The Redemption of Guilt

1

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 I experienced a feeling of solace after making the decision, convinced these were my last fleeting seconds on this planet. It was a reverential comfort in sorrow. A mute peace washed over me like an all-forgiving wind, easing the vice which had been crushing my sanity for the past year. What started out as guilt, a feeling of remorse that made it hard to breathe, had since become a parasitic disease that squeezed all hope out from the bottom of a self-persecuted soul.

Water rushed underneath the bridge at a dizzying speed. I was standing on the lower walkway above one of the hundreds of waterfalls at Argentina’s Iguazú National Park, home to the “Great Water” cataracts. Behind this all, a forest full of exotic flowers and plants stretched far north into Brazil. Somewhere deep in that lush greenery, jaguars and dwarf leopards roamed unimpeded. Countless tons of water cascaded all around. Incessant in its roar, I somehow managed to form perfectly lucid thoughts, the smell emanating from the foliage acting like a cloak. Goose bumps appeared on each arm as mist formed a thin, protective layer over exposed skin. Looking up, an ornate hawk eagle soared high above, motionless, its wings outstretched.

A steel barrier several feet high ran the length of all the bridges at Iguazú, both on the upper and lower circuits. I wasn’t certain how long I’d been standing there. People would pass by now and again, though no one stopped. This was by no means the park’s most spectacular vantage point; it was, however, one of its most isolated. A pair of butterflies approached, each the reverse pattern of the great monarch in colour.

A personification of their souls?

I recognized the pipe-vine swallowtails from the orange and white spots dotting the ends of their graceful black wings. Perhaps this was also their last day on Earth, as these creatures had a lifespan that rarely eclipsed a week. Fighting against the wind power generated by the falls, they landed on the steel railing, one on each side and serving as if nature-appointed sentries.

Should they flap their wings in just a certain direction, will someone else have to die on the other side of the planet?

After looking both ways to make sure nobody was around, I climbed atop the fence. Any number of fear-related emotions should have been coursing through my veins, but all I felt was sedateness. In my mind’s eye, a man tied to a cross went hurtling over the Devil’s Throat. Perhaps the Spaniard Don Alvar Nuñes Cabeza de Vaca.

One more deep breath.

Then I let myself go.

No string of memories danced before me. It was pure darkness, nothing but a perfect void. Then, a split second later, the deafening sound of water drilled an auditory hole right through to my brain. The power of the falls sent me spinning to the bottom as quickly as a human missile. As I scraped against an endless series of rocks, the undertow treated me like a spineless ragdoll. In slow motion, the water’s temperament tossed me up or down, side to side, with commanding strength. When the initial current eventually let up, freeing me from the death-lock of the vortex, I was sent barreling downriver. Eyes opening for the first time since entering the water, I realized in that instant an innate need for survival superseded any yearning to die; the inherent took control over predetermined consciousness.

Unsuccessful in reaching the surface, I panicked. When in control of this self-imposed death, there was a serene beauty which acted like a powerful sedative. Now, a pawn to the forces of nature, I became unhinged, a clear purpose arising within me as its healing powers flooded the plains of a desiccated heart. It wasn’t that I wanted to live so much as I had to live. Impotent against the raw energy of the river, I had one last chance to reach the surface before my lungs would fill with water. An unbridled sense of impending doom propelled me to the top, the muscles in my legs and arms feeling as if they might explode through skin.

Freeing myself from the Río Iguazú’s suffocating clutch momentarily, I gasped for breath in such desperation that a primordial noise shot out from the back of my throat. Air funneled into both lungs for a tantalizing instant before I was pulled back under the river’s current. This cycle seemed to repeat itself for an eternity. I would ascend to the top like a submarine crashing through ice as it surfaced in the Arctic, take in a little air, and then be drawn under again.

At some point the fury of the river receded so that I could finally battle its current and swim to safety. I dragged myself towards shore and crawled onto a huge flat rock that Jesuit priests would have once stood on as they watched Guaraní women hurl themselves over the waterfalls, babies in hand and refusing to convert to a strange new faith the white man called catolicismo.

Drained of energy, the pain aching like wailing sirens in the dead of night, blood streamed down my face, while a horrific gash ran all the way up one leg. Cuts and bruises marked me no differently than freshly inked tattoos. With heaving chest I struggled to consume every last bit of oxygen I could. A merciful ceibo tree with ample leafage stood majestically off to the side, its abundant red flowers in full bloom and protecting this part of the river from the viciousness of the sun’s rays. The florets arranged on the spiny branches brought to mind Fibonacci’s numbers.

Meanwhile, a song played uninterrupted in my head.

 

Nothing you would take

Everything you gave

Hold me till I die

Meet you on the other side

 

The rise and fall of my chest gradually steadied as the scope of what I had just done began unfolding. A crushing sense of guilt had been replaced by shame. A vapid silence filled the timeless urn of a battered soul. Random thoughts drifted across the ocean of my mind and disappeared into a remote horizon, leaving no memory, imparting no feeling.

 

 2

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The Boy is interested in many things from a young age and has a boundless sense of curiosity. His parents are thrilled. They share this information with friends and strangers, confident they are raising a genius. The Boy learns how to play chess at the age of three. He is reading entire books in one sitting soon after this and becomes particularly entranced with the Encyclopedia Britannica. He is fascinated by science, how male bees, for example, are conceived by one Queen, yet female drones are born of two parents. He enjoys history, especially facts and figures, and is excellent at rote memorization. Math excites him to no end. Its smooth, logical, linear equations are for him what other boys his age feel when toy shopping for the latest Lego sets or action figures. The Boy is particularly entranced by Leonardo Bonacci, or Fibonacci as he is more commonly known, the Medieval Italian mathematician credited with popularizing the Hindu-Arabic numeral system throughout Europe in the 13th century and devising the Fibonacci sequence.

In the fourth grade, he does so well academically that his teacher suggests the Boy skip a grade. This comes as no surprise to his parents, who had been asking for years to fast-track their Son through elementary school. But a one-year age difference for any boy or girl is a significant difference in temperament—and bullying. He has an especially difficult time making friends and will not take part in sleepovers at classmates’ homes on weekends for fear of exposing his carefully guarded source of shame, bed-wetting, something his mother punishes him for behind closed doors.

An academic loner as much as a social outcast, the Boy sighs a breath of relief when his parents enrolls him at UTS in grade seven, joining some of the country’s most promising young minds and gaining a fresh start. From the get-go, he excels and feels more comfortable being surrounded by other students who exhibit a higher-than-average intelligence. However, the following January, all the seventh grade students go on a mandatory trip to a winter camp so they can learn about outdoor skills. He wets the bed on his first night and is outed by a fellow classmate. For the next two days he is tormented by year-older boys who pounce on this weakness like vultures flying overhead a carcass. The Boy subsequently withdraws socially and ends up spending the next six years doing little more than attending classes and studying relentlessly, day in and day out.

In grade twelve, he wins a scholarship to Princeton University to study engineering. His parents could not be prouder. They buy him an apartment off campus so he won’t have to be bothered by what they refer to as “less-inclined peers.” He will have peace and quiet, his parents tell him. They say solitude is good for the development of the mind. The Boy thinks of it more as isolation but dare not voice his concern; his Mother and Father have become increasingly strict over the years, almost as if the more successful he is at school, the harsher they treat him with their cold, exacting judgement. When he asks if he can have a cat to keep him company, the parents say no.

“Animals are to be viewed behind the bars and barriers of zoos,” the Father explains as he places a hand on his son’s shoulder.

“They are a health hazard,” the Mother says. “You mustn’t have any distractions. Focus solely on your studies,” she adds with a wan smile.

The fall semester passes without incident to those watching from afar. But something happens in the spring of his freshman year, just as purple violets are pushing out of the ground across the Garden State. Pieces of him that had been crumbling for years, hidden behind a veil of denial and held together by scholarly glue, begin unravelling at a fantastic speed. He has a nervous breakdown just after his 18th birthday. His parents employ the most qualified professionals in the field to examine their only child under a microscope of socially acceptable theories. They lean on isms like crutches to a child with polio. The Boy winces. In his mind, he can see what is happening with 20/20 clarity, but the part of the brain which transmits this information orally has blown a fuse, and what his parents never consider is that even a young man with an IQ of 170 cannot withstand unlimited pressure ad infinitum. The Father would understand this analogy: It is like firing a cruise missile at a pristine brick wall and wondering why it is blown to smithereens. The Mother would understand this simile: It is like spray-painting the words KILL LIES ALL on an invaluable work of art and curious how it has been harmed in any way, shape or form. The Boy’s parents are purveyors of art, students of history, and yet they cannot see the most obvious symbols staring them in the face.

They send him to the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, which is close to the Hamptons, making it convenient for the Mother and Father because they have friends who have summer homes in the area. Teams of doctors and attendants pump pills into the patients, who quickly dull. Their vision skews. Their minds slow. Conversation becomes a struggle for many, as if plucking guitar strings with thick wool winter gloves on. Socialization becomes fractured and unnatural.

But the Boy is resilient because his mental strength lies in more than regurgitating facts. Indeed, his mind is a castle and he is the gatekeeper. Synapses fire at his impregnable walls, laden with tar- and fire-like substances called benzodiazepines. However, these benzos are as ineffective at penetrating his defensive walls as stones being hurled at an ironclad structure, for the Boy knows a universal truth which few people recognize on a conscious level. He understands that after food and water, the only other thing you need are stories. You seek shelter not in the wards of the hospital, but in the lines on a page, the words of a wise person.

Meanwhile, the Gatekeeper lowers the drawbridge for just one person at the psychiatric center, Tariq, and that is because Tariq knows the second secret to life. In a room full of depressed, catatonic people, he understands that after food and water and storytelling you need laughter. And, oh, did Tariq make the Boy laugh. Nurses and attendants would grow furious at these times, so their friendship blossomed in hushed whispers, secrets, hidden nooks and crannies where they could converse freely.

Before he is released, Tariq makes a promise to the Boy. He says he is close to finishing his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics. He will defend his dissertation and then he will see the Boy again in the future. They make a pact by shaking on it. Like men.

 

 

3

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There’s no such thing as a normal childhood; there are only varying degrees of scarring we take with us from our youth. Sage was reminded of this most recently when the trauma of events from another lifetime, it seemed, began resurfacing weeks ago. It manifest itself in small yet hard-to-notice behaviour to the casual observer: the way she walked, no longer with confidence or purpose, but with mere function to go from point A to point B; the timber to her voice, which, far from a soothing lull when telling me I’m fine!, could now be seen more as resignation or an admission of defeat; a somber reticence that often left me wondering what was really going through her head. Although I respected Sage’s desire to leave certain things unsaid, reading her emotions lately had basically become an impossible task. Still, I continued to wait in the shadows, in vain sometimes, for the moment she’d feel confident enough to let me inside her secret world.

I thought of all this as Sage walked into our apartment one December night. She placed her keys in a bowl on the side table without looking at me as the front door closed behind her with a quiet groan. I was on the futon sofa and relaxing with a glass of red wine after a long day at work. Our newest addition to the family purred away happily on my lap as I read The New Yorker on my tablet. Peering up at her, I noticed that Sage’s shoulders were hunched, a habit she’d developed recently, fiery ringlets flowing out from under her toque as “The Girl from Ipanema” played on the radio. Before she said anything, I could tell something was weighing her down. Spend enough time with a person and you learn to read their body language long before they utter a word, like right now, eyes directed to the floor, as she removed each arm from her winter jacket with surgical precision. Snowflakes fell from the oversized parka to the floor while she turned and stared at me vacantly, as if we were strangers. Returning her gaze below, she removed her scarf in the way a patient does a bandage, and hung it from the standing coat rack. When our eyes met again, I noticed a flicker of emotion behind each pupil, the light vanishing just as quickly as it had appeared.

“The police announced the results from Catherine Anderson’s autopsy today,” she declared. Now she looked at me straight on, cheeks still rosy from the cold outside. Her pale blue eyes had lightened a shade and resembled snow that’s been recrystallized inside a glacier. She sniffled and dabbed at her nose with a tissue.

Behemoth jumped off my lap when I stood up. After a quick meow to alert me he wasn’t pleased with this development, our little black kitten went sauntering towards his bowl of cat food beside the bathroom.

“Apparently the reason it took so long is that they had to run blood tests. A lot of them,” Sage added as she removed her gloves, one finger at a time, and then placed them on the stove, which was directly beside the door. “It was antifreeze,” Sage said with finality. “It had nothing to do with me or Sakura or the other teachers or the facility itself.” She shook her head, looked down at Behemoth and sighed. “They’ll never be able to prove it was the same with Rachel because she’s already been cremated, but I was there for each of them and I know what I saw. Same jaundiced skin. Same loopiness. Same blood around the mouth.”

Sage took a deep breath, in through a stuffy nose, and exhaled loudly through her mouth. She did this two more times. It was an anxiety technique she’d been using with more frequency since her life began coming apart at the seams upon the death of the Anderson sisters. After another sigh, Sage moved into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. She raised the bottle and tilted it in my direction, eyebrows raised. I reached down for my own glass and indicated I was okay.

“They’ve arrested the mother. Their own damn mother. Their own damn mother,” Sage repeated in staccato.

Last month Sage made the decision to leave her child care job—and without any pressure from the higher-ups (contrary to some news reports)—after the death of a second child under baffling circumstances at the City of Toronto-run daycare she’d been working at for several years. The cases were eerily similar. Both kids were under Sage’s care. And, perhaps most frightening, both girls were related, sisters just 15 months apart. Fingers were pointed all over the place. First, it was the daycare centre itself. Parents were up in arms about the “disgusting conditions” and the ability for germs to spread there like wildfire. Obviously Rachel—and then Catherine—had succumbed to some genetic mutation that affected them and only them, but no other child.

Then the attention switched to Toronto Early Learning & Child Care Services, the bureaucratic arm under City Hall that ran the daycare and had so clearly turned a blind eye to the safe and effective care of the children under their watch. When their appetite for laying blame was still not satiated, the witch hunt came full circle; mothers and fathers were now hyenas circling a crippled animal in the wild, the brunt of the attack falling Sage’s way. Parents (though never Rachel and Catherine’s mother) launched a tirade of insults and accusations at her. What had she done to the kids? they asked. Surely they must have swallowed glue while she wasn’t looking or some other such hazardous substance. How come she hadn’t called 911 earlier? Why hadn’t she sent the sisters home and not exposed the other children to this danger? Why? parents repeated time and again, like a machine gun set on eternal auto-fire.

While neither death was treated suspiciously by authorities in the beginning, and Sage was never investigated by police, she quit after Catherine’s death because the situation hit a little too close to home. Rachel’s death had devastated her and she felt she could have done something more, but Catherine’s death a few weeks after that was too much for Sage to handle, and so she quietly submitted her resignation, saying she wasn’t able to continue working at the present time for personal reasons.

It didn’t take long for Sage to spiral into a funk, which morphed into sadness, and culminated in full-blown depression, a condition she’d struggled with since she was a teenager. This time, however, she developed a more visible case of OCD and became agoraphobic. She stopped showering on a regular basis, barely ate, and took on a listless voice I found haunting. Something was strangling her from the inside out, but I couldn’t get her to open up about it. Instead, she turtled like a person curling up to defend themselves against a physical thrashing. The way Sage put it, the day little Catherine fell over in the playground, her tiny heart already an ancient relic, it was a “spiritual thunderpunch.” I suggested she talk to a professional. The Province of Ontario had a help line for people who needed to talk, but when Sage finally worked up the courage to phone, she hung up after answering a couple of questions because she claimed it felt too weird confiding in some invisible person you couldn’t put a face to. Then her GP, Dr. Rubenstein, somehow got her in touch with a psychiatrist covered by the province, skipping who knows how many people ahead of her on the municipal waiting list, and that’s when Sage started on the pills. In the past, she’d tried two different meds whose names were impossible to pronounce (citalopram and sertraline), but neither seemed to have any noticeable effect on her depression. This most recent time she’d switched over to fluoxetine (we never used the word “Prozac” in each other’s company because it sounded too negative to Sage) and the impact had been immediate. The twinkle to her eyes disappeared. She became chronically lethargic, and the woman I’d once known and fallen in love with years ago in the middle of an Impenetrable Forest was no longer there, or at the very least had retreated behind the chemicals rushing around her brain to delay the reuptake of serotonin.

“So where’ve you been?” I asked in as casual a tone as I could muster. She’d had an appointment with Dr. Rubenstein in the afternoon, just before I got home from work, but that was hours ago.

“Oh, you know, just…”

I nodded. She needed time alone. I got it, and had become used to this pattern of behaviour when she wasn’t in the mood for talking to anyone, including me. That being said, I wanted to tell her that in some twisted way this was good news that Rachel and Catherine’s mother was a deviant sociopath; now Sage could stop coming down on herself for a carelessness that didn’t exist. She was in the clear. Nothing she could have done would have saved those girls from the atrocious acts of their mother. Yet that, of course, was impossible to verbalize because it felt insensitive to say that about the lives snuffed out by the very person charged with protecting them.

“How’d it go at the doctor’s?” I asked, hoping to change the direction of the conversation.

Lowering her glass of wine, Sage reached behind her neck and tied a ponytail with an elastic band that seemed to appear out of nowhere. “Fine. Blood pressure’s normal. Dr. Ruby wants me to make some dietary and lifestyle changes to regulate my insulin. That’s it.”

Sage had type 2 diabetes. Fortunately, her body had reacted well to metformin, a common medication for her condition—especially for heavier people—so she’d had no real health issues with it since being diagnosed a couple of years ago. I walked over to my girlfriend and wrapped my arms around her. Despite the brutal wind outside, she still smelled like roses. She placed her hands on the small of my back as Behemoth came over and started rubbing his head against our shins. About to say that everything would be all right, or some equally hollow phrase to try and cheer her up, Sage looked up at me and said, “You got your hair cut.”

“Yeah. I went after work.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You can really see the scars. When you shave it so close, I mean.”

Instinctively, I ran a hand along one side of my head and, as always, was reminded of Iguazú.

“Yeah.”

Sage released her hands from behind me. I walked over to the kitchen and gave myself a top-up from our bottle of wine as a different song came on the radio.

 

Alone…listless…breakfast table in an otherwise empty room

Young girl…violins…center of her own attention

Mother reads aloud, child tries to understand it

Tries to make her proud

 

We talked for a while, mostly about mundane stuff. I told her about my day, how we’d had amazing sales at the bookstore and that a customer had come in and purchased one copy of every Murakami Haruki novel we had in stock, which ended up being nine of them.

“That’s nice,” Sage replied with a blank look.

A voracious reader, the pre-pill-popping Sage would have become excited at this last fact because she loved Murakami and would have used it as a segue to discuss anything from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and A Wild Sheep Chase to the year she taught English in Japan to her hope of one day enrolling in a creative writing program. Now, though, it was simply information to be processed in what I imagine was murky, partially functional circuitry.

“Do you want a bite to eat?” I asked while opening the fridge door. “Some cheese and crackers maybe?”

Hunched over and half-inside our antiquated Maytag, I craned my neck the other way and looked at Sage. She was running a hand along a damaged forearm, kind of like she was checking to make sure the scars were still there.

“No. I’m okay. Thank you,” she added a moment later. “I’m not hungry.”

She took a sip of wine and returned the glass to its place on a mother-of-pearl coaster that was a souvenir she’d picked up when travelling the world with Opal a few years ago. I returned to the living room and placed a small plate of cheese and crackers on the coffee table.

“Just in case you change your mind,” I said with a smile.

Sage frowned. “Oh!” she then said out of the blue. “It’s pill time. Would you mind getting me a glass of water?”

“Not at all.”

Even with Sage’s growing pharma cornucopia, her power of recall as to when she had to take each one was impressive. On top of the forty milligrams of fluoxetine she took twice a day for depression, she was also on amlodipine for her blood pressure, atorvastatin for her cholesterol, metformin for her diabetes and a multivitamin cocktail mix for iron, vitamin D and fibre supplements.

Sage struggled to swallow the handful of pills she’d taken out, especially the multivitamin one.

“Thank you,” she said in a quiet voice when the last one was finally down her throat.

“Pleasure,” I replied, surprising myself with the choice in diction because it was a random throwback to my days in South Africa. The memory jolted me for a second and brought with it a flood of joyful memories, especially when I thought of Madiba.

“What are you thinking?” Sage asked.

Standing at the foot of the coffee table, I directed my attention down to her on the futon with glazed-over eyes.

“Huh? Oh. Nothing. Just…nothing. Say, I’m going to run downstairs and get something to go. Can I get you anything?”

“No. I’m okay. This wine has hit the spot.”

Although living above a pub had its obvious drawbacks (loud music at night during the work week coupled with the smell of stale beer wafting up from the ground floor were definite negatives), but it did have its advantages. Aside from lower-than-normal rent, we never had to go very far if we wanted take-out in a flash. Gabriella’s wasn’t exactly fine dining, but it served its purpose. It was the kind of tavern where you got half-decent food at a good price.

Downstairs, I made small talk with the bartender, Angelique, while waiting for my Greek salad.

“How’s it going?” she asked me as I climbed atop a bar stool. I knew it was Angelique, and not Töne, because of her voice, which was like the smoothest sandpaper to the touch: soft and inviting with the hint of a husky edge to it. There was only one other guy at the bar, a construction worker who put back draught beer at breakneck speed.

“Not bad,” I replied. “You?”

“Tired. It’s been such a loooooong day. I’m working a double shift ’cause Töne has a date tonight and I stupidly agreed to cover for her.”

Töne was Angelique’s identical twin sister. Each of them was bright, attractive, artistically creative, and intelligent. They were the children of a Chinese-Canadian mother and a Senegalese father who’d immigrated to Canada as a boy. On top of light molasses skin and beautiful black hair they both kept halfway down their backs, Angelique and Töne had almond-shaped eyes and small, beautifully shaped ears.

“Do you want anything to drink while you wait?” Angelique asked as she cruised past me on the way to the guy at the other end of the bar to replace his beer.

“I’m good, thanks.”

When Angelique disappeared into the kitchen, I took the time to look up above the cash register at the framed picture. Even now, after looking at it countless times, the morbid, thought-provoking piece continued to stir up mixed emotions in me. It was Philippe de Champaigne’s Still-Life with a Skull, a 17th-century painting of three objects: a flower, a skull, and an hourglass. According to Töne, the artiste of the two sisters and a student at OCAD University, this was supposed to stand for Life, Death, and Time. When I asked her if those were meant to represent the Three Certainties—and not the Two Certainties of death and taxes—she shrugged.

“The painting’s a vanitas. It’s all about emptiness and vanity.” When I said nothing in response, she gave a carefree laugh and added, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!”

A minute later, Angelique handed me my Greek salad in a plastic container and I paid her in cash. As I turned to head back upstairs, she called out to me.

“Will you tell Sage I say hi by the way,” she said.

“Of course.”

“Tell her my sister and I are thinking of her, will you?” Then she smiled and revealed a set of straight pearly whites.

“Sure,” I answered, uncertain why she’d say something like that because, to the best of my knowledge, neither of the twins knew anything about what had happened at Sage’s daycare centre.

“And be good to yourself, too. If we don’t treat ourselves with love, who will?” Angelique said with finality.

When I returned to our apartment, Sage had changed into a pair of black leggings, white tank top, and grey hoodie. She was on the couch watching a documentary on TV about pipefish and seahorses, the only known male members of the animal kingdom to incubate embryos and fetuses, the narrator said.

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…

There are no absolutes in nature. There’s always an exception to the rule.

While setting the table, I went through those structured numbers as if a nervous tick, kind of like other mathematically-inclined people recite pi to as many places as possible when feeling anxious. Even though Sage had said she wasn’t hungry, I put a little bit of salad in a bowl for her. After taking a seat beside her on the sofa and spearing my first olive, the documentary caught my attention. It began describing the case of Sanju Bhagat, an Indian man who’d gone through an extremely rare condition called fetus in fetu. Somehow a fertilized egg had split inside his body to form identical twins. Over time, one “twin” completely enveloped the other. Soon after this, a living organ system, complete with torso and limbs, started growing in Bhagat’s body. Although not technically “pregnant,” he’d carried a mass of tissue resembling a fetus inside his body for 36 years. Essentially it was a parasitic twin, but because he had no placenta, the growth connected directly to his blood supply in order to stay alive.

“This is just plain weird,” Sage commented. “Do you mind if I turn it off?”

“Be my guest,” I said through a mouthful of lettuce.

Sage leaned over to the docking station and put on an Amy Winehouse song.

“Sage?” I said, pushing her bowl of salad a little closer.

“Huh?”

“Have a little, will you?”

“But I’m really not—”

“Please.” Silence. A wordless standoff.

Reluctantly, I’m sure, Sage lifted her fork. “I’m only doing this—”

“I know.”

She took a bite and shot me a look I couldn’t quite interpret. We were both quiet as “You Know I’m No Good” played in the background. Then, apropos of nothing, Sage said, “Do you think we should start trying?”

I swallowed an olive. “Trying what?”

“I don’t know. It’s just…that documentary got me thinking.” It still didn’t dawn on me what she was talking about. “You know, to get pregnant.”

I coughed and wiped at my mouth with a paper towel. “What, like tonight?”

“No. Not tonight, but soon.” She paused for a second. “What do you think?”

Was this Sage’s way of trying to lift herself out of depression? I wondered uneasily. Not wanting to point out the obvious, part of me was tempted to remind Sage that since going onto the fluoxetine her libido had been all but obliterated. Dr. Rubenstein had warned her beforehand, but the disappearance of any sexual desire on Sage’s part was as sudden as it was hard to handle. And it extended outside the bedroom. She no longer felt comfortable showing any part of her body around me and would lock the door whenever in the bathroom, something she didn’t do in the past. How we were supposed to “start trying” when the meds she was on had pretty much eliminated her sex drive?

“I know it’s a big decision.” An uncommon tenderness lined Sage’s voice and disarmed me. “Just, you know, think about it, okay?”

She didn’t wait for a response and instead went back to pecking away at some feta and tomatoes.

Later that evening, as we lay facing each other in bed, the only light in the room coming from the pub’s sign outside our window, Sage said, “I love you very much, you know.” Then she blinked, a Mona Lisa smile imparted on her face. As she turned over on her other side, I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling, a thin strip of bright red neon running across the ceiling. Earlier, I’d taken my usual sleep aid, zopiclone, but knew I’d still be up for a while before I was actually asleep; sometimes it took a couple of hours for it to kick in. Ever since I’d had to visit the ER because of my insomnia in the wake of the ice storm, I’d been on the nonbenzo hypnotic most nights. And although the manufacturer says that people shouldn’t rely on zopiclone for more than ten weeks at a time, I’d been on the miracle drug for three years. More important than its ability to have me fall asleep, it suppressed my nightmares. I didn’t consider myself an addict in the traditional sense (clearly you couldn’t compare a doctor-prescribed medication with coke or heroin, right?), yet I did share one critical factor in common with junkies: I took my pill before bed every night not so much to forget as to ensure I didn’t remember.

 

 

 

 

Hours later, Sage awoke from a nightmare. A strand of moonlight filtered in through a gap in the curtains. I slid an arm around her shoulders and noticed her chest rising and falling with urgency, like someone was performing CPR on her with an invisible set of hands. Sage shivered uncontrollably, turned over, and curled up against me, the top of her head under my chin.

“It’s okay,” I whispered. “You’re safe.”

Her teeth were chattering she was shaking so hard.

“It’s okay,” I repeated.

Sage didn’t respond. By the time she fell asleep again, the moonbeam had been replaced with an anaemic ray of sunlight.

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