There is Always a Silver Lining
“Hi Catherine,” 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?” Catherine 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. There was an awkward pause as her hand hung in the air before retreating back. Walter then picked up a napkin and wiped his face.
Catherine cleared her throat and gave an uneasy smile, her eyes beginning to roam the diner as if looking 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 shitty 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 so horrible. I’m so sorry Catherine. You didn’t deserve to be brought into this."
“Yes I did,” Catherine said, “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 Catherine Evans. It should be your legacy; all the lives you’ve saved.”
“Please don’t say that right now Walter. 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?” he asked.
She took a long sigh. “I lied to you. 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?”
Catherine 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?” Catherine 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. Catherine then watched helplessly as the realization slowly congealed on his face. “Was it because I broke up with her?” he asked.
Catherine bit her lips and closed her eyes. When they reopened, tears came falling out again. “Um, no,” she said. “She… she... I’m sorry.” Catherine paused to wipe her eyes. “She saw us in the car and thought we’d been having an affair all along.”
His 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,” Catherine 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 the 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 to get there, by the time he reached a bathroom 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 Catherine 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?”
Catherine’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 Walter. A mother just isn’t supposed to do what I did to my daughter. Even before that night, I crossed lines with you I never should’ve, 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 Catherine,” Walter said. “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?” she asked.
He sighed. “Yes. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what else to call it.”
Catherine smiled. “I only asked because I’ve never been good at recognizing love myself,” she said. “Like you, I’ve been a stranger to love practically my whole life unless you count my work. But also, you did say you loved me in the interview.”
“That’s right,” he said. “It’s hard to keep track of everything I confessed to when I can hardly remember confessing. 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.”
“Like a son?”
“Oh God no,” she said laughing. “Actually, never mind. Love is tricky enough, 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, but it sure still helps,” Catherine said. She then reached into her purse and took out a gray document wallet. “Also, there is one sliver of a silver lining I’m here to tell you about. Here.” She handed the wallet to him.
“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,” Catherine said. “Everything you need for a two-week European trip: 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,” Catherine 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?” Walter asked.
“Well, 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.”
Walter was silent as he continued to look through the wallet’s contents. “Wow,” he said. “This is a lot to take in. Also I can’t help but wonder if Amber would really still want me to have it after what I did. I don’t even know if I want it. It was really meant to be her trip, not mine.”
“Yes,” Catherine said, “but it’s all yours now. Read for yourself.”
She again reached into her purse and pulled out a plastic police evidence bag. Inside was a folded pink paper. “Her suicide note,” Catherine 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 just decided 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.
However, it’s not like my life had any meaning anyhow, and what value does a life have without meaning? So don’t cry over me. I am not my mother. I am not Walter. The world won’t miss me. I have contributed nothing to it. I have only been a sponge. That’s why they deserve each other, and I deserve this.
You’ll make Walter so much happier than I ever could Catherine. 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.
As far as my effects, my journals, they are yours Catherine. 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 and goodbye,
Walter was quiet for a long time after reading it. I have only been a sponge, he kept repeating in his head.
“Why?” he groaned. “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, then realized it was wrong and stopped.”
“I’m sure it didn’t look that way from her vantage point,” Catherine said.
“I know, I know. But why does life keep being so goddamn unfair?”
“Because we obviously haven’t learned what were supposed to yet. And enlightenment only comes through suffering. So, for now, we must suffer. It’s the only solace I can find in all this. But also, you were right when you said I was the only person who could understand; we are the only two people who can understand this suffering, and we need each other to get through it. 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.”
Catherine 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.
“But this isn’t last time,” she said. “And it will never be last time again. You can trust me, and I trust you.” She offered her arms again.
After some reluctance, he relented and fell into them, then began bawling.
“So…” Catherine said after holding him for nearly five minutes, “…are you going to take Amber’s gift?”
“I don’t know,” Walter said sniffing. “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?” she said smiling. “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.”