Liam paces up and down the grocery store aisles. His movement is rapid, frantic even, fingers drumming against his sides at different intervals like hatches not battened in a storm.
His eyes scan up, down, across the shelves — searching, searching, searching. A desperate gaze probing waves of colors and shapes and heights clashing so heavily they homogenize.
Where is it, he says, where could it be? It was here, I know it was here.
He thinks he knows it was here, at least. If he doesn’t find it, he’s not sure what to do. “It” being a small glass bottle labeled “Vermont Maple Syrup.” “It” being one of the first few English words he’s seen outside of his computer screen, the paperback he brought with him, or the other things in his flat. “It” being a taste of comfort from a far away origin.
Surrounded by symbols that are foreign to him, native to many more. The reason that Elsie left. If he could just find that bottle. Maybe he'd get the message — maybe, there's a map.
The characters on the products on the shelf make their own unique sounds when spoken aloud. But he doesn’t speak them aloud. Wasn’t taught this alphabet in school, he doesn’t try to repeat it now. Figures he will one day, but it’s only so recently that he decided to stay — why did he decide to stay? — and so for now the sounds they make are very unlike a storm, quite as the space before.
Silent as the one room flat where his native language is no longer used unless he’s on the phone. The flat where a storm might be brewing, if he doesn’t find this bottle.
Liam was on the phone yesterday actually when he last saw — thought he saw — the leaf-shaped jar. His mother had called right before. He walked down the street talking to her, lot’s of:
Yeah mom. I’m fine. Yes. I’m okay. Nothing new here.
Then a lot more of:
She left because she had too. And I wouldn’t have wanted her to stay if she felt unhappy. She made her choice, I made mine. It’s another country, sure, but that’s what I wanted to see.
He remembers now, as he turns down another aisle — maybe this is the one — how he turned into the small market. Eager to get off the street, end the call, when he passed it right there.
He’d come in the door, ripped down the aisle, loud voice, then quieted, suddenly self-conscious of his comfort, privilege. Speaking his foreign language with so much authority.
Liam had looked down at his feet then, up around him to see who was casting their gaze, even more shame to find that no-one was. The judgment Liam felt, a lifetime of conditioning, of being the one judging what they told to him were foreign sounds.
Now that he was making them, well nobody really cared. They just carried on without him.
He'd hung up on his mom anyways, but before he did, he’d caught the bottle out the corner of his eye. Too busy to stop and pick it up, not busy to continue rehashing why Elsie left.
Bye Mom, he’d said.
How many times could he say:
She was lonely. Even with me, here, she was lonely.
The aisle that Liam has turned down now is loaded with bottles of oil, turns to rows of candles, fills out into plump and crinkly wrapped rolls of toilet tissue. They don’t keep the maple syrup down aisles like this.
If I was home, there’d be an entire aisle of syrups alone. One shelf total for everything else in this store here. If I was home...
He thinks about the empty flat — home now. Liam and Elsie had come to get away from the aisles and aisles of maple syrup options. They’d run towards a place where that one shelf became the whole store.
Elsie is gone now. Without a language to share, she had to leave. Left without one too. Not one for all that they’d seen together, not one for all that they hadn’t been able to.
In the end the language that she didn’t understand became so loud it was the only thing she heard. Nothing was loud enough to cut through the buzz, nothing else at all until loneliness spoke up.
Liam had remembered why he left, why he decided to stay. Hadn't heard the loneliness at first. Now the sound’s getting to him, too. If he could just find that…
Where is the damn syrup? Liam says.
He wants to shout. Flashes a memory of how his family used to look at a too-loud foreigner. Probably spent time staring at a too-loud foreigner just yesterday. Liam expects the same if he were to do the same.
An attendant walks by. Orange vest. A life saver. Liam wants to grab it. Can’t reach it.
He turns down another aisle — packages he recognizes, characters he doesn’t. Can’t get to the life saver, can’t call out a sound more sonorous than the storm, or the seclusion. It's funny, he had seen one yesterday — before the boat had started sinking. In the form of a small glass leaf. So oblivious to needing it that he didn't register its purpose.
You never think you need a life vest until the moment you do.
Another aisle passes in a blur. His fingers tap faster against his thigh. Thinks of picking up his phone, but who would he call? Everyone is asleep on the other side of the world, dreaming through these storms that are starting in far off places.
Even Elsie. Been gone so long she’s shed the jet-lag like a layer of dirty clothes. Home, asleep.
After a lap, Liam’s back in front of the toilet paper again. His back presses to the crackling wall of plastic wrap. Sinks down to a seat. Brings his knees to his chest in mock imitation of his first position in this life.
Rain is falling down his face. Rain?
Tears, Liam says. I’m fucking crying over maple syrup.
Liam sits like this for a while, head in his knees. Blue, black, grey, sorrow. Then, a different color floats by. Orange, flaming bright orange. Liam looks up, the life vest bobbing in front of him. A person, bobbing in front of him.
She extends him a hand. You can’t hold a storm, he thinks. Rain continues falling down his cheeks. She pulses her hand forward. Liam takes it now. Firm grip, she pulls him up to his feet.
A flow of beautifully fluid sounds gush from her mouth. She could be saying anything.
You’ve been rescued.
You can’t cry here.
This is pathetic.
All he can say is, Sorry, I don’t … Sorry I’m down here.
Now that he’s up, Liam expects her to go off somewhere, to shake her head. Tell her coworkers,
Thus is our country. Learn the language.
Instead, she stands there, stares at him. Actually bobbing now on her toes.
Can you help — I mean… Liam looks around. Fingers playing an instrument on the outside of his thigh until they’re tapping on a glass screen. Loading, loading, loading.
And there it is, that little leaf jar. An S.O.S. constructed from a billion pixels an image of a glass displayed on a piece of glass.
Liam shows it to her. Excited words. A laugh. A smile, and a pat on his arm. She grabs his wrist, the same firm strong grip that lifted him from the sunken bottom. Her orange vested power pulls him a few aisles over.
They stop, and she looks at Liam. Liam looks at her, scans the shelves. There’s nothing here he recognizes, except the empty space where something should be.
He fears what’s coming. She points to the gap. The jar, or at least all the syrup it holds, might actually be found in his throat, right now, choking back the rain.
She says some more words — beautiful as a prayer, both are worthless to him. His rain is falling again. She shows him one finger, pointing towards the sky. No, he thinks, the rain is coming from me. And wherever that prayer was sent, there probably isn’t anybody home.
Home. It’s empty there, he could’ve used a taste of his old one.
She extends the hand directly towards him, finger pointed upward still. Not wagging, pushing the air like a button. Turns on her heels, heads away from him. Elsie.
The woman heads into a back room. Liam understands now. She is like Elsie — looking for a shape to fill the gap, knowing that that shape can't be found with him.
Liam says it to no-one, All I wanted was a taste of home.
She’s back in a short moment. Empty handed. This time, her voice is a patter that precedes a slow rain. She moves past him, away. The torrent rolls down Liam’s face, now the tone of his isolation is at a whisper but as she walks farther on, his return to that empty ocean expanse, abandoned flat, is inevitable.
Yet she stops, another motion to him. Not one finger pointing, the whole hand again, scooping out the high pressure air between them.
Come here, she’s saying. Liam can’t hear what it sounds like.
She turns to her coworker, says a few things in a peel as rapid and smooth as stripping a banana. The coworker looks at Liam with a tender smile. Waves his hand. Brings the waves of the storm a bit lower, but Liam’s confused by the peace.
She takes off the vest, that bright orange life saver. Liam follows her out the door.
Liam follows her down a sidewalk.
She says nothing to him, but plenty to the people she passes. Hanging out of doors, walking their dogs, emptying their bins.
They speak back to her, wave at Liam. He begins to hear, for the first time, what it is they are saying.
Different sounds for the word, “hello.”
Finally, she reaches a small shop. They stop, the storm still squalling inside Liam, not raining, slow enough for him to get a bearing of where he’s at.
I’ve passed here before, he says. I just never…
She smiles, shrugs.
A sign hangs from the roof above. Pictures of food that he’s not ready to eat. He wanted something specific, something that felt like his. But this is what he has.
She opens the door and the sun rises through it, no longer fighting the battle of illuminating a twistering gale. The smells, homely, just not his, overwhelm Liam. He’s not hungry in the way that she thinks. What does she think?
She’s inside the restaurant now, the same five fingers beckon to a table. Looks like she thinks he should sit.
Liam slides down a bench. She approaches a counter. More laughter, more voices, these ones sound like the creamy interior of an avocado; pop sweet and tart like the seeds of a pomegranate.
For the next five minutes they sit opposite each other, without a word exchanged. He plays it over again, the noise for “hello.” When the plate of pancakes is set down in front of them. Liam practices the sound, a pure, surprised reaction. The first flower after a long winter season.
Hello, he says to the pancakes.
Thank you, Liam says. His own language — another reaction.
Here comes the rain again. Not lashing this time, nourishing, cleansing.
She replies with nothing, looking down at her plate, trying not to catch his eye.
A bottle cap is unscrewed, brown liquid flows the vessel, pours from the point of a leaf.
Now she looks up. Liam can’t help it. He laughs. She joins him. The sounds of this place become too loud to hear the loneliness.