They told me his body lay on a mattress in a room that wasn’t so bad. They told me he was covered, and peaceful. They told me he spoke of love that night, that he laughed. They told me he made plans for tomorrow before he closed his eyes.
Next morning, in the warm heart of summer, my son’s body lay cool and slack, the scaffolding that held up his being for twenty-one years, now absent. When his soul flew, the tent poles collapsed. Only a quiet skin inscribed with markings remained.
Confusion isn’t new, Holden wakes up in weird places all the time. He is an accomplished couch surfer because he isn’t picky. The first question he asks himself most Saturday mornings is, where am I? The second, who is beside me?
This is Kara’s place, a studio apartment in the Metropole Hotel in Gastown. He stays here sometimes when he is too tired to make it home, or too faded. Today something is different though and Holden is trying to figure out exactly what that difference is. He is on his back with a red pillow under his head. A colourful Indian tapestry drapes across his middle. Bare chest and feet, tattooed arms splayed by his sides, his mouth yawns as though he is about to say something, his eyes are closed.
Once, a professor at art school asked Holden to walk around a nude model until he found a perspective that interested or challenged him. Today’s view is like that. Off kilter. He sees the room from a peculiar angle, and so, he knows a different truth. He isn’t awake. He is aware. The grey has cleared off and a pared-down crispness has taken its place. Rather than looking out at the world, he can see into it.
A feeling settles in, something rare he hasn’t experienced in years, not without artificial enhancements anyway. He is, although the word is not quite right, buoyant. This lightness takes him some time to identify. It seems to be more of a non-feeling, a lack of sensation, and this nothing yells so loudly at him it commands his attention.
Holden makes a sort of mental checklist starting with the physical differences; no headache, no urge to vomit, no parched dryness in his mouth. He is not agitated, aching or weighted with fatigue, which comes as a relief.
The inner alterations are more perplexing; there is not a trace of guilt, self hatred or shame. There is no worry about being too little or too much. Dread has walked away for good. No discomfort of any kind is left in him and it is the vacuum created in the wake of their departures, that makes him realize something enormous has rolled away. He has been wiped clean.
His leather steel-toed boots, caked in dirt, lie beside his body, laces snaking on the bare floor, harbouring no ambitions. They too have laboured their last.
What the fuck? I was just trying to have a good time. I was just trying to feel better.
Over by the brick wall, Kara sleeps, snoring softly, unaware. Her ivory face is smooth and young, unburdened by what she is yet to know. Kara is not his girlfriend any more but there is a place in her heart reserved for him. Her chest rises and falls with effortless rhythm. Holden notes the stillness of his own ribcage, the silence enveloping his frame. His thoughts hover as the realization of what has happened begins to crystallize. A blurry downloading picture sharpens into focus.
Late last night they met up at the bar downstairs, played some pool with a few other friends and drank a few beers. He left for a bit to meet somebody and was back in ten minutes. Around midnight Holden started nodding off at the table. He needed a bed.
Can I stay with you tonight K? I feel like shit.
Of course you can, just don’t barf, okay? Or you’re cleaning it up.
I promise not to hurl, I just wanna sleep. He slurred.
Together they rode the elevator up to her room above the bar. Holden draped his arm around Kara’s neck.
Even though we’re both with different people at the moment, I will always love you. Can we just hang out all the time and drink gin?
Sure, we can build a house with gin on tap and raise ferrets.
I mean it K, one day I’ll get my shit together and we can try again okay? I’ll be whole-den. See what I did there?
His heavy eyelids drooped. He leaned into her and rested his sweaty forehead against her neck, his scraggle of reddish beard prickled her bare shoulder. She stretched one thin arm around his low back to hold him up. They both looked across at their joined reflection in the elevator’s mirrored wall. Her pink hair loose and long. His head shaved close. She pulled the sunglasses down off her head, set them on her nose and smiled at him.
We are BFF’s all day every day Holden. You’re just fine. What you need is a big glass of water and good night’s sleep.
Inside the one room apartment Kara yanked the top mattress off the bed and let it fall to the floor while Holden slumped onto the only chair, fumbling with his phone. He nearly toppled forward but Kara put a hand on his shoulder to brace him just in time. She kneeled to help him pull off his boots, then his shirt. He collapsed onto the mattress and let out a long sigh. She propped up his head, slid a pillow under it, then she covered him.
Thanks K-bomb, Holden said into the pillow. You’re one of the good ones. Can you make sure I’m up for work?
He was asleep instantly. She bent down low and kissed his cheek.
Good night you big mess. See you in the morning.
A seagull screams outside the window, the ocean is close. A square of morning light glows from behind the blackout curtain. The fridge hums. Down in the street a man shouts. A truck hits its brakes then accelerates with force.
Just last week Holden pulled a drowning man from the ocean at Wreck Beach. The man was drunk and went swimming wearing jeans. When the weight became too much the man had struggled and called for help. Holden didn’t hesitate. He ran across the hot sand, dove into the sea, swam out, hooked the stranger under the arms and dragged him coughing through the green salt water back to shore.
So much for all those years of life saving.
He remembers the fabric of his own t-shirt and cargo shorts curling around him like vines that day, strange and cumbersome against the skin of his chest and legs. Laundry swishing in a washing machine, pulling him down.
This morning the weight, the pulling and the awkwardness are gone. He swims naked, released from the resistance of gravity and fear. He is painless. He is free.
Children are not bound by earthly constraints. The lost ones disregard the limitations of oxygen and blood. A mother’s child is a mother’s child always.
I hold my son now, as I did for his breathing years, and I wonder how such a beautiful song could be so abruptly halted. From full throated choir to…echoes. He was fully and completely alive just a moment ago. It is impossible.
Though he is gone, he is going nowhere. Sometimes, the ones we love most remain swirling smoke. No amount of sleuthing, guesswork or naive maternal assumption will make sense of this, but I have too much love left unspent to let him be. So, I follow the breadcrumbs through the forest.
I dig to understand more of how his path led to the room above the bar with the brick wall and the colourful tapestry. Though I have uncovered some of the facts, truth is a slippery fish. My view is tilted too, making this an imagined story, and a reluctant one. It is a love song to my son, who grew too old too young.
They told me his body lay on a mattress in a room that wasn’t so bad. There can be nothing good about the room housing the body of your child. They told me he wouldn’t have known what was happening. That he was asleep when that border was crossed. Someone said small mercy. It may have been me.
~ originally published in eMerge 17 – The Writer’s Studio Anthology ~