That blank space on the wall was always there and piercing its deep, colorless eyes into my soul. Sometimes, I thought it was simply meant to be there, alone and unblemished. I didn’t remember how long it had been there. Probably years, decades even, but I could never find anything to satisfy it.
I averted my eyes away and onto my book, rereading the paragraph. I was halfway finished with The Notebook and waited for the part where I’d cry, but it hasn’t come yet. I watched the movie a long time ago and I remembered crying at the end. I always cried at endings, even if it was a happily ever after. People always said I had a soft heart.
Finishing three chapters, I glanced at the aquarium where my fishes swam in harmony and smiled. After the discovery of my allergy to both cats and dogs, I went with what was best for me: a pet fish. It was only supposed to be one, but I didn’t want it to be lonely. I also liked seeing more things around the house. It was too silent sometimes.
“Eat up, my lovelies,” I said, dropping some food. I watched them swim towards it like children seeing snow for the first time and touching the snowflakes.
Then, I put on my jacket and opened the door, the chill breeze caressing my skin and the colorful leaves rustling in delight. Taking in the fresh October air, I picked up my watering can and sprinkled it on my plants. I took another deep breath, the knots in my heart from staring at the empty wall untangling a little. It was in these mundane moments that I’d find peace. In each droplet, I imagined the plant dancing with joy as I did in my childhood under the rain.
After, I filled the can up with water for tomorrow, humming a little song. I couldn’t remember the titles nor do I really listen to music anymore, but somehow, my heart still remembers the way the songs made me feel. They were memories fighting to return from war, but I couldn’t do much to help. That’s what old age did to you.
Savoring the last echoes of the water hitting the surface, I returned the can outside. Then, I sauntered back inside, marveled at the steam escaping from the mug, before grabbing my journal and pen and making my way outside to the veranda.
This was my favorite part of the day. In these times, I’d see the pulchritude of nature from the towering trees, the newly orange leaves falling on the ground, and the soft clouds. In these times, I’d take a sip of my warm tea, feel it trickle down my throat, and my heart eased. In these times, I’d write my thoughts down on the blank page. I didn’t care much about what I wrote; what mattered more was that I did.
“Good morning, Mrs. Barella,” I heard the familiar voice from most mornings. Sometimes, it was his girlfriend’s, but it wasn’t any less familiar. I looked up from the page and a few feet away was my neighbor.
He was a young man of about twenty-five and had an affable smile that never seemed to go away. He was tall and lean with golden blonde hair and looked like he was sculpted by the gods. Everytime I looked at him, I couldn’t shake off the image of someone I knew.
“Good morning,” I snapped out of my reverie. I didn’t know why they went out of their way to greet me, for they certainly didn’t need to, but I liked it. On some days, it was my only interaction with others. I still haven’t corrected them on my name, though, but it didn’t matter.
“I’m getting some medicine for Eva,” Eva is the girlfriend’s name, I noted. I didn’t know their names. “She’s been feeling sick. We think she might be pregnant, so I’m grabbing a pregnancy test as well.”
Even this far, I saw the excitement and anticipation radiating from where he stood. He wanted to be a father. “That’s wonderful,” I responded with a little smile.
For a man that looked like Apollo reincarnated and a woman that seemed as beautiful and dazzling, it was expected. Of course, they would produce offspring. They had to continue the bloodline. After all, those times when I’d accidentally catch them making out with such passion and vigor, their eyes filling with lust and hands reaching for each other’s clothes, and I’d instantly close the windows to give them privacy weren’t just for vain.
In the midst of picking up my pen, he elaborated, “Is it weird that I already feel like a father? I mean, I know it’s not confirmed yet, but I just feel like she’s pregnant, you know? Is there something like a father’s intuition? We’ve been trying a few times,” I know, I wanted to say. “But, I don’t know, what if she’s barren or something? I’d still love her, obviously, but what if?”
Barren. I hadn’t heard that word in so long. Suddenly, all the memories brought by the word washed over like waves. My throat dried up and, when I saw his eyes still darted towards me, I tried mustering a reply.
The thing was, I didn’t know the answers. I was not a man―and I knew that for a fact―nor was ever pregnant. I didn’t know why he was asking me such questions, but perhaps it was because I was old and, apparently, having lived for seventy years meant, by default, that you had wisdom and experience. I find that quite alienating, to be honest.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Barella,” he muttered, low and apologetic. “I probably overwhelmed you with those questions. I’m so sorry.”
I shook my head. “No need to apologize. If you really want my advice, if it doesn’t work out, just keep trying. If nothing good comes out of it, then find another way to make it work. You must promise me, though. You’ll still love Eva no matter what, right?”
“Of course. It’s not her fault, after all. We’ll make it work.”
When he still stood there, I playfully said, “What are you waiting for? Hurry on down and see if you’ll have a baby!”
With a huge grin plastered on his face, he uttered, “Okay, Mrs. Barella. Thank you so much,” before entering his car.
It’s Ms. Barella, I wanted to interrupt, but it was too late and of no use. He was too excited to start a family and had no use of knowing that there were some people out there who’ve grown old, spent their lives alone, and got the slightest bit of elation from watering their dry plants.
As the door closed with a thud, my eyes found the empty section once again. I scanned my eyes around the living room, taking in the glorious sight of it all. On one side of the wall were pictures of certain eras of my life: my high school graduation where medals and sashes adorned my neck, my college graduation where I was summa cum laude, two from my study abroad in Italy―one on a gondola in The Grand Canal and the other inside the Uffizi Gallery―and the other from when I retired as a professor.
Beside it were mementos of my achievements―my diplomas and certificates that I wanted the world to see. The world being me, of course. The last time I had a visitor was a long time ago and I liked it that way. There was nobody to bother me. Under it was the small table of my trophies from high school championships, university recognitions, to literary contests. They were my pride and joy; the testament to my blood, sweat, and tears from all those years of wondering if I was enough.
Then, there was the blank space. It was small, but noticeable. One could put several pictures on there, a painting, or a quote even. I’ve tried for many years, for it has been empty for that long, but my heart never felt at ease. I’ve tried placing something―anything that fits―on there, but I’d always take it down before the day ended because it didn’t feel right. The area has been empty for a while and, sometimes, I think it’s just meant to. Maybe, all I needed to do was just let it be.
Except I couldn’t. Not when, everytime I looked at the spot, it would haunt me. It made sense. In an ordinary house, especially one of a grandparent-aged person, such space would be sheathed with pictures of said person’s wedding day and their children. Perhaps, there’d even be a photograph of said person with her grandchildren in her arms, cooing at them and kissing them on the forehead.
That was the problem. I didn’t have any of that.
I wasn’t completely alone. I had siblings, though only two out of five were still alive, and I had nieces and nephews. They were like my own children, but they’ve grown up now and have families of their own. Soon enough, those kids would have one as well. That was the cycle of life and I wasn’t a part of it.
Thinking about having a husband brought on a nauseating twist to my stomach, for once upon a time, the thought didn’t seem so far away, but now the idea was as distant as the constellations of stars themselves.
Then, as my eyes traced the tiny cracks, the memories of the past rolled like an avalanche and three distinct images―three people I’d never forgotten―popped into mind. It played like a film.
His name was Theo. Brown hair, brown eyes, basketball captain, and smartest boy in school. We shared several classes together, but it was in between the overwhelming numerics in Algebra class and the wiggling worms we picked up in Biology class that we became closer. He’d greet me and wave whenever he saw me in the hallway and enunciate every syllable of my name as if he didn’t want to stop. We’d steal glances at each other and smile. It was beautiful.
It’d be in the empty gymnasium on a sunny afternoon that I’d have my first ever kiss. It was an amazing feeling; we were fourteen, so it was quite sloppy and inexperienced, but it didn’t matter because, in that moment, I felt infinite. Soon enough, we went on dates to amusement parks, at the lake, and even to his own house where his parents welcomed me with open arms. Eventually, we entered high school and it was then that my life would change.
One afternoon, while we were in his car, he told me he wanted me. I didn’t understand it at first, but I could tell from the look in his eyes. He wasn’t talking about a kiss, a hug, or holding hands; he meant sex. I told him I wasn’t ready and he understood. I thought things would be normal, but one day, he told me he didn’t love me anymore. I still remembered his last words. I remembered them all.
We’re over. I’m sorry.
I never thought I’d love again. I studied abroad in Italy in the heart of Rome for a change and it was where I met Federico. Tall and slim, curly brown hair, piercing ocean eyes, and a gentle, musical voice. He played piano and sang, read books and studied sociology, and loved sports. The first time I saw him enter the door, it felt like I’d just seen a Renaissance painting come to life.
After we were assigned a project together, we became friends. We taught each other our languages. We’d drive around the city with the windows open and blowing my hair and pop music reverberating. On rainy days, we watched movies together and cried at the end. We had that in common. When the sun blessed us and the air was cool, we sat together in his backyard and read. Somewhere in between, I fell in love.
Then, one night, I woke up and a smile crept up on my lips at the soft rhythms of his breath. There were beads of sweat forming by his abs, for he never slept with a shirt on, and I adjusted the blanket to cover him. Suddenly, I heard his phone chime and when I searched for it, I saw the words.
Ti amo, amore mio, it said. I love you, my love.
I was the one to break up with him. It didn’t make it any less painful.
Then, his last words.
I just thought we were friends. Sorry.
It took years and therapy for me to love again. What was harder, though, was learning to trust again. After my failed romances, graduating from university, and heading off to graduate school, I focused on my goals. Nothing would get in the way. I was right, but only for a short amount of time, for when I began teaching, there’d be a man that’d shake up my life yet again. This time, though, it was different.
Sebastian was unlike anyone I had ever met. He was short, had blonde hair that fell on his shoulders, and had many talents. He was a writer and a poet, but he was also a musician, and at the same time, his passion was in exploring the mysteries of the universe. We first met at a general faculty meeting in the university; he taught astrophysics and I literature. We sat across from each other on the table, but when we locked eyes, there was a knowing spark―the hint of a deeper, intrinsic connection.
After that time, in between free periods and listening to each other’s quotidian ramblings, we fell in love. Though it was rather cliché, he confessed his feelings by writing a song and playing it on his guitar. After I said yes, we dated, visited each other’s apartments from time to time, cooked each other’s meals, and three years later, he’d propose to me and, once again, I said yes.
This was it, I remember thinking to myself. This would be the man I’d marry and spend the rest of my life with.
After the proposal, we discussed the future we wanted, how many children, the size of our house, and it was in those moments that it felt real. We were deeply in love and we showed it through our intimacy every night―our relentless attempts for a child. But, as the days turned into months and years, there was nothing. There was no child and, when I went to the doctor and they told me I could never have one, the searing agony was unlike anything else.
Sebastian had been kind and even told me that there were other options. We could do a surrogate or adopt. I didn’t know how to tell him that I wanted to have one of my own, one that was my flesh and blood. I wanted to have something―someone―that was truly mine because, when everyone left, there would always be someone who’d stay.
But even Sebastian, the man who I thought completed me, the man who wanted to have children with me, the man I’d been with the longest, couldn’t stay. He said he met a woman at a conference, had been secretly dating her, and she was pregnant. He continued on, but I stopped him. I didn’t need to hear more. There was nothing else to say.
I’m sorry, Carina. You can’t help who you love.
My eyes were still on the empty space. That was the thing about my life. Things always ended. But, I remember the time when things truly ended.
I was on a hotel balcony in Cefalù, wide awake at two in the morning, and somewhere in between reading romantic poetry and sipping iced coffee under the twinkling stars, I realized I was fine on my own. I didn’t need another person to love me, I didn’t need to marry, and I didn’t need to seek out my other half because I was already whole. If I wasn’t, then I would’ve been crying, losing sleep, and chasing my ashen lovers, but it wasn’t like that. I didn’t loathe the men I once loved either, for I saw them as shooting stars, their presence merely a chapter, and three chapters didn’t make a whole book. I was hurt, yes, but the next morning, I’d get up, stretch my limbs, open the windows and let the cool air in, and everything was good.
When I blinked my eyes, I glanced at the window and realized that the sun had set. I diverted my attention from the space, put everything back in its place, turned off the lights, and turned on the lamp in my bedroom before climbing under the warm blanket. I closed my eyes and let my thoughts drift off.
Perhaps, tomorrow, I’ll have an idea for what to put on the space. Until then, I’ll look forward to waking up anytime I want, reading my book, feeding my fishes, watering my plants, and greeting my neighbors as I sit on the porch with a cup of tea and writing a new diary entry.
As a child, I kept a diary every now and then to vent out my thoughts, but when I got older, I kept one every year, for there was hope that, through the words on the page, I could be remembered.
That, maybe, it was in the monotonous scribbling of my days that could prove my existence. That, once upon a time, there was a little girl who sought for home in others when all she really needed to do was look in herself. That, as the Earth breathed, there was a young and naïve girl who searched, hoped, and loved, but the bravest thing she did was live and not for others, but for herself.