The Space Where You Used To Be

I walked out of the station. I smelled like three packets of dried raisins for breakfast, and a two and a half hour bus trip. You were waiting on the other side of the road, red-eyed and dressed in mourning black. I caught your eye and you waved and didn’t smile, the way you always did.

We got some coffee and we walked aimless circuits around the streets until we found a small fountain. We sat on the stone rim with our feet in the water like we were children again, and we talked about death.

‘It’s like a space,’ you said. ‘When someone goes, there’s a space left which they used to fill. It’s like you can hear the things they would’ve said sometimes, or feel it on the places where they would’ve touched you if they’d still been around. The space where somebody used to be. It’s like a hole in the world shaped exactly like the person they were. If you can hear what somebody would’ve said to you if they were there, isn’t that the same as them being there with you to say it?’

You looked at me, and my brain screamed and my tongue dried up. Was there a right answer? What would the right answer be? The one which was true? The one which made you feel better?

‘No’, I said finally. ‘I don’t think it’s the same.’

‘It’s not the same,’ you said. ‘It’s like…imagining a song you love. You kind of hear it in your head, but you always know it isn’t really there. It’s just like that. The space where somebody used to be.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, not for the first time that morning. I had nothing else to say. The truth was, I was in the deep end. Nobody really close to me had ever died. My parents were still a twenty-minute drive away. The friends I’d lost, I’d lost from drifting. I knew they were still breathing at the end of the day. What should I have said to you? What could I have said to you? Was there anything at all? There were, I guess, infinite possibilities, infinite combinations of words. But was there a single one out of that infinity which could have helped you?

We went walking again and we got kebabs. We ate, and we complained about how the fat always dripped all over our fingers, and afterwards we picked a movie at random and sank an afternoon at the cinema. These felt like progress. These felt like normal things do, like things which upright and functional people did. But it was stupid of me to get my hopes up, in hindsight. You can’t beat death with a box of popcorn the size of your head. And all the stars of Hollywood put together can’t fill the space where somebody used to be.

In the afternoon, you waited with me for the bus that would take me home, and we talked about death.

‘If you had a choice,’ you said, ‘between feeling something the moment when someone died, and not feeling anything, which would you choose?’

‘What?’

‘Say somebody close to you died. Would you rather feel it, the moment that they died, and know they were gone? Or would you rather not feel anything?’

‘I would rather feel something,’ I said slowly.

‘Why?’

‘It would be like closure. I could close my eyes and think about them, or pray for them, or something…’

You smiled a small, angry kind of smile. The kind of smile that made me worry.

‘What would you choose?’

‘I would choose not to feel anything, just the way it is now,’ you said, without so much as a heartbeat of hesitation.

‘Why?’

‘Because it hurts more,’ you said. Because while I’m dying you’ll be taking a shit or tying your shoes.’

‘Why’s that a good thing?’

‘Trust me,’ you said, ‘when you lose somebody you’ll know what I mean. When you lose somebody, you’ll want to hurt so bad that it might just kill you too. You’ll want all the pain in the world because you had all the love in the world, and that’s what love turns into when the person you loved is gone.’

You patted my arm, as if to tell me that you felt sorry for me with my inexperience, like I’d missed out on a grand and fundamental experience of life. Don’t worry, that pat seemed to say, you’ll get your turn too one day.

After an amount of time that I could not quantify as being anything other than ‘too long,’ my bus arrived, and we said our goodbyes.

‘It’ll be okay,’ I said, I prayed, I lied.

I was so selfish. This is the thing: yes, I was busy. Yes, I had my own life to live. But could I have come to see you and spend the day with you more often? Absolutely. The sad, terrible truth of me and you is that by the end, even though I knew you were going down hard and fast and silent, all I could muster for you was a worn out compassion, and resentment. Resentment for the grey days spent walking aimless circuits under grey skies. For the stilted conversations that felt like they were ripped out of Hollywood’s best shots at ‘deep movies’; you telling me about how death is in the air and the sky and the way we talk, and me fumbling for platitudes and wondering how the fuck I could make you feel better.

But I still think about those conversations, as much as I hated them. As much as they made me feel like I was a mute, a fly on the wall, a silent, ineffectual witness to you tearing open the wounds that had come to define you. I think about the choice you gave me. If someone died, would I rather feel something in the instant, in the space of their dying? Or would I rather not feel anything at all? Pick the one that hurts more, you’d say, and now that I am where I am, I can see the deranged kind of logic that made you say and feel that.

I don’t know which night it was exactly, because I only found out the exact date after the fact, and all of those nights have since blurred into an indistinguishable stream of microwave dinners, TV marathons, and self-loathing. But one night in October, I was taking my contact lenses out when one of them slid down into the area under the skin beneath my right eye, and got stuck there. It was the first time that had ever happened, and I started out slow and careful trying to fish it out. I got frustrated. It’s a frustrating thing to happen. When I did finally get it out, my eye was a raw kind of red, and opened up to about half the size of the other one. A whole stream of tears was running down, mostly on my right side, but I wiped them off, and only one made it to the floor. I stared at the lens on the tip of my finger for a while, and then I put it back in its container and went to get the antibacterial wash.

Maybe it’s a way of dealing with guilt. If so, it’s a pretty shitty way, all things considered. But I can’t change it now. I don’t think I could stop believing it if I wanted to. After everything we talked about, after everything you said to me and everything I couldn’t say to you, all I can think about now is the shape my tear made on the floor the night, the hour, the moment that you died. TC Mark

image – Shutterstock

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