They sat around the campfire. Just the two of them. It was warms and it felt safe. The dark sky was full of bright stars like fireflies that had sprung to life out of the sparks of the flames. She didn’t want anything to ever change. She felt the trees speaking to her as the wind rustled through them. Something was going to unravel itself tonight.
They drank beers and shared a smoke. She stared into the flames feeling the hypnotic powers bring her mind to stillness. She looked down at the cigarette in her hand and marveled how anything, any moment in time, could last forever. The tobacco smoke rose up to the stars into the infinity of the universe and that moment froze into her memory like magic.
How could anything be so perfect. She remembered he was there, like her shadow she knew he was there but for a conscious moment had forgotten. But the smoke drifting upwards had summoned something. A question she didn’t want to answer not even to herself.
But he asked it anyways.
“So, I’ve been thinking. I know you said you didn’t want anything serious but maybe it’s been long enough now that it’s time.
She pulled herself inside and fought of wishful thinking with stubborn determination.
“I can’t,” she said and felt that piece of hope die. She squashed it down like stomping on a bug. She realized she had gotten good and exterminating silly notions. “I just can’t.”
He sat in silence for a moment and she reminded herself how she needed to handle the situation kindly. Explain the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ situation without using that phrase. It would be truth if she told if she said it but she knew such a cliché could never be accepted as truth. And they always wanted to hold onto some hope that there was a way. Or rationalize it to find out what they had done wrong to have the door slammed in their face when in reality they had done nothing wrong except ask for more. She sometimes would try to explain that the door had always been closed. Always locked with the key long ago forgotten.
“Can I ask why? I don’t want to push you but everything has just felt like it’s been flowing naturally.”
She could feel the mild mix of disappointment and curiosity. The need to understand and find a solution. The need to find a way. She felt the empathy well up in her throat. It had been flowing naturally, everything had been easy. Everything felt so comfortable and right.
She stared into the flames realizing her heart had started beating faster and took a couple breaths to bring it down.
“Let me grab a beer,” she said. “Then I will tell you a story”
I guess it was about 6 or 7 years ago now. I did some volunteering and travelling after high school, and I met this guy. He was French. He spoke English but I helped him get better at it. By the end he was bilingual if not fluent in speaking English. We lived in a house with a lot of other people so we would walk to Timmy’s to get a cup of coffee. Although it really didn’t make much sense as there was always lots of snow to trek through and cold and it was far away and there was plenty of coffee in the house. But we go to know each other a bit. He left and went back home three months early.
He stilled called and emailed sometimes though and when we were given a week off from work he drove 3 hours to come and get me and then another hour away so we could spend some time camping together. Well of course one thing led to another. I wasn’t a virgin but I bled. I hadn’t bled with the first guy I slept with but I had with this one. I remember finding that a bit odd.
We went back to our lives. I had been thinking about moving to Quebec when I was done volunteering to learn more French and see more of Canada. He lived in Montreal. Near the end of volunteering I had decided to move to Montreal for 6 months to see what would happen, but first I would fly home to see my family for a couple weeks. I hadn’t seen them in 9 months.
He would send me a message every once and a while to say he ‘missed me’ or ‘loved me’ or ‘how are things going?’ And then he asked me to move in with him when I came to Montreal. I said yes.
I went home and got to see my cat again and go to my uncles wedding. Me and my sister had moved out so my mom didn’t need as big of a place so she was moving. The new place didn’t allow pets so I talked to my best friend and her mom. They agreed to take the cat in for me.
I packed all my things into my car and started driving. Driving over the Rocky Mountains was one of the most awe inspiring moments of my life. My car died in Alberta.
The tow truck guy and his family let me spend the night at their place and gave me and my stuff a lift to the greyhound. I spend three days on the bus. I didn’t have much food on me other than a couple stale bagels and granola bars. We stopped once at an A&W for all of thirty minutes. I got a mama burger, fries and a root beer. It was a feast.
When I finally got to Montreal a couple of my old volunteering friends who were staying in Montreal for a bit met me at the bus depot. We found a grocery store and I ate real food for the first time in three days. One of them offered to let me stay at her place for the night. But he sent me a text telling me he wanted to see me so I took the Metro to my new apartment. We didn’t have any furniture yet so we slept cuddled on the floor in sleeping bags.
The next day I went and signed the six month lease. He had already signed it a couple days before I arrived. I came back and he asked me if I signed it. I said yes. Then he told me he was seeing someone else.
I don’t think I said much more the ‘oh.’ I can’t really remember. I was in shock for 2 or 3 days. I called my best friend and her mom at some point. My cat had run away. They tried to convince me to come home but I had signed my name to something and that was as good as a promise. I don’t break my promises. Being numb can be a wonderful thing. I spent a lot of time being numb.
I stayed in Montreal for the full six months. The first month was hell. I went through phases of being numb and other phases of crying on the couch for hours when he wasn’t home. I didn’t know anyone in Montreal really and I barely spoke French.
He got annoyed at me for not taking the garbage out, not putting the dishes away. He told me about an ex girlfriend he had dumped because her nose was ugly. He showed me a picture to prove it. He told me mine wasn’t as ugly but it was still not great.
My brain and heart had shut down like a computer that crashes. You keep trying to reboot it but just keep getting error messages.
I wrecked his toaster oven. It was an accident. There was a loaf of bread on top of it in the plastic wrapper and plastic melts when there is enough heat. It was still perfectly functional but I guess you are superficial that’s just not good enough. It never came off. The more he scrubbed the more infuriated he got.
“This is not funny!”
I laughed, cackled really, for the first time in what felt like ages.
Lying on the couch my head felt like it was going to explode. Screaming into my knees as I hugged them although no sound came out. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like a beast with sharp metal claws was trying to claw its way out. Pulling my hair so hard trying to replace one pain with another until I succeeded at shoving it all back down into stillness. And then staring at the blank empty wall as the tears dried. Blank. Empty. Numb.
I repeated this ritual often. Other days I just listened to the same Nine Inch Nails CD over and over and over….
I made dinner one night. I didn’t know she was coming over. She seemed nice. There wasn’t enough food for three. I did what I could to split it up fairly. She didn’t know we had slept together. She thought we were just roommates, friends. I didn’t say anything. He found every reason to be unhappy about the meal. There wasn’t enough! No meat! Fish does not count as meat! And so on.
I slipped out after when they were busy and went for a walk. I didn’t come back home until much later. I wandered around and sat in random places trying to be still. I tried a patch of grass, under a tree, a bench but nothing felt quite right. Eventually I got so cold I couldn’t fell my body, so I went home. He was furious that I had left and hadn’t told him were I had gone. I started going for more walks.
I had a couple house plants when I moved in. I managed to kill each and every one of them despite my best efforts. I even tried planting a clove of garlic in a pot. Garlic is the easiest thing to grow. I managed to kill that too. It seemed my green thumb had disappeared as everything I touched withered and died.
I used to take the bus or the Metro during the day and go from one side of the city to the other just to get out of the apartment. I pretended I was job hunting, I even took resumes with me. But honestly just the thought of talking to someone in French, or even English, really was too much.
I eventually got a job, two jobs, two horrible part time jobs. But they got me out of the house. That helped.
She paused then and looked up from the flames into the darkness between the trees. There was further to go yet but she wasn’t sure what waited for her in the shadows. She felt her heart beating as she contemplated not making the journey. But she felt the tail end of the story wagging itself in her face and grudgingly admitted it wanted to be told.
She blinked at the fire when she felt a beer being nudged against her hand. She took it not realizing how long she’d been lost in thought, her mind absorbed by the flames.
“Talk to me,” he said.
“The story isn’t finished yet,” she said cracking the beer.
“I know,” he said. “But I also know that if you don’t keep talking you’ll stay stuck.”
She smiled sadly at the truth in that. How easily she got herself stuck when she refused to talk.
“I’ve never really talked about the second half of the story,” she said. She took a deep breath. “Nor have I really made peace with it yet.”
At one of my part time jobs another guy started working on the same day as me. We started chatting at lunch one day. We later became friends. The phone rang. His dad was a construction worker and had found a kitten eating out of a dumpster. He had called because he needed help finding it a home. I went along as I was allowed cats at my place. We bought some tuna and lured her into a cardboard box that I carried her home in. I decided to name her Zoey.
Zoey was my angel, my beautiful kitten. She cuddled with me every night. She was quieter than the night itself when we were sleeping. But when I was a awake she was awake and when she was awake she was up to no good. She meowed incessantly. She got into the garbage can and knocked it over and scattered everything in it all over the apartment. She clawed and shredded things and attacked my feet in the morning when I was trying to have my tea like they were something that needed to die. She loved me and howled every time I left her to go to work.
My roommate didn’t like her and one day I came home and she was missing. He told me she had probably just gotten out somehow and was lost. We lived on the third floor. He said he hadn’t left the balcony door open. The only other way out was through the door out of our apartment. I searched the entire building, talked to a couple neighbors and even wandered around the block. I tried going to the SPCA but none of the cats there were Zoey. I had only had her for maybe two or three weeks but I worried about where she had gone for just as long. Was she ok? Did she have a new family? Zoey had started to defrost a bit of the ice around my heart but not enough that I was able to accept her absence as an emotional loss.
One time I came home from work. They were in the shower together. I had to go pee but there was only one bathroom so I waited. He took about three showers a day which I thought was beyond excessive. They came out giggling. When I was washing my hands I notice the bag of rice in the shower. It was one of those big bags of rice you buy when they are one sale because you know it will last you a year or so. I had bought it a week or so ago and had used some of the rice so the bag was open. It was sopping wet from having been in the shower with them. He wouldn’t tell me why it had been in the shower. I didn’t eat any more of that rice and I avoided eating at home a lot after that.
My boss at one of my part time jobs was miserable old hag and very obviously obese. She took out her anger and resentment on her employees. We weren’t allowed to talk to each other at work unless it was absolutely necessary. Apparently conversations, making friends, and laughing at work lowered productivity. So I practiced the art of becoming a robot, a machine. I walked into the back room one day for something. She was in her office with the assistant manager who was trying to console her.
“I am going to eat it!” She cried.
“You can’t, you’re diabetic remember.”
“I want to eat a piece of my birthday cake on my birthday!”
Don’t do it. You’re stronger than that.”
She was angry and hopeless and desperate for something good. I couldn’t handle it. I got out of there as fast as I could. Emotions don’t commute well.
My new friend spoke English. His friends were English. This was a good thing. I really couldn’t handle anymore French. I started hanging out with him and his friends. His parents liked me. I found out he already had a girlfriend. It didn’t matter. It happened anyways. We slept together, not once but almost every chance we could over the next few months. She never found out. She seemed nice. One time a group of us were hanging out, we slipped away, she never knew what was happening on the other side of the door. One time we broke the bed. I never considered the irony of what I was doing at the time.
I didn’t really care about hurting people or that I might be hurting myself. Sometimes it was easier to spend the night at his place than go home to my apartment where the other one was. I did feel guilty sometimes.
Sometimes he forgot he had another girl. Sometimes I had to remind him that he was supposed to meet her somewhere for a date
One time I slipped away without saying anything and wandered. I ended up at the mall and locked myself in the one of the bathroom stalls. I needed all the people outside to go away. I need the noise to go away. I needed to bury it at the bottom of a dry well where no one goes because there was no water there anymore. Then I needed it to cave in and get covered in rubble so it wouldn’t escape so easily. Breathe. Breathe. And stop shaking. Why are you shaking? Breathe. Nothing is wrong. Everything is fine. I stayed in there until I could make the feelings go away. Then I went back.
One time we noticed that there was something dripping down the wall behind all the posters. We took the posters down and pulled the bed away from the wall. The whole wall was covered in black slimy oozing mold. I got rubber gloves and bleach and soapy water and scrubbed. I was determined to remove this stain from my life.
I finally left Montreal. He tried to get me to stay. He cried. Told me he would leave her for me. That he loved me. But I left because I knew it wasn’t true. I left a lot of things in Montreal that I couldn’t take on the plane with me. I left some memories there too.
She felt like she’d just had surgery and something poisonous had been removed. She felt sore and exhausted. She couldn’t take her eyes off the fire. They had both forgotten to add more wood and it was down to embers. The wind blew through the trees and despite it being a warm evening she realized she was shivering.
He didn’t say anything, just came over and put his arm around her and together they stared at the glowing coals. She leaned her head against him shoulder and felt tears slid down her face. It felt right and natural. How was it possible that any other human being could know exactly what she needed at that moment.