When I was seven or eight years old, I was unreasonably worried about losing one of my parents. Instead of sleeping I would lie awake at night trying to imagine my life without them. It was particularly bad on the rare occasion they went out for dinner and left us with a babysitter. I remember waiting from my bed in the dark for the sounds of their safe return: the front door opening, their voices in the hall.
Later my worries shifted to the man I would eventually marry. Whenever he flew for work, which in a pre-Covid world was often, I struggled to focus until I received a text saying he’d arrived safely. “Landed!”
I Feel Better When You’re Here is an attempt to animate and make sense of some of these anxieties. The story began as a novel draft in which I imagined what it would be like to lose the person you love over and over again. Each morning my protagonist would wake up grieving only to discover her husband was not dead after all. Each time she would have a single day with him before losing him again. Writing this out now it sounds like the plot of a bad movie, which is probably why the story became truncated, focused on one episode of loss and inexplicable resurrection.
I wrote the first draft at an artists’ residency in Spain, about an hour’s drive from Barcelona. The residency was based in a rambling old Catalonian farmhouse with loose floor tiles and haphazard furniture. The residency staff were all on vacation and the other residents never seemed to sleep. There was a sense of magic and mystery in the halls, and this percolated into my writing as I thought about another place that had always filled me with a sense of wonder—a provincial park in southwestern Ontario where my family owns a cottage. The park in my story is loosely based on this park, home to private cottages built mostly before the 1950s. My husband and I were living in India at the time and the distance from home allowed me to imagine the park in stark relief, with heightened nostalgia for its history and reverence for the physical beauty of the landscape.
“Instead of sleeping I would lie awake at night trying to imagine my life without them. It was particularly bad on the rare occasion they went out for dinner and left us with a babysitter. I remember waiting from my bed in the dark for the sounds of their safe return: the front door opening, their voices in the hall.”
Our life in India also influenced my work in subtle yet foundational ways. We’d moved to Delhi for my husband’s job as a journalist. I’d spent my first year there trying to write fiction set in the sprawling Indian city only to find this was impossible. It was a complicated place marred by a rigid caste system, intensifying Hindu nationalism and unbelievable air pollution, and as an outsider there was little I felt comfortable saying about it. At some point I started writing prose poems—simple nonfiction observations of daily life. Prose poetry allowed me to process my experience in India without the confines of plot or the artifice of character, and this story—although not about India—is in part an outcropping of a shift in style born from that time. Influenced by writers like Lidia Yuknavitch and Brian Doyle I began writing prose with a new intensity. In India I felt breathless and existential so I suppose it’s only appropriate that I fell into a style that mirrored this state of mind.
At the same time my writing began to arch more deeply towards creative non-fiction and autofiction; the characters and settings of I Feel Better When You’re Here are closely derived from real life (even the cat shares traits with mine!).
It’s fascinating to look back on the process of writing this story as my life has changed dramatically since. We moved to Hong Kong the summer of 2019 and in late December the pandemic began next door in mainland China. The following September I had a baby after years of trying, quelling some of the loneliness that had crept into my writing. Over the past few months we have spent an extraordinary amount of time marvelling over her coos and smiles.
Like any work of art, I Feel Better When You’re Here was the product of a specific set of circumstances that will never again be. Now I long for the day when I can bring my daughter home to Canada to play on the beach at the family cottage and snuggle her grandparents, who remain healthy and well, if desperate to meet her.
Nicole Baute is a Canadian writer living in Hong Kong. Her short stories have appeared in The Forge, Prairie Fire, carte blanche and Wigleaf, and in 2018 she won the Pinch Literary Prize for Fiction.