It’s the day after Chuck’s funeral, the first day that there’s nothing to do with him, or for him. Louise’s left arm and left leg are on the floor and the rest of her body is embedded in Ben. Ben has been camping out in his parents’ living room since Chuck, his dad, got sick, sleeping on a leather couch with undetachable cushions the colour of bricks. When Louise stays over, there is only enough space if they get into strict cuddle formation and don’t move all night.
She extracts herself bone by bone, replacing her shape with bedding so that he doesn’t topple to the floor. There is a red imprint on her right thigh where the flesh got pushed the wrong way and then just had to deal with it. By the icy light coming through the curtains, she checks her old, decrepit cell phone, its screen attached by strips of duct tape that leave sticky scum on her fingers. Ben and his family are still in that period when it’s socially acceptable to miss work and ignore the phone. Louise gets some slack by proximity, but she’s only a new girlfriend and her phone brims with work emails and missed calls from her mother, with whom she has been having a polite argument all week. Louise’s mother wanted Louise to come home this weekend. Chuck’s funeral is on Saturday, Louise told her. Come home on Sunday, her mother texted. I can’t just up and leave, Louise replied, that would be hurtful. Why do you care about these people you just met you don’t even know them, her mother said. To win the argument Louise wrote, Of course I’ll be there why wouldn’t I be.
Louise works in fundraising at Princess Margaret Hospital, where they hold memorial services in the lobby for people who died upstairs. In November, Louise was watching the bereaved light each other’s candles, tipping the white tapers away from the dark of their coats, when she noticed Ben watching too. He was tall and baby-faced and wearing a pink sweater. As she turned to leave, he whispered, ‘Do you come here often? I sure hope not.’ His dad was in Palliative, on the 11th floor.
There was something very comforting about Ben, in the way he was neither worried Louise might reject his advances, nor that his dad might soon die. The next week as he undid her buttons in the greying light of Saturday afternoon, he said, ‘I know we don’t know each other, but we should get married. I’ll never have a better meet-cute with anyone else.’ She has only seen him mourn once, after they removed his father’s body from the ward. He knelt on the floor, laid his forehead on the cold metal of the empty bedframe, and wept.
Last night Louise and Ben watched episode after episode of Futurama in silence, and she monitored him carefully for signs of the need to talk, but he stayed quiet. Quiet, even when the whites of his eyes gleamed during an ad for car insurance for retirees, though no tears came. Eventually he fell asleep and when she was sure he was far enough under that the door wouldn’t wake him, she gathered her things and tiptoed to the back door. But when she turned on the light she found his sister Sammy at the kitchen table, trying to shield her crying from the violence of the overhead brightness.
‘Jesus Christ, what are you doing?’ Sammy said. Louise squeaked apologies all the way across the linoleum, but her winter boots had elaborate laces that took a long time to do up, so she turned off the light and sat there lacing in the dark. Sammy kept sighing, too irritated to cry.
Sammy is an Olympian, a triathlete with an aerodynamic body and a gaze that seems equally efficient, with little focus to spare for Louise. Louise is twenty-eight and even though she wishes she were not the kind of woman who thought like this, Ben seems like something of a final chance. He is gentle, a rare commodity. So his sister’s disdain makes Louise uneasy. It was out of pure nervousness that Louise said, ‘Sammy, we haven’t talked much, but I wanted to tell you, that if you ever want to talk to someone, I understand what you’re feeling.’
‘Oh yeah,’ Sammy said, and though Louise couldn’t see her face, she could feel Sammy’s cheek scrunching with scorn.
‘My sister died. I’ve lost someone too.’
‘Oh yeah,’ Sammy said, with different intonation now.
‘Yes, it was hard.’
Sammy patted the flat of the tabletop with her hand. Streetlight came in through the skylight. Sammy said, ‘Ben said that you didn’t have any siblings.’
Horror seeped through Louise.
When they met, Ben asked, as people always regrettably do, if Louise had brothers or sisters, and she had said no. This wasn’t a lie; she’d had a sister, but she didn’t have one. She wasn’t trying to be coy; death is a faux pas. When do you tell someone your sister is dead? Certainly not on a first date. You could try on the second, but what if his father is dying? You can’t say you have lost someone till you have it-gets-better advice.
Louise was trying to say ‘Ben must have forgotten’ or ‘I told him not to tell anyone’ when Sammy said, ‘Why would Ben lie about you having a sister?’
‘He didn’t lie.’ She said this too loud for a house full of sleeping people. ‘I just haven’t told Ben yet. There hasn’t been time.’
‘I mean I will tell him,’ Louise found herself saying, ‘I was planning to tell him tomorrow.’ This was true. Louise was always planning to tell Ben tomorrow. Now she would stay the night, she would tell him tomorrow.
Tomorrow was the fourth anniversary of Joanne’s death.
‘This is uncomfortable,’ Sammy said.
It is just after 8 a.m. Exactly four years ago, Louise’s mother called to say Joanne was dead. Louise was in the kitchen with her roommate. She remembers fixing her eyes upon a tomato stain on a chair leg as her mother told her, Joanne was drinking and she must have taken some pills and it was an accident, all in her answering machine voice. Louise remembers how the white of the tomato had dried in a pattern like the spokes of a wheel, and how she’d hung on to the childish thought that tomatoes were wheels, a reference point to keep her steady as the world began to tip.
When it had been Louise’s turn to tell her roommate what had happened, it had come out in the same formal voice. It had been only later that she could have an unscripted reaction, up on the roof as the sun set at 4.30, where it’d been just her and all the crooked little houses of the neighbourhood. Sharing her pain with other people meant that her pain belonged to her less, Joanne belonged to her less. Louise never got better at the etiquette of loss. If anything she got more ungracious and stingy with her feelings. Lovers left her.
Ben’s mother is reading a newspaper at the kitchen table. Joy seems to like Louise. She has already told Louise that it was fortuitous – with stress on each separate syllable – that Ben met Louise at such a difficult time in his life.
‘Tea? There’s a muffin. Biscuit?’ Joy says.
‘I’ll just have something quick. I should be on my way.’
‘Stay a while. No rush!’
Joy is already neatly dressed, though her clothes bear the impact of the back of a drawer. Her regular rotation clothes are dirty and no one has done laundry.
Early on Louise tried to do the housework, a way to legitimize her presence. She longed to remain in this bubble of the doing of death, the only space where you were absolved from feeling. But Winston, Sammy’s husband, told her to stop. Stop fussing, he said kindly.
Louise’s anxiety dims. They make cheerful small talk about Joy’s medical practice. Louise stirs her coffee.
‘These are nice,’ Louise says, straightening the placemats on the table, printed with dancing peppers.
Joy sags. ‘There’s just so much,’ she says.
‘Pardon?’ Louise missed something.
‘You always say sorry to family when a patient dies. But I had no idea how much work death involves. Chuck left so many belongings behind.’
The kitchen door bangs open. Ben comes in, Sammy and Winston behind him.
‘Morning,’ Joy cries, her heartache put away as fast as it came out.
Winston arranges cookies on a plate and talks in a Yoda voice. Everyone is weirdly jolly, the way people are when severely sleep deprived, or when every possible thing has gone wrong and there’s nothing left to worry about.
Then Sammy says, ‘There’s no more cream.’ She puts both hands around the spent carton that cants weakly on the counter. She gazes down into its spout. ‘Who finished this?’ She turns to them, sharp-shouldered.
Louise covers her mug so Sammy doesn’t see the honeyed tones of her own coffee, coloured by the cream. Winston rummages in the fridge, mostly mysterious Styrofoam and fogged-up Tupperware.
‘There’s some skim in the back there,’ Louise whispers to him.
‘Yuck.’ Sammy scowls. She looks in Ben’s mug. She says something in Cantonese. Ben responds in Cantonese and soon all of them are laughing, even Winston, who is Filipino.
Louise can’t understand. She is inadequately Chinese, her parents only ever succeeded in teaching her the words for ‘rice’, ‘thank you’, and ‘crazy’; if Sammy is telling them about Joanne, Louise has no defences.
She sneaks out. She goes into Ben’s makeshift bedroom/living room. His shirts hang from the folding shoji screen, his comic books lean on the tchotchke cabinet. She lies on the couch and listens to the voices on the other side of the wall crest, then avalanche into laughter. Her cell phone is buzzing but she lacks the strength to get it out of her pocket.
Decorations from the funeral spool across the floor: a banner, white ribbons, huge framed photos of Chuck: Chuck on a bike hike, Chuck in Barcelona, Chuck meeting Jackie Chan. Louise has the distinction of being the last person Chuck ever met. He was almost gone, he looked nothing like the photos. ‘Hello Louise,’ he said, ‘be brave.’ He could barely speak, and she had worried about what he saw in her that propelled this message; the energy he was willing to expend to deliver it. Now she thinks it was a meaningless thing to say, as if he was just carrying out some kind of death bed protocol.
The kitchen door squeaks open and shut, and if the footsteps in the hallway are Ben’s, Louise will tell him now, of course she will, this is ludicrous.
‘Hi,’ he says. He moves her legs and sits down beside her. ‘None of us can stand to be in this house today. We’re going to the park. Can we give you a ride somewhere?’ He lifts her hair and smooths it down her back, and she loves the feeling of his hand there.
Louise doesn’t know how to begin the sentence about Joanne. She can’t think of a good opening word.
She says, ‘Do you want me to come with you to the park?’
‘If you want.’ There’s a pause. ‘You don’t have somewhere else to be?’
Is this concern for her time, or for his? She doesn’t know him well enough to tell.
‘I’ll come if you want me to,’ she says.
‘It’s up to you.’
Sammy is angry. There isn’t enough room in the station wagon for all five of them, plus Joy’s debris, and Winston has to sit in the hatch. Sammy takes Winston’s arm, holding his elbow as if his limb is a delicate thing she must protect.
Louise saw Sammy do the same thing with Chuck, fingers outstretched to catch her father’s arm every time it slipped from the bed, as he drifted in and out of consciousness. It was a tiny gesture that held such boundless love, that Louise felt embarrassed for having witnessed it. Seeing it resurface, over something so insignificant, irritates her.
It’s a Sunday in February, and everything has been petrified by the cold. Branches and rooftops have turned pale, and the sidewalks feel harder, as if the cement molecules are shrinking together for warmth. Toronto winters are rarely sunny, but when the sun comes out it seems to be overcompensating for the gloom. On the crest above Grenadier Pond, the sunlight slams into and off the ice, and they can barely see. Groups of people cluster on the vast, snow-covered surface of the pond, amused by the novelty of walking on water. The five of them wend their way down the long trail. Little dogs in hooded jackets scurry past.
Ben’s family pulls ahead of them and Louise says to Ben, ‘Are you all right?’
‘Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?’
Her phone rings. She ignores it.
‘Should you get that?’
‘It’s just my mother.’
They have reached the edge of the pond. Sammy and Winston have taken Joy onto the ice and they are marching arm-in-arm across it. Louise puts her arm though Ben’s to slow him down.
‘Can we talk? Over here.’ She does not want anyone but him to see her face. She heads for a thicket of dead shrubbery. Ben steps off the path with her, straight into a puddle of slush.
‘Oh. Shit.’ His face screws up in disgust.
‘I didn’t put that puddle there. It’s not my fault.’
‘No one’s blaming you.’
He mumbles curses and her phone buzzes audibly.
‘You should get that. It sounds like your mother is having an emergency.’
He tugs at a branch, looking for a tool to scrape his boot. His tugging turns violent. It looks like the whole shrub is going to come up at the roots.
‘Careful. The bush,’ she says. He tries to hide it but clear as day, his eyeballs roll. She should have chosen his feelings over the shrub’s.
She could wait to tell him about Joanne, next week or next month. But the worst is yet to come for him. The funeral is the easy part. In the photos from Joanne’s funeral, people were laughing so hard you could see the roofs of their mouths. It’s the afterwards that’s impossible, the bereavement version of the first day back to work in January. And Sammy will tattle first.
‘I have something to tell you,’ she says.
But they speak simultaneously. ‘If you have other places to be today, you should go. We could use some family time. Sorry. What did you say?’
It was different when she was willing to volunteer the information. Now she is on the spot and her anger comes in, sudden and hot.
‘I’ve been getting the feeling I’m not wanted. Especially when your mom and sister insist on speaking Cantonese when they know I can’t understand.’ She feels unhinged. Why is she saying these things?
He is quiet for a terrible moment. Then he says, ‘It’s rude for my mother and sister to speak their language the day after we buried my dad?’
He doesn’t break eye contact. He wants an answer, but there is none.
‘I’m sorry. I should go. I should call my mother. I’ll come and say goodbye when I get things sorted out.’ She is panicky and she talks too fast; it sounds as if she is saying sorry for leaving, not for causing so many problems when she meant to help.
He jams his hands in his pockets. ‘Sure. Sounds good.’ He walks away. He steps down and rocks his weight into his heels and sails across the ice.
Louise’s hands are shaking but she focuses on the new texts from her mother that say, I am making macaroni soup for you and If you catch the 1:43 train dad can pick you up.
Louise still has Joanne’s number in this phone. Every time she has to call someone whose name begins with a ‘J’, the number’s there. She can’t bring herself to delete it, or get rid of the phone. She has tried to be careless, hoping the phone will fall in a toilet or get lost at the mall on its own. But instead stupendous advances in mobile technology have passed her by.
Ben has caught up to his family. He runs, then stops hard, skidding until he knocks Sammy into Winston. Louise expects Sammy to turn and yell at him, but instead they all laugh. There is an acid pain in Louise’s chest. They are recklessly cheerful. Most adults over the age of thirty have experienced some great loss in their lives. But you wouldn’t know it, walking around on any weekday evening, watching people’s vapid faces as they pay their bus fare and post their letters, as if nothing bad has ever happened to anyone.
Louise walks down to the edge of the pond. Ice crystals cluster around the dirt. Even if there wasn’t a treacherous mass of water below, it still seems counter-intuitive to walk on an unpredictable, bone-breaking surface. She can’t bring herself to make the necessary great leap. She tries bending her knees experimentally.
She has to go and say goodbye. She could just leave, but that would draw attention and require explanation. It will look as if she’s mad. She has tried so hard to be inconspicuous. She thought she’d been doing a good job of it, even when it was trying, but she now she sees she was wrong. When she had hoped to be supportive she’d made things worse.
The day Chuck died, Ben asked her to come to the hospital to bring home Chuck’s things: scarves and table cloths that Joy used to cover every light and every surface, sweaters tenderised by time and wear, a book of Far Side comics, a copy of Gitanjali, mugs. But the nurses were off schedule and when Louise got there, Chuck’s body was still there. It was plainly inappropriate for her to be in the room, so she went to the visitors’ lounge. But something in Louise was twisting. A parade of distant relatives had come through in the past week to cry for Chuck and his family. But there was nothing tragic about dying at sixty-five, in a palliative care ward with prize-winning decor and free ice cream and special chairs for visitors, swaddled in love. That was just nature. What happened to Joanne was not. Louise left the visitors’ lounge and walked in the corridor until she had a view into Chuck’s room, and she continued to feel enraged until she saw the nurses tie Chuck’s hands and feet together before they put him in the body bag. Something about that upset her severely; either the fact that he was tied up or the fact he had no idea he was tied up. She cried but she held her breath so no one would hear her. She went back into the visitors’ lounge and faced away from the room, towards the blizzard exploding in white powder against the windows.
With a stern step Louise gets one foot down on the ice, then quickly brings the other to join in. As soon as she steps down, it’s like there’s cotton wool in her ears. The snow on ice absorbs the sounds of everything around her: the philosophy students on the bench talking Hegel, the mothers cajoling their resistant children, the squirrels who opted against hibernation, jibbering in the snow. A memory comes to her like it’s been conducted through the ice. Her five-year-old ankles in her skates were ugly and turned in, the opposite of Joanne’s perfect ankles. You just need to tighten your laces, Joanne said, and Louise wanted Joanne to do it.
Stupidness, nonsense. Louise keeps moving her stiff feet, one two, away from the memory, closer and closer to where Ben stands with Joy and Sammy and Winston. The coated ice muffles her footfalls and they can’t hear her approach, even when she is right behind them. But she can hear what they are saying, their voices strangely filtered by the wind.
‘No no,’ Sammy is saying. ‘Of course she’s nice. Just . . . odd.’
‘Be more specific,’ Ben says.
‘Well last night – you told me she doesn’t have any siblings? But last night she told me that she had a sister, a sister who died. I think she was trying to make me feel better . . . but is she, like, does she tell stories about her life that aren’t true?’
If Louise tells people about Joanne, she loses control. She will not be able to control when other people speak of Joanne, and they will speak of her without warning, thoughtless, profane.
Sammy laughs. Something bursts out of Louise and she is powerless to stop it. Her arms shoot up in front of her, and she grabs the back of Sammy’s jacket, and shoves as violently as she can.
But Sammy has Olympic reflexes. She jerks hard to the side and Louise watches as her own arms go wide, she has too much momentum to stop, and now she is flailing forward, desperately trying to twist away from the ground, the ice one long stretch of colourlessness.
She can’t see anything but the blank of the sky. For a moment, she’s the only person in the world. And then the throbbing in her side and her ankle bring her back.
Louise puts both hands over her face. Someone tugs gently at her elbows. The tugging becomes more and more insistent but Louise rolls away from it, powdering herself in snow.
She crawls to her feet. They are lined up in a row, staring at her with their matching cheeks and warm faces, with the exact same look of hurt confusion that asks, how could anyone possibly behave so badly, how could there possibly be any excuse?
Louise shouts at them. She screams.
‘There should be a city by-law! There should be a law! How can they let people walk on the ice? It’s just so incredibly, irresponsibly unsafe!’
She makes for the bank.
Louise hears Ben calling her name but she doesn’t turn back. When she reaches the knoll she’d like to keep going, but the pain in her ankle is intense and she collapses. Her phone buzzes again. She pulls it out of her pocket and throws it in the snow. She drags herself up onto the bank and sits in the muck. She picks up the phone and puts it back in her pocket. She gets to her feet. Her gait is demented and she stumbles off the path and starts to walk the perimeter of the pond, inside the bald shrubbery, hiding from view like a child. Snow splatters on the non-waterproof uppers of her boots. She has a five in her pocket. She could get the streetcar home. She left her funeral clothes and some make-up at Ben’s but she will just have to forfeit them. Her butt is all wet and when she finally gets to where the pond meets the highway, she can’t decide if she should get on the streetcar or wait until her pants dry. She doesn’t know if her seat will dry in this weather. Are clothes slower to dry in humid or dry air? She just stands there, making sure to stay concealed by the rim of bushes, watching the cars go by, trying to think what to do. She shudders from cold.
Joanne will always be dead. Nothing is changed by Louise thinking about her. Thought fragments break through anyway. Against her will they struggle to trace just how Joanne’s body gave up. They never come in response to cues Louise can predict and steel herself for – like an Erykah Badu song or a TV show Joanne liked. Instead they come when she’s on a phone conference at work explaining best practices; when she’s trying to navigate a cranky rush-hour intersection on a bike. Yesterday, in the awful basement crematorium of a big church on Parliament Street, Ben’s family, his family friends, his family friends’ cousins, and Louise crushed together and waited for Joy to flip the incinerator switch. It was supposed to have been just Ben, Joy and Sammy, but no one was up to the uncomfortable task of turning the rabble away. The room was a cacophony of tiny sounds, throat clearing, nose-blowing, wiping tears on sleeves. Louise stood behind a pillar and tried to focus on the floor tiles. But instead her mind went to a Joanne she had tried to forget. She pictured Joanne alone in her horrible apartment with yellowed stucco and the dirty carpet, knowing she was dying and that she’d never have children, knowing she was dying and it wasn’t a sunny day, knowing she was dying and she couldn’t reach the phone. Louise’s mother has put away all the photos of Joanne, save for one: Joanne is a baby with a bow taped to her sparse hair, full of gummy joy, before everything.
Louise hears Ben say her name. She can make him out, twenty feet away, only slivers of his back through the snarl of branches. She has to stare for a moment to be sure it’s really him. Louise, she hears him say. He says it a second time, not like a curse but like a question. She imagines herself bursting out of the bushes, her hair wild with twigs, big enough to speak.
The Saturday that Ben undid her buttons, they met for lunch at a pho restaurant, and he’d had to take his glasses off to eat his noodles so the steam didn’t fog up his vision. There was something intimate about his face without them, and she’d had to work not to reach for his cheek. After the server took their plates, Ben removed the bottles of sauce and seasoning from the middle of the table one by one, lining them up against the edge. She worried this meant he was the compulsive type, but then he reached across the space he’d made, and took her hands in his.
He is such a nice man, and all she has done is sap his grief. He recedes through the park.
She watches him go.
Her phone is ringing. This time, she picks it up.
‘I made chicken wings,’ Louise’s mother says. She starts to cry. Joanne and Louise’s mother is a very composed person, the kind who wears a bra even when she’s home alone. Through her tears she tells Louise she’s found a new marinade recipe.
‘It is just perfect,’ she sobs.
Across the highway, Louise sees the red of the streetcar. If she catches it, she can make the 1.43. There is a break in the traffic and she staggers for it. She clanks up the steps and uses her five-dollar bill to pay almost twice the fare, not making eye contact with anyone, on account of the wetness of her pants. The window by her is open, though it is so cold, and as the streetcar pulls out of the stop, the trees thin and she sees Ben and the others far away, across the highway and that giant floe, four dots together.
They are doing t’ai chi in a row, standing with their faces to the sun. They know the sequence off by heart, always sure of which curled arm, which gliding foot, which steady hand comes next. Like a gym class on ice, they follow each other’s movements in snail-paced unison.
Louise sticks her arm out the window and cranes her neck to watch them, until they disappear behind the trees. Her phone is still in her hand and though the wind blisters her fingers as the streetcar gains speed, she doesn’t pull her arm back in. She feels the freezing air rush into those spaces between her phone and palm, and she imagines what it would feel like to let it go.
Image © Timothy Neesam