Secrets and Whispers

By Mohini Takhar

Since I was five years old, I’ve known him, and we started dating when we were seventeen. In the tenth grade, I had the biggest crush on James Gabe. I tried to hide it, but the thing is, my contagious laughter and gentle eyes can never hide anything. James never said anything; until the day we were hanging out in the foyer of our high school, and I was rambling on about some book I loved, and he suddenly kissed me. Since then, it was and could never be that same; in the best way, of course.

You know, no matter how much we knew about one another, there was always so much to learn. We both had the small quirks that made us work. I would watch the smirk on his face as he leaned against the wall while he waited for my arrival; he’d have this look that would say, why don’t you come a little closer. I thought he would be hesitant to pick me up and twirl me around. After all, this bulky wheelchair of mine had always been an obstacle. But no, that didn’t stop James. No, James wanted me, and he made that clear with the way he would mouth the words I love you in the middle of a crowd. I’d laugh and blush. Those late-night dance parties in my kitchen? He used to want to dance with me, no matter how different it would seem. I never wanted to dance in public, at a wedding or in a bar because it made me feel vulnerable, and James understood that. I remember it like it was yesterday. James would grab his phone from the living room.

“You’re cooking!” I’d say.

“So? No one said that we can’t have a little fun.” James winked at me. He held my hand and his phone in another.

“What are you doing?” I laughed

“Oooh, I found the perfect song. You ready?”

I rolled my eyes, smiled, and pushed myself onto the kitchen counter. I swivelled my body onto the counter and pushed myself up using the seat of my wheelchair. “okay, yeah.” my eyebrows made an arch.

“This is for you, babe. ” He blew a kiss towards me. James pushed play and started dancing all around the kitchen. Spill the wine by The Animals, and Eric Burdon started blaring from his phone.

“Spill the wine, take that pearl!” James sang along as he danced in front of me.

I laughed and swayed along to the music, and we both started snapping to the rhythm of the music.

“You love this song!” James put his hand out. “Come on, dance with me.”

“James, you’re ridicu – you’re cooking! The sauce will burn!”

James sighed, gave the sauce a quick stir, and turned the heat on low. “Now, may I have this dance?”

I sighed as I put my hand in his. One of my arms swung around his neck, and just as that happened, my eyes fell right into his. He slowly removed me from the kitchen counter until I was in a standing position, facing him.

“How’s this?” James held his free hand and found mine. Our fingers intertwined, and we slowly swayed back and forth.

“Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?”

“No, I’m okay right here.” I smiled at him and kissed him on the cheek.

Somewhere between this bliss, I started feeling a little tired after three years. Honestly, I did love, James. There was no question. My girlfriends would constantly tell me that feeling this way is completely normal. You just need to find new ways to spice it up. As if it wasn’t already. James stopped putting any effort in after a while, and it made me go crazy, not knowing why. I could tell by the way he’d be notoriously late whenever we’d meet up, the way his mind would be elsewhere when we’d be together. The way he’d reply with one-word texts at times. It made me wonder.

It was a Saturday night when I decided to invite some of the girls over for a girls’ night since James said tonight didn’t work for him, or so he claimed. You could never trust him these days. Daniella, Madison, and Julia came over. We all were spread out among the couches in my living room. Between us, there was a coffee table with nail supplies, hair straighteners, hair ties, makeup, and all the snacks you could imagine.

“So, what’s the tea?” Madison asked as she plopped her body onto the couch and looked at the state of her nails. “Oh, Paula, come over here, and I’ll make you look hot for that cutie of yours. She winked at me.

I chuckled and moved closer to her. Did James even count? He was so distant. So what was I supposed to say? The questions went on and around in circles in my head.

“Paula, where is your head at?” Madison shook my body; I suddenly remembered where I was. “You were about to burn yourself with the hair straightener!”

“Oh my gosh, I don’t know.” I sat up straighter and took a deep breath. For a moment, I spaced out. Or maybe it was more than that.

“Are you okay?” Daniella asked as she grabbed a Cheeto from the chip bowl.

I nodded. “What are we doing?” I said as I cleared my throat.

“I think that I want to play with that hair of yours,” Madison said.

“Absolutely!” I let down my hair that previously was in a messy bun.

“Welcome to my salon! Are we thinking straight hair or curls today?” Madison asked

“Obviously, curls.” I proceeded to do a hair flip for a dramatic effect. Madison and I chuckled as she continued to separate parts of my hair with leopard print butterfly clips.

A concerned look remained on Julia’s face as she leaned back on the couch with a soda. “What were you thinking about?”

“Uh…well, James,” I replied. The facial expressions of the girls brightened up, but not the way they should have. It wasn’t their fault; they didn’t know. I flinched as I felt the hot head of the hair straightener against my neck. A curled strand of hair bounced down as Madison was deciding what part of my hair to unravel first.

“Oohhh, James,” Julia threw a slight wink in my direction. “how is he these days? I mean, how are both of you?”

I shifted slightly when Madison pulled the hair straightener away from me momentarily. “Things are…off.”

“How so?” Julia asked.

I brushed a curl away from my face. “He used to be different, James used to send me cute text messages in the morning, and I don’t know, I think somewhere along the line, things changed.”

“What if – I don’t know – is it possible that he’s just having a bad week? Why don’t you give him the benefit of the doubt?” Julia asked.

“That’s the problem – he usually tells me. He’s just so distant these days.”

“What if – I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t say it,” Julia said. The rest of us looked at each other with intrigue.

I leaned forward. “What? What do you think it is?” I chuckled and put my hands up midair. “Because I’m running out of ideas.”

“I’m sorry, I think he’s avoiding you. I mean, do you think there’s someone else?” Julia asked.

“No, ” I noticed the way she tugged at her fingers and looked at her phone. I look away for a moment. “At least, not until now. Do you know anything, Jules?”

Julia sighed. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she whispered. Julia put her drink down and headed for my room. Daniella and Madison looked at each other, confused.

I followed Julia into my room and closed the door behind me with my back tires.

“I think I saw something – once. I mean, it wasn’t too long ago, but I wasn’t sure if I should bring it up.” Julia said.

“What was it?”

“So, you know how I work as a server at Cactus Club.”
My face stiffened up. “Yeah?”

Julia sighed, ” I saw them at dinner together…”

“And you didn’t tell me? You said nothing?”

“I wanted to tell you! Paula, you have to know how badly I wanted to tell you. James messaged me that night after my shift, begging me not to tell you, ” Julia sat on my bed. “But I’m telling you now. James said that he would tell you or that it was a mistake. It was late, and I wanted to get to bed at the time, so I agreed.”

“How long ago was this?”

“A month ago. I’m really sorry.”

More from Goat’s Milk Magazine

I felt my heart stop. 

James and I decided to have a date night, you know, the ones where you want to dress up with your favourite little black dress and your go-to makeup look. I was in my bathroom as I looked myself in the mirror where I wore the black dress, and my makeup was close to done; I had to add some finishing touches. My hair was straight; I had asked Madison to come over the other day to help me out with my hair. She asked me why I was trying to put in the effort for him and said that this was for me. In all of this, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t allowed to lose myself in the process of losing James. Madison nodded as she listened to my spiel, then continued to drink coffee with me as she worked on my hair. I looked in the mirror with my black dress on, a full face of makeup, and I put on some rings. There was a pair of earrings that James bought me for my birthday; I thought tonight was perfect a night as any to wear them for the first and last time. This was a night I wouldn’t forget, and I knew that; I wanted to look my best so that I would want to remember something. There was a knock at the door; I put a shawl over my arms, grabbed my purse, and opened the door.  

“Hey,” James said with a warm smile and flowers in his hands. 

We were at Milestones, a restaurant we went to often; tonight felt like the last. There was a candle in the middle of the table, and the restaurant was mostly dim. People came to milestones to meet a friend for drinks or to have dinner with a significant other like James and I. Both of us looked at a menu as we were deciding what to order. 

“What are you thinking?” James asked. 

Honestly, I wanted to ask about the night at cactus with some woman I didn’t even know, but I didn’t want to know – I couldn’t. “I’m feeling the chicken bites. How about you?” I caught James staring at me. “What?” I chuckled. 

“Those earrings – I got you those for your birthday. You’re wearing them tonight,” he seemed shocked. 

“Yeah, I thought tonight was a perfect night as any.” I smiled at him. Someone approached us before James could speak.  

“Hi! I’m Annabelle, and I’ll be your server for tonight. Can I start you guys off with any drinks?” She had a notepad in her hand. 

“I’ll take a root beer,” I said. 

“Make that two. Oh, if you could bring a straw for one of those?” He smiled at me.

“of course,” Annabelle said as she made notes on her pad. “have you decided on what you’d like to order?”

I looked at James, and he seemed hesitant. “Maybe we need a minute?” I said. 

“Absolutely. Take your time.” Annabelle left the table. 

We sat in silence for a moment while he looked at the menu. “Is everything okay?” I asked. “It’s just – we come here all the time.”

“Yeah, of course. I just wanted to switch it up. I think I’ll get the chilli chicken bowl.” He closed the menu. “You still want the chicken bites? Should I get a plate of fries?” 

“Yes, I’m craving those chicken bites now. I don’t think I want fries; you can get your own if you want them, though.”

“So you can steal some?”

“It’s tradition.” I smiled, and then we both laughed. 

Annabelle approached us again. “Are you two lovebirds ready to order?” 

“Can we get the chicken bites, a chilli chicken bowl, and one plate of fries?” James responded. 

Annabelle wrote down the order. “Anything else?”

“No, I think we’re okay,” I said. She left.

“You look wonderful tonight.” James reached out for my hand. His phone rang, I caught a glimpse of the caller ID; when James realized who it was, he instantly pulled his hand back. 

“I’m sorry, I just have to send a quick text.”

“Of course.” I looked around the restaurant; at the corner of my eye, I spotted a man who was looking at me. He was at the bar, and I swear his sparkling smile was towards me. Perhaps it was James’ lack of affection, which made me think that. When I turned my direction back at James, he was still on his phone, and he didn’t even try to get off it any faster. I sighed and looked back at the man at the bar. He had a drink in his hand, his body was relaxed on the barstool when he mouthed, “What are you doing with him?” then I opened my mouth but couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything because, technically, I didn’t know. 

Annabelle returned with our plates and set them on the table. “Let me know if you need anything else.” She smiled at both of us, then left.  

I started eating my chicken bites. I guess my face gave off a sour reaction because James began chuckling. “What?” I scoffed. 

“You love a good kick when you eat,” James said as he took a bite of his chicken bowl. 

“You know that I do.” I gave him a nod. The type you couldn’t describe; it was like we spoke a different language. It happens when you’ve known someone for a while. “I’m the one that got you into it.” 

“Yeah, and now it’s a habit. What can I say?” His phone rang yet again. He silenced it right away then looked towards me. “It’s just work. We have a big deadline at the office, but I’m with you.” He attempted to reach for my hand, but I pulled back. James was in school for journalism, and he was an intern for a newspaper.

I held a fry between my fingers with a serious look on my face. “Was it work thing a month ago?”

“What do you mean?” 

“No, it’s just – Jules said something really interesting. I wanted to ask you about it. I mean, I know work follows you home, and I get that. Mine does too as a writer, but I’m not sure if it’s something else as well.”

“What did she say?” James nervously asked. 

“James,” I softy chuckled. “is there something I need to know?”   

“Do we have to do this now?” He whispered. 

“I’m just saying – you have an opportunity here,” I whispered back.  

“You know.” He sat back. 

“I want to hear it from you.” I crossed my arms together.  

“I kissed someone else that night. We met through work, and it was late that night -“

“You know what – don’t finish that sentence.” 

Annabelle approached our table. “Can I get you guys anything?”

“yes, the bill, please” I rotated my body to get my things gathered together. 

“of course, I’ll be-”  

“No, we don’t.” James cut Annabelle off. “Paula, you cant leave. I mean, not like this.”

“I can. This is over. You lied. “

“Let me explain…”

“I don’t want you to!” I said. 

“I’m sorry, did you still want the bill?” Annabelle asked. 

“Yes, please.” I put my coat on; my hair got caught on the inside of it, only for a moment.   

Minutes later, I paid my bill at the front as a way to avoid James and headed outside.  

Summer came around; I thought about James for a while after the night at Milestones. A long time. It still felt pretty raw. He would text me once in a blue moon, but I never replied. On the off chance that I did, it would be one-word answers. He didn’t deserve more than that. I was at Waterfront, and as I looked out into the ocean, I felt the breeze on my skin. Then I realized, for the first time in three years, I forgot how to be alone. How to be happy and alone. When I wasn’t with James, I was with my girls, so in the midst of that, I never got the opportunity to experience the beauty of solitude. 

I rolled down the street, away from the water, as I headed towards my favourite coffee shop, Trees coffee. It was always my favourite place to go after a long, warm day by the sea. I got so much writing done there every time that I went. My order was usually a piece of chocaholic cheesecake and some kind of latte. A buzz came from my phone; I checked the notification, and it was James. It read. I’m sorry. Please, can we talk?  As I shook my head, I put my phone down, opened my laptop, and continued working on my novel. As I took a bite of my cheesecake, Madison texted me do you regret being with him?  Ugh. She did that now and then. It was annoying, but I think it was her way of saying I love you. I’m here if you need me. I texted back no, that was three years of my life. And I loved him. I mean, I still do. So no.  When the dust settled, we grew up together, and I think, for a while, he was the only guy I really knew. 

After I wrote a good chunk of a chapter, I looked at the time and decided that it was the perfect opportunity to catch the sunset.  

“Same time tomorrow, Paula?’ A woman from behind the counter called out. “Maybe.” I laughed. “Do you think I could get this to go?” I pointed at the half-empty mug in my lap. “Anything for you, love!”

I drove back down the street to Canada Place, where I searched for my usual dock. There was a man who was already there. I’ve always watched the sunset from this dock, so I went up on it anyway; I got out my beach towel from my bag and set it on the floor. Then I slid out of my wheelchair and sat on the beach towel. I leaned against my wheelchair for back support. I needed that once in a blue moon. 

That evening’s sunset was mesmerizing. The sky looked like cotton candy; colours like pink, orange, and hints of blue peeked through the spread apart clouds. 

It’s a beautiful sunset tonight, isn’t it?” The man turned his head slightly but kept his eyes on the sunset. 

“Gorgeous.” I spent the rest of the evening thinking about how sunsets made everything fade away, even with someone next to you. It made me think about how crucial solitude is. The birds were chirping away in the sky, perhaps because the day was turning into night. The air was much calmer, and the temperature became cooler, just the way I liked it. I put a shawl over my body; I always carried one everywhere in the summer, took a sip of my latte, and enjoyed the silence of the night air as the sun continued to go down.  

Mohini Takhar is a disabled writer and spoken word poet based in Vancouver, traditionally known as the unceded land of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations. She studies Creative Writing at Douglas College. She was a featured poet in June 2020 for pulpMAG. Takhar has performed spoken word across virtual stages such as Vancouver Poetry Slam, Hot Damn It’s a Queer Slam, Canadian Individual Poetry Slam, and Voices of Today, where she was a 2020 finalist. Her essay is called I’m Different; You Know It, I Know It. Let’s Talk About It was published in Pearls 40: An Anthology Of Work By Douglas College Creative Writing Students. Her poem If Our Forever Were Different recently was a part of the Roundhouse Community Centre’s Balloons That Flame Poetry Exhibition. Pieces Of Me is her newest collection of poetry available through her Linktree. 

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