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Eternal Sunshine

Story by Tom McMillan September 30, 2019

Art by Anna Korsun

When my sister was twenty, she married this man, a grizzled jock with a trumpet for a laugh, which was funny because she was shy and didn’t even own a pair of gym shorts, and though I was five years older and never really knew her and definitely didn’t know him, it seemed like a case of opposites attracting so nobody was completely surprised when whispers started circling about trouble in paradise, which is a silly expression because nobody describes a marriage as paradise, and while you never know what’s going on inside a relationship, we all assumed it was his fault, that he never did laundry, drank too much, insisted on having six kids, though to be fair my sister was almost pathologically sedentary and marriages grow stale pretty quickly if you’re not interested in taking cooking lessons, playing co-ed volleyball, going out for going out’s sake.

It was the kindest divorce you could imagine–I’ve had brunches more confrontational–but by the end my sister was skinny as a shadow and her silence twisted into something dark and deep, and she spent every free moment watching Netflix, until one day I called up and told her to forget her failed marriage and start dating, online if needed, so long as she found someone sensible who’d take better care of her heart, which was admittedly a funny thing to say but we didn’t talk about our feelings a lot, and sure my sister could’ve snapped back with a jagged question about my own marriage, how I played video games alone every night and my wife saved her cutest outfits for work, but at least we were still together, still making it work, which might be why she simply replied, yes, of course, will do.

Life moves fast, even when you’re lonely, even when your heart is healing, and so I guess it’s no surprise that a few years later my sister met a sweet, dimpled guy who worked in HR, and they both liked puzzles, and whenever I saw them at family events they always seemed connected, as if they were going through life on a tandem bicycle, and soon my sister was pregnant, going to have a girl, and we all watched them debate baby names and told ourselves that she’d found happiness at last and, hey, didn’t things work out for the best?

Then one day I ran into him, the jock with a trumpet laugh, on the train back from Toronto, so I went over to shake his hand and he introduced me to a blonde in a pantsuit, and when I said, how are you, he replied that he was wonderful, but honestly he didn’t look wonderful and the more he talked the sadder it seemed to me that the man who once dreamed of having a half-dozen kids and backpacking across Asia was now showing me pictures of poodles in holiday sweaters and gushing about being on the partner track, and sure this happens to all of us, real happiness requires accepting the distance between childhood dreams and adult reality, but it seemed truly sad that the life he’d forged for himself didn’t include all that he’d dreamt of when I first knew him, and I felt glad that I’d found my own sensible partner, that our lukewarm relationship never ran too hot or too cold, and that my sister had forged a better life.

When the conversation turned, I hesitated, but it’d been years since the divorce, so I told him about my sister’s new car, her pregnancy, the new home in Kanata, all the trivial details that make up a life, and long after I’d returned to my seat I kept thinking about the gleam that came into his eyes, a light that filled his face and didn’t fade until her name was gone, and now I really felt bad for him, and I pitied the blonde woman too, and I remembered this sadly funny movie where an estranged couple erases all memories of each other using a medical procedure offered by a company called Lacuna, which was a word that I’d never heard before so I grabbed my phone and learned that lacuna meant a gap in something, like a missing page, and as I stepped off the train I thought that was exactly what my sister’s ex needed, a machine to create lacunas, to wipe away all memory of that ruinous marriage so that he could be happy with the wife he had, the partner he’d picked.

Weeks later, I ran into my sister and her new husband shopping downtown, and when he darted into Starbucks I turned and said, oh I ran into your ex on the train, because it still unsettled me, you know, that light that’d flared in his eyes and also because it made me feel good about my own marriage to discuss someone’s ex-husband, and when my sister asked how he was, I said, well, he seemed fine, because suddenly it didn’t feel right to be gossiping about this man’s sorrows, so I told her all about the poodles and the partner track, and as I talked my sister’s eyes started shining, two glowing embers, and I had this sudden sense that she was remembering a feeling for that grizzled jock that’d been buried deep, and I watched that light burn until her husband returned clutching an Americano and then, poof, it was gone, not that she was unhappy with him, not at all, but now she was just like the rest of us, and walking away it occurred to me for the first time that good marriages can fail and bad marriages last, and that even if there was no rewinding time they must have had something great, something binding, to shine their eyes a decade later, and as I drove home and cracked a cold beer, I wished that I loved someone that much.


Notes from Guest Reader Rupert Dastur

I’m in awe of this flash. The voice is utterly convincing and lends a genuine intimacy to the piece that makes the final line devastating. The tone, style, structure, observational detail… everything synthesises to perfection. It doesn’t get any better than this.

About the Author

Tom McMillan‘s work has appeared in the Toronto Star, Grain, Dalhousie Review (forthcoming), Pithead Chapel, Feathertale Review and other kind publications. He is a past winner of the Toronto Star Short Story Contest and the Alberta Magazine Award for Fiction, and was short-listed for the CBC Short Story Prize.

About the Artist

Anna Korsun, performing in this photo, is a composer, sound artist and performer based in Germany. Anna’s creative work involves musical composition, installation, performance and sound art. She works within different settings and media, from solo music to orchestra, including acoustic instruments, voice, electronics and found acoustic objects. She collaborates with visual artists, dancers, and thespians.

Sergey Khismatov is a Russian artist and composer whose work has been featured all over the world. His chamber opera cycle received the Advocacy Award in Boston Metro Opera, and he won the first prize in Hof Klang composition competition. After being the Hof Klang artist-in-residence, he proceeded to receive the St. Petersburg Culture Award. He is a laureate of Franz Josef Reinl-Stiftung, Neue Toene and Musique Bruitiste. Luigi Russolo – Rossana Maggia competitions.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Six of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Six

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