How can you just have an aneurysm and die, two seconds, and you’re gone? Kate was standing in HomeSense, buying a new bed for the dog. She loved the dog. Coach Taylor is the only reason Shelby has gone outside in almost a week. She’s the reason she keeps going, if she’s honest. If Coach were to die too, she’d probably wander down to the lake with rocks in her pocket like Virginia. Shelby swallows the cashews and attempts a shower. An oily swirl of orange and white peach shampoo, under the hot water, briefly sends her away from herself. The feeling of her fingertips against the green tile, for thirty seconds she is okay. Perhaps not okay, but neutral. And then she looks at the tile, and remembers how proud she’d been when Kate had installed the tile herself and it was perfectly symmetrical, and Shelby had kissed her on the mouth when she saw it, and said You’re perfect, the perfect wife. She’d led her away from the bathroom and onto the living room couch and gone down on her. She moaned at the memory. It was crazy to think she’ll never be able to do that again. Shelby didn’t tell her the chemicals from the tile glue gave her a headache, and that she woke up at two a.m. and googled “headaches from chemical smells + poisoning.”
The grief group is held at the Jewish Community Centre at Bloor and Spadina, only a few blocks away from her house. She gives herself plenty of time but gets halfway down the walk before she notices the way her body feels different, which makes her heart start up its manic drum solo before she remembers she’s just not wearing a bra. These are the kinds of things that cause her alarm: any slight variation in embodiment. When she goes back inside, the dog thinks she’s back and gets so excited she tips over the water bowl. She pulls her sports bra out of her gym bag, long abandoned, and puts it on even though it gives her uniboob. She refills the water bowl. Then she realizes she’d left the movie Carol on the TV, the movie she’s watched every weekend for weeks. She digs around for the remote behind the couch cushions. She is grossed out by the tapestry of crumbs she can feel and gives up, leaving it on for Coach Taylor. When she locks the door a second time, she longs to be back inside, braless and spooning the dog, watching the movie she’s memorized, where she always knows what’s going to happen. But longing to be on the couch feels better than being on the couch.
She doesn’t play out the scene as she’d imagined it the night before. She’d pictured a leisurely walk, getting a coffee on Harbord before heading north. Instead it’s a warm afternoon. The sidewalks are jammed with people. She walks fast, arrives sweaty.
She gets in the elevator and presses 3 with her elbow several times, not quite hitting the sensor properly until the third try. The floor is sticky with spilled drink, or at least she hopes that’s what it is, so she crams into the back corner. She points to the spill when a man gets on at the second floor, but he ignores her. The ride is jumpy, the elevator making disconcerting metal-on-metal sounds, and she’s relieved when the heavy doors part haltingly on her desired floor. She walks slowly down the hall, looking at the numbers on the doors, half hoping she’ll get lost and have an excuse to go home. But she finds it, a fairly large classroom with a row of windows on one side, the sun beaming into her eyes, illuminating a rainfall of dust. She is last to arrive. She doesn’t care, though— one gift of grief is that she barely cares about any social convention anymore. The group is seated in a circle. There’s a snack table by the door—store-bought cookies in the shape of maple leaves that Shelby last ate in preschool, squares of toothpicked orange cheddar cheese, rows of Ritz crackers, cupcakes with gummy worms on the icing. Shelby would have been excited to eat these things months ago, but now they look like plastic facsimiles of food. She writes her name in purple marker on a HELLO MY NAME IS tag and sticks it across the coffee stain on the breast of her plaid cotton dress, the only semiclean thing in the house.
“Welcome, everyone,” says a woman with a thick bob of processed reddish orange hair, a line of gray roots delineating a haphazard middle part.
Group members murmur. No one looks devastated; these could all be strangers on a bus and she’d never know they were grieving. Shelby looks up at the clock. An hour seems interminable. A woman who knits a lavender scarf while she talks says she’s started a gratitude journal. Oh shit. This isn’t the right group for her. What the fuck does she have to be grateful for? She doesn’t need people to tell her to be grateful or offer platitudes that can be sewn into throw pillows sold at HomeSense, she needs people who know what it’s like to want to be as dead as the person they’re grieving. She requires spit and blood and desperation, not embroidery or any gloss over real feeling. Shelby is trapped on a bad group date she can’t get out of when Cammie walks into the room. Only she doesn’t yet know she’s Cammie, doesn’t know her life is about to be divided into Before Cammie and After Cammie. Right now she just sees a thin brunette with blond highlights wearing a red romper and white cowboy boots, who pulls a chair from a stack in the corner and joins the group. She sits down like no one ever taught her how to sit in a chair properly, one leg propped up, the other curled under, like a weird spider. She looks too good to be in mourning, too young for this group, which looks like it could be the audition room for a menopause supplement commercial. When she sits, the light from the window frames her perfectly and she looks like an Instagram ad for the boots, or some type of life coach. Everyone looks at her, taking her in. Before she even says anything you can tell she is the star of the group. The first time Shelby hears Cammie talk, she has an uncanny feeling that she’s going to know her someday. Cammie volunteers to share right away; her right knee shakes and she pulls at a thread on her shorts. A purple Gatorade bottle sticks out of her beige suede purse. She twirls a ring on her finger as she talks. “Today has been a really hard one. Next week is the one-year anniversary of Leslie’s death, and my mom wants to go to the beach to discard her ashes, but Leslie hated the water. I’m so mad at her. My mom seems so remote, like she doesn’t care at all.”
She pauses for a moment, turns to look Shelby in the eye, and says, “You’re new. I’m Camilla. Chatterbox, oversharer, main-character-syndrome-having Cammie.”
“I’m Shelby,” Shelby says, barely getting the words out. “General undersharer. My wife died. Now I can’t taste anything.”
Cammie laughs. Shelby hasn’t made anyone laugh in a very long time. “I remember that phase of it,” she says. Shelby laughs at this, though it’s not funny, but the laugh is more an utterance of relief, that she is in a phase that will change and maybe even end, she won’t always be here.
Cammie jumps back into her monologue. Shelby is rapt as she brings the group alive, like an orchestra conductor. She can see it in their faces; these older women react to Cammie like she’s a handsome young boy, almost flirtatiously. Cammie acknowledges them all, somehow, managing to bring things they’ve said in previous weeks into her share.
Shelby wasn’t sure she wanted to say anything to the group, but she needn’t have worried. Cammie takes the reins and keeps on going. Everything she says about grief puts into words these deeply physical sensations Shelby had been experiencing. After the group is over, Shelby lingers by the snack table, pretending to look for something in her purse. She tries to think of something to say to her and comes up with nothing. Eventually she finds the washroom and when she exits a stall Cammie is standing at the sink applying bright red lipstick.
“I’m so happy to see someone under forty you have no idea,” she says, smacking her lips together and holding eye contact with her in the mirror.
“You said so many things I could relate to,” Shelby says, running her hands under a weak stream of tap water.
“Want to grab an iced coffee downstairs?” Cammie asks.
Even though Shelby half wants to run back home to her safe spot on the couch, she nods.
They sit across from each other at the Second Cup. An old man at the adjacent table is falling asleep into his hands. Packs of teenagers shout as they walk by outside. Shelby picks at a pumpkin muffin as she listens to Camilla’s entire story from birth to present day. It is like a horror movie, her life, and by comparison, the loss of Kate suddenly seems like a walk in the park. Cammie discovered her sister when she died by suicide. They’d had a fight the night before. Her sister was an addict. Cammie had taken out a line of credit to pay for her rehab three times. She thought it would finally stick and it didn’t. Her father had also killed himself, exactly ten years before her sister did. There is so much sorrow in her story, yet she is able to crack jokes.
“I’m a suicide magnet,” she says, “My best friend also offed herself. Her name was Morgan.”
From the book The Fake by Zoe Whittall. Copyright © 2023 by Zoe Whittall. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved