First Winter, by Miriam Vaswani

On the five nights a week I worked in the bar, I’d be in bed by 4am. Then I’d wake at six to Tevye singing while he made coffee; a particular song for grinding the beans, another while it brewed. His song moved into my dreams, which were bright, sharp dreams, fast and senseless, while I swam in the adolescent sleep of night workers.

Nine days after he died, his shape in the naked mattress beside mine, though faint, was still there. He had always slept heavily, unconscious as soon as he put his head down. I envied him that, and a few other things.

His mother has his clothes now. I opened my door to Shelly on the day we buried him, and she paused on the threshold, blinking in the grey light, as though he might rise from the sofa to greet her, or call from the kitchen where he would have been making dinner.

I smoked one of Tevye’s cigarettes on the freezing balcony while she did what she did. I thought she’d take the sweater she knitted him for ice fishing with Noah and Levi, or the cashmere scarf he used to wear when he took her to the opera. I waited in a chair with my feet drawn under my body, shivering, for her to come and tell me she’d finished. Tevye’s smoke curled in my empty stomach. I would make tea, I decided, we would try to be friends now, we would start something new. Lunch in the city, occasionally.

When the sun dulled behind a thick ceiling of cloud, I went inside. Shelly was gone. She hadn’t closed the apartment door properly, and Tevye’s side of the bedroom closet was empty. She’d left me nothing; not the shirts that smelled of his soap-scented neck, not his university sweatshirt I wore to go jogging in the winter. She’d taken his socks and underwear from the drawers. She’d even unwound his old ties from my bedposts.

For five days I ate nothing, touched nothing. I slept in strange places; the kitchen floor, the shower, the hallway. I slept in our closet, hidden behind my dresses the way I did when I was a child and wanted to be alone. When I woke up I could see his spare glasses under our bed, covered in dust, and ripped all my clothes from their hangers for something to scream into. I went back to the kitchen floor after that.

Tevye wore contact lenses during the day, and glasses at night. The glasses were part of his evening transformation, a reverse Superman hanging his wilted shirt then standing under the shower, warming, softening. On the nights I worked in the bar, we’d have less than an hour to transform together; he from a tidy scientist, me into a no-nonsense bartender. I didn’t envy couples who had every evening together; I saw the way they pouted at the television and became as ugly as possible in an imitation of intimacy.

In that hour, we lured each other with delicately baited hooks from our day. We were in the shower when I told him about the man who’d masturbated into a paper bag outside the window of the café where I met Marielle for lunch. He was unknotting his tie when he told me about the famous research scientist who’d arrived sweating and drunk for a meeting, and used a racist slur to describe the fisheries minister. I was zipping up my jeans when I told him about our neighbour Bradley who had knocked on every door in the street with a petition to ban Syrian refugees from the neighourhood and been told, door by door, to go home.

Then we added details; the research scientist’s suitcase that seemed to be empty. Bradley’s hockey shirt worn, inexplicably, over a collar and formal trousers. The elderly woman who’d thrown a cup of coffee at the public masturbator. The Sikh teenager who calmly asked Bradley trivia questions about Québecois politicians until he went away.

We were starved for each other. Even the dull stories, meetings and haircuts and conference calls that furred and broke in the middle, were worth listening to. He watched while I rubbed lotion into my skin and tied my hair in a ponytail. I watched while he undid his belt. The apartment was a bottle snatched from the sea and, even in summer, steeped in the kind of inverted light that comes with a heavy snowfall.

With no promise of our shining hour at the end of daylight, time turned brutal. I walked an invisible wire between the kitchen and bathroom, and to the balcony to smoke Tevye’s cigarettes. He had smoked only one, and I rationed the remaining 19. I became better at it; I took the stuff into my lungs, I let it out. I stopped coughing but began to wheeze at night, invoking my childhood asthma. I wondered what parts of me the smoke was ruining; would it bore a hole in my tongue, would it turn my guts to rot. The smoke made my hunger worse, which I welcomed.

In the cigarette packet’s cellophane wrapper was the print of his incisor. He always tore them open with his teeth. Impossible, to have this and not him. A sour smell rose from the sink as the remains of the last dinner we ate together rotted on the plates. The fork he had last used was licked clean. It shone like a dagger.

On the third day I washed, dressed and walked three blocks to a decrepit Tim Horton’s. It had escaped rebranding and kept its plastic seats welded to plastic tables, and a colour theme of beige and dull yellow, from a time when Timbits and children’s birthday cakes tasted like scorched tobacco at the end of the day. I ordered black coffee and waited exactly 12 minutes for Marielle. In the 12 minutes, I watched two truck drivers pay for their food and leave. I saw a man and a teenage girl silently eating their donuts by nibbling around the edges until all that was left was a skinny circle. I saw a sparrow hop on a branch outside the window and peck at its wing. I bit the corner of my thumb and peeled away a sliver of nail, which I tried to swallow but instead spat into a napkin.

Marielle started talking as soon as she walked in the door.

“Leah, hi, oh shit I’m fucking late for your bereavement, oh my god.”

The two truck drivers paused to watch her. The silent girl and man looked up from their demolished donuts. She pulled me up by the elbows and hugged me. I felt the wire bones of her bra against my sad, sore breasts. I wondered why grief would make my breasts hurt, if it had something to do with sleeping on the kitchen floor.

“You look like shit, Le-le.” Marielle was crying. “You look terrible. And you smell like cigarettes.”

“You look good enough for both of us Mar.”

We’d reverted to our university nicknames. It was good to hear an echo from the time before Tevye; a hint that there was a before, and there might be an after. It was true as well that she could look good for both of us; she always had. Even on a grizzling cold day like this, a day congested with unfallen snow, she glowed with health.

“Why couldn’t I come to your apartment Le?”

“I don’t want anyone to go there yet. I don’t want anyone to disturb his dust.”

“Are you insane now?”

“Maybe. How are you?”

“Same as always I think. The British have fucked up the market and we’re all working like idiots to fix the mess.”

“Same shit, different century.”

“You made a joke!”

“Is it normal to sleep on the kitchen floor?”

“I slept on the fire escape when my mother died. Dad thought I’d run away and called the police.”

“But you were seven-”

“-grief has tides, you know? You have to go with it until you see a boat or a beach or something, I don’t know, analogies are Tev’s thing-”

I shut my eyes and the jaundiced room vanished. I was alone in the dark with Marielle’s voice and the smell of coffee and donuts. That’s why people come to Tim Horton’s, I realised; you can look awful, you can feel awful, but someone keeps making coffee and donuts. It will smell like a time before grief, and later, when you come back like your own strange twin, the gurgle and hiss of the coffee machine will say your name.

The first time I heard Tevye’s voice was on the phone, an old-fashioned rotary from the 80s that Noah, the man I was sleeping with, kept beside his bed. I answered it on New Year’s Day and a man asked to speak to his brother. Noah was immovable, impossible to wake. The man on the phone, Tevye, invited me to dinner with their family, which I planned to ignore, but as we showered Noah said he’s right, you should come, so I came. I was dressed all wrong, in my cheap dress from the night before, bought on sale with Christmas tips. So was Noah, but he was forgiven, the youngest son, the prettiest, the darkest shining eyes, the pouting lower lip. Levi poured me a drink and asked me about my job. Ellen ignored me, and Shelly asked me what time she should call me a taxi. I made the mistake of being too friendly with Ellen’s father, the other unfavoured guest, an untended man from the Prairies. Though Shelly pretended to suffer him for Ellen’s sake, I suspected she liked to place him next to Levi’s urbane library and wine collection, to measure the distance she had come. I barely spoke to Tevye, who was with a pediatric surgeon who would break his heart in a snow-covered car before the end of that month. On that night she shone brightly in his eyes, draped in cashmere, seven weeks pregnant with a child only she knew about, fathered by another man.

On the third day without Tevye, an hour after I met Marielle in Tim Horton’s, I turned into my street and saw the chipped post box. Beside it was a pile of wet leaves that had fallen from a young maple. I knelt on the pavement and felt the cold leak through my jeans. I’d left my gloves in Tim Horton’s and my palms felt like they were frozen to the ground. Anaïs, my neighbour, was walking toward me with her two daughters. They came close and Anaïs said Leah, which is a word that means weary in Hebrew but could also mean mistress in some other language. I said I can’t I can’t I can’t do it. Anaïs handed her house keys to the older child and said take your sister straight home, then she knelt on the cold pavement with me and put her bundled arms around me and said I know, I know, I know. I turned and vomited black coffee into the fallen leaves.

Tevye tapped his fingertips on the chipped post box the day we came to view the apartment. The grass was wet with spring melt, which made the realtor’s open house sign tilt. I was secretly pregnant, like the surgeon who broke Tevye’s heart before I knew him, but this baby was only ours. I would tell him after eight weeks, I decided, since the women in my family have miscarriage after miscarriage. It’s our legacy; barely-there shapes of leg, foot, enlarged head slipping away in the night, twisting in the sheets or encased in a perfect amniotic sac.

That’s how it happened to me, the day we moved into the apartment, our new sets of keys still glowing in our pockets, after a fast sale. Tevye sat with me as I curled in pain, our new, ruined sheets hauled up and drenched between my legs. He helped me into the bath, checked that the placenta was out and took me to the hospital the next morning. He kissed me on my exhausted mouth and I thought here is a man I will kill and die for, a man who will kiss me like that while his hands are stained with what would have been our child.

On the sixth day without Tevye I vacuumed our apartment. His skin cells and mine, our breath and sweat and the dust we’d carried in from the street, all of it sucked into an environmentally friendly, reusable bag. I opened the windows. I put music on, the way I’ve always done when I’m cleaning, then switched it off immediately. I pulled our bedding from the mattress and carried it downstairs to the laundry room. I washed the dishes, not looking at his plate and fork. I scrubbed the shower and toilet, I mopped the floors.

When I got dizzy I ate the most tasteless thing I could find; a heel of dry bread, at least seven days old. Only later did I realise his hands had been the last to twist the bag tie, and what was undigested I retched into pine-scented bathroom sink. When I found Tevye’s things; spare keys, half-finished gum, receipts, winter moisturising cream, contact lenses; I put them in a large shopping basket we’d brought back from a holiday in Morocco. It has tough handles and memory that is solely ours. He’ll be safe in there until I can deal with him.

Eight months after the New Year’s Day dinner, I stood in Parc Maisonneuve waiting for Marielle, and a man in jogging clothes said my name. It was Tevye. He wiped his hand on his t-shirt and I tried to remember something more about him than he is Noah’s brother. By then my memory of Noah was fading to a nostalgic tangle of skin and hair and cheap beer from the dépanneur below his apartment, in a neighbourhood I hadn’t visited for months. What I remembered most vividly was their mother, the way her eyes scissored through the cheap stitching of my dress, and my own consciousness, sitting at her table, of my rough bartender’s hands on her smooth wine glasses.

We sat on the grass and shared the chicken salad sandwich in my bag. We talked, about what I can’t remember, until Marielle arrived late, carrying two cups of coffee that spilled and burnt her hands.

Later, Marielle told me that she knew him. A physicist working for a new company, she said; an attractive company, she called it.

“What do they make?”

“Make? Uh, nothing yet, that’s not the point. It’s what they could make that’s the thing. Leah, you’ve got mine, this is the black one.”

“What would they make?”

“Oh I don’t know, they’re into dimensionality. Like, we see three dimensions the way a slug or whatever sees two dimensions, but there are probably more, we just can’t understand it the way a slug couldn’t understand the third dimension.”

“Slugs only see two dimensions?”

“Fucked if I know, that’s how his people explained it to me.”

On the seventh day without Tevye I cleaned the apartment again because someone was coming. Josué-from-digital, a person from Tevye’s company who wanted to write a memorial for the website.

“People,” Josué told me on the phone, “his colleagues, loved Tevye. He was loved. We want you to know that. Lucie can come along if you prefer, or we can meet somewhere. Whatever is most comfortable for you.”

Lucie, Tevye’s boss, a practical woman, spoke at his memorial and came to see me on the day we buried him. Lucie is self-aware, stylish, the kind of woman I want to be in twenty years. Her ass still looks good in trousers. She held both my hands (one cold, one warm) and told me his desk would wait untouched for me as long as I wished. She explained exactly how long his salary would continue to be paid. She looked me in the eye. Not many people look grief in the eye. It’s like being the neighbourhood witch. I remembered that Lucie’s partner died from pancreatic cancer three days after Lucie’s company went public. I sat beside Tevye at that funeral, grateful not to be the one who must go home to a cold space where once lived love, where love would stretch at the end of a long day, where love would brush a hand across your back, where love would open kitchen cupboards looking for something to flavour the pasta and ignore calls from love’s mother because love’s mother can’t stand the sight of you.

During Tevye’s memorial I remembered this, and laughed a barking laugh that hurt my throat. It was big and demonic, as though someone had taken over my body. I was standing on a platform, a wooden lectern in front of me, facing everyone, talking about him in what may as well have been an extinct language, because it’s no use wrapping words around a space where a man used to be. Noah, sitting in the front row, looked at me with something unreal in his face, as though he’d also been possessed. I knew he saw it too; my dead language that lurched into the air, and the way I wanted to scream and claw at Tevye’s corpse instead. Tear into the chest where I used to lay my head, eat the heart that used to beat under my hands. Maybe we’d both start vomiting bile and turning the furniture upside down.

Noah was untroubled when, two months after we shared a chicken salad sandwich in Parc Maisionneuve, Tevye told him we were lovers. We drank beer together, the three of us, and sometimes four with Noah’s peripatetic girlfriends, who often reminded me of myself. We ate Mexican food, Japanese food, food that was a mixture of Cambodian and Indian, Moroccan and Canadian. We went to places where we could wear jeans and lick sauce from our fingers. Ellen was, and remained, indifferent. Levi was unreadable and Shelly was incandescent.

The not-yet-baby was the thing that might have changed things. After the miscarriage, Noah came to our apartment with flowers from the Irving forecourt. Ellen and I exchanged a few emails, but it didn’t stick. Levi squeezed my hand and called me his daughter, quietly so that Shelly wouldn’t hear. Shelly knocked on my apartment door with stiff sympathies and took Tevye away for lunch, where she suggested I drank while pregnant and also didn’t really want the child. He didn’t speak to her for six months, until I told him I don’t care, take her to lunch and be her good son again, I’m sick of hearing her miserable voice on my fucking answering machine.

As I finished cleaning I changed my mind and emailed Josué. Can we meet at the office instead? He said yes, of course. He’d sent a car. Widowhood means being held like a raw egg; handle carefully or something disgusting will slither out. Wash your hands in soap and hot water or you’ll get salmonella. No, I told him. Don’t send the car. I’ll be there in one hour. I would prefer a punch in the face to your courtesy, I wanted to type, but I didn’t.

In the office, I passed desks and locked passageways to laboratories where Tevye was not. I carried, in my handbag, the notes Tevye had been making when he died. Numbers and graphs that made little sense to me. I would give them to Lucie, or if she wasn’t around, the maddest looking scientist I could find, and they would resurrect Tevye, or something.

I sat in a room with Josué , a young man with thick framed glasses. This man has spoken to Tevye, I thought. This man knows the pressure of Tevye’s handshake. He brought me a cup of hot water and lemon, and asked if I was comfortable. I said yes, I was comfortable, though I wasn’t. My heart was broken and my back was stiff from sleeping on the kitchen floor, and I was nauseous with hunger, but I didn’t think he’d want that kind of information for the company newsletter.

“Website,” said Josué, “not newsletter. We want to make it public, if you agree. Our partners all over the world have been sending their sympathies.”

“Can I have them?”

“Have them?”

“Their sympathies. Are they emails, or what?”

“Oh I see, sure, of course you can, I thought Lucie had forwarded them.”

Noah phoned me on the tenth day.

“Tev’s clothes are in the back of my mother’s car. Like, all of them.”

I sighed into the phone.

“Ellen just found them and she doesn’t know what to do.”

Ellen, their half sister, the daughter Shelly had when she was not quite twenty and still a plain, unhappily married Prairie girl, working at a bar on East St Laurent. A bar only three blocks from mine. Ellen wasn’t at Tevye’s funeral, her plane failed to take off from an airfield south of Kinshasa where she doctors women who’ve been raped so viciously they can’t walk. I forgave her, but I bet Shelly didn’t.

“Hasn’t Levi noticed them?”

“Dad’s not here. He went to fucking Florida.”

“He went to Disney World?”

I imagined Levi, dressed in black for mourning, spinning around and around on a slow children’s ride, deafened by terrible music, nauseated by the smell of processed food melting in the sun, weeping for Tevye, weeping and weeping. I saw it in the imperfect colours of a photograph from our childhood; the sky too blue, the grey of Levi’s beard jaundiced.

“Of course not, fuck, he went to another funeral if you must know. Aunt Sarah died.”

Sarah, a sister nearly twenty years older than Levi, unloved by most of her family as far as I could tell. I met her when Ellen first left for the Congo. She told me she didn’t believe anything Shelly said about me. She gave me a chocolate wrapped in foil from her cardigan pocket.

“I’m sorry about Sarah. I liked her. Save his McGill sweatshirt for me if you can. And one of the ties. Do it so Shelly doesn’t notice. She can keep the rest.”

I listened to Noah clear his throat. His breath was full of static.

“I am so fucking, fucking sad. I’ll die too, I think. How are you, Leah?”

“The same. Do you want a drink?”

We met on the eighth day in a bar devoted to hockey and pornography. On one screen the Oilers whacked a puck across the ice, watched raptly by half a dozen men holding beer glasses to their furry lips. On the other screen, a woman knelt to take a penis in her mouth, her hairless vulva bobbing near the camera lens. Noah was sitting at the bar when I walked in, making shapes on a beer mat with a blue Bic pen. He stood to hug me, and his watch clipped the bottle he’d been drinking from. It rolled, empty, across the bar and was caught by the bartender, a woman about Shelly’s age. I was intensely jealous of her; she’d finish her shift and go home to something, or nothing, but probably not fresh grief. Children who needed help with their homework. A sink that needed unblocking.

Maybe, I thought, we take it in shifts. I’m taking the grief shift now. She took it last time. Some people never get a day off. Some people don’t pull their weight. Maybe I’m lucky, or lazy.

The hockey game paused for the news. Another mass shooting, this one in a closed market filled with schoolchildren who had just been released for the day. Their bloody backpacks on the cement. A rainbow of coloured pencils in a gutter. The first terror attack Tevye would not see.

I ordered a beer and picked at the label. The bottle was cold in my hand and the liquid was cheap and weak and bitter, with a taste that reminded me of distant skunk, the kind that blows through an open car window on the highway at night. I wanted to tell Tevye; he liked weird comparisons like that, things that taste the way other things smell, people who look like objects, news stories that are like ancient parables. The beer fell into my dead stomach like acid, then shot to my tender, drugged head. For two or three seconds I believed that I could tell him, I just needed to grasp some mathematical concept that would allow us to communicate. I could picture it, key to a dark channel through time that would dissolve the thin membrane that kept me from Tevye. I just needed to concentrate.

Noah spoke and the idea dropped to the floor, where it got stuck and dirty in old beer and tramped-in snow.

“You look skinny. You’re not eating?”

“Of course not, my husband’s dead. Are you eating?”

“No, a bit. Only when Shelly watches. She’s better when she watches me eat. She can’t stand music, though, it’s been banned from the house. Levi’s been listening to Ellen’s old Nirvana cassettes on my old walkman. I think he thinks they’re Tev’s.”

“You should tell him they’re not.”

“I’ve let it go too long. I can’t tell him now.”

There was a long, thin mirror along the back of the bar. In it, my head and Noah’s head, my shoulders and Noah’s shoulders. Our two drinks, our four dark eyes. All of our eyes had a quality, which might have been a combination of starvation, domestic horror, and the light in the place. Like four lumps of coal waiting to catch a flame. Behind us a Molson Canadian sign glowed vermillion.

“I shouldn’t drink a lot of this. I take pills to sleep. Are you sleeping?”

“I always sleep, even now. It doesn’t seem right.”

“You’re alike that way.” I thought of their old twin beds in Shelly and Levi’s house, with Tevye’s science trophies and Noah’s first cheap violin mounted above the headboards. I thought of two smooth stones in a riverbed. “I’ve been sleeping on the kitchen floor.”

In the mirror, Noah took my hand.

On the first day, when Tevye’s body was not yet cradled in cedar, I fit my hand into his. The chill of his flesh was deep-down cold and it stayed on mine for hours. I still felt the frozen print until night, when I took two pills and three fingers of whisky and lay fully dressed, uncovered on the kitchen floor to sleep. I was angry with him, for not feeling what I felt. The kind of irrational fury that would sometimes overwhelm me if I told him something important and then realised he wasn’t listening.

It was snowing outside the bar. The first snow of the first winter Tevye wouldn’t see. Noah crushed the first soft flakes with the toe of his boot. I lit one of Tevye’s cigarettes. There were only two left.

“Will you and Levi go ice fishing without him?”

“I don’t know.”

“It would be a good place for his ashes. He loved it up there.”

Noah and Levi would go to Saguenay and catch their fish, but Tevye’s would swim away. A cod or a northern pike he would have brought home to me. It would move and move under the ice, and I would move under mine.

“I’d like to stop talking about him for a little while, Leah.”

We walked to my apartment in silence, without looking at each other. Inside, light from the street showed the outline of our features.

Noah wanted the sofa, but I moved him to the floor. The sofa was where Tevye last slid my skirt over my hips and put his mouth, with just a few days of beard that will never grow longer, between my thighs. I was late for work, and I wanted him but I wanted to be on time, and so I rushed, I pushed against his tongue and I said faster faster faster and he understood and made me come quickly. I kissed him goodbye, tasted myself on him, and went to work. He was dead before lunch the next day, crushed between two cars at a junction. The junction was not near his office, it was across the city, past a park I’ve seen but never walked through, near a patch of suburban streets I’ve never visited. Where I don’t know anyone.

The floor was too hard for Noah, so we moved to the bed, our skin against the raw mattress. It was okay because we weren’t making love. We were looking for Tevye. He was somewhere there; we’d slide each other’s skin aside and find the thin membrane that divides our world from his.

I swept four fingers across Noah’s cheek and remembered something Tevye said about tears; that they have different chemicals, for grief and rage and happiness. Then I felt it; the air chilled and I found the fragile boundary, just where I knew it would be.

Miriam  Vaswani is a London-based writer and editor, and author of Frontier, a novella published by Pankhearst, with previous publications in Gutter, Valve, Newfound, Tin House, Retort and the anthology Whereabouts; Stepping out of Place.
%d bloggers like this: