This month, in the span of four days, there will be his 33rd birthday, Valentine’s Day, and the six month marker of his death. I can feel the particular weight of these events, one after another, already.
Last year, for his 32nd birthday, we went out for dinner to a restaurant that he and I both wanted to try. We had a list, between us, of places we wanted to eat. When I’d asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday, he had specifically told me that all he wanted was to spend an evening with me eating good food and drinking good wine.
“No party?” I said. “Just me?”
“Yeah baber,” he said. “Just us.”
We had both been working a lot and he said he wanted to just take a night and unwind. I felt a deep sense of contentment that he would choose me, always, but especially for his birthday. I told him I thought that was such a nice idea, and I gave him a long, tight hug which turned him into a big smile, his eyes bright and gleaming.
The night we went out for dinner was cold, albeit not as cold as it is now (where I am writing it is currently hovering around -30 degrees Celsius). We walked downtown, towards the restaurant, and were just another couple amid some kind of winter festival that we hadn’t known about. Artists were carving massive ice sculptures along the pedestrian only street. The gleaming, frozen structures were uplit by green and blue and pink lights. We tried to guess, as we walked briskly in our long, wool coats that looked stylish but weren’t warm, what each ice shape was.
“A Koi fish?”
When we finally ducked into the restaurant, I was, once again, talking about how I couldn’t wait to move to Vancouver and never again experience the kind of cold that physically abrades your face when you go out into it.
We were given a table tucked right beside a domed window that looked out onto the street. White lights were wrapped around the trees’ trunks and ice frosted the windowpane in a perfect vignette. It was a month before COVID-19 would shutter the city, indeed, the world, really, and six months before he would die. We had no idea what was coming for us.
We talked about being glad to be inside, in the warmth. We ordered glasses of white wine. I swept my hair back off my face. It was filled with static and flying everywhere. He insisted on taking a photograph. He always took so many photos of me — most of them I knew about, but some I didn’t.
I was looking through his phone recently and I found photograph after photograph of me asleep, or reading, or looking at menus. Just randomly snapped pictures. I wanted to ask him why he took these ones of me—turned over, napping—what moved him to remember that particular moment?
“Just because,” he might have said, if I could have asked him, though, of course, I can’t say for sure.
We ordered a starter, to share, and mains, though I can’t recall what they were. I do remember that we were disappointed in the food. It wasn’t as inventive as we had hoped, or as tasty. We mentally crossed it off our list, shrugged, and said, “you can’t win them all.”
We talked about the move to Vancouver, that, at the time, we thought would be upcoming in the summer of 2020. We imagined the kind of apartment we would rent—open concept, view of the water. Beyond that, he talked about the house he wanted to design and build for us — we had been creating and re-creating that house together since the earliest months of our relationship. At one point there were skylights, just for the sake of skylights, but then these were reconsidered and redesigned as my beloved got more and more into energy-efficient building design. Both of us agreed that we didn’t want a large home. We looked at inspiration photos of townhouses and brownstone walk-ups. I wondered if I shouldn't get a new writing desk to replace the thirty-dollar desk from IKEA that I had gotten second-hand, and he said we should get a new sectional couch for our apartment in Vancouver. We debated fabric or leather.
When we were finished dinner, we slid back into our jackets, and I looped my left arm around his right elbow, wrapped my right hand over my body and held onto his right arm. We quick-stepped past the crowds of people.
The dinner had been for his birthday, but as his birthday was only 3 days before Valentine’s Day, we had decided dessert would be for Valentine’s.
For this, we elected to go to a small, narrow champagne bar. I think it was named after a woman. The space itself was roughly the length of a shipping container and as narrow, if not more so. We shuffled, sideways, past people standing at the bar until we found a small table, tucked at the back by the ATM machine and the sole bathroom. Sparkling wine was ordered. A dessert. There might have been white chocolate.
Another Valentine’s Day, this one early in our relationship, I wore a bright red mini dress with thin straps. I’d found it in a small, boutique store in British Columbia and saved it specifically for that night. It was not particularly comfortable. I changed into sweatpants and T-shirt when we got back home after dinner. Still, I know the dress is hanging somewhere in my closet. I can be like that—sentimental about clothes and moments. I still have dresses I bought for specific, future occasions with my beloved that will likely never be worn.
Other Valentine’s we stayed home and watched movies, ate takeaway. There was the very first Valentine’s Day, too, where he designed a scavenger hunt through the house that ended in a giant, glow-stick heart laid out on the bed. At the centre of the heart was a card—one of the early cards that he wrote me.
On another one of his birthdays, we went to a restaurant that was in an old house—a heritage house, over a hundred years old. We each selected the tasting menu and the meal was so good we talked about it for months afterwards. The floorboards creaked and in the dessert course the restaurant put a candle in his and we blew it out together.
I have been lucky enough to celebrate my beloved’s 27th, 28th, 29th, 30th, 31st, and 32nd birthdays with him. He loved celebrating birthdays in a way that I never fully understood but relished.
He told me, repeatedly, about the time one of his best friends threw him a surprise birthday party in university.
“I went weak at the knees,” he would say. “That’s how surprised I was.”
He would demonstrate how he fell to the floor, knees buckling, a wide, delighted grin on his face.
For the few years before he turned 30, he would fret about turning 30. We had several running jokes that spanned the length of our relationship, but one of the originals was the fact that I would celebrate his 30th birthday every year before he turned 30. On his 27th, 28th, and 29th birthdays, somewhere in the celebrations I would mention that it was his 30th birthday. I might write it in the card, or tell the bartender, or the server. Sometimes, I would even get the restaurant to put the number 30 on the dessert in piped, white icing. Every time I did it, he would protest, loudly and dramatically.
“No!” he would say. “I’m not 30! Not yet! I’m still young!”
After he actually turned 30, he called himself an “old man,” in a cheeky, comically low voice and I shook my head at him.
“Not even close,” I said.
Sometimes, though, when he would ask me what a “DM” was, or what songs Beyoncé was famous for, or what “on fleek,” meant and if “the cool kids,” were still saying it, I would take it back.
“You are old,” I would say. “You’re an 85-year-old man.”
He would do one of his goofy, bouncy dance moves. The one that was all elbows and knees and jazz hands.
“I’m a cool man!” he would say. “On fleek!”
“Don’t say ‘on fleek,’” I would respond, but I was already losing the battle with my straight face.
I would feel the grin coming up from my chest, tugging at my cheeks and my mouth and my eyes.
For his birthday, I always tried to buy a gift for him that I thought he would like, and usually, a surprise gift too. I spent ages picking out hopefully perfect items, choosing the words I wanted to write into the card.
He never remembered any of the gifts he got, from me, or from anyone. I would ask him a few months after, sometimes, what I, or others, had gotten him for his birthday and he would purse his lips, and scrunch his cheeks up to his eyes, and look upward at the ceiling in a caricature of thinking.
“You don’t remember do you?” I would say, and he would grin.
“I remember that I loved them all,” he would respond. The thing is, I knew that he was telling the truth. That was always what he remembered. The joy. The delight. The love inherent in the gifts given to him.
Happiness came to him so easily.
He let it right in, fully flung open his arms the second he saw it coming and called for it to come, come on over! He was so unafraid to want for it. He caught happiness like a tidal wave, rode it fully and gleefully, rarely, if ever, doubting that the wave would carry him someplace he wanted to go.
I had thought the gifts I gave him would wear to threads before he gave them up. I had thought he would turn 33 in Vancouver, us in our new apartment, him in his new job. I thought we would order sushi from some bougie place and eat it on the beach. I had the birthday card already. I planned for there to be candles, which he would blow out with his usual silly, puffed up cheeks. For Valentine’s Day, I thought we would order vegan pizza from Virtuous Pie and get lightly drunk on cocktails. He would have asked for the pizza to be heart-shaped. I thought he would take photos of me, and I would take photos of him, and then he’d let me use his phone (because it had a better camera) and I would extend my arm and take a selfie of us both.
I thought for both occasions there would be sun and the sea and him telling me about what had happened at his work that week. I thought I would get to tell him, again, how wildly, vastly, ridiculously proud I was of him, how much I loved him, how lucky we were to have landed on each other’s teams.
Instead, this year, he will be 33, but he will remain and always be 32.
For that, for grasping that, for that being real, for the impossibility and weight and heartbreak of that, I honestly don’t have the words. I just keep shaking my head.
I don’t know.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
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