“How are you?” she asked. As if I hadn’t already been in a hundred different ways that day.
That morning I had meditated easily, which seemed like a great generosity from some unknown place and I was grateful. Then I slid back into bed and imagined the familiar heaviness of a man pressing upon me. I let my hands wander and my breath become heavy until a wide smile stretched across my face and I had to let out a satisfied sound. There was a still and pure joy after that which I hoped might last all day but a few moments later I recalled my mother and how yesterday she had to have her dog put down. I imagined her waking up without him for the first time in so many years. I sent her a text message and curled into a ball. Laying on my side two tears rolled down my left cheek and I remembered how Jack would wrap both his arms and legs around me when I was in this shape, as if to consume me. With his chin resting on my head he would take a deep breath before exclaiming quietly “You’re just so beautiful!”.
It had been five weeks since he left and three and a half weeks since he told me he was not coming back. The grief of never again hearing those words from him began once more to seep into my system like dye through my veins. I dragged my now heavy self to the shower and while the water heated I scrolled through my recent playlists knowing that, although in this moment it seemed impossible, there was inevitably a song in there that would begin to bring liveliness back to my form. I had decided three days ago that I was beyond the appropriate time period for wallowing in all-day blues and a slightly firmer ‘chin up’ approach was now required. Despite the fact, I thought, that I would never impose or even recommend such a rigid stoicism in the case of any other person who was in a fragile state.
I emerged from the shower feeling neutral and, realising I was probably late to class, began a swift and regimented leaving-the-house routine that allowed no time for feeling anything at all. I arrived right on time at the studio and the familiarity of being on my mat was a pacifying comfort. Like a charming TV actress arriving on set and slipping effortlessly into a role she’d been playing for years, as if she was just stepping into her own life. Which I suppose in a way was exactly the case, on both accounts.
Still seated on my mat after class I kept my eyes closed and half-listened to the greetings and farewells and packing up of the other students. I realised then that I had no idea how I would spend my day, which to some people would be a delicious freedom but to me felt dangerous. It was my day off and the weather was begging the whole city to lay at the beach. Being a Monday, for the most part everyone was bound to their desks or homes or wherever it was that they spent their days. But I wasn’t. Plus, in the evening my dad would bring dinner over and my brother would come with my niece and we would play board games and drink the same wine we always drank and make the same jokes we always made and no one would mention that Jack wasn’t there or ask any questions that could imply that his absence has crossed their minds. It would be nice.
So the day was mine. And for all these reasons and many more I knew I should have felt happy and some parts of me did. I was not void of the cerebral awareness that this day and this life are brilliant and ripe with possibility. Yet there was no visceral sensation to match. Instead there was a dullness. A dullness that I longed to be free from. I contemplated this divide as I walked home, until the chain of thought was broken by the sight of Elena up ahead, walking towards me. Elena used to be the neighbour of my best friend Kate. Although she’s about 25 years my senior and we only bump into each other by chance a few times a year because we live in the same neighbourhood, we share an almost sisterly connection that was formed during a series of late-night conversations in the dimly lit living room at Kate’s house parties. She was a sort of mysterious woman, honest with a vibrant energy. It seemed as if she had never quite fully lived out the life she had wanted to, but she had radically accepted that fact and therefore her whole existence was wrapped up in a bow like she’d chosen it.
When we were appropriately near to one another I removed my headphones and smiled which is when she asked “Anna! How are you?” I wondered which version of ‘how I was’ was arranging itself on my face as I took a long breath and searched for an answer in the space to the left of her. The hesitation in my pause came not from a fear of being vulnerable or oversharing, but from an acute awareness that whatever I told her would become the truth. The truth of how I am, in her eyes at least, and perhaps more crucially, my own.
Elena cocked her head and her suspended smile tilted. I could tell of course that she wanted me to be well, maybe even more than well. Like everybody did. So I told her that I’d been feeling stretched since my book launch and that it was wonderful to have a day without plans. All of it true on some level. It struck me that if we were walking in the same direction we would synchronise our steps without realising and eventually talk our way into what felt like a more whole understanding of how we really were. But because we were walking in opposite directions this simply could not happen. This seemed like a grand metaphor I’d stumbled upon that would need further unpacking at a later time.
Because of this, I didn’t ask how she was. I didn’t want to plunge her into that unanswerable place. Instead I asked “where are you walking to?” which felt much more manageable and somehow like-ably pragmatic. She filled me in on her plans for the day including a visit to a new exhibition at a local gallery in the afternoon which she invited me to join her for. She said she wasn’t going to go because she was worried her ex-sister-in-law would be there and she wasn’t in the mood for that, but that she would go if I went with her. I liked the sound of the exhibition and I told her I’d think about it and let her know. The exchange left me with a buzz that almost rang in my ears. Maybe it was the possibility of an outing that sounded truly interesting, but it seemed more probable it was the complexities that shone from her invitation which made me feel better about my own.
The sun was beating down on us and we embraced loosely in the heat as we said goodbye. Elena began to walk away. I didn’t know if I would go to the exhibition or not and I felt suddenly that my lack of conventional reciprocity had left our exchange hanging in an imbalanced fashion. I turned around and called to her “Elena, I didn’t ask how you are!”. She turned back laughing “That’s alright, I’m much better for having seen you.”
I could tell she really meant it and I felt the same way. It seemed we had glimpsed ourselves through each other’s eyes for a moment and somehow remembered who we wanted to be that day. As I walked the remainder of the way home I found myself synchronising with my own steps and discovering that gratifying momentum that, regardless of one’s direction, can only be achieved through the steady placement of one foot in front of the other without thinking too much about it. I lifted my chin to receive the full sun and thought how incomplete it was to believe that only coddling was kindness. Though I still wouldn’t tell anyone else that, I knew I would often have to remind myself.