A bitter taste of reconciliation
Rowan was dressed in black and gray but then again, she had never been one for colorful clothes. She stood with her hands folded in her lap and seemed impermeable to the whispers around her, most of which were probably about her and too loud for her not to hear them.
Ginny couldn't believe she was here. It had been fifteen years since they had last seen each other, but if there was one place she would have never thought they would meet, it was at her mother's funeral.
"What are you doing here?" Ginny asked when she came to present her condolences at the end of the service. "You have no right! My mother might have wanted you to come but I certainly don't, and I'm the one who's alive and deciding!"
"Your mother was someone important to me," was Rowan's only response.
She still had that air of unnatural calmness, the kind that made her face look a little empty.
"Of course she was," Ginny sneered. "All those times she invited the new girl to stay over, and told me to share my bedroom with her. She even asked me to help you make friends, you know. She's the one who suggested that I should present you to Dylan. Believe me, I remember very well the things my mom did and made me do for you!"
She also remembered the bruises on Rowan's ribs when they changed into their pajamas. The broken bones and the twisted ankles and all those silences when Ginny asked where does it come from, Row? What happened to you? And all those ushered confidences. It's only one year, Ginny. It's six months, Ginny. In six months I'll be eighteen. In six months I'll be free.
But for all she could remember, she couldn't bring herself to forget her anger.
Rowan looked at her and frowned.
"You're still hung up on that?" she asked slowly.
"Of course I am!" Ginny exploded. "You took him! I thought we were friends, and then he was breaking up with me for you! Do you know exactly how much I loved him? I felt like I was dying, watching you every day, so cosy, so fucking lovey-dovey!"
"Your language hasn't improved," Rowan observed.
Ginny took a deep breath. She was being unfair, she knew it, attacking her like this. And she was blowing things out of proportion, too. They had never flaunted their relationship in front of her, no matter how great it was, if only because Rowan had never been one to like PDA very much.
"You know, it still hurts. I still feel like I have my heart being pulled out of my chest and repeatedly crushed every time someone says his name."
"Yeah, I feel like that, too." Rowan whispered. "My heart, and any other part of my body, for that matter."
Ginny gave out an incredulous laugh.
"Like you have any right to hurt."
"Why wouldn't I?"
"You have him. Not everybody can say that."
Rowan turned a stony gaze to her. No matter the time that had passed, she was still this amazing beauty who had the town at her feet twenty years ago. While Ginny already had some grey striking her hair, none could be spotted in the crow black of Rowan's. Her face still held the same frosty perfection, this ice queen vibe that had always been her most distinct quality.
"Nobody can say that." she replied.
Her voice was a little graver than back then – gone was the light soprano tone, now it was a soft contralto.
"What do you mean?" Ginny said, forcing a little laugh. "You stole him from me, of course you have him."
Rowan met her eyes evenly. She had never been one to smile much, but it was evident she never did it anymore.
"He's dead, Gin."
The old nickname sounded strange – not awful or awkward or anything like that, but just… out of place. She had been called like that in college – Rowan had been the first to call her that. But college was long gone, now.
"W-what?" she stammered.
"Dylan is dead," Rowan repeated. "Why do you think he's not here?"
"I thought… I thought that maybe he was thinking it was not a good idea. You know… With how… how things ended… between us. Oh my god… Dead…"
She probed blindly with her hand and found the wall of the chapel. She held it for support.
"How… When? I mean, why did no one tell me?"
Now she could understand the reason behind Rowan's state. The thinness, the frail look, the never-smiling eyes.
"It was six years ago." Rowan said slowly. "That makes it… about eight years after you left? Something like that."
It was painful to listen to her, just like it had been painful to watch her love for Dylan. Rowan always seemed to feel more acutely than anyone – Gin had always believed it was the reason why she was so inexpressive: she bottled it up, she didn't allow herself to feel too much, or else she would have been submerged. But Ginny had known her so well… She could feel what Rowan hid; she could see every tiny glance, every little gesture, every fucking thing!
"We had gone to Darfur. Humanitarian mission. They're short on everything, over there, with the civil war and everything."
Her black eyes were glazed over and Ginny still knew her too much not to feel the pain.
"Darfur is no longer in a civil war, Row."
"Ah. Maybe. It was when we went," Rowan said. "Dylan wanted to help. He wanted to help so much. So we went and we helped."
Dylan had always wanted to help. Too much, perhaps. He had wanted to help Ginny when her relationship with her father wasn't so great. He had wanted to help Rowan when he had discovered about the bruises. He had wanted to help people when he had decided to study medicine. He had wanted to help the poor and feeble when he had gone on his first humanitarian mission.
"That sounds like something Dylan would want to do, yeah," Ginny said.
And what Dylan wanted to do, no one opposed. That was why the three of them had gone to university together; that was why they had all studied pre-med together. If nothing had changed, that would have been the reason they would have attended the same med school, but by the time MCATs came around, Ginny and Dylan were no more and Rowan and Dylan were way too much. Even if Ginny knew perfectly that she couldn't have stayed – wouldn't have been able to handle it – she regretted this now. Because it had been fifteen years since she last saw Dylan, and she still considered him the love of her life. And she would never see him again.
"Well, civil war and Dylan didn't do well together in the same place at the same moment," Rowan said. "Of course, there were people randomly firing on other people on basis that the name of their Gods aren't the same, and of course Dylan thought it was unfair and barbaric, and of course he had to try to stop the fight. And of course, of course, they fired at him."
Without even knowing how, Ginny had suddenly grabbed Rowan and she hugged her fiercely, and Rowan, calm and poised and sick with loss, Rowan was sobbing her sorrows out.
So Ginny took it upon herself to lead her former best friend out of the church. It was horrible, walking out on her mother's funeral and leaving her father to deal with all those people, but it would have been horrible too, had she let Rowan's crumpling been witnessed by those same people. She had refused to cry, just because she didn't want everyone and their mothers seeing her tears, all those hypocrites who had talked behind Felicia's back when she had been alive, and who faked tears now that she wasn't anymore. She hadn't wanted them to see her cry, and she generally had no problems with displaying her feelings, so for someone like Rowan, who hated nothing more than pity or compassion, it was best not to leave her in the middle of those rapacious gossipers.
Gin guided Rowan across the street, then down it, and she kept talking about everything and anything, about their past, about their time in college, everything so that Row would calm down. She was never gladder that her house was so near the church, because she wouldn't have been able to keep that on for very long.
And then, finally, they were sitting in Ginny's old kitchen, where nothing had changed, from the yellow cupboards to the stripped red and white apron pined on the wall besides the oven. They had shared so many breakfasts here, during their senior year. It felt like they were seventeen again and meeting for the first time, because Rowan had just moved three houses down and her father wanted her to go and salute their new neighbors. All that was missing was Felicia's humming and the permanent, overpowering odor of flowers that had seemed to haunt the house.
Rowan was sitting before her untouched cup of tea, staring at it blindly.
"I was there, you know," she said suddenly. "I saw the bullets, and I saw his body jerk when they went through him. They shot him five times. One of the bullets only grazed his side, two went in his right leg, one in his shoulder and the last one went right though his liver. He was dead before I even reached him. I knew it."
They were both doctors; they both knew what it meant to take a bullet in the liver. Nobody could survive this, not without a surgical OR and a system of disinfection much better than anything that could be found in an African country.
"I knew it, and I still tried to get him to wake up for an hour. They shot me, too, but only in the leg. Doctors are important over there; they couldn't afford to kill two of them."
After staying that, Rowan didn't utter another word. She drank her tea slowly, and listened as Ginny rambled on and on about how life had gone after she had left town.
"I went to England after med school. It was great. I worked as an oncologist in a London hospital for three years. I visited everything I could in the meantime, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, you name it! I even went to Paris for a week and visited the Tour Eiffel, the cathedrale Notre-Dame. And the galeries Lafayette, but you know me, I can't be in a city without going into a store. Then I decided to come back, and I moved to New York. It's great, you know, so full of movement and color. It's a lively city. You get the impression that you're always wasting time when you sleep there, because there are so many things to do in the evenings, that city never sleeps! There are bars and nightclubs, and Broadway shows, and concerts, and even expositions! There's always something to do in New York. You can't be bored unless you want to be!"
Rowan smiled a little at that.
"And then, five years ago, I met this man. He's older than us. He's forty-five, actually, and he's a writer. He's very forgetful. He had a tumor on his pancreas, and the only reason we discovered it before it developed in a full-blown metastatic cancer is because he couldn't remember the answers to half the questions we asked, so we thought it might be prudent to make him an MRI. Turned out he had zero problems in the mental department, he just pay next to no attention to his surroundings. Can you believe it?"
Rowan shook her head.
"And I guess you're living with him right now?" she said.
"Uh, yes," Gin answered, avoiding Rowan's eyes and the pain in them.
Rowan's phone rang and relief washed through Ginny, because suddenly she was thinking about how she had attacked Row back at the church. Being angry at her former best friend on the simple basis that she had gone out with Dylan, while Dylan was dead, Rowan was half-broken, and Gin herself was leading an happy, easy life with a man that, even if she didn't love him as much as she had loved Dylan, was alive and loved her.
"Hello sweetie," she heard Rowan said. "No, don't worry, I won't be any longer. No. Be nice with her, I'll be there in a few minutes, ok? I love you."
She hung up and turned to face Ginny.
"I'm sorry, Gin, but I have to go. I left Jamie with the baby-sitter, and he doesn't like it very much when I do that. I'll see you later, perhaps?"
There was no mistaking the hope in Rowan's eyes, and Ginny had no choice but to nod wordlessly.
"I'll be staying there for some time, until everything is… sorted out," she managed to articulate.
Rowan smiled – it looked forced, like it had always had – but, just as she was about to exit, Ginny managed to formulate her surprise into a constructed sentence.
"You have a son?" she sputtered.
Frowning in puzzlement, Rowan nodded.
"How old is he?"
"He'll turn seven in a few weeks."
"You were pregnant when Dylan died?" Ginny finally managed to get out.
"Did you never talked about us at all with your mother?" she asked.
Ginny shook her head. That had been the subject she had been the most adamant about avoiding. After the first three years of her hanging up each time her mother so much as mentioned their names, Felicia had stopped trying to keep her updated.
"I discovered it when we were in Darfur. You should have seen him, acting like a foolish puppy," Row said with sad eyes. "You know, I think that's why I kept going on after the funeral. Sometimes I think he saved me, probably twice. The first time, it was when he told me he loved me."
Yeah. He had destroyed Ginny that day. She had never seen it coming. The three of them had been so tight that any change of the dynamics had been hard to spot. At one point, Dylan had loved Ginny like a woman and Rowan like a sister, and then at another, his protectiveness for Rowan had turned the whole relationships and Ginny had become the sister he knew since her fifth birthday. Even now, she was unable to say which day it had happened.
But perhaps it was better that she had been the one dealing with this kind of pain. Her mother had told her once that Rowan was much more fragile than her, and since the girl's outward appearance didn't show that, people had a tendency to take much more care of Gin's feelings when, in fact, it was Rowan's that needed to be handled carefully.
"And the second, it was when I discovered I was pregnant with his child."
Ginny had left seven months after Rowan and Dylan had started going out. She had known that they would make it; that their history wouldn't end in a near future, that there would be a marriage, a house, and three kids in the back of an SUV. That was why she had run away.
But she had never envisaged Dylan dying. In fact, the idea of Rowan without Dylan was so ridiculous that she had assumed that, if something ever happened that would make them go separate ways, Rowan would automatically disappear. She hadn't thought Row would have killed herself, no, nothing like that. It was a hard feeling to explain. It might have looked like an idealized conception of love, some romantic exaggeration, but with Rowan fragile mental state, it was more than probable that she would have just wasted away without Dylan's sun.
"I have to go, Gin," Rowan said quietly.
Ginny nodded and waited until Rowan had disappeared from her windows to let herself crumple to the floor. Then she wept.
It was so horrible, so horrible that Dylan had died without her knowing, and that Rowan had had no one but Felicia and her pregnancy to help her overcome the blow. Gin had wondered, right after Rowan had told her Dylan had passed away, where her former best friend had found the will to live. Of course it would have taken nothing less than a baby.
Oh, the shame that she had not been there! There was no more Dylan, and there was a little boy called Jamie who probably had his mother's hair and eyes but had his father's face, and she hadn't been there to see him grow and to help Rowan.
She stayed like this for two hours, tears rolling down her face as if someone had forgotten to turn the water off.
Finally, she shook herself, got up and smoothed the wrinkles on her blouse. No use in regretting the past, her mother had always told her. Get yourself upright and face the future, that's the only thing you've got an influence on.
Tomorrow she would go visit Rowan and Jamie, she decided.
09/11/29: I was going through my old files this afternoon and I found a first draft of this thing. Actually, it was just the scene from "You're still hung up on that?" up to the moment where Rowan calculates how long it has been since Dylan died, but I liked the feel of it. So I decided to work around that piece and see if I could make something out of it and ta-da! here it is.