The Glorious Between
Emily can assemble her past only from what Patrick tells her, and from what she remembers from just the day before. Patrick is a world class neurologist and Emily’s lover, and as he sits by Emily’s side day in day out trying to find a way through the labyrinth of her damaged memory, he tells her of his life. It is the only life Emily knows, and as Patrick’s past unfolds Emily creates an imagined bond with each family member, his father, his brother, and especially the extraordinary and deeply spiritual Alessandra, Patrick's mother. The disease that has taken Emily’s memory will eventually take her life, and Patrick, as talented as he is, cannot save her. No one can save Emily except, perhaps, Alessandra.
... check out sample chapter that follows.
The Glorious Between
A young woman opened her eyes and her world became different. It was that thing in her head that was responsible; it took away her memories, and it was killing her. But Emily had blond hair held in place with a sparkling barrette, clear green eyes, and a complexion that had not seen the sun for weeks, even months on end. She was fully formed and beautiful. She was dressed in white. Sometimes, many times, Emily felt useless and powerless, ugly and hopeless, despondent and afraid; but at other times, she felt so alive she felt she could almost lift off the ground and walk on air. When Emily felt like that, she felt a deep joy; she felt beautiful. It was preferable to the darkness she often felt.
“Have you ever wondered why God made men and women so beautiful?” Patrick had once asked her.
“I’m not beautiful,” she had responded quietly, believing she was not.
Patrick didn’t often smile but he did then. “Beauty is a light in the heart,” he had said.
She had not known how to respond and had, instead, wept.
“Kahlil Gibran,” he explained.
“No, no, Alessandra said that,” she had corrected him, remembering Alessandra looking out the window. It had been nearly spring, the garden bordering the sidewalk that led in a sweeping arc to the black, paint-flaked, spears opening to the greening park.
Emily opened her eyes, stood and stretched, her chin reaching her shoulder. Strands of her hair caught in the light falling around her. The soft curve of her face in profile, the light in her hair, the delicately molded shape of her forehead, nose, and mouth followed by the delicate and mysterious curve of her neck leading to her breasts. Her thin waist and her hips that reached upward as she arched her back. She released and then in a single fluid motion untied her hair, pulled it back and deftly retied it behind her head.
“Who says you are not beautiful?”
She turned to Patrick and smiled. “I am not my body,” she said, leaning in and sealing what she meant with a kiss.
But in the end, we are always alone, Emily knew, and the room she suddenly found herself in, brightly lit, austere and sterile in its orderliness and hard functionality, fell into eerie quiet with only the sound of the monitoring electronics and the faint buzzing of the fluorescent lights –– no sound at all –– to differentiate between desolate emptiness and perfect silence. Emily gazed down at the unconscious form in the bed, the white sheet tucked up close. She adjusted the covers one last time ensuring the body wrapped within was carefully protected, then turned and walked briskly beyond the room along a corridor of flickering lights and darkened rooms; heart-stopping night watch with only the nearly dead. She drew her fingers over polished granite feeling the cool hardness reach up through her and arc into her core. She was not heaven-sent and nor was she an angel; she only did what she could, but, still — and Emily felt, and not for the first time, and nor would it be the last time — that the world was far greater than what it seemed; deeper, with hidden purpose, and meaning. Death, her own included, was only part of the cycle. She could understand so little, nothing really. Life in all its shades of light and dark barely made sense. But Emily could feel what Alessandra knew: we are born for no reason, we die for no reason, but everything between is glorious.
How could Emily be so certain?
Faith, she knew; faith.
Patrick reminded her of that somehow, and that is why she loved him.
Life in the Offing
Promise of spring’s return
With life in the offing, the promise of spring’s return implicit, winter clings to the city like a shroud.
“So, tell me again about the first time we met,” Emily said.
“The time I saw you, but you didn’t see me, or the time after that?”
“The first-first time; how did you know it was me?”
“You were the most beautiful woman in the coffee shop.”
“You were drinking hot chocolate.”
“Ha! It must have been me then!”
“Tell me more.”
“…I felt something important had happened.”
“Ahh! …Go on then! …It was winter.”
“Yes, it was; it was only a few months ago.”
“Life was in the offing….”
“Yes… It was… It is. You see all the color, the music, the discord and fury, but it’s all from a distance.”
“Are you talking about me?” Emily asked, tipping her head.
“Are you sure you’re not talking about you?”
“No, I’m sure – I’m talking about you.”
Emily laughed. “Go on, then.”
With life in the offing, the promise of spring’s return implicit, winter clings to the city like a shroud punctured by buildings reflecting grey sky and twisted cloud from the darkly mirrored surfaces. Rain and sleet pour down turning to a covering sheet of ice: white and grey, snow and sand, the pure and defiled, the city is full, almost overflowing with souls with their heads down, eyes shielded, their feet in the slurry that accumulates by the curb.
“I have a soul!”
“Some say I don’t. I heard them talking.”
“No, it isn’t. I have no memory — nothing true. I dream my life. I am invested with God and Satan in equal measure and that’s all, you see? I actually heard someone say, ‘God and Satan in equal measure.’ God, what an asshole! I know what I am. I am splices of film on the floor, a scratched record, photos scattered all about. Where’s God in all that, I ask? Satan, maybe.”
“I get it.”
“There’s no plot, there’s just whatever pops into my head in whatever order, whatever I hear, whatever I’m told.”
“Where’s the soul in that?”
“I’m just a body — a broken one at that; at least, this part up here isn’t all that great.” Emily tapped her head.
“Will you give me a break?”
“Keep going! I’m joking! Keep going!”
“God and Satan aside?”
For those who do not believe in the soul, the city is also inhabited by cars, buses, trucks, struggling up the icy streets, belching exhaust, their shine hidden by an encasement of salt, black snow around wheel rims and windshield wipers slapping back and forth streaking the glass, impossible to keep clean.
“I could have added paperback novels to my list of analogies — perhaps I should have.”
“You find the book — that’s me, the book — just lying on the table top, or under the chair, front and back cover missing, whole sections torn out; you start to read but you’ll never figure out what’s going on.”
“Is this my story or yours?” Patrick asked patiently as he sat back.
“May I continue?”
“I don’t know, can you? Can you begin without me telling you the ‘what, where, and when’?”
“The ‘what-where-when’ is the coffee shop.”
“Continue, then — but don’t screw up.”
“Don’t forget any of the important parts!”
Emily laughed again, knowing she had got him on that.
The First-First Time
The recent past found Patrick in a coffee shop in the lower mezzanine of the McGill University Health Centre with his elbows on the table and a cup of hot chocolate, untouched, sitting before him. The shop steamed with the scent of coffee, hot croissants and press of bodies dressed in winter coats, scarves, and mitts. He glanced out the frosted windows to the street; it was January, the height of winter. Why let life lie dormant to await the miracle of spring; why not just let life live, Patrick wondered? Why do we inevitably need miracles to make it so? He, of course, knew why: Earth is inclined to the sun and this time of year meant winter; six months from now, spring. It was part of the inevitability and pattern of life, yet another aspect of reality we can do nothing about, only understand. It is very much like falling into the river never to be seen or heard from again.
“A brother who is not a brother but is a brother in every way,” he said to his brother sitting across from, knowing that Bekele would recall the reference.
Bekele slowly nodded, acknowledging their shared memory with a sad smile. It was true that Bekele was not his brother; there was no common blood mixing in their veins, but a brother he was in every other way. When Patrick turned his head, Bekele turned his; when Bekele turned his, so did Patrick.
Patrick recalled Alessandra silhouetted against the setting sun saying goodnight.
“Patrick and Bekele…?”
Their heads turning on their pillows.
“Thank God for each other.”
Bekele, brown, athletic, build, dark eyes, Ethiopian. Patrick, thin, dark hair and striking green eyes, Canadian.
Patrick imagined his home as it once had been; the warmth of his bed at night, the soft pillow and the cotton sheets pulled up to his neck. The drapes lifting with the soft desert air and dropping against the sill, quietly breathing in, out, his heart whispering in his ears, and they lift again, floating in the gentle night, curled and drifting against the black of the open window and the pointed desert stars. The memory, his vision of home, existed as rhythmic music within him, the melody leading to an ache of loneliness that was with him day and night and would soar once Bekele returned home.
Patrick glanced at his brother and then looked quickly away. There were renewed tears in Bekele’s eyes; how could there be tears in his eyes: this man, his brother? What was the source? Patrick knew: fire and ice, ice and fire, plucked from hell, his mortality and the mortality of all those he knew and loved, now fully revealed to him. His ship had burned to the water line off the coast.
“We like to think we hold our God-given destiny in the palms of our hands,” Alessandra would say; “But sometimes the river just sweeps us along; sometimes there is nothing we can do but be brave and have faith enough to believe that it will somehow all work out.”
“God, I love Alessandra!” Emily announced from her chair by the window with the frozen St Lawrence below and the snow blanketing the Laurentian’s to the horizon.
“You have told me that a hundred times at least, can you not think of anything else to say?”
“God, I love Alessandra!”
“That is one hundred and one.”
Emily laughed. “That was funny. I’m going to put that in my journal.” She lifted the small notebook up to show him. “I’m glad you told me to. Here, look —.“ She opened the cover and turned it so he could read the content. She read it for him from memory. “My name is Emily Martina Portinari. I am 27 years old and I can’t remember a damn thing!” Emily laughed again. “That was your idea to say that, I think; I would never say anything like that!”
She suddenly pointed out the window. “Look, the river is frozen right across!”
Patrick glanced over his shoulder. It was a common sight but no less beautiful for that.
“So this is it, then, right?” Emily said, as Patrick turned back. She continued to smile but was growing more serious too, he could see. “We are finally at the moment our individual fates intersect?” she said. “You know, fate unraveling its cloak, reaching out and drawing us together? …You do believe in fate, don’t you, Doctor Marsh?”
Patrick lifted his hands and dropped them back onto the polished surface of the desk. “Sometimes I think you are teasing me, Miss Portinari.”
“Well, are you?” Patrick pressed, trying not to smile. They had explored ideas like this several times never getting anywhere with it.
Emily imitated Patrick’s seriousness to the point where he had to look away or he would smile. “We like to think we hold our God-given destiny in the palms of our hands,” she said seriously and with some gravitas. “But it is not true, is it? It is what we do with our fate and how we behave in the face of our fate that matters.”
“That sounds familiar.”
“It should — your mother said it. It is in here.” She pointed to her journal. ”On page two.”
Emily laughed. “Do you have another mother tucked away somewhere? By the way, this is my life we’re sitting here discussing; this is all I have, so call me Emily.” She laughed again, throwing her head back, but then leaning forward keeping her laughter in check. “But please do not allow me to make impediment, Doctor Marsh! Please, do go on!” She pitched the chair forward placing her elbow on his desk and her chin in the heel of her hand. “Please do go on.”
Time folded; the sun shifted, and the moon fell in closer to the spinning Earth as Emily entered Starbucks and Patrick saw her for the first time. Blond hair pulled back and held in place with a flashing barrette that caught in the light of the shop and flashed; beautiful and delicate, sad, hesitant. She wore a dark blue coat with a matching rose-colored scarf. She turned toward him, and he knew her instantly; he understood her completely. It was the way she turned to glance out the window to find the sun then let the rays warm her face.
He motioned to Bekele. “Do you see that woman?”
Bekele twisted about. “She looks familiar….”
“She’s beautiful, beautiful! …I think I have seen her before somewhere, but I’m not sure where? Does she seem familiar to you?”
Patrick felt a powerful sense of connection but without true memory, without history. He felt he had seen her before, but the context, the circumstances, eluded him. It was there… He almost had it… The memory faded, in then out. Comprehension tenuously caught on a fold. It bloomed but then faded, and then disappeared entirely. It was a mystery and he again wondered how much of the world eluded him because of the fallibility to remember accurately. The mind fails us, he knew.
“She is beautiful,” Bekele confirmed as he settled back. “So, when you next see our mother…” he began beginning to smile for the first since the accident as he realized the increasing impact the unknown woman was having on his brother. He switched, his smile opening. “Why don’t you go over there and say hello?”
“You are the Romeo, not me.”
She sat in profile beneath the fogged window, nursing a mug of hot chocolate over-capped with marshmallows; she held the mug by her fingertips gently blowing on the chocolate, waiting for the hot liquid to cool.
“I know her from somewhere — I just can’t place when or what the occasion might have been,” Patrick repeated.
Bekele after having twisted around again said on his return, “She likes hot chocolate — something else you have in common.” He laughed quietly.
Sunlight, golden like summer although it was winter, poured around her, placing her in silhouette. She stood, flipped her scarf about her neck, tucked her gloves beneath her arm, and began to button her coat. She stepped toward the door and it opened as if on command. She stepped through, turned, and passed by the window, dropping her chin into the folds of her scarf. Patrick was tempted to jump up and follow but the better part of judgement stopped him, that and the presence of Bekele who never would have let him live it down.
He had instead sat back to take in the fullness and packed bustle of the shop and, seeing the way the people sat in their chairs leaning in to one another, talking; seeing the way their heads turned and their eyes lifted to smile; the way the waitress slid the cups onto her tray and spun about with it lifted over her head; the way the ceiling fan gyrated, casting its shadow; the way the tracks of water slipped and entwined over the glacial surfaces of the steamed windows, he felt that all of them, every man and woman in the coffee shop that day, that hour, that minute, had become swept up into something unknowable and yet important.
“See! You recognized me right away! That means we are bound together in some way. The hot-chocolate too — I think that’s interesting, don’t you? A common thread?”
“And I like the way you said I was beautiful; I don’t feel beautiful, you know. I don’t think I am.”
“Have you looked in the mirror lately?”
Emily smiled. “You told Alessandra about me.”
“So I did.”
Emily mused, raising her chin, keeping her smile. “Hmmm…. Keep going then.”
“Well, did you get her name?” Alessandra would later ask him, told all about her by Bekele a day or two later after Bekele was safely back in his desert home and Alessandra in her snow-bound home the only way out through the top floor window because there was so much snow.
“I found out later, two weeks later, almost; it was quite a coincidence, really. She is an out-patient in the hospital I’m interning in,” he finished. He could see Alessandra’s smile through the connection that separated them.
“Did you get her name, or not?”
He imagined Alessandra’s hand, long delicate carefully manicured fingers, flying to her heart. “Ah!”
“What’s that supposed to mean, ‘Ah?’” Patrick had asked, knowing exactly what Alessandra meant, but frustrated, embarrassed too.
“Well, Patrick…,” Alessandra had begun, but then hesitated as if uncertain she could explain. “Don’t you see?” she asked after a moment.
“I’m afraid not.”
“You could not hear it in your voice — anyone who can hear would even over this long-distance line?”
“Well…. Later, then,” she had said, and then quietly laughed, lightly, warmly, no doubt smiling at the mystery of what she could not, or would not, explain. “Such a beautiful name!” she had only whispered.
“See? She and I…. You’ve got no idea!” Emily exclaimed.
“Never mind! But, then again, I don’t believe in fate, do you?” Emily asked, looking up into the light, smiling an angel’s smile, her hair golden in the winter light from the window. If angels could exist, she would be one, Patrick thought, knowing he was being silly but know too he could not help himself. He was already lost.
“No, I don’t. …But I do know I’m being set up,” he said knowing fully that he was.
“On the other hand, you should know that all these lines have been written for only you and me,” she said not willing to be side-tracked, her smile shifting slightly, as her eyes followed him.
“That sounds outrageously far-fetched.”
“What’s more far-fetched,” Emily asked evenly, “that life is merely a collection of random events to which we react, or, alternatively, that we exist within a much greater universe most of which we know nothing about? You know…. Anyway, you should know by now; layers upon layers, Patrick.”
“Other than our ineluctable death, nothing is predetermined,” Patrick said, wondering where Emily might be going with this. “God, if, indeed, there is a God, does not write our lines for us. We are the product of circumstances and our free will. Other than that, nothing is guaranteed — there is nothing ordained. Pure chance guides our lives.”
Emily threw back her head and laughed. “Ha! I knew I could get you going!”
Patrick shook his head, again trying not to smile. He sat back continuing to study her, mesmerized by her.
“And you’re quite wrong too!” Emily added, her eyes smiling as they followed Patrick’s shifting expression, his face turning red. “How are our lives any different from the predetermined course of Earth about the sun, the decay of an atom?” she asked.
“We understand those things. We can mathematically model them to great precision.”
“Oh yeah, right!”
Emily laughed again, lightly, keeping her joke to herself; not laughing at Patrick but with him.