By Albert Henry Tyson
I met someone called Grief the other day. Don’t believe me? Let me tell you the story.
Thursday evenings I travel downtown to my bereavement group meeting. On the dark way home that night I chose a roundabout route that would take me through old Chinatown, past a favourite restaurant we used to frequent. It was a wet walk. I was thinking about Selena. The rain had been falling all day. My umbrella reminded me it was there with the constant tintinnabulation. When I got to the dumpling house, I didn’t go inside. Glancing ahead, I could see the gleam of a steam vent’s metal grating, discharging a slow wafting fog of warm air into the cool evening. I lingered at the front window, watching people eat. This was where Selena taught me the right way to use chopsticks. We had such a good time, laughing like idiots at my pathetic first attempts. It had been a scene. The pleasant memory brings a smile, until once again realizing she is dead, my throat begins to constrict and I quickly turn away. I can feel the lockdown coming. Something is on the steam vent, almost covering it. As I approach, I realize it’s someone in a sleeping bag, soaking wet with rain. Hair is plastered to the head, but it raises as I walk past. I catch a glimpse of seven dimes and one nickel lined up along the edge of the concrete. A finger is in the process of shuffling the nickel into the middle of the queue.
“Hey!” The voice is hoarse and raspy, muffled by the bag. “Look at my coins! Just tell me where she is. Just tell me! Then they’re all yours.”
I turn to regard the derelict. Heavy eyebrows shade the eyes and the nose is sharp like it was freshly carved. It’s more of a beak, really, on his face. I say him because of the jutting reddish beard.
He starts up to his feet, seeming to recognize me, the sodden bag constricting his legs. “You!!” he yells with surprising ferocity. An Asian girl is just walking past, trying very hard not to make eye contact with us. “Where did you take her! Tell me! Tell me what you did with her! Tell me or I’ll beat the living shit out of you!” Lunging forward he manages to grab me by the front of my coat. The man had an amazing reach!
For some bizarre reason, we connect and I know what he is talking about just as the lockdown hits. “She’s at home!!” I scream. “In her urn, on the keeping box!!” It’s all I can get out. I double up, but he’s supporting me now, holding on until the waves subside enough that he can raise me.
I see his face. The eyes are filled with tears streaming more than the rain. “Gone?” he asks.
“Last February!” I feel the violence inside subsiding.
He lets go, his face an expression of disbelief. He staggers back a step, but the bag holds him. “No. You’re lying … No! This is your fault! Your fault! … Where were you! What did you do! Why didn’t you help her! Why didn’t you save her!! … Answer me!!”
“I did all I could!” I yell back. “I stayed with her all the time! Looked after her 24/7! Worried to pieces! What else could I do? … Tell me that! What else could I do!? I would do it again if I could!!”
The shouting has attracted attention. The doorman from a nearby club calls out, “Hey buddy! Do you need some help? Hey! Need help?!” I look in that direction, not knowing if he is talking to me or the derelict. When I turn back, the derelict is gone. Nothing is there, not even the coins. A cold sweat spreads over me, but I quickly pull myself together and get moving, heading straight for the subway and home.
At this time of night, you might expect the subway to be lightly travelled, but with everyone beginning to leave the restaurants and bars, the trains are mostly full. Not standing room only, but just full. I find a seat against the wall. An attractive woman in a trenchcoat and high heeled boots sits in an adjacent seat. I can tell she is looking at me, but I don’t want to look back. I still feel flushed and shaken by the hallucination. That must have been what it was, wasn’t it? I mean, I’ve never experienced anything like that before. I let my gaze roam the car. Facing me a girl snoozes with her head back against the wall. Her hood hides most of her face in shadow. I can see only her nose, mouth and neck. She is obviously young, the skin perfect. The way the overhead light contrasts against the shadow accentuates the curve of her lip. The tips of white teeth show in the gap.
“Young enough to be your daughter, I think.” says the woman in the trench coat. She has been watching me watch the girl.
I glance at her, completely embarrassed. I manage, “That’s for sure.”
She looks coy. “Nothing to be embarrassed about. You didn’t do anything.”
I smile dismissively. Ordinarily, I think I would have clammed up but instead, I say, “I’m bothered about my emotions these days. They seem to be all over the place since my Selena died.”
This doesn’t seem to phase the stranger who answers, “You loved your Selena, right? So where do you think all that love went when she passed away. Do you think it just disappeared?”
“Uh, I don’t know. It’s an emotion. It’s not real, like a material.”
A flicker shows in her eyes. “What would make it real then? Can you feel the love? Can you touch it? Even now when you have lost her, can you remember the warmth of her body, the texture of her skin, the form of her hand, the taste of her kiss? How does that make you feel? Do you miss her?”
“Very much.” is my immediate reply.
“The physical and mental worlds are linked. You know, mind over matter.”
“You mean if we don’t mind, it don’t matter?” I quip.
She hardens. “Get back to me when you want to be serious. And this is serious.”
The train lurches as it begins decelerating, approaching the station. My remark was offensive, I realize that, but I just couldn’t stop myself. It’s a standard joke. I let that conversation drift away and my gaze returns to the open area of the car.
The girl is still asleep. There is something about the lip line. That smooth perfect curve. So specific. I focus on it a bit. Then the realization blasts me. It’s the same shape as Selena’s more than thirty years ago! I’ve hit another trigger. Hunching forward I hold my breath as long as I can, my muscles racking trying to howl. It’s like holding in a sneeze. Pressing my hands to my face helps. As usual, it passes in a moment and I let out a long exhalation. These attacks always drain me.
Wondering what my critic might have witnessed, I look over. Instead, I am accosted by a jutting red beard and chiselled nose. The eyes under those bushy eyebrows glower at me.
“It’s alright to consider the future as described by my better half, but don’t think for a moment you will ever be rid of me, my friend.” He puts a heavy hand on my shoulder. I can feel the weight of it, the reality of it. There can’t be any mistake.
I pull back instinctively. “How is this possible?” I stammer, “If you’re real, who are you?”
The train has stopped and the doors open. He gets up to leave. “You know who we are. We are both love. My sister is more refined than me and carries the proper name Love. I’m the wild one. Most call me Grief. I’ll see you around.”
He gives me a big smile, but there’s something distinctly unsettling about it. Then he is gone. As the train accelerates again, I contemplate my future with Love and Grief, real and part of the world.