By Dilia Narduzzi
The neighbourhood is the same, mostly. The trees are taller, though, and the canopy shades the village, with bright bursts of orange, yellow, and red overtaking all the green. Her favourite diner is now a cupcake shop instead, but the used bookstore is still here and the Salvation Army store still holds students scoring the racks to find something cheap but unique to wear dancing later. It is early enough in the school year that the students don’t look all that tired yet, the chain coffeeshop and the indie ones full to brimming with kids away from home for the first time discussing how the philosophy prof said love is always already a failure (it couldn’t be!) and the sociology prof saying that social media was both democratic and capitalistic (duh!). In about a month and a half, it would likely be much dourer in these spaces, with worries about exams and passing and what next semester would bring infiltrating the air in ways that even organic, bird-friendly coffee couldn’t penetrate or dispel.
Silvia opens the door to the Dream Bean, which after all this time looks about the same as it did twenty years ago. She walks up to the counter and sees Melissa, the proprietor, behind the counter with her back turned toward the espresso machine, along with a student part-timer who is taking money for a latte from the person in line ahead of her. Melissa turns around and hands the drink to the boy with a smile that’s wide and calm, just as Silvia remembers it, but it’s also older now, almost ashen. She has to be pushing sixty by now. But at the same moment she passes along the coffee, her eyes look up and catch Silvia’s without missing a beat.
“Baby girl! Aren’t you a blast from the past.”
Silvia had been a part-timer at the Dream Bean for the full four years she went to school in Hamilton and Melissa turned into a second mother for a time. A wave of shame washes over Silvia as she realizes how long it’s been since she’s called Melissa to say hi or even left her a note online. Once she’d graduated, she moved back to the West coast and took a job in the non-profit animal sector, working her way up to a director position last year. Her time in Hamilton was foundational, fundamental––she felt like she learned how to be an adult, alone and with other people––but she also saw it as being in the past now, something that she didn’t really need or want to revisit.
“Melissa! It’s been a long time.”
Pushing forty-five, Silvia feels so far away from the girl she’d been in Hamilton, and her heart is now actually physically hurting after exploring the village where she had once spent so much time. Melissa walks around the counter and takes Silvia’s hands in her own. Her watery, rheumy eyes––that’s new, they used to be incredibly clear––stare deeply into Silvia’s.
“You’re here for the funeral then?” Silvia burst into tears.
Melissa pats her back reassuringly. “It’s okay, honey,” she says.
The door to the café opens as Silvia dries her eyes and in walks Kim and Annette, Silvia’s two best friends from the old days. They’re also here for the funeral, but mostly they’re here for Silvia. Silvia met the two of them in residence during the first week of school, and they are pretty much it when it comes to who Silvia talks to from university. Annette is the one who told her to check her phone three days ago.
Have you looked at Facebook yet today? Annette texted, at 6:30a.m. on a Thursday morning, three days ago now. No, why? Silvia said, still mostly asleep, her alarm didn’t go off till 7:00a.m. Go online, she wrote. Something’s happened to Alex.
And that’s when her whole world flipped upside down.
“Hi bub. How are you doing?” It’s Kim who breaks the ice today. Silvia’s eyes are red and blotchy. She doesn’t even really know why she’s here. But she’s grateful her friends showed up.
Silvia, Kim, and Annette drink coffee in a quiet corner of the Dream Bean. The funeral is at two o’clock, and they still have a few hours till they have to get to the funeral home.
“Why was he on the highway at 2:00a.m. on a weeknight? Why is he dead?” Silvia is repeating herself now because nothing seems to compute.
Kim doesn’t know what to say – she always thought Silvia gave Alex up too fast after what happened. Maybe – just maybe – if they’d stayed together, Alex wouldn’t have been on the highway on some random night doing god knows what. Annette, on the other hand, is the one who pushed Silvia to say goodbye. If he does something like this once, he’ll do it again, she said. It’s best you just cut your losses.
“Does Reg know anything else?” Silvia asks about Alex’s best friend, the one who posted the awful news to Facebook in the first place. Mentioning Reg’s name brings her back to reading the post. Reg said that Alex was in a car accident in the middle of the night on the highway. He died on the operating table. She didn’t write anything at all under his post; she didn’t add to the condolences, shock, and grief. The finality of death is all she could see, feel. Alex wasn’t in the world anymore. Now there’d definitely never be a second chance for her and Alex. It was all over. Alex was forty-four.
“I haven’t seen anything else come up over on his feed, except for the funeral home and burial details,” Kim says. “Are you sure you want to go through with this Silv? Will you be okay?”
Over the years, though, Silvia wondered if she did the right thing. Should they have tried to work things out? Should she have given him another chance? She never could find anyone who made her feel the way Alex did. Who could talk to her about books, art, the ocean, food, whatever. They never ran out of things to talk about. And when they touched, it always still felt like it did the first time, like all the nerve endings in her body were electric. She’d dated, of course, but everyone she met was just… boring.
In her everyday life in Vancouver, Silvia mostly tried to forget about Alex, and that was easy enough considering they were provinces apart. Three years ago, they randomly met up in Reno, Nevada, of all places. They were both representing their respective workplaces at a conference on water – she for her job at the provincial aquarium and he for his environmental engineering firm. She was checking into the conference hotel as he was walking past her to his room. They joked about a water conference being held in the desert. They ate dinner together. They separately wondered – but never uttered aloud – why they never got hitched. She made sure she didn’t kiss him on the cheek goodnight.
“I’ll be fine. I have to do this. I have to say goodbye. But let’s go now, I want to make a stop first.”
“Let’s go to Bennett Street,” Silvia says to her friends as they leave the coffeeshop and walk into the neighbouring side streets.
Bennett Street is how they referred to the big old house Silvia and Alex rented together in their fourth year of school. Silvia thinks back to that time, when they were so young. Previously, she was living with Annette and Kim in a smaller house rental on the other side of train tracks, but Annette finished her degree in three years and Kim decided to move back home for the last year of school and commute in in order to save money. Silvia and Alex had been dating for a few years by then already and he spent most of his time at Silvia, Annette, and Kim’s anyways, so they decided to make it official and find their own place. Within days, they’d been approved for the top floor of an old Victorian, two bedrooms – one for them the other for their desks – and a balcony that was the perfect sitting spot in the summer and fall, before the weather turned to colour and crisp air. Shaded by two huge maples, it was private, and Alex and Silvia would eat salads topped with watermelon and berries or BBQ chicken outside, hidden from their neighbours. It was their year of domestic bliss while finishing their degrees. But the work of graduating didn’t seem so bad because they had each other and were planning for a future together after school ended.
Silvia, Kim, and Annette are walking mostly silently until they reach the Bennett Street house. It looks a little older than it did back then. The white paint on the stairs leading up to the front door is peeling off, exposing bits of grey underneath. The brass mailbox is tarnished and one of the street numbers has lost a screw and the nine is now a six upside down. But there are mums in pots lining the stairs and a few mini-pumpkins placed on a small table on the veranda, so whoever lives here now still cares. Silvia walks up to the front door and knocks, and Kim and Annette hang back at the bottom of the steps. A woman with bright white curly hair answers the door.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
“Hi. You don’t know me,” Silvia begins, “but I lived in this house twenty years ago when I was attending university. I was wondering if I could take a look at my old bedroom on the second floor. I’m in town for an old friend’s funeral – we used to live together here – and I’m feeling quite nostalgic walking the old streets.”
“Did you rent from my son, Bobbie? Bobbie Meadows is his name?” the woman asks, her eyes suspicious.
Silvia couldn’t ever forget Bobbie. Whenever he would come by to collect rent cheques he would stay awhile and talk to them about whoever he was dating. He’d talk to them about city politics, too, since he ran for office – and won a municipal seat – during that time.
“Yes! Bobbie was our landlord,” Silvia says. She’s hopeful she’ll be let in. She wants a reminder of who she used to be. The girl before the woman. She wants to remember Alex here. She wants to grieve. She wants to see the backyard.
“Bobbie would have let you in, I’m sure,” the woman says, with a scowl. “But this is my house now. You could be lying for all I know. Leave my property right now!” The anger coming from this old lady is stark and sudden.
Silvia is flabbergasted. She thought the woman would let her in. She’s not lying; she just wants to see her old place. “Are you serious? You won’t let me in? Call Bobbie right now – he’ll vouch for me.” She’s getting angrier as she talks and the tears are coming back too.
“Silv, let’s go,” Annette walks up the stairs and puts her hand on Silvia’s shoulder, while the old lady is spewing spittle Silvia’s way and saying: “I live here now, not my son, so I’m not calling him. And if you don’t leave now, I’m calling the police about an intruder on my property. Get out!”
The old lady slams the door shut and Silva is stunned. “What the fuck? Who does she think she is?” she says to her friends. Inside, she’s steaming with anger. She just wanted to say goodbye to Alex in their old space.
“Silv, she’s a jerk, come on. Let’s go see Alex.” Annette says as she and Kim both pull Silvia down the steps and down the street. Silvia has nothing to say.
Silvia, Kim, and Annette arrive at the funeral visitation. Kim and Annette hang back and let Silvia go up to say her condolences first. Silvia kisses Alex’s father on the cheek, then his mother, his sister Sophie, all of whom look numb. Silvia met Alex’s parents all those years ago, but they don’t seem to remember her, or, if they do, they don’t acknowledge her in any way beyond the kiss on her cheek. That’s what everyone gets when they offer condolences. Then Silvia moves on to Reg and Reg’s wife Caitlin, who also make up the receiving line, both of them have red, watery eyes. Reg takes her hands in his own and gives them a squeeze; he knew everything that happened back then and he wished Alex and Silvia could have got past it all. It was just a few kisses, he’d said at the time, just a drunken mistake.
Silvia’s mainly attended Catholic services where the embalmed body is laid out and guests can kneel in front of it to pray to God for deliverance for the dead person. Here, there is no casket; Alex has been cremated and an urn sits at the front of the funeral home, which feels utterly surreal. Once Silvia walks the line of those who were the most important to Alex, she turns to face the rest of the packed room and sees faces she recognizes from the neighbourhood, from university. Kim and Annette are seated already; Silvia realizes they are here more for her than they are for Alex or his family. Silvia sits and Kim puts an arm around her. She whispers an “are you okay?” in Silvia’s ear and all Silvia can do is squeeze Kim’s hand. There’s nothing here of Alex that Silvia can hold on to – she thought she might have been able to touch his hands and whisper goodbye to his body at least, to see him one last time.
“Let’s go,” Silvia says to her friends and the three of them get up and leave.
Silvia met Alex in philosophy class. He was a townie. Hamilton born and bred, he decided to attend the local university. He said that the school was a good one and he never had particular aspirations to get out of the place where he grew up, like Silvia did with Vancouver. Alex was uncomplicated: he told Silvia, in so many words, that he believed in family, working during the week, and playing on the weekend. He was an engineering major; as a boy he liked to see how everything fit together and he grew up to be good with machines. Silvia saw him for the first time in class, which was one of Alex’s electives. (This was when engineering students could still take something like philosophy without being ribbed too much by the other engineers.) He walked into the class of about thirty students and sat down in one of the seats up front, without paying attention to where he was exactly. Silvia was watching him the whole time and when he looked to his left, towards Silvia ––who happened to be beside him––their eyes locked. She could tell that he was taking in her long, charcoal-black hair, a slightly askew nose, and aluminum-coloured eyes. She smiled at him before the prof called the class to attention. She noticed his lean but muscular body, his light brown hair, and hazel eyes. Later Alex will tell her that he vaguely heard what the prof said about what they would cover in the course––mind, body, and soul, the philosophy of love, does life have meaning? and logic vs. rationality. He was half looking in Silvia’s direction the whole time. She looked back at him but she was also paying attention to the prof. She didn’t understand it until much later, but when he looked at her, she felt noticed, seen. The prof finished his spiel and Alex, Silvia, and the others packed up their stuff.
Silvia left the classroom and was way ahead of him in the hallway, her long legs leading her around the labyrinth building and out towards the door. The details of their first conversation were seared into her mind: they were in one of the university’s oldest, original buildings. The grid-like, ornate windows had such an overgrowth of ivy on the outsides, it looked like you were in the English countryside. The ceiling was high, and the air was cool. The conversation was brief, hardly nothing was said at all. But it was their start.
“Do you want to get a coffee and talk about morality? I heard him say something about guilt and making decisions?” He picked up on the one thing he heard the prof say before they left.
She paused, assessing.
“Okay,” she said finally.
Silvia, Kim, and Annette have an early dinner at the Thai restaurant in the village that somehow still serves the same food they did years ago. Silvia begs off shortly afterward, saying she needs rest, and Annette and Kim don’t fight her on it. They’ll see her tomorrow morning for breakfast before they all head back to the airport. Silvia needs to return to her hotel room, she’s shattered.
Silvia thinks back to Reg’s Facebook post and the outpouring of emotion over Alex’s death as she’s walking back. Mostly she thinks social media is a sham, so she’s a lurker. She sees people’s updates online, of course, but she rarely adds anything of her own. She feels that the online versions of the people she once knew are so farfetched they’re close to outright lies. A few months ago, in the same week two of her Facebook friends announced divorces online. But scrolling back through these people’s feeds were pictures of happy family vacations, date nights, and togetherness at their kids’ soccer games in the weeks just prior. Silvia figures until the bubble literally bursts people just show what they want you to think their lives are about –– or maybe what they themselves what to believe. Just these past few days, though, she’s starts wondering if those pristine versions of people’s lives are just their way of getting by. That it’s all a little more nuanced than she originally thought. That she doesn’t know anything anymore.
No one blamed Silvia when she left. She had every right, they said. She was in the right. Alex had fucked up. He begged, said he wouldn’t do it again, pleaded for another chance. Silvia said no and didn’t look back. In the years that passed, she even forgave him. But she never fully regretted her decision until now.
Silvia gets back to her hotel room, pulls off her shoes, and starts drinking. She recalls the inscription that she and Alex had engraved into one of the maples in the backyard, in what was the old lady’s house now. Faint, small, it was hardly noticeable unless you were looking. A + S, enclosed in a heart with cupid’s arrow running above and below it. It wasn’t unique, but they were so in love and drunk on their togetherness when they drew it that it felt inspired and original, like most of love’s feelings do when they are your own.
She still hadn’t found anyone like Alex in the years since.
Silvia pours her fourth – or is it fifth – whiskey of the night and pulls off her shirt and skirt and flings them towards the heels she’s already discarded. She’s buzzed in a way she can’t remember being in a very long time. Fuck that old lady, she thinks, she’s probably never been in love. In an instant, she pulls back on her shirt and skirt and grabs her heels as she calls for an uber.
“Drop me off at the corner of Bennett and King,” she tells the driver. She’s going to look at that tree in the backyard with or without permission.
Silvia sneaks through the neighbour’s backyard on the corner – the house beside what was her and Alex’s is open to the street. But there’s a five-foot-tall chain-link fence separating their old place with this one, and Silvia doesn’t care anymore, five drinks in. She loses one heel and her skirt catches as she climbs the fence and even though it isn’t that high, her balance is off and she almost topples head first into the bushes. But she makes it and the rusty-coloured Virginia creeper cushions her fall. She gathers herself and starts walking toward the maple with the etching of their initials. She takes two steps past the fence and a bright, blaring light highlights the entire backyard. At once startled and confused, Silvia thinks the yard and its flowers and trees looks ghoulish, in the dark-light glow of the tree. She rushes to the tree before the old lady can see her. It’s still there! – A + S – a little higher up than it was twenty-five years ago, but since trees move with the patience of the ages she can still reach it, and the bark is actually a little frayed around the spot around the initials, so she starts peeling the bark off the tree. The indoor kitchen lights come on downstairs – Silvia remembers the view from when they’d sit outside with their downstairs neighbours – and Bobbie’s mother cracks the window open and yells out, “Hey! What are you doing?…” Silvia hears something about calling the police, but she’s already moving by then and she doesn’t care anyway. She practically catapults herself over the fence, rights herself, and she’s running now, and she feels like the girl she used to be, with some part of Alex still with her now.
She passes the neighbour’s house on the corner, and ducks around toward the next side street over. She stops, hunches over to catch her breath for a minute – she thinks she’s in the clear now – and as she straightens up, she sees Alex pass over her tear-streaked eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he says. He’s as young as he was when they were together; no grey around his temples, no lines around his eyes. “I’ve regretted what I did forever,” he continues.
Silvia tries to reach out and touch him – he’s right there! Right beside the alleyway! She stumbles toward him and tries to put her hand on his.
He’s gone as soon as she moves.
Silvia twirls around one more time, but she’s alone. She stumbles down the street toward the village. The sun is starting to rise now over the buildings. It’s going to be a bright, crisp, fall day.