Wed 30 Jun 2010
she was six the last time i saw her.
the younger of two little girls, she had gold-brown hair, big gold-brown eyes. she liked storybooks and swings and made me an initiate into the world of Dora the Explorer. when i visited, she and i and her older sister drove Barbie convertibles and painted toenails and drew pictures with our fingers on each others’ backs. she was learning English, i, French. in the language of laughter, we sang songs of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and queens.
Posey, my imp, is uncannily like her, this child i remember from a lifetime ago.
she was my niece by marriage. the November night she was born, the call came in from the small town hours away from the college landscape her uncle and i inhabited. safe birth, great joy. i smiled, raised a beer bottle across the lumpy mattress in his rented attic room with the rainbow wallpaper, to welcome Emilie.
i had known him two months. i did not think, then, that i would marry him.
but months unfolded into years and we went, we two, hand in hand into the world like children clinging to each other. not all who wander are lost, we intoned, secretly uncertain. escape artists for lack of a better plan, we spent all we had on train tickets to the west coast. a week in the smoky bar car and we came into sight of the Rocky Mountains at five in the morning, sharp and majestic, inky black against a sky bigger than we’d ever seen. our heads tilted together, Simon & Garfunkel on the headphones stretched between them, and there were tears in my eyes but i did not know why.
we lived in basements there, slept on floors, sold magazines to the Chinatown exchange. we ventured north of the Arctic Circle, rounded back again east to within the scent of the sea, exchanged rings. we were prodigals, forever coming home to the tiny town where his parents and his sister and her children were rooted. we brought back treasures from all over, trinkets, baubles, seashells. i bought them their first copies of Love You Forever and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Anne of Green Gables and The Little Prince. i wanted daughters, and loved Emilie and her sister like promises, practicing with an open heart.
but i loved their uncle like a brother, which is the world and not enough, all at once. he and i pulled at each other, stretched apart. Ani diFranco sang in each other’s shadow we grew less and less tall, and we waltzed our slow swan song in denial and sorrow, respectively, Hansel and Gretel run dry on breadcrumbs to find their way back. and when we left for the last time to go halfway round the globe, there were tears in my eyes then too as we waved goodbye to the little girls through the car window, and i pretended to myself that i did not know why.
you lose things in divorce, no matter how little you have or how amicable it’s all supposed to be. we had no property, no furniture, one ancient Volkswagen long sold and a cat who went to live with old folks and got better dental care than i’ve ever had. but in the cloister of the expatriate lives we made in the hermit kingdom amongst equally uprooted friends, we each lost more than we bargained for. he slept with my friend, but i chose his. the first was almost expected, the other, unforgiveable. i did not know why. i do now.
for a couple of years i still sent cards and tokens to the little girls on birthdays, Christmases. but airmail takes a long time, and dates crept up and address books got away in all my transience. when i asked him for his sister’s P.O Box address, i felt unworthy, awkward. i had chosen to be an outsider.
and so, cowardly, i stopped. Ma Tante Bonnie disappeared, kin and kind.
they found me two years ago, or so, on Facebook. first Emilie and then her sister. teenagers suddenly, all legs and curves and makeup, Dora and Barbies long left in the dust. they wrote and i wrote back, eager, trying not to be too effusive, too cloying. i had disappeared. disappearance is unfair to children, bottom line. but i was found, and i sent love and remembrances through the ether.
if it weren’t for Facebook i’m not sure i would have recognized her Saturday, in the hot dog line at the park. we are in New Brunswick, visiting grandparents in a small town not so far from the one i waved goodbye to ten summers ago. Oscar was with me, and his cousins, boys not much different in age than she and her sister were then.
it was the look on her face that caught my attention, rather than the face itself, at first. her eyes searched mine, for confirmation, recognition.
it took a beat for me to fully connect the dots. Emilie. as tall as i, with the long, sleek hair and angled cheekbones i know only from Facebook photos. i think i said her name, and opened my arms in the same moment she did. her English was perfect. i told her she was lovely. i asked banal questions about grade eleven, and her summer job, and her sister. and i grinned like a fool and bobbed my head up and down, heart happy.
but what do you say to a girl you last knew as a first-grader? we were intimate, you and i. i taught you all the words to Quarter Master Store, you taught me Christmas carols in French. i still think of you every time i hear Le Divin Enfant. i still note your birthday every year as it comes round on the calendar. but your Barbies are all put away now. i cannot pull you in my lap and trace your name on your back and say i’m sorry i left you. i didn’t mean to.
there are things you can’t say. you don’t get to take back ten years, whatever your paltry reasons.
her gaze was cautious, after the first blush of hello. in her eyes i felt as exposed as i have ever been. she smiled at Oscar, though, bent her head down to try to greet him where he hid behind my leg. something in the movement reminded me of the tiny girl she’d been, and i saw the image of her gold-brown bob juxtaposed against the way Josephine looks today, and i gasped again at how damn fast it all goes, how easily it slips away.
i’ve known people who moved into separate homes – for years – but still didn’t tell the children they were divorcing. i know families who manage – even after fracture – to gather the clans, cousins and ex-aunties and new partners and all – for holiday gatherings. i’ve raised my eyebrows, though with a tinge of jealousy. i grew up in a family where divorce meant my parents lived three thousand miles away from each other for twenty-eight years. when i was told by my ex that his nieces were no longer mine, i acceded.
but i knew. i knew i was wrong.
my eyes said, i’m sorry. my tongue said be well, Emilie. give my best to your family. and i took Oscar by the hand and walked away from the last memories of Ma Tante Bonnie, whom i will never be again.