Updated: Jul 27
“Will you know,” she begins to ask me, “When you say your last first I love you, or when you give your last first kiss?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t think I want to know,” I reply, noticing her frustration with my weakness.
We sit in an old café in the west end of Toronto, a place that once invited only pretentious hipsters, wannabe artists, and the deplorable social commentators who define others’ worth by their knowledge of foreign policy. In that past, we went to this quaint, little place to indulge conversations about the benevolence of Che Guevara and the immutable sanctity of the socialist ideal – both arguments that perhaps due to our ignorance, we could not fully accept. Today, we go there to remember a past full of joy and understanding. We come here to see each other for the first time in over ten years.
“I want to know,” she submits in a flustered disregard for my unsophisticated answer to her difficult question.” I want to know because…” she attempts to continue as the waiter politely interrupts.
She has aged gracefully. Her skin and hair are as healthy as they were when we met in our late teens and her posture still projects the strength and stability of the athlete I stared at for hours in the gym. She is a doctor, a board-certified psychiatrist. She is a good amalgam of brawn and brains. She is more confident than I remember, and the way she looks at me still makes me feel important. And like someone who has found an old photo of a fond memory, I study her well.
Her movements are controlled but sharp at the same time – there is nothing clumsy about her – she seems to calculate mistakes – her voice is as deep as expected from someone who moves like her. Still, while her voice is expectedly strong, her vernacular is extensive and fluid; it’s organic.
Our order is simple; we both take our coffee black. As the adorable South-East-Asian man waiting on us retreats with a smile, she notices me investigating her presence. She smiles, and perhaps in one of those calculated mistakes, she reveals her sadness.
“I have missed you,” she says, pronouncing every part of that statement. “I have missed you for years; I’m sorry for not reaching out in so long.”
“I’ve missed you,” I say to her subconsciously, emphasising the end of my reply. “You should have reached out – we both should have – I remember we were close once.”
She smiles again, and I continue to notice her sadness. It’s in her eyes. Her eyes are telling me something that I arrogantly attribute to her remorse for forgetting about me for more than a decade. She reminds me of when a homeless man in Montreal asked her to sing to him and how utterly disappointed he was that she could not sing in French. I recall the first wedding we crashed together and ask her about the flower arrangement she kept in her apartment for years. She enjoyed telling the story of how she acquired it to anyone who visited. She would sometimes offer it to people who never set foot in her house. It was a point of obscene pride to her to tell others that she fooled the groom’s father into thinking they had met years before. She smiles again, and I want to ask about that grief I see in her eyes. I don’t ask; it is not my place yet.
We talk for hours that pass in minutes. We fail to catch up as we get lost in shared memories. More coffee comes to our table, and we have now befriended the waiter, whose energy makes us smile. He confesses that we are his favourite table of the last several weeks since the city opened for business again. “Only sad people come through here now,” he says, and as she hears him, she shows me her melancholy once more. I continue to let it pass. I know that she will tell me if I deserve to know.
“Thank you for not bringing up the pandemic,” she says, “my work has been unbearable in the last year and a half,” she says, pointing to the impact the Coronavirus restrictions have had on mental illness.
“It did not feel right to talk about it,” I reply, lying about the fact that I have not thought about the last several years these past two hours. I am enthralled by her presence, too fascinated by her voice to think about anything unrelated to her in my life. I have only wanted to remember the experience of her and the pleasure that experience brings me.
“Good!” She exclaims. “Let’s not talk about it – not tonight.” “Not tonight…” I say to myself, feeling a soft smile move across my lips – I will see her again – she wants to see me again, and that is better news than I’ve had in weeks.
“Tell me about you,” I begin moving the conversation back to the important subject of catching up. “What have you been up to for the last… hmmm… eleven years?”
“Working hard,” she starts after a solemn pause, “Working hard, and learning to live again,” she continues.
“Learning to live again…?” I say inquisitively.
“Yes, life has a peculiar way of showing you how insignificant you are to her.”
“To her?” I ask, questioning her unexpected anthropomorphism of an abstract idea.
“Yes, to her. Life’s a bitch, don’t you know?”
“Tell me more,” I suggest to her, seeing the perfect chance to explore her sorrow more closely. “Tell me what makes you sad; I noticed it earlier, but it felt impertinent to ask.
“Of course you did; I expected you to see it,” she confesses as she reaches for my hand, which I present gladly. Her touch is familiar, and her sadness is now evident in her swelling tears and quivering lips. Even in what seems like profound affliction, she remains beautiful and in control of everything around her. I am in awe of this magnificent human with whom I share a past, and it is now I who feels sharp remorse for not reaching out to her in so long a time. In the seconds she takes to steady her voice to continue sharing her story, I feel that I am no better than the deplorable commentators who frequented this café once; I see that my solipsism is abhorrent and my arrogance disgusting. How dare I make her suffering about me?
“Whoever said that it is better to have loved and lost has probably never been through it. I could say that I loved and lost, but that would be a lie – I just lost because I still love him – and I’ll remind you of how hard it is to love someone who isn’t there.”
Our hands now envelop each others’. The delightful waiter approaches and, in an elegant display of empathy, bows his head and leaves shortly after whispering to me to let him know if we need anything.
She continues to tell me more about him upon my request.
“He became sick months after we married; you met him a couple of times and got along nicely. He asked about you often, and we would have hung out if his illness didn’t get in the way of our social life. He passed four years after we married, and it still feels like yesterday, and I hate saying it like that because it makes yesterday so dark.”
She frees her right hand from mine to pick up her coffee and sip gently from it. Her tears now run freely, and her eyes are incandescent. She takes a deep breath resigning herself to suffering I can understand well, but I dare not tell her I do for fear of taking away from her moment. She continues to verify an idea that occurs to me seconds before she shows it to me.
“If I had known when I fell in love with him that I would lose him so early, I would have respected the moment I told him I loved him differently – I would have cherished it differently. I would have paid more attention when he told me he loved me, but I expected to hear it for the rest of my life. I’m glad, though, that he heard it from me for the rest of his.”
I sit speechless across the table.
“I know I can’t, but I want to know when I say my last first I love you and when I give my last first kiss.”