As Gary heads the funeral of an old girlfriend, he recalls how two lovers turned to strangers.
Written by Gregory Patrick Travers
When I received the call that Veronica had died in a car crash, I was stunned. I didn’t believe it. I guess a part of me still doesn’t. How could I? No matter how things ended between us, she was, and always had been, a part of me. I didn’t understand how all of a sudden she could just be…gone.
Even though it had been over ten years since we broke up and over five since we stopped speaking altogether, I still thought about Veronica every day in some capacity. Her face would pop into my head when I would hear a Blink 182 song on the radio, or when I would see a girl on the street in the same faded red chucks she used to wear. Veronica loved those shoes.
It’s funny, for the life of me I can’t visualize her in a cocktail dress and heels, though I do remember how the sight of it could turn me into a bumbling pile of mush. Mostly I remember her laughing as we lied together in bed. In my mind’s eye, I can see her pearl white teeth and strands of black hair falling messily over her face. I remember her head looking up to me from where it rested on my chest and, without a single word, reassuring me that we were both exactly where we were supposed to be in life. That’s the Veronica I remembered; the comfort of her twinkling emerald stare, the warmth of her skin pressed against mine. They were the happiest times of my life.
For a long time after we separated I would try to force those memories out of my head the second they appeared. I suppose I was resentful, jealous even, that she had found happiness with someone other than me. I felt like I had been thrown to the wayside while she had catapulted into a picture perfect adulthood; getting married and buying a house with her new lover, while I was still trudging through a sewer of piss and shit like that guy from Shawshank Redemption. It was a constant reminder that someone else was living the life I had planned for us…I resorted to the idea that, in the end, I just wasn’t enough of a man for her. Just being in love wasn’t enough for her.
Even the town around me seemed to change the course of its winds so that a black cloud remained firmly planted above my head. And so I started to resent the town too. I hated the bench in the park where me and Veronica used to make-out, I hated the Tim Horton’s parking lot where she would sit under the lamplight on the trunk of her car, her legs tightly wrapped around my waist and her arms crossed around my neck.
I especially hated the corner bar where we used to sit for hours and waste away the night on cheap pints and shots of gin. It was a reminder that I still worked in a restaurant with a bunch of kids, while her husband worked for the city and took home at least three times my annual income. I hated it all: every shop, every passerby, everything. So I packed up my things and I left.
But despite the way things turned out, I was grateful that Veronica’s Aunt Joyce had considered me enough to let me know about the funeral. Unlike Veronica’s mom, I had gotten along with Aunt Joyce fairly well. While Veronica’s mother was of the idea that I was not good enough for her daughter, an idea that I eventually submitted to as well, Aunt Joyce saw me not for my earning capabilities but for the genuine love I had for her niece. I supposed that under her wrinkles and bi-focal glasses she was somewhat of a romantic herself.
Being of Italian descent, family gatherings at Veronica’s were always packed, loud, and rarely translated into English, which could be intimidating for the caker boyfriend. But Aunt Joyce always made sure to make me feel included. I can remember showing her the golden heart-shaped locket I was planning to give Veronica for our one-year anniversary. She held it gently in her palm and smiled, saying, “It’s beautiful, Gary. She’s going to love it.”
As I left my apartment and began the two-hour drive back to Windsville, I wondered what had happened to that heart-shaped locket. It made sense that after we had broken up she might have kept it in some shoebox full of memories, buried deep somewhere in the depths of her closet. But after I made the decision to cut our ties and withdrew myself from any of our shared social groups, I was certain that the locket would have found a new home at the bottom of a lake, or behind the glass at some seedy pawn shop on the end of town. I couldn’t see a reason why Veronica would want to hold on to my memory at all; I couldn’t live up to my responsibilities as a boyfriend and after it was over I was far too selfish and hurt to be anything of a friend to her. In fact, when we finally did stop communicating, I was sure her life had become much simpler and stress-free without me in it.
If there was any good that came from all of it, it was that after a few years of drowning in a bottle and swallowing my sorrows, I decided to pull myself together. I decided to get up and make a man out of myself. I quit the restaurant industry and became an electrician’s apprentice. I saved up while I completed my apprentice hours and then went to school to get my certification. It was a hard few years. Many nights I came home exhausted, depressed from the day-long verbal lashings and dreading the next 4 am alarm. There were many times I just wanted to give up and quit. But I didn’t. What kept me going was the vision of the man I could become. The kind of man who could be a protector and provider for the woman he loves. The kind of man I should have been for Veronica all along…
In the back of my head, I would imagine showing up at her door one day, out of the blue, and showing her how much I had grown up, how much I had changed. As I drove down the freeway towards Windsville, it occurred to me that I would never get that chance.
A lump formed in my throat and my eyes stung with the salt of building tears. Veronica was gone. I’d never have the chance to tell her that I was sorry I bailed, that it wasn’t her I was running from but me. I didn’t hate her, I hated myself. I wiped my eyes as I started to drift into the exit lane. Suddenly, a loud horn honked behind me and I immediately pulled back into my lane. A white box van sped passed me on the right, the driver yelling profanities from behind his window. In my despair, I had forgotten to check my blind spot. That van would have crushed me. Get a grip, I told myself. You almost just died.
The sun beat down on the rows of tombstones in the cemetery, glaring off the brass bars of Veronica’s coffin, surrounded by a variety of extravagant bouquets and arrangements. At least thirty people came to say their goodbyes to Veronica, but most of them I didn’t recognize, nor did they recognize me. That didn’t surprise me though. I was just a forgotten ghost from her old life. All those strangers who were balling into their crinkled tissues probably knew Veronica a lot better than I did. They probably had a long index of stories and memories with her that I had been absolutely no part of. I started to wonder why I had even come at all.
I caught Jeremy, the man she married, glancing at me from across the coffin, trying to put a name to my face. That’s when it became clear to me just how forgotten I had become. Years ago, Jeremy could spot me in a crowd in a second, and cringe at the sound of my name. I was public enemy number one; the ex who still remained a good friend. It had been years since I posed a threat to his happiness. Now he didn’t even know who I was.
After the service, as people took the pathway back towards the parking lot, I stopped by an old oak tree and lit up a smoke. I watched as Veronica’s mother passed. She didn’t recognize me, or at least that is how it appeared. Aunt Joyce walked behind her. She did recognize me and stepped off the path to meet me by the oak tree.
“It’s nice to see you again, Joyce,” I said, blowing my cigarette smoke away from her, up into the blue sky.
“How have you been?” she asked.
Just then, Veronica’s husband, Jeremy, stopped beside Aunt Joyce and put his hand on her shoulder. “Aunt Joyce, it is good to see you again.”
“How are you, dear?” she asked. “Holding up okay?”
He gave a solemn nod. Then he looked up to me, exchanging another small nod of recognition. I was sure he still had no clue about my identity. His attention turned back to Aunt Joyce. “I thought you should know,” he began. “When the ambulance found Veronica at the accident, she was clutching on to that gold, heart-shaped locket you gave her for her graduation present. She carried it with her wherever she went. I’m pretty sure that’s what Veronica said it was. A graduation present, am I right?”
“Oh yes, the graduation present, I remember,” said Aunt Joyce, putting a comforting hand on his arm. “Isn’t that touching…”
The golden locket. It wasn’t at the bottom of a lake. My heart broke, though my expression remained flat and aloof. As Aunt Joyce’s eyes drifted over to mine, it became clear to the both of us…Veronica hadn’t forgotten me.