Silence overwhelms me, making me pause before I realized I was no longer moving. I turn in my mind to see the door behind me click shut but my eyes were firmly fixed on the open blinds across the room. The first time, I think, is this the first time I’ve come home in darkness to see the lights across the street shining through the slats of the California shutters, no, certainly it’s happened before. Although when, precisely, that might have been, I would been loathe to commit myself to. It’s the music that shocks my unconscious self as I stand here frozen smelling nothing in the air but tuned to a foreign sensation on the back of my hands. For a brief second I clearly recognize scars there the length of three veins but I blink them away and the skin is now clearly just marked by the damage I inflicted two nights ago when I dragged the razor almost to the first knuckle in my most recent attempt to eradicate each horrific hair that arises away from my head. I am imperfect and I know that but still makeup isn’t enough of a fight for beauty. She does it naturally but an hour at the mirror doesn’t let me look good for her. But I’ll try again tomorrow and maybe get closer. She’ll pretend I’m cute anyway.
I am so used to this train of thought that it carries on in the background while I’m mesmerized by the Christmas lights next door. It’s the end of March and I’m not that surprised they haven’t put the lights away, not even that they have them turned on but why, I find myself fixating somehow, distracting myself with the question, would they, in the name of all that is laziness in inaction, would they go to the trouble of turning them off every morning and back on at night when it is, indeed, after all, the end of March. For fuck’s sake, leave them up all year but if you’re going to be inactive, at least make that the one thing in life you do well.
It’s not the lights, though. They tell me half the people in Vancouver leave their lights up all year and I’m drawn to thinking whether that’s one of those things people say because it’s true or just because it can’t be true when only about a quarter of us even put them up to start with now. I can’t remember if we took the tree out of the storage locker this year. A morning of presents and sleepy six-a-m hot chocolate with Kat’s incandescent mother, showering us with torrents of decoration the way only a secular Hindu can celebrate the joy of Jesus’ birth in the stable behind Bed Bath & Beyond. I forget tree details for the moment, something to ask my still not appeared partner. But I know after all the years of ignoring the holiday, I’m probably always going to be impressed that between her tales of failed weekly attempts at dating her way around the Gujarati expat community, Ms Mehta’s devotion to learning the words to that entire book of carols was allowed to flourish. More than that, though, that it was not even slightly dampened when Kat revealed to her that her daughter-in-law-in-training happens to be a cultural Jew who’s slightly less spiritual than unleavened bread. She’s going to be part of that half of the city that doesn’t take their lights down in March, except that she’s really just making up for a dark, unsparkling childhood in Ahmedabad.
I pull the cord to shut out next door’s awkward fake candles that seem to have populated every window on this side of their house and wonder if I’ve ever known their name, since it has certainly escaped me for the moment — they have a dog, I know that much, and I think they call it dog. I expect that means they have children but I don’t think I’ve actually seen them around, maybe in college or fighting some peacekeeping mission and as lazy about visiting home as their parents are about seasonal decorating. It’s the darkness that feels wrong. The Playstation lights flicker against the wall and light enough of the room to find the bedroom door, as if in three meters I could have lost may way, but I don’t know if I’ve ever walked across the carpet without having turned on the light. It’s usually loud in here. Not crazy loud. But there’s music, always music. I guess Kat must be meditating but she usually waits until bedtime and it’s only nine. I don’t bother with that since she’s usually up ’til four and I have to be out the door by seven.
She’s not, though. I can’t see much in the bedroom but there’s no movement and Kat’s inability to sit still for a single second is legendary — the only thing we ever fight about. I’m giving up on the darkness. If she wanted it to be romantic, she could have lit some candles or greeted me at the door. I guess I was playing along, knowing she’d be here and if she wanted to have lights on, she’d have done it when it got dark. But there’s nobody in bed passed out from too many late nights and days pouring her soul out onto a laptop screen. Nobody meditating against the wall. I turn around and feel for the light switch around the doorframe in the living room so I can see if there’s a note waiting on the kitchen counter or stuck to the back of the door. Nothing, though, everything is more than still. It doesn’t feel like I just left this morning, more like it’s been empty since some time last year. Except that the stillness isn’t stagnant. Empty with open windows. That’s probably what feels strange. There’s a curious draught.
Back in the bedroom, the French doors aren’t exactly open but they weren’t bolted and seem to be letting in far more of the wind I just escaped a few minutes earlier than they should in what pretends to be a newly-built area like this. My toes already feel stiff from the floor, something carpet really has no right to let happen. I can’t shake the premonition as I walk to the doors and yank them both shut, engaging the deadbolts and giving them a shake. No bolts, no curtains drawn. She’s a privacy addict. Even in the middle of the day I often find her here with no light coming in from outside because she’s convinced someone will walk by and stare at her. Not try to break in, just look and see her working, cross-legged on the bed with her laptop, clothed in that onesie that has no hope of hiding her overt desirability and, honestly, heightens it for me.
Closing the second drape, the vision of something hanging from our one piece of salvaged nature, an ancient oak, catches the light across the garden but what first looked to have substance clarifies into the orange and green of the flag she jokingly hung from the branch. I can’t see the star of David on the other side from here but her sense of humor makes me stop and breathe a couple of times before I finish dragging the curtain to the middle and fall back onto the bed, in its perpetual state of unmade wrinkles. She says tradition is almost as worthless as fathers but I only agree with the first part and I have to hope my dad doesn’t ever get to hear that, of all her bitchy sayings. I’d have died without him, I’m sure, but hers, well, she tells a story about him trying to drown her in a rain barrel until her grandmother hit him with a shovel but I can’t tell if she’s kidding. I could definitely see Ms Mehta wielding farm tools against any man who tried to get too close to her daughter, though, so I’m guessing her mother might have been even more of a protective force.
A single message. I love you always. No question, just I love you always. I replied after my lecture but she didn’t seem to read it. Can’t wait to kiss you, be home in an hour. And I was. Barely fifty minutes, really, a little earlier than usual but she’s not here. I tap her number at the top of my call list — my long list of three numbers, Kat, my mother and hers, a very impressive friend group, I’m sure. It rings but there’s no answer. I walk toward the closet to undress and tap her name one more time in case she missed it, hearing a muffled buzzing now that the phone isn’t ringing next to my ear. She probably got lost, going out without her phone and that’s why she’s not back yet. I won’t undress. Hopefully she’ll call and I can pick her up so she doesn’t have to walk back in the rain that hasn’t let up the last four days.
That’s when the light from the bedroom catches her black hair. The other side of the bed, the darkness, I didn’t see her there looking up at me. Wouldn’t it be better to stretch out on the bed, love, I could have stepped on you down there. Kat?
The blood isn’t everywhere. People tell you it gets everywhere but it doesn’t. I drop by her side and grab her shoulders, shaking more than twice but I lose count. I’m sure I’m screaming her name but it doesn’t matter. I already know she’s been like this for hours. I call the ambulance and they say they’re coming but there’s no pulse, none of the spark I spend all my days daydreaming of while I should be paying attention to what’s going on around me. Maybe that’s what I did wrong. I didn’t notice. She loved me and I wasn’t here.
Miss, do you want us to call anyone to come and be with you while we’re waiting for the police to arrive? No. I’m just going to go out in the garden and call her mother if that’s ok. Sure, we’ll give you some privacy. You can go in the bathroom and call her if you just want to do it alone. No, I need some fresh air.
I’m glad I closed the curtain, walking toward the flag shivering on the other side of the grass, reflecting the red and blue and green from next door’s oddly joyful lights, unchanged even if everything else has. I lean on the tree and stare at the phone while I put my hand on the cord that’s holding the flag in place, knowing the last person to touch it was Kat. I love you always. I don’t even have to look as I unwrap it from the branch and twist it. I knew it was what she thought of when she put the flags out here but I thought she had beaten it, that we didn’t have to worry now, life would be better and she wouldn’t have to leave, not like this.
Slipping my head through the hole, I am quiet and still, the one trait in me she could never get used to. Only five minutes. I don’t need more than that. I have the phone in my hand, stepping off the garden chair. I love you always. Me too, Kat. Me too.
(Avi Sato, 2019)