
Where before his words would have burned warm and comforting in her breast, they instead infuriated her. Not to say that she didn't need him, or want him. She wanted nothing more than to seek out the comfort of his arms, to crawl into the warm hollow of his body and lie there for days on end. Stubbornly, she resented this need – she could be alone in this world. Take my family away? she raged silently at the heavens. I can do it on my own.
Though she had no sense of where aside from away from here, she put herself on a cross-country train. In three days she saw everything Middle America had to offer from her window seat. She drank wine through the Rockies, vodka through the Dakotas, beer in Chicago. It was only when she hit Toronto from Seattle that she paused to contemplate her next move. She could feel the emptiness of her house still, even three thousand miles away. Here now in Toronto she could feel the worried urgency of Colin. She felt choked and drowned and furious and like she could do anything. She bought a one-way ticket, any ticket, and left the country before anyone knew she had even been there.
For two months she bounded across Europe, faking enthusiasm and a sense of adventure when she felt hers slipping. She slept in train stations, on strangers' couches, in strangers' beds. She took Italy by storm on the back of a motorcycle, sunbathed topless on the beaches of Cannes, screamed with the engines of Formula 1 cars in Monaco. In cover of darkness she stole onto private yachts, drank wine on the streets of Nice, rolled countless cigarettes. She kissed tall, handsome Swiss men. She slept with gorgeous French men. She partied with rock stars, raised hell with movie stars. It was enough to keep her mind occupied, and for the most part she reveled in it all. She found the things that terrified her and she bested them. When it came down to it, what she was most scared of was returning home. Colin's emails sat unanswered in her inbox; full of please tell me if you're okay and Tell me where you are – I'm coming to get you and Come here, please, please come home. Some of the later ones she filed away without reading.
It was a Tuesday when she mustered the courage to fly home; she was back on Canadian soil by Wednesday, and at Colin's door before sundown. He stared at her from his doorway, surprise written across his face. His was the first familiar face she had seen since her parents' funeral, and it took the wind right out of her. After a moment spent staring, Colin grasped her by the shoulders and pulled her to him, enveloping her in a fierce hug. She blinked against his shoulder, trying to remember the last time she had an honest-to-goodness hug from someone. Briefly, she wondered if she would cry here in his foyer. He ushered her inside, taking her bag [just the one, now, she had left or given away something at each new place she visited] and jacket and fussed about her anxiously.
It occurred to her that she had been too long without a hot shower, and when she asked him quietly if he wouldn't mind he jumped to accommodate her. When she requested something comfy to wear, he found her an old t-shirt he knew she liked to sleep in and a pair of his sweats. She thanked him with a smile. Under the hot water, she let herself relax. She let go of the hundred and one things she had been holding in her mind, things that had been holding back the thoughts she did not want to confront. Together with the water they rushed over her, filling her, breaking her, crashing through every carefully constructed barrier she had. She was aware of the water so hot that it scaled her skin where it hit, but she was grateful for it. Eventually the temperature became bearable, and when it dropped to lukewarm she let herself cry for the first time since the day her parents died. She shook with rage, she wept with fury, she cried at the great injustice of it all. She cried because she was alone, and terrified. She cried because every part of her felt broken and wrong. She cried and the water grew colder still.
She wasn't aware of Colin's increasingly frantic knocking, did not register his worried calls through the door. It was only when he tore the shower curtain back that she started, looking up at his panic-stricken face from where she sat in the tub. He moved like lightning, shutting off the tap and reaching for the towel that was folded on the counter. Wordlessly she watched him, lips blue and eyes red, as he wrapped her tightly in the towel and rubbed a second one through her hair. He paused briefly, perching on the edge of the tub and looking at her with such sadness and concern in his eyes before her reached down to lift her carefully into his arms. She shook uncontrollably, and not entirely due to the cold. When he set her down in his room she stumbled, and he caught her against his chest with one arm. He pulled his shirt over her head.
"Are you—" he began.
"Colin—" she cut him off, fresh tears welling that she rubbed at furiously with the heel of her palm. "Please, can we go to sleep?"
He nodded and tossed the towels he had been holding to the floor. Wearily she crawled onto his bed, with Colin close behind. Though it had been nearly a year since she had seen him, they fell into the same position they always had with great ease. With one hand on her hip and the other under her shoulder he gently pulled her back into him, tucking his body around her icy, shivering limbs. One hand settled on her wrist, thumb sweeping slowly and gently across the delicate inside of it. The other slung across her middle, holding her tight to him. She shook in his arms, and it was a moment before he realized it was not because of the cold but because she was crying. Colin pressed a kiss to her neck, tucked her cold feet in between his, and didn't let go.
Neighbours whispered about them, the peculiar duo that dwelt in Number 12. A polite little girl, Abigail, and her father. People on the block were drawn to their lives with the same morbid fascination that slows car on the highway after an accident. Mothers who walked past slowed their steps, turning their heads to catch a glimpse of life behind the curtains of Number 12. Fathers invited the pair over for barbeques, cook-outs, picnics, block parties; when Abigail and her father showed up a hum of nervous and excited energy coursed through the rest of the attendees. The neighbourhood children called upon Abigail, asking her to come play, come run, come hide. She'd look to her father, and with his consent she'd hit the streets, her white-gold hair flashing in the last rays of the sun. She never quarreled, never raised her voice, never pouted, never whined. She was polite to a fault.
Yet the whispers continued, grew; swept through backyards and mudrooms and book clubs and neighbourhood watch meetings. Her mother, they said. His wife. Children made up stories to tell their friends at sleepovers, horror stories, ghost stories, stories about the sudden, unexplained disappearance of Abigail's mother. Over the weekly poker game, fathers smelling of Doritos and emboldened by scotch slam their palms onto the green felt and swear there's something not right about those two. No one dares to breathe life to the feeling they all have. No one so much as whispers, suggests the word murder. But it hangs in the air, it snakes down the street, snapping at heels and hissing from shadows.
And all the while, Abigail and her father smile, thinking we're finally free.
i. His name was Nicholas. He saved her seats at recess, shared his snacks with her, and let her play elimination with the rest of the boys in the gazebo at lunchtime. When she slipped on some ice running to class, he stayed back to help her up. And when the snow melted in the spring and he was left hopping around on one foot, his left boot stuck in the mud, she ran back to lend an arm and shove his socked foot back into his shoe. Over lunch one day he said to her plainly: "You're my ginger, and I'm your snap." She glowed.
Later that year, embarrassed by her fondness for a boy, she pulled him aside in gym class and told him to take a hike. He cried and she felt like being sick, even as her friends applauded.
ii. He was a friend of a friend, and they met at a bar. He ordered a Jagerbomb for her, but the bar had neither Jager nor Red Bull, so the waitress helpfully supplied them with Vodka and Rockstar. Warmed by liquor and bundled against the cold of a Canadian March, he agreed to walk her home. Somewhere along the way the notion of a short detour to the 24-hour grocery was floated and agreed upon. With sweater sleeves pushed up and furtive glances, they plucked lobsters from their tanks and set them on the ground to race. "Speedy McFastyPants over here is gonna leave your Speedy McGarlicButters in the dust," he whispered, laughing.
They fought over everything and nothing: the best way to strain pasta and each other's futures. In the end, he moved to Halifax and she never missed him.
iii. They had been sleeping together casually for a few months. He called her one night, moody and unsure, and she told him to come over. A half hour later she heard him closing the front door behind him, heard him toe off his shoes in the hallway. When he padded into her room, he looked utterly beat. Wordlessly, he dropped his torn leather jacket to the ground and crawled onto the bed with her, wrapping his long limbs around her where she sat. She skritched her nails through his hair and for twenty minutes he lay curled around her, silent. Later that night they panted against each other's skin, hands gripping and reaching and teasing and soothing. She dozed naked against his shoulder, his hand tracing lines across the damp plane of her back and lulling her almost to sleep. He whispered her name, and she couldn't muster the energy to respond. "You're wonderful," he murmured, thinking she was asleep.
Eventually he found someone to date – not someone like her, not someone only good for a quick lay when he needed it. She raged and hated and wept but it wasn't for the loss of him; being overlooked hurts, no matter who you are.
iv. When they met in the produce department, it was because she nearly toppled into him as she lunged to grab a plastic bag for her celery. He asked her if she knew where the ginger was – he was making a turkey curry that night. It took him until she was at the check out to approach her again and ask if she liked turkey curry. She grinned and said yes, and he let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. The sales associate punched in and weighed her celery and green onions. He nervously adjusted his wool hat and cleared his throat, saying that he was off to get some supplies for dessert and that he'd see her later. Her ground beef booped across the scanner. He turned back a moment later and said "…do you like cheesecake?" She nodded, beaming.
They argued one afternoon because he didn't like her spending time with her best friend. She tried to leave but he stopped her, and when she resisted her hit her. She walked out of her own house and never looked back.
v. She was on the way back from the campus clinic when she ran into him in the busy hallway. It had been a long week – sick and behind on schoolwork and hard up for cash after quitting her job. They had worked together the year before, and she hadn't seen him since the winter semester ended six months earlier. He reached for her now-twelve-inches-shorter hair, and she for his now-two-months-unshaved beard, and they both exclaimed their approval. He beamed down at her and she up at him. She marveled at how she could have missed him so much without knowing it – without thinking of him at all during the six months she didn't see him but now acutely feeling the ache of every day of that separation. "Don't be a stranger," he warned with a smile, "and come back to work." He tousled her hair with his hand. "I wont," she agreed, "and I will."
He's been the stars in her eyes ever since.
Crafts have always been her thing. As a child she was always up to her ears in Elmer's glue and googly eyes and felt shapes. For a time, she grew out of it. She listened to music her peers loved and her parents hated - she played the part of 'surly teenager' to a tee. Then university came around and in the time she spent not attending her classes, she fell back into crafting.
Paper crafts, cardboard crafts, crafts with glitter, crafts with empty liquor bottles – you name it, she'd skip a class to make it. Some she enjoyed more than others; there's nothing quite as frustrating as trying to get glitter out of everywhere, for weeks. Eventually she settled on paper crafts, and her myriad pencils and rulers became her constant companions. She bought a rubber, gridded cutting mat and stocked up on x-acto blades with delight.
She started losing her direction, like many twenty-somethings. Her carefully thought out plan for her future was proving to be anything but. So she tried moving back home. She got three steady jobs. She became a regular at a local pub on the weekends. She slept with the bartender at the restaurant she waitressed at. She sank underwater in her hot tub and held her breath until her fingertips started to tingle, staring up at the stars from under the water. She stenciled, spending hours each night with her nose inches from her work, painstakingly cutting each tiny, exacting detail.
When six months had gone by and none of those things had helped her get her life in order at all, she moved to Switzerland. Antsy after only two weeks, she set off on her own. She slept in train stations [only twice] and on stranger's couches. She sunbathed topless on the beaches of Cannes during the film festival. She roared with the engines from the hillsides of Monaco during the Grand Prix. She tore through the mountains of Italy on the back of a motorbike. She stood all alone in the middle of St. Marco's Square in Venice at two in the morning. She stole onto yachts, kissed tall, dark men, and broke bread with rockstars. She stenciled whenever she was gripped by the sense of being completely on her own in the world.
But there's only so far you can run from your problems before they catch up with you. She was working freelance tech for summer festivals in Geneva when hers did. Within a week she was on a plane – not back to her parents but to the city where she went to school. She had a hard time with real life. It was months before she found a job as a waitress at some hoity-toity golf course, and she quit within two weeks. She floated aimlessly through life for a long time, for too long. She lost her best friend for a time; he had disappeared after a fit of jealousy from his girlfriend. Each day became an exercise in avoiding any kind of thoughts about her situations – morning runs began to last two hours or more, afternoons full of busy but ultimately meaningless activities.
And stencils. Dozens of stencils. Each evening was spent drawing and tracing and taping and slicing. It was the only time, perhaps unknowingly, that she let herself admit how hard of a time she was having. There is a certain satisfaction to cleanly slicing through a thick sheet of construction paper or cardstock. Each slice of the blade through the construction paper felt like a release. There is a perfect sound that happens when the blade is pulled through the paper in a long, purposeful way. It's almost like a sigh, an escape. The sound of being let go. She wondered if she herself would make that same kind of noise under the sharp metal, but she doesn't dare try it.
Not today, anyway.
When he broke up with his girlfriend in his last year of university his mind turned against women. Never dating again and constantly with agendas, he muttered, believing it. His friend keeps quiet when she needs to, listens when she needs to, talks when she needs to. Without words they turn to sex – something both need for different reasons. His friend pulls him through his life for a time when he would have been content to sit and let it slide by.
“Are you happy?” she asks. He lies in the bed his friend shares with her boyfriend; they are naked and sweat pools in the hollows of his collarbones and the backs of her knees. He slides a hand down his friend’s side and presses her close to him, kissing her shoulder languorously. With a slow, lazy smile he rolls her onto her back and settles his hips against hers once more, burying his face in the place where her shoulder and neck meet, his every action and smile saying I’m grateful for you. His deep, steady heartbeat under his friend’s palm saying I’m content.
She swept into their lives, all swirls and curls and grace, with her shy heart set on him from the start. It was only a matter of time before never dating again turned to embarrassed, shy confessions of she makes me feel… oh god, I am so gay for her. With the well-tuned efficiency of a close-knit group, they wordlessly made room for this new red haired, long-legged creature.
“Are you happy?” His friend works her hand slowly over his back in a comforting motion that had after so many years become unconscious. He shifts his shoulders, as if adjusting a weight that rests heavily on them. His yes doesn’t need to be spoken, and when he breathes too happy it doesn’t need to be explained.
A rough patch hits at their year-and-a-half mark. He’s moody and inaccessible and frustrated because of it; his friend paces anxiously on the edge of his awareness, waiting to be let in, waiting to be helpful. He tries to carry on as usual with his friend, but she knows too much, sees him too well. Eventually they fall to talking one evening, and his worries tumble from his lips easier than he thought they would. She nods, listening.
“Are you happy?” comes her inevitable question. She holds his hand in hers, kneading his flesh and toying with his fingers. She watches him blink once, twice, three times and sigh. He swallows hard and leaves the room. Wary of pushing too hard and too fast, she pads down the hallway after him. When she approaches, he watches her carefully through red-rimmed eyes, his arms crossed, his jaw set. He wants not to need her but she’s on her toes and her arms are around him, and he’s pressing his face tight to her neck, already wet with his tears. She holds him tight, as if without her he’d fly apart. Sometimes he thinks he might.
When he decides to marry his girl, no one is surprised. His two friends make speeches and clink glasses and take vaguely pornographic photos with the disposable cameras left on every table. Later, when little flower girls lie sleeping in their father’s arms and the bride dances slowly in hers, he sits down quietly next to his friend. The other had buggered off with a bridesmaid and a lewd hand gesture.
“Are you happy?” she asks again, years after the first time. She watches her best friend: bow-tie undone to hang loosely around his neck, a sweet flush of pink across his cheeks and an absent smile on his lips. She watches her best friend as he watches his new bride, not hearing her question but not needing to answer anyway.
There’s a rough time when they can’t conceive; painfully he seeks his friend out to talk to. Always so reluctant to share any part of his intimate life, but he’s drowning and she’s always been there before when he reaches out. It’s near impossible to drag any coherency out of him, amid all of his vagueness and ambiguity but she does so with the precision and tenderness of someone well used to the task. He sits awkwardly on a stool in her kitchen and she knows just when to pull up a second for herself, her hand smoothing circles over his back.
“Are you happy?” Later, they lie on the couch together, fitting together in that strange way they always seem to manage on too-small couches. His thumb stills where it had been tracing the veins on the inside of her wrist and she feels his chest rise under her cheek in a heavy sigh. I’m scared his silence says and his friend combs her fingers gently through the hair at his temples until he falls asleep.
He feels his wife slipping away, her attention divided, and he weathers it stoically. When they have company she is the girl he met years ago, the bright, happy, goofy girl. She smacks him playfully with an oven mitt when he reaches for a taste of her custard. His friend watches curiously as this domestic cinema unfolds and she sees desperation in his eyes. She’s different when we’re alone, he confesses quietly, worrying his fingers around and around and around the neck of his bottle. It changes everything.
“Are you happy?” his friend asks just as quietly. His expression is confused; it says yes and no and I can’t be without her and she’s everything and I love her. He blinks and grabs his friend’s feet, pulling them into his lap in the way that he longs to be pulled into hers. He twists his fingers through his hair and meets his friend’s eyes. She sees that he knows what she’s seen for years and she is saddened by it – knowing you love someone more than they can ever love you is a curse. She knows this from experience, and now so does he.
Separate names with a comma.