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Such a beautiful laugh

I’d been coming to the meetings for a long time when I first saw him.

He looked as bereft as any man who ever came here looking for help. I knew the feeling well, we all did. That empty feeling, the hollow where once there had been life and joy.

The first few times, he didn’t speak. But he came and listened.

He was attractive — although as usual, it took me a while to acknowledge that. He always wore suits like someone who doesn’t understand why anymore and often as not, he forgot to tuck his shirt in. Clear eyes and a mane of fair hair, sharp features and fine wrinkles around the eyes, he would probably say he was too old for me but I thought he was fascinating, all the more so for the secret history his graying strands revealed. I wanted to kiss each line etched on his skin. When he wasn’t lost in grief, he had a piercing stare, as if he could see right through people, into their minds, and knew what made them tick. I felt it on me once, while I was sharing and I suddenly felt naked and vulnerable. It should have been frightening but I was enthralled already.

When finally he spoke, a few weeks later, his story was extraordinary and yet the same as each one of us. He felt guilty obviously, most of us did, and he was angry. That day, I was feeling bold enough to go talk to him after the meeting ended. We became friends, eventually.

One evening, we were having diner at my place again and it became quickly apparent that he was in a fouler mood than usual. He was restless and withdrawn. I knew better than to try to reach to him but when I offered to reschedule he declined, saying he was glad for the company so I poured him some wine and went to put a last touch on my cooking. He slightly derided over diner and we were speaking freely over coffee of plans for the morrow when he suddenly cringed and turned his back on me.

“Alex ? What’s wrong ?”

“It’s ah, nothing.”

“You don’t have to hide from me.”

“I know.”

“Then talk to me. Please ?”

He dipped his head and I knew he was hiding his tears, trying to stop them before they came in a flow that would break the dam and flood his soul until nothing was left standing in its wake. I had done the same many, many times. And I knew that building up the dam was only making its undoing worse.

I had been dying to touch him for ages and for the first time, I dared put a hand on his shoulder, whispering, “It’s ok Alex, you can let go, I got you.”

Was it the unexpected contact that broke through the wall he’d built around himself ? He grabbed the hand on his shoulder and crushed it, sobbing silently. I opened my arms and he imperceptibly allowed himself to lean into it, his subtle and shy way to give permission. I hugged him tight and he let himself be held a long while. “Tomorrow is… would have been his birthday.”

I patted him lightly, afraid he would repel me. It was awkward and uncomfortable because he was taller than me and it tore my heart to see him so devastated but it was also warm and tender.

After a while, his sobs quieted.

“Tell me something happy you remember of him.”

“His laugh. » He pushed back a bit and I saw his face soften with the fond memory. « He had a wonderful contagious laugh. He didn’t laugh that often, he would mostly have that secretive little smile, like he knew something funny that was his own and wasn’t about to share. But sometimes, oh sometimes, he couldn’t repress his joy. It was all the more precious for its scarcity. And it would burst, irrepressible, until he couldn’t breath and his tummy would hurt. The pearly sound he made when he was overwhelmed with happiness, that was the most beautiful sound in the world. And it’s gone forever.”

“It isn’t yet, as long as you remember.”

“It hurts.”

“I know.”

He had been moving in my embrace  as he evoked the memory and now his chin came back to rest on my shoulder. I shuddered, feeling a sudden pang of… something, in my belly. I cautiously let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding, careful not to sigh audibly and slightly tightened my arms around him.

“What about you ?” he asked. “What happened to your child? You never really said.”

I froze. I was shy about telling the true story because even in the support group, sometimes people thought I deserved punishment for what I did. One had even called me a murderess once. I usually tried to disguise what had really happened, even there. But lying was difficult, it never came naturally to me and I couldn’t bear to be dishonest now, not with him.

“I made a choice. It makes me sad that it had to be this way but I know It was the right decision. Still hurts like bitch.”

He didn’t judge me. He made a strangled kind of laugh and I knew he thought about his own choices, wondering what he could have done different. We’d discussed it more than once and even though he understood the logic he was still unable to accept that there was nothing he could have changed. His actions — and mine — were the consequences of who we were when we made them and I knew that placed in the same circumstances, the same emotional state, the same ignorance of the future consequences of my decisions, I wouldn’t be able to change the tiniest one of them.

I shifted a bit. “Alex ? Would you mind if I held your memory of your son, even though I never met him?”

“Why would you want to do that?”

I took a shaky breath. “I have only one memory of my daughter and it’s not a very happy one. I remember her heartbeat. It was so, so fast, like a little bird, nestled in my womb. I only heard it a few seconds, the most fearful seconds in my life, when I suddenly realized it wasn’t just me anymore but I had to care about another life as well. I’ve never heard my daughter’s laugh and I wish things had been different and I could have watched her run to me and fall and laugh and grow up into a wonderful young woman. But I’ll never see these things. I never even held her in my arms. I.. I’m not even sure what I’m asking, I just want to imagine Cameron’s laugh and how it would have been like to hear Clementine laugh with him.”

He didn’t reply but moved his hands to gently stroke my back and I felt my own tears rising. I barely heard his whisper, “It would have been wonderful.”