Sylvia, where are you?
Sylvia, why didn’t you come back?
Sylvia, why did you stop returning my calls?
Sylvia, will you appear in front of me and make everything better?
Gil’s thoughts moved aimlessly, his heartbeat audible in his ears, though it no longer sounded like a muted drum. No, the only sound he heard was the rise and fall of her name: Sylvia. Her name was a whisper, just out of reach: Sylvia. Sometimes Gil imagined that his train of thought was on a circular track, like the set from his childhood; even when it passed by the station it was only for an instant. In his mind, he could see Sylvia standing on the platform, waving as his train went by. He opens his mouth to shout her name at the instant the conductor blows the whistle. Still, despite the deafening trill, all he hears is Sylvia.
Gil looked down at his stack of half-graded tests.
“The inverse square of pi is not cheesecake, Tommy Latham,” Gil mutters as he moves his red pen across the page in a wide swath. At a second glance, he frowns: in place of “Wrong” he scrawled “Sylvia.” Closing his eyes, Gil breathed deeply as if to sigh but the cold air, long on the wrong side of frigid, made him choke.
“Gil?” A worried voice asked, soft and confused. Gil raised his head, taken by surprise and bracing himself for wonder.
“Sylvia?” He wiped his nose with his sleeve, breaking the most minute ice crystals, then looked up. It was not Sylvia.
“What are you doing out here?,” She asked, looking more worried than before.
“I’m grading papers, Sarah,” he replied, raising his red pen like a flag.
“You couldn’t do that inside?”
“I like it outside. Nobody bothers me here. Everywhere else, there are so many distractions...” Gil lowered his eyes to his tests, silently cueing Sarah to leave.
“Gil, it’s twenty degrees and snowing. There’s a reason nobody is trying to distract you, nobody wants to be out here!”
“I want to be out here, Sarah! I’m very much enjoying myself and getting lots of work done, so please, let me get on with it!” Gil snapped.
“Gil, you’re going to get frostbite. You’re already starting to turn red. Please,” she beckoned, lowering her voice, “Let’s go inside and get warmed up. We’ll get some coffee or a hot toddy or something. This isn’t good for you.”
“I can’t go yet, Sarah. Sylvia-“
“Sylvia? Gil, come on already. Sylvia is gone. She’s not coming back. I’m sorry, Gil, because you’re a nice guy, but you need to move on. Get off that bench, stop grading those tests which you seem to be defacing with Sylvia’s name, and come with me.” Sarah uncrossed her arms and held out her hand.
“Sylvia might come by. She works around the corner and I’ve seen her walk this way.”
“Gil, she’s not going to come by. It’s freezing. The only reason I’m not in my car is because I saw you sitting here.”
“If you came by, why wouldn’t she?” Gil asked, looking up from a test.
“Gil.” Sarah closed her eyes. “You know why. It’s over with her.”
“Maybe,” Gil whispered, “But not if she sees me here. I’ve thought about this moment so many times; she’ll run into me and I’ll have a few choice words for her but after that? After that, we’ll be happy.”
“Oh, Gil,” Sarah sighed and retracted her extended hand. “I’ll leave you to her, then.”
“Ok,” said Gil.
Sarah turned and walked away, into the wind, as snowflakes began to settle on his head.
Gil leaned back on the bench, closed his eyes, and remembered how they first met at Sarah’s party. Sylvia introduced herself and they talked the night away, about nothing and everything and pi. She gave him her number and as she left the party that night, she stopped in the doorway for one long, last look.
He never forgot that look. He held onto it like a warm hug on a cold day. He held onto it when she stopped calling and when he knew it was time to move on. He held onto it when her name raced through his mind before he fell asleep, when he was in the shower or driving on the highway. He held onto that look as he sunk into that lonely bench in the snow. That look comforted him more than any hug, and warmed him more than any blanket. He closed his eyes for a moment and smiled.
He opened his eyes refreshed and went back to his tests.
“Since when was pi equal to seventeen radians? Oh, Lucy. We went over this yesterday.” Gil flourished his red pen to mark the answer as wrong, then frowned. His pen had frozen. Gil made a motion to throw the pen back into his bag, but stopped part-way. He could not release his grip on the pen. Carefully, he extracted the pen from his closed hand with his left, leaving his right in a nearly pinched state.
He brought his hands together somewhat awkwardly and blew the hottest air he could muster into them. His right hand didn’t feel the warmth.
“This isn’t good, Gil,” he said aloud. “It’s time to pack up. Sylvia might come by tomorrow. It’s been two months, you can wait another day. Besides,” he said as the street lamp flickered on, “It’s getting late.”
Cradling his frozen hand, Gil put the tests back into his satchel and stood up rather forcefully. He swung his satchel over his shoulder and around his body until he felt resistance and heard a gasp from behind.
Slowly, he turned.
“Sylvia?” He asked, quietly.
“Gil?” She replied, brusquely.
“I-I-,” he stammered, “I knew I’d see you if I waited long enough.”
“Have you been out here for two months?” She asked, dryly.
“What?” Gil laughed nervously, “No. Just a few hours.”
“I didn’t call you back,” she said.
“I noticed,” he said.
“That was on purpose, Gil. I didn’t want to see you,” she said, narrowing her eyes.
“I know,” he said, small tears frosting over at the corners of his eyes.
“So what were you waiting for?”
“Just to see you, I guess.” Gil looked down at his frozen hand.
“Ok then. Bye, Gil.” Sylvia turned and began to walk past him.
Before Gil could say anything in protest, he heard a loud thump. He turned and saw her, the shapeless form of her figure in the snow, collapsed in the steeply-shoveled bank along the walkway.
“Sylvia!” He cried, sliding on a piece of hidden ice as he ran to her side. “Sylvia! What’s wrong?” She did not reply. Gil tore apart his bag for his phone but could not find it. He leapt to his feet and began to call for help. He looked down one end of the sidewalk, then the other, then back to the first when he saw her walking into the halo of light.
“Gil?” She asked.
“Sylvia?” He sputtered. “I don’t understand, what are you doing here?”
“I came to see you. I felt bad about how things ended,” she said, taking his frozen hand into hers and squeezing lightly.
“That’s not what I meant. What are you doing here? I just saw you over there,” he turned back to the hole in the snow and took a few steps towards it.
“What is it, Gil?” Sylvia asked, following him until she was practically in the hole itself.
“I thought it was you, Sylvia.” He said, cautiously.
“That’s ridiculous, Gil, I’m right here! Look-“ She leaned into the hole and collapsed, slightly widening the hole and doubling the number of Sylvias. The light snowfall began to cover them both.
“Sylvia!” Gil shouted, kneeling over the hole and turning both of their faces such that he could conclusively tell that they were both, in fact, Sylvia.
“Gil?” asked a voice from behind him.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Gil muttered, slowly turning around. It was Sylvia.
“What?” She narrowed her eyes.
“Honestly, Sylvia, I was really upset that you never called me back, but I’m not enjoying this joke.” Gil scowled.
“What joke?” A voice from behind him asked. As he turned around, he heard a silent whoosh from where he’d just been looking. In one fluid motion, he saw Sylvia standing behind him as well as Sylvia lying in the snow beneath the street lamp across the walkway. He turned back to the snowy hole at his side and checked. Yes, there were still two Sylvias in that hole.
“Have I lost my mind?” He asked himself beneath his breath.
“Hello?” Inquired the Sylvia he last saw standing. He looked to her, then fell backwards himself. There was not one Sylvia there but a dozen.
“What-“ Gil began to stammer. “What is this?”
“I missed you-“ “Your apartment-” “You’re bad in bed-” “I’m pregnant-” “I’m seeing my ex-“ “Gil-” “Gil-” “Gil-” “Gil-” “It’s not you-” “It’s you-“ They all spoke in unison, a mixture of tones and expressions. Some were sad, some angry, some regretful.
“Stop!” Gil shouted and punched the ground. His already numb hand felt the impact through his arm but nothing more than a light chill. Gil glanced at his hand for a moment, put it in his pocket, out of his sight.
With a heaving chest, Gil struggled to regain control of his breathing, the cold stabbing at his lungs. When he looked up, there was nobody there. In their place, the snow was broken up by a dozen small mounds.
“I’m losing my mind,” he said aloud, then laughed. “What am I even saying? It’s way past lost. I’m surrounded by a pile of inanimate exes. No, that’s not right. Just one ex. A pile of inanimate ex. Is that how you conjugate that? I don’t even know.” Gil shakily rose to his feet and placed his bag back over his shoulder. He took a few steps down the sidewalk before stopping. He couldn’t just leave them like that.
Wincing at the sight more than the sensation, he removed his bad hand from his pocket and one by one, dragged a Sylvia over into the first hole in the snow bank. He thought to himself how lucky he was that she was so spritely of figure or he’d have never managed, but couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud. When he was finished, the bodies rose high up the embankment, his footprints trudged around their burrow vanquishing the pristine white. The snow fell more heavily, then, and Gil was tired.
“Good-bye, Sylvia. And Sylvia. And Sylvia.” He stopped himself from naming each of them with a cruel laugh, then frowned at the sight of the snow obliterating their presence. He knelt over them and delicately brushed the snow from their faces, a losing battle against the elements, but he tried. What had once been the sound of her name echoing through the caverns of his mind was now a short command: Protect her. The snow fell harder than before; as Gil stood by, he could see a Sylvia disappear beneath the snow. Rather than lose them all again, he did the only thing he could do at that point. He crawled into the pile of Sylvias and embraced one. He didn’t know if this Sylvia still cared for him or thought he was dull, but he didn’t care. He closed his eyes and thought of the look she gave him, leaving that party, and slept.
He woke up, shivering. The Sylvias were no longer warm. He was no longer warm. His right arm throbbed above the wrist, his hand still contorted in a twisted claw. A pair of Sylvia’s arms held him in place like an unwanted seatbelt, half-frozen in place: a prison. Gil was sad at first; the warmth he felt from the Sylvia of his mind had faded, leaving him cold. He found it difficult to imagine Sylvia showing up now, a smile on her face and a desire to see him again. His moping quickly gave way to claustrophobia. Between a lot of wriggling and pushing, he managed to free himself from the barren barrow of Sylvias. Panting slightly, he stood over them and watched as the snow continued to bury them until they had vanished from sight.
“Good-bye, Sylvia,” he murmured and began to walk down the street.
“Gil?” A voice from behind beckoned.
“No. No way,” Gil said between clenched teeth.
“Gil!” The voice called even louder.
“What!?” He shouted as he turned around, much to his chagrin. “Oh,” He smiled awkwardly, “Sarah. What are you doing out here? It’s late.”
“Yeah, I know it’s late. Nobody saw you after I left you. We were worried, Gil. You seemed a little stressed out,” Sarah said, looking him over.
“Yeah,” he smiled tiredly, “I guess I was.”
“Are you ok, Gil? I mean, really: Are you ok?”
“I will be, Sarah. But I think you were right about my freezing, earlier. Can you take me to the hospital?” Gil displayed his hand.
“Gil, that’s disgusting! Come on, my car’s back this way!” Sarah shouted and began to pull Gil back towards the lamp-lit bench and snowy embankments.
“Wait, Sarah! Let’s cross the street. I think the sidewalk’s a little less icy on that side,” Gil said, moving hurriedly across the street, never taking his eyes off of the just-buried mass of Sylvias as he passed them moving towards Sarah’s car.
She ran past him, sliding once but recovering her balance, threw the door open and started the engine, heat going full blast. Gil got in carefully, buckling his seatbelt with difficulty. When they were on the road, Sarah turned to him.
“Did you ever see her tonight, Gil?”
“Who else would I mean?”
“No. I didn’t see her,” Gil said quietly.
“I’m sorry,” Sarah replied.
“I thought I did-“
“Oh?” Sarah interrupted.
“-but it wasn’t her,” Gil resumed.
“You’ll find someone else, Gil, I know it.”
Gil nodded and closed his eyes. He thought of the moment when Sylvia took one last look, then took the thought further: he imagined the door closing. It was still closed when Sarah pulled into the hospital. It was still closed when he went home. It was still closed when the rains washed away the snow and gave one particular pedestrian a fright. It was still closed when Gil began to smile again, and he preferred it that way.