She grips the handle of her suitcase hard, so hard her fingers begin to cramp. The wave of passengers buoys her toward Arrivals. A sudden intestinal twist in the corridor reveals a large glass door, like a screen that shows the people waiting on the other side. The door, anticipating their approach, swings open and the scene becomes real, three-dimensional. Heads turn expectantly, unknown faces that blur quick into a sea of visual background noise.
She isn’t sure if her feet are allowed to touch this ground. She takes ginger, skittish steps. She crouches in the strange cabs; stays close to the sides of buildings. She does not move inside or through the city—interlopers don’t get that kind of intimacy—but, rather, over its surfaces. She feels safer indoors, and at night in the dark, away from the wide, unblinking eye of the sun.
Has the city changed? She doesn’t know. It feels the same: grey. It was so long ago. She’d only been here for less than eight months, cloistered away on the university campus. And she’d been tunnel-visioned, seeing only him, and herself in relation to him, and the two of them together, or the void left when they were apart. Everything else had been wallpaper.
She attends the lectures, the dinners. She presents her paper. Drinks the coffee, watery and pale. Wears sunglasses, even when it’s cloudy—assumes that she could be recognized, at any time; that she could run into him, maybe even with her (still?), at any time.
She walks by the bus station, and her eyes catch on the jagged edge of familiar. A young woman. Face blank with youth’s smoothness. Standing on the platform, waiting.
She stops, and a group of teenage boys passes around her like a school of fish, clouding her view. When they clear, the apparition is gone. But she is not wholly surprised by this ghost, this faint trace of her younger self who had been here, years ago. Who stayed behind and never aged. The image leaves a faint sting, like the aftermath of a slap. An old echo, diminished over the span of memory’s long, trembling reach.
She had assumed she would have become a better person since then. She had assumed that she would have become greater and wiser; forged a marriage, had children, put down roots, become someone. She counts up all the ways she is now different from back then: more degrees, bigger apartment, nicer hair, better book collection. But the ghost of the young woman who still wafts through these streets, hides around corners, watches—the young woman sees what she won’t become, and is disappointed.
It happened a long time ago. Back when, if you wanted to talk to someone, you actually had to get to a landline phone and press real buttons to make a call. Email existed, but people didn’t check it constantly because almost no one had an internet connection in their home. So it was still the telephone. But she hadn’t been allowed to call him—he wouldn’t give her his office number, and certainly not his home number. He had always called her to make arrangements.
One day, toward the end, they decided to leave the city. They met at the bus station but walked by each other, pretended they were strangers. Once the bus got moving and it was safe he came and sat with her and said: You liked that, didn’t you?
She had liked it. She had also hated it. Or more accurately, she hated herself. But she also felt larger than ever before. An expanse had opened inside her like a secret cathedral: huge, full of deeply echoing space.
They walked down the town’s meagre main street. He held her hand for the first time: firm, foreign. They turned down a path that wrapped around the base of the monument’s hill and led into a small wood. It was wet from recent rain. He took her off the path, down a small slope toward the trees, slipping on the mud, dirtying the back of his black dress pants. He bent her forward and she braced against a tree trunk. She’d planned ahead by wearing a skirt, no underwear. He pulled it up to her waist. She pulled it back down, just enough to cover her exposed skin. He pulled it all the way up again. She left it. They stayed like that against the tree for a while, until he got worried that someone would come by. I wouldn’t care, he said, if it was a couple of old ladies, but I’d hate for it to be a kid. When they passed a trashcan, he tossed the used but empty condom inside.
They walked up the path to the monument. Her ankle had begun to burn and itch. The skin reddened as she scratched. He looked at it and said: You’ve been stung by a nettle.
In the late afternoon they got back on the bus, and as they returned to the city they drew away from each other. I can’t walk with you from here, he said as they stood to get off. And she’d just nodded and let him stride on ahead, far enough so that they were no longer together, but still allowed her to follow like a shadow. She’d been surprised to learn that she was content to stay hidden in dark corners with the dust and gloom. Pulled curtains. Unplugged phone. Lights turned off.
They descended underground. He sat several seats down from her, on the opposite side of the car, and flipped through a newspaper, the ring on his left hand winking under the fluorescents. The cramped train rattled the riders’ bodies hard. He got off at P—-, and walked away without looking back.
She decides to take the subway back to the hotel instead of a cab. In the train car, the memory passes around her like fog: she sees him sitting across from her, that day they’d returned from their trip, holding a newspaper. Had he carried it with him all day, or was it on the seat and he’d picked it up, or had he bought it from a newsstand? She can’t remember. Perhaps he’d never even had a newspaper; perhaps she’d inserted that detail herself at some point. She wants to feel herself back there again, feel herself up against that place and her memory of it, the gap a barometer of who she is now versus who she was then. She needs to know.
His voice still whispers in her head. It says the same things from all those years ago. She’s repeated them to herself so she wouldn’t forget. But they must have become distorted by now, a game of telephone over each passing year. She makes him say some of it now, over and over again, in her head, as she approaches the station. The whisper strengthens and becomes clearer, a full-volume normal voice. She rounds the corner into the station entrance. Their eyes catch on each other like two hooks. She feels the tight snap of recognition. And there is nothing else but a deep sting blooming in her chest, the moment warping under heat, and his open mouth as his voice comes suddenly, new and live. Her ankle begins to burn.
Julia Chan lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in subTerrain, LitroNY, The Rusty Toque, The Danforth Review, and on café napkins in Toronto, Leeds, and Brisbane, made by Brisbane publisher Tiny Owl Workshop. Her short film In Shadow (directed by Shirley Cheechoo) screened at the Sundance Film Festival, among others. She is currently working on her first novel.