I never asked to slip on a piece of gum then fall in love with a man who would die before the ink was dry on our marriage certificate.
But that’s what fate had in store for me. It broke me. I vowed I’d never fall in love again.
Five years later, fate had one more thing planned. It wanted to play around in my life again. Its tool? Another blasted stick of gum. Same place, only this time, it was Jude Baker, a university lecturer, who slipped on the gum.
Despite being a pacifist, Jude wasn’t particularly happy about having gum stuck to his shoe and made his distaste abundantly clear.
But that stick of gum was the catalyst to a series of events where our paths would continue to cross. There would be a broken nose, a fractured hand, a cat on a lead and a crashed corporate Christmas party that would align our hearts and make me realise that I wanted to be happy again.
But there would also be tears. Many, many tears. Because falling in love was never easy, especially when you were still in love with another man.
Today is the day I made Sarah Kennedy smile. Well, a few things happened before that – first, I broke her ankle. It was an accident, and I feel like shit for it, so I swear to never eat a stick of gum again. But, that break led to one of the best afternoons I’ve had in a long time.
There’s just something about her, something that’s always made me wish I knew her, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be the reason she smiles. I never cared about what any other kids thought about her. I just knew there was something going on behind those big brown eyes of hers that was far more interesting than your average person. As far as I was concerned, Sarah Kennedy was special, and she showed it every day when she turned up at school with her shoulders back and her head held high. No one could break her. I’ve always admired that.
Turning the scowl of hers into a smile has been on my list for ages. I’ve always wondered why, when I find it so easy to befriend most people, I couldn’t even approach her without breaking out into a sweat. But then, that piece of gum intervened and forced me to man up and talk to her. I should probably thank it.
I suppose I should explain the whole broken ankle and gum thing, right? Well, I was hanging out with the guys on our way to one of the last Uni classes we were ever going to have, and I was a jerk and spat it out on the pavement. It wasn’t long after that, that I heard a shriek and turned around to see a shoeless Sarah, sitting in the middle of what looked like a snow storm, but was really just her papers fluttering on the ground around her. Even lying in a mess on the ground, she looked beautiful.
In the back of my mind, I knew I probably should have let someone else help her and continued to stay out of her life. But, it was my fault she fell, and well, I don’t want to have any regrets in this life. I couldn’t let what might be my last opportunity to talk to her pass me by. So I knelt in front of her and the moment our eyes met, I felt this jolt in my chest.
I called her ‘sweetheart’ and her eyes flashed with annoyance and something else—denial perhaps? Longing? I don’t know what was going through her head in that moment. But I knew what was going through mine. I knew without a doubt that everything was about to change….
Excerpt from Tyler’s Journal
Thursday, 20th October 2016
LIFE WAS FILLED with numbers. It was ruled by them. Not just in finance, but everywhere. Numbers were the only real constant in this world—two followed one, three followed two, and so on. It didn’t matter what language you spoke, or at what stage of life you were in; the numbers were all the same.
One, two, three, four…
We used them to make lists, to tell time, to measure distance. Even our days were numbered.
Counting, counting. Always counting…until finally, we stopped. A heart stopped beating. Synapses stopped firing. And it was over. No more counting for you.
The rest of us, however, continued our never-ending count, measuring our moments, knowing how fleeting they really were.
They said life was a gift.
They said grief was the evidence of love.
Neither could be quantified by a number, and yet we counted anyway—the days we’d lived without, the days we’d lost our hearts—whether they added up to something or not.
I took a deep breath, filling my lungs. The air smelled of spring and the soft prickle of freshly mown grass brushed against my thighs uncomfortably. Nothing added up the way it did when Tyler was alive. I was here and he wasn’t. The numbers just didn’t make sense. How could everything keep going when one half of a whole was no longer there?
Releasing the breath, I looked up to the clear blue sky, squinting under the veil of the sun peeking over the roofs of the buildings surrounding me.
This was the place, a footpath in a Sydney University campus. -33.882346, 151.049078, the coordinates on the bracelet he gave me, numbers that marked our beginning.
Six years ago today was the moment. The moment. The moment that changed everything. And it was all because of a stick of gum.
With a sigh, I slid my hand inside my purse, pulling out a piece of spearmint gum that I unwrapped with careful precision. I slid it past my lips, the taste of it touching my tongue. Closing my eyes, I held it there, taking a breath as the sadness that seemed to never leave washed over me, weighing down my heart, burning my eyes, throbbing in my chest. Then I forced myself to chew, that sweet minty flavour flooding my mouth, conjuring images of a carefree boy with golden hair and the day he became a fixture in my life.
His name was a sigh in my heart.
I’d lived without him for almost five years. Five years without his perfect smile. Five years without looking into his beautiful ice-blue eyes. Five years without holding his perfect hands. Five.
One; the moments that passed each morning before I realised he was gone and the grief began again. Every day. One beat. One moment.
Opening my eyes, I fixed my gaze on the footpath in front of me, on the dark stain in the grey that forever marked the spot where I fell and broke my ankle. My fall was caused by a stick of gum spat out by the man I would fall hopelessly in love in with then lose some fifteen months later when the ravages of a horrendous disease took over his body and he asked me to help him die.
Zero; the moments after when I wasn’t wracked with guilt over what I did.
The sound of his voice, begging me to let him go, filled my head, reminding me that I helped him leave with dignity; I helped him have one final choice. Not that it made it any easier. We were dealt a shitty hand no matter how you looked at it.
Sitting on the grass beside a footpath chewing gum with my eyes closed, I forced myself to focus on the sound of his voice, hearing him call me ‘sweetheart’. At first I had fiercely objected to the pet name, but it quickly became my identity as I lost myself to him completely. I was Tyler’s ‘sweetheart’. The only sweetheart he ever had or wanted. The pet name meant I was special.
“God, I miss you,” I whispered under my breath just before I balled the gum in my mouth and spat it on the footpath in honour of the catalyst that brought Tyler and me together; something I would never regret.
A British accent cut my reverie short as a tall man with a slim build dropped onto the grass near me, a string of green gum stuck to his shoe.
“I can’t believe you spat gum at my feet. What the hell is wrong with you?” He took off his shoe and scraped it along the grass, the gum rolling and forming a grassy clump on the sole.
I covered my mouth, not knowing if I should laugh at the absurdity of it, or apologise profusely for spitting gum at his feet. Seriously, what were the odds of someone stepping on gum at the exact place and time, six years to the day of Tyler doing the same thing to me?
“At least you didn’t break your ankle,” I responded, my mind racing.
He scowled at me. “Is that what you were trying to do?”
For a fleeting moment, I allowed myself to believe in magic. Was this fate? Had Tyler somehow found a way back to me? Upon studying the man—his dark hair, his soft brown eyes wrinkled at the corners, his pale skin and glasses—I chided myself for being so naïve. The idea of Tyler’s consciousness leaping into the body of another man was the stuff of fantasy, especially when that man looked and sounded more like a nerdy version of Robert Pattinson and less like the Hemsworth brother Tyler had closely resembled. I imagined this guy was your stereotypical academic who found his excitement in the pursuit of knowledge and the written word. Everything the thrill-seeking Tyler would never have been. There was literally no comparison between the two men.
“I wasn’t trying…” I started to explain myself but thought better of it, standing to leave instead. “Listen, I’m sorry about your shoe. I simply didn’t see you coming—no malice intended.”
Reaching out, he found a stick in the grass and tried to force the offending goo to shift with a modicum of success. “This is just fucking brilliant.” He threw the stick and most of the gum over his shoulder then shoved his shoe back on his foot, standing up to dust himself off. “A perfect addition to an already fantastic day,” he muttered further as he scuffed his foot back and forth over the grass to remove the tackiness. “What could possibly possess you to do such a thing?”
I took a step backward, preparing to leave. “Listen, I said I’m sorry. I’m not sure what else you want me to do.”
“How about use a bin instead of spitting on the footpath like some animal?” His tone was shifting from annoyed to angry.
I lifted my hands in defence. “I’m leaving. Have a nice day.” Then I spun on my heels and headed toward the parking lot.
“Is this something you do all the time? Spit gum at people’s feet then just watch while they try to clean up your mess? Is it entertainment for you?” The voice was coming from behind me.
“Mate, I told you I was sorry. Get off my back.” I quickened my pace, seeing the Navara up ahead.
“Did your mother not teach you any manners at all?”
Stopping, I turned to face him, my hands out at my sides. “What the hell do you want from me? New shoes? I’ll get you new shoes.”
“How about some common courtesy and consideration for your fellow man? Or is that too much to ask these days?”
“I said I was sorry,” I repeated, my voice stern.
“Well, that doesn’t help me. You can’t do shitty things then expect to say sorry and have it all go away. Life isn’t like that.”
With a shake of my head, I turned away. “You need to calm the fuck down.”
“And you need to learn how to be a decent human being.”
Reaching the ute, I turned on him. “Stop following me,” I growled between my teeth.
“Don’t give yourself so much credit.” He walked straight past me and beeped open the next car along, a grey Honda Civic. Even his car didn’t have any personality.
For a moment I felt foolish. Then I just felt relieved and slid into the driver’s side of the black Navara with a sigh. “Looks like I should quit eating gum too,” I said, touching the GPS coordinate bracelet at my wrist as I remembered how angry I’d been when I’d tripped on Tyler’s gum. I guess I couldn’t really blame Mr Honda Civic for being so pissed. I’d lost my shit too.
When I reversed out of my space and saw him removing his shoes before getting in his car, I let out a laugh. This was all so absurd. But in a way, I loved it. It made me feel closer to the man I’d lost.
The smile didn’t leave my face until I pulled into the underground garage at home.
A flash of grey metallic paint passed through my rear vision as I parked the ute in its allocated space. “What the?” I grabbed the mirror and adjusted it, trying to catch a better glimpse.
Did that guy follow me home?
With my heart thumping against my chest, I got out and closed the door as quietly as I could. Standing still for a moment, I heard an engine cut followed by the creak of a door then footsteps. Shit.
Moving quickly, I headed through the automatic doors of the elevator bay. For a moment, I considered taking the stairs to our first-floor apartment, but every time something like that happened in a movie, the stairs were where the victim met their doom.
With my ears twitching, I tapped against the call button repeatedly, regretting my decision to take the lift with every second that passed and every footstep that drew nearer. My breathing picked up, my heart beat loudly in my ears as I saw the blurry reflection of his form in the metal doors. This guy was crazy!
My mind started racing. This was it. I was going to die, leaving my four-year-old son an orphan—all because of a stick of gum. I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t leave him alone. He needed me.
I was small, but I could fight.
Balling my fist at my side, I steeled my breath and prepared to circumvent the inevitable attack.
The automatic doors hissed open.
I spun to confront him, saw the annoyed recognition in his eyes.
My fist flew through the air, my meagre weight behind it, the words “Not today, Satan!” tearing out of my throat.
It connected with his nose.
I heard a crack, then a groan and he stumbled backward.
Like the gods answering my prayer, the elevator pinged then opened its doors. Pain radiated through my hand as I jumped on board, hitting the button that would take me to my floor, to safety. As the doors began to close, I chanced a look back. It was only then that I took in the scene fully.
He was on the concrete floor, his legs bent, his shoulders slouched, as he leant forward clutching his nose. There was blood. So much blood. On ground beside him, his glasses, keys, a briefcase and an archive box split open, papers spilling out. He didn’t look like a crazy man trying to get revenge for the gum on his shoe. He looked like a man who had a logical reason to be somewhere. He looked like a man sitting in the middle of the worst day of his life.
Guilt coiled from my belly and found its way into my throat. What had I done?
I hit the button to open the doors again. “Are…are you…um…OK?”
He glared at me, his eyes dark beneath his brows. “I think you broke my nose,” he said, his voice muffled under his hands.
Digging in my bag, I took out a pack of tissues, pulling the wad of them free from the plastic before holding them out to him.
“I’m sorry. I thought you were going to attack me.” I extended my arm like I would if I were offering food to a frightened animal.
He watched me like one, snatching the tissues with the caution of someone who didn’t know if they could trust the help on offer. “Attack you? With what? The papers I have to grade? My briefcase?”
“It’s just that you were so angry at the university. Then you followed me here.”
“I didn’t follow you. I live here.” He looked at me as though I was insane.
My stomach fell and I gulped. “You live here?”
He shifted to his knees, making an attempt to stuff his papers back in their box one-handed while grumbling about the ridiculousness of it all.
“Let me help you.” I knelt beside him, my face burning with embarrassment as I collected his things. I’d really messed up.
“Leave it,” he snapped, snatching what looked like a printed essay from my hands. “You’ve really done enough.”
I sat back, my mouth moving, searching for the words to convey how sorry I was for the gum and for hitting him. This whole situation was making me so grateful to Tyler for the way he’d handled my anger on the day his gum attacked me.
Tears burned my eyes. I missed him so much. Today was supposed to be about celebrating our beginning, instead it had turned into a complete mess and now I was probably going to be sued.
“You’re crying? Seriously? You are crying?”
Turning my face away, I wiped at my eyes, scowling as I shook my head.
“I’m just stressed.”
“Aren’t we all?” he muttered, slapping the lid back on his box. Then he stood up, hefting his archive box loaded with paper and his briefcase against his waist. For a single moment it seemed that he’d successfully gathered everything he needed while keeping the tissues wadded against his bleeding nose. Then the base of the box fell out.
I laughed. The sound burst from my mouth and echoed throughout the parking structure as his papers slid across the floor and the only things he held on to was his briefcase and the lid of the box.
He let out a sigh and I clapped my hand over my mouth to avoid angering him further. He shook his head. “No. You’re right to laugh. This day…it’s a comedic writer’s wet dream.”
The laughter bubbled out of my chest, nerves and stress turning into this crazy-sounding laughter. He chuckled along with me, this time letting me help with his things.
When we got into the lift, silence fell over us. I was carrying his box and he had his briefcase and the tissue wad against his nose. Without warning, my eyes started leaking. Silent hot tears streamed down my cheeks without my permission.
“I’m not going to sue, if that’s what you’re stressed about,” he said softly.
“I’m not. I mean, I am. But that’s not what I’m crying about. It’s just…it’s been a day.”
His soft brown eyes met mine, and I saw a spark of understanding.
The chime sounded to indicate my floor and I shifted the weight of the box in my arms. “This is me,” I told him, wondering what I was supposed to do with his papers and how he was supposed to take them from me. I stood in the space between the doors and looked toward the hall that led to my apartment then back at him. “Listen, I’ve got a first-aid kit inside and some tape to fix your box. Do you want to come in so I can at least stop the bleeding?”
His eyes moved between the box in my arms and me. We both knew that the only real options here involved me going with him to his apartment or him coming with me to mine.
“Will you cry again if I refuse?”
With a half smile, I lifted one shoulder. “Maybe.”
With a sigh he stepped off the elevator. “Lead the way.”
Once in my kitchen, I slid his box onto the granite bench top and told him to stay put. Then I headed for the bathroom to get my first-aid kid. The kit was extensive. With a four-year-old son who was bull at a gate even when quiet, I needed to be prepared for all emergencies.
I carried the red plastic toolbox-sized kit into the kitchen and placed it on the bench beside the man.
“Break a lot of noses, do you?” he asked, eyeing the large kit.
Pressing my lips together, I ignored the quip and opened the lid, pulling out some saline and gauze, along with a pair of disposable gloves.
“You can put the tissues in the bin over there,” I told him, indicating the stainless-steel push-pedal garbage bin in the corner of the room.
When he returned, he leaned back against the bench, a trickle of bright red streaking from his nostrils. Cleaning him up as best as I could, I checked his nose for any sign of a break.
“I didn’t catch your name,” I said, gently pressing on either side of his nasal bones.
I smiled. “Like the song.”
He made an unpleasant sound. “Exactly like the song.” I wasn’t sure if he disliked the fact or if he was objecting to me pressing against his nose.
“I’d say nice to meet you, but our circumstances haven’t—”
“I get it.” Stepping back, I held up my hand, interrupting him. I was emotional over the events of the day. I’d already cried twice and knew that hearing him verbalise it further would only push out another bout of tears.
I turned away and busied myself rolling gauze to pack his nose. “It doesn’t seem broken. Or, if it is it’s only a fracture—the bones are where they should be. If the bleeding doesn’t stop you should probably go see a doctor.” Using a set of tweezers, I inserted the small cotton tube into his nostrils to stem the bleeding.
My hand was aching. And as I cleaned up and removed the gloves, I inspected my knuckles. They were red and swollen.
“You should probably ice that. Punching is rarely as easy as it looks in the movies.”
Moving to the freezer, I opened the door and took out two of the small icepacks I kept in there for Ty. They’re small and round and have Disney characters on them. I held out the one with a picture of Nemo to Jude and kept Dory for myself.
“Cute,” he said, lifting it to the bridge of his nose.
“They’re for my son.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I never told you I had a kid.”
“It’s kind of hard to miss.” He pointed a finger around the living space and added, “The toys.”
“Oh.” That guilty feeling rolled about again. I kept judging this guy and getting it wrong.
“Listen, thanks for…repairing the damage, I guess,” he said, indicating his cotton-stuffed nose. “But I should really get going.” He went to lift his box.
“Wait. The tape,” I blurted, spinning on my heel and rushing to the laundry where I dug through the junk drawer to find a roll of packing tape. When I returned to the kitchen, however, he was gone.
“Oh,” I said to no one, twisting the tape in my hands. I looked around the large empty apartment. The expanse of the open living area pressed in around me, dancing with memories of a time I couldn’t touch anymore, reminding me that I was left here…alone, the past more distant with every tick of the clock. I felt a stutter in my chest, my emotion catching in my throat.
Glancing out the floor-to-ceiling windows, I focused on the lights of the city around me, peeking through the lush green garden built to look like it had been plucked from the centre of an undisturbed rainforest. It was supposed to be a serenity garden. I remembered Tyler sitting out there when he wasn’t well enough to leave the apartment, complaining that he never felt serene because the sound of the traffic was too loud once you ventured past the double-glazing. He renamed it his disruption garden instead.
On days like these, when my emotions were raw and missing him was a state of being instead of a sensation I could live with, the quiet only served to remind me that I wouldn’t find serenity here either. Without Tyler, I was incomplete. I was lonely.
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I moved my thumb against the edge of tape wishing I hadn’t agreed to Ty’s sleepover at my mother-in-law’s house that night. It was meant to give me a chance for some quiet time, to be selfish in my grief, because this time of year was always hard for me. This time however, I didn’t want to be selfish. I didn’t want the quiet; not this type of quiet, anyway.
There was quiet you longed for—the few moments of peace you get when your day is done and child is tucked in bed asleep—and then there was the kind of quiet you feared.
Standing in a big empty space absent of adult conversation and childhood laughter, nothing to fill it but your best and worst memories taunting you until your stomach aches with regret for actions you can no longer change—that’s the quiet you fear. That’s the quiet I’ve lived with since Tyler passed away. Everything here reminded me of him. And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to look away.
Placing the tape on the bench, I walked over to the sliding door, pushing it open so wide that the sound of the street burst through suddenly. It was a welcome intrusion on my ears, reminding me that despite my grieving, the world was still turning. I was still here.
I breathed in deeply, sliding my hand into my pocket and pulling out my phone. The number I wanted was the first in my recent call list.
“Susan?” I said the moment it connected.
“What’s wrong? Has something happened? Are you OK?” Her questions came rapidly, a slight strain in her delivery.
I shook my head even though she couldn’t see. “I just…” I took a deep breath, calming myself. Having Jude leave so suddenly made me realise that I didn’t want to be alone. What I wanted was to feel the presence of life. What I wanted was to hold my little boy tight in my arms and breathe in his sweet smell. “Do you think I could spend the night too? I don’t want to be alone tonight, after all.”