It had all started with the little pink heart. The pink pixelated heart, bequeathed by a virtual stranger eighteen days after his daughter had died. And now he was here, four months later, pretending to read the Sunday Times, struggling to recall the last time he’d been inside a coffeehouse on State.
The givers of the other hearts were people he knew: his siblings, his sister-in-law, their neighbors, her classmates’ parents. Then, eighteen days after his world fell apart, the unfamiliar name appeared on his online grief journal, a digital stamp of endorsement. He barely registered it, except to assume it was a friend of Gayle’s.
He set his pencil down on the sticky table, watching as the barista lined a row of clay mugs on the pickup counter. Half her head was shaved; the other half a shock of purple. Around him students laughed and carried on, a sea of half-zipped parkas, rubber boots, and patterned mittens. His chair wobbled a little.
He had gone on with the posts for longer than he should have, feeling self-indulgent but also entitled. He handwrote each bulletin in a messy scrawl and painstakingly transferred it to the little box on the HealingJournal website. It had been Regina’s idea, and it gave him something to do with all the energy that had been focused on the peach emesis trays and the medication regimen and the insurance battles and getting and keeping food in her, the girl who loved to eat, her lost appetite the first disturbing sign in a year of disturbing signs.
At first the likes and comments abounded from everywhere; her friends, his friends, Gayle’s friends, teachers at her school, the care team that had fought and failed to keep her alive. People said his writing spoke to them, that it made them understand even though of course (“of course,” they’d add with a shudder) they could not imagine. But slowly, even his most devoted readers, the ones who had faithfully commented and texted and dropped off casseroles faded and stopped talking about it. No one said it, but he knew people were waiting for him to move on. To stop making it awkward. He’d heard Gayle’s sister ask, “Do you think he’ll stop soon?” before she knew he was within earshot.
Gradually he realized that EmmyJ28 was the first to like his posts, almost every night. He started to imagine her sitting at her computer with a cup of something cozy smelling, reading his missives, taking gentle sips.
He wondered if she was one of the nurses who had loved his girl more than he’d thought possible, who had sat with them until the very end, who had seen more evils than he could fathom. Kids so much younger than his girl. When he saw those parents in the halls, in the elevator, he had to stop himself from shuddering, from looking at them with that grotesque sense of horror and pity.
He recognized it, because people did it to him. And though he hated it, despised it, he couldn’t stop doing it to others.
Thanksgiving made 53 days, and with a bottle of half-drained Knob Creek by his side, crab dip and cracker remnants burbling in his stomach, he sent the stranger a private message. “Do I know you?”
The response came when the bottle was one-fifth full.
“Can we meet?”
He felt vulnerable, naive, like one of those unfortunates featured on the program called Catfish, or Catfishing, something his girl had once tried to get him to watch. There was part of him that thought EmmyJ28 must be very young, that this interaction would somehow get him dismissed from the university.
Or, she’d be a grandmother, and considering this possibility disappointed him in a way that made him uncomfortable. It was ridiculous to think that this connection was romantic. He and Gayle were an institution. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t interested in anyone else, it was that there was no one else. He pulled his mug closer to him, feeling the puff of steam on his cheeks.
Regina always reminded him grief wasn’t linear. Time wouldn’t make it better, necessarily, but it would make it different. Less acute and visceral. That his chest wouldn’t feel like it was being squeezed so often, that he wouldn’t struggle for breath, that he wouldn’t feel woozy when he passed her bedroom.
She wasn’t what he had expected, not at all.
She wasn’t pretty. Her face was round and featured a severe, sloped nose, but the overall effect was pleasing, not harsh. She smiled and sat down, facing him. The ice cubes in her blood red drink jangled, and she sucked some down through a plastic straw. She was inelegant, he noticed right away.
He thought about the ways he could escape. In those early days he and Gayle had grasped for the stories they had never heard. For memories they hadn’t shared, for glimpses into her life. But after a time that had started to feel wrong, voyeuristic. And more than that, it hurt. Deeply.
He had shared so much in the journal it made him want to retch when he thought about all he had laid bare. But it was different when he was hunched over his Moleskine or transcribing posts in his office. When it was just ones and zeroes floating out into a digital landfill.
“We don’t have to talk about it,” she said, playing with her straw, making a mini screeching sound.
He let his breath out a little and nodded. That was good. This was okay. He was here and he was okay. And nothing mattered, but maybe that was okay.
“I’m Julia,” she said.
He felt like he should ask questions, but he didn’t want to. And she didn’t seem to mind. She pointed to his paper, gestured for it, and he handed it to her.
He thought she might try to solve a clue. Instead she smiled and pushed it back to him. “I don’t know why I did that.”
A laugh threatened to break loose from deep in his belly. He didn’t want to scare her. But if his white-tinged hair and bent glasses and faded jeans hadn’t scared her, maybe she didn’t scare too easy.
The whole thing was preposterous. He didn’t even know what he wanted from this person. He didn’t know this person. He’d feel embarrassed if his girl ever found out. She’d tease him, make fun of him mercilessly. Make May-December jokes, midlife crisis jabs.
And maybe it was that. Midlife, and premature disruption of life. The finality of it, swirling around in his head and threatening to overtake him, his breath, everything. The lights in the coffee shop flickered, or maybe it was his vision. No one else seemed to notice. He sucked in a short, sharp breath.
He was suddenly, acutely aware of his stubble and wished he’d shaved. He was sloppy, untucked.
“So you must have…” He had always considered himself someone who was comfortable with silence. Who could sit with discomfort. Who could stare back at it, unfazed.
He had been wrong.
She didn’t respond, but held his gaze. Didn’t look away. She reddened slightly, but it could have been the battered radiator rumbling next to them.
“We didn’t think…” He tried again. Faltered again.
She shook her head. “We don’t need to talk about anything,” she said, and it soothed him in the way that he wanted someone, anyone to soothe him.
“Good,” he said.
She lifted her chin, fixed her eyes on something behind him. Shifted down a little in her seat. The tag was sticking out of her scarf. She let out a honk of laughter. “Do you ever think about how much absolute garbage there is in the world? Like, not what’s in actual landfills but how much random … crap is in people’s houses. All of our houses, really.”
He liked the way she grasped for the word crap. Like it wasn’t something her mouth was accustomed to saying. He still couldn’t bring himself to say anything.
“I’m talking about things that you will never use. That maybe were once useful but now they are so far under a layer of other garbage and dust that you don’t even remember you have it, but you also aren’t willing to throw it away. And then, when you die, your kids get it, but what are they supposed to do with it? Then when they— ” She stopped herself. Fidgeted with an unspooled piece of yarn on her mitten. “I didn’t mean—”
No one ever did. He cupped his hands around his mug. “It’s like my stack of old Atlantics. I’m never going to go back and read them. But I’m saving them, for something.”
“That’s not bad. I’m talking about the unused fertilizer in your garage. The weird knick-knacks you inher- you – that have been in your family for years. Stuff that’s broken. Old toys that no one plays with anymore.”
“And you’re proposing we dump it all in a landfill?” He felt warm, suddenly. Probably the radiator, but also like a little part of him was waking. Was up for a debate.
“I’m not proposing anything. I have no answers.” She bit her lip. “It just makes me really depressed to think about it.”
He laughed. “Then your life has been very good.”
She laughed, too, and he saw that her smile was very nice. That her teeth were perfectly crooked-straight, like her smile had been even enough to avoid braces but not so well-aligned as to be obnoxious.
He almost began surveying her, like one of his students. To prompt her for her full name, her origin story. How many siblings she had; her birth order. The experiences that had been formative. The holidays her family celebrated. The books that had had an impact on her. Instead he took a sip from his mug. It was cold. The tip of his tongue still burned from earlier, and he ran it across his teeth, relishing the numbness.
His alarm went off. It was time for the little white pills with the fuzzy writing. He silenced the ringer and slid his phone back into his pocket. The pills were in his satchel, the one Gayle had gotten him for Christmas and swore was stylish but his girl had teased him for. Had called it a man-bag and all manner of nicknames. Even near the end, when she didn’t have the extra breath to expend, she had teased him. He took another swig of cold coffee.
EmmyJ28, which was how he still thought of her despite her introduction, cocked her head to one side and her mouth fell open a tiny bit. She brushed a thick straw of hair behind her ear. “Do you want to go for a walk?”
He nodded before he was aware that he had done so. There was a faculty meeting he was supposed to call in for, and he was fairly certain it was his turn to pick up the dry cleaning and Winston’s anticonvulsants. In theory he was supposed to be peer reviewing a handful of articles.
He held the door open while she swished her hair out from underneath her pea coat and fastened the buttons. She went outside, lips pressed against one another, with little puffs of air achieving the occasional escape. He suddenly wanted a cigarette. He and Gayle had given it up years ago, decades ago. A different lifetime ago. He shoved his hands in his pockets, felt the frayed paper on the right-hand side. The parking ticket from the hospital garage. He choked back a little sob. He hadn’t known, when he’d taken that ticket from the battered little station in the lot on 8th, that it would be the last ticket he’d pull from the idiotic machine.
They walked toward the Capitol and turned onto Johnson, passed through rows of narrow two-stories. Everything was gray. Had it always been like that, he wondered, or was this year especially gray, given everything? He stuffed his gloved hands in his pockets, staving off the desire to do something with them. To reach out and hold onto something, anything.
Every few paces, she’d crane her neck briefly and stare at him. He didn’t know what could possibly be interesting about him. She was energy and verve; she was motion. He was old and slow and sad.
They began to meet on Wednesdays at Michelangelo’s. He learned her order and would have it waiting, peering over the top of his newspaper as she’d clatter inside, always managing to look miserably frozen and hopeful at the same time.
He stopped posting. His sister-in-law had asked about it, kindly, twice, and no one else had mentioned it. He went back to following the script, and people appreciated that.
Julia didn’t do the thing, the pity thing where the only thing people could talk about was Before, and After, and how were he and Gayle doing, and was there anything they could do? That was what he hated most of all. The chipper, “praying for you!” “Please let me know if you need anything!”
What was he supposed to say? ‘I need you to come over at four in the morning when I wake up and realize my seventeen-year-old daughter is dead so you can convince me not to end it all, that there are other reasons to live besides the only one I need.’
He wasn’t going to say that.
“Do you know these guys?” Julia tilted her head toward the ceiling, where a whiny, folky rhythm pulsed softly. She peeled the wrapper off her orange cranberry muffin and took a bite.
He shook his head.
“The Poets. They’re not bad.” She shook off her coat, clumps of snow cartwheeling to the floor.
“Are they always so emotional?” he asked. She smiled, a big, toothy, awkward smile, and he grinned back. “I’ll have to play some real music for you sometime.”
“What, because anything made before 1990 is real music?” she countered.
He scoffed. “I like modern stuff, too.”
“Like what?” She turned around, wrapped the coat on the chair behind her.
At that particular moment, his brain was unable to summon the name of any such contemporary musical act. Or any musical act at all, for that matter. “Just wait. I’ll play it for you some time.”
She opened her mouth and he waited for the challenge, but instead she half-sighed and settled back into her chair. “I’m thinking of leaving my program.”
Someone passed behind him then, a puffy coat knocking against his neck, and he pulled his chair forward, irritated. “Why is that?”
“I like Sociology. But I don’t know if it’s my calling, you know?” She winced as she said it. “Like, there are more useful and productive things I could be doing.”
“You don’t think sociology is productive?”
She took another bite of the muffin, and crumbs cascaded onto her turtleneck. “I’m in such an echo chamber. It’s just…reading. And then railing against our racist, sexist, capitalist society. I could be like…I don’t know. Actually helping people.”
“And how do you propose you’d do that?”
“Like, start a nonprofit or something. I know someone who did that.”
“What would this nonprofit do?”
She steepled her hands on the table. “I mean, maybe food. Or, like, education for young girls. I don’t know.”
“What’s stopping you from doing that now?”
“You don’t have to quit your program to help people. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or something.” He sounded gruffer than he intended. But she had to realize how utterly ridiculous she sounded.
“It just seems like a lot of student debt. And I don’t know what I’d even be doing when I graduate. I don’t think I want to teach. No offense.” She tried to smile at him, but he wasn’t amused.
“People do things because they want to do them. Period. If you’re not volunteering now, you’re not going to volunteer when you leave your program. And then you become a highly educated barista. Is that what you want?”
He saw the tears in her eyes before she made a sound and knew he’d pushed too hard.
“I have to get to class.” She scraped the half-eaten muffin off the table and threw it in the trash, then gathered her cup and coat and bookbag and left without even putting the coat on.
He watched as the door jingled behind her, too cheerful for him, too cheerful for everything.
She came to his house while Gayle was at class. They stayed in the basement. She sat on the couch with her legs criss-crossed underneath her, opposite the boxy Dell that had once been attached to a dial-up modem. She sat on top of her hands, shifting forward.
He thought about kissing her, but it wasn’t a desire, exactly, more of a fleeting thought, the ones Regina had said to try not to pay too much mind to. He liked Regina but didn’t love her, which felt like an appropriate relationship to have with your therapist.
He picked at a rip in his beige recliner, brushed off a clump of Winston’s hair. She was looking at something, a painting Gayle had done, during a phase, when their girl was four and a whirling dervish. Gayle had captured that look she’d had, the one where her mouth seemed on the verge of cracking open, how red her cheeks were, how you could sense, even then, that she was a force to be reckoned with.
“I’m hungry,” he said abruptly, and stood, and waited for her to go upstairs first. He checked to make sure the basement door was locked, then hit the light panel and trailed upstairs, too, impossibly heavy. Outside the day was gray, misty, with a few gleams of sun occasionally cracking through.
She was looking at the refrigerator, at a picture of the three of them in Copenhagen, grinning on bikes. He wondered who had taken it. There was so much he had forgotten. His brain was useless, remembering all the wrong things and very little of the right ones.
He adjusted the photo, re-pinning the magnet, pulled the fridge open. “Do you want anything?”
She examined the contents of the fridge. A suspicious sludge had formed beneath the tomatoes, and he made a mental note to deal with it. He thought she was going to do that classic refusal of anything, but she reached in and grabbed one of Gayle’s lime sparkling waters.
“You like those?” He closed the fridge door.
She took a sip. “I thought you were hungry.”
“I’m not.” There was an edge to his voice he didn’t like.
“Okay.” She didn’t push, just left it sitting in the air between them.
He needed to do something, anything with his hands. He went over and checked Winston’s bowl. Plenty of water, more than enough food, but he refilled it anyway with the sack from the pantry. She watched him, sipping from her can, not saying anything.
He wanted her to say something, anything. Wanted her to challenge him, or maybe just not be so goddamn understanding. To not look at him with such… caring. It was a way Gayle never looked at him, and he appreciated that, and he missed Gayle in that moment, and he felt what he was doing was not quite wrong but not quite right, either.
He looked up at her as he shut the pantry door. “Why are you here?”
She set the can down on the granite countertop. “I thought…”
“You thought, what?”
She looked at him for a long while, then stood up, her fingers fluttering against her purse, still strapped over her puffy coat. She looked like a little kid and he fought the urge to engulf her in a hug, to say something that would make her stay, to tell her never to leave.
“I wanted to help…”
He almost laughed, but he didn’t. He went over to her, and hand trembling, smoothed a piece of her hair back behind her ear.
She looked up at him, and he understood that she wanted him to come closer, to do something, to touch her in some way.
He gripped the sleeve of the puffy coat. He was ready to move, with her, somewhere. Whether it was the mud room or his bedroom or outside or the university or the dive bar on the Capitol Square, he was ready. “Why?”
She swallowed. “I had a friend who died when I was in high school. He had a heart condition he didn’t know about. I know it’s not the same, but I understand what you’re going through.”
He saw then that one of her bottom teeth was absurdly, wrongly, unabashedly crooked, and wondered how he’d never noticed that before. All his energy focused on this misguided tooth, and he became angry with it. With the tooth, with himself, with life.
And then he really did start to laugh, and she did, too.
When they stopped, she was still staring up at him, waiting, expecting.
He let go of her arm.
“You should go,” he told her gently.
She was very quiet suddenly, and when he turned, he saw only a blur of blue, slipping carefully out the front door.
He went into his study and rummaged through his desk drawer until he found what he was looking for. He wrapped his hand around it and closed his eyes. The furnace shuddered, and the pipe in the upstairs bathroom whistled. He felt the weight on his chest, the squeezing, deafening kind, and tried to suck in air. He gasped, swallowed more air. Heaved a little. Thought about running to the toilet, retching. A cleanse. Outside, a bird cawed incessantly.
He walked up the stairs carefully. Put his hand on the door and tried to breathe, but it was like he’d forgotten. The wisps of air came in short bursts, and his heart pounded, trying to catch up. He could still hear the damn bird. Its cawing took on an urgent clip, vacillating between bright and pernicious.
He pushed the door open and saw the collage first. The little swell of affinity and pride and recognition. His girl, his joy. Beaming, arms thrown up, braces, each photo now a knife.
He moved inside the room and sat in the center of her bed, lying back against the frilly blue pillow Gayle had sewn when their girl was born. He waited for the tears to come, but they didn’t. He waited for the chest pains to come, but they didn’t. He stared up at the outlines of long-gone neon stars on the cathedral ceiling.
He let out his breath. He drew a new one in.
He opened his notebook and began to write.
Elyse Moretti Forbes writes fiction and screenplays and is based in the Midwest. She co-wrote ‘Happily Married After’ with Alison Guessou, which screened at the Transparent Film Festival and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. She is currently working on her debut novel. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family and exploring quiet corners of the world.