I told Lyle before he’d even bought the house, “They’re going to widen this road.” And that it would end up as a busy street, “Probably a bus route.” And that the traffic would be loud, “It’s going to make it hard to sleep.”
I predicted all that before he even bought the place.
“There’s no way.” He shook his head and wrinkled the perfect olive skin on his forehead. He put an offer in and the day before his birthday me and him and his tiny orange cat moved in. My bedroom would be the one closest to the street, anyway.
A year after I left, construction started. The city decided to tear up the green belt behind the houses across the street and replace it with two lanes of flat, black asphalt. Just like I knew they would.
Lyle was good at making his own reality and I was just happy when he let me rent some space in it. The construction started late or maybe the snow came too early. Either way, they didn’t finish it. The project stayed incomplete underneath the dreary white sky of Edmonton’s winter. By the time spring rolled around again, the harsh freeze-thaw cycle of the prairies had destroyed the new pavement and everything had to be torn up—again.
I squint into the sun. I notice it’s setting earlier every day as we creep towards the Solstice, a bright ball hanging lower and lower in the blue, blue December sky. Lyle’s huge hand drifts from the steering wheel and waves in front of my eyes, blocking the rays.
I blink once, twice, three times, holding my eyes closed to let the bright white shadows dance across my eyelids. That hand, those fingers, filtering the sunshine against my face. The same hand that he held up a month or six months or a year ago, waiting for me to reach across the table in an old diner booth so he could intertwine his hand with mine.
“Gimme your hand.” He smiles his goofy smile, and looks at me with his dopey eyes, “I love you.” He’s drunk and he knows I’m mad. We’d been out, he’d been drinking and I’d been driving. He wanted to take another girl home. And I wanted to be that girl, but not that girl. I just wanted to be the person who came first. “Come on, Sarah.” I cave, and put my small hand against his big one, my smooth palm rubbing against his rough one. “I’ll never let go.” He’s defiant. “Never never never. We’ll be friends forever.” His mum was a drunk and his dad was never around. We took care of each other. We made our own family. I forget when this was because it seems like it’s not one moment but all moments that we spent together, adding up to and at the same time taking away from our friendship. I was always on the edge, just waiting for him to reach out and grab me. I let him hold me at an arm’s length because I knew at least there was something between us.
I open my eyes to the fading sun.
I lost control. It was soon after we’d moved into the house and I was driving home when the wheel slipped through my mittened hands and my tires slipped on the slick black ice and no matter how hard I cranked it, I couldn’t prevent the car from slamming into the snow covered curb. After the impact, I crawled away from the curb but an ominous rattle forced me to pull over again. I got out of the car and peeked down at the front tire—the point of impact. It was cock-eyed, like it was trying to escape from the rest of the vehicle. A few blocks away from our new home, I called Lyle—my own personal tow truck and rescue.
“Where are you?” He’d answered on the fourth or fifth ring.
I stood outside in the clear dry air, looking down at my crippled car. “The Henday,” I looked around, “and 17th street. Heading east.” I’d been running away from the setting sun, trying to get where I was going before rush hour clotted up the highway. I had the urge to hurry all the time, then. I needed to be everywhere, all of me, all at once, or else I thought I might slip away. I was worried that I might stop existing all together, somehow.
“I’ll be there in a few.” He needed to shower, wash the grease and grime from a full day’s work from his hair and body, before he’d come to get me. I waited. I watched the sun sink, turning the sky shades of orange and yellow before it turned dark with the absence of colour.
Everything is grey—the sky, the walls, the air, the skin stretched across my ice-cold feet. The furnace kicks in—a dull thunk and hum, the same sounds that used to lull me to sleep at my parents’ place. I wrap my duvet around my shoulders and put my feet on the vent, warming them until they sweat.
Lyle stomps up the stairs, pausing at my bedroom door. “Kitty’s litter needs emptied.” His thick brow is an angry knot above his deep-set eyes. I yank my feet off the vent.
She’s not my cat. “What?” She doesn’t even like me—she never liked me. “She’s your cat?” I said back to him, confused. Spiting me, Kitty jumps on my bed, playfully rolling over onto her side.
“Can you just fucking do it?” I didn’t know this was a fight. He could become angry so quick; it knocked me off balance. “I’m sick of doing this shit by myself.” I was sick of being by myself. We were supposed to be a happy family, and now we’re arguing about shit.
His cat. His house. And I was just renting space in it.
The meatloaf’s in the oven and I’m crumpled on the floor. Kitty weaves her little orange body in between my twiggy legs. I lost 25 pounds or so living there, eating oatmeal and drinking diet coke and never sleeping. I was always cold and Kitty felt like a mobile hot water bottle brushing her fur against my smooth skin. I reached out to pet her but she scuttled away, hopped up on the counter, up above the cupboards, as far away from me as possible. Lyle was paranoid about heating costs. I was freezing.
He gets home, opening the door and bringing the frigid February air with him.
“Why are you on the floor? You ding dong.” Playful but scathing. It seemed like he was pointing out everything that I was doing wrong. I start to cry. I couldn’t keep it together anymore.
“I can’t do this.” I couldn’t keep it up, “I feel alone all the time,” he was never home. We spent less time together living in rooms across the hall from each other than we had in all our years of friendship. I looked up at him, trying to keep the tears in. He pulled me up and folded me into his flannel. I bury my face in his chest, into the smell of grease and gasoline. Now, when I’m filling up my gas tank or pouring fuel to quickstart a fire, that scent pricks my nostrils and I feel my heart tighten. It’s a reminder of the person who was, who still is, but who isn’t mine, anymore.
He said, “You know I love you.” And I mumble that I knew. But I was sick of filling in the blanks. I couldn’t turn love into in love.
Two days before my 20th birthday, I left.
We’re stopped at an intersection—me and my mum. It’s a new intersection on the new road, a short distance from Lyle’s front door. It mediated the traffic flow caused by the new construction. My mum is trying to teach me how to drive my new car.
“Do you ever hear from that Lyle guy?”
I’d messaged him when his dad passed away—I’d heard from a friend who heard from another friend. “I’m so sorry,” I’d typed. I labored over every word, “I’m here if you need me.” There were too many things I didn’t say, couldn’t say, wouldn’t say.
“Thanks.” He’d sent back, a cold word punctuating the distance between us. I didn’t know what to say back. That was two years ago now, four years from when I left. Things hadn’t thawed since.
“He hates me.” I told my mum. I’d abandoned him, “He never wants to talk to me again.” I left him standing on the staircase as I walked out the door.
“Where are you going?” He’d asked me, breaking the silent treatment he’d dealt me after I’d failed to clean up dishes, two weeks prior. The low light hit his dark eyes and they shined, wet.
“I’m leaving.” The words were thick in my mouth. I wish he’d asked me to stay.
“Go then,” his voice was dull. “Just fucking go.” Lyle wasn’t a stranger to people walking away.
I looked up at the red light stopping us, and past it to the octagon shaped window that peeks into Lyle’s room.
“He doesn’t hate you,” My mum thought she was telling the truth. The light flicked green. “Clutch,” she pointed at my left leg and when I pushed the peddle in, she clicked my car into 1st. I jerked forward, my car stuttered through the intersection.
I hoped he hated me. I needed him to hate me. I needed him to feel something towards me because that was the only way I could let myself believe it was real.
I’m driving down the Whitemud, that stretch that used to narrow but is being widened to accommodate a higher traffic flow. I try to remember what it looked like before but my brain’s gotten used to this new normal and the way it used to look feels like it’s just out of memory’s reach. I depress the clutch as I head through the construction zone, forcing my car to glide down from 80 to 70 to 60, downshifting like it’s second nature. I guess it is to me, now. Lyle tried to teach me stick, years ago, before the house, before the busy street. In his weird, turquoise-coloured Camaro, we stopped and started the length of the Southgate Mall parking lot. His hand over mine, tracing the gearshift from 1st, to 2nd, to 3rd, and back down again.
“Press the clutch,” he mimed the action in the passenger seat. “And then push it into gear.”
Closing his big hand over mine. Dirt was forever trapped under his stubby, bitten-down nails. I let the clutch out before I slammed on the gas and the Camaro slammed to a stop.
The construction zone ends. Feathering on the clutch, giving it just the right amount of gas, I bring my car back up to speed.