The immortal days, the ones incapable of being forgotten, never announce themselves.
She grabbed a section of the newspaper that was laying half folded in disarray on a table by the door in the coffee shop. Her coffee in one hand and a toasted bagel in the other, she managed to wedge the paper between her forearm and stomach and made her way to her usual table in the corner by the window. She went through the ritual of setting up her breakfast, smoothed out the paper, took a sip of her coffee and started reading. The headline read “Fatal accident on the Interstate” with no warning that this unassuming article was going to forever divide her life into before and after.
Time stopped. She lost her grip on her coffee, which fell to the floor. She did not notice the splatter of hot on her leg. She did not register the huge pool of dark liquid that was now acting as an aromatic moat between her and the rest of the coffee shop. She almost could not breathe. He was the fatality, it was written there in black and white. The love of her life, the essence of her being, had died. Her world stopped as her brain struggled to assimilate this news. How could this be? She felt trapped and yet oddly untethered. She had nowhere to go, nobody to turn to.
A barista asked her if she was ok, while beginning the clean-up of her coffee accident. She nodded numbly. The barista, whose nametag proclaimed him to be “Zane”, asked if she would like another coffee. She looked confusedly at Zane and his nametag, and had no answer. Picking up her purse, she walked slowly out of the coffee shop as if in a trance, leaving coffee footprints and abandoned breakfast behind her. She found herself at her home and called her office, saying she could not come in—which was profoundly true, she could not bear the thought of seeing another living soul. She turned on her television, expecting apocalyptic coverage and was genuinely perplexed, forgetting that a traffic death was a sadly unremarkable occurrence in the world. She sat staring at the betraying television unable to cry, inane daytime television obscenely blaring at her. She did not know how to function. She did not care. She briefly wondered if she could will herself to sleep and never wake up, but even that seemed like too much effort. She sat, staring blankly, for hours uncounted, as wave after wave of sorrow, shock, misery and distress rolled over her. Then, something deep inside her reminded her that she had Things to Do. Responsibilities. She allowed that sliver of her being to reach up and to be heard.
How she got through the next couple of days, she couldn’t have explained. It was as if she were wearing a suit of chainmail, the simplest of actions were overwhelming and intensely difficult. She would catch herself forgetting how to perform basic human functions, like eating, or standing up, and yet somehow she made the necessary phone calls. She felt alone—no, she felt lonely, isolated, desolate. Suddenly overwhelmed with the need to be amongst other humans, she grabbed her coat and purse, and started walking around her chic, urban neighborhood. Somehow, though, brushing past humanity did not lessen the empty ache she felt. She walked without aim or direction, but soon realized she had walked to a familiar destination.
With a leaden soul, she trudged up the stairs to the top floor of the historic building. “Historic” was realtor code for “no modern conveniences like centralized heat or air conditioning or even elevators”, before she had never minded. Today, she did. Today, each stair was an obstacle to overcome. Pausing outside the door, she turned the key in the lock, said a small prayer, then opened the door.
The grayness had audaciously taken up residence as if it were a welcome guest—permeating every corner, somehow dampening even a vase filled with peonies into an ashy rainbow. Sunlight streaming through the windows and skylights of the tiny loft softened to dusty warmth rather than the glowing light of norm.
She stood in the doorway surveying her lodgings. All of the details blurred and refused familiarity. She was having trouble registering her own belongings in her mind. She stared at a coffee cup on the counter. How long had it been there? Was it clean? She had no idea. With no warning, the unassuming bit of pottery seemed obscene—two quick strides and she had crossed the space and tossed the offending item into the garbage.
She turned and faced the loft. It was cozily furnished in warm, muted creams, a deep sofa mounded with pillows and draped with a crocheted throw . There was a small wood stove squatting in the corner providing more than adequate heat. A small, painted table held the only nod to electronic life—a stereo set to the classical station. Her eyes slowly swept the space, taking in the antique drop-leaf breakfast table with two ladder-back chairs nestled against the window, adjacent to the efficient kitchenette. On the far wall, a solid door burdened with countless layers of paint and a crystal knob opened into a tiny bathroom. And behind a room divider with a vaguely Asian motif of lilies and butterflies was the cast iron bedstead piled high with often-washed sheets and a thick down comforter.
He was dead. She would never again hear the deep rumble of his late night voice. She had seen the little crinkle at the corner of his eye that gave away when he was secretly amused for the last time. His scent now a remembrance; his touch only a memory.
The loft had been their space. Where they shut out the rest of the world and lost themselves in each other. They had made this their refuge, their retreat, twice a week for the last six years. No phones, no computers, no outside influences. This was where they bared their souls and their bodies; where intellectual and emotional intimacy melded with physical. This was where hopes and dreams crept out of quiet shadows and tentatively dipped their toes in reality.
They met in a coffee shop—the same one in which she had learned of his demise; both had a preference for strong coffee unmolested with any of the popular creams and syrups and had both reached for the same order. It was his, in reality; hers was soon to follow, but the inadvertent touching of hands had been electric, impossible to ignore. Soon they were meeting daily for coffee and talking of the world. She could actually feel herself falling for him, a literal sensation of falling and losing control when he was with her. It made her giddy. It made her foolish. It made her willfully blind to the fact that he was married.
She never told anyone about him. He was deliciously, privately, all hers. She hadn’t intended that, it had just happened. At first she was unsure if her friends would be judgmental, but quickly decided that she liked having her personal life to herself. It was tantalizingly taboo, and she reveled in her secrecy. Then, a famous politician had been caught in an affair and all around her she heard the harsh judgments that would be directed at her if they had known. Words like ‘slut’ and ‘homewrecker.’ Her friends didn’t know that their slings and arrows aimed at a woman they had never met, struck hard in their friend who had fallen in love with another woman’s husband.
Now, her cherished undisclosed ecstasy had become her secret anguish. She was not entitled to this pain. She attended his funeral, lurking in the back so as not to disrupt the family, the lucky ones who were allowed to grieve openly. She pretended to be visiting another gravesite, so her presence was not suspicious. She had never seen the woman he was married to—he never discussed his legitimate life with her and she never wanted to ask. It was easier to pretend that part of his world didn’t exist. She longed to embrace the woman and cry with her, tell her she understood, that she had lost this man as well. She knew she could not. She had to conceal her pain, perhaps karmic penance for her objectionable bliss.
She had requested a week off of work. “Family emergency” she had told her boss. He hadn’t even questioned her, reliable as she was. She had told her non-work friends that she was on a business trip. It was a rare occurrence, but not unheard of—they too were unsuspecting of her falsehood. She needed time. Time to cry. Time to figure out how to live with a grief she wasn’t allowed to have.
The loft lease was, of course, in her name. She had made arrangements with the property management company and also with a charity to remove all the furnishings. She had thought she couldn’t bear to see the loft again, but found herself there, just one more time. A final farewell, a last check for personal items she couldn’t lose.
A sob tore from her throat. The tears began slowly but quickly became a torrent. Unable to support her own weight, she threw herself into the embrace of the bed and allowed the grief to take over. She screamed and gulped air that was somehow too thick to breathe. The ache in her body was unbelievable, the tears neither easing nor fueling her grief, they existed almost of their own accord. She cried for loss. She cried for time unspent, for chances never taken and choices never made. She cried for herself. She cried for him. With no sense of the passage of time, she cried until no more tears could form. She lay on the bed on her belly, her eyes open but unseeing, her brain incapable of rational thought seeking shelter in the safety of semi-consciousness. She did not register time; did not notice the shifting light patterns as day slipped to night and back to day again.
Head pounding, she eased herself off the bed. Unsteady on her feet, she made her way to the washroom. Her reflection confirmed what she knew already—her eyes were somehow both sunken and puffy and painfully red. Her skin was blotchy and smeared with residue of makeup applied a lifetime ago. Her hair, bedraggled chaos. She turned the tap on and splashed water on her face washing away the signs of sadness and leaving her face scrubbed and clean. She leaned over the sink and pressed her forehead against the mirror. The cool glass was tonic to her head and she briefly wondered if she could stand this way forever. She took a towel from the rack and held it to her face. The lavender she used in her laundry was comforting and she breathed it in for a few precious moments.
She squared her shoulders and faced the room. Would it help if she went on a rampage, throwing and breaking things? Would it ease the pain at all if she destroyed this place, this erstwhile haven? Momentarily inspired, she picked up a knick-knack—a sailboat that he had brought one time and then woven a story of the two of them sailing around the world. She held it overhead, ready to smash it against the floor, but she could not. She could not destroy this memento of an unrealized dream.
With that, she began a systematic inspection of everything. The charity arrived tomorrow and the property management company had agreed to let them in. If she wanted a bauble, now was the time to select it. She wandered around, facing the memories attached to everyday items and mentally packing them away–the favorite cereal bowl, the comfiest pillow. She determined that the memories were enough, that the items could be loved by someone else. She looked joylessly at the few items of clothing she kept here and again decided that someone else would be better blessed. No packing would be done; it could all be donated.
And so then, her need to be here was finished. She had made her peace, at least for now. Gently, she examined her reflection in the mirror by the door. The red and puffy eyes were gone. She deliberately rearranged her features so that any evidence of pain and sadness were hidden. The façade firmly in place, she opened the door and stepped out into life. She closed the door softly, walked down the stairs and out of the building, never to return.
This meditation on grief was inspired by a variety of situations I saw/read about. Situations when the griever is not allowed to grieve or is criticized for doing so. The mother of a killer. The girlfriend of a drug addict. The ex-wife of a gay man. Dreams unfulfilled. It is also another exhortation to remember that everyone is going through something the world knows nothing about–be kinder than necessary.
This is an original work of fiction and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the written permission of the author. Laura Ducolon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can find her on Twitter @LKDucolon1984.