From the 2016 Christmas collection…
Eden : Alternate Universe Unrelated
They say these meetings are only temporary. A crutch to help with transition after tragedy. A place to tell your stories and to listen to the stories of others, to share in the healing process. The goal is not to forget, but to ease, a salve against the worst of the pain and feelings of helplessness. For some this takes a few weeks, maybe a month, for others many more. For a small handful, a year. For me, this is the third year. Three years of loss and grief, and while I no longer feel the acute pain of sorrow, still I find myself in this church basement twice a week. I often ask myself why I still make these appearances. No one else save the facilitator has been here longer than me. Even the scant few who needed a year or so have come and gone. Why do I still come? It’s certainly not for the weak, lukewarm coffee or chafing plastic chairs, nor the slightly stale, grocery store bakery bland cookies. I come to watch the people. Sam whose wife fought a long battle with cancer. Jenny who lost her infant son. Sienna whose husband was killed by a drunk driver while crossing the street. David whose mother died of a heart attack. Carter whose partner drowned on a fishing trip. Kara whose grandfather drank himself to liver failure. There are others, each with sad stories and pain-drenched emotions, each dealing with the crushing pain of having to say goodbye to a loved one.
I know those wounds they carry, those stark, shorn off edges inside that are left when a piece of your heart is torn away. I understand every bit of the denial and anger that come immediately, bright and blazing and edged with hurt and fear. When it burns out the ashes turn to emptiness and depression that leave you hollow and worn down. There is no quick cauterization of those wounds, nor any bandage to stop the bleeding, no instead they seep relentlessly, a constant reminder that one who was beloved is no longer there and never will be again. Those who suffer such wounds look half like ghosts themselves with their eyes ringed in shadow, hands that clench or twist without notice, posture slumped as if they are a balloon half inflated. I can see it in every person who takes a seat in this ring of plastic chairs, for I have worn each one of them myself, and in these strangers, through the tragedy of loss we share, I see kindred spirits. That is why I still come.
Standing near the table with the coffee, I nod to those who greet me as they arrive, stripping off jackets still deemed necessary by the blustery spring weather. Those who are newer stare a bit at the dark glasses I wear, but I’m beyond the point of taking any offense. After all, who would possibly need such things in a basement where the only natural light filters in from narrow windows wedged up near the ceiling? They have no way of knowing that my sight is damaged and overly sensitive to any kind of brightness, that without these glasses or some kind of blindfold to blunt the light, I’m essentially blind. Sometimes they already assume that I am, and it can be amusing when they realize I can see just as well as they can.
For the next several minutes people continue to arrive, collecting their coffee and finding a seat, and I chat meaninglessly with a few about the weather. A hand falls on my shoulder and I glance back to find Kent, the psychologist who runs the support group. With his white hair, spectacles, and sweater vest he looks exactly like the kindly grandfather he is, the perfect person to help console those going through dark periods in their lives. With a quick greeting to me and the woman standing nearby, he indicates the meeting will begin soon, and people start to settle in. It is only at the last moment that a final man appears at the bottom of the basement stairs, his booted feet carrying him silently to one of the empty chairs in the circle. Without removing the black leather jacket that hugs his slim frame he settles into the seat, long, partially dreaded hair sliding over one shoulder. Tattooed hands slip around his chest to lock in tight and two-toned eyes shift to the floor. There is a sense to him of roiling anger just beneath the surface, balancing on a knife’s edge and eager for the slightest provocation to unleash it. His name is Roin, and this is his third or fourth meeting, although he has yet to say anything aside from his name. Mostly he listens, which is mainly what those who sit in this circle desire from one another, so his silence has gone unmentioned.
Kent makes a formal welcome and begins the meeting, but my thoughts slip easily away from him and those who speak after, focusing instead on the silent latecomer. His defensive position doesn’t lessen in the slightest throughout the hour, nor does his gaze shift, but when one knows what to look for, it’s easy to see how deeply he’s been hurt. Who has he lost? What did they mean to him? How has he found himself in a place he clearly has no interest in being? The meeting passes by as my thoughts unspool, so distracted that I hardly notice as people get to their feet and pull on jackets. There’s only enough time to stand before I catch a glimpse of Roin speaking quietly with Kent, a piece of paper exchanged between them, and then he’s out the door with the same swiftness with which he’d arrived. I’ve sat in this circle with many people, people whose stories will always stay with me, but other than a general feeling of empathy and a sense of being kindred spirits in our grief, there are few who have resonated in any way. I think I’ve noticed Roin because he reminds me of me when I first started attending these meetings. We express the anger differently–he wears it like a badge and I kept it buried deep down inside–and behind it is an avalanche of pain set into motion by life-shattering grief. That kind of anger and all that it masks is dangerous and if left to fester it can do some serious damage…
Chill rain soaks the city at the next meeting, washing the concrete in shining puddles and popping up umbrellas like technicolor mushrooms in a forest. The support group members trickle into the basement beneath hoods and hats, wet shoes squeaking as they descend upon the table holding the coffee as if it’s warmth is the only thing that will keep them alive. The meeting is begun shortly thereafter and once again Roin appears at the last moment, pushing back a deep hood as he descends the stairs. Just as it had been since he joined the group, my attention is taken entirely by the redhead, keyed into him as if we are the only ones in attendance.
“No,” an acerbic voice cuts into my thoughts from the other side of the circle, one I recognize as a man named Brian who had been coming for two months or so. “Why don’t you ask him?” My gaze is dragged back just in time to see the older man stab one finger in Roin’s direction. “He never says anything. What the hell’s so special about his story that he doesn’t need to share it like the rest of us?” Similar to Roin and I, Brian carries quite a lot of anger about his wife’s sudden death to an aneurysm, however he chooses to discharge it belligerently at whomever is nearest, caring not if his words leave wounds.
As if on cue, I can feel Roin tense like a coiled spring, his jaw tightening and those mercury-tinted eyes flash, the rage inside poised to unleash in a way I am completely sure a bully like Brian is unprepared to handle. The entire room seems to draw in on itself, collective breath held in one shared moment of anticipation. In what seems like slow motion, Roin is on his feet, chair skidding back, hands drawing into fists, and I am so sure that there’s about to be bloodshed that I would stake my life savings. But a fraction of a heartbeat later the red haired man snarls a curse at Brian and turns on his heels, stalking across the floor and up the staircase. In the stunned silence that follows I find my own feet in motion, unsure exactly when they started to move, but suddenly the table of coffee is passed and then the stairs, and I’m ascending toward the street.
Warding the basement side door from the elements is an overhang that spills five or so feet out into the alleyway, and today it’s on full duty as rain hammers the cement all around, the fat droplets bouncing off the impervious surface to splatter Roin’s black boots. From the deep breaths pushed purposefully in and out of lungs at a measured pace it’s obvious the other man is attempting to calm himself, although he very much still has the appearance of a cat with it’s back up, tail fluffed to twice the normal size. Disinterested in turning any of that anger onto myself, I simply lean against the door frame, patiently waiting for the moment to pass and the emotion to drain.
“One punch, maybe two,” I say quietly a few minutes later, elaborating when a fiery glare is shot in my direction. “That’s all I estimate Brian would have taken before folding like a wet blanket. All talk, nothing real to back it up.” Silvered eyes turn back on me again, seeming to appraise me anew. People do this all the time, so it’s not a unique experience. “Up until a few years ago I was a nationally ranked Shaolin kung fu competitor. So I not only know how to fight, I also know when someone else doesn’t.” Straightening to my full height, I step away from the doorway, moving to stand beside Roin at the very edge of the overhang, the falling rain lightly dampening my skin and clothing. “Those scars on your knuckles and the way you move say you may know a thing or two about that yourself.”
The comment is neither confirmed nor denied, instead the conversation is returned to something much safer, mainly me. “Are those glasses why you stopped competing?”
“Partly,” I shrug. “It’s hard to convince others to spar or hold tournaments in darkened rooms. I also haven’t been mentally in a place where I could undertake the necessary training. The mind and the body must be aligned, but mine haven’t been since the accident.”
Roin turns to face me full on, close enough to reveal that the ring around the outside of his eyes isn’t just a darkened shade of the iris as it is in most people, but is actually a deep shade of red. It’s striking and so unusual that it’s absolutely beautiful. “Is that why you are here?”
I nod, long hair shifting over my shoulders. “It’s not for the coffee, I can assure you.” If only. I’d trade everything I have for such a mundane reason to have spent so many hours in this basement twice a week for the past three years. “Car accident. Another driver hit the car on an icy road and we went over an embankment. My boyfriend died and my sight was damaged.” The worst day of my life summed up in three terse, emotionally vacant sentences. That’s what three years of therapy will get you, I guess.
“It’s okay to be angry, Roin. God knows I was furious, at the other driver, at the universe, even at Haezyn for leaving me, but mostly at myself because I’d been the one driving that night.” For a long time I berated myself endlessly, mercilessly questioning every aspect of that horrible night. Why hadn’t I noticed the other driver sooner? Why hadn’t I seen that he was out of control and sliding right toward us? Why hadn’t I done something to turn the car in a way that would have kept us from going over the embankment? Why hadn’t I been able to get out of my side of the car fast enough to reach Haezyn and maybe slow the bleeding until the paramedics could arrive? Why, in the end, had I been such a failure to the man I loved? My hatred for myself during that time was so deeply seeded that I withdrew from all the people and things I’d loved, I wouldn’t leave the house, and I stopped taking care of myself. Lyr and Koel were terrified, and they begged me to join this group, hoping that surrounding myself with people in similar situations would begin the healing process.
Roin shakes his head, a frown spreading across his lips. “It is not okay for me to be angry. Angry is why I ended up here in the first place.” He stares down at the puddles on the cement for a long moment before continuing, his voice quiet and laced with pain. “My boyfriend was carjacked by three uptown socialite guys who came down from the east side of the city to go slumming on a Friday night. They took a bunch of drugs and shot Katryl up with heroin and they…” The words trail for a moment and I can see that Roin is trying to steady himself. “They raped him and shot him up with more drugs, but it was too much and the overdose killed him. At the trial, those fancy fucking lawyers painted those three assholes as saints who made one mistake in their otherwise stellar lives and claimed Katryl had asked for the drugs and asked them to use him. The judge bought it, and they were only found guilty of manslaughter. Two of them got a few years in prison, but the other got probation. The man I love was dead and those murderers got such light sentences because they could buy their way out of what they had done.” The redhead is shaking, each word spit out as if it tastes vile and anger bubbling so close to the surface that I can practically feel the heat coming off him in waves. “After the sentencing, when all the handshaking and congratulating was over, I saw the one who only got probation in the hall of the courthouse and I… my sight went red. I wanted to kill him, but was pulled off after only beating him into unconsciousness. Given what I had been through, the judge decided not to find me guilty like the guy’s family wanted, and instead ordered that I attend one hundred hours of these meetings.”
I give him a moment, waiting until the fury has subsided before offering my condolences. “I’m so sorry, Roin.” It’s terrible enough to lose a loved one to an accident, but murder… that’s a whole different level of tragedy. To have your significant other ripped away by violence and then watch one of their killers walk away would drive anyone into a rage. It’s no wonder he always seems two seconds from starting a fight. Roin nods, a perfunctory gesture that he seems automatic. “How did you and Katryl meet?” I ask, changing to subject.
Our conversation turns to happier memories of those we love, memories not tinted with grief or sorrow or guilt. I learn that Roin and Katryl met in their second year of college and that things didn’t get serious between them until Roin moved in when he and his dad had their final falling out. After graduation they both got jobs and had been working long hours in order to save up enough to buy a house. I talked about how Haezyn and I also met in college, in the fall of our senior year and how he followed me back to this city, which is my hometown, when I was offered a job as a book restorer for a conglomerate of universities, museums, and libraries. Haezyn had already accepted a job at a prestigious architectural firm when I’d broken the news, but he’d left it all behind to come with me to the other side of the country. We talk about what our boyfriends loved to do and what they were passionate about and why we loved them as much as we did.
The hour passes like lightning, and suddenly the rest of the support group is coming up the stairs, pulling on hoods and hats and muttering about the chill in the air. We stand aside and allow them to pass in silence and Roin looks at me for a long moment, as if weighing something in his mind before giving me a nod and then striding out into the rain. Unsure exactly what decision he’s just come to, I watch his tall frame disappear around the corner of the building before heading back down the stairs to collect my belongings…
That first conversation in the spring rain blossomed into many more and in that time neither Roin nor I sat in the ring of plastic chairs. Instead we spent the meetings in the vestibule of the church or out on the steps or walked around the block. Occasionally our conversations would spill over into text messages on the days the support group didn’t meet. We spoke mostly of the ones we lost and the difficulty of the healing process, the ups and downs that often seemed like one step forward and two steps back. Sometimes we laughed and sometimes the emotions were too strong for speaking and all we could do was take comfort in one another’s presence and silent understanding. He messaged me when he began the process of sorting through some of Katryl’s belongings, wracked with guilt and pain. In turn, Roin was the first person I reached out to after a horrible nightmare of the accident. It felt natural to seek his consolation because I knew he alone would understand. My siblings are wonderful people who care for me deeply, but I needed someone who had firsthand experience with death, and Roin was there for me.
As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months and the months into a season, tiny sparks began to form between us, born out of the grief and sorrow we shared. At first I didn’t even recognize them for what they were, they were like a foreign language attempted to be remembered years after all study had ceased, smatterings of it slowly returning in fits and starts. While I didn’t know exactly what was happening between us or where it would lead, if anywhere, I know that I smiled more that summer than I had in the past three years. I actually noticed the blooming flowers and the arrayment of clouds in the sky. I saw Lyr and Koel more, went for runs by the lake, and even found a place that would accommodate my sight issues so I could resume my kung fu training. It was a summer of healing, and for the first time since the person I loved more than anything in the world died on the side of a snowy, ice glazed road, it seemed as though my heart had a chance of healing…
From my seat at the coffeehouse window, the leaves on the trees that line the streets in this neighborhood shine red, gold, and orange in the afternoon sun. The people bustling by carry shopping bags, walk dogs, or push strollers, most wearing fall jackets and light scarves. Shifting my gaze to my immediate surroundings, I take in the natural wood floors and the exposed beams overhead, stained the deep umber color that’s so popular right now. Paintings by local artists adorn the walls, displaying a mix of seasonally themed landscapes. On the opposite side of the space from where I sit, a cluster of well broken in couches and overstuffed chairs create more comfortable seating, bound together by a few area rugs. The small cafe tables boast mismatched tablecloths and fresh flowers that bring a homelike feel to an already cozy atmosphere.
Roin and I had agreed to meet here a few days ago, after I had somewhat spontaneously asked him if he wanted to meet up outside of the support group setting. It was an idea I’d been thinking on for a couple of weeks, but had no idea how to broach the subject with him until he’d said something about drinking real, good tasting coffee and the opportunity presented itself. I hadn’t used the word date explicitly, but there was no question what I meant, and I’d been somewhat relieved and excited when he’d said yes.
Now that the day has come, however, Roin is late. Almost an hour and three cups of coffee have passed since the time we’d set, and the chair across from mine remains vacant. There are a million reasons for the cause, and I try not to let any of the more negative ones linger in my mind too long, but then the screen lights up on my phone. I apologize, Arch, but I am not ready. Staring down at the message for a moment before my fingers reach out to turn the phone off, a quiet sigh escapes my lips. Honestly I’m not sure that I’m ready, either, but it had just felt right in the moment. Perhaps I should have known better than to ask and try to turn a friendship into something else, especially given the circumstances under which we’d met. The loss was still relatively new to Roin and even my own heart still contracts painfully at times when I think of Haezyn. Maybe neither of us is ready and I am just being a fool…
I stand, pulling my coat from the back of the chair and turn to find the waitress just behind me. Brown eyes peer up from behind black framed glasses and blue-green bangs, and she holds a coffee carafe in one hand. “I was coming to see if you’d reconsidered ordering a meal…” Her gaze strays to the empty seat on the other side of the table. “Guess they’re not showing, huh?” She has the sympathetic look of someone who’s had this conversation many times before. Must be a theme in this place.
“It was too soon, I think,” I tell her briskly, and she nods as if she has any idea what I’m talking about.
A small smile is flashed in my direction, the kind you give a friend when something bad has happened and you’re trying to cheer them up. “Dessert on the house, then, if you’d like.”
I decline the offer and hand her what is owed for the coffee plus a generous tip before making a beeline for the door. I’m disappointed and saddened and I want nothing more than to return home…
I didn’t see Roin again after our failed date at the coffee shop. He stopped attending the support group meetings and while my gaze often went to the staircase to search for him, the other members seemed not to notice his disappearance since he’d never really sat amongst them and shared his story. After a month or so Kent confided that Roin had elected to transfer to a different group on the other side of the city in order to finish out his court-mandated hours. The news brought some happiness because it meant he was still getting help and hadn’t violated the judge’s order, but I wished that I had seen him one last time, even if things had been awkward between us. I wanted to say that I should never have asked him out, that I should have realized that no matter my own feelings, it was likely much too soon for him. Katryl had barely been gone a year at that point and in spite of any laughter or stories we shared, time moves achingly slow when healing such wounds. I also wish I’d been able to tell him that while it never stops hurting when you’ve lost someone you love deeply, eventually it’s not the only thing you feel. The heart is amazing and capable of winning through tremendous darkness, but it does not simply give up grief by virtue of substitution of circumstance. I had seen this all before in the others I’d met around the circle of plastic chairs, hell I’d lived it myself, so I should have known better than to push him and cause hurt with my carelessness.
For that, Roin, I am eternally sorry…
Snow falls in great, fat flakes over the city, the soft blanket masking normally sharp, hard edges of metal and concrete and stifling the general cacophony of traffic, sirens, and noisy passerby. Instead a hushed stillness has settled in, as if the entire city holds it’s breath beneath the icy assault. Behind frosted over glass windows colored Christmas lights splash cheerful multihued droplets out onto the sidewalk, some static and others blinking on and off in manic patterns. Garland pokes through the snow on bannisters and along porch rails, green and silver and every color in between. Wreaths adorn almost every home on the residential street, the buildings neatly lined up in long, narrow lots separated by tall privacy fences or brick walls.
Breath pluming in the night air, I make my way down the last stretch of sidewalk toward my home, boots crunching in the packed down snow. The Christmas Eve festivities spent with my siblings has proven to be a balm against the storm, especially the last glass of mulled wine, which kept the worst of the cold at bay over the last six blocks. The muting of the normally bright city lights has allowed me to remove my glasses and in the swirl of snowflakes I almost feel as I did before the accident, when life was easier and freer and I did not have such a thorough understanding of sorrow and loss. It seems a lifetime ago, as through every day of the last three years has lasted a hundred times longer than the normal twenty-four hour span.
Lost in thought, the gate that leads to my house unlatches with ease and I step through into the small front yard, pausing beneath the bare branches of the dogwood tree to push it closed. A soft meow draws my gaze up toward the porch, the covered entrance shrouded in shadow, but at the edge I catch a glimpse of the gray and white tail belonging to Kella. Normally she isn’t much for the cold weather and will go in through the cat door, so it’s strange to find her out here in the storm. Stranger too that she’s at the front when the cat door is at the back of the house… Only a few steps are needed before I can see what holds Kella’s attention, a larger shape settled near the door that strokes the small cat’s back with a tattooed hand. Clad in the same dark pants and leather jacket he’d worn when we first met, only a thick scarf and earband denote that passage of seasons between then and now. Partially dreaded strands of hair are pushed over one shoulder and the cat bats at the ends when Roin’s attention shifts to me and causes a delay in the affection she’s receiving. At his side sits a bag I recognize as take-out from the Chinese place a couple blocks over.
Silvery eyes meet mine when I reach the bottom of the steps, the other man’s quiet voice slipping into my racing thoughts. “I apologize for being late.” Tattooed fingers lift from the cat’s back to gesture at the bag. “I brought a peace offering.”
For a moment I don’t know what to say, stunned to find Roin sitting on my doorstep on Christmas Eve when I haven’t seen or heard from him in months. I’d been upset with myself back in September when he didn’t show up at the coffeehouse, but I’d been hurt by the rejection as well despite completely understanding the reasons behind it. Still, I’d found myself thinking of him often, wondering how he was and hoping that he was finding a way to heal. Now here he is with an olive branch and apologies and I’m not sure what to do. The cold air and the falling snow sting my already frozen cheeks as I debate what to do and what might happen if Roin once again decides that he’s not ready for any of this. The cat meows loudly, demanding I do something other than slowly become a snowman, and I smile as the decision is made, the decision I know Haezyn would want me to make.
“Your offering is accepted…”
[Roin belongs to Nezumi. Arch belongs to me.]