We don’t talk about death and grief often enough even though they are something that affects everyone. Our own mortality seems like a concept that is far away and so does that of the people around us. And you can grieve more than just people: the chances you missed, the opportunities and the life you never had, the right decisions you should have made that you only saw after the fact.
What we talk about even less than that seems to be the after. When people are gone, those wrong decisions made and the opportunities lost, how does life pan out?
“The Days to Come” is a story about this ‘after’. A story both about grieving the things of the past but also finding solace in the community of others that have gone through the same as us. It is a story of future possibilities, of the life ahead — as imperfect as it might be without this person you loved.
I hope you will like the story. I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Shen Qiu leafed through the pages of the photo album, taking a moment to look at each of the pictures before he turned to the next. Sometimes, he touched one of them, his fingertips lingering on the face of the other man in the picture just like his gaze. A hint of nostalgia was contained in his eyes and there was a faint smile on his lips that told of the fond memories of the past.
Finally, after barely a dozen pages had been turned, he was greeted by an empty slot. He didn’t bother to go any further. He knew what the rest of the book looked like. Every page after this one was the same: Slots already prepared with those little photo corners for photos that would never come, photos that could never be made.
He sighed and leaned over to put the photo album down on the coffee table. Looking up, he saw Ye Rong standing in the door, leaning against the door frame and watching him. “How long have you been there?”
Ye Rong shook his head and stepped back into the kitchen. Shen Qiu could hear him open the cupboards and clatter with the dishes. He just stayed where he was, glancing at that album again.
He was tempted to pick it up again, to have just another look even though he knew all the pictures by heart. He knew it was idiotic, he knew he would just hurt himself. The past couldn’t be brought back and neither could the people that had left. Whatever future he had hoped to have with George, it was already gone forever, nothing but a dream.
Ye Rong emerged from the kitchen again and sat down on the other side of the couch, handing him a steaming cup.
Shen Qiu raised his brows when he accepted it and his smile brightened a little. “You know, you make the world’s best hot chocolate. I won’t let anybody tell me otherwise.”
“You looked like you needed one.”
Shen Qiu lifted his gaze from the drink and shook his head. “I probably look like I need a shot more than anything else.”
Ye Rong nodded and turned his gaze away, rubbing his hands against each other. He had known this day would come. He had dreaded it almost as much as that day next spring that would mark Marielle’s fifth death anniversary.
It had been tough enough to handle when he was still alone. Now that they had started to date, there was this indistinct feeling of guilt. Thinking about it rationally, he knew that he wasn’t betraying her. They had had a beautiful time and it had ended much too soon but nobody could ever take that from them.
Still, Marielle was gone and only he was left. He believed that she would have wanted him to find happiness again in another person. He certainly would have wanted that for her if he had gone before his time. And yet, the feeling was still there. Maybe it would never cease.
Shen Qiu certainly didn’t feel different and it wouldn’t help that George’s death was more recent. Then again, what was the difference between a year or two when it came to grieving the love of your life? Even if they waited another five years or even ten, they might still feel the same.
While he was lost in thought, Shen Qiu stirred the hot chocolate and took out the spoon, licking the leftover liquid from it. He put it on the small plate and just kept the cup in his hands. The warmth made him feel comfortable even though there was another pang of pain in his heart when the thought crossed his mind that he and George would never get to have this kind of cozy autumn afternoon.
He took a shallow breath and turned to look out of the window. The sun was shining brightly, the leaves of the maple trees in the backyard had already turned red and orange, making for a splendid picture. The wind ruffled through them, making him feel fortunate to be inside.
“George always loved those rainy autumn days, not like this one.”
Ye Rong raised his head and then turned back to him, pulling up the blanket that lay to the side and spreading it over Shen Qiu’s legs before he gently rubbed his thighs. “It’s always hardest around the day it happened or … any anniversary, really.”
Shen Qiu nodded. It had only been two years so he felt like he couldn’t judge. To him, every single day had felt like a nightmare since the minute he got that call from the hospital.
When he and Ye Rong got closer, he had felt like he could breathe again for the first time. And yet, it also made him feel like an absolute asshole, a self-centered prick who might not have loved his partner as much as he thought. Moving on after just a year and a half, wasn’t he too fickle? How could he already be over it by now?
That thought always hit him hardest on days like this. Then, he would just spiral again. Those memories of the past were unbearable but so was his present day. He didn’t know what to do with himself or his life. He was like a man almost drowning, holding onto a piece of driftwood and somehow staying afloat only to lose his grasp time and time again. Still, he held onto that lifeline, refusing to let it out of his sight and just surrender to fate.
He sighed again and picked up one of the little marshmallows that Ye Rong had put at the side of the plate. “You don’t have to stay around. It’s alright to just … go and do something on your own.”
Ye Rong’s hands stilled on his knees. He pondered for a moment. “Do you want me to leave?”
Shen Qiu reeled when the question was suddenly reflected back on him. “I …” He looked up at the ceiling and shook his head. “I don’t know. I would love to make myself leave but I can’t do that.”
Ye Rong nodded and leaned closer, grasping one of Shen Qiu’s hands. “I know. Don’t worry. I won’t leave. I’ll stay here.” Actually, he was sure that Shen Qiu would only become more anxious if he left. It might help for a bit but then he would just worry what he was doing, where he had gone … whether he would return.
It was the same for him sometimes when Shen Qiu went to the doctors. Somehow, deep down, there was always the expectation of him bringing back bad news. He would only ever heave a sigh of relief when he had asked several times whether everything was alright.
In this regard, he had to thank his lucky stars that Shen Qiu was patient with him. But maybe that was to be expected since they had met in a bereavement group. They knew each other’s history so they could guess what would set the other off and why most of the time. That was probably also why they had hit it off so fast.
He sighed when he thought of that and glanced at Shen Qiu’s eyes. He hadn’t seen him cry today but his mood was down. “Do you want to go back to China?”
Shen Qiu looked at him in confusion. “China? Why would we?”
Ye Rong smiled when Shen Qiu immediately said ‘we’ as if there was no way for him to even think that he might go alone. “Because everything here reminds us of them. Maybe … we need a fresh start. Maybe going back home would help with that.”
Shen Qiu nodded but then immediately shook his head. “No, let’s stay. You know, you’re not wrong.” He pulled back his hands and grasped the cup of hot chocolate more tightly, staring into it as if he could read the future from it or maybe find a window to the past.
“When I look at the things in the house, I remember how George would go and straighten them out, making sure there wasn’t a single crease on the sofa cushions or that the small statues on the mantle of the fireplace were perfectly centered. I still see him in that ridiculous apron with the frills and that duster in his hand, proudly telling me how those feathers were much better than those modern ones with the microfiber attachments.
“He hated when I made a mess but he would still make me breakfast the next day, even if it almost made me blow my top again when he insisted on accurately spacing the dishes and the cutlery. I … I sometimes think that I should have been less angry. Those little annoyances, why couldn’t I ignore them? I should have just smiled and thanked him. Now, I can’t even remember if I did the day he died.”
Ye Rong lowered his gaze, not sure what to say. This was the one part he hadn’t experienced: the suddenness. Marielle’s condition had slowly deteriorated. They had both known the day would come when she had to go. They had hoped that it would be different, of course, but it had become clearer and clearer with each day. They had had time to come to terms with her impending passing and he had gotten the chance to say his farewell. It was the one saving grace in this whole disaster.
On the other hand, Shen Qiu had lost George to an accident that nobody could have seen coming. By the time he arrived at the hospital, it had already been too late. Most likely, he would never forgive himself for that. To not have been able to be there in his last moments, it had probably been the worst part.
Shen Qiu took a deep breath and shook his head, rubbing his eyes. “Anyway, you are right that there are too many memories tied up in this place. It’s not even just the house. I know every person living down this street and what he thought of them. I know exactly where to go in the district if I need something from a store because he showed me around when I came here. I remember by heart which of the stones on the pavement I should avoid because they’ve become loose over time, or where I could take shelter if a storm comes while I’m not quite home. It’s all etched into my mind because I experienced those things with him.
“And yet, I can’t leave. I came here … because I couldn’t take it back home. Having to hide my orientation, myself, every single day is just something I can’t do. When I met George and heard him talk about how things are over here … I started to long for this world.
“Granted, I always wanted to experience it with him. But even now that he’s gone, I still prefer Canada. I’ve fallen in love with the country as much as I did with George. And I don’t want to lose another loved one.” He gazed at Ye Rong and then reached out to take his hand. “Be honest with me: Can you take staying here? Or is it getting too much?”
Ye Rong immediately squeezed his hand when he realized the implications behind this. “Don’t worry. I’m the same. I just …” He shook his head. “These five years, I’ve been mostly overcome with grief. It’s becoming easier, especially since the day we met, but it’s not gone and it never will.
“A part of me will always think of her and ask ‘what if?’. I can’t change that. And yes, sometimes I think it might be easier if I wasn’t reminded of her every day. But on the other hand, it sometimes gives me strength to be here. I feel like as long as I stay here, as long as I walk the same roads as she did, as long as I live in the same place she did, as long as I am able to hold onto that, she won’t be completely gone.”
“You’re afraid to forget.”
Ye Rong nodded. “Afraid to forget and also afraid that I don’t understand. There were so many differences between us and some days, I can’t help but ask myself ‘What would Marielle have thought about this?’ and I … can’t come up with anything because I don’t know. Despite the fact that we were together for seven years, there are many things we never talked about, many things I never knew about her. It hurts and I feel like I would be much less confronted with such things if I didn’t stay.”
Shen Qiu nodded and then looked back out the window, watching the maple leaves dance in the wind. Not knowing the other person completely … he also felt that. In fact, he might know Ye Rong better than he ever had George. Admitting that to himself pained him but it was nonetheless the truth. “We can’t make up for it now.”
Ye Rong nodded. “We can’t.”
Shen Qiu turned back to him, put down the cup of hot chocolate, and gave a faint smile. “Let’s … let’s not make the same mistakes.”
Ye Rong shook his head and slid closer, pulling Shen Qiu into his arms. “There were no mistakes. That’s just how life is. We will never … know everything or do everything. We just can’t, no matter how much we want to. Even if we stay together until we’re old and our hair has turned white, we might still be able to discover something new about each other and even about ourselves. Don’t be afraid of that.”
Shen Qiu sighed and wrapped his arms around Ye Rong’s shoulders. “I know. I just …” He shook his head and sighed. “I regret so many things and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Ye Rong stayed quiet for a bit and just rubbed his back. “Talk to me?” This was the only thing he could offer. He couldn’t bring George back for him in the same way that he could never get Marielle back. He also couldn’t tell him what he wanted to know. He could only be there and listen and tell him what he thought. He didn’t know if it would be enough but it was better than nothing. Especially on this kind of day.
Shen Qiu didn’t answer at first but he did hug him back and buried his face at his shoulder. He took a deep breath, the familiar scent of Ye Rong’s body wash calming him down. It was such a major difference to the one of George’s cologne that it always helped him stay grounded in the present day.
Sometimes, when he was alone, he wondered if he would suddenly be woken from the sound of the door and an umbrella being opened and closed to get rid of the droplets outside. Then he would realize he had fallen asleep on the couch and the last two years had only been a bad dream. George would come in, telling him about the horrible weather outside with a smile that showed he clearly didn’t mind the rain and had actually enjoyed himself.
Those moments were the worst when he had really fallen asleep here. He would be disoriented, unsure of what to expect next. Even seeing Ye Rong didn’t help for a moment and would instead make his heart tumble into despair.
He still missed George terribly even though he was trying to move on. At the same time, he couldn’t help but wonder if he was doing Ye Rong a disservice. He should never be disappointed to see him. Having those feelings meant that he clearly wasn’t over it yet and that maybe he didn’t love him enough. He would have liked to ask if he sometimes felt the same about him and Marielle but he didn’t dare to. The question might hurt Ye Rong and the answer might hurt himself. Why should he do that to either of them?
Shen Qiu took another deep breath and then raised his head, looking into Ye Rong’s eyes while he brushed over his cheek with his fingertips.
Ye Rong kept still, just quietly looking back at him and giving him the time he needed to come to terms with whatever was going through his mind.
Finally, Shen Qiu lowered his hand and sighed before he forced himself to give a faint smile even though it became crooked. “How about you make us two more cups of that lovely hot chocolate? We could watch a movie.”
“Are you sure you’re in the mood?”
Shen Qiu shook his head and pulled back, taking the blanket with him. “No. But I’m in the mood for nothing so might as well do this.” He picked up the half-empty cup and drunk the rest in a big gulp before handing it back to Ye Rong.
His lover looked at him for a moment longer and then nodded. “Alright.” He got up and grabbed the plate from the table as well, letting Shen Qiu grab the other marshmallow before he disappeared back into the kitchen.
Shen Qiu sat on the couch a little longer before he sighed and got up, wiping his eyes to make sure there were no tears left. He went to look for a movie they could watch but standing in front of the collection, he was at a loss.
Half of these had been bought by George. They were more to his taste than Shen Qiu’s and especially today, he wasn’t sure if he could deal with that. The ones they had seen carried the memories of those cozy afternoons where they had been huddled together on the couch or in bed, either silently watching while enjoying each other’s company or talking about what was happening on screen if the movie was less serious.
As for the ones he hadn’t seen yet, he was afraid of what he might see. He couldn’t watch anything that reminded him of what had happened and he didn’t want to deal with anyone’s grief but his own and Ye Rong’s. That alone was difficult enough. A movie was meant to distract him from it, not remind him of it even more.
While he was staring blankly at the spines of the movies, Ye Rong stepped into the door, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “I made the hot chocolate just like you like it. Do you want some marshmallows with it as well?”
Shen Qiu turned to him and nodded. “I feel like today is the kind of day where I could eat the whole bag.”
Ye Rong smiled. “You can. I’ll put it on the table.” He furrowed his brows. “Or maybe I’ll get us a bowl at least.” He wanted to turn away when he stopped in his tracks again and motioned over to the couch with his head. “How about I choose the movie instead?”
Shen Qiu didn’t know what to say at first. In the end, he just nodded. “Sure.” Then, he went back over and sat down, pulling the blanket over his knees and picking up his cup.
Ye Rong got a bowl from the kitchen, poured the marshmallows inside, and put it on the table as well before he went to turn on the movie. After that, he went to sit down next to Shen Qiu, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and holding him quietly.
Ye Rong had chosen a comedy for them, the absurd kind that he knew George would have hated from what Shen Qiu had told him about his late lover. It also happened to be a Chinese one, something that he hadn’t been too big on either. With this choice, he felt like the chance to remind Shen Qiu of something sad would be as small as possible.
They watched quietly and Shen Qiu’s lips showed the faintest of curls every now and then, even though his eyes still showed the deep hurt in his heart. On this day, that was probably more than what could be expected.
On this day, just a moment of normalcy in the new life they were starting to create for themselves was enough. For everything else, there would be the days to come.