“The Year We Lived” by Brenna Lemieux


Found in Willow Springs 83

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It was the year everyone died and I could not stay pregnant. Young people dying, I mean, tragedies: blood clots and suicides and overdoses. Unlikely accidents. And then Chris’s brother Ryan—the circumstances seemed off, we thought, but didn’t dare say anything. It was too soon, too soon, and then it was too late. The window closed. You were friends with Chris—you taught with him at the conservatory. And still we weren’t sure what happened—a sadness all its own, the not knowing. And the months we sneaked through without those ominous texts—“Give me a call when you have a second?”—when it wasn’t that, it was the claw cramps that left me too tired to eat, even, for days.

We had a little savings and kept dipping into it for plane tickets, kept peeling weekends off for memorials. The year nothing would take, it seemed. Heavy snow, but it melted right away. Floods all over the city, and good luck finding a licensed plumber. (Not that they were hit especially hard, but any demand surge showed how flimsy our infrastructure was. Or rather: how carefully calibrated. Reports of lettuce sliming in the fields.)

It was also the year I decided I had to learn to sing.

“Anyone can sing,” you said, when, the morning after we inherited Meridee’s piano, I explained how I couldn’t. The way younger couples sometimes say things like, “Anyone can have kids,” meaning so many unprepared people.

“Anyway,” I said, a few months later, “if I can’t carry a fetus to term, the least I can do is carry a tune.”

You wrapped me in one of your minute-long hugs, then cleared your throat and agreed to critique my “Three Blind Mice.”


Here’s what I wonder about people who are naturally good singers, like you, like your friends: do their brains divide melodies into discrete, recognizable parts they can instantly decipher and reproduce? And if so, is the process learnable? I’m thinking of a blood test, the way I add the glucose oxidase, separate the hydrogen peroxide, measure the oxygen consumed, estimate the blood glucose. The steps so familiar I hardly think about them, but to the patient who is stuck with a needle and then assigned a number—magic. Invisible. Is it like that? I don’t know who to ask anymore.

Either way, I don’t have it. When I sing (still), I feel like one of the blind mice. I know where I want a tune to go, but never how to get it there. My hope was that singing would be something like chemistry, that once I’d committed to studying it, I would learn about smaller and smaller pieces and be able to manipulate them to fill whatever shape I wanted.

My hope was that, when we stood in the church for “Amazing Grace” in October, I would be able to sing cleanly, to convey to Edward’s wife and children how much we all respected him, how highly we all thought of his research.

My hope later, when I woke in the middle of the night, was that the cramps were indigestion.

They were not.


I’ve ended up retaining the stupidest things: how we figured out we had such different pictures of time, for instance. It was when my period came once, while we were still dating, and you said how learning about “the cycle” as a kid made you think of bikes, which made me laugh—I’d never connected the two. I’ve always seen the calendar as a giant ring that repeats over and over, a cycle of months, and you couldn’t believe this, thought it was wild. Because for you, months were just calendar blocks, marching forward forever, latticed but mostly blank.


It was not an epidemic in the traditional sense, but a spike. Undeniable, when you look at the census data, though not neatly parsed. Not attributable to a single cause. In the lab, we’ve seen increases in everything: carbon monoxide poisoning, cancers, diabetes. Not just fatal cases, either. Upticks. A crescendo, you would have said. We’d be working longer hours even if we hadn’t lost people like Edward.

On the news, experts argue over what’s causing it—toxins in the water supply, a nasty flu strain, climate change. The conspiracy theorists are having a field day. But nothing is satisfactory. I wonder, though, whether having a diagnosis would make it any easier.


For my birthday, in March, you got me lessons with Maya, your favorite voice instructor.

“She’s the best,” you said. “She can show you way more than I can.” Plus, of course, she had unexpected openings. You all did.

Stepping into her small teaching room, I tried not to be intimidated, but I couldn’t help thinking of the last time we’d seen her perform. She fronted her own band, wrote most of the songs. At that show, the way she sang reminded me of Gram staining, of how you flush the slide again and again and don’t know until the end what you’ll see: looping, swooping vocals. A one-syllable word sometimes lasting five or six measures, bending around itself and the other notes in the song. And then a resolution that would almost hurt, it made so much sense. Aurally, I mean—I can’t fathom how a brain would conceive something like that.

“Sing something for me,” she said, cheerful. “Let’s see what we’re working with.”

I was ashamed that I could only offer “Three Blind Mice.”

“Ooh,” she said, writing something in a notebook. “That gives me an idea.”

“How bad is it?” I said.

She laughed. “You’re going to do fine,” she said. She adjusted my shoulders and told me we’d work on visualizing the notes so I could find them faster when I needed them. I got a jab of satisfaction: I knew it!


It turns out that being a good singer is a lot like being in good shape, in the sense that you have to keep working at it—maintenance. But also in the sense that there is no external measure for what constitutes enough. There are no outcomes to analyze. I don’t know why this is so hard for me to accept. Daily practice forever, with the vague reward of being prepared when I find myself in a situation where I might need to sing.

Of course, those situations come up more and more these days.

Of course, “forever” just means “until death.”


It was May when you texted me at work and I slipped from the lab to call, even though we were the busiest we’d ever been.

“Ryan,” you said, “Chris’s brother,” and I asked how, but you didn’t know, we didn’t know, and I could hear your voice cracking with emotion. (You practiced for hours that night while you waited for me to get home; I stepped into the dark apartment and stood behind you and offered my arms because my voice was still feral.) I hung up and stared at the screen. Ryan. I checked the weekend weather to see whether I’d have to get something dry-cleaned for the service.


On the hottest night that summer, we sat on the shared back porch. You brought your guitar so I could practice. Maya said that’s half the battle, practicing:

“You can’t cook fast until you know the recipe by heart,” she said.

That week had been too hot to cook, so we’d been eating salads and sandwiches. No deli meat, though. Just in case. (But also no tomatoes, which were scarce—a shipping issue, from what we’d heard, meaning a death in logistics or trucking. Meaning piles of them sitting somewhere, rotting.)

You asked what I wanted to sing, and I asked what was easy, something I’m terrible at gauging. All the songs I want to learn are tricky, full of vocal leaps and strange harmonies. Children’s songs are good, you said. Church songs.

I cycled through the ones I knew, many of the latter we’d sung in recent months, many of the former it turned out we hadn’t needed.

“How ’bout we make something up?” you said, but the idea made me clench. I prefer to work things out on paper.

“How ’bout I make something up?” you said, when you saw my face. “And we’ll sing it together.”

I smiled.

You strummed and started humming until you had a tune I could follow and then you added a line:

“Summertime here in the city by the lake.” You nodded at me to repeat it.

Then: “Glad to be alive for now and glad to be awake.”

I blinked.

“Staaaaay hoooome and I’ll teach you how to sing.” You looked at me, eyes bright, still strumming. “Thaaaaaat’s the whole thing!” You strummed, starting it over. “You ready?” you said.

I nodded, even though I was not and thought I might never be, which made me worry that I disappointed you, that you’d hoped for more—that you’d thought I would somehow gain fluency by exposure. We sang it through again and again, the song equally dark and cheery. I didn’t hit the notes every time, but I improved. It was exactly what I wanted, like running an experiment in a lab class until you’re sure you can trust the results. I would have liked to sing all night, but I could see you were getting antsy.

Our neighbor Alfonso emerged with his recycling.

“Rad song,” he said, on his way down the stairs.

The sun set and a breeze picked up.

“Ready for some harmony?” you asked, and told me to sing normally and you’d add to it. It felt magical, but hard to stay in my lane. I was wearing out.

My phone buzzed.

We met eyes.

I looked at it.

My sister Amy. Could I call her?


The doctor asked me, after washing her hands, whether I might want to go back on the pill for a while.


Do you even call it an overdose when it’s alcohol? Or when it’s alcohol plus something else, which is what we suspected? I don’t know. Substance use, certainly, and then death. And then the call from Chris, who said the police had turned some things up, that they’d reclassified Ryan’s death as “suspicious,” and also would you mind helping empty his house. All in one call. You left in the morning Saturday and I lazed around, my first full day off in ages. I resisted but then could not resist going on the Baby Gap website. Just to see. I justified this by practicing while I scrolled, sang through The Doxology and that “Holy, Holy, Holy” song. It was just theoretical, I reminded myself, because if this one actually took we’d decided to get most of our stuff secondhand. Smarter to do it that way, I figured, when they’re too young to know the difference.

(Except the one time we actually went to a secondhand store, back in February, the racks were full to bursting, new-looking clothes everywhere, the deals unreal, and we were incredulous, filling our arms, until we realized why and I felt bile rise, felt like I’d been gut-punched, and you shoved everything at the cashier, apologizing, and led me out.)


I keep noticing these days how much of the world is empty, even in a city, where we tend to think we’re crowded. But there will always be more space than stuff. This isn’t new, of course. I think that was my biggest disappointment as a chemistry student, learning that even at the atomic level, the world is mostly empty space. And we still haven’t figured out how to pass through it. The disappointment has returned lately, I think because things felt so full for a while.


We saw Maya at Ryan’s service. We talked to her after, but she couldn’t seem to focus.

“I just can’t believe it,” she said. She was close with him. “We had dinner last week.”

I wondered if they were dating. You’d hinted that Maya was the unlucky-in-love type, and Ryan had been single for years.

She looked past you, past me. I didn’t know who she was hoping to see. A minute scraped by, none of us talking.

“I’ve been practicing,” I offered.

She examined me as if she’d just realized I was there.

“Good,” she said. “Don’t forget your breath.”


(“Maybe we should get away for a while,” you said one night, November, after the landlord called to tell us about Alfonso. You didn’t say it like you meant a vacation. You said it like you meant “get out of here,” like you meant we had to escape.

“But where?” I said. I pulled up the CDC website, the travel map. We’d checked a similar one for Zika before our honeymoon. How optimistic that seems now.

You settled beside me on the sofa, looked at the screen.

“Paris?” you said. “Barcelona?”

The governments of Western Europe were still maintaining that their countries were clear, but it had become tricky to get in. Forty-eight hours in quarantine once you landed. A big chunk of your vacation, even if there were things to do by then, food trucks and dedicated hotels. But no evidence that it even helped—mostly, the right-wingers seemed elated for an excuse to make things harder for immigrants.

Some of the think tanks had even suggested officials weren’t reporting numbers right. That there were no safe spots, in other words. You knew this as well as I did.

“We have so many miles,” you said, pulling up the airline app.

And it’s true, we’d flown far more than usual that year, but it all cost money. I pulled up our bank account.

“Maybe somewhere closer?” I said, looking at the balance.

You saw it and groaned. Laid your head on my shoulder.)


I woke in the night hoping (again) for indigestion and didn’t bother turning on the lights as I groped to the bathroom and waited. I focused on naming the precise substances that were seeping from me: blood, uterine lining, tissue. A simple bodily function. In the scheme of things, it was not a tragedy. I sat for a while, then put on an extra-heavy pad and crawled back into bed, spooned into you.

What I wonder about people who carry to term the first time, no problem, is do they sense a child right away? Do they know, somehow? Do they feel a second soul inside of them, the presence of another human being—some kind of cellular harmony, maybe, a perfect third humming above them, changing the way they vibrate?


The really troubling thing—the thing that had us both on edge, that had you grinding your teeth at night whenever I woke up to notice—was that everyone who died that first year was peripheral to us, adjacent to our dearly beloveds. Edward. Ryan. Amy’s girlfriend. Alfonso. It felt improbable. Unsustainable. We were constantly braced for the worst. Like when Maya set up a group lesson and had us sing rounds. Some of the students couldn’t keep time, kept singing too fast and wrinkling the song. We’d end up bunched together, no matter how she tried to keep us steady. An out-of-control feeling. She kept stopping and restarting us. She set a metronome. We couldn’t do it. It got to the point where I dreaded each new attempt, even though she smiled, insisted this would be the one. I knew better. We all did. It was the same thing when my phone rang—the dread. And then the news. Each time, I was rocked by the force of the caller’s agony—I was agonized for them, but it was secondhand agony. Sympathy, really. Secretly, I was glad I’d been spared, glad we’d been spared. Again. Glad we were still up there on the third floor singing into the night.

Surely, I thought (while also trying to suppress the thought because to think the thing was to bring it into the universe and make it possible), surely, our luck couldn’t hold much longer.


Of course, a phone call isn’t the worst way to find out.


You made up a song for me the third time I miscarried, in November. Woke with it in your head and stumbled to the piano to get it out before it dissipated. I followed you from the bedroom, watched you play in your boxers, watched you wake up as you played, as surprised as I was, though not so terribly surprised, after all. That was how your brain worked. The melody never quite settled into what I expected—it disintegrated before it was fully formed, then sort of floated for a while, then came back together, only changed somehow.

I watched you play and didn’t notice right away that I was crying.

“It’s about you,” you said, fully awake, playing it through a second time and recording with your phone.

“I know,” I said.

You turned back to the keys and I hummed along, did the vocalization thing Maya taught me, just sound, no words, and it wasn’t perfect every time but it felt like I was adding, like we were making something together. I sat beside you. You nodded along, encouraging me.

On the shelf above the keyboard, your phone buzzed.

You stopped recording.

A text from your college friend Raul.


At least you can practice singing, though. At least there are exercises; there are techniques. You can prepare yourself and have the reasonable expectation that you will be ready. That is not the case with grief. I realize now I thought worry would prepare me; I thought if I named and examined my worst fears, I would build tolerance—immunity. I thought a year of untimely death was enough, that there would be a tidy ending, like in a horror movie. No. It is still happening. On the news now, they say “the new normal.” Grief a cold nobody can shake. Wave after wave until you’re not sure which day it is, which month. The first August or the second? Whether you’ve already explained something. (Have I already explained this?) It undertows and riptides you; it batters; it flummoxes. It lets go only long enough to change its grip.


I didn’t restart the pill, but I let my doctor inject me with a three-month contraceptive. I didn’t tell you. I just needed the headspace, needed to take the pressure off. We’d gotten to that point where sex always felt a little like grocery shopping, something we knew we had to do because it would pay off later. Not worrying about pregnancy helped; I relaxed again.

You nuzzled my neck after, one night, during a December snowstorm.

“I missed this,” you said.

In the morning, your boss called early.


Maya’s funeral was that weekend.

You held my hand so tightly it hurt, the smell of mildew in the sanctuary. Fans blowing in the damp entryway. She’d been your first friend at the school, the first person you clicked with.

Her sister gave a eulogy that was mostly song—a few words, then an invitation for us to sing together some of Maya’s favorites, and everyone stood and sang, even me, and I was swept by—was part of—the tide of general accuracy, and the result was beautiful, something like sailboats on the surface of a lake.

Online, the sentiment was that people couldn’t wait for the year to end. A “garbage year,” they called it. A “trash-fire year.” I agreed, but without the implicit optimism that anything would change when the calendar rolled over. What do epidemics know of time?


A year really isn’t so long, even when it seems that way while it’s happening. August to August, say. And then what? September again. January. The bulk of a twenty-four-month lease on my hands. Great acoustics, you said when we found it, though I can’t tell one way or the other. I practice singing at night to fill the hours, to fill the rooms, the sound changing the space in a way I can’t measure. I remember my breath. My phone buzzes, though these days it’s likely someone checking up on me.


We renewed our lease when it came up, which my mother thought was crazy; there’d never been a better time to buy. But we liked it here. Plus, our landlord offered that two-year deal—so many more vacancies than there used to be. And anyway moving with a piano is torture. You never meant to have a piano in a third-floor apartment—an electric keyboard would have done—but you inherited it from Meridee, who’d found a niche accompanying ballet troupes. Not the kind of thing you could refuse. Hit by a drunk driver, up on the sidewalk. The first death. Before we knew to brace ourselves.

You were the one who’d introduced her around when she moved to the city. She’d worked at the coffee shop we liked back then, near your old place, and you got to talking. Her mother said she spoke so highly of you, would have wanted you to have the instrument. They couldn’t bear to sell it, to lug it back to Gary.

Chris and Ryan helped you move it, the day after the funeral. Maya came for moral support, toting two bags of lemons left over from the reception.

“Meridee loved a bowl of lemons,” she said. “That’s what her mother kept saying.” And then made Maya take them, as they had to get back home. She plunked them on the counter.

“Here,” I said, pulling up a stool.

She sat.

I pulled out my phone and measuring cups, found a recipe, sliced and squeezed lemon after lemon. It was tiring, but then I’d hear a thump on the back stairs and remember it was not as tiring as moving a piano. Maya slid off the stool and joined me.

When the thing was set up in our living room, we passed out the lemonade.

“To Meridee,” Chris said, and we all drank.

August. Our ceiling fan flying around its orbit, stirring the sunbaked air. Traffic sounds rising from the street. When I offered beers, you slid onto the bench. Meridee had dated Chris briefly, played keys in one of his bands. She and Maya had talked of leaving the conservatory, starting a rock school together. Chris grabbed a guitar, Ryan found a uke. Everyone sang—everyone but me. I was too self-conscious about my voice. I tried to stay busy, ordered pizza, brought fresh drinks.

It was eerie, almost, how you all kept knowing what song to play next. Chris would try a few chords like a question, then you’d respond with a measure or two. Or Maya would hum something and Ryan would pluck his way in. All of you, bobbing and swaying a bit with the playing—hymns, Meridee’s originals, a pop sampling from the last six decades. So much more yourselves than at the previous day’s buttoned-up church affair, as if here, now, you were yielding fully to your grief, letting it mash your fingers into the keyboard, hurl and curl lyrics, strum to break strings. The music roiling and gorgeous and a little alarming, like a post-flood river. An unpredictable channel of grief.

I had never felt so removed from you.

I retreated to the kitchen with a load of empties. I didn’t even know how to blow a note across a bottle’s mouth—I was completely devoid of music, even after eighteen months of marriage. Even after so much time beside you. And still, you loved me.

I’d found out that morning I was pregnant. The first time. It had felt like proof—like confirmation that I was enough. That life went on in a great circle and we would ultimately be okay. I stood at the sink, refilling one of your empties to sip from, cells dividing furiously and imperceptibly inside me, Maya and Ryan harmonizing like choristers in the living room, and I was overcome. I wanted so badly—almost unbearably—to join them. Even more in retrospect. That first death: We were so shattered by our grief. Stunned. Unafraid to grieve lavishly. Later, there was a feeling of parceling out, of holding back. We mourned the way a marathoner runs the fifth mile. But even then, even in the fullness of their grief, even though their voices filled the whole apartment, it was still, of course, mostly empty. It would retain no print of them—of any of you—after you’d stopped. And maybe I took comfort there, remembering: It may seem full, but it’s empty, like so much of the world we think we know. Like our cities and organs and cells. Even if I’d stayed pregnant, the child—like me, like you—would have been mostly empty space. And if that’s true, I tell myself now, then maybe its reverse is, too, that the suction pockets of absence that clutch at me wherever I turn—on the sofa, in bed—are (somehow, also) full.



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