Todd and I are in tenth grade and on our first date when Sam, the new kid in town, is curb-stomped near the wharf. We’ve just left the movie theatre when it happens, and we cut through the crowd to see him lying there lifeless. The cops roll up minutes later and we run in different directions. Running is a learned behaviour: tag, kick the can, red rover, red rover. We aren’t old enough to know we should stay.
We meet up with friends at the beach. We’re out of weed but have a few cigarettes, and we lean against a log inhaling and exhaling, trying to forget what we saw. We stare at the waves, at the gulls, at the islands that dot the horizon. We talk about death, what it means to lose, but we don’t know how deep a loss can cut yet.
We sit on the sand until dark, until we’re out of smokes, until the tide brushes against our feet and the sky bleeds red. Then we file home and sleep like puppies, not wanting to let one another go.
We move cities in our twenties. Todd gets a job as a surveyor and I move with him because I don’t want to be swallowed by the small town we grew up in. We find an apartment, find a grocery store, find a laundromat—then he’s away in the bush for weeks at a time.
Being alone in an unfamiliar town is a different sort of lonely.
After an extended absence, Todd takes me to the pub up the hill. He writes his name on the chalkboard by the pool table, orders us chicken wings. Orders us one beer, two beers, three beers, four. He is surprised when I suggest we play doubles, when I suggest we play for cash—twenty bucks, maybe, forty bucks, better. He is surprised when one ball drops, when two balls drop, when I run the table and the eight ball drops.
When did you learn to play? he asks.
I shrug. I’ve kept busy.
He looks at me like he doesn’t know me anymore.
The guy we schooled calls Todd a hustler, calls me a bitch. He punches Todd in the face and the place erupts. There is a crack when Todd’s jaw breaks, when his back hits the rack of pool cues.
We sit outside on a curb once the commotion quietens. I try to weave my fingers through Todd’s, try to lean into the curve of his torso so he absorbs me. It’s how I’ve learned to connect—through tactile absorption.
Don’t, he mumbles through his busted jaw. Don’t touch me.
My dad dies in his sleep. It is lightning fast, a complication of an undiagnosed illness. It is the opposite of what I’ve known death to be, the opposite of force.
Todd accompanies me to the funeral. Sits next to me at the wake. Handles the condolence onslaught, acts as a barricade to the responsibility that comes with grief. He poaches me eggs every morning, cuts my toast into strips. Tries to piece me back together.
Todd and I marry in his parents’ backyard. We erect tents in case it rains, string patio lanterns across the yard, arrange wooden tables to gather around. We recite vows we’ve written and mean every word; we’ve been together longer than we’ve been apart and we know these things about ourselves, about each other.
One of Todd’s groomsmen, a friend of ours from high school, has a flask full of whiskey. By the time the lanterns light up, the flask is empty and he’s ricocheting off everything. He takes a swing at another groomsmen and misses, the momentum carrying him through a sliding glass door. The safety glass shatters, landing like hail across the deck.
We have a daughter and name her Piper. She is stuck tight, not wanting to come out. She takes eighteen hours to birth. There is nitrous oxide, an epidural, a vacuum.
I pull into myself once she arrives. I spent so much time wanting her and now I want nothing to do with her. I cringe every time she latches on, every time she cries in the middle of the night.
Isn’t she gorgeous, Todd coos. She looks just like you.
I stare at her unfamiliar face, her huge, blue eyes.
She looks like somebody else’s baby.
I am sick of maternity leave, sick of being at home. Piper has taken to screaming whenever she wants something, and I don’t understand her babbling or gesturing.
Todd sleeps on the couch with earplugs, rises well-slept and bright-eyed, offers me coffee, offers to take time off to help.
We need the money, I say.
I don’t know how to make this better, I think.
One afternoon, on the way home from the grocery store, Piper screams at me from the backseat, her nine-month-old voice piercing what’s left of my sanity.
I swerve off the road, narrowly missing a woman running with her stroller, and careen into a fire hydrant.
What’s wrong with you? Todd asks when I tell him what happened. Why are you acting like this?
We go to marriage counseling. Todd and I sit on a couch, talk about how I don’t want to talk anymore. Last week, he punched a hole in the bathroom wall. A fist-sized hole he covered with a picture before Piper woke up. But we both know the hole is there and that is why we’re here.
That is what I say when the counselor probes for answers: We’re here because Todd punched a hole in the bathroom wall.
It is easier than explaining the way grief guts you. The difficulty in holding onto someone you don’t want to lose. Tonight, I’ll try explaining this to Todd. I’ll ask, which one of us do you want to die first? And for the first time in a long time, Todd will be the one with nothing to say, the weight of our silence finally strangling us.