Until

View of St. John’s Harbor from Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland

Note: This essay was originally published in the Oracle Fine Arts Review of the University of South Alabama (print only).

We said goodbye on a Thursday. It was sunny and peculiarly warm, sky the color of the pool at Wedgewood Park, air barely moving, impossible to scream into and have our voices disappear the way they would when the weather was high and we were playing at the top of the schoolyard hill, and the grass behind us was long and wild with dandelions and buttercups, the flowers whose petals we used to pluck for love or not, for she was, then, the love of my life, and I, hers. We were ten years old but we had already planned our lives together; we were going to study in French together in high school, in the French Immersion program at the school off Torbay Road, and we were going to go to university together, the one on Confederation Drive past the Aquarena, and we were going to live in apartments next door to each other, downtown by the harbor, and her children would call me Auntie, and my children would call her Auntie, too. We envisioned the age at which this all would finally come to completion to be forty-nine, for what reason I don’t know, except perhaps that forty-nine connotes a kind of forever from the vantage point of ten year-olds, an age at which it would seem things must at last stay permanent. It may as well have been one hundred, though, for all we yet thought about the reality of becoming old. There were no men then envisioned in this plan, but not for lack of boys to crush on or to dream of marrying in our parents’ backyards; only that she and I were such a complete and self-contained unit, that any menfolk involved with either of us could only, necessarily, play tangential roles to our purposes in the universe, one purpose, really, which was simply to remain inseparable until, well, Until.

Except that Until turned out to be the last Thursday in August, one of a few Thursdays I am able to remember with this clarity, a peculiarly warm day, for Newfoundland is placed well to the north of the earth, exactly halfway between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle, and the city of St. John’s is next to the sea, a cold sea that even on normal summer days will suck the warmth out of the air. The moment of rupture itself was rushed, too quick, almost missed, blinding in the shock of it. I was so busy folding box flaps, writing addresses onto luggage labels, picking the toys to take with us — only two boxes allowed — and telling the other toys how sorry I was we had to leave them, that it had nothing to do with love, only space and time, and to be good and brave until we came back — we never would, but I didn’t know that then — that in all those final hours we never got the time to say a true goodbye. For my mother and father really did need my help getting the house departure-ready, as my brother and sister were too young to be of meaningful use; so her mother, not wanting to get in the way of the mess, did not bring her over until five minutes before we sped away from our house in a chaotic, tardy clatter, parents’ faces hamstrung with anxiety, siblings giggling in nervous excitement, me draped in numerous souvenir purses full of last-minute knick-knacks I had thought for some reason were important to secret away in my last moments in my bedroom. We were incredibly late, in that frantic moment of our leaving, but could not miss that flight, as we had already missed the first two flights we had been booked on, and the 4:35 was the last flight we could board from St. John’s that would still allow us to meet our connecting itinerary at Pearson. Hence only a sweeping, haphazard glance of my eyes and hands as final inventory of needed transitional objects, before I finally and firmly closed my bedroom door, charged up the basement stairs to our front landing, and pushed open the screen door.

I came out of the house and found her standing on the steps leading to the driveway. Her hair was in a ponytail, that ponytail I knew so well, that she always tightened by separating the tail in two and yanking each fistful to opposite sides of her head. I had never understood how that worked; I’d had short hair for most of the time we had known each other, and when my hair had been longer my mother would style it in two tight puffs at the sides of my head that I never deigned to fuss with. She was jittery as I had never seen her before, and she was at loss for words, something I had also never before seen in her, with her being rambunctious and energetic where I was studied and calm, preferring even in those days to write things rather than speak them. One of our last pictures together as children testifies to this; we stand next to each other each with one arm loosely draped over the other, but my eyes focus dead into the center of the camera lens and I am barely cracking a smile, whereas her smile is wide and toothy, comical for she was never about being serious, and her eyes are squinted in crescent-moon smiles, nearly shut for the effort of their beaming. Stop clowning around, her mother would have said. One day your face will end up frozen like a monkey’s. She always thought her mother talked too much. Gab le gab du gab la gab, she used to say her mother’s motto must be, for all her talking. And yet here we were now in this moment, with nothing to say. I don’t know what could possibly have been said, though. What was goodbye, after all, when until then we’d been one and not two?

I turned to face her; it felt as though I was dragging myself through the shift. And then I froze. It was the briefest of moments and I don’t know why I stopped, except perhaps as preparation for the next; I remember, for some reason, noticing the late afternoon sun just past her head, falling like a big gold autumn leaf towards the hills of the city’s west end. And then the stillness broke and we threw our arms around each other, frantically, furiously, shoulders slamming into shoulders, hands slapping hard and loud into each others’ backs. I don’t think we even looked at each other in that moment; I don’t think we could have, and even if we did I do not now remember her face in that series of seconds. In the course of our friendship we had never really been in the business of hugging each other — we were one person, after all, and who hugs themselves? — so that final moment was in fact somewhat awkward, very in fact, because our bodies did not really know how to hug, not each other’s bodies at least. So we just kind of cluttered ourselves into ourselves, as tightly as possible, all knees and elbows and bones for we were both already tall and gawky for our ages, and then we continued to grip each other for as long as we were allowed, fingers desperate in their finalities of contact, until her mother gently said it was time to go. She was driving our family to the airport.

“Bye, Julie,” I managed to sputter out, still holding her tightly in my arms.

“Bye, Michelle,” she said, echoing my sputter; she did not let go either. Perhaps we were holding each other that desperately to make up for all the time we did not have to say goodbye — how do you end a life in five minutes? — perhaps we pressed so hard into each other because we imagined if we pressed insistently enough we could have flattened the moment, made it longer, silenced the truth of the time, made it last, until we were forty-nine. But there was no stopping it and her mother said that it really was time to go, and so as quickly as we had thrown our arms around each other we uncluttered ourselves, and I ran to the car and threw myself in without looking back. It was finished. As we drove away I kept my head facing forward, through the windshield, on the trees far into the distance lining Newfoundland Drive — I did not look at the house again. And just like that we died; gone as the last of snapped buttercup petals, loves you, always loves you, for buttercups always have five petals, always five fingers of a desperate hand. Years later I would eventually awaken to the understanding that forever would in fact never come back to be ours once more; year after year of return plans made and then dependably delayed, constant assertions spoken and then broken that we would any moment now be reversing our transition. Though in dreams my desperation incessantly resurrected itself, and I would see her there in front of me in the nights — in my eyes, in my ears, in my hands a terrible hope projected backward through time that we had, in fact, never come to part.

As Air Canada flight number 114 to Toronto taxied away from the gate at St. John’s International Airport I clutched in my fist one of the several purses I had left the house draped in; it was the most valuable of all the purses and the most carefully prepared, for it was the one containing the totems of our fiefdom, the things marking the now-former truth, that we were meant for, well, Until. Her birthstone ring, because nearly a month before we had exchanged our birthstone rings that we had bought together at a flea market on a foggy April Sunday, so I had hers, emerald for the month of May, and she, mine, alexandrite for the month of June. And a small gold charm, but with no chain yet, that she had given me just over a week before, one of our last playtimes; one half of a heart, crafted such that each half fit the other but had the appearance of being broken, that read “ST/ ENDS” on two lines. She had the BE/ FRI. But there were no appearances in this place, in the biting air of that cramped cabin, and it was only when the Boeing 737 turned the final corner of the runway, switching into high gear to fly into that terribly blue sky, that the proportion of what had just happened made contact, and splintered like a collapsing house into the heart of everything I had understood until that moment. Something inside me crumpled, something I had been working assiduously to hold upright since writing the very first baggage tag early that morning, learning then our new address. Thus it was only in that moment, secured inside that space in time, deafening cavity climbing at five hundred miles an hour to thirty-seven thousand feet past the end that I, concealing my face in the seat window, finally folded, and began to cry.

[July 2013]

Michelle A. Chikaonda

Written by

Philadelphia born, world raised. Find me at www.michellechikaonda.work

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