I WAKE UP ALONE. But the lingering heat of the four people who slept in the other bunks still haunts the hostel room; the ripe scent of last night’s rum, sweat, and morning breath hangs in the air. The side of my face is sticking to the bright new tattoo on the inside of my left bicep. Seeing it, I think of Matt.
The bunk creaks as I roll onto my back, and the heaviness inside me awakes and shifts and settles down into the back of my throat, the deepest part of my heart, the hot dark space between my stomach and my intestines. My bedroom smelled like this for the seven mornings — eight months ago now — that Matt, Stephanie, and I awoke sardined in my sagging double bed. I was living in Utila, Honduras, and my two close friends needed to escape the Canadian winter for a week.
Now, in a hostel in Fiji, the smell is the same, but the feeling’s different — I am alone, and lonely, and missing him. I get up and head to the lounge, then perch at the high table by the window with a coffee and my laptop. A shriek and a splash startle me. I glance outside and see a boy in a Speedo the same unreal cerulean blue as the pool’s lining. I see his mother, wrapped in a mass-produced masi-print sarong. I see Matt.
I bury my stare in the black of my coffee and swallow a searing mouthful. It scalds my tongue and fights its way past whatever’s constricting my throat, then hits my stomach and turns to a hot heavy rock, more jagged than the weight I awoke to. The boy’s older brother has the same profile as Matt. The same shock of dark hair tumbles over his brows. The same angular, impish face contrasts the same fleshy bottom lip. He’s got the same wiry frame, but none of Matt’s tattoos.
Matt and Steph and I had planned on getting matching ones after I got back from Honduras. Instead, Steph and I got tattooed two hours after Matt’s funeral, eight weeks ago. It’s healed now. I am not. I am far from home, and far from the two crutches — a supportive lover and a hard drug — that helped me stand when Matt’s sudden suicide hit me harder than I ever thought death could.
He seemed okay in Honduras — the same wild-hearted sweetheart I met seven years ago, playful and reckless and mostly unburdened. We discovered the precise volume of Argentinian chardonnay we had to drink to keep the bottle afloat between us as we goofed around in the ocean, then split the rest and passed out, face-up, in an inch of water, while the tide came in around us and the sun scorched our skin.
I remember the look on his face as we watched a spotted eagle ray feeding in the tepid shallows beside the dock while we, too, ate our dinner. Matt had wished to see a ray before he left; someone must have been listening. Satisfied, he slid the rest of his fresh lobster towards the stray kitten courting his plate.
I slide my empty coffee cup aside and study the tattoo. Steph and I chose to get a message in a chardonnay bottle, a love letter unsent — red and blue like blood, gold as the rising sun on the morning he held me a little longer than normal and said goodbye. He said he wanted to stay and, sometimes, I can’t help but feel like I should’ve asked him to.
- “Excuse me, there is wifi here?” the older brother asks in lilting French.
- I smile and say yes; he smiles and says thanks.
- “You’re welcome,” I say, but I what I really mean is, “Thank you.”
Thank you for letting me see your face again, Matt. I often see him smiling through strangers’ faces, though I still feel like I’m committing some transgression when I smile back. Now, the sun sets into the South Pacific, not the Caribbean, and I watch a French boy, not an eagle ray, eat his dinner. I am as equally spellbound by the boy as Matt was by the ray — I wished to see Matt again; someone must be listening to me, too.
I roam the beach as the day and the sea retreat, and fragments of things that were once hidden under high tide — broken shells and shards of chardonnay bottles and a sharp little splinter of grief — quietly expose themselves as dusk shrouds the shoreline. Here, capsized in the surf, lies a ray with a hole torn through its underside. It must have just died, as its body still hasn’t been eaten, and it pulses back and forth in the gentle surge, stuck between two realms, dead and not gone. Not yet.