What I think about, now, is that she didn’t have to come back and tell me. I’d loved talking with them, this couple in their sixties, listening to their stories about how they were in Iraq on 9/11, met the Dalai Lama way back when, cycled through Turkey for months living off of £35 a week between them. She’d forced a lump into my throat and a scratch to my eye when she’d said goodbye in the cafe, touching my arm to say, “Laura, it’s so wonderful to meet a young person like you, living a life they love. Good luck.”
I was looking out over the water, drinking my cooling chai and giving a little prayer of thanks that somebody should remind me of these blessed, lucky days, when I felt her presence return, hovering over my shoulder. I looked up and smiled.
“You see, just to tell you,” she said, leading from the middle of a story that I wasn’t sure, now, I’d understood the beginning of, “I have terminal brain disease. They gave me five years to live.”
“I wanted to say: do it all whilst you can, you know? Like you are doing. You don’t know when your time is up.”
The sun brightened and we sat and waited and when the cab arrived he promised he’d see me later, once he’d picked up the visa we didn’t yet know had been denied. He spoke in Hindi to the driver, nodding his head towards me, and I didn’t catch a thing, of course, until he said an English word in amongst his foreign instructions.
It was like a shard of broken glass catching sunlight on the kitchen floor. When the beam hits it that way, just so, so that it reflects back to you blindingly. When it makes you careful of where you step, because you’ve got stars in your eyes and you know that if you’re not mindful a wrong step could make you both bleed.
In a song not my own, in that foreign tongue, he said the word wife. He both looked at me pointedly and glossed over the noun easily. Effortlessly.
He was telling the driver to look after his wife.
I’ve been woken up these past six weeks at 6 a.m. every morning, by my parents’ laughter. They are, categorically, unequivocally, best mates, and have the most rip-roaring, incredible time together. Hanging out. I don’t think I knew how much laughter there is between them. How deep that love goes. Maybe I’ve avoided knowing, in the same way I avoid the sweet aisle in the grocers when I’m trying to cut back on sugar – if I can’t have it, I don’t want to know about it.
There was always a moment, with him, when we were out with his friends, when I would feel him decide to want me a little bit more. He’d overhear me say something, part of a conversation. He’d watch me have an opinion, demand the space, be myself, make somebody who wasn’t him laugh. And in that moment he’d move from wherever he was and put his hand on me – on my neck or my back or my knee – to claim me. It happened three times, and every time it took me by surprise how thrilled I was to belong to another. To be tethered in that way. I’ve spent an awful lot of time wrestling free on belonging to anyone, anything, but not with him. With him I’d lean in closer. I didn’t know that even one week later, once I was gone, he’d do the same with somebody else. But then, these things happen. I made an error in judgement, I suppose, and I've sought comfort in my own ways too. The grey area does that.
She left holding hands with her husband, the dying woman, and I cried. I cried with gratitude and relief because I knew, a lightening bolt of truth, that if I was on a ticking clock this is exactly the life I would want to be living, balls to the wall in love and trying and crying and picking myself back up. Cried because fuck. Life is so shitting unfair and short. Cried because mostly it is loss that reminds us about what we value.
Some men are muscle memory, and I feel him curled around the back of me, two questions marks and not quite an answer, though we tried. Still are trying, in our own funny way. It makes me wonder if I’m nostalgic for what I miss, or for a future I might not know. I have her voice in my imagination, that stranger's, telling me with a care I wasn’t prepared for – do it on purpose. Whatever you do, do it on purpose. I fall asleep and I hear them again, my parents, lay in bed next to one another, 30 years in, still laughing.
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