All the names have been changed.
Amanda and I had our first real conversation at an art opening. I was going up the stairs in the gallery, and she was coming down. We met in the middle – somewhere between a life-size dollhouse and a performance artist who had been washing her hands for three hours straight – stopping each other at the landing.
You made it! — I had
Have you seen the pornographic knitting? — I hadn’t
You need to. — She didn’t take her eyes off me.
Up to this point I had only known Amanda as a classmate, a student in our writing course at the university we both attended. She was also the curator of the art show. Now we were sharing a small square of wood as people squeezed past us, pulling their red solo cups closer to their chest.
Amanda used to say she “knew” from the moment she saw me. Equal parts romantic and skeptic, I never believed this, but I wanted to trust in the affection behind her words. For me, if we had a story, that night at the gallery would be our beginning. It was the stage in a blossoming attraction where everything the other person did felt like a miracle: her unfiltered passion for what she loved/hated; her way of jumping up and down with excitement one second, settling into a concentrated pool of seriousness the next.
As I found out later, Amanda really did know. She knew what would happen from start to finish, having sat both dangerously close to each other.
The night she bought me flowers, she told me I didn’t mean anything to her.
When she asked “could we actually date?” she answered before I could respond: No.
And right after we planned a road trip to Vancouver, she said we had to be “just friends,” moving forward. When we arrived on the Pacific Northwest Coast, it was clear this new Chapter — this “just friends” — was another ending disguised as a beginning. On our second night there we met with some friends at a pub. It came out of nowhere: “Why are you looking at me?” Amanda was facing me, her voice was serious and loud. Everyone at the table stopped talking.
“You’re always looking at me,” she repeated.
She took another swig of beer.
Her words hit my chest. They were slurred, but it was the clearest thing she’d ever said to me.
Still, I didn’t listen.
Whether we were in Vancouver or in her driveway, I always clung to the words with which she shot me down – because I knew she’d follow them with something to pick me up. In my haste to enter the revolving door to “get back to where we were,” I missed that “we” hadn’t gone anywhere. I was just a static object, rotating in someone else’s orbit.
It’s not uncommon for a first-draft of a story to have a strong opening and an even stronger ending. What’s uncommon is a strong middle.
The saggy center is what you always fight as a writer: that urge to rush past the complex and nuanced middle to jump to the big, flashy finale.
But what of the real-life stories that don’t have a middle? Like the relationship that breaks before it even begins; the absent parent you grieve without knowing; the baby shoes Hemingway wrote about that were never worn? What do we do with these experiences that skip the milestones and hurl themselves straight into oblivion? Surely there’s a queer space on the pages for these ghosts?
These questions have burned in my body for years.
First, when I was trying to make sense of my relationship with Amanda. And again, when I was 23 and admitted to the hospital for an undiagnosed disease.
In the University of Alberta’s gastroenterology ward I learned the substance of those gaps that stretch between an unknown and understanding, the beginning and the loose end: a chasm of fire strong enough to tear a whole network of tissues apart.
I couldn’t tell you when exactly I was diagnosed with colitis, an inflammatory autoimmune disorder of the intestine, but I could tell you about the fleeting moments that led up to the prognosis.
I could tell you about filling the toilet with blood; thinking I was hemorrhaging and going to the hospital. I could tell you how I shuffled over the linoleum of the emergency room; hot, white pain splitting me in half; taking the room with it; pressure in my belly building. I could tell you about the sweat twisting around my neck; the nurse unwrapping the blood pressure monitor; and me, stumbling into the washroom to throw-up.
I could tell you how I woke up: eyes, pulled back; insides, deflated. I was lying on my back, flying down a dark hall; turn left, turn right; IV bags swinging above my head; a glimpse of the nurse pushing the bed. I watched them come in and out of sight. The ceiling ended; burst upwards into a glass rooftop; we were in the hospital atrium. Plants and stars rushed past; floating through space and time. Ding! An elevator. Inertia. We were at a full stop; my broken body kept rushing forward.
I could tell you about my hospital roommate. Kind, gentle and warm — a mother. Every day, her husband and daughter visited her; voices competing with the TV; crinkling paper; ripping tinfoil from cheap burgers and fries. She had a new liver, navigating a body that wasn’t her own, far away from her home.
After all these years, those details remain with me. I believe it’s because they were coterminous to the most intense pain I’ve ever experienced. Like the internal scars I accumulated during that time, these memories exist in my body as a self-contained code.
Their cohesive meaning? None.
Rather, they were the things I used to fill the liminal space between knowing I was sick and not knowing what was wrong with me. Every time I almost fell into the vacuum of “what ifs” that anyone awaiting a diagnosis experiences, I instead drew every breath into the flare-ups that filled my gut. This was my response to the burning questions that couldn’t be answered, and for a while it worked.
This was also a skill I’d honed with Amanda, when I rode the highs and lows of our relationship, so I could distract myself from what was (and wasn’t) lying beneath the surface.
It became obvious when we had our last real conversation. We were in her driveway, deep in the suburbs. We sat in the car. Outside, a crystalline snow fluttered to the ground; it piled higher, filling the spaces between every object on the lawn until all their edges disappeared.
I was always self-conscious the few times I rode in Amanda’s car — aware of the breath that separated us. That night drugs also came between us as a bag of coke sat on the armrest.
I was pressing her on something. I don’t remember what she had initially said. “I was in love with you”? “We were never a thing”?
Was I a “diamond in the rough” or the first woman she had felt that strongly about? Was the problem that I was a woman?
Regardless, whatever she said, it contradicted the thing before, and I needed answers. For all the time I spent reminding Amanda of her own words, I never learned that even if I could weave the competing stories she wrote about the past into a cohesive narrative, it wouldn’t change the present.
“I can explain…. after this one line,” she finally said.
I watched her bend over the white powder, splitting it into thin strips with a credit card. Her other hand was held up to my face: the pause on the conversation that would never happen. She did one line, and then another and another.
As she plugged one nostril and snorted through the other, the car lost its heat, and a cold prairie winter moved into the cavity.
I wondered what she’d do if I left. If I got up out of the car and started walking. If I wrote everything she’d ever said to me in the snow. I wondered if she could stomach her shittiest words. If she could handle someone else controlling the script.
When I went into hospital, I hadn’t heard from Amanda in two months. Our goodbye was unspoken — neither neat, tidy nor conclusive. All I knew was that the thin thread, which connected our first meeting to our last, had been cut. I would spend many hours trying to diagnose the emptiness left in its wake.
I had lost something, but didn’t know what.
When I was released from hospital, I left with the disease and none of the symptoms.
Most of the time my colitis lays low, but everyday I live with the knowledge that a flare-up could be around the corner. My shit could turn to liquid; my stool could fill with blood; and I could have to get my colon removed. Could, could, could.
Like an undefined relationship, a life-long illness is as full of holes as the body itself. It’s a lesson on how to heal, even when you don’t know what’s broken. And above all else, it’s the story that couldn’t find it’s footing on the page because it didn’t have a middle. 🌋
Edited by Carmen