My grandmother told me, not even a year after the passing of my grandfather, that she had met someone new. It was winter, and it was cold. My grandmother was habitually inclined to keep the heating at a minimum, saving money and the like. Everything was getting more expensive. I stayed seated on the couch, legs pulled up to my chest, eyes glued to the television. She sat next to me.
Her warm hands reached for my feet, as they did often. Like she wanted to check I was still next to her and hadn’t turned into a shadow with the oncoming twilight.
If she found a foot, or even two, she’d pinch or rub them. I, on the verge of adolescence, almost off to high school, let her. I didn’t possess the heart to tell her that I really was too old for that. Somewhere deep inside, the affection brought a warmth. Not that I’d ever admit to it.
But that evening felt different. She tapped my foot with her hand — a small repetitive pat while the customary drama of The Days of Our Lives unfolded itself on television.
“What if I told you I found someone new?” The playful tone of her voice, coupled with the weight of her words, was something I didn’t like — not at all. My grandfather hadn’t been dead for a year and already she was thinking of finding someone else — that didn’t sound like her.
The protest that came to my lips drew a deep laugh from her; she’d laid a trap and I had stepped right into it. A back-and-forth of questions regarding her new partner furnished the rest of the evening. I didn’t understand how she’d already met someone new.
I asked her for his name. She spoke. Curtly so, no hesitation.
I kept silent.
I’d heard of this person before, had seen him move through the village when I was a child, cycling to the playground. I had sometimes seen him take a seat on the bus when I traveled to the music school a few towns over. Never did it occur to me he’d court my grandmother. Certainly not when I was still coming over as often as I did.
The news of her revelation was swiftly lost in the dramatic denouement of our daily episode — my mom arriving at the backdoor to take me home. But my grandmother’s message had settled in the pit of my stomach and had made itself comfortable there, discomforting me. The news had unlocked a — then, to me — still unknown reality. She’d set a door ajar that evening; a door I myself would pass through many times in the years to come.
I could feel his presence more often in the aftermath of my grandmother’s divulging. Upon coming home from school, I noticed that he had — shortly before the hour — donned his shoes, buttoned up his coat, and left the house in a lazy swagger.
With my backpack slung over my shoulder, I found my grandmother on the couch, still captivated by his visit. I felt it then, already, that he wasn’t good for her. The fatigue he drew from her that I didn’t acquiesce.
But I was young, and she needed the company when I wasn’t around. I couldn’t oppose it much — I understood everything by halves at that age.
Years later, I was still very much aware of his constant visits to my grandmother, but not quite as frequently as before. He had apparently told her that it was difficult keeping in touch with her while she still had so many people over every other day. He didn’t like to share her; it was all or nothing to him.
My grandmother chose nothing.
Sometimes, in the late hours of night, I know he still waits for her on the porch, and despite trying not to, I know, too, that she will still let him in.
When I left for university, I was nothing but surprised when he, shortly after the start of the school year, stood at my own front door. I told him that my grandmother still lived in that old house, and that he had better check in with her regarding whether she’d want to rebuild contact with him.
He smiled at me, eyes full of an emotion I couldn’t quite place. The heat that rose to my cheeks wasn’t voluntary and I would much rather have become invisible on the spot. Even worse, I felt something inside me stir under that dark gaze of his.
“I am here for you.”
The thing that started between us then, there, at my front door, isn’t something I would call love. It was some sort of sporadic falling back on one another. A co-existence of convenience.
He would accompany me everywhere. He would help me while studying, hold my hand during classes, and would throw hasty glances at me during exams.
I could confide in him, but I felt the same fatigue I had recognized in my grandmother at the time, rise within me.
He and I were inseparable.
So, when I, after a year of studying, told him that I had fallen in love with someone else, everything we had built collapsed. He told me I would regret this, that I was too naïve and that these sorts of whims were very typical for someone of nineteen. He told me he was the only one who truly knew me; the only one who could give me what I wanted. That this boy I supposedly loved would drop me as soon as he tired of me.
That was the end of our affair.
For three months it felt like I had finally found something real, something that didn’t result in the fatigue I used to associate with keeping company. But that love didn’t wish to grant itself to me; indeed, the knife that fell into my back cut much worse.
Worst of all, my previous partner in crime had been right. Not a week passed before he found me again while I was sitting by the Antwerp quays flowered by friends; he didn’t seem to care that there were people about.
I had grown oblivious to my company as soon as I saw him appear along the waterside. He settled down beside me, and, without speaking, both of us knew that what had been broken before, had been restored to its former glory.
One could not live without the other.
We had come to an agreement. Apparently, the same agreement he and my grandmother had once settled upon. He didn’t like how much time I was spending with my friends; he didn’t feel comfortable around them. He liked it more when it was just me and him. He told me plenty of times how he couldn’t live without me, so I got quite adept at dividing my time.
Two years after our temporary separation, the same problem presented itself. I once more fell in love with someone else — the promise of romance without such enduring fatigue just wasn’t something I could give up.
Once again came that same fight, wordlessly this time. He told me that I knew deep down how this was going to end, and he left my life without another word.
Three weeks this time, my romances shorter and laden with greater passion than ever. Greater pain as well. Where there was a knife before, a slow poison had taken its place.
The boy I was falling for was apparently fond friends of the man who I, for the second time now, had seen leave from my life. This should have been a warning. I paid no mind heeding it, not even after the poisoned bleeding.
Twice I had met life lessons I did not wish to repeat. I tried every possible thing never to let something like that into my life ever again.
Not even him.
I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of suffusing my life for a third time. I was stronger than that. More than that.
But sometimes — sometimes I let him in; when the night is dark and the shadows blur into the blackness. When I am worn and tired and cannot sleep and the hours drag me like quicksand through the night. When I am removed just far enough from the world that I can forget about all his past behavior.
I remember when my grandmother told me, not a year after the passing of my grandfather, she had met someone new. It was winter, and it was cold.
I asked for his name.
“Mister Loneliness,” she said.
Catherine Cuypers is an Antwerp-based writer passionate about faerie folklore, the Gothic, speculative fiction, dark academia, equal rights, the arts, following writerly whims, and traipsing about in the woods in search of Tír na Nóg.