I mentioned a few posts back that I had entered a fiction writing contest through the online book club community, Belletrist. The contest was to elaborate and extend the ending of Jill Santopolo’s incredible novel The Light We Lost. As the title of this entry reveals, I didn’t end up winning the contest, but I’m fully okay with that. After reading the winner and the runner up’s entries, I was even more okay with it. They blew me away and deserved to be recognized for their incredible work.
Even though there was no page minimum or maximum, in hindsight I feel like my six page entry was just a skosh too long. I don’t often share my writing, because I haven’t quite figured out my voice yet, so entering a contest where I was able to try and imitate someone else’s voice was just the baby step I needed. That being said, I’m still very unsure about putting anything I’ve written out there, but also I need to maybe chill the f*ck out and not worry about whether or not other people like my stuff.
I just re-read my entry. I still like it just as much as I did when I submitted it, and at this point, that’s all that really matters to me.
So here it is. Just over 3,000 words of me having fun with writing for the first time in a long time:
There are moments when I let myself forget. I feel myself begin to drift off to that other world, and I decide to let go, just for a little while. In that other world, a world where you’re still here, you and I are planning our week over a coffee, wrapped in the comfort of a Sunday afternoon. Liam and Violet are playing in the park across from our house – we watch them from our front window. I was hesitant to let them go by themselves, but Violet insisted that at ten years old she was no longer a child and “could practically babysit Liam for free”. You laugh and say, “The kid’s got a point,” your eyes smiling at me, knowing I’d give in. While they go to grab their coats you wrap your arm around my waist, pulling me in to you.
“Relax. We can see them from the window, and if anything happens you know I’ll be out there in four seconds flat.”
“Really?” I counter. “Because I’d be out there in two.”
You scrunch up your nose and shake your head at me. I decide to let you have this one. Or you gave me no choice. It was so hard to tell with you sometimes – whether I gave in because I wanted to or because you’d convinced me.
A clambering from Caiden’s room drew me back to the present world, a world that no longer had you in it. He’d picked up this habit recently of climbing out of is bed when he wakes up from a nap instead of waiting for me to come get him. At first it made me nervous, but then I remembered you telling me that you used to do the same thing when you were little and it soon became one of my favorite habits of his.
I had been home with the kids all day, and I was desperate for a break. Ben would be home soon, he usually got home around five or six. He’d come in with dinner, or two arms full of groceries, or the $3.99 bouquet of flowers they have at Trader Joe’s – sometimes it was all three and I’d wonder how he does it. And if I do enough to make him feel the way he makes me. I never had to wonder with you, our love just seemed to travel back and forth between the two of us like an electric current. Sometimes yours was a little brighter; towards the end it felt like mine was always desperate to keep us shining, even when our light began to flicker.
After that day in the hospital with you, my world went darker than I ever knew it could. I mechanically went through the paperwork to have your body shipped home – I was so thankful you’d already arranged your own burial and that you didn’t want a traditional funeral. All you wanted was a small gathering of your close friends at your favorite spot in Central Park, that one spot in the Ramble where you and I climbed to the top of a hill and spent the whole day watching the people on the trails below. You said you loved how hardly anyone looked up so that even though we were in broad daylight it felt like we were secretly spying into everyone’s private little worlds.
I didn’t go, and I hope you understand. I wanted to, but it had only been a week and I didn’t think I could handle it. Sometimes I wish I would’ve gone, but I also like that our last memories together were just you and me. Those last few minutes with you, it was like you gave me all the light you’ve held for me over the years, the light of our love and the light you saw in me. And for the next nine months I worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep that light shining the way you would have wanted me to.
But then I met our son.
When I looked into his eyes for the first time, I felt you fill the room, Gabe. All the light that I worried would fizzle out was looking back at me, filling the space in my heart that had been dark for so long. Our son shines brighter than you or I ever could, and I will forever be grateful to you for giving me a part of you to continue loving fiercely every day.
After I came back from Tel Aviv, Darren was amazingly supportive. I really don’t think I would have made it without him. He took Liam and Violet to his parents’ house where they stayed for two weeks while I attempted to put my mind and heart back together again. He gave me space when I needed it and held me when I cried so hard that no sound came out. He and I both knew that we weren’t going to be able to stay together, not after this. Ever since your photo exhibit, Darren had been in some sort of silent competition with you that he now saw would be impossible to win even after you were gone.
Four months later our divorce was finalized and Darren had moved to an apartment in the city. Darren let me stay in the East Hampton house for a while, but it just didn’t feel right. So after a few months I moved me and the kids to a place in Brooklyn, into the kind of house I had always dreamed you and me would live in if we had a family of our own.
I wanted the kids’ lives to remain as normal as possible, so Darren and I agreed to joint custody. He got to see them Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other weekend, and we’d plan holidays at the beginning of the year. Liam loved having two bedrooms, and Violet eventually came around to the idea once she learned that she’d get to have two Christmases and two birthday parties. Most days I wish I could live in her ten-year-old world and forget what loss feels like.
It’s been three years since you left me. After Darren, I resolved to not worry about dating or finding anyone to share my life with. It felt pointless, I knew that I would never love anyone the way I loved you. It felt unfair to only love someone part way, and I wouldn’t do that to someone again. Not after seeing how much it had hurt Darren. But you know what they say, sometimes as soon as you stop looking for something, whatever you were looking for has a way of finding you.
One night, about a year ago, I was mindlessly watching a Nat Geo documentary when I felt my phone buzz. I assumed it was a work email and as much as I wanted to ignore it, I figured I’d better at least skim it to make sure it wasn’t an emergency. The show had given me an entire year off for maternity leave after Darren told them what had happened with you. I’d only recently begun to feel like I’d finally gotten back into the swing of things and was excited to have something else to focus on besides “being a mom”. The email was from someone named Ben Eliot and the subject line said, “All the things Gabe never told you”. My heart dropped to the soles of my feet. My breath was caught somewhere in between my lungs and my throat. Just seeing your name still stopped me in my tracks.
I opened the email.
I don’t know if it’s too soon for this, or if it’s not soon enough, but my name’s Ben and I think we should meet sometime soon if you’re free. I live in Brooklyn, but I can come meet you wherever you want. Gabe has been like a brother to me since I was ten. He was constantly telling me about you and asking me for advice and well, in short, I feel like I know you better than some of my own friends.
I know that probably sounds weird, and maybe a little creepy, and I’m sorry. Once Gabe started going overseas regularly, he told me to get in touch with you if anything ever happened to him, but he didn’t leave me any tips or suggestions of what to say. Classic Gabe.
Anyway, I have some of his things and I really think you should have them. Plus I have some photos that Gabe wanted me to give you. I’m so sorry it took me two years to reach out. Losing Gabe really fucked me up and I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay again, but Gabe said that talking with you would help. So this is me, asking you to please meet with me, if you’re up for it.
He always told me that you were his light, and I could really use a flicker of hope right now.
I left the email unanswered for three days. I didn’t know if it would help or make it worse, but if Ben had some of your photos and he was as close to you as he said he was, then maybe meeting with him would give me a little part of you back, if even for just an afternoon.
I brought Caiden with me to meet Ben at the coffee shop he suggested. As soon as he saw him, his jaw dropped. He said “Holy shit, it’s a carbon copy of Gabe when he was little”. He rifled through the shoebox of pictures sitting on the table and pulled out one of you about the same age as Caiden was now and I was stunned. You had the same wispy light brown hair, and your nose was scrunched up the same way that Caiden’s does when he yells “cheeeeeeeese!” anytime he sees a camera or phone pointed at him. I felt tears in my eyes and hugged Caiden even closer to my chest.
I didn’t know a heart could feel so full and so broken at the same time until I started looking through the rest of the pictures with Ben. There you were at fourteen with a dirt stash and a mop of hair covering your eyes, perched on the edge of a pool table in a friend’s basement completely oblivious to where life would take you. And there you were in Central Park with your worn-in jean jacket and faded baseball hat, just a few months before we would meet.
“If you’re Gabe’s best friend, why had he never mentioned you?” I didn’t doubt that Gabe and Ben were friends. He had the pictures to prove it, but I couldn’t figure out how or why Gabe would hide someone so important to him from me.
“It’s stupid so don’t judge us, okay?”
He glanced up at me, and I nodded for him to continue.
“We made this pact when we were fifteen that if we ever met “the one”, we wouldn’t tell her about the other one. It was a way of making sure our friendship stayed strong and free of any girl-related drama. We also did it to make sure that we could use each other as bait if we wanted to test a girl’s loyalty, and we wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t base any advice off of the person’s looks. So as much advice as I gave Gabe over the years about how to handle certain meetings or situations with you, I’ve never actually known what you looked like until right now. He wouldn’t even let me go see that photo exhibit he did because you were in it.”
“But he never used you as bait,” I said, trying to process it all.
“He told me he never felt like he needed to. He knew what you two had together was bigger than whatever dumb plan a couple of fifteen year olds had come up with.”
I ended up staying and talking with Ben for three hours that day, and when he suggested we meet again next week I gave him my number without a second thought. When I was with Ben, I felt like I could meet you over and over again with each new story or picture. I felt like I was getting to know you better than I ever had before, even though you weren’t here anymore. It was like I had been starved of you for years, and being with Ben felt like I was finally starting to remember what it was like to feel full again.
Over the next few months, Ben and I started meeting up more and more often. Sometimes we’d go to his place, other times he’d come to mine. In the beginning I only brought him around when the kids were at Darren’s, I didn’t want to bring anyone into their lives unless I was sure it would last. But then one day, Ben asked me a question that changed things between us.
“Were you with Gabe on September 11th?”
My stomach clenched, and I debated whether or not I wanted to share our memories with anyone else, even if it was your best friend. I decided that I’d start with just the basic information, and see where the conversation would go.
“Yeah, where were you?”
“I was on the west coast; I went to school at Cal State in Fullerton. But he called me that day, and started telling me about this incredible girl he had met. He said that even as the world felt like it was falling apart around him, you made him believe that things could be better. He said that on the darkest day of his life, you somehow sparked a light in him that he didn’t even know was there.”
“Are you sure he wasn’t talking about his girlfriend Stephanie?” I asked, unable to hide the bitterness in my voice all these years later. “He got back together with her that day.”
“Yeah I know,” Ben said, looking down and fiddling with the hem of his shirtsleeve. “He told me that too, he said he did it because he felt like he had to. He said she was broken and he felt like it was his job to fix her. But after they broke up, all he would talk about is how much he regretted choosing her over you that day. He would tell me about these dreams he’d have where he stayed with you that day, and the life you two could’ve had if he hadn’t screwed it all up.”
He had stopped talking, but he still hadn’t looked at me. It was like he wanted to say something else but didn’t know if he should.
“What is it?” I reached out to take his hand. He took a deep breath and raised his eyes to meet mine. “Lucy, I’m in love with you. I’ve seen you through Gabe’s eyes and over the past few months, I’ve seen you through my own. I know that we can never share the kind of love that you and Gabe had, and I don’t expect to. But what I do know is that you deserve to be loved, and you deserve to be happy, and I want to be the man that gives you what you deserve.”
He took another deep breath, but he didn’t look away. I was frozen, there were a million thoughts bouncing around in my mind, but I couldn’t say a single thing.
“It’s okay if you don’t feel the same way about me right now. I understand if you need more time. But I think we can help each other, in fact I think we’re the only ones that can help each other through this. I’ve never had to live in a world without Gabe, and I need someone to help me figure out how to do that. I think you’re that someone.”
He was right. I was still trying to figure out how to exist in a place where you weren’t a phone call or an email away. The only time anything felt like it made sense was when I was with Ben. Even when we weren’t talking about you, when I was with him it felt like the rest of the world slowed down enough for me to catch my breath and keep moving forward.
So here we are, Gabe. After a few more months of dating, Ben moved in with me and the kids, in the house where I always pictured you and me raising our family. Thanks to you, he knows how important my work is to me and we worked out a system where he works from home on the days when I need to go into the office, and vice versa when he has to go in. The kids were a little shy with him at first, but it didn’t take long for Violet to drag him up to her room to show off her book collection while Liam went to get his Batman costume so Ben could be the Joker.
Watching him with Caiden is incredible, Gabe. He’s even started showing him how to use a camera just in case he wants to capture the light in the world just like his dad did. Ben could never replace you, and he doesn’t try to. For him, I’m his connection to the you that he didn’t get to see as much as he would have liked. I’m his bridge to the Gabe that took the dreams that he’d talked about with Ben as a kid and made them a reality. For me, Ben is my window to all the versions of you I never got to know. He’s gonna be able to tell Caiden stories of his dad that I would never had the chance to if I never met Ben.
So thank you, Gabe. Thank you for giving me Caiden, and thank you for allowing Ben to be a secret moon orbiting our binary star for all these years. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish you were here, but I know now that the light we lost will never go out. It will continue to shine through our incredible son, and it will illuminate the new love I’ve found with Ben. Even in my darkest days, you are my flicker of hope.
HUGE kudos to you if you read this whole thing, I really do appreciate it.