This will be something to tell our children.
That’s the first thing she remembers him saying to her. They were in a taxicab and he was holding her hand. She didn’t know how she had gotten there. She didn’t know who he was. She looked down at his hand holding hers and she looked up at his face, his smiling face, and she decided to just trust in it. She decided that this must be her life, her life and any moment she would remember it.
The reason why she couldn’t remember what had just happened was that she had flown over the handlebars of her bike and smashed her face against the pavement. She’d been knocked out, not for long, but she had been totally gone for the time that it lasted. The reason why she couldn’t remember him was that they had never met before.
Later, they would go back to this day again and again.
“You were so beautiful,” he would say.
“I was covered in blood, my nose was all on one side of my face,” she would say. “I was hardly beautiful.” But she would smile.
She was afraid to tell her parents they were living together and so he was never allowed to answer the phone in their apartment. She was, it had to be said, not quite grown up. She took pleasure in pretending to be an adult, attending lectures at the university, taking notes in blue ink and underlining things she needed to remember with red. When she bought new clothes she would phone her mother to tell her, as though it was essential that she still be able to imagine her clearly although she was far away. At Christmas break, she went away and left him and when she came back she promised she would never do that again. While she was home, sleeping in her old room, wearing the flannel pyjamas that she’d found folded neatly under her pillow like the old days, she kept dreaming of her apartment in Vancouver, empty, and it frightened her in a way that she couldn’t say out loud.
It wasn’t perfect. There were whole long days of monotony and washing dishes and the clothes left behind in the laundromat and not enough money to buy dinner and the hydro cut off and the three days in the cold dark wrapped in blankets, reading library books by candlelight.
She didn’t like it when he used her pencils and didn’t sharpen them again before he put them in the pencil case. There were fights about using the wrong tone of voice, and some strange guy at a party, and the past and the future and all of the rest. There were misunderstandings and missed dates and mistaken intentions.
Life was extraordinary at the beginning and then it was ordinary and on reflection she liked the ordinary life best. She was taking classes, studying to be a librarian because that was the kind of practical girl she was. He had a shared studio space over on the east side and he made sculptures out of things he found in dumpsters and then painted them all white so that you could hardly tell what the bits they were made up of had been to begin with. It made everything clean and new. It transformed things in a way that continued to amaze her. He brought home things that he found: a television that only worked on three channels, an enormous potted tree, and once, wondrously, a beautiful wooden cradle. It sat at the foot of their bed and sometimes when he was taking his socks off at night he would set it to rocking with his foot. He was the most impractical person she had ever met.
“Franny for a girl, Johnny for a boy,” he would say.
“Dugald for a boy, Morag for a girl,” she would say.
They could go on like this for hours.
You’re too young, said her parents.
It’s too soon, said her friends.
How do you know if he’s the one, she asked herself.
Let’s get married, he said.
“You could have found an easier way to meet me,” he would say to her, as they lay in their single bed, watching the tree outside the window fill with birds and empty, again and again.
She had been riding her bike down Main Street, daydreaming, thinking of a blue dress she had seen in a shop window and how she might look in it and where she might go in it, and she had suddenly looked up and seen him crossing the street right in front of her. It shouldn’t have been too late to stop, but something went wrong with her reflexes and instead she drove the bike straight into the curb and went flying over the handlebars.
“If life were a novel I would have just twisted an ankle,” she said. “You would have had to put your arm around my narrow, corseted waist to support me as we hobbled back to the manse. Perhaps I would have fainted and you would have had to gather me in your manly embrace.”
“Which is exactly what I did,” he said.
“Which is exactly what you did,” she said.
She might never have met him. She might have turned around and gone back to that shop and tried on the blue dress. She might have bought it and worn it to a swing dance class where she would have met a man named Tom, who would take her dancing every Friday for three years and finally marry her and never take her dancing again. She might have given birth to three green-eyed children who couldn’t spell but could sing, and she might have been happy, or at least believed herself to be. Or she might have put the blue dress right out of her head, and gone back to thinking about archival techniques and the exam that she had next week and she would probably have stopped well before the marked intersection, her thoughts not being the kind to get lost in, and she might have seen the man in the torn blue jeans and the red leather jacket pass in front of her, might have seen him without ever really seeing him and only seconds later he would be gone forever and her life would unspool as it would, and she could go through her whole life thinking there must be someone out there for me somewhere.
He began to leave small bowls of uncooked rice around the house. He hummed under his breath, a song she couldn’t quite make out. And for several days in a row she woke with a piece of thread tied around her ring finger. She said yes because she couldn’t say no, and it seemed that if she was still unsure, then he was sure enough for the both of them. “We were meant to grow old together,” he said. She decided that if he could believe, then she could believe with him, and she said yes because it was the only thing to say.
Her dress was old, borrowed, and blue. They went back to the shop on Main Street but the dream dress was gone. He bought her a pair of silver earrings and that was her something new. He wore a dark suit that she had never seen before and a tie with an embossed pattern that looked like wheels within wheels. Their friends all thought it was a lark. Their parents wouldn’t be told until it was all over. Nobody thought to buy flowers. And there were no pictures. In the days after his death it would be that loss that she would return to over and over. She would have liked to have been able to look at his face from that day once more.
These are the things she said and can never take back:
You always take the last egg.
You never think of me.
She’d been amazed when he actually sold one of his sculptures. It was to a fellow artist, someone with a studio on the same floor as his. This artist painted enormous canvases that sold for sums of money that seemed obscene to her. She didn’t understand anything about art, obviously. After they’d been living together for several months she’d been amazed to learn that he could draw, could actually draw things that you could recognize. He’d done a series of sketches of her for her birthday, done them without her even realizing he was doing them, and when she opened her eyes that morning they had been tacked all over the wall by their bed. I didn’t know you could draw, she thought but didn’t say. She also didn’t ask why he didn’t just make art like that all the time because she knew she would offend him. ” I didn’t know I could look like that,” was all she said.
With the money from the sale of the sculpture he bought a car. He parked it in the tow-away zone in front of their apartment block and was sitting on the hood when she came home from classes. It was an old blue station wagon. He was all lit up like a candle. “Now all we need is the dog and the 2.5 children,” he said.
After he died, her grandmother called once late at night and said she had something to tell her. She said that she had been in love when she was nineteen too, with a boy with the bluest eyes and he had gone away to war and never come back.
“Why are you whispering?” she asked her grandmother.
“Because your grandfather is asleep in the other room.”
The silence hummed down the line between them.
“My grandfather wasn’t the boy, was he?”
They both considered.
“But the boy was my grandfather, wasn’t he?”
This time the silence went on so long that both of them wondered if the other was still there, still on the other end of the line.
“Why are you telling me this now?” she asked finally. “Are you trying to tell me that this doesn’t matter? That I will find someone else? ”
“I’m trying to tell you that I know. That I know it will never be the same.”
She thought about what would be the correct response. She thought about thank you. She thought about I’m sorry. She thought about how useless words are and how obvious this had become to her in the long days and endless nights since the knock on the door. “There’s been an accident,” they had told her.
She had imagined his death more times than she liked to admit. Nights spent lying in bed waiting for him to come home from going drinking with friends, or out to openings that she dreaded attending, or just off on one of his spells of late-night walks when his insomnia got too bad. It made her feel foolish to realize that she couldn’t fall asleep until he was back home, the door safely closed between the two of them and the rest of the world. On those waiting nights she always felt it more than possible that he wouldn’t return. She had told him this once, only once, and he had laughed at her, chided her for her pessimism.
“Don’t you believe we deserve to be happy?” he had asked her.
His father took charge of the funeral and she let him. They had never met, and she was startled to discover he lived less than a mile away from them. It was possible that on those late-night walks he had even passed by the house he had grown up in, had seen his father stone-like and implacable in a lit window. His father had let it be known that his son was a disappointment to him, and, after the death of the mother from cancer, they had become estranged. She didn’t know how long this silence had gone on, she had never asked, or else had been told and forgotten, but now the father was wild and vocal in his grief. He was planning a huge and public service. He was calling for donations to fund a scholarship in his slain boy’s name. He was in the papers every day after it happened, demanding that his boy’s killers be meted out justice. He seemed to like the word justice, used it repeatedly she noted, both in speaking to her on the phone and in what was quoted in the papers. He seemed to think it meant something.
It hadn’t been an accident, although there had been one. He had hit another car. The car he hit was brand new and was driven by the teenaged son of the doctor who owned it. The teenager had turned left at an intersection and been hit by the station wagon, but it was the teenager who was at fault. He was in his last year of high school and his future was all mapped out for him. Everything had been thought of, every provision had been made. He and the other boys in the car had been drinking that night. Not that it explained anything. Not that it made any sense of how they could have dragged him from behind the wheel of the station wagon, the dream of a station wagon, of their blue sky future, how they could have thrown him to the ground and kicked him with their boots until the blood blossomed behind his eyes and the light went out. None of it could ever make any sense to her.
When the police returned his personal effects to her, she found that he had kept every note she had ever written to him in his wallet. Be safe, said one, while another, more banal, said buy milk. On a torn corner of notebook paper it said, I’ve gone to the library but will be back soon. I love you. Tattered little bits of paper. One said simply, Thank you. She held it for a long time trying to remember what it was that she was thanking him for.
After the hospital and the stitches and him taking her back to her apartment in another taxi, after she berated him for leaving her bicycle abandoned on the curb, after he’d made her tea and tucked her up on the couch with an afghan and all the pillows, after all that, he had sat on the floor beside her, stroking her hair, and said, “I don’t ever want to leave.”
“Then don’t,” she said, startling herself. She wanted to come home to him from now on. She wanted him to come home to her. “This may have been the luckiest accident of my life,” she said, trying to make light of it all.
“There are no accidents,” he said.