When the tears don’t fall

Photo Credit: Yan Miranda

After

I’m still in bed when Manny comes home. The day had crawled by slowly and quietly, with only my thoughts for company, occasionally interrupted by the sounds of the outside world. He moves around our bedroom quietly, shedding his clothes as he leaves behind his working day.

“Hey,” he says. I don’t answer, though I know he knows I’m awake. He carries on talking, telling me about his day like I haven’t just ignored him. The train was late again and packed as usual, then had the nerve to be held at a red signal at Clapham Junction. Maybe tomorrow he’d cycle in. Yeah right. Donna and Matt had invited us to dinner at theirs this week, if we were up to it. His sister had called and said hello. Oh, and his mother wanted to come by with the ladies from her church to pray for us. “Time heals all wounds,” I remember she had said to me, when she last visited, “this too will heal.” I’d looked at Manny then, and saw the pain I felt reflected in his eyes. I wanted to believe her.

He leaves the room and soon I hear the sounds of him taking a shower. Tears prick my eyes but refuse to fall. It’s like they’re frozen in place, much like I feel now. Unable to move forward, unable to move at all. It’s like my body has taken a vow of silence against my mind and spirit. It wasn’t always like this. I wasn’t always like this. There was a time when we’d both come home from work, laughing together, teasing and loving on each other with an intensity that excited and terrified me in equal measure. I would match his stories about his day with tales of my own. We would make plans and share dreams. But that was before.

I feel the mattress dip and cool air as he lifts the bed covers and slides in beside me. He tucks me against his long lean body, wraps his arms around my waist. He smells like the rain, fresh and clean.

“Baby, how was your day?”

I still don’t answer.

“Yeah … me too,” he says.

*

Before

I hadn’t wanted children, not really. It wasn’t that I didn’t like kids – I had two nieces, whom I adored. I just didn’t see myself as someone who would be a mother or have a family of my own. My mother died when I was six, leaving me and my older sister Afua with our dad, whose idea of parenting was to leave us in the care of a succession of bored girlfriends while he spent most of his time in Ghana “on business”. Leaving me with a rather cynical view of family and relationships. But then I met Manny, and everything changed. Tall, lean and handsome, with an open, easy smile that reached his beautiful wide-set mahogany eyes denoting his Korean heritage; he worked in the admissions office at a university where I had been temping as a website content manager. Our paths rarely crossed, but when we passed each other in the hallway he always smiled a hello, which frankly made me grateful for having dark skin, so he couldn’t see me blush. We occasionally made small talk in the staff kitchen, where among other things we discovered a mutual love for books by Octavia Butler, after he saw me reading a tattered copy of Kindred. Despite that, I had already relegated him to being yet another unrequited crush, until one day as I made coffee in the staff kitchen, he asked me out. I remember burning my hand with the hot water and cursing aloud in response.

“Is it that much of a bad idea?” he asked with a grin, taking my hand to hold under the cold-water tap. His skin was rich and tan against my own, his long fingers gently wrapped around mine. Heat flushed through me in spite of the cold water cooling my hand.

“Um, well we hardly know each other…” I stammered, inwardly kicking myself for my awkwardness, as I knew what he’d say next.

“Isn’t that the point?” he said laughing. I noticed he had a slightly chipped tooth, in an otherwise perfect set. Later I would find out to my amusement that it happened when, aged eight, he had jumped off a sideboard in his parents’ living room pretending to be Spiderman. I smiled back at him, loving the sparkle in his eyes, but more so the idea that I might be the reason that it was there. I’d wanted this for a long time, what did I have to lose?

“Okay, you got me,” I said, and before I could change my mind, I added, “How about Thursday? After work. I mean if you’re free.” I bit my lip nervously. He let go of my hand and turned off the tap. I watched his eyes darken as they raked over my face, his expression somewhat unreadable. I felt my face heat up under his scrutiny.

“Thursday’s good. I’ll meet you out front,” he replied, then bent down to kiss my cheek. “Thursday.” he repeated with a smile and left. I stood still for a few seconds after he’d gone still feeling the imprint of his lips on my cheek.

*

After

I’m scrolling through Spotify trying to decide whether to listen to a podcast or music as I do some tidying up. Not much really needs to be done. Manny being slightly obsessive about being tidy has pretty much kept everything in order. But I’m tired of lying in bed and being assaulted by every thought and feeling, so housework it is. Eventually I settle on The Read as everything else feels like too much effort and at least Kid Fury and Crissle are funny. Earphones in place I wipe down surfaces in the living room, kitchen and bathroom until they’re gleaming. I dust in corners, plump cushions, and put away dishes. I even do a load of laundry. The podcast banter in my ears offers a pleasant and comforting distraction.

Checking the time, I wonder where Manny has got to. He said he was going for a run but that had been near enough two hours ago. Recently he’d taken to going out for runs during the day and occasionally in the evenings. He said it was an opportunity to keep fit now that he was furloughed from work, but I knew it was also his way of coping. Heading to the small box room we use as an office, I resist the urge to call him and start wiping down the desk instead. As I move a neat pile of magazines to wipe underneath, I knock Manny’s folder of sketches to the ground, scattering sheets of paper about. Gathering them up, I catch sight of one drawing in particular, of a baby girl, our baby. The likeness is so strong my breath catches in my throat. I still can’t get over how beautiful she was. Eyes wide set like Manny’s, her nose small and cute as a button, and full lips which was all me. I wonder whose smile she would have had and whether she would have looked more like me or Manny. It didn’t matter, she was perfect. We’d made a perfect little girl, who for reasons we still didn’t know or understand could not stay with us.

“I drew that from the photo I took with my phone,” I turn startled to see Manny standing in the doorway. I didn’t hear him come in at all. I remove my earphones, getting up shakily from where I was crouched on the floor, still holding the drawing in my hand.

“It’s amazing,” I say hastily, brushing away tears that threatened to fall, “I forget sometimes just how good an artist you are. Remind me again, why you’re not doing this for a living?” I try to smile and sound light-hearted but the action feels forced. My chest is tight, my heart heavy and I feel lightheaded. I grip the edge of the desk to brace myself.

“Akosua, are you okay?” He grabs my arms to steady me, frowning with concern.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. I’m just a bit tired. I think maybe I overdid it a bit. I’ll be okay.” I remove myself from his grasp and crouch down again to pick up the folder and remaining sheets of paper. Manny crouches beside me gently pulling the papers from my hands.

“Leave those, I’ll do it. You should go lie down and get some rest.”

“I’m okay, honestly,” I protest, even though I feel the complete opposite. I don’t want to admit it but going back to bed feels like a good option. Manny presses a kiss to my forehead.

“Go on. I’ll make you some soup in a bit.” He kisses me again this time gently on the lips, before helping me to my feet.

*

Before

“We should have a baby,” he said casually one evening as we prepared dinner.

“Wait, what? Why?” I said, narrowly missing my fingertip as I sliced the end of a cucumber. In the two years we’d been together, the subject of kids had of course come up but I’d always managed to push it aside feeling that we had plenty of time – at least five years – before we, meaning I, had to seriously consider it.

“Why not? I mean we’re together, we’re happy. We’re both earning decent money. We could be like those couples who make those cheesy YouTube videos, talking about their interracial relationship and their cute Blasian babies,” he replied with a sly wink.

“Argh no, you did not just say Blasian!” I cringed visibly “And YouTube videos? Really!?” I said giving him my best side-eye.

“You know I’m kidding right – about the videos anyway,” he replied. “But seriously, we’d make some beautiful babies together and we’d be great parents. I think we’re ready,” he said, moving close behind me to brush away my curls and press a kiss against my neck. The tantalising sandalwood and spice scent of his aftershave filled my senses as I closed my eyes to imagine, admittedly not for the first time, a slightly older version of us taking our kid to kindergarten, children’s birthday parties, playing sandcastles on a beach holiday. The type of cookie-cutter existence I usually associated with influencer mums on Instagram. Surprisingly, this time I couldn’t find it within myself to push back on the idea of starting a family. Manny’s arms tightened around me, his mouth moved up to just below my ear.

“And I love you,” he said in a low voice that held so much promise, making me shiver with pleasure. “And I want to make a life with you in every way possible.” I turned around in his arms to face him. His eyes were warm and playful, and when I bit my lip, they darkened with desire as I knew they would. He bent down to kiss the side of my mouth.

“I’m not entirely opposed to the idea,” I said as his lips lightly brushed mine. He kissed me again, deeper this time.

“What do I need to do to completely persuade you?” he murmured, pressing more kisses to my neck, before returning to my mouth.

I didn’t reply but instead took his hand and led him out the kitchen. He chuckled huskily behind me.

*

After

I’m snatched out of sleep and whatever dream I was having quickly fades from memory. Manny is not here. Had he even come to bed? The bedside alarm clock shows it’s just after two a.m., I listen out for sounds that will tell me where he is, but nothing, the flat is silent. Trying to quell my anxiety, I leave our bedroom and pad silently down the corridor, noticing that the door to the guest room is ajar. We’d been getting it ready to be a nursery for the baby, but the door had remained closed since we came back from the hospital. Steeling myself I go in, and see Manny standing in front of the crib he’d proudly put together, insisting that it was what a dad-to-be did. The ankara print cushions I’d made lie scattered on the floor, along with an assortment of stuffed baby animals. I stand in the doorway watching him, his back to me and his hands gripping the edge as he stares into the crib. I wonder what’s going through his mind at this moment. Is he wondering whether our daughter would have slept the whole night through, and if not, would we bicker on whose turn it is to soothe her back to sleep? Is he trying to imagine, as I often do, what her cries would have sounded like?

The moonlight streams through the blinds illuminating him and I notice his shoulders begin to shake. A choked sob escapes him before giving way to an anguished cry and my heart clenches painfully. I walk over and wrap my arms around his waist, leaning my cheek against his back. He stiffens for a brief moment, then relaxes into my hold on him, crying quietly. I don’t speak and neither does he. What can we say? There are no more words that can comfort, none that can ease the pain. We’re now part of a landscape that has no vocabulary. All there is, is this, holding each other and hoping the other doesn’t let go. Soon his tears become wracking sobs and the weight of his grief brings us both down to the floor. He lets me cradle him in my arms and as I soothe and pet him, he holds on to me tightly.

I don’t know how long we stay on the floor. I continue to stroke Manny’s hair as he quiets and eventually he pulls away, wiping his eyes with the palm of his hand. He takes a deep shuddering breath and smiles ruefully, scratching the beard that has been steading taking shape over the last few weeks.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t … I…” he tails off as fresh tears fill his eyes.

“It’s ok, you don’t have to hide from me,” I say, recalling words he said to me not long after we started dating. “And you don’t have to be strong either.”

“Neither do you,” he replies, taking my hand and kissing my palm. I say nothing but instead lean against his chest, letting him gather me into his arms. I close my eyes, comforted by his warmth. He’s right, but for now I don’t know how else to be.

*

Before

We were sorting through Christmas decorations and arguing over baby names. Having already decided on two middle names, Dae, which was Manny’s middle name, and the other, Akua, a Ghanaian name, which could change depending on the day of week the baby was born, we were now trying to agree on a first name. I was adamant, we were absolutely not going to call our baby Emily.

“Why not? Emily is a pretty name,” Manny protested while trying unsuccessfully to untangle some Christmas lights, “I don’t know why you’re so against it… What the hell is up with these lights? Did you pack these away last year? Totally has your hallmark.”

“It’s a pretty name for a pretty white girl with blond pigtails,” I answered grumpily. I ignored the jibe about the lights because it was true, and also because I was tired and achy. As much as I loved the little one inside me, her night-time acrobatics had long ceased to be adorable. “Give me those,” I held my hand out for the Christmas lights. The sooner we were done, the sooner I could go to bed with some hot chocolate and marshmallows.

“Well what do you suggest?” Manny asked, getting up to wind some more tinsel around the tree, after handing me the lights.

“Maya? Sasha?”

“No way! My ex-girlfriend is called Sasha!” If I’d had the energy I would have laughed at Manny’s horrified expression. I’d clean forgot about that and to be honest from what I knew of their relationship, I could understand why he’d be so scandalised.

“Okay, okay, let’s pause for now. I need some hot chocolate, and maybe a sandwich. Actually, no, I think maybe I’ll just go to bed.” I struggled to my feet, waving away Manny’s attempts to help me up.

“You go ahead, I’ll bring you something in a sec,” he said tiredly. I nodded my thanks and took slow lumbering steps towards our bedroom, rubbing my back as I went. Just two more months to go.

*

After

“Hey, you’re up,” Manny comes over to where I’m sitting in the kitchen and presses a kiss to my forehead. “Did you manage to sleep a bit?”

I smile and shake my head. I didn’t sleep well at the best of times and now my erratic sleep patterns had gotten worse. “Maybe a couple of hours,” I said, taking a sip of camomile tea. He nods sympathetically. I see the worry in his eyes, and I can tell he’s holding back from telling me to go back to bed.

“I’m going to go for a run. Be back in an hour?” he says instead, filling up a water bottle.

“Sure. I’ll make breakfast. Banana and blueberry pancakes?” His face lights up in an ecstatic smile. It’s been a while since I’ve cooked breakfast for us both and pancakes are his favourite – and not only restricted to breakfast.

“Mmm, yes please,” he says, kissing me quickly before turning to leave.

“Manny?”

“Yeah?”

“What about Isabella?” I had been thinking about this for a few days now and the name felt right to me. I hoped he would agree. He nods thoughtfully running a hand through his hair.

“Yeah, yeah I like that,” he says finally.

“But do you love it?” I press and he smiles, his eyes shining with emotion.

“Yeah I do. It’s beautiful.”

*

Today

We’re in the car on our way to the cemetery to lay some fresh flowers at the grave where my mother was buried, and now Isabella. With the lockdown restrictions easing, we felt fairly comfortable enough to venture out for something other than food and exercise. I stare out the window, still trying to get used to seeing passers-by, some covered in face masks and others wearing gloves despite the summer heat, walking awkwardly as they try to avoid close proximity with strangers. Not only has our own world changed irrevocably, but the world outside our home has as well. Manny squeezes my hand as we pull into the cemetery, a small procession is just ahead of us, so he slows down so as to give the mourners space.

“I think I might just park here. Are you okay to walk the rest of the way?” he asks, looking about for a spot.

“Yeah I’m good. Do you think we need face masks?” I say, holding a couple I just retrieved from the glove compartment.

“May as well just in case,” he says, parking behind a long line of cars. I hope the cemetery isn’t too busy. “Ready?” I nod and take a deep breath.

We walk quietly hand in hand, Manny carrying a bouquet of white lilies and pink roses. After changing route a couple of times to avoid other people we arrive at the grave. The headstone will need to be replaced to include Isabella, but for now a small wooden cross, with “Baby Park” written on a plaque with her date of birth and death is all that marks her presence. Manny crouches down to arrange the flowers and kisses his fingers to touch the cross, repeating the action for the headstone. That oh-so familiar ache fills me once more, making my chest tight as tears roll down my cheeks.

I remember the fear and the anxiety I felt when I realised something was wrong. The pure devastation mixed with disbelief when the doctor told us there was no heartbeat. The guilt. The agony of delivering a baby I knew was no longer alive. The shame. Holding her in my arms praying for her eyes to open, for her to cry, to do something to prove the doctor wrong. But my prayers went unanswered. She was so tiny, so flawless, I didn’t want to believe she was dead. I didn’t want to let go of her because letting go would mean that it was real and not a horrible nightmare. I slip my arms around Manny’s waist, drawing him close and breathing him in as I cry, quietly at first, before being taken over by a torrent of tears, punctuated by a deep wail of pain. My whole body shakes as grief violently pushes through the dam that had been holding it back all this time, breaking but not completely destroying me. Manny holds me tight and kisses the top of my head, rubbing my back and whispering words of comfort. His presence is a balm and a tower of strength holding us both together, even as I know the depths of his own pain.

“I love you,” he says, his voice breaking with his own tears. “No matter what.”

“I love you too, so, so much.” I take a few hiccupy breaths as my tears slowly begin to subside. I realise now that our grief will not just simply end, no matter how much I want things to go back to the way they were before. The pain will ease eventually but this grief will always be there, shaping us into versions of our previous selves. Grief is now as much a part of us as Isabella was. And for the first time since her death I feel a small measure of peace.

We remain at the graveside in a comfortable silence, still holding onto each other, neither of us in a hurry to move from where we are. Over in the distance, a bird is singing.

Priscilla Owusu

About Priscilla Owusu

Priscilla Owusu is a writer and book reviewer. An avid reader, she has been writing stories on and off since she was a teenager and is currently working on writing her first novel.

Priscilla Owusu is a writer and book reviewer. An avid reader, she has been writing stories on and off since she was a teenager and is currently working on writing her first novel.

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