Kerry C. Byrne
I always knew Elliott would leave. I was never under the impression I got to keep him forever. And besides—I’m not that kind of selfish. Sometimes, it almost felt like I should have chased him away early. Kept him from wasting his time on me.
“But what do you get out of this,” I’d ask sometimes, smiling so he wouldn’t think it mattered.
“That’s not what this is about,” he’d say.
And I would almost, somehow, fall in love with him.
But not quite, because that’s not what it was about either.
By the time I hit Ossington, the storm is a blizzard. Cars crawl beside me. I wrinkle my nose at their tires and picture how things will work when cars will fly. Surely, with so much space in the sky, people will get where they need to go.
I haven’t walked this part of the city in a long time. I don’t know the shops—too cool and too expensive for me—and the restaurants have shifted, some closed, some new, some that seem a block or two off where they should be. Most of it is probably me. Everything is changing, year after year, and the city disorients me these days.
We can’t choose when people leave us, but I thought Elliott would leave when I met Mack.
Mack was some kind of fairy creature. She worked a bar in the Junction at night, and volunteered by day. Her leftover time was poured into painting. Canvases on canvases choked our hallway and spilled through our rooms and never, never got put away.
Sometimes I’d come home in the evening, and Elliott would be sitting quietly, watching Mack work; her hair tied up, a glorious halo of matted chestnut. I would join them, watching the way her shoulders worked as she moved colours across canvas. Always making something. What there was was never enough for Mack.
When she left, she left the paintings, too.
The wind bites my cheeks when I hit Bloor. I feel smaller in the snow, like a Christmas village figurine. I peer east, wonder what this stretch of street will look like in ten years. Mack once called Toronto a city of ghosts, full with memories of beautiful buildings that were deemed worthless.
Elliott wasn’t interested in things like buildings and developments. Too real for him, bogged down in circular conversations. When we walked, it was rarely together. He would run ahead, lag behind, or dip into some strange shortcut he thought he knew. But I never held his absence against him. Not like I did with Mack when she turned her voice off or rushed ahead so she wouldn’t have to fight with me anymore. Walking with Elliott was like walking with myself. As we drifted through neighbourhoods, sometimes I thought of him and sometimes I didn’t.
Today, loneliness pinches my shoulders. It winds down my back and through my spine, jumbling my stomach into nausea.
I met Elliott at a birthday party. One of those horrible ones where the whole class was invited and no one wanted you there. I retreated to the corner of the basement, gaping at the birthday girl’s endless Barbie collection, strewn over her Barbie mansion—wondering how none of them had purple hair or buzzcuts, what kind of bizarre self-control she had.
When I turned around, Elliott was there, beaming widely.
“Do you like them?” he asked.
“But you like them better than the other kids.”
He laughed, and our bonds of friendship were forged in the fires of exclusion.
When I sidle into my apartment, a stack of Mack’s paintings crash down in a crowd of canvas and dust from where they were gingerly leaning against the wall in my too-small hallway.
I take care not to step them and close the door behind me. Hang up my keys. Take off my boots.
Taking off my coat, I knock into the biggest canvas, hanging awkwardly on the wall. Too big for the space. It’s an abstract one, blues and reds and angry lines, and I don’t even know what it’s supposed to mean. With my tired, numb fingers, I try to straighten it. The floor and ceiling tilt in different directions. There is no even.
My parents decided Elliott was imaginary early on. After that, they rarely used Elliot’s name, preferring the parentally approved “your imaginary friend,” or when they were feeling peppy, “imagination boy,” like he was a superhero. When they did use his name, it was with a not-so-sly raised eyebrow at the other parent over the dinner table.
“How was Elliott today?” They’d ask, the sound of it wide and foolish.
Later, when I was “old enough,” it became: “Remember Elliott, your make believe friend? That was so fun, wasn’t it? You had such a great imagination.”
Their laughter would roll, because anything that wasn’t their sort of real was a joke.
“I remember,” I would say, grinning. They would think it was for them, a part of their mirth. But it was for Elliott, sitting there all along.
After my parents, I didn’t tell anyone about Elliott until Elena. We were home alone, after two weeks of every so often deciding we should kiss—busily, we flipped through magazines and acted like we’d never been more than friends.
Elena knew things about feminism and politics, and I was so sure I loved her. So I told her. And she stopped kissing me.
She stopped everything with me.
I bought Mack a ring on our two-year anniversary. Just a slim band of gold. When I gave it to her, she cried, and wouldn’t let me promise that I’d eventually get her a better one. She put it on and didn’t take it off until the day she left, and I found it on our kitchen table with a note that said Thank you.
No “we drifted apart” or “it’s just not working.” No follow up email or calls, just a text that asked me to not get in touch. To let us mourn apart.
My first real relationship and my first real breakup. Neither went the way people say they should. You don’t want to marry your first. You don’t leave without a word. I felt, at the time, that I deserved more: a screaming match, a thrown plate.
But I hadn’t listened when we were together. So I listened when she was gone. I gave her silence, hoarded her paintings, and retreated to baths where I ducked underwater and surrendered myself to a world where every sound was distorted.
Elliott came often then, and I treated him poorly. Some days I curled around his arm and wept into his shoulder. Others, I ignored him, playing video games, pretending I was alone—and then covertly glancing over my shoulder to make sure he was still there. Of course he was.
Until then, I’d spent all my time dreaming up beautiful futures, where Mack and I bought a house deep in Ontario farm country. We were supposed to have two dogs. Fancy appliances. Visits from parents who told us how proud they were, how good we were. We spent long nights skin to skin, where I murmured those stories to her.
But futures weren’t enough, while I held the present hostage.
Mack knew. She couldn’t see or hear Elliott. I’d never spoken a word about him. But she felt him in our home and conversations and dreams. She used words to describe me like “distant” and “silent” and I disdained her for it. She couldn’t control me, or the relationship she never knew I had. No one deserved that much power.
It wasn’t until after Elliott was gone, and I let myself be lonely instead of angry or scared, that I realized it was never about control. At least, not for her.
Home is musty and frigid. I fumble with my
extra heater. It’s huge, half the length of my galley kitchen. I kneel on the crumbling tiles of the floor, turning the knobs futilely. It took five years to accept that “utilities included” meant “you will freeze” and Elliott finally convinced me to buy the damned thing.
I figure out which knob is the fan and which is the temperature, and that just because the light is on doesn’t mean it’s running. The heater sputters to life, feeding putrid plastic warmth into the air. I sit at the table, my coat still wrapped around me, and let the heat seep into my socks.
Elliott came and went through doors, but not like the rest of us. You’d get the sense of a passage opening and then a sudden thereness. He lived somewhere between two states: unthere and there.
Elliott was in every moment of my life. When he wasn’t there, I was waiting for him to be there. And waiting was horrible. Suddenly, I was a child again, peering down the street to watch for their friend’s family’s car.
Without him, my life paused, and I spent my time hiding in corners with books and Gameboys. With him, I flew through neighbourhoods, collecting memories of whole worlds excavated in backyards and schoolyards. Unpredictable was the word thrown around by my guidance counsellors and teachers, and adopted by my parents.
I never knew where he went when he was unthere. I spent long hours asking him if there were other children he took care of, and if I could have him to myself. But even when questioned, he only smiled that Elliott smile. Changed the topic with such ease that I wouldn’t notice until hours or months or even years later. When I showed concern, he guided me away from my worries, and into a sense of comfort that lasted as long as he was there.
For a while, around thirteen, I tried tailing him when he left. I was certain that if I could follow him to unthere, I’d prove that I was important enough to stay for. But the way he moved through space wasn’t available to me, and halfway down a street he would be gone and I would be standing alone, absent-minded and disoriented.
A tempestuous murrrr sounds from the
floor, and the blunt force of a cat’s head hits my shin.
“Okay, okay,” I say, like the cat is a person. I dig through the cupboards where I never put anything away right until I find the scoop and food.
Mack left the cat like she left the paintings. We adopted him together, one year in. She thought I needed the company, working from home. He’s eight, and feisty, and loves me probably more than anything ever has before. At first, I thought her leaving the cat was irresponsible. It was her choice to get it in the first place, I told Elliott often. What could she have been thinking? What if I gave the cat up? What if I forgot about it, and it died? How would she feel then?
But at night, it curls up on my chest, and purrs into the quiet dark. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I nestle my fingers in its fur until I do.
I don’t resent Elliott. My whole body aches over it, of course. For the magic I miss, without him there to wield it.
It was soon after Mack left, but not too soon. After I had used up all my tears, but before I could stem the upset.
“Why are you even here,” I asked one day, rephrasing my favourite question. But it was sharp, and real, and full of mourning for something he couldn’t fix.
It sliced through some invisible line between us.
Suddenly, I couldn’t feel the flutter of his heart when he was in the same room. His voice echoed, filled with static. I hadn’t known that I carried both of us inside my chest. Pushing him out had taken so little effort, but without him my ribs felt empty.
“I’m not sure,” he said, smiling, but a smile that we both knew couldn’t fix what I’d done. Not like the usual smile. “I’m never sure why, or how, I’m ever here. I’m just here when I can help, Ver.”
He gave my arm a squeeze.
That night, he left through his mysterious door. I lay in bed watching the shadows eat the light on my ceiling, and his absence filled my room.
I haven’t tried to find him since. I know better now.
His door is one of many that will not open for me.
I brew some tea to the sound of the wind hitting my weak little windows. Cup my mug in my palms, pull it close for the heat, and go perch on the couch.
Through the evening, I’ve stacked Mack’s paintings across the floor of the living room. There’s something adult about the loneliness that sweeps across them, etching itself in my hands as I picked each one up. Like the first time you clean your own skinned knee.
The paintings become two stacks: mail and throw out. Some of them, Mack left too quickly to take, but I know she loved them. Those go to her—no note, no call, nothing of me. Just what’s hers.
I wrap the others that need to be mailed. Ones meant for nieces, parents, friends. I have their addresses. The wedding list will come in handy now. It’ll cost a fortune, but the space is worth it. They’ll go tomorrow.
The others, she hated. Some have wild slashes of dark paint across them, made into something they were never meant to be, cursed by disappointment. These, I take downstairs in armfuls. One gives me a splinter that I have to tug out with my teeth. I suck on the wound, where it wells with blood, and I notice one of the smaller paintings—splotched with a mark of failure, but edged in with beauty. I run my good fingers over it, feel the texture, the way the colours meld. It almost means something. So when I’m done, I take it upstairs with me. The snowflakes that landed on it melt, and it glistens in the yellow light of the apartment’s stairwell. I’ll put it up, amongst the rows of empty nails, one small thing. And it will be beautiful.
In bed, I imagine building an ice castle. Just
me in a wide open valley, carving bricks and placing them one on top of the other, until there are gleaming walls and turrets and ceilings and doors. When it is done, I shiver. Nearly frozen, cheeks pink, fingers numb. Nonetheless in awe of what I’ve made.
And, though my trembling hands can barely shape the ice, I start to form a handle.
KERRY C. BYRNE is an autistic, queer and nonbinary writer/cat lover living in Toronto. Their other work is forthcoming and/or published in Kaleidotrope, Monstering, The Temz Review, and others. The rest of the time, they can be found working on Augur Magazine as publisher—or maybe reliving their glory days as an award-winning collegiate a cappella singer in their bathroom. Find them on Twitter as @kercoby.