A History of Loneliness
By Courtney Bill
I met her in an April storm in Winnipeg. She appeared on the other side of my car window, more like a shape than a person. Everything was ringing. She helped me out of the car where the hood curdled around the elm and striped the hair off my face. She asked if I was okay and if I wanted to find a bar. She was a lesbian, I could tell—the watch strap, the fork between her middle teeth, the Seattle snapback pushed low over her eyes. I was hungry and shellshocked and I hadn’t seen my girlfriend in twenty-two days, so I said yes, sure, I think I’d like that.
We called the cops and then we left. Neither of us knew what we were supposed to do and it didn’t seem to matter. The accident was my own making. My car, my bloodied knuckles, my impact clefted into the wood. The highway had been cooked in lightning and my reflexes too slow. We left a note on the dashboard crunched with broken glass and dead beetles: went for drinks.
We found a bar off the next exit and she told me her name was Sylvie. She talked like she had rope between her teeth. We forgot about the storm outside even as the windows flared purple. She told me she was a ballerina in her last life. She had thirteen sisters; she’d been the youngest. She was killed in her dressing room, a broken bottle of gin to the crown of her head. I told her that for the past month I felt like I was dead.
“Do you still feel like you’re dead?” she asked me. Her eyes looked like fish eggs.
“I sort of feel like I’ve moved past death. Been resurrected.”
“Maybe you died in your car and this is all a dream.” The bar lights fizzed across her cheekbones.
“Maybe.” I couldn’t tell whether she meant it or not.
We made out in the bathroom until the cops came and asked whether either of us had been in the accident. I was inebriated and suddenly in love—with Sylvie, with the officers, with this shoddy bar that felt like heaven, or at least a new plane of existence, an escape from my girlfriend who was probably my ex-girlfriend and everything else that sucked so badly about my life—so I held up my broken knuckles and said, it was me, officers. I died and now this is all a dream.
Three weeks later, I saw Sylvie at a gas station at seven in the morning. My knuckles were healed by then, her hair bleached. She was reading a magazine in the checkout line. I tapped on the front cover—a woman’s face, pumpernickel eyes.
“I missed you,” she said. The comment caught me off guard and I laughed. Suddenly I didn’t know how to exist.
“How is your car?”
I showed them to her and she smiled.
“Let’s get breakfast,” I said.
“Can’t. Have a meeting.” She closed the magazine. “Let’s do dinner.” I wondered if she was lying about the meeting. If she was saying it just to have control over me.
We met at a restaurant near the Red River. She ordered lamb. I ordered us wine and asked whether she missed being a ballerina. She chewed slowly on a mouthful of rosemary leg. “No. Out of all my lives, it’s the one I miss the least.”
“There are others?”
She snorted. The list assembled itself over our bloodied plates: an Irish lawyer, Texan sex worker, Moroccan wife. There were sixteen of them, each one with a unique texture. Last of all was the Italian ballerina killed in her dressing room. I could see blood when I closed my eyes. It petaled through muslin, dripped down her spine.
“Who did it?” I clenched a fork in my fist.
“I didn’t see.” She coiled hair around her finger like a telephone cord. “I was a redhead, can you imagine? All of my sisters were jealous of me. The only redhead.” She smiled with self-satisfaction as though there was still a ballerina inside of her trying to break free.
An hour in, she crossed her arms on the table. Her eyeliner was so thick it was starting to smear like tire marks. “Is this a date?”
“Do you want it to be?”
“Answer my question first.”
I touched her knee with my knee. She narrowed her eyes. That night, we had sex on my apartment floor. She kissed my knuckles, suckled each one into her mouth like she was a key unlocking something. We fell asleep on the carpet, topless and indented into each other like punctuation marks. I wanted to finish all her sentences.
I dreamed about worn ballet slippers, the Titanic, my ex-girlfriend carving her initials into my chest.
Sylvie didn’t leave my apartment for three weeks. We printed off colouring pages, listened to ambient soundscapes and read books on mammals’ life cycles. Birth. Growth. Reproduction. Death. I began to see the world through life cycles. Cooking meals, watching movies, having sex. There was always a birth. Always a death.
On weekends, I visited her at work. She worked at the Ukrainian Cultural and Education Center in the museum archives. We looked at catalogues of fine art throughout history. No matter what era portraits had been created, people always looked the same.
“Were you alive when any of these were painted?” I asked.
She gestured to an oil painting on the wall. It was from 1911. A woman stared out of a window, cheekbones hollow like a starved man. Eyes just as hungry.
I was always comparing eyes to something else—nickels in greased palms, sunflower seeds, stolen rosary beads—perhaps to relieve the tension in their natural form. To dilute their power through comparison. The fact that they were eyes was metaphor enough.
“What was her name?” Sylvie asked one June evening. We were hate-watching Groundhog Day. She’d paused the movie and was looking at me like I was an injured bird. I hated that look.
“What are you talking about?”
I swallowed. “Her name was Jen. Why do you want to know?”
“Because you think about her all the time.”
“I literally never mention her.”
Sylvie shrugged and pressed play. The day I’d met her on the highway striped in car headlights, her hair had barely curled around her ears. Now, it knifed at her jaw.
I wondered about the litany of people she carried in her memory. The Katies, Sergios, Olivers. When she touched my elbow in the grocery store, our bodies shelved between minced garlic and paprika, was it just skin to her?
The summer skidded by. It was hot. Most of the time, I avoided doing work. I was a freelance graphic designer who never checked her emails. I needed the variety of options—multiple projects at once—or else I began to feel like I was in a washing machine. The same cycle over and over again.
We cooled ourselves on my apartment balcony in the mornings and made homemade lemonade. We went to outdoor festivals and touched shoulders under the sun. We ignored calls from friends we didn’t care about and ran our tongues along kiwi fuzz until they went numb.
She had peculiar ways of showing her affection: an apple sliced into sixteen cubes. A half-dead flower crown made out of weeds. A note on my pillow that read “go to bed early.”
I started to mouth the word “love” to myself when she was asleep. I wanted to feel its roundness—hold its weight on my tongue. I could see a future where I tucked her into bed, seventy-two years old, with the laughter of dogs. We would steal the blanket from each other, echo the same stories we’d already heard, combine our pants drawers until they were indistinguishable, nothing but cashmere and denim.
“What happens after you die?” I asked one night. We were sitting in the stairwell, too drunk to make it to my apartment. I curled circles around her wrist bones and watched the bulkhead lights torpedo across her face. “I mean, what’s in between one life and the next?”
“It’s hard to describe. It feels like a hallway. I see all of my lives like windows along the wall. Each one looks out onto something different.”
“Which life was your favourite?”
She was silent for a moment. Licked her lips slowly. “The one where I was loneliest.” I looked at the landing six steps above us, the door humming in its frame. I wished she had said this one.
“Do you think it’ll ever stop?” I looked at her. I felt angry. “Or will you keep recycling different bodies and lives until the universe collapses?”
She laughed and took her hand away from mine. She cracked her neck. “I don’t think about that.”
Sweat had collected on the bud of her chin. Her cheeks were rosy from cheap wine. She looked like a child, one that I wanted to protect and hold and brush my hands through her hair for the rest of time until there was nothing left to hold on to.
I wasn’t sure if she was a pathological liar or a saint.
The rice started to smell. I didn’t know rice could mold until I had bugs crawling across the tile. I spent three days vacuuming every inch of the apartment until Sylvie complained about the noise.
I thought about expiry dates. The natural decay of everything good.
We started to fight over the dishes. Quarreled about who was making dinner more often than the other, and why wasn’t I vegetarian? Didn’t I care about the animals?
“You’re afraid of getting stuck,” she said. “It kills your ambition.”
“You aestheticize everything. You live in a snowglobe.”
“I literally don’t know what that means.”
“You believe in delusions,” I said.
“You don’t believe in anything.”
In late August, there was a heat wave. The power went out across the city. We went to the Exchange District and walked through the blaze. When our shoulders touched, they were sticky. We recoiled.
After dinner, I stood under the cold shower and opened my mouth. I waited for it to fill me up.
On the first day of fall, she broke up with me in a shopping mall cafeteria. It felt like I had been there before, like I had said and done the exact same things.
“Listen to me,” I said.
“I don’t want to anymore.”
That night, I felt a phantom aching in my knuckles. I kissed them until they were dried out, scabbed with my saliva and my regret. I was so melodramatic. I watched a documentary about climate change and sobbed the whole way through. I thought about the universe we were scarring from the inside out. We get so many chances and we still fuck it up.
Two years later, I thought I saw her again. I was in Berlin with a girlfriend—femme librarian, rainbow nails, avoidant attachment. She was attending a conference and I was browsing a collection of vintage paperbacks at an outdoor bookstore when I found it. Ballerinas Throughout History. The cover showed the side-profile of a red-haired woman, arm raised in fourth position. Blood flushed the back of her head and trimmed down her gown. My vision slammed.
I bought the book for six euros and read it cover to cover by hotel lamplight. There was no mention of a ballerina murdered with a bottle of gin—no ballerina with thirteen sisters—no ballerina with a smile that could zip through you.
When my girlfriend got back to our room, tipsy from corporate-paid German beer, the windows clattering with a one a.m. thunderstorm, she laughed at me and the book in my hands. I told her it was for a research project. I put it in the second drawer for someone else to find.
I stood by the hotel window and watched cars belt through the dark street. Their headlights looked like crow’s eyes. They swerved in the hissing rain and I imagined where Sylvie was now, whether she was in a stranger’s bedroom, a work meeting, or a car driving along a highway, out into the years.
Courtney Bill is currently pursuing a degree in creative writing. Her work has appeared in PRISM International, Canthius, Literary Heist, Frighten the Horses, This Side of West, and elsewhere. Her short fiction was runner-up for the 2022 Grouse Grind Lit Prize for V Short Forms.