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.”
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.
“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.”