My new novel In the Distance There Is Light will be out in 2 weeks (and 1 day). Here’s a preview. Enjoy!
In the Distance There Is Light
© Harper Bliss
As they lower his casket into the ground, a part of me still believes this isn’t real. That he’ll push the lid off with those strong arms of his, pop out, and proclaim this was all just a really bad prank. I glance at the coffin as it settles into this grave dug especially for Ian, my Ian, and it suddenly seems to go so fast. Then, just like that, the casket is out of sight.
To my right, Jeremy can’t hold back a loud sniffle. To my left, Dolores, Ian’s mother, doesn’t make a sound. I stand there, waiting for the punchline to this awful, strung-out joke.
“That’s enough now, Ian,” I want to say. “You’ve made your point. We’re all more than ready for some relief.”
Then Dolores’ hand slips into mine, her fingers curl around mine in a desperate grip, and I stop believing in miracles. This is real. I’ll never see Ian again. Dolores will never see her son again. During my thirty years on this planet, I’ve only been to the funerals of people I vaguely cared about. Distant aunts and relatives I never got to know. I’d always thought the first big one, the first one to tear me apart at least a little bit, would be my granddad’s. But I’m burying my boyfriend instead. Well, my partner, I guess. Boyfriend sounds so juvenile, so inadequate for what he was to me. When I told him, in jest, on my twenty-eighth birthday, that I was now of a respectable marrying age, he took me aside and, in all earnestness, proclaimed that he’d given the subject of marriage a lot of thought but that he couldn’t do that to Dolores. She’d never had the chance to wed Angela, Ian’s other mother, while Angela was still alive—the change in legislation had come too late for them. Dolores, whose only child has just been lowered into a grave, and who is clutching at my hand with increasing desperation now—because who else is left for her to hold on to?—never struck me as the marrying kind. Perhaps that’s because I’ve always only known her as a widow. Angela had already died before I met Ian. I’ve never seen her with anyone else.
“It’s not so easy at her age,” Ian used to say when I questioned him about this. “Especially when you’ve been with someone for such a long time.”
Because I refuse to feel sorry for myself, I feel sorry for Dolores the most. First Angela, now Ian.
“She was ten years older than me and smoked like a chimney,” Dolores once said, while heavily under the influence of a bottle of Merlot. “Growing old together was never really in the cards for us.”
How different this is.
I give her hand a good hard squeeze back. Of all the people gathered here today, and there are many, I feel as though I can only compare grief with Dolores. Who else here—the artists Dolores knows, my extended family with whom I’m not close, my best friend Jeremy who lives every day like it’s his last—can possibly know the depths of despair Ian’s sudden death has caused? He was my soulmate. The sweetest boy I’d ever come across. The love of my life. And now he’s gone.
Oh, shit. He’s really gone. He’s not going to miraculously rise from the dead. The punchline is the cruelest one ever, because there is none. I will never witness his smile again, will never hear him fake a British accent because when he was ten, he’d spent a summer in Oxford once with his dad, and he’ll never again breeze into our apartment after work, always loud, always making sure I knew he was home, and joke, “What’s for dinner, wife?”
I lost him. Dolores lost him. Our friends lost him. Even his ex has turned up for the funeral. We’ve all lost him. The world is now without Ian Holloway. My world will never be the same again. And it’s as though only now the shock, the woolen cocoon my feelings have been wrapped in since I got that phone call, is beginning to wear off, and the pain that’s been lying in wait is starting to burrow a way through my flesh, quickly reaching my heart. In a panic, I look around. Ian. Where is he? The man who came into my life just at the right time. Who buffed up my self-esteem when it was at its lowest. The guy who, when I was about to spiral into one of my bouts of wallowing self-pity, would give me a sufficiently hard look and tell me to pull myself together—the only person who ever knew how to snap me out of that particular kind of funk. A person so seemingly uncomplicated, he managed to uncomplicate me along with him.
As I stand here, I curse myself for not pushing Ian harder to get married, because now I don’t even have a ring, or a piece of paper that binds me to him after his death. I’m just a woman, a girl with no claims to make. I might as well be no one.
I turn to Dolores and collapse into her arms. I don’t consider that she’s probably not strong enough to catch me, and that my own parents are here, probably eager to put me back together, but not even on a day like this can I shake off the indifference that has crept into my heart when it comes to them. Dolores and Ian had become my family. As of now, it’ll just be me and Dolores. She throws her arms around me, pats my hair with her hand, and breaks down with me.
“Stop fussing,” I say, wondering what I look like to Jeremy, who invited me to stay with him after Ian’s accident. “I’ll be fine.” The funeral was four days ago and he has only left my side to sleep.
“Call me any time.” He stands fumbling with his keys, shuffling his weight around. “I won’t be home late.”
“Go do your fabulous thing, darling,” I say in the affected accent we sometimes use with each other, but it sounds wrong under the circumstances. Nothing has been carefree or frivolous since Ian died. Now there’s before, and after. Because I’m still alive. When he left the apartment that morning, I had no idea I would never see him again. Often, I used to watch him scoot off on his bicycle—his pride and joy—through the kitchen window. When I craned my neck at the right angle, I could watch him until he turned the corner of the street. But that day, I didn’t watch him. I was still in bed when he left. I barely kissed him goodbye, having pulled a late night the previous day trying to meet a deadline.
Jeremy sighs. “I don’t have to go, Soph. I can take more time off. If anything, Amy Blatch will be exhilarated by my absence.”
I’m not sure where I get the strength to get up and walk over to him, but I do. “You’ll have to go out at some point. You can’t always be here.” I’ll need to learn to be alone sooner rather than later. I put my hands on his shoulders the way he’s done with me many times. “I’ll be fine.”
“Why don’t you call Alex and ask her to come over?” He cocks his head, tries to look me in the eyes but his gaze slides away.
“Because Alex has her own life to live, and so do you.”
A tear sprouts in the corner of Jeremy’s eye. “Oh shit.” He inhales deeply. “I’m so sorry. I can’t stand that this happened. It’s just so unfair.” Words often repeated by now. Ian’s death is unfair, unexpected, devastating. It’s so many things that don’t make him any less dead.
“Go.” I really need him to leave. I don’t want to fall apart in front of Jeremy again—it’s all I’ve been doing the past week. “Bring me back some juicy gossip.” My voice is breaking already. I all but push him out the door. “I’ll be fine,” I repeat, though, of course, I won’t be.
Once Jeremy is gone, I take a deep breath. I listen for the faint ding of the elevator, wait for the doors to slide shut, then the tears come, again.
“Fuck,” I scream. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Truth be told, I didn’t want Jeremy to go tonight, but I also couldn’t bear to ask him to stay with me another night. I could see how restless it was making him. Jeremy is the opposite of a homebody. We’d be watching television, both with a large glass of wine in our hands, and he’d be fidgeting, his foot shaking with impatience, his glance always darting away from whatever we were watching. I could have stayed with someone else, but Jeremy is my only single friend and I couldn’t face staying with a couple, couldn’t face the inevitable signs of intimacy, of a life shared and uninterrupted.
So here I stand, in Jeremy’s starkly decorated apartment, alone. My eyes fall on a picture of Ian and me, a silly polaroid we took at Jeremy’s fortieth birthday party a few years ago. Ian’s cheeks are filled with air, like little balloons of flesh, his eyes bulging, and it makes me think of how hard it was to find a suitable picture for his obituary. Whenever a camera came near him, he would start goofing around. In the end, we used one I snapped of him when he was unaware of it. Ian staring into the distance, ruminating on something, his expression peaceful nonetheless.
“Get a grip,” I whisper to myself. I hate this version of me, this beaten down, tearful, whiny woman I’ve become. Even though I know I’m allowed this devastation, this weakness—Alex called it vulnerability the other day—I can’t identify with it. Every time I believe I’ve run out of tears, new ones show up, as though I haven’t already been crying for a week. An endless supply of tears.
I head back to the couch and drink more of the wine Jeremy poured before he left—we’ve made a good dent in his stash. Then my cell phone beeps. Convinced it’s Jeremy, texting me from a taxi, I sigh, but smile a little as well. Jeremy is exactly the kind of friend you need when something like this happens—something I can’t wrap my head around, let alone accept. Because he’s a bubble of a man, always ready to burst, to come up with an out-of-the-box plan, even though, of course, Ian dying has taken away some of his spontaneity and quick wit. The other day, I begged him to make me laugh, to tell me one of his outrageous stories I’ve heard so many times, but when he did, he couldn’t put the right inflections in his voice to make it funny.
The message is not from Jeremy, but from my mother, asking how I’m holding up. Well-intentioned, I’m sure, but even now I can’t read any words from my mother without hearing a persistent passive-aggressive ring to them. She probably thinks I haven’t called her enough, haven’t relied on her enough during these dire times. What am I even supposed to reply to that?
Knowing my mother, she’s probably walking around the house, thinking of ways for this tragedy to bring us closer together. But some things are just beyond repair, like our relationship. I can’t deal with this right now, although no matter how much my mother annoys me, at least it makes for a change from this relentless blackness that has wrapped itself around every thought I’ve had since Ian died. I don’t reply.
I push my phone away and grab the remote control. Maybe Netflix will bring solace. As soon as I press the button, I know it won’t, because how can it? How can televised drama possibly take my mind of the horror of real life? How can a sitcom ever make me smile again? Oh, fuck. I really shouldn’t be alone. The loss weighs too heavy on me, the pain is too much for me to shoulder alone in Jeremy’s living room. I reach for my phone again and call the person who reminds me of Ian the most, who knows him the best, whose loss is comparable to mine.
I call Dolores.
<<End of preview>>
In the Distance There Is Light will be available on 14 September 2016