Maia Kowalski

if i had to

If I had to, I'd go back to April. I'd ask to see that picture you took of me, when we went to the Art Gallery of Ontario. We're on the fifth floor with all the contemporary art. There are wide open spaces filled with sculptures the size of elephants. Flashing lights are strung lazily on the walls. Tapestries are strewn across the floor and spotlights dance across the patterns. I look up at the skylight, a tiny rectangle that brightens the whole room in white, and you say stop, stay there, keep looking, so I stop, stay there, keep looking. In the corner of my eye I see you lift your phone to take a photo, then lower it back down. I don't ask to see it because I know you'll send it to me later. You never do.

 If I had to, I'd go back to March. You never liked it when I put on lipstick in front of you. We're eating matching breakfast sandwiches at that little cafe down by the waterfront, and after we pay our bill, I spot a mirror on the wall and say wait. I pull out a black tube, pop the cap and swivel up a cylinder of pomegranate pink, a shade called Punch. As I swipe the colour on my lips, I see you in the corner of my eye, making a face and turning away. I only ask what the matter is after I finish. You shake your head and smile at me, but it doesn't make that look burn any less.

 If I had to, I'd go back to February. We're sitting on your bed and talking about you, your depression, your family back home, your ex-girlfriend. You get upset, start having an episode, put on a playlist of just two songs that stay on loop for the next hour. You lay your head in my lap and I run my hand over your face, over and over, the way my grandmother did whenever I was upset. Your breathing slows; you wipe your nose on the back of your hand. I wonder if you love me.

 If I had to, I'd go back to January. Your grandmother has just passed away, you can't fly home for the funeral and you need me, you're grieving. We walk to the big park with the best view of the ocean and sit there for a while, even though there's snow on the ground and the wind is icy. I don't remember what we say to each other. We stare out at the ocean until I can't feel my cheeks.

 If I had to, I'd go back to December. You can't wait to go back home for Christmas break but you hang back a few extra days just to spend more time with me. I take you on an hour bus ride to my favourite place: a little fishing village full of brightly-coloured saltbox houses. We walk along the boardwalk and you take photos of the ocean, the rocks, and me. I post one of the photos on Facebook. You take your new girlfriend there in the summer, after I move away.

 If I had to, I'd go back to November. Your grandmother is sick and the worry wraps itself so tightly around your depression that you can barely finish your schoolwork. I sit with you in the common room to encourage you to study; we edit each other's assignments and watch bad movies. No one else knows how twisted up you feel inside, the way the darkness rolls in like a slow fog. One night, we swap stories about our grandmothers: a night of folklore about the strong Chinese women we know and knew. My grandmother bought me a red bean bun every time she came to visit, I say, and the next day, you buy me a box of four from the Chinese bakery, to keep the tradition going. We sit on my bed and break them in half. We watch the red bean paste ooze out of the middle and salivate at the incoming sweetness. I tell myself that my grandmother would have liked you.

 If I had to, I'd go back to October. I'd tell you I loved you right away.

 If I had to, I'd go back to September. I wouldn't sit next to you in the hallway during the school's welcome party, nibble on pizza and ask why you moved here. I wouldn't get drunk in the second week and trip into you as we walk with our roommates to a house party. I wouldn't walk to the waterfront with you in the third week, listen to you tell me about your mom, how she died, that you miss her every day. I would ignore your texts in the fourth week and tell you I'm just too busy to hang out when I see you in class. I wouldn't feel bad about it.

 If I had to, I'd go back to August. I'd tell the school to transfer me to another dorm, to rearrange my classes, so I'd only see you in the hallways that year and nothing more. But only if I had to.


Maia Kowalski (she/her) is a writer from Toronto, Canada, and has degrees in journalism and creative writing under her belt. She has been published in Yolk Literary and Montreal Writes. She is currently putting together her first short story collection.