Updated: Sep 11
Jamie looked like neither a girl nor a boy. They had ear-length brown hair, high cheekbones, and thin skin that wrapped their rocky jaw like a layer of onion. Their eyes were sunken from lack of sleep, and so dark in shade, they seemed to borrow the colour of night. They wore low-cut trousers and a scarf that clung closely to their slender neck. Even in the warm summer months, when the Ontario air grew thick like a mist, Jamie’s neck was covered. Jamie slunk up the halls of our college, largely unnoticed. They squashed their hands into the small pockets of their jeans, and kept their head down as they made their way between classes. Occasionally you would hear them say a courteous ‘Hey’ or ‘Heya’ if you were in a room alone with them, but this was only because they were too sensitive to ignore another person entirely. Jamie tried their hardest to acknowledge people, though others usually missed this kind attempt. Confident in solitude, and awkward amongst a crowd, Jamie was often pictured alone.
My twin sister and I moved to San Marino last fall. That September, we started at Westfield High School, a high-achieving institution with a renowned swimming and athletics team. We weren’t that into sports at all, but our mom always hoped that we would someday make it onto a team. My sister and I were much more into music and preferred spending time with bands than attending training sessions. I didn’t envy how exercise made others’ faces shine like sweaty gold medals, as they leaped off the pitch into a steamy changing room. Music had always been our thing, much to our mom’s dismay. Having been at Westfield a week, Jen and I had already signed up for all the singing groups and decided to answer to a poster in search of new band members. Its Dada lettering read: Futurist band forming. We were excited by the prospect of something underground, alternative, ground-breaking. Words such as these, which were pasted all over the poster in newspaper cuttings, set our hearts going with the flitting energy of swallows’ wings.
It was at some point during our first week at Westfield that Jen and I came across Jamie. We were in Biology class and our teacher insisted that Jen and I be split up. There was an empty stool between us. Jen and I were the type of twins that did everything together, so it annoyed us to discover that we would have to lunge across a laboratory bench all year to exchange answers and experiment results. We were sitting patiently, pissed off and silent, when Jamie turned up to class. They appeared just as the hand ticked 12 o’ clock, entering through the doors with rosy cheeks and thinly knitted gloves on their wrists. A satchel slid off their shoulder with relief, and they perched between us with a mousy smile. They said, ‘Hi, I’m Jamie’. They almost offered their hand, but after a sudden change of mind, stuffed it up their sleeve instead. I could see that Jen was heartened by this new and intriguing person, whilst I was still angry that we had been separated from one another. Jen was the chattier one out of us. She whispered, ‘Nice to meet you, Jamie’, and I just nodded in agreement. My mind became distracted by what sandwich I would pick up from the canteen at lunch, whilst Jen and Jamie shuffled on their stools and rearranged their stuff to give each other enough room on the narrow desk. Our teacher— Mr Jenkins was his name— smiled at the three of us, sipped his cup of coffee and placed it back in the empty patch of his busy desk.
Mr Jenkins was a very enthusiastic man; I suspected this was an expression of how much coffee he had in his bloodstream. On his toes, he had a tall, watchful gaze over us. ‘No gloves in the laboratory’, he hollered across the room. His tie was slung over his shoulder like a soldier’s belt, and it gave him a sense of importance as he stood at the front, erect as a pole. He glanced about the room with a theatrical movement that made Jen and I laugh. Jamie answered to Mr Jenkins with stunned, beautiful eyes, like a fox caught in the bright beam of headlights. ‘They are just wrist cuffs, Mr Jenkins. Please can I keep them on? They keep my hands warmer’. Mr Jenkins considered it a moment and agreed so long as the wool didn’t get caught on the flame of the Bunsen burner. Jamie was relieved when Mr Jenkins turned to write on the whiteboard. Everyone’s heads averted from Jamie towards the scrawl of his curling letters and they felt anonymous again. ‘I like your pencil case. And your gloves, actually’, I said to Jamie, quietly and disjointedly. Jamie uttered a few bashful words, reporting how their father was Mexican and the gloves and pencil case had come from markets in Mexico City. It was the odd bits of detail that Jamie gave that fascinated me and Jen. As the weeks went by, a picture of Jamie began to bloom in our minds like an orchid. Jamie’s character was ever mysterious to us, and the little stories they told made us excited for each Biology class where we would learn something new about their world, but nothing at all about cell structure and chemical formulae. If Jamie hadn’t offered to lend us their notes at the end of the term, Jen and I would have surely failed that class. Jamie wasn’t distracted by us the way we were distracted by them; their study notes were meticulously neat with carefully drawn graphs in purple and green biro.
Jamie left each class with a soft smile of appreciation, while Jen and I felt elated, grateful for small gifts of new knowledge. On our walk home, Jen and I made a habit of talking about Jamie: musing on their life, where their house was, what car their parents drove, and what their room was like. They spoke with an indiscernible accent: it had a German drawl, a Hispanic roll, a Mid-western lilt. It was hard for us to place them, and not knowing their background piqued our curiosity even more. Jamie wasn’t part of a group like the Jocks, the Emos, or the Brains. Neither were we, but at least Jen and I had each other — Jamie just had themself. They left school each day where there was a parting in the fence and they walked across a field where no one else was headed, their shadow stretching in the sunlight behind them, their coat flailing in wind, their footprints engraved in snow.
It is unknown to me whether other students interacted with Jamie in classes. They seemed so independent to me; I couldn’t imagine them with friends. Throughout the whole year— our first at Westfield— I only ever spoke to Jamie in the laboratory. Our conversations were fleeting and occasional, they didn’t talk much at all. I had noticed, however, that they always kept notepads in their bag, letters that were addressed to different names, pieces of paper that were bumpy with biro and scrawled with what looked like musical notes. Who were they for? Did they play in a band? They caught me peering in one time, and their cheeks flushed with a pink glow. I knew they were harboring a secret, perhaps even cradling a dream. ‘We could write letters over the summer’, I said, surprising myself with a burst of confidence that had appeared out of nowhere. ‘Yes, I’d love that’, Jamie said, with a genuine expression and an easy nod. From across the lab, Jen’s eyes looked up at me with the flashing green of traffic lights. Jamie scratched an address onto a piece of paper using a well-used ink pen. It had a crusty collar where the nib met the cartridge. I watched the ink dry, then folded the paper up and slipped it into my chest pocket like a letter in an envelope. Biology class was the final hour of the year. All I remember of it was that interaction with Jamie.
I promised Jamie that I would write. I did, I did, I did. Jen and I walked to the box and slotted letters in, our favourite stickers adorning their serious, white faces. I promised Jamie that I would write. I did. But I never got a reply. Maybe the address was wrong, maybe the letters had been lost. I didn’t know and was confused by it, as I remembered the excitement on their face when I had suggested the writing exchange.
August came. We went on a family camping holiday to Lake Ontario. The yearly trip was less exciting to me, as the weather was poor, and I was haunted by the eerie suspense of a letter waiting on the doorstep at home. Fishing, swimming, and making cups of hot cocoa with Jen had always been our holiday routine. I didn’t fancy any of it. The foamy froth on my cocoa hardened into a slimy skin inside the mug. The warm chocolate dried at the edges and stained patterns on the inside like lines on a map — it crusted like Jamie’s inkpen. One morning, a newspaper dropped through the door of our holiday cottage. It lay face-up on the mat, slumped like a piece of roadkill. Headline: Teenager found dead with bag of letters. The news article described a body with short, dark hair, heavy scratch marks on the wrist and the neck. The paper reported that ‘an investigation is being carried out to discover the teenager’s next of kin, yet with no ID card or wallet found, the search might take some time’. In their bag, however, amongst the letters, were stories, a songbook and a collection of short stories. All written in the same hand by an ‘unknown identity’. I didn’t have to think who it was, although I couldn’t summon anything from my mouth. Not aloud, not in public anyway. Jamie was always an interest of ours, but someone we seemed to put on a mental shelf and never touched, just admired, like a porcelain doll. It was like we had placed them on our bookshelf at home, amongst all our medals and childhood memorabilia, never anticipating that one day they would slip, fall and smash into irreparable fragments of white china. Amongst the broken pieces, the information that we couldn’t put together, there was something about what was printed on paper. There lay a crude crack of something devastating, entirely simple, yet utterly beautiful: when life has flown from the human body, when all is said and done, all that is left of them shall be words.