What does it mean to grow older?
Samantha asked herself that question as she awoke on her 39th birthday.
She crawled from the double bed and stretched. In her nightgown, she stood before the full-length mirror next to the window. Morning light streamed in, cascading over the contours of her body. She glowed in white and yellow, looking, she thought, pretty good for someone who was almost forty.
What was a year, really? Yes, sure, it was a physical measurement, one rotation of the Earth all the way around the Sun. But was 39 really any different from 38? And this giant forty hanging over Samantha’s head, did it have the significance that was assigned to it by, well, everyone?
She didn’t mind getting older; if anything she felt wiser and more sure of who she was. Her 20-year-old self had made such stupid decisions, in retrospect. So, why did so many people dread it? Sure, it means you’re closer to death, but age alone is not really much of a determiner of when you die.
She knew that as well as anyone; better than some. She pushed the thought from her mind, as she did many times each day.
Samantha turned to one side and then the other, twisting her hips and shoulders forward and back. She studied her body, trying to note any differences from last year and the year before that. She had repeated this routine, on her birthday, since she had turned 35. Before that life, youth and health had seemed eternal.
She thought she was in pretty good shape, and not just for someone her age. People dwelled on going downhill each year. They expected things to stop working, to sag here, balloon out there. Middle-age spread. She hated phrases like that.
No, she looked damn good, felt damn good too. But she had worked hard to get there.
Her gaze travelled left from the mirror, settling on a nail set into the wall. Suspended from it were a handful of medals. Each was small and wouldn’t have meant much to anyone else.
But for Samantha they summed up weeks, sometimes months, of preparation and perseverance. She slid one into her palm. Memories flooded back, of intense early morning training runs with Herman, her now-departed golden Lab. Another — the long flight across the Pacific and the hottest race she had ever run. And one more — her first marathon. She had almost given up, her legs feeling they were going to buckle. But Leo had talked her on, and they had crossed the finish line hand-in-hand.
Each one was a talisman, bringing back the memories bound up with the event. Memories could never be simulated or replaced. The medals were only pieces of burnished metal, to be sure. But underneath that…
They were places.
They were time.
No one was ever truly gone if they were remembered.
Samantha replaced the race medals on the nail and stepped back. She took one final glance in the mirror and noticed a single tear running down her cheek. She hadn’t felt it, lost in the beautiful bliss of the past, where all is still whole. She wiped it away.
After a shower, she stood before the Ikea wardrobe with its shelves and hangers. Most of them were empty. She didn’t own much, couldn’t own much. Not when she periodically packed her life into the backpack that lay on the floor nearby. Everything that she owned was significant.
Out of habit she reached for her running shorts, caught herself and then picked out several other items.
She threw on underwear, socks, a bra, jeans and a t-shirt, finishing with a hoodie. The clothes felt good: cosy, well-worn, lived-in.
Habitually she deposited her phone into the pocket of her pants. She checked the time as she did so — there were still a few minutes — and then placed her keys and wallet in the other pocket.
Outside the sounds of the morning were rising, another spring day was beginning. A renovation crew worked on an apartment somewhere in her building. Car horns occasionally blared on the streets on all sides. And muffled conversations rose from sidewalks, punctuated from time-to-time with laughter.
Through her front window she could see the street two floors below. She watched as clumps of people, and some solo, made their way to offices and stores. The few cafes she could see were bustling; patrons fuelled-up on espresso and pastries. Even after almost three months, she couldn’t bring herself to eat that particular meal for breakfast.
Though she couldn’t see him, she could hear the fruit vendor around the corner calling out “Forza! Forza!” to passersby. She pictured the box of his truck piled high with blood oranges, apples and strawberries. She loved the vitality, the pulse and pace of life in Syracuse, or Siracusa in Italian. It wasn’t a large city, but it had everything one needed. She knew Leo would have loved it.
As she tied up her hair the phone on the wall next to the door buzzed. She ran to it as she finished securing her long hair in a ponytail.
“Come on up,” she said as she hit the pound key, unlocking the front door to the building for her visitor.
“Sam,” came the stern female voice over the phone, “I could be anyone. You shouldn’t just let anyone in.”
“Non capisco inglese.”
“I knew you were coming Kellie, and you’re nothing if not prompt.” She pushed the pound key again. “Now come up!” She held in the key a few moments more until she could be pretty sure Kellie was inside.
Samantha filled the electric kettle and had switched it on by the time there was a knock on her door.
Before the door had closed behind her Kellie said, “Happy Birthday! Almost at the big four-oh!”
“Thanks, sis,” Sam said. “Umm, did you lose something?”
Kellie checked to make sure her purse was still there and then she realized what Sam meant. “Oh, Bill and the kids will meet up with us later. Bill wanted to take them to the archaeological park, the Greek amphitheatre.”
“Cool. That place is awesome. Well, tea’s on.”
“Aren’t we heading out?” Kellie asked.
Sam sat at the table and beckoned with her hand for Kellie to take the other chair. “After. It’s only early. You eat yet?”
“Yeah, I overdosed on Nutella at the hotel.”
“After the first month I had to stop. I don’t know if I’ll ever want it again.”
“That much, hey?”
“The stuff is like crack. At first anyway.”
The kettle bubbled and clicked off. Sam rose and made her way to the kitchen counter. “What do you want to drink? Tea? I’ve only got green — uh, sencha — and rooibos. There may be some coffee.”
“Green tea is fine.”
“Green it is.”
Sam filled a large French press with loose sencha leaves and boiling water and placed two mismatched mugs next it. She put two slices of whole wheat bread into the toaster.
“Mom and Dad miss you,” Kellie said.
Samantha faced the counter, her back to her sister. She felt heavy, her head sank and her shoulders slumped. “Kellie…”
“Why don’t you come home, at least for a visit?”
“I will. Just not yet.”
“It’s been four years.”
“They could come visit me too.”
“You know Mom is not getting on a plane.”
“Is that my fault?”
Silence filled the room.
The toast popping broke it a few moments later, like the bell in a boxing match. Round one was over.
Sam picked up the French press and mugs and deposited them in the centre of the table. “Let’s just have our tea, okay? We can talk more about… that… after.”
“Sure, I… I’ve missed you,” Kellie said as she reached out a hand and placed it on top of one of Samantha’s.
Sam smiled. “Me too.”
They reminisced over the tea while Sam munched her toast.
Aside from meeting Kellie and her family at the airport, Sam hadn’t seen them for two years. And that had been a short visit in Toronto between flights.
Her niece and nephew had grown so much. They had sprouted, like delightful, energetic, happy weeds. Their smiles and wonder were contagious, as was their blissful ignorance.
When Kellie had been removing her luggage from the carousel another passenger had bumped into her and exclaimed “Mi scusi!”
Sam had responded to the polite gentleman with “prego,” as was the custom. Excuse me. Of course, no problem. Jeremy, the younger of the two children, had asked, “Are we having spaghetti?”
They reminded her why she loved travelling and living in places she hadn’t known existed when she was their age. Doing it alone wasn’t what she had planned but she was getting used to it.
When the mugs were empty they headed out into the city. Samantha grabbed a small shoulder bag from a table near the door on her way out.
In the hustle and bustle of the mid-morning, Sam led them down the streets. They weaved in and around clumps of pedestrians and crossed busy intersections.
They approached a bridge which spanned a narrow inlet of water. To their right, beyond yet another bridge, that inlet opened to the sea. On either side of the bridge small boats were docked. In some the owners prepped their fishing nets, bailed out water or touched up paint. The smell of oil paint, fish and salt water came to them on the slight sea breeze.
“Where are we going?” Kellie asked
“Into Ortigia, the old city. It’s an island where the original Greek city of Syracuse was.”
They crossed the bridge among a steady stream of people. Most were going in their direction, to see the sites of Ortigia. A few went against the flow, locals on their way to work.
Between the two bridges there was a concrete island, a mooring and access point for boats. It also had benches and a lone bronze statue holding a mirror.
“Who’s the dude?” Kellie asked, pointing to the statue.
“Hmmm? Oh, that’s Archimedes. You know, the apocryphal bathtub and ‘eureka’.”
“Oh,” Kellie said and Sam wondered if her sister actually knew who he was.
“They featured him on Myth Busters once, when they tried to see if the tale of one of his inventions was possible. They tried to burn a boat using only parabolic mirrors and sunlight.”
“Ah, yes, I do remember that.”
They stepped off the bridge and into Ortigia. Samantha led them straight, across several streets. They passed kiosks selling oranges, lemons and juice and cafes where clouds of cigarette smoke hung in the air.
Soon they were among a handful of stalls, carts with canvas awnings propped up with poles. Underneath them were trinkets and souvenirs. There were t-shirts, purses and some assorted second-hand junk — books, VHS tapes and miscellaneous toys.
“Is this the market?” Kellie asked.
“Sort of, I guess. But not really — these guys are here all day. The market is only open until around two.”
They turned a corner.
“This,” Sam said, “is the market.”
A long street opened before them. It was narrow and crooked here and there. On both sides buildings rose, boxing it in so it was almost an alley. Along each side were stalls which offered almost every assortment of fruit, vegetable and seafood. Sam and Kellie’s eyes, accustomed to the brown and grey of brick and stone, were assaulted with saturated reds and greens. Everything was so bright and vibrant. The aroma of strawberries and spices mixed with the odour of fresh fish, creating something altogether new. Smiling vendors, some with cigarettes hanging from the lower lip of their open mouths, called to potential customers. To tourists, usually with huge cameras around their necks, they might call in tentative English. Some sang among the clamour, trying to stand out, trying to be heard over the rest.
Samantha thought it was one thing above all others. It was chaos. Beautiful chaos.
“Wow,” Kellie said.
Sam smiled. She knew the reaction, remembered her first time too. “Come on, I need to go see my fruit guy.”
“Your fruit guy?”
“I always go to him, he’s great.”
A little way through the tumult, on the right, they stopped at a table. It was filled with blood oranges, yellow and red apples, bananas and several other varieties of fruit. The vendor was an older man, his hair white and his smile infectious.
“Buongiorno!” Sam called to him.
“’Giorno!” he responded, spreading his hands in a gesture that said what would you like?
“Si,” said the vendor as he placed them in a large, sturdy paper bag.
“Arance rosse… dieci.”
Sam realized as she said it that her pronunciation of ten in Italian was still off. The vendor continued to smile, encouraging her in her attempt. He held up two hands, all ten fingers extended. “Dieci?” he asked with, of course, perfect pronunciation.
Sam nodded. “Si.”
“Si.” He counted the oranges as he palmed each one and placed it in another paper bag. “Uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, otto, nove e dieci.”
Finally, Sam requested some apples. The vendor weighed the three paper bags and placed them in a large plastic bag. This he handed to Samantha. He indicated the total in Italian but also handed Sam a printed receipt which listed the amount. She produced the exact change from her wallet and handed it to the man.
“Grazie,” she said.
“Prego!” he responded.
They continued down the street, buffeted by other shoppers and tourists staring wide-eyed at everything. Some pointed to anything different from their usual experience at home. Particularly, half a swordfish sitting on a wet, plastic covered table.
The noise, the smells, the life. The street pulsed and thrummed with its own heart, intoxicating and energizing.
Sam and Kellie reached the end of the street where it opened into a parking lot. The stalls stopped here, leaving only a few vendors selling from the backs of trucks. Two men sat behind crates upon which were little cups. They scooped out the insides of sea urchins and plopped the contents into the cups. Every now and then they would pop a piece of the flesh into their mouths and continue their work.
The two women turned and made their way back through the length of the market until the chaos was at their backs.
The Temple of Apollo was before them, what remained of it. Behind a green metal fence, and a couple of meters below was a grassy area that had been excavated to the ancient street level. Several large stone columns still reached for the sky, though parts of them had crumbled in places. There were remnants of other columns as well, stunted and topped with rubble. Next to one was almost a whole brick wall, still containing the negative space of a hole for a window. The ruins sat on a pedestal of thick stone blocks. Stairs were evident on these in a couple of places, the edges smoothed from thousands of ancient feet.
“Do you mind if we sit here for a bit?” Samantha asked. “I’d like to sketch a little.”
“No, not at all; I love to watch you draw.”
They found an empty bench in the piazza and Samantha retrieved a small black sketchbook and a pen from her pack. Opening the sketchbook to the first empty page she secured it with a large metal bull clip at the top. She opened the pen, letting the tip hover over the white paper. Then she surveyed the scene, framing her composition in her mind, trying to see the whole and not the parts.
“Is this what you do, you know, for money?” Kellie asked.
“Hmmm? Oh, no, this is just sketching, just fun. Well, I do sometimes sell prints through a website, but nothing that adds up to anything.” She placed another line on the paper with her fine liner pen. “I do illustrations for money.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Sometimes nothing, sometimes everything,” Sam said, smiling up at her sister. “Depends on the client, on the job, you know. Most of that work is done on the computer — it lets me change stuff endlessly. Clients usually don’t know what they want.”
“I don’t know how you do it.”
“Mostly I use a site called Upwork, and I have some clients through other channels.”
“No, not how you get the work, I mean how you live like this,” Kellie said. Then, seeing the look on Sam’s face, added, “I mean it takes a lot of balls, to not have security, to be here, alone.”
Sam shrugged. “You don’t think it’s a good way to live?”
“No, not that,” Kellie said and then paused. “I… I think it’s a magical way to live actually. I think it’s what living should be. You see new things every day, have endless experiences to talk about.”
“So, why don’t you do it too?” Samantha asked without looking up, continuing to look at the scene and transfer it to paper.
“Because I’m a coward I guess,” she said with a laugh. “It’s too much change all the time, too much up in the air. And of course, there are the kids.”
“Oh people do this with kids, I’ve met them. But I know what you mean. Maybe by now Leo and I would have had…” Her hand sagged, following her plummeting thoughts. She scrawled a crooked line down the page, through one of the columns of the temple she had sketched. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Damn it.”
“Sam,” Kellie said, moving closer to her sister and placing her arm around her shoulders.
“I’m good, I’m okay,” Samantha said as she rubbed her eyes with the sleeve of her hoodie. She removed the bull clip from her sketchbook and secured everything in her bag again. She stood. “Let’s just walk some more.”
“There’s so much to see in Ortigia, we shouldn’t be sitting around.”
Skirting around the Temple of Apollo they veered left, into the labyrinth of Oritiga’s tiny streets. Some were wide enough for one-way automobile traffic, at least of the small European variety. Others were pedestrian only. They were marked as such with blue and white signs bearing a little walking human icon, much like those at public washrooms.
Samantha led them along a winding path. Occasionally a motorcycle or scooter would rumble by on the cobblestone streets and they would step to the side. Or if a car approached them on the wider roads they would step into recessed doorways to let it pass.
Buildings, all stone, towered above them, making the alleys dark and damp in places. And then they would turn a corner and there would be a piazza, a square. In those places sunlight spread and warmed them. People sat at open-air cafes and restaurants; the silence of the narrow passageways was replaced with the hum of human voices.
Kellie stopped often to take photos and Sam gladly accommodated her. Her sister particularly liked all the cats they passed. The felines sprawled in sunlight atop patios or slept in curled balls on the back of parked scooters. And she was astonished by the obedience of the dogs that sat outside stores, awaiting their owners, patiently, without harness or leash. Just sitting there.
Through all this Sam watched and smiled and laughed. It was good to laugh. She missed her family. Missed them terribly in fact. Seeing her sister lifted her heart, made her feel whole in a way that she hadn’t in a long time.
Eventually, Sam brought them to the largest piazza they had seen, paved in huge smooth stones. It spread out like an enormous valley among the tight-knit buildings of the old city. Like the hub of a bicycle wheel many streets opened onto it and across the open area they could see others. To their left a huge church rose into the blue sky, its facade partially constructed of ancient columns. While on their right, across the wide, airy space were several cafes and restaurants. Outside each were tables topped by giant umbrellas to keep out direct sun and, when it happened, rain. Uniformed waiters buzzed around, handing out menus and taking orders.
Kellie looked around, taking in the open space. “This is unexpected,” she said.
“I know right? Piazza Duomo,” Sam announced.
A little past the church they found a quiet spot in the shade and sat, like a few others, on the clean stones of the ground.
“It’s nice to sit,” Kellie said. “I’m not used to all this walking.”
People streamed along the length of the piazza. Some gawked, some paid no attention, head down, focused on something or other. Many were young couples, pushing strollers, often with more children wobbling along beside.
“I should give Bill a call, see how they’re doing,” Kellie said. She produced her phone and dialed. After a pause she said, “Hey, how’s it going?” A pause. “Really?” A laugh. “She didn’t?” Pause. Another laugh. “Did you get a photo of that? I would’ve loved to see him.” A pause, but she continued to smile, wider and wider. More laughter.
It continued like this for a few minutes while Sam looked about, trying not to hear. Sam took notice of just how many young families there were strolling through the piazza. She had been there many times and hadn’t noticed. Perhaps she had never paid attention. But now she did.
They were everywhere. Smiling, laughing. Being damn happy. Why couldn’t she be happy? Why hadn’t she been allowed that luxury? She was happy to be travelling, to be experiencing new things. But there was something missing. She knew that, of course. But she figured it would work itself out in time. Yet, that didn’t seem to be the case.
Kellie put down her phone, a big smile on her face. “You will not believe what Emily did!”
“I want to be happy,” Sam said. She didn’t look at her sister, hadn’t really heard what she had been saying.
Kellie immediately switched gears, seeing an opportunity to get her sister to open up to her. “I know,” she offered, just wanting to acknowledge, giving Sam the space to vent if she wanted to take it.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Sam said, looking at her sister. “In case I haven’t said that. I do miss you and the kids, even Bill too.” She smiled and Kellie laughed. “And Mom and Dad of course.”
“You know you can always go home, even just for a visit,” Kellie said.
“I know. It’s just, after Leo died, it didn’t feel like home anymore, at least not then.”
“It’ll always be your home.”
“Yes but, well, we had been away for a few years I guess, it wasn’t home anymore. I felt like I had outgrown it or something. You get it, I’m sure, you moved away too.” Kellie nodded but didn’t interrupt. “And then, pretty much as soon as we decide to stay still for a while. Boom!” Sam’s eyes went to the bare ring finger on her left hand. “And the timing sucked. I mean, sure, whenever it happened wouldn’t have been good but everything was so perfect. We were just starting out.”
“Don’t you worry about losing Bill? The kids?”
“Of course! Every day. But, I guess, if I worried all the time I wouldn’t be enjoying and savouring the time I do have with them.”
“Yeah, I get that. I suppose that, after, I wanted to feel alive, you know, wanted to know that I was still a part of the world. And I wanted to live for him, because he couldn’t. We had our plan and I wanted to… I don’t know… give the finger to Death maybe. Show it that it didn’t win.”
“But you’re so alone travelling. And you’ve blocked us out; we can help you.”
“I still talk to you all, all the time.”
“Yes, but you don’t open up.”
Sam was silent a moment.
“I’m sorry. It’s just something I have to deal with on my own.”
Kellie opened her mouth to reply but said nothing. Sam was closing her out again.
Then Kellie said, “No it’s not. You know I’m here for you, literally right now.”
“I just want to have fun while you’re here. I want to forget my problems.”
“But they’ll still be there when we leave.”
Sam sat with her head down, not looking at Kellie, her arms folded across her chest.
She knew this was her chance, to get it out, to tell someone all the things she was thinking. But all the things she thought contradicted themselves. Travelling was awesome. Being alone sucked, but she didn’t think she wanted to trade it for anything. At times she wanted to be home, wanted to spend every day with her family. Then she would remember Leo, remember what had happened, what they had planned to do together. And then she remembered why she had left home, at least part of the reason that she had left. Were they good reasons? She wasn’t sure. Why did people do anything really? Did anyone know what they truly wanted in life? Here was her sister, someone she trusted as much as anyone else in the world, someone who could offer a more objective view. Someone who would call her on her bullshit.
This was her chance.
She broke the silence with a deep sigh. “Okay.”
“Okay?” Kellie asked.
Samantha nodded and looked her sister in the eyes. “You’re right. Let’s talk. But let’s walk too.”
They rose from the cool stone. Crossing the piazza they entered a narrow passage on the opposite side that sloped down. The stones of the alley were damp, hidden in the shade of the tall buildings that rose on both sides. They picked their way along, being careful not to slip in the more precarious spots. Coming out the other side they could see the sea above the buildings below them. The city descended in stages to sea level. They continued down, making their way to the water.
Neither spoke as they walked, neither knowing what to say first. Kellie determined that Sam should speak first, that it was her confession of sorts. So they continued, in silence, down stairs and across streets until they came to the seaside.
They stopped then, having come to the water’s edge, gazing out into the blue of sea below and sky above. It was a quiet spot, no one else was around for the moment. Gentle waves lapped at the little bit of sand that extended from the stone walkway into the water.
They stood there, not speaking.
“Why did you leave so soon… so soon after he died?” Kellie asked. “It was so sudden, the accident I mean. You were still mourning, you had to be.”
“Yeah, I was.”
“So, why leave?”
“I couldn’t stay, it was too much, it hurt too much to stay.”
“But you didn’t have to leave, we would have been there for you, helped you,” Kellie said. “You know that.”
“Yeah, and do you know what I heard every day? Do you?!”
Her sister said nothing.
Sam continued, “Oh they didn’t think I heard them. But it’s a small town full of nosey people living through other people’s grief. They think they’re being subtle when, really, they want you to hear. They love gossip. They feed on it.”
Kellie didn’t interrupt, let Sam get it off her chest. She watched as her sister’s eyes started to glisten.
“Well I heard them,” Sam said, her voice rising. “There goes the widow. Poor thing. So young. Poor damn thing!” Tears streamed from her eyes, ran down her cheeks, dripped onto her hoodie.
“Sam, I…” Kellie started.
“Well, I’m not a thing and not poor, not to be pitied! So I got the fuck out of there. And I have no regrets, not one!”
There was silence, broken only by Sam’s nasal inhale as she tried to control the clear snot running from her nose.
She raised her red, puffy eyes to look at her sister.
“I miss him. Oh God, I miss him. I miss him so much. He would love it here. Every day I think of that. And, in that way, every day he’s here with me. And I’m glad for that, I am.” She paused, put her hand to her forehead. “But it hurts. Even after all these years, it hurts so God damn much.”
Kellie stepped toward Samantha who let herself fall into her sister’s arms. She sobbed into Kellie’s shirt, grasping onto her as if she was a life-preserver.
“It’s okay, let it out.” Kellie held her tight. “It’s okay, you don’t have to carry it alone.”
Sam nestled closer to the warmth of her sister, letting out the sorrow she had held in for years. Sobs racked her body and tears ran like a river. And she didn’t try to stop them. An instant in time had altered the rest of life. Leo had been killed in a moment but she had been dying for years, carrying the weight alone.
Now she let it out.
Her husband was dead. Two weeks after they had married he was dead. But they had had years before that, good years, happy years.
He would always be with her.
And he wouldn’t want her to be alone.
He would want her to be happy.
A week later Kellie, Bill and the kids were back in Toronto and Sam was physically alone again. Temporarily. She was preparing to fly the following day. To go home, for the first time in four years.
But she wouldn’t stay. It was, and would always be, home. But the world called to her, that was undeniable. Someday she figured she would stop, would find a place to call home again. But not yet. There was too much to see.
All that was for tomorrow though. Today the trail beckoned to her, as it had so many times in the past.
Up a hill from her soon-to-be-empty apartment she started down the seaside trail that had once been a rail bed. The views of the Mediterranean were amazing and the sea air invigorating. And now there was a new lightness in her step, energy that she had been missing for so long.
Each mile made her smile more. No one is meant to mourn for years, to carry pain like a weight upon their back. She had, but no longer. Now sweat streaked her cheeks instead of tears.
She pushed on, feeling the ground push back with each step. She felt her heart beat and her breath deep in her chest.
She was alive again.