Jasmine and Vanilla
Many were typically Canadian and I spent my time wandering around them seeing if I could identify the places that were depicted. I thought I saw something of a prairie village I recognized, but it could have been any one of the thousands in my current home province of Saskatchewan that looked exactly the same. Even the people that inhabited those small canvases, displayed in rows on the wall, were the same as back home - nondescript, plain, flat, generic in a way that was all too familiar. And I was one of them. Another acrylic smear of paint on the wall whose life was reduced to several brushstrokes of an existence, and the most I felt was when someone else was looking at me and wondering aloud who I was.
As fascinating as the Beaverbrook Gallery was, it was not the purpose of my time in Fredericton, and as I wondered around the various exhibits inside, I couldn't help but consider the nature of my visit. It began with me waking up, four days earlier, from a dream and a very potent memory of someone whom I had loved and still very much love today. It was the scent of him that I recalled first when waking. Knowing instantly what it meant I cried endlessly for two days. I found out officially on the third day in a conversation over the phone. A haphazard bomb dropped on my heart.
"Oh by the way, you'll never guess who died." She said it like one of the many bits of gossip that dripped constantly from between her lips.
But I already knew.
"Tell me," I played along with as much nonchalance as I could fake. Our conversations were always like this. She never asked me anything about what I was doing or about how work was going or if I was with anyone. I was asking myself what I saw in the relationship, but I had already answered this question many times over the years. She was a reminder of my past, something I was hanging onto, and I didn't know how much I was hanging onto until she answered me.
"Gabriel Watkins. You remember the kid who was a year behind us in school? His mom was the one that got sick and died when he was really young. You know who I mean? They don't know how he died, they just found him in the forest close to where his uncle used to live."
I had not heard his name out loud for many years and I lost all sense that I was on the phone. I was brought back to the very first time we met…
He was sitting on a small wooden platform and tears were streaming down his face. It was very sad and my heart broke as I watched him unabashedly sobbing and not making a sound. This made it even more heartbreaking and I stopped and stared, mesmerized by his utter beauty. He was surrounded by sunlight, and it was glinting off the teardrops sliding down his slightly freckled face. Almost angelic the way he sat there, swinging his legs under the edge of his perch. Other students were around, running and laughing in the distance, but here, in this one place, it was pressingly quite - like the air suddenly got thicker, sound didn't seem to travel and my body labored to take in its breath. Only he and I were in this place. He noticed me, but didn't move or stem the flow shedding from his eyes. He just looked at me. I don't know what made me move toward him. If it was the need I perceived in him, or if it was my need to be near him. We were in the same school and I had never really noticed him before. Stanley High was small, only 220 students in grades six through twelve, and I should have noticed him before, but we didn't really associate much with the kids in younger grades. He was in the 7th grade and I in the 8th.
"Why are you crying?" I asked bluntly. I wanted to have more tact, but I just blurted it out.
"Go away. I don't want to talk to anyone." He said defiantly, holding his chin up as he said it. Even with his face wet with tears he had pride and wanted to show it.
It suddenly dawned on me that this was the kid that our teacher had told us about earlier in the morning. She said that Gabriel Watkins was returning to school and that we should not treat him any differently than we did before he lost his mother.
With a brutality I didn't mean I said, "You're the kid whose mom died." I expected him to run or push me or at least scream at me. "Sorry," I tried to soften the blow a bit, "I mean… I'm sorry about your mom."
Unexpectedly he smiled and looked at me. He held my gaze far longer than any other boy ever had, and I felt as if he were holding me there to that spot. Forcing me to return his penetrating stare. He knew in that moment that I had fallen in love with him, and there was nothing I could do to stop him from knowing. So I didn't stop him. Instead, I jumped up beside him so our legs were touching through our jeans, took his right hand in my left and held it in my lap.
"It'll be okay," I promised. And we sat there, him crying and me holding his hand. No one came looking for us, and no one interrupted our silent vigil. He cried and I witnessed, and neither one of us would ever be the same again.
In the years that followed we loved each other as much as two boys could love each other. We spent all of our time together when we weren't at school. We walked the tracks every weekend. We swam in the river on Friday when I walked him home from school. We made up excuses to be alone together so we could hold hands and kiss each other. As we got older we went further and stole away to the forest surrounding Nashwaak Bridge. This was where I grew up and his uncle lived not too far from me. It was also where his mother was buried up on Cemetery Road, so he would be there every week with his dad visiting his uncle and going to his mom's grave.
It was during one of these evenings, in my 16th year, after he had gone to see his mom, that he put his head on my shoulder and told me something that I've never forgotten. It was after we had made out in the grassy clearing behind my house, where you could see Crossing Creek in the distance, and the old covered bridge I used to jump off as a kid. A breeze was blowing through the clearing and he shivered so I tightened my grip around his shoulders. Both of us were staring at the sky, lying in the grass, intertwined with each other. His lips were raw from where I had mauled him with my mouth, and he had the dreamy far off look of someone who was wholly content.
"You're a great kisser you know." I told him.
He ignored my statement and kept looking at the sky. "I saw her again today," he said quietly.
"I know Gabe," I hugged him even harder.
"No, you don't get it. I saw her. Like I did the day I saw you."
"What?" I was a little freaked out as we had never spoken about the day we met.
"Do you remember at Kings Landing, when we were there with the school?"
"I remember," I said.
"I saw her there. My mother. She used to take me there when I was young, and I saw her there when we were there that day. She was standing at the corner of one of the buildings and I was sitting on that platform that you found me on."
I was scared, but riveted to what he was telling me. I had many questions and even a thought that he might be pulling my chain as he loved to joke with me, but there was something about what he said, and the seriousness in the way he said it, that stopped me from interrupting him.
"She just stood there and smiled at me. I knew it was her as soon as I saw her from the back. She turned and looked right at me and smiled and then, she was gone. Just like that. She wasn't there anymore." He paused to breath deeply and knotted his fingers in the sting on my hoodie.
"Do you think you maybe imagined it?" I asked, hoping for an answer I knew wouldn't be coming.
"No." He said with a finality that ended any doubt I had. "And I didn't imagine it every other time she came to me, including today in the cemetery. She stood there and I could smell her perfume. It was the mixture of jasmine and vanilla that she kept beside the little mirror where she put on her make up.
My heart skipped a little at his last words, "Gabe… you smell like that."
"What do you mean?" He asked genuinely confused.
"You smell like jasmine and vanilla. Every time I see you, every time we hold hands, every time we kiss, like today. Even right now. I always thought that it was the soap you used. I really like it. It's you. It's a bit of a turn on to tell you the truth."
"I'm being serious Jonathon," he always called me that when he was getting upset with me, "Here I am telling you about seeing my mom's ghost and you're trying to be funny!"
"Gabe from the moment I met you I could smell it. I never really gave it much thought to be honest, but I noticed it right away." I tried to defend myself.
"Well anyway," he dismissed it. "I saw her and I have been seeing her ever since she died."
"Why do you suppose she's still around Gabe?" I asked, and he could sense the concern in my voice.
"It's nothing to be worried about baby," he reassured me. "She's just looking out for me that's all."
We never spoke about it again. Not that day, or any other day that we were together. Not even when we both went our separate ways, him off to college, and me working in Alberta. We talked for hours on the phone in the beginning, but eventually, as was bound to happen, we went our separate ways until one day I remember thinking about him and not feeling the pang of loneliness anymore without him in my life. The years past and then one fateful morning I awoke to the smell of jasmine and vanilla.
And now after seeing what there was to see in Fredericton, I was ready to make my way back to a place that I hadn't returned to for many years.
The drive was beautiful as it always had been, with the Number 8 Highway lined for the endless miles with Black Ash, Sugar Maples and Birch trees. It was an easy 30-minute drive, and as I entered town and approached the 107 turnoff to Stanley, I laughed out loud when I saw the same old doghouse sitting at the end of the driveway of Sandry's old homestead. You can leave, but Nashwaak Bridge will never change. It took just a couple of minutes to arrive at the site on Cemetery Road where Gabriel's mother lay and now he lay as well.
It had been two days since the funeral and no one was there when I approached the only fresh mound of earth I could see. I knelt in the soft grass, his body only feet away from me for the first time in many years, and I wept uncontrollably for the only one I ever truly loved. I don't know how long I knelt in the grass, but his scent suddenly came over me and I looked up to see a familiar image. He was standing a few rows behind his headstone; he wore the look of someone deeply concerned, but with a confidence in knowing that everything would be okay. He was as beautiful as I remember him to be. His hair was shining from the sun and his eyes held mine as they had so many years earlier. He smiled and I felt the need to stand to try and get closer to him, but as I clamored to raise myself from the grass, my eyes slid from his and when they returned a fraction of a second later he was gone. I walked to the place where he stood and breathed in the air still tinged with his fragrance.
Even years later I still remember Gabriel as he was on that day in the cemetery and every now and then when my heart is breaking for one reason or another I know I can smell his powerful scent and everything bad in the world seems to get just a little bit brighter. I know I will see him again, that eventually when my time comes, we will be reunited in some way. I'd like to think that we would be back in that clearing that we spent so much time in as young men. With Crossing Creek and the old covered bridge in the distance. Pressed together, with smiles on our faces, languishing in the breeze that comes through the forest as it blows over our bodies making my love shiver, and giving me an excuse to hold him even closer.