The Girl with the Dead Boyfriend
When the rain comes down in Wales, there’s no avoiding it. It comes down, not in the form of cats and dogs or even with the piercing determination of stair rods. In fact, it doesn’t actually come down at all. It comes across, and sometimes up. It comes in billowing sheets of gray that envelop you in a sodden embrace of cold, damp misery and hold you prisoner for days. There’s no “dodging” the rain in Wales, no ducking into a doorway until it passes. The only way to deal with it is to put your head down and soldier on through.
I scurried through this particular deluge one April morning in my second year of university. I slogged across the puddle-drenched courtyard between the Environmental Science building and the Chemistry block, having long-since resigned myself to the fact that I would spend the rest of the morning’s lectures sitting in saturated underwear and wrinkling in unmentionable places. Despite this, a little ray of sunshine had settled inside me, one tiny happy thought to warm my insides for the rest of the day.
Even saying his name—Owen—caused an exhale that relaxed me and allowed me to be myself. That feeling doubled in his easy, comfortable company. I ran over the plans for our big date for about the hundredth time, wanting every detail to be perfect, even though Owen would flow with whatever happened. He’d offered to bring his legendary homemade chocolate hazelnut marble cake and the rest was up to me. All the ingredients for the meal I would cook were stashed in a plastic box in my fridge and marked “Toxic! Do Not Touch” for the benefit of my light-fingered flatmates. My clothes had come back from the student laundry service clean, fresh, and even ironed! I had wine and candles and mood music. And, just in case, there were clean sheets on my bed.
Ugh. My stomach gave an anxious squeeze when I thought of where the evening might lead. Everything else was in place, except my head. I sucked in a breath of chilly air and ordered my hopping thoughts to settle. “It’s time, Kat,” I told myself. “In fact, it’s long past time.” I had to move on—I wanted to move on—and, more to the point, I wanted to move on with Owen.
I was still a good ten strides from the cover of the building lobby when my phone chirped in my backpack with the special ring I’d set up for my brother. I fumbled with the pocket, trying not to get any more soaked than I already was, but not wanting to miss the call I’d been anticipating for weeks. A couple of graduate students—the sort that spend most of their time peering down their noses at undergrads like me—huffed as they navigated around me and through the door I was blocking. I stumbled into the entranceway and poked a slippery finger at the screen, snapping the phone to my ear between worms of dripping hair.
“Kat?” My brother’s voice crackled with excitement and I knew before he said another word that he finally had good news. “She’s coming,” he said.
I yelped with excitement, my concerns about Owen momentarily lifted, and danced in a squeaky sopping circle on the waxed linoleum tiles. “When? When will she be here?”
“A week on Wednesday,” he said. “Can you get away?”
I hesitated. That was three full days before the end of term. Technically, I could go. I wouldn’t miss too many critical lectures and my grades were nothing to worry about. Owen would tell me I couldn’t miss a family event as important as this. But then what? Come straight back here? I wanted to stay longer, but something was stopping me from saying “yes.” So I said nothing.
Jon forged on. “I’m sending you a train ticket to meet us at the airport. Mum’ll be there, and she’ll be glad to have you home for Easter, for once. It would be great if you stay the full three weeks.” He didn’t wait for an answer, and before I could object to his committing me to further obligations, he hurried me off the phone. “I have about a million people to ring,” he said. “I’ll see you at the airport and you can finally meet Mai.”
Her name hung in the air, the way the sound of a bell lingers. My-ee. It took a moment for all the details of my conversation with Jon to sink in, but finally the pieces of reality began dropping into place. I was going to be an auntie—Auntie Kat—and with it would come an increased level of responsibility and a special kind of relationship. I’d already pictured taking my new niece on trips to the park and buying her ridiculously impractical clothes. I’d also envisioned being the older wiser woman she turned to as she grew up, a worldly confidante that she could talk to about anything. I had vowed to take my auntiehood very seriously and be there for Mai from day one.
I wasn’t privy to all the details of how exactly Mai had become part of our family; I just knew it had been a long hard road for my brother and his husband. It had started a couple of years ago when Jon and Alex took a month-long trip to China. They returned with photos of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, a pair of silk pajamas for me, and a determination to adopt a baby girl from an orphanage that I was fairly certain wasn’t part of the standard tour. Mai was two-and-a-half now and they had been navigating the complex terrain of Chinese bureaucracy all that time.
As the months passed, I amassed a collection of photos of Mai that arrived in the post from my brother. She had eggshell skin and a fuzz of dark hair that had grown into a curtain of straight black silk. From the photos, Mai’s soft, dark eyes regarded the world coolly. Her expression showed no fear or unhappiness; it was poised, almost confident, and very much at ease. “An old soul,” is how my grandmother would have described her. I fell in love with her instantly.
And now my new niece was finally coming home to Sheffield and I was going to be there to meet her. It should have been a cause for celebration, and it was, but going home would not be an easy thing for me. Home was full of memories, and not all of them were good. I barely had time to absorb the full significance of my impending auntiehood and my return home, before a wave of students swept me into the nearby lecture hall and I was forced to turn my attention to science.
Dr. Carney, the Chemistry professor, drew in wild scrawls, his big hands dwarfing the dry erase marker that squeaked across the board. His shiny pate bobbed like a bird’s as he explained how atoms connect and form bonds, how sometimes those bonds are broken, leaving an atomic element open to form a new bond. Oxygen looking for a couple of Hydrogens to hang out with to call themselves water; Sodium and Chlorine getting pally to make salt. This was all elementary stuff, but I kept my eyes on the board and tried to keep my mind firmly on my work. It wasn’t easy.
I was curious to meet Mai and it would be nice to spend some time with Jon and Alex. But as my excitement settled, the reality of going back to Sheffield began to set in, too. I hadn’t been home for more than a fleeting visit since I’d fled for the valleys of South Wales. Every end of term break, I made an excuse to stay on campus to study or I found myself a job, or internship, or extracurricular volunteer program that would make it impossible to spend more than a couple of days in the city where I’d grown up. It wasn’t that I didn’t like my hometown or my family—in fact, I missed them—but I didn’t dare stay long enough to risk dredging up the ghosts that still lingered there.
“Not all elements can combine,” Dr. Carney said, interrupting my thoughts. “It takes a very special bond to create a molecule.” I glanced up from my brief reverie and, over the rim of his half-moon spectacles, Dr. Carney scanned the room, his eyes pausing momentarily on me. I snapped to attention, pretending to be rapt. “And for some elements, there is only ever one possible bond, one perfect combination.”
One perfect combination. Who knew that life could be just like science? I had found that one perfect combination once. Gabe and I had been two unique elements, so unlike in many ways, and yet, when we’d come together, the reaction had been spontaneous and indisputably thermodynamic. But our fusion had been short-lived, and before long I’d become a single element again—single, but no longer complete, and apparently no longer able to combine.
I’d tried so hard not to think about what might have been. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the future holds no guarantees. Even when you think you see your life clearly laid out, there’s no knowing what’s really going to happen. And who’s to say where I’d be now if Gabe were still here? As my mother is apt to say, “Everything happens for a reason,” but even she had the good sense not to say that about Gabe.
By the end of my afternoon lectures, the rain had tapered to a watery drizzle, but the hazy glimpse of sun could barely make it over the campus buildings, and the gloomy air was about to turn cold. I hurried out across the quad, forcing my mind to focus on my evening ahead with Owen. Perhaps if I moved fast enough I could outrun my anxiety about going home and the memories of Gabe that had crept around to make a stealth attack.
I headed out the side gates of the campus and into the streets of the town. I passed the first of four pubs and one of the many shops that stocked everything a student might need, from teabags and chocolate biscuits, to condoms and pens. I crossed the road and strode, head-down, past another row of terrace houses, once home to local miners, now converted to dingy student flats. Through the misty backdrop, images of Gabe’s lovely face poured in to fill the bottomless hole in me he’d left behind.
When I’d applied to university, I made of list of places with the best courses, and then picked the one farthest from home. Moving away had helped take my mind off everything that had happened with Gabe. No one here knew me, no one remembered me from school, no one looked at me with that crimped apologetic glance that said, “I know who you are; you’re that girl; you’re the one with the dead boyfriend.” No one here knew anything much about me and I liked it that way. Here in Wales, I played the role of dedicated student, the nerdy girl more likely to be found in the library than the Student Union bar. Under my cover of boringness, I could keep my memories of Gabe tucked safely away, maybe once in a while lifting a corner of the cover for a peek, but always able to put them away again, so that the next day would be just another ordinary day in my new life. But Mai’s impending arrival had shaken my box of memories upside down and I had danced among them.
The wind flipped a soggy lump of brown leaves past my feet and along with it, an orange poster. As it somersaulted along, the black silhouette image of a climber hanging from a rock face and the friendly call for students to join the fun of the Climbing Club taunted me, reminding me again of all that had been lost. I zipped my fleece a little further up my chin and kicked the paper aside. I wasn’t going to let the guilt get to me again. I’d been over the story a thousand times in my mind and convinced myself that what had happened to Gabe was not my fault. And yet the guilt always found a gap under my argument and squeezed its way into my thoughts.
I rounded the corner into the street where I lived, and stalked past the line of identical brick houses to the one that contained my very own damp, dreary room. The weight of my self-pity tugged at me, slowing me down with every step.
Pull it together, Kat, I said, kicking a discarded Fanta can and watching as it bounced into the gutter. It was stupid stomping around feeling sorry for myself again. Gabe would want you to move on, I told myself for about the thousandth time. What would he have said? “You only get one life, Kat. You have to live it for all you’re worth.” I laughed to myself, thinking about that sparkle he would always get in his eyes. I wondered what he’d have to say about Owen.
I circled back and retrieved the can from the gutter, dropping it into a nearby recycle bin. I would go home again; it was time. Everything that had happened with Gabe was in the past now, and it was time to take my memories home and leave them there. All the books I’d read had said to keep moving forward, to get back out into the world and start living. I had my future to think of, and that future included a little girl who was traveling all the way from China so that I could be her auntie. And maybe it included a blond man from Sussex, who allegedly made the best chocolate hazelnut marble cake in history.
I hurried towards the house with my mind firmly set on Owen. I had three hours to prepare a three-course dinner and turn myself from looking like a drowned rat into something irresistible. And then I had to get ready to risk falling in love again.