The Silver Year: Chapter 9

Chapter​​ 9

There​​ is​​ Always a Silver Lining

 

“Hi​​ Karen,” Walter​​ said.

“You weren’t kidding when you said bright orange hat,”​​ the mother of his dead ex-girlfriend​​ said as she​​ sat​​ across from him. “I wouldn’t have​​ recognized you otherwise.”​​ She​​ tucked​​ her eyes​​ under the brim​​ of his hat​​ to meet his.​​ She smiled.​​ “Hi​​ Axl.”

He​​ smiled​​ back​​ fretfully​​ at​​ the​​ steel blue​​ irises​​ he’d exchanged so many​​ wonderful​​ discourses​​ with.​​ They and she​​ still had the​​ same sultry​​ vitality he​​ remembered,​​ however,​​ the​​ prominent gray streak in her​​ jet black curls​​ was​​ a tad more striking.

“A milkshake?”​​ Karen said. “Aren’t​​ you​​ lactose intolerant?”

“Yes,​​ and​​ my stomach hates me,”​​ Walter​​ said​​ grimacing. “But damn,​​ does it taste good though.​​ I haven’t had a milkshake since I was, well, a fat kid​​ who wasn’t lactose intolerant.​​ I just saw it on the menu and made an impulse​​ buy.​​ But no going back now.” He took a dramatic gulp.

“You’re going to regret that​​ . . .​​ And​​ now​​ you’ve got milkshake​​ all over​​ your beard. Here...”​​ She reached to his cheek to​​ clean​​ it away, but stopped short. Her hand hung on the air;​​ their eyes hung on each other’s.​​ Time​​ paused, and traveled​​ briefly​​ to the last time they touched.​​ Walter could taste the​​ smooth​​ skin of her neck and breasts in his mouth, hear her warm moan in his ear, and feel the tight clench of her hand around his penis and the satisfying flush of her shuddering center over his own.

He​​ picked up a napkin and wiped​​ his​​ face, hand and eyes​​ then​​ fell away​​ and he was back in the present.​​ 

Karen​​ cleared​​ her throat and​​ gave an uneasy smile, her eyes​​ beginning to roam the diner for an exit. There it was:​​ fear.​​ The confident wind that carried​​ her​​ in​​ was fading​​ fast​​ now that there wasn’t any​​ small talk​​ left​​ to pick at.​​ They​​ couldn’t ask how they​​ were doing. They already knew.​​ It​​ was shit times for them both.

“Listen...”​​ Walter​​ said, “I want you to know I never intended for our​​ ‘affair’​​ to become national headlines.​​ During the interview a lot came up about my past​​ and I had been drinking and it accidently slipped.​​ I never would’ve intentionally put your career in​​ harm.​​ I​​ feel horrible. I’m​​ so​​ sorry​​ Karen.​​ You didn’t deserve to be brought into this."​​ 

“Yes I did,”​​ she​​ said​​ adamantly,​​ “more than you know.​​ And past​​ the​​ embarrassment​​ and some harassment from nobody that matters,​​ only​​ headlines​​ in science journals can​​ affect my career, not tabloids.”

“But hardly anyone reads science journals, and this shouldn’t be how the rest of the world comes to know Doctor Karen Evans. It​​ should be your​​ legacy; all the lives​​ you’ve​​ saved.”

“Please don’t​​ say that right now.​​ I’m sure you’ll understand​​ after I tell you the truth.​​ That’s why I called to meet you today, not the magazine article.”

“The​​ truth?”

Karen took a long sigh.​​ “I lied to you,” she said. “I lied​​ to​​ you, and​​ I lied to a lot of​​ other​​ people, but I feel the worst about​​ you.”

“You lied to me about what?”​​ 

She​​ attempted​​ to​​ answer, but​​ every time​​ her​​ mouth opened, no words came out.

“Um…” she finally​​ muttered, “what I’m about to tell you isn’t going to be easy to hear.​​ It’s why I​​ didn’t tell you in the first​​ place; I wanted to protect you. But now that everything is out​​ in​​ the​​ open,​​ the truth is​​ inevitably going to come out,​​ and I don’t want you to​​ hear it​​ from someone else…”

Walter’s heart​​ began​​ punching​​ his​​ sternum​​ and pulling​​ at​​ his lungs​​ while​​ she​​ took a few​​ more​​ moments to compose herself,​​ but it didn’t seem to be​​ helping.​​ Her​​ eyes began watering​​ while​​ her​​ mouth​​ continued to​​ fight​​ her tongue.

...Amber​​ didn’t die from a seizure,”​​ she​​ managed​​ to​​ blurt out, “she hung​​ herself with a belt​​ on​​ a pull-up rack that​​ was​​ on​​ her bathroom door.​​ That’s how I found her the morning​​ I called you.

Walter had had so many doses of traumatic news​​ lately,​​ his mind was on high alert to preserve itself. He​​ had​​ heard​​ her​​ clearly,​​ but before he could process it,​​ he​​ got​​ hung​​ up​​ on​​ her saying​​ hung​​ instead of​​ hanged.​​ 

I know​​ hanged is the​​ correct​​ past tense of hang​​ in this case,​​ but it sounds so silly.​​ I don’t think anyone actually​​ says that. Why don’t they just make hung the past tense whether​​ it’s​​ a person or picture? Is it because a human​​ being​​ deserves special treatment? What if you were to hang an animal? Would it​​ still be​​ hanged or hung? The English language is so unnecessarily complex and inefficient. But​​ French​​ is​​ even worse

“Walter?”​​ Karen said.​​ He blinked several times, then​​ stared​​ emptily​​ at her. “Did you hear me?”​​ she asked.

“Yes. Amber huuung—haaanged . . . hung-hanged, hung-hanged…” he repeated several times then​​ stopped​​ abruptly.​​ Karen​​ then​​ watched helplessly as the realization slowly​​ congealed on​​ his face.​​ “Was​​ it because​​ I broke up with her?”​​ he​​ asked.​​ 

Karen bit her lips and closed her eyes. When they reopened, tears came falling out​​ again.​​ “Um, no,” she said. “She… she... I’m sorry.” Karen​​ paused to wipe her eyes. “She​​ saw​​ us​​ in the car​​ and​​ thought​​ we’d been having an​​ affair all along.”

Walter’s​​ head​​ went​​ into his palms. “No-no-no…​​ Please no!” he pled. Tears began leaking through his hand’s creases. “How do you know​​ for​​ certain?”

“Her suicide note.”

The flows between his fingers continued to grow, then​​ became​​ audible​​ enough​​ to catch the ears of the​​ surrounding tables.​​ “I shouldn’t have​​ told you here,” Karen said noticing​​ their staring. “What was I thinking?​​ I’m so sorry.​​ I just wanted to meet you somewhere I knew you were comfortable,​​ and I know how much you love this diner and pier—”

Walter​​ stood unexpectedly​​ grabbing​​ his gut.

“What’s wrong?”​​ she​​ asked.

“Milkshake was a​​ really​​ bad choice,”​​ he​​ cried as he​​ went running.

Having to climb a flight of stairs, by the time​​ he​​ reached​​ a​​ stall and pulled down his​​ drawers,​​ evacuation had already​​ begun​​ not only​​ on the​​ inside​​ of​​ them, but since he had decided to wear shorts,​​ also​​ down his legs. But​​ neither​​ humiliation​​ or his twisting​​ intestines could​​ shake off​​ the uncompromising​​ compunction​​ of now knowing​​ he was undoubtably responsible​​ for Amber’s​​ death.​​ With​​ no one​​ else​​ in the bathroom,​​ and​​ only​​ the acrid stench of his own shit to comfort him,​​ his tears wailed​​ at full​​ volume,​​ jarring​​ loose​​ snot and slobber from his face like a melting waxwork.

 

After​​ Karen returned​​ with​​ a new pair of​​ sweatpants​​ for​​ Walter​​ from the pier’s​​ giftshop,​​ they made haste for her car​​ in the parking garage.​​ 

“How you doing?”​​ she​​ asked​​ him​​ once inside the sealed and leather-swathed silence of her​​ crossover SUV.​​ 

​​ “I don’t know,” he said, a​​ dull​​ ringing​​ still​​ swinging in his head from aftershocks of the revelation.​​ “How you fairing?”​​ 

“I was doing okay, but telling you was, well,​​ it​​ was​​ like digging up a body I​​ already​​ buried. But,​​ I should’ve told you the truth to begin with.”

“Why didn’t you?”​​ 

“I couldn’t.​​ I couldn’t tell anyone the truth, not​​ right after it happen. I​​ couldn’t accept I was responsible for my own daughter’s death.​​ Of course​​ though,​​ as distant as most of them were​​ to her,​​ family members​​ eventually​​ found​​ out, and then I had to face it all over again, just as I am with you.”

“Did they​​ know​​ it was because of us?”

Karen’s​​ jaw clenched.​​ “No,” she said. “Everyone presumed it was​​ the breakup with you​​ and I​​ just​​ went with it.​​ It wasn’t until the​​ Rolling Stone​​ article​​ that​​ they​​ figured​​ out the real reason . . . God,​​ I’m​​ such​​ a horrible person.​​ I​​ killed my daughter and let someone​​ who I supposedly care deeply for​​ take​​ the blame.​​ See,​​ I deserve this—all of this.​​ Not you.​​ A mother isn’t supposed to do what I did to my daughter.​​ Even before​​ that night,​​ I crossed lines​​ with you​​ I​​ never should,​​ like texting​​ you​​ and sending you pictures every day like a smitten high school girl. I made it possible for​​ what happened that night in your​​ car​​ to​​ happen.​​ 

“We both did​​ Karen.​​ I acted in ways that were inappropriate too, and I had inappropriate feelings for you, I just didn’t recognize​​ them as such​​ until, well,​​ it was too late. I’ve never been good at recognizing love.”

“So it was love?”

“I mean, I didn’t mean to say that . . . Yes. I don’t know what else to call it.​​ I’m sorry.”

She​​ smiled.​​ “I​​ only asked because​​ I’ve​​ never​​ been good at recognizing​​ love myself.​​ I’ve been a stranger to it practically my​​ whole​​ life unless you count my work.​​ But​​ also, you​​ did say​​ it​​ in​​ the interview.”

“Oh yeah. It’s hard to keep track of everything I confessed to when I can hardly remember confessing them. But again,​​ I’m sorry.”

“Walter, stop apologizing​​ for love, especially since I loved​​ you too​​ and still love you.​​ You’re​​ the only person who’s ever made me feel like I’m not alone​​ inside my head,​​ and​​ I’ve​​ missed you terribly​​ for that.​​ And​​ although our​​ love can never​​ again​​ express itself the way it​​ did​​ our last night together—never,​​ it’s still very much there.​​ I​​ suppose I​​ just love you​​ now​​ the way I​​ was​​ supposed to​​ love you​​ when you were just my daughter’s boyfriend.”

“You mean like a​​ son?”

“Oh God​​ no. Actually, never mind. Love is tricky to pin down being as malleable as it is, so let’s just not try to define it in our case.”

They both laughed. Then both looked ashamed.

“It doesn’t feel right​​ to​​ laugh at a time like this, does it?” Walter said.

“No it sure doesn’t, but it still helps,” Karen replied. “Also, there​​ is one sliver of a silver lining. It’s also why I called to meet you​​ tonight.”​​ She​​ took a gray document wallet from her purse and handed it to him.​​ “Here,”​​ she said.

Contiki,”​​ he​​ read​​ the​​ logo​​ on​​ it​​ out loud.​​ He​​ then​​ unzipped​​ the wallet​​ and​​ found a number of​​ pamphlets and​​ tickets​​ inside.​​ Contiki: Vacations for 18-35s,” he read​​ one of the​​ letterheads. “What​​ is all this?”

“Amber’s belated​​ birthday present,” she said.​​ “everything you need for a two-week trip​​ for two​​ through eight​​ European​​ countries:​​ airfare,​​ travel,​​ lodging,​​ even​​ some of the food,​​ it’s all taken care of. And​​ for what’s not,​​ there’s​​ also​​ a personal cheque from me for a thousand dollars​​ in there.​​ Amber​​ bought​​ the trip​​ a few weeks before she died. Since it​​ was​​ so​​ far​​ in​​ advance, she got​​ a considerable discount, however,​​ she wasn’t planning on giving it to you until your​​ twenty-fifth​​ birthday.”

Walter shook his head as he continued to shuffle through the wallet’s contents in disbelief.

“This is​​ what​​ she​​ was talking about​​ when​​ we broke up,” he said.​​ “She said she had something planned for my birthday,​​ something that​​ might​​ inspire​​ her​​ to​​ write again.”

“Yes,” Karen said, “that’s why she chose this​​ specific tour. It travels through​​ many​​ cities of​​ some of​​ her favorite​​ writers:​​ London, Amsterdam, Munich, Venice, Paris, along with tramping through the Rhine Valley, Tyrol Austria, and the Swiss Alps.​​ She even made a list of burial sites and memorials​​ she wanted to see.​​ When this came in the mail for her last week, I had no clue what it was, so I​​ finally forced myself to​​ read through her journals and found out.​​ Although this is a birthday present for you, she admitted it was just as much a literary pilgrimage for herself.​​ And while​​ she​​ wanted it to​​ be​​ just​​ the two of you, Contiki was all she could afford.”

“What do you mean?”

“Contiki​​ is​​ a bus​​ tour.​​ Basically a big pub crawl from what I’ve read online.​​ You’ll be joined by​​ about fifty​​ mostly​​ college-aged​​ kids who​​ are mostly​​ there​​ to party.​​ Amber, however, was determined to make it something more cultured.​​ That’s why she put​​ the list​​ together.”​​ 

“Wow, this is a lot to take in. Also I can’t help but wonder if she’d​​ really​​ still want​​ me​​ to have it. I don’t even know if I want it.​​ It’s really her trip, not mine.”

“No,​​ it’s​​ all​​ yours​​ now. Read for yourself.”​​ Karen again reached into her purse and pulled out a plastic police evidence bag. Inside was a folded pink paper.​​ “Her suicide note,”​​ Karen​​ said.​​ “It’s harder to get​​ back from the police​​ than you think.​​ At the time,​​ I didn’t know what she​​ was talking about, but it’s​​ obvious​​ now. Here…”​​ She​​ took out​​ the note and gave it to​​ him.

Walter​​ stared at​​ the pink paper square in his palm.​​ His​​ hands shook as he unfolded it​​ and saw what was distinctively her handwriting in​​ naval​​ blue ink. Even​​ under duress, she took the time to make sure​​ her​​ strokes were immaculately straight.

 

This is everyone’s and no one’s fault. This is a series of unfortunate missteps within a complex​​ maze, and instead of killing myself trying to get out, I​​ decided​​ just​​ to​​ face the​​ music. I’m sorry for the pain this​​ will cause, but​​ you don’t​​ know​​ my longing for a​​ quiet​​ mind. Although​​ this​​ may seem impulsive,​​ this was​​ a deep sleep I’ve been missing​​ and​​ could no longer ignore.​​ 

 

It’s​​ not​​ like my life had any meaning anyhow, and what value does a life have without meaning? So don’t cry over it. I am not my mother. I am not Walter. The world won’t miss me, because​​ I’ve contributed nothing to it.​​ That’s why they deserve each other, and​​ I deserve​​ this.​​ You’ll make​​ Walter​​ so much​​ happier​​ than I ever could​​ anyway​​ Karen.​​ You​​ could​​ always​​ sing and keep up with him on a stage, while​​ I can’t even whistle and​​ suffer from stage​​ fright.​​ You​​ could always satisfy him intellectually, while I could only​​ smile​​ in a silent but​​ livid​​ envy at​​ how​​ you could get his face to light up in a way I never could.​​ I don’t know​​ why​​ it took seeing you together in the car tonight to​​ finally​​ realize​​ this.​​ However,​​ I’m sure you both already realized this some time ago.​​ I’m guessing​​ during​​ one​​ of your many late-night​​ “discussions”​​ alone​​ after movie night, after I went to bed.

 

As​​ far as my effects, my journals, they are yours​​ Karen.​​ You’ll​​ never​​ know​​ the​​ true​​ depth​​ of​​ how​​ much you’ve hurt me​​ without​​ reading​​ them; how​​ inadequate I’ve felt my whole life being​​ your​​ daughter, living in your​​ shadow​​ which​​ I​​ could never escape​​ or live up to,​​ now not even in my love life.​​ But​​ I also hope​​ they​​ preserve the​​ few​​ rare​​ moments​​ in which​​ I was just your happy daughter, because​​ I​​ would​​ rather be remembered that way.​​ 

 

The only​​ other effect of importance​​ is​​ your​​ birthday present​​ Walter.​​ Maybe​​ it can serve​​ some​​ purpose in your life that it so desperately sought to find in mine, just visit Proust for me if​​ you​​ decide to take it.​​ But, it’s not like I’ll ever know now anyway.​​ 

 

Sorry again,​​ 

 

Amber

 

“Why?” Walter said after reading it. “This should’ve never happened.​​ She​​ killed herself over a​​ misunderstanding.​​ We just let our emotions get the best of us​​ once​​ in​​ a​​ very​​ vulnerable moment, realized it was wrong and stopped.”

“I’m sure it didn’t look that way from her vantage point,”​​ Karen said.

“I know,​​ I know,​​ but why does life have to​​ be​​ so goddamn unfair?”

“Because​​ enlightenment only comes​​ through suffering.​​ It’s a Buddhist belief, and the only way I’ve been able to find​​ any​​ solace through this all.​​ Maybe we didn’t mean for it to happen, but we fucked up big time Walter and there’s a price to pay—or put another way, a lesson to be learned.​​ Suffering​​ is inevitable, change is inevitable,​​ death is inevitable,​​ and​​ only by​​ learning to​​ accept​​ these truths​​ can we​​ free ourselves of them and learn the true nature of reality.”

“Well, obviously much easier said than done.​​ I’m not​​ even​​ sure I want to know the true​​ nature of​​ reality when reality is already so cruel.”

Walter​​ broke into tears again.​​ Karen reached her arms out​​ for him, but​​ he​​ refused.​​ “I’m sure I don’t have to remind​​ you​​ of what happened last time we embraced in a car,”​​ he said.

“This isn’t last time,” she replied,​​ “and it will never be again.​​ And you were right when I called you that morning Amber died and said I was the only person who could understand. We are the only​​ two​​ people who can understand,​​ and we need each other. This burden is too heavy for one person, and you’ve​​ been​​ shouldering​​ it​​ alone for too long now​​ Walter. So please, let me take some weight off​​ you.” She offered her arms again.

After some reluctance, he relented​​ his weight into them. Nothing but relief was aroused​​ this time,​​ and​​ he​​ nursed​​ it for as long as he could.​​ 

“So…” Karen said after holding​​ him​​ for nearly five minutes, “…are you​​ taking​​ the trip?”

“I don’t know,” Walter said.​​ “It​​ doesn’t seem in line with suffering​​ to me.”

“Being​​ crammed​​ on​​ a bus with a bunch of partying college kids​​ you’ll probably have nothing in common with while having to be inevitably reminded of your dead ex-girlfriend​​ the entire trip? I don’t know, sounds like you might find some suffering to me. But regardless,​​ it’s not more suffering you’re​​ seeking; suffering is the path.​​ It’s​​ the silver lining of suffering, and there is always a silver lining.”

And maybe silver years are for silver linings,​​ Walter​​ thought to himself.

“Do I have to decide right now?” he asked.

“No. You have two weeks​​ before​​ the trip leaves.”

“Good, because​​ I’ll​​ probably​​ need it​​ all​​ to​​ process my path.​​ I don’t want to have to take it again.” He looked down at Amber’s suicide note still sitting​​ on his lap. “You mind if I keep this?” he asked picking it up.

“Take it.​​ My​​ time​​ with it​​ has run its course anyway. Now​​ it’s​​ your weight to carry.”​​ 

 

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