Here Are the Ones That Went
It’s Sunday and we are standing, as we do every Sunday, in the small kitchen of your apartment. There are the white-and-blue cups we gulp tea (and sometimes wine) out of. There is the Soviet kitsch rug, slightly off-centre, nailed to the wall behind the couch. An electric kettle hisses assertively on the Formica counter as an easy silence unspools in the soft space between us. Yet I have no idea where any of these things came from. You didn’t own them when you were alive.
Today marks three months—thirteen Sundays—since I received the brochure outlining my new government benefit: how many Visits are covered, what to expect, what I should do to promote ‘accelerated healing’. In the centre of the tri-fold is a stock photo of two women laughing. I return to it again and again, searching for a sign that one of the women is less real than the other. That one of the smiles doesn’t quite reach the eyes. I want to know which one represents me and which one represents you and I want to know about laughing—alone, together, or at all.
The first time I saw you after your death was also a Sunday, warmer than this one, slashes of blue in an overcast sky. I was feeling nostalgic in a way that was probably clinical, drifting numbly past flowers and baked goods at the co-op down the street. The situation called for ice cream, I thought. But what do you like? I couldn’t remember for the life of me. For the life of me, I whispered to myself. Ha-ha. At the self-checkout I scanned a carton of Neapolitan, literally nobody’s favourite. Outside the air was thick with possibility, like something you could climb. A trio of street performers gyrated to a hideous tune.
You live now, insofar as you can be called alive, in an unremarkable building not far from mine. It looks more or less like the other unremarkable buildings on the street, identifiable solely by the number printed above its perfectly ordinary door. Past the entryway is a small lobby: armchairs with just enough wear so as to be welcoming, curated selection of magazines on a reclaimed wood coffee table, sleek Nespresso machine. Nothing strange in here, the building is saying. Just a regular apartment complex. Alternative milks are available. Like me, the building holds its secrets to its chest.
That first Sunday, we sat on your couch (do you think of it as your couch?) and passed the Neapolitan back and forth. You didn’t mention the flavour, though I noticed you eating more strawberry than vanilla or chocolate. I wonder if you can have a favourite ice cream now, if you can make a new one. I hope, an acidic swirl of hatred in my guts for anyone else you ever knew, that it’s the one you share with me. When I go home my heart breaks and breaks and breaks.
There is a polar bear in my neighbourhood. I guess it’s kind of like how parts of central London have foxes. Over time, the bear has acquired the mystique afforded a specific type of outsider: volatile enough to respect, enduring enough to tolerate, unique enough to become a sort of offbeat mascot. Local coffee shops sell t-shirts and mugs printed with bear cartoons. I bought a shirt—my neighbourhood! my bear!—and never wear it, not even as pyjamas.
One day I saw the bear on my street. She was both bigger and smaller than I imagined a polar bear should be. She stank of ripe meat and mud was clumped in the thick white fur of her paws, turning it brown. I wanted to bring her home, rinse her off in the tub, wrap her in a warm towel. Perhaps she would lap beef tartare off my outstretched hands, steal salo from the fridge when I wasn’t looking. Can bears be kept as pets? I made a mental note to check later. As the bear gazed up at me, her dark eyes blinked slowly, like a cat’s. Maybe I am kidding myself, but they reminded me of yours.
Visits are a new government program being trialled in several postcodes. I stay informed by doomscrolling on multiple social media platforms, as God intended. The wellness community proclaims them a healthy alternative to antidepressants. Charities discuss exporting the program to third-world countries. Entrepreneurs share their strategies for leveraging this and enabling that while corporations make quiet plans to phase out bereavement leave, no longer necessary in a post-bereavement society. I do not yet feel post-bereaved. I do not feel post-anything at all. Brooding and dramatic are among the kinder adjectives friends and colleagues have reported.
Instead, I think about flooding your apartment building until it is under an ocean so cold my heart stops beating. I think about going to the airport and flying to my childhood home and climbing in bed with my mother. I think about a line from a book that always pushes itself through the stupid crowd of my stupid thoughts: it cannot be made good, not ever. Setting my teacup down, I count my breaths like the brochure suggests. One, two, three. Somewhere around two hundred my fists finally unclench, four half-moons imprinted on each sweaty palm.
My life is a graceless yawn punctuated by Sundays and Tuesdays. On Tuesdays I am online promptly at 8 a.m. so I can renew my benefit for another week. The government portal creates a sensation of simultaneous perseverance and delirium. I upload the Visit receipts I am handed on my way home from your apartment. I upload photos of an identity document, required weekly even though my identity—horribly, cruelly—remains the same. I mark each day on the calendar with a fat X, willing the future to slam into me.
And then it is a Sunday, glorious Sunday, and we are together. You are pouring me tea; I am telling you about the bear. You are so, so patient with me, with my meandering anecdotes. Dashenka, you say. I describe the entire reality I have constructed where the polar bear is my roommate. It is an idyllic sitcom life: she has developed a taste for tinned oysters and cloudberry jam, I wake her in the night with my screams. In the mornings she licks my forehead gently. A wild comfort.
I monologue until I am split open. I think, Soon the benefit will run out. Soon they will take you from me. Soon they will take you from me again and then what will I do, where will I go, whose neck will I howl my grief into? I will look for the bear on my way home, carried by the kind of inertia they teach in physics classes. I am ready to keep moving forever until stopped by an external force.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony was announced in the newest postcode to join the program. Trucks delivered canapés and crates of Champagne. The mayor, it was promised, would make an appearance; the post-bereaved anointed their wrists with well-reviewed perfumes in anticipation. Overnight the jubilant headlines turned crass, opportunistic: Act of cruelty, or act of God? Champagne was emptied fruitlessly on the blaze and chefs wrung their hands over the thinly sliced eel with new potatoes, painstakingly shaped into a two-up two-down and filled with elderflower jelly. I did not realise flames could go so high. The smoke writhed dark and acrid against the swollen clouds.
I walk through the ruins on occasion, when a particular mood strikes. It’s necessary to step carefully, avoiding the wilting lilies, one-armed teddy bears, and half-burned votives. What’s left of the building’s foundation is covered in consequence. Most days, a woman guards the destroyed entryway. She is still as a statue, gripping a handmade sign with steady hands. Do not resuscitate.
Safe in your apartment, I observe your throat, watching closely for a sign of movement under the familiar skin. There’s a constellation of freckles on your collarbone, a slightly over-pronounced vein that travels up your neck to your right marionette line. What happens when I leave, I wonder. Do you wait for other friends, fall asleep? Do your feet trace a pattern predetermined by fate or science or the government? Do you have a rich inner life, or are you a hot piece of glass I pour my dreams into—that expands with my breath?
Before you died you told me you were thinking of dying. Or thinking about the fact that a person dies, that you were a person and would thus die. ‘I went back to where we were born once’, I confess. To the unnameable city in the unnameable country. It was a lifetime ago. My mother took me to some sad building. The smell was familiar. She pointed at a whorl in the faded hallway carpet. Your uncle died there, she said matter-of-factly. Ours is a legacy of death. We drink tea; we don’t talk about the war.
When I picture all the days ahead of me I get sick, which I mean figuratively. It is a constant repetition of the same tasks to the point that they feel, must be, useless. Wash hair. Eat toast. Trim fingernails. But the hair collects dirt and oil. The stomach growls. The fingernails grow. They say fingernails keep growing after you die. Do yours? I picture my mother in a funhouse, the mirrors reflecting a hundred mothers. Dashenka, they say together. Grow the fuck up.
I met the bear again one evening as the heat of too much alcohol worked its way through my bones. The moon was overfed and dangerous, barely lighting the streets; gangs of mosquitoes loitered in corners and doorways like troubled youths. I took a shortcut through the co-op parking lot and there she was, pawing at an unlocked dumpster. The bear sensed me and pulled her head out, lowered herself onto all fours and stared at me cooly. I could swear there was something glinting around her neck and for a moment I was convinced it’s a friendship necklace I gave you when we were kids. Then she turned around and sprinted into the night, off to do bear things and definitely not human things, not weird reincarnation things. I couldn’t move, too drunk to be here or there or anywhere at all.
The government is anxious that Visits win public approval. Officials hope to eradicate mourning entirely by 2030. Scientific reports about improved patient outcomes and reduced work time lost to frequent distractions are paraphrased and misinterpreted by the media. The findings are promising, politicians assert, but it’s still early days. I was asked to do an exit interview about my experience.
The interview took place remotely and I agreed to being recorded and to the recording being shared with other government departments. My voice and face, I was assured, would be anonymised; each question bore a silence so long it threatened to swallow the entire world.
Yes, I used all my permitted Visits. No, my loved one was not able to remember what we talked about the week before. Yes, that was emotionally distressing. Yes, I noticed that my loved one didn’t breathe.
I stared at the screen after the call disconnected, stared at my reflection in the dark. So that’s it then. One more Sunday. I felt fully emptied of everything, a void so immense it was an astronomical condition. Somewhere, I knew, a scientist was naming me after a terrifying Greek mythological beast.
The last Sunday I see you, I buy more Neapolitan out of hope that a ritualistic element will neatly bookend this whole nightmare. Teacups cradled in our hands, we sit on your couch, knees touching. The ice cream is uneaten in its carton, liquefying in the summer heat. A whole life-death cycle of organic dairy happening right on your counter. I briefly consider eating you, leaning over to bite off a finger and run home with it in my mouth like a dog.
I spot the bear as I leave, sitting on her hind paws next to an overgrown hydrangea bush. My hand raises reflexively and waves hello, and although I think she nods her muzzle slightly, it’s hard to tell in the dark. The rest of the week passes uneventfully. Tuesdays and Sundays are days like any other.
In the autumn, someone will call animal control and the neighbourhood bear will disappear. People will argue online about who made the report, this is why we can’t have nice things, and others will share increasingly improbable sightings: the zoo a few towns over, Blackpool pier, a nightclub in Ibiza. There are still nights when I will wake up screaming, but mostly I will sleep the eight hours the brochure suggests. And I will forget this year, little by little, and that will be not just OK but in fact quite great. The future will roll out in front of me, a mouth hungry with feeling.
Sonya Vatomsky is the author of SALT IS FOR CURING (Two Dollar Radio/Sator Press, 2015) and the chapbooks MY HEART IN ASPIC (Porkbelly Press, 2015) and AND THE WHALE (Paper Nautilus, 2020), which won the 2019 Vella Chapbook Contest. Sonya’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian Magazine, and more. They were born in the former USSR, live in Manchester, England, and tweet at @coolniceghost.