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Black Hole

Updated: Feb 15

The first time I laughed from my stomach after Matilde’s death, it felt like a betrayal. We were at my cousin Tomi’s birthday dinner. Tomi had told us a joke that his new Moroccan boss had told him and the entire room collapsed in laughter. In the aftermath, as I wiped the tears at the edges of my eyes, I realised that I had not laughed like that since Matilde had died. I had not known that I would ever be able to laugh like that again and it felt as though I should not be laughing while my sister’s small body was buried in the earth, her remains decaying into dust. After we had all laughed, the topic of conversation moved to the quality of food at the restaurant and Tomi and his wife, Dianne, disagreed about whether or not this Thai restaurant had better khao neeo mamuang than the one downtown.

It was Tomi’s 37th birthday dinner and I had given him an excuse weeks earlier that I would not be able to make it. He had come round to my flat, sat on the solitary settee in my living room and Fiona had curled up onto his laps, and he told me that I must come, that everyone would be there - Aunty Lade and Uncle Franklyn and Banke and David - and wouldn’t it be good to see them all again after so long?

I had not seen them since the funeral - and even at the funeral, I had not really seen them. When I remember Matilde’s funeral, all I see is her casket on the pall, with the lights that fell through the church windows leaving streaks across the white wood. There had been a large bouquet of easter lilies - our mother’s favourite - on the coffin and that is all I remember. The faces are a blur. The sermon and eulogies - even the one I gave - are a blur.

I had not seen them since the funeral and even now I did not want to see them. People mean well but people are people and concern quickly turns to pity and I already pity myself. But Tomi refused to take No for an answer and wouldn’t leave until I promised to show up for his birthday dinner. We ordered doner kebabs from the Turkish place downstairs and had too many beers. Tomi staggered to the door as he was leaving and took a long time putting his coat on. After he left, Fiona stood by the door, meowing, and refused to follow me to bed.

It was on the train home that night after Tomi’s birthday dinner that it dawned on me for the first time since Matilde died that I might be okay one day. That one day I might wake up without the heaviness in my chest that had now become a part of who I was. One day I might wake up and not have to sit at the edge of my bed for long minutes willing myself to stand up. One day the sound of my own laughter might not be a stranger to me. I didn’t remember my life before Matilde’s death. I remembered our childhood; I remember fishing for rock bass at Kenollie Creek with our stepfather; bike rides through Port Credit on hot summer days; swimming at Lions Club for hours until the lifeguards kicked us out; tobogganing in Bronte Park; ice skating on the frozen Credit River. And then there is nothing up until February 17th when Tomi called me and said Matilde was dead. I remember what I was doing and where I was when he called; I was sitting at my desk and for the umpteenth time I had been trying to move Fiona away from blocking my view of the laptop.

I didn’t remember my life before Matilde’s death; I didn’t remember what it felt like not to grieve and not to be emotionally desolate. I didn’t remember Málaga or Vegas, places that I had lived in for years. I didn’t remember Cassandra and Angélique and Lorraine, women I had loved and let slip away. It was as though Matilde died and all the memories that did not involve her were sucked into a black hole.

I had not spoken to Matilde for weeks before she died because I was angry at her and at her foolish boyfriend, Dino. I had met him once at her apartment years ago and I disliked him immediately. There was something about the way he carried himself that told me that he was two different people; one person for outsiders and one person for insiders. He was friendly and jovial; he kept telling me to add more ćevapi to my plate and did I care for more wine? But I could tell that an alternative personality bubbled underneath the façade. So, when Tomi told me that Matide had told Dianne that Dino hit her, I was furious but not surprised. I called Matilde and told her to leave him and then she got angry at Dianne for telling Tomi, who had told me. She stopped talking to all of us for some time and then she sent me a text one day and told me she was sorry and that I was right but that he had only hit her once and he promised never to do it again.

When she moved with Dino to Lima, we found out from Aunty Lade. And Aunty Lade had said it in passing at Banke’s baby shower, as though we all already knew that Matilde had been living in Peru for some weeks now and was planning on opening a small restaurant where she would sell pastries and cakes. I called Matilde and we argued on the phone and I told her that now that Dino had isolated her from her family and had dragged her to a foreign country, he could do anything to her and get away with it. She had yelled at me, said I was being as controlling as our mother had been and I should mind my own business and focus on my own failed relationships and on my own sorry life.

But I had been a sort of prophet, because Tomi called me weeks later and said that Matilde had died. Dino had beaten her to death. I remember an out of body experience - as though it was not the body of my own sister that I was going to claim; I remember flying to Lima with Tomi and waiting in the heat outside Jorge Chávez International Airport for a cab to take us to the mortuary; I remember that the police officers who met us there were late and apologetic; I remember Tomi crying as the coroner lifted back the white sheet that covered Matilde’s body to reveal her battered face; I remember signing the release form that would allow us to take her body home; I remember the small hotel room with the colourful canvas paintings on the walls and the noisy air conditioner; I remember the plates of ceviche that we ordered from room service and did not touch; I remember the sergeant who met us at the airport on our way back and promised to provide updates on their search for Dino.

It was on the train home that night after Tomi’s birthday dinner that it dawned on me for the first time since Matilde died that I might be okay one day. Matide’s death was a compounding of grief and a reopening of old wounds. When our mother had died a few years earlier, I had thrown myself into planning her funeral so that there would be no space for silence and no time to think. I went from appointment to appointment, florist to funeral home to church to cemetery right through the weeks leading up to the funeral, and dreaded those quiet moments in my flat when it was just Fiona and I and a half eaten plate at the kitchen table. It was a replica of the pattern I had carried out when we buried my stepfather a decade ago. My entire family had died. One by one. They were all gone and here I was. Who would bury me and my own sorry life?

I would be okay. They still had not found Dino. Tomi and Dianne had coughed up too much money to pay a private investigator in Lima who was not telling us anything different from what the police was telling us. I told them to let it go, but they refused. To me, arresting and imprisoning Dino would not bring Matilde back; and the thought of having to fly back to Lima for court proceedings made me feel sick.

Back home, Fiona was waiting for me by the door with an attitude. She trailed me around the flat as I got a cup of water in the kitchen, took a leak in the toilet, and changed out of my clothes in the bedroom. I crawled into bed that night and somehow, I knew that I would be okay in the end.

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