He flicked his cigarette and walked away, leaving me to ponder those words to death. It’s been three seasons and nine months since he left me standing on that sidewalk in the middle of the night. The street lamp lit a circle ten feet around me, but beyond that cone of yellow light was unfathomable darkness. I wasn’t lost, but I certainly didn’t know where I was going either.
It took me a while to learn the lesson he was trying to teach me, but once I did it was one I would never forget. I found my way home as the sun started coming up and decided I’d be better off not sleeping. I sat down at my computer and tried to distract myself from the stifling quiet of my apartment, but I couldn’t block out the loneliness. I opened the curtains to find that the sky had caught fire, so I stepped out onto the balcony and looked out across the rooftops.
What she didn’t know was how much I loved watching her engage in this ritual, even if it was just for a moment. Her hair tied up in a messy ponytail, no makeup on and one of my old t-shirts worn like a dress on her tiny frame; awash in the young daylight, she was the most stunning thing I had ever seen. When she looked at me, I felt the enormity of every dawn she’d ever witnessed spark wildfires inside me. That’s when I realized what love was, and that’s when I knew that I wanted to wake up to her sunrise eyes for the rest of my life.
I asked her to marry me down by the water, in the middle of the night as we counted stars on the beach. I told her that she made me feel human, that I felt temporary when she kissed me. She didn’t like that: she thought I meant I didn’t want to be there forever. What I explained to her right before she agreed to spend her life with me is that one day we’d both be dead, but that the music her laugh made and the way her fingers danced circles on my skin as we fell asleep made me feel okay about being impermanent. I didn’t want to die, but I knew that a life spent together is the only life I wanted to know.
That night seems so far away now, like another life where I once had the energy to stay up all night and talk about death like it was something off in the distant future. We were married for three years, eleven months and fourteen days before she got too sick to get out of bed in the morning. I remember the last time we watched the sun come up together; her hands were shaking and her eyes were hollow and fragile-looking but she still glowed when she smiled. That was the day she told me she didn’t know if she’d make it until Christmas. I took her hands and kissed each finger one at a time, told her that she wasn’t going anywhere. At the time I had no doubt in my mind, but three months later I was standing at her headstone with a handful of white roses and so many things I’d never get to say.
It was at her funeral that I met Adrian; he was a tall, imposing man with long hair who leaned against a tree at the perimeter of the congregation. He wore a heavy leather coat and boots, with thick sunglasses on despite a thick cover of clouds in the sky. He was the last person left at the wake; he must’ve been waiting for me, because he didn’t talk to anybody else that day. As I was about to leave, he grabbed me by the arm and asked if I had a minute to talk to him. At first I was terrified of this stranger approaching me on the street at night, but he reassured me that it was about Serena and that she had asked him to do this for her. Just hearing her name was enough to persuade me to follow him.
He took me to his car, then from there we drove for almost an hour in circles. He explained how Serena and him met in the hospital, how they got to know each other at the treatment centre and how she talked about me all the time. He told me he went into remission about a month before she died, and that in the last few weeks he had been in contact with her every day. He said that she talked to him about dying a lot, because she couldn’t bring herself to talk to me. She knew that it’d only break my heart and she didn’t want to make things harder on me. Eventually he pulled up to a house on the other side of town, turned the car off and asked me to step out. As we walked up to the front door, he told me to wait on the front step until he came back out. I did as he said, and when he reemerged he asked me to come in.
The house was empty, save for a covered painting on an easel next to the fireplace in the living room. He told me that she had started painting it in the hospital during her treatment sessions, but she never got the chance to finish it. There was a letter with it, which he handed to me before prompting me to look at the painting. He told me he was going to step out for a smoke, that I could come find him when I was ready. I heard the screen door slam behind him, leaving me clutching the envelope for my whole entire life and sorrow burning holes in my stomach. I decided I’d keep the letter until I got home, but once I took the sheet off the painting I lost all sense of where home was.
It was a self-portrait, which was something she had never done. She always painted nature scenes, mountains and flowers with pastel colours and soft textures. I loved her paintings so much, but none of them held as much significance as the half-finished piece in front of me. It was a portrait of her on our balcony, staring off into the distance with the sun on her face. She was wrapped in our blanket, her white mug half-empty on the table next to her. The sliding door behind her peered into our living room, while you could barely make out the tops of buildings in the background on the other side before the paint gave way to blank canvas. It was only the edges missing, but her face had the same expression I had fallen in love with a million times before. I collapsed on the floor at the sight of it, crying until my lungs ached and my eyes burned. She would never finish it, and that pierced my soul like an arrow.
After what I’m sure must’ve been at least four cigarettes, Adrian came back inside to see if I was okay. He helped me up off the floor, got me a glass of water and told me that he would take me home. We drove in silence for a long time, before he finally said that he would stop by during the week to bring me the rest of her things from the hospital. I was too choked up to talk, the weight of the past year seemingly tied around my neck. When we pulled up to my apartment, he stepped out with me to smoke. I stood with him in that pale yellow light, and he explained to me that life wasn’t fair and that the universe didn’t give a damn about any of us. I guess he realized that he wasn’t making me feel any better, so he elaborated by saying that when he was in the hospital they kept trying to give him these motivational talks but they never helped him feel like he was dying any less. He said that people died all the time and the only reason that matters is because we live off each other, and sometimes we live for each other. He said he could see that in me, in the way Serena talked about me, that we lived for each other through everything and that was what made her life worth living.
He took a long drag of his cigarette before saying that there was one piece of advice an orderly gave him that stuck with him more than any of the other inspirational seminars he sat through. She told him that clouds come and go without being noticed all the time, that the only time most people notice them is when they’re being rained on. She said that sometimes it’s better to be the rain on someone’s window pane than to be a passerby, drifting away without ever touching a soul. As he uttered the words, he scoffed to himself and took one last haul before leaving me to walk the stairs to my place.