Purple velvet

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When I start to remember my father’s attic room, I feel a tug of desire quickly followed by revulsion.  Desire and revulsion are two sides of the same coin, I’ve heard.

I am a divorced middle-aged woman with a good job as a systems analyst. I own a three-bedroom townhouse in Mississauga built in 1990, no attic, no basement, no hidden corners.  I live with my 22-year-old son who says he will move out once he finishes his computer science degree and gets a good job. No hurry, I tell him. And I mean it.  It’s just him and me here and that’s fine. He can stay as long as he likes.

I grew up in a big house in Toronto, out in the Beaches area. When I was growing up, in the 1960s and 70s, the Beaches were not yet a modish place to live. They were backwater, and our house was a bit of an eyesore. The roof had moss, and the front yard was filled with weeds. My mother had a diploma in applied arts, but she ended up freelance copy-editing because she was a natural with language. My father was an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto. He had gotten his MA in English in 1965 and, like so many other students, had embarked on a PhD only to abandon it after seven years. Seven years of stabbing at it, until it was finally dead. This is the fate of so many PhD students. Did you know most of those who start PhDs never complete their degrees?

Dad started teaching when I was about five years old, and from then on, that’s all I remember, that he taught composition courses with the odd literature course thrown in. Piles of exam booklets on our hall table, stacks of typed, stapled essays scarred with white-out.  His slanted handwriting in blue fountain pen along the margins of student papers. And the books. Books were everywhere in our house.

His abandoned PhD had been on attic spaces in 19th century literature.  He was prescient: Gilbert and Gubar published their feminist masterwork Madwoman in the Attic in 1979 in which they argued that the attic in women’s literature was a site of female oppression. But my father, before his time, was arguing for a more nuanced view.  Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver, Alcott’s Jo March, Bronte’s Bertha Mason and Lucy Snowe, and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: All had attic rooms with different possibilities, sometimes empowering and other times oppressive.  Perhaps he was a proto-second-wave-feminist. If he had actually finished the dissertation, I feel certain it would have been important and published as a monograph. My father is brilliant. He would have been celebrated, gotten a tenure track job somewhere, and I would have grown up in Berkeley, or London, or Chicago.  But he never did finish, just got more and more resentful at his supervisor (it was all his fault of course), while he toiled away as an adjunct, teaching six, seven, even eight classes a year crammed with mostly ignorant undergraduates, and the odd shining star student whom he praised at the dinner table.

My father had taken over the attic room in our house as his study.  We moved into that house when I was very young, so my earliest memories are that the attic was “Dad’s study.” My sister and brother and I were a little scared of it, yet drawn to it as well.  My father had told us he needed a private space and we weren’t allowed there unless he invited us in, nor should we disturb him when he was working. The times I was invited in I can count on one hand—and I lived in that house from two until I left for university at eighteen.  At a certain age, I did start to make the occasional secret visit. And then I started to visit more frequently.

There was a door at the bottom of a set of steep steps that ascended to the room.  The walls on the staircase were covered with brown burlap that was peeling at some places, especially at the seams.  As you entered the large room with its dramatically angled ceiling, the first thing you felt was the heaviness of the stuff in the room—bookshelves of dark wood lined almost all of the walls and they were crammed with books of all sizes and shapes.  And the books weren’t lined up all nice and tidy, either: They stuck out and bristled with extruding notes and bookmarks. There was the smell of Nag Champa incense—sweet flowers, sandalwood, and charcoal.

A large purple velvet sofa was to the right as you walked into the room; the springs almost gone, the two concave cushions molded by the bottoms of hundreds of previous sitters. The nap was worn away on the two arms, and patches of shiny brown material showed underneath.

To the left as you entered was my father’s desk—really just an old door set up on concrete blocks with a wooden captain’s chair in front of it. An ancient gooseneck lamp threw light over his typewriter and disorderly sheaves of paper.  Very little light entered this refuge—just two small dormer windows whose sills were crammed with more books and pottery incense holders from Mom’s early days as an art student.  The rust Berber carpet was old and stained of course. We had no money for anything new.

The room was unremarkable, but the feelings I had about it were complex. When I was 11, my brother Carl had told me that he had snuck in once when Dad was away at a conference and had discovered that one whole upper shelf of books—out of our reach—was filled with “erotica.”

“What’s erotica?” I asked Carl.

“Books about sex or with sex scenes in them,” he explained kindly. He could have made fun of me for not knowing—even though it would be a rare 11 year old that knew that word.

“Oh. Why, do you think he likes to read that?” I ventured.

“I dunno. Because he’s tired of having sex with Mom?”

I felt sad when I heard that, but competing with the sadness was a tug of excitement. I wanted to see those books too.

After that, I started to plan and execute my own stealth visits to the study.  Dad’s current teaching schedule was always taped to the fridge so we would know his office hours and teaching times. That helped me gauge how much time I had to get in and out.  And my mother was out working too, at a new press. Sometimes she had late hours there. So I was pretty free to go explore.  One time I went in and just walked around, looking at all of the objects. I sat briefly on the purple velvet couch, sinking into the soft crater and feeling the creak of the springs beneath me.  I touched the blue incense box, with the long wooden sticks protruding from the crinkly paper. I picked it up and smelled the heady, fruity odour that would stay on my hands all day. I ran my hand over the book titles, sometimes taking a book out to look at it, careful to return it to its place just so. I stood in the middle of the room, the rough rug under my bare toes, and listened to the dull thunder of traffic on Lakeshore Blvd.

Another time, I brought the small kitchen stool with me so I could get to the “erotica,” as Carl called it.  I positioned the stool right under the shelf and reached. I was just able to touch the spine of Fanny Hill, between Tropic of Cancer and Story of the Eye, but couldn’t get my fingers around it. The books on this shelf were packed in tight.   A larger book stuck out from the shelf, making it more accessible, so I pulled out The Joy of Sex. The book looked brand new, and I wondered if Dad had bought it recently.  I sat on the couch and had a good look at the cover, a bearded, long-haired man kissing a woman. They were naked except she seemed to be wearing his unbuttoned shirt.  I flipped through some of the pages, and the book opened to an illustration of a man’s face in a woman’s private parts. All you could see was the back of his long curly hair and his broad back and her face with eyes closed and beatific smile. As I examined the picture, I started to feel warm and tingly down there.

I thought I heard the front door opening and closing, so I quickly shut the book and tried to return it to its place, but it was hard because the other books around it had sort of collapsed into the void. I had to pull my Dad’s captain’s chair over to the bookshelf so I could gain some purchase on the shelf with my hands and clear a space to ease the book back in.  Wow, that was close, I said to myself once I put the captain’s chair back, grabbed the stool, and got safely down to my room.

After that, my confidence grew, and I started to borrow the odd book from his shelves—novels or books of poems that looked interesting. I knew, of course, he’d be furious if he knew I had been in there, so I was extremely careful to leave everything as I found it and to return the books promptly. I was a fast reader.  I borrowed from Dad’s secret library for several years without a mishap. I had decided to leave the shelf of erotica alone, however. I felt a little scared about what I didn’t know. I wanted to not know.

Then I turned sixteen, a tough year for me.  I mean, I was smart and good in school, but not athletic or particularly pretty.  God this sounds so cliché! And another cliché, we were reading A Catcher in the Rye in English 11! I suppose I identified with the alienated teen, Holden Caulfield. I loved the book. I even started using “crumbum” to mean something shitty.

In April of that year, it was still snowing, wet snow on and off most days. But there was also spring in the air, so a combination of spring snow and the smell of the earth. I remember the snow because when Dad’s student Denise arrived at the front door, she was wearing big black snow boots and an off-white parka. She stamped hard on the porch before she entered, and when she came into the foyer and threw back the parka hood, trimmed with fake fur, a few chunks of wet snow slid onto the floor.  Her cheeks were moist and red and her eyelashes had water droplets in them.

“Hi, I’m Denise Rothgar. I don’t know if your father said, but I’m here to see him about a paper I’m writing for his class.”

She had black hair in a short feathery cut, and she wore big peacock feather earrings that mixed in with her hair, making it look like she had big green-gold eyes framing her face.  She had a book bag in one hand and her purse in the other. I was a bit mesmerized by her beauty. To me, she looked like a Cherokee princess (whatever that was). That is the thought that arose, though—Cherokee princess.  Along with Salinger’s novel, I had been reading a history book about the Trail of Tears, so I had Cherokees on the brain.

“No, Dad didn’t say. Here, let me take your coat—you can put your boots on the tray.”  I hung up the parka in our hall closet and it immediately fell off the flimsy wire hanger, which flustered me. Why is this girl here? Dad never had students to the house. This was a first.

I heard Dad coming down the steps from his study and then down the next flight of steps to the first floor of the house. He came up behind me and in his deep casual voice greeted his student as if I weren’t there.

“Denise, how are you? Any trouble finding the place?”

“No, Professor Blummer.”

“Come on up to my study.”

Then, as an afterthought, he looked over at me while I struggled to get the parka onto another hanger, a wooden one this time, “Cynthia, I’ll be at least an hour. Let your Mother know not to disturb me.”

“Okay, Dad.”

I got so entranced in the book that I forgot to say anything to Mom. I was reading in the living room, just off of the front hall, when Denise came softly padding down the stairs about an hour and fifteen minutes later.  I looked up at her and smiled.

“Are you loving Salinger?” she asked, beaming a big smile back at me. She had caught the title on the spine of the book.

“Oh, I adore this novel!” I cried, leaping to my feet in enthusiasm and to get Denise’s coat.

“What high school?”

I opened the hall closet.  “Malvern.”

“Teacher?”

“Mr. O’Neill.” I took her damp coat off the hanger and stood there watching her sit on the hall stool to pull on her boots.

“Oh my goodness, I had him too!” she laughed.  “You know, you’ll really impress him if you also read The Great Gatsby, and start talking about this other unreliable narrator, Nick Carraway.  I mean O’Neill is all about Holden Caulfield as unreliable narrator. And I know you’re going to love Fitzgerald.”

She stood up and I held her coat up as she slid her arms through the holes. That’s something I had seen men do for women, but I had never done it before. It made me feel grown up and gracious.

“That’s a neat idea,” I offered. “I know my Dad’s told me about Fitzgerald. He even lent me Tender is the Night last year. He said it was one of the greatest American novels ever written. But I haven’t read it yet.”

“Oh, start with Gatsby. You’re going to be so far ahead by the time you start University. Cynthia. It’s Cynthia, right?”

“Yeah, Cynthia.”

She zipped up the parka and started to sling her purse and book bag over her shoulder. I wanted to detain her a bit longer. I liked talking to her about books, about O’Neill.

“What did you think of Mr. O’Neill’s impersonations of actors? He’s funny, isn’t he? He does that hilarious Dick Van Dyke, falling all over himself.”

“He’s a scream.  I can’t believe you’re at Malvern.”

“When did you grad?”

“Four years ago. Now I’m in third year at U of T.” There was a lull in the conversation.  “Well, nice meeting you Cynthia. Don’t forget – Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway the unreliable narrator. You’re going to ace his class.”

We had dinner about an hour after Denise left, and I didn’t mention her nor did Dad.  I don’t think Carl or Barbara, my brother and sister, even knew she had come. They’d been out all afternoon. And my mother had been sewing in a back room of the house. She hadn’t heard the doorbell or Denise leaving.

The next day was Sunday, and I finished Catcher while lying in bed curled up toward the big window next to my bed. A very weak sun was breaking through the cloud cover and there was the drip drip drip of thaw season.  God, what a fantastic book, I thought. I have to get Gatsby and start reading it. If I have a bunch read by tomorrow, I can mention it during English period.

I went into the kitchen in my bathrobe, looking for Dad. I am pretty sure I had seen Gatsby on his shelves during one of my secret visits, and I knew he’d be happy to lend a copy “for my edification.”  The exceptions were his rare books and first editions, and he had a few.  If he were at home, I would ask him innocently if he had a copy I could borrow.

My mother was sitting at the kitchen table, editing a manuscript. She always worked with an ashtray at her elbow, and a row of different pencils and pens in a wooden tray at the other elbow.  She looked up when I came in, her face wreathed in smoke.

“Good sleep?”

“Yes, but I’ve been awake for ages, reading. Is Dad around?”

“No, he’s gone to play tennis with Hank, Riva, and Daniel.” My mother wasn’t sporty, but my Dad loved tennis and had several friends from grad school who liked to play, sometimes doubles.  I always cringed a little when he came back from a game still wearing his tennis clothes because seeing his thin shanks and the sweaty terry cloth headband embarrassed me.

“When will he be home?”

“Oh probably not for hours.”

My Mom didn’t ask why I wanted to know. My sense was that she was essentially uninterested in me. Sure, she loved me, but she was usually preoccupied with one thing or another, so she didn’t ask questions about what I was thinking or doing.  For example, she might have looked me in the eye and said, “Why do you want your Dad? Is there something I can do?”  But so it goes. You can’t choose your parents.

I wandered out of the kitchen. I had gotten into my head that I must have The Great Gatsby NOW.  Usually I executed my visits to Dad’s study when there was nobody home but me. Today, I would have to venture it with Mom in the house. As long as I walked softly so she didn’t hear steps above, I should be okay.  After all, she was in the kitchen on the main floor immersed in editing, so it was highly unlikely.

I climbed the stairs stealthily and made a beeline over to the bookshelves, immediately spotting the Fitzgerald book I was after. After I picked it carefully off the shelf, and started to walk back to the stairs, a white object lying on the arm of the couch caught my eye.  I bent over to look at it more closely.  It was a plastic or rubber whitish-yellowish tube, but to call it a tube was wrong because it wasn’t stiff like a tube of toothpaste, but more like balloon material or sausage casing. It was transparent, made of super thin, almost transparent material, with a thicker rim at the opening that reminded me of the blow-end of a balloon. The rim was more yellow than white, whereas the bottom of the tube was more white than yellow.  This thing lay sort of collapsed on the purple velvet, twisted up, and there was some whitish liquid or cream contained mostly at the end of the tube, but some smeared inside the rest of it.  The tube was around six inches long, with a knot about one third of the way down, as if to seal the glue or viscous stuff down at one end.

What could this thing be? At first I wondered if it was a variety of book glue that perhaps came packaged in plastic tubes. Maybe my father had been repairing books. I know that he had done this at one time. It had been a hobby of his to repair old books, sometimes gluing bindings back on. He used to do this on Sunday mornings before he got so busy with teaching.  When the mind has nothing to go on, no previous experience with a new object, it tries to slot the new item into the inventory of what it already knows. With that item slotted, I forgot all about it and went back to my bed to immerse myself in the world of the Buchanans.

I was a great hit with Mr. O’Neill because I was able to discuss Nick Carraway with him. And I got an A plus in that class.

The following year in Grade 12 I had sex for the first time.  It wasn’t that spectacular, to be honest. I felt okay about the guy, Martin.  We were really just friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend. And we both sort of wanted to get it over with. He was nice and gentle, but it was definitely anti-climactic.  We did it in his parent’s basement rec room while they were out at a party.  Martin, after lying on top of me for a while, leaned over and whispered into my ear.

“I’m going to pull out now, okay?”

“Sure, I guess so.” I’m not sure why he told me that, but I guess he just didn’t want to make any sudden moves. We were both scared as two jack rabbits. In retrospect, I am surprised he was able to ejaculate.  In the half-light of the rec room, I watched him roll the condom off of his smallish, semi-erect penis. It looked so pink and babyish and vulnerable, lying against his white thigh.  He rolled the condom down his penis so carefully, so methodically, like ladies rolled their nylons off their legs in the old black and white movies.  Then he took the condom with some white stuff caught at one end, and tied a knot near the top.

“Why are you doing that?” I asked, pulling the fake fur blanket up over my breasts, shyly.

Martin looked embarrassed. “Well, I heard that you’re supposed to so that so the jism doesn’t spill out and make a mess.”

“Jism?” I laughed. Martin looked at me and smiled. He put the used condom on the arm of the hide-a-bed that we were lying on. I looked over at it lying there, and then I realized. Oh! So that’s what it was, in Dad’s study. That’s it.

I felt a bit sick then, and wanted to leave Martin’s place quickly. I dressed and insisted on walking home alone. “Cynthia, what did I do to upset you? Please tell me!” He pleaded with me.

“Really truly, it’s not you, Martin. It’s just something else and I’d tell you except it’s private.”

I’d like to say that something happened after that, but it didn’t. The next year, I graduated and soon after that I got a place at Queen’s in Kingston, where I started in English but switched pretty quickly to some business courses and then went straight through to get an MBA.  My Dad and Mum split up a year after I left home and sold the house.

I haven’t seen my Dad much since I moved out so many years ago. I see Mum regularly; she’s very close to my son. But it seems that when my Dad and I get together, I start remembering that thing and the events surrounding it, even though I am 55 now and it’s almost 40 years since the “whitish object” on the arm of the  couch caught my eye.  The remembering fills me with both revulsion and yearning. When I am with him, I am always on the verge of saying, no of screaming, “How could you? Why didn’t you love me? Why couldn’t you have organized your love properly? Pay attention to me, not your students! Make love to your wife, not Denise! She was only four years older than I was—how could you?”

Now that I haven’t said anything for this long, it’s pretty much impossible to introduce it into the conversation normally. “Oh by the way, Dad, why was there a used condom on the purple velvet couch in April of 1974?”  I wasn’t supposed to be in his study in the first place. How would I explain it? And part of me hopes there really could be tubes of glue that look like used condoms.

The whole thing is just so unsettling I tend to put it out of my mind, and then before you know it, another year has gone by.

 

 

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The Mothers of Rinaldo

A short story by Madeline Walker

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Ainslie Birchoff had a son, and then she had another one two years later. A week before the second birth, the bigger boy, Rinaldo, was moved into his own bedroom, with his own bed.  The chocolate brown curtains had pink embroidered pigs on them, by Ainslie’s own small talented hands, and there was a sturdy box of wooden blocks in the corner. Ainslie’s husband Tom had tried to get Rinaldo used to the room for a few nights before the birth—lying down with him and singing the boy to sleep on the cosy little toddler-sized bed made up with soft flannel sheets and topped with a bright yellow duvet.

The first night at home from the hospital, Ainslie nursed her new son to sleep in the big bed. They had named him Colin after her grandfather, and after an easy birth he was an easy baby.  Rinaldo had fallen asleep finally, after fussing and crying with his father for what had seemed like hours.  The little family was finally at rest. Ainslie, Colin, and Tom lay together in one room, while Rinaldo slept in the room next to them. The big clock on the wall in the kitchen tick-tocked, and their German shepherd Portia twitched her flanks in sleep.

Come 3 a.m. and Ainslie roused herself to nurse Colin. There were the usual lip smackings and slurpings of the sucking newborn, but then something else. An uneven patter in the hall.  Ainslie carefully slid Colin off of her breast and sidled out of bed, moving very slowly so as not to wake her partner and her infant.  In the hallway, lit only by the golden glow of the night-light, Rinaldo was walking up and down—more like staggering—dressed in only his pajama top. The white cotton nightshirt covered his protruding taut belly and just skimmed his tiny wagging penis.

“Rinaldo, darling, back to bed. Come with me lovey,” She leaned over to scoop up the little boy, when he turned and looked at her, startled.

His face began to crumble into the beginnings of a wail.  “I want my real mommy,” he screamed, then with a long trembling intake of breath he began to sob.   Ainslie felt scared. “But darling boy, I am your real mommy,” she tried again to gather him up, but he backed off.  His face contorted in distress and he continued to cry piteously.  Ainslie was unable to catch him—he fled and hid under the couch, flattening his little body onto the floor. Colin heard the fuss and started to cry from the bedroom, and then so did Ainslie. Finally, Tom was able to extract his son. He rocked the quivering sobbing boy to sleep.

Tom and Ainslie were shaken. They took Rinaldo to their pediatrician the next day, and he examined the boy. “Strong as a pony. Nothing wrong with this kid,” he pronounced, giving the two-year old a high five.  “My professional opinion is that is was an isolated case of night terrors or sleep walking. Ignore it.” And he sent them off to his receptionist to collect a “prize” for Rinaldo from a plastic tub of dollar store items such as kazoos and small stuffed toys.

There weren’t any more instances like the night waking terror, but starting at around age four, Rinaldo started to say a very precocious and oddly hurtful thing: “I was born into the wrong family.”  You may think it impossible that a four year old could say something like that as it seems to presuppose a level of self-awareness that a child that age simply does not have. But that’s because you’re thinking that the statement is metaphorical. Four-year old (and five-year old, and six-year old) Rinaldo was not speaking metaphorically. He was stating a fact, it seemed, when he pronounced this. And pronounce it he did. Not terribly often, but at interesting moments, with a kind of faraway look in his eyes. The statement and the look, together, made Ainslie’s gut drop, made her feel like she was on a broken elevator, shooting down, down.

Rinaldo’s parents weren’t Italian—the Burchoff name was originally from Tom’s paternal grandfather who was German. So Rinaldo was christened Rinaldo because his father liked the name. He had come across it in a novel he was reading, turned it around in his mouth a few times, and asked his wife, Ainslie, “what do you think of Rinaldo for a boy?”

“It’s different, I like it!” she shouted from the kitchen where she attempted to chop vegetables with her arms extended, as her enormous girth kept her well back from the counter. Later on, she had done some research and found that Rinaldo, an Italian form of Reynold, meant “wise power.” Nice, she thought.

Portia the dog died when the kids were in their teens—it was surprising she lasted so many years.  At the end, they had to carry her from one part of the house to the other because she slid on the hardwood floors. Tom got killed in a car accident when the boys were 29 and 27, and precisely one year later, Ainslie was diagnosed with an aggressive variety of inflammatory breast cancer. Colin was married with a new baby, and Rinaldo was single, living on his own in a cramped bachelor apartment across town. He was barely making ends meet with his blog “Outersphere,” about metaphysics and people and places that operated on different, higher energy levels than other folk.  The advertising revenue from the blog kept him just solvent. Soon after his mother’s diagnosis, he gave his notice at the apartment and moved back into the family home, back into his boyhood bedroom.  At a point late in his mother’s cancer, after every treatment had failed and she was back at home to live her last days, Rinaldo taped a sign to the front door of the 1920’s character house, carefully lettered with a black sharpie on lined paper:  “My mother is dying in this house.  Please respect this sacred space. Remove your shoes. Speak softly. Don’t bring negativity here, only love. Let us make her passage to the other side one of peace.”

One day he sat beside her bed, holding her hand, rhythmically pressing down the raised blue veins with his huge thumb, crying quietly.  She looked at him—so different from staid Colin, his wild brown curls tucked behind big ears, his beard scraggly and rough. His hazel eyes were red-rimmed from so much crying.

“Do you remember, Rinaldo, the night you had the bad dream, just after Colin was born?”

“No, tell me.”

“Well you were wandering around the house in just a nightshirt, and when I tried to take you back to your bed, you looked up at me so scared, and said ‘I want my real mommy!’ Oh my, that hurt me so much.  I still feel a stab in my heart, even now” she said with a grimace.

“You know, I finally found my real Mother,” he said to her, looking into her eyes.

She looked confused. She was expecting some reassurance from her son. She was dying here, a youngish widow, the tragedy was compound, the air was thick with the sadness of it all. And here he was saying she was actually not his mother?

“I’m your real mother,” she said sharply. I should know, I spend nine months with you in utero. I birthed you. I should know.”

“Oh, I know all that. But that’s not what’s important. Of course you are my biological mother, but my spirit Mother is somebody who has been right under my nose, all along, and I only found out last year.”

Ainslie, though very weak, pulled her thin body up in the bed. Her sharpness continued. “What the hell are you talking about?” This tone was uncharacteristic for her. She had been such a soft, giving soul all of her life.  Those uncanny times when Rinaldo had said he was born in the wrong family, those tore her heart to shreds, but she had suffered silently. And now, this? She had thought when he moved back home after her diagnosis that there would be only closeness, only intimacy, only mother-son love.  Now this?

Rinaldo did not draw back, nor did he release her hand. His big hand was very warm, enclosing hers, and though he had tears streaming down his face, he was very composed, very calm. “Mom, it’s okay, it’s okay. I know it’s upsetting. But my spirit Mother is no rival to you. You have been a wonderful mum—always there for me, always loving.  But my spirit Mother—well She is the one who guides me, who has been guiding me, in spirit matters all my life. The story about my night wandering at two is very telling. I have been looking for Her, and She is right here.”

“Right where?” murmured Ainslie. Her eyes were closed now, as she felt a sharp pain in her chest, where her breasts had once been.

Rinaldo unbuttoned the top two buttons of his madras shirt, lifted her small hand, and leaning over the bed, placed it on his bare chest, atop the layer of curly, sweaty hair. “Here, Mum, right here.” Ainslie’s thin arm was fully extended, the hand had disappeared into her son’s open shirt. His large hand covered hers, pinning it to his heart, the chest hair protruding from around the hand sandwich.  He leaned over her, his other arm steadying his big leaning body so he wouldn’t fall into the bed. On this hot July day, he was wearing cargo shorts and his trunk-like thighs, also covered with thick dark hair, were pressed up against the wooden rail at the side of the bed.  Ainslie opened her eyes, surprised but not alarmed by this new position she was in.  Mother and son did not speak, but the room was not silent. The sound of Rinaldo’s heart seemed to fill the space, BA-doom, BA-doom, BA-doom. Ainslie felt the reverberations through her body.

“In there, my Mother is in there.” He paused.  “And your own spirit Mother is in here.” He slowly moved her hand out of his shirt and placed it on her own flat chest, where two radical mastectomies had razed her body.  His hand, warm and firm, held her own fluttery one down flat on that scarred place, separated from her skin by only a thin layer of violet cotton.  They both felt her heart beating rapidly, a bird’s beat in comparison to his.  A thought flashed through Ainslie’s mind. I’m not embarrassed. I wonder why? But then her attention was back on the hands, her son’s and her own. The place under those hands grew warm as her rapid heart began to slow down. Now it sounded like a little pony going from a canter to a trot. A palomino pony trotting across a green meadow, wild yet serene.  Free.

 

Elephant Man Comes Out

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Another hot dream. I woke in a sweat. My chest felt sticky, my erection painful. Sal’s big body had crowded me all night. Sometimes her broad back against me felt like a dam pinning my pent-up life force. I got up quickly and had a shower, and when she got up, eye-smudged and groggy to get the baby, I was efficient, even curt as I passed her a cup of coffee.  She was fat and innocent and I felt like a shit.

I knew my son had a birthday party to go to that day—Saturday August 27, 11 to 1. Every time I went to open the fridge for the last two weeks, I’d seen that invitation emblazoned with bright balloons, stuck under an anti-bullying magnet. I realized then I’d been seeing 11 to 1 as a bit of an escape. I vaguely knew the boy, Liam, and the family. I met them once at a La Leche League picnic—a group of earnest people I feel no connection to, even though my wife is a leader.

She sat by the window breastfeeding the baby, one hand around a mug and the other cupping her enormous brown breast. Propped into the crevasse between her big belly and her thigh, the baby applied suction to the hidden nipple, and around that little mouth, working rhythmically, spread the puckered aureole of my wife’s breast, stippled with long black hairs like a dunce cap askew the vast mound of veined flesh.

“I’ll take Pete to the party, “ I said, looking away from her bare breast and out the window to the silent green park, dotted white with seagulls.

“Oh, okay. I was going to….” the baby gurgled and farted and with a little cry came off the breast. My wife fussed with her, repositioning the flannel-wrapped sausage back onto the long damp nipple.  “You can have some time to yourself with the baby” I said, watching one large seagull open his wings.

Pete was playing Lego in his bedroom. “Hey kiddo, I’m taking you to Liam’s party. We’re leaving in half an hour.”

Pete looked up at me, serious brown eyes in his pudgy face, a lollipop stick protruding from his dark lips.

“Where the fuck did you get a lollipop?”

“Lady at the grocery store,” he mumbled.

“Give it to me,” I opened my hand, “now.”

“No” said Pete, arching away. Little shit looked at me, defiant eyes, wild crinkly hair framing his fat face, a line of purple syrup dribbling from his mouth. He looked demented.  Sometimes I looked at that kid and thought “he’s mine?”

“Whatever,” I said turning my back. Losing battle. Genes. My wife was fat, my kid getting fat, even the baby had rolls of podge.  And today there would be more sugar—a cake and ice-cream, goody bags. Jesus.

Liam lived in a little stucco house a block away from an elementary school. The front steps and door were shabby, a stack of old newspapers moldering in the corner and a bag of garbage sitting atop the stack, like nobody had the energy to get this stuff into the bins down in the driveway.  Sometimes homeschoolers were like that. Home all day with their kids, yet can’t get it together to do simple chores.

The door opened. Lily, the mother, beamed her smile. Pete shoved his gift into Lily’s hand and darted around her, yelling “Liam, Liam! Where are you?”

“Sorry, he’s really excited,”

“Oh, no worries! Liam’s excited too.”

We stood there together at the door entry, her smile lessening a little at the corners as she jiggled a baby on her hip.

“I’m Lily, by the way.”

“Oh, yes, Nils.” As both of her small hands were occupied, we both looked at my outstretched hand and laughed.

“Well, are you just dropping him, then? Or do you want to stay?”  she asked.

I hesitated. “Well if you don’t mind.”

I hadn’t thought about what I would actually do from 11 to 1. For some reason a coffee at Starbucks with yesterday’s Globe spread before me seemed sad. Maybe I’ll stay and observe how the other half lives.

“Oh come in, come in,” she chimed, leading me into the living room, decorated with streamers. Scuffed, coloured boxes of toys lined one wall, bookshelves lined the other, and two big sagging sofas faced each other like old drunks.

“Coffee?” she called back to me as she started to fill a kettle.

“Sure, that would be nice.”

“My husband is just finishing up some balloon blowing in the rec room—it’s a secret game so don’t say anything to the kids. I’ll keep the game a secret from you, too! You’ll love it” she chuckled.

And then she did the most remarkable thing:  She shifted the grizzling baby from her hip into the crook of her arm, lifted her t-shirt to expose an alert pink nipple, slid the baby onto it, then cradled the egg head with her splayed hand—all in a series of expert moves.

I felt embarrassed then, to have watched her virtuosity with such curiosity, so I quickly turned away to look out the large windows wrapping the kitchen nook, onto the compost heap in the back, just in time to see a shiny rat running across the debris with an apple core in his mouth.

More kids started to arrive with their parents, but none of the other parents stayed. They seemed eager to be free of their children for a couple of hours. People hugged one another and handed off gifts in loud voices at the crowded doorway, as if insisting on how much they loved family life. Children, all boys, were running around the small house, yelling and laughing.  I sat safely in the kitchen nook where I had holed up, nursing a cup of coffee, watching, listening, feeling my gut loosen, my mind soften. The children’s shouts seemed far away.

Liam’s father emerged from the basement with another child—a toddler. So they had three kids?  Wow.

“Hello,” he approached me with a lopsided grin, hand outstretched.

“Oh hello, I’m Nils, Pete’s dad” I half rose from the nook to shake hands with this gangly man.

“I’m Liam’s dad, Miles. Just finished the one-hundredth balloon, and I’m knackered,” he laughed, blowing a raspberry from puckered lips in a demonstration of the work he’d been busy at below.

Pretty soon the birthday party started to take on a shape. Lily and Miles organized the kids in the living room and announced there would soon be a soccer game in the schoolyard, followed by lunch and cake and presents and finally a special game in the basement—a secret! Then goody bags and good-byes at 1 o’clock.  The kids swarmed and pushed each other and shook the wrapped gifts piled onto one of the couches.

I sat in the kitchen nook, feeling quite proprietorial by now.  I liked this corner. It felt safe.  The kitchen table was strewn with used coffee cups, a colouring book and crayons, a stack of library books in one corner. The other adults had things in hand—there was nothing to do. My son was taken care of. I liked the coffee made from beans from a local roastery. It was strong with real cream.  I liked the big panel of windows behind me. I could turn my head and see the narrow yard with a rusty play gym and the compost pile, home to happy rats. I could see the sagging homemade cake perched atop the fridge, the goody bags lined up on the top shelf in the Ikea-styled kitchen.  The sun had come out and I felt the warmth on my neck and a pleasant breeze from the open window beside me.  The kids’ voices seemed as if they were coming from a distant country in another language.  I liked the feel of the smooth cushion under my bare thighs.

Miles shepherded the kids out the door with a soccer ball in one hand and holding the hand of his toddler with the other. He managed everybody in his gentle tenor, punctuated by chuckles: “C’mon guys, it’s not far, just a block, but let’s all stay together now! Last one there is a green frog,” and then he hopped like a frog for a few meters while the boys shrieked at him.

Lily stood at the open door, watching them go, jiggling the baby, talking softly.

“Oooh look at Daddy going bye-byes and all the kids. See your brothers?”      Then she turned abruptly, flushed, “Oh I’m sorry, did you want to go with them? Go play soccer? I’m sure Miles could use the help. . . .” she trailed off.

“No, no, actually I’m really enjoying sitting here, if you don’t mind. I don’t often get to just sit. It’s very relaxing.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” she smiled. The baby’s eyes were closed and it leaned into her small breasts.

“I’m just going to put her down for a nap. Perfect timing, really,” she said, and padded down the hall to the dark nethers of the house, no doubt piled with cloth diapers, toys and more toys, precarious towers of books on attachment parenting  beside the messy bed.

I leaned back into the cushioned nook, my hands on my thighs, feeling peaceful after the roiling night, feeling my breath go in and out.  I pulled the stack of library books closer and—with a quiver—recognized the title on the spine of the bottom book. A Boys Own Story, by Edmund White.  What are the chances! I pulled it from the bottom, and looked at the cover, a beautiful bronzed teenage boy in a tank top, his sharp profile framed by dark messy locks. A book I had finished only a week ago. What are the chances of us both reading this somewhat obscure 1982 memoir by the same guy who wrote The Joy of Gay Sex? Or maybe Miles was the one who had taken it out of the library? That would be even weirder. Feels like a sign.

In the opening scene, White describes, in erotic detail, how he, 15, and a young visitor to his summer cottage, 13, fuck each other every night in a narrow cot, with the boy’s younger brother asleep in a cot beside them.  Some of the lines had kept coming back to me, stirring me, after I read it.

I opened the book and found the page.  “Now that he’d completely relaxed I could get deeper and deeper into him.”

I registered tingles in my groin area.

And then I skipped down to this:  “‘I’m getting close,’” White said to the other boy. “‘Want me to pull out?’

‘Go ahead,’” the boy said “‘Fill ‘er up.’”

Oh sweet Jesus. This kid welcomes the rush of ejaculate into his butt like a tank welcoming the flow of gas—my God that made me horny. As I re-read these lines, I felt my prick start to thicken. I closed the book, but continued to hold it in my hands, touching it almost tenderly now, recognizing again how much yearning it had stirred in me.

After a minute or two, Lily padded back down the hall, toward me, smiling.

“Out like a light.  I’ve got to get the lunch ready for the kids, but just sit there—it’s fine.”

I had made no move to get up to help her. I just smiled broadly, fully relaxed now, holding the book in my hands.  Was it something about this messy house, the coincidence of the book, her open smile, the drone of lawnmowers on nearby lawns, the caffeine buzz in my head, the arousal that made every pore a thirsty mouth?

Lily started to pull things out of the fridge – mustard and ketchup in plastic squeeze bottles and packages of wieners.

“I bought both meat hot dogs and tofu hot dogs because I happened to know some of the kids are vegetarian, including ours” she said brightly, with an inquiring look on her face as if to say “and what about you and yours?”

“Oh, we all eat meat,” I said. “But I’m not sure how much real meat is in those things,” I laughed.  And then lifted the book up to show the cover.
“Did you like White’s memoir?”

“Oh my god, so good!” she said, putting two pots of water to boil on the stove and fumbling around for scissors to cut open the plastic packages of wieners.  “Have you read it?” she looked over her shoulder at me.

“Yes, just recently. It seems such a coincidence that you have, too.”

“Oh, I belong to a book club, and we’re doing a year of memoirs, actually. It was my turn to pick, and I was at a loss. So my brother, who’s gay, was here for dinner and raved about it. So I figured—let’s give it a try!”

And here my voice took a leap out into the warm air.

“The opening chapter—that was brilliant. I read it more than once” I said, feeling a blush creep up my neck. “Every time, I got hard as a rock.” Nervous laughter. There was no turning back now. It was out there, hanging in the air, that boys having sex made me hard, this thing that had rolled around inside me, a lump deep in my gut, a greasy red coil that fueled my erections every morning.  I wondered if her back had stiffened a little, hearing it, or did I imagine that? Practice, I told myself. Practice this. Don’t expect approval, man. Don’t expect anything.

“Sorry, Lily. That was TMI, I know.”

She turned square, facing me, wiping her hands on her cut-offs.

“Not at all,” she laughed. “Do you know, I felt aroused by that scene too? Don’t you think we’re all polymorphously perverse? Freud was really onto something.”

That got me sitting up at attention. “But did you know Freud said that it is under the influence of seduction that children became polymorphously perverse, just like so-called bad women are swayed to perversion by seducers. He did not approve. To him polymorphously perverse was a distortion of sexuality.  You know he was a product of his time—a real prude.”

“Hmm,” she sat down across from me. “How do you know so much about him?”

“Oh, Freud has held some fascination for me over the years.”

She looked at me quizzically, then got up, went to the stove, and started to lift the pots to drain the dogs.  “I’ll put these to keep warm in the oven. Help me get the cake finished? I haven’t frosted it yet.”

“Okay, sure.”

“Tell me more about Freud, you dark horse,” she said.  “Or, actually, tell me more about getting hard from reading Edmund White.” She looked me in the eye. “Seriously, I don’t judge.  I don’t tell. I am an impartial listener. And I grew up with gay.” Then she laughed and started to lay tofu dogs on a cookie tray.

“I’ll take it,” and I joined her laughter.

* * *

When Miles and the kids returned from the soccer field, Lily and I were working side by side putting the hot dogs into buns, pouring juice into glasses.  “How did it go?” Lily called, and Miles, in response, came up behind her, sliding his arms around her.

“Fun, fun, fun. We’re hungry, baby.”

Pete rushed up and punched me in the leg.

“Why’re you here, Dad? You’re the only one. The only parent. You can go now” he said, his dark brow furrowed by the anxiety anything out of the ordinary produced in him.

“It’s okay, Pete, I’ve just been hanging out with Liam’s mom, helping her.” Pete seemed to accept this explanation, and soon there was just the blur of kids eating hot dogs, and then the singing of Happy Birthday, and cake, and Liam tearing gift wrap off of boxes of Lego, a book, some juggling pins, a sketch book. I had reclaimed my nook, and I watched the proceedings, all of it a bit surreal. I could not take back what was said, nor did I want to.

Lily was deep into being a mother. The baby was back on her hip, her other hand gestured and grappled with a lighter to light candles, squish balls of gift paper, and rescue bits of hot dog from between sofa cushions. Miles snapped pics with his iPhone, laughing frequently.

“Good gift for you Liam, a sketchbook – nice one – young artist.”

The kids were playing with the new toys—a dozen bodies moving rapidly and making noise in the small living room. I watched safely from my nook, sipping juice. Then Lily did a remarkable thing. She handed the baby to Miles, leaped onto the coffee table, and cried “Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp!”

Each time she said it, she punched the air with her little fists on the “stomp” and stamped her naked feet, making it into a war holler. In only a few seconds, the kids caught the idea and echoed “Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp!” Letting toys drop to the ground, they punched at the air with sticky fists.

“Okay guys, the game’s down in the basement, but first you have to put on your elephant feet.” Lily took a stack of brown paper bags she had placed at the end of the coffee table and started handing them out, two for each boy along with two rubber bands.

“I’ll show you what to do.”

But before she demonstrated how to make elephant feet, she strode over to me in my protected corner—“You too!” she said, smiling. “It’s fun!”

I hesitated, but then I took the bags and watched. Lil put one bag over each bare foot, securing them with rubber bands around her ankles.

“Now I have elephant feet,” she crowed, stomping them up and down, and causing the baby in Miles’s arms to startle and wail. She laughed and helped the kids on with their bags and rubber bands.  Soon they were all shuffling down the basement steps in elephant boots, following Lily, laughing and talking excitedly, except Miles, who stayed above, shushing the baby. I trailed behind, my paper boots making every step uncertain.

Lily opened the door of a large rec room strung everywhere with dozens of coloured Christmas lights glowing on a sea of softly bouncing balloons. The children stopped quietly for a moment, looking. One of them exhaled loudly, “Jeez Louise.” We all laughed at that.

The first kid in the line, my kid, yelled “Hey, let’s stomp ‘em” and soon all of the young bodies smashed into the softly lit space and were stomping on the balloons that burst with cracking noises, like guns in rapid fire.

Lily hadn’t needed to show them what to do. They knew. Then she grabbed my hand and pulled me in. “Let’s do the stomp, elephant man,” and she brought her right arm up against her face, pursed her lips, waved her arm up and down, pushed a loud stream of air from her tight lips. At the same time she lifted her knees and splayed them in an African dance. She was a mad she-elephant trumpeting, waving her trunk in the soft jungle light, bursting jungle balls in heavy-footed splendour.

Laughing, I made my arm into a trunk, trumpeted my own rich high-pitched sounds into the mix, bursting my own bubbles in the dim cave, protected by the dark.

Four things

 

“I think your financial guy is the same financial guy as my financial guy.”

Oh my god, thought Shig, did I really just hear that sentence? She took another twenty from another customer for a double Americano, and—making change—placed the plastic purple and blue bills in an outstretched hand. Her septum ached from the new piercing. Was it getting infected? She kept touching it throughout the morning, moving the ball closure ring back and forth through the tender hole. It was akin to the tongue going to the sore tooth. Is it all right? Am I leaking snot?

Shig, tall and willowy with short-cropped dark hair, drove her life in lists of four. Her manner since childhood had been to hold back and plan her movements, which imbued her with a tentative grace. She approached people with a protean, mobile face—she was ready to smile if you smiled, ready to turn away if you ignored her. There was a guarded, wait-and-see look in her brown hooded eyes.  She often took her cues from others in the life outside her skin, yet her interior life felt mostly like a cathedral, orderly and spacious, filled with light, demarcated by quartets of pews.

The cathedral image had formed when she was fifteen and they had read Raymond Carver’s story in English 10.  Two pictures stayed with her: One, of the full-bearded blind man enclosing the narrator’s hand in his own as together they drew a cathedral.  A cathedral is a place built, the narrator said, because men want to be closer to God. And the other picture was what she imagined the interior of the cathedral was like—her interior, really. Instead of blood and bones, a heart, a liver, a pancreas, she had ribs of stone, an airy dome, stained glass windows, warm coloured light, cherry wood pews with velvet cushions.

Right now everybody wanted Americanos. The head barista Blondie is working quickly, expertly tamping down coffee into three brew baskets, plugging portafilters snugly into La Marzocco (they called the big espresso machine Zocco for short).  When Blondie interviewed her for the job on Skype, Shig wanted to ask were you named for Blondie in the comic? Or were you named for the other Blondie, the  singer?  Shig’s mom had an old Parallel Lines L.P. in a milk crate in the basement, and she liked to look at it sometimes. She liked it that Blondie didn’t feel the need to smile in that photo whereas most of the goofy looking men surrounding her had grins on.  Or maybe Blondie was called Blondie simply because she was blonde, dyed blonde. Blondie did look a little like the fifties comic with her glossy wheat-coloured wave curving over her brow and her shapely figure and tight clothes. But comic Blondie didn’t have tattoos, thought Shig.  Or at least visible ones.

As she took orders and made change, Shig started thinking about her own name. It started when she was four and had hair long enough to put up. She was mesmerized by the women with chignons that she saw in magazines and on billboards. “I want one!” she told her mother, and from then on, for perhaps two years, Chelsea would ask for a chignon every day, and her mother complied. The only girl in kindergarten with her hair up in a fashionable do.  Her brother, two years older, insisted on calling her Shig, short for chignon (yes, the g is silent, but he was six at the time and just starting to read). The name stuck.  And now Chelsea was a thing of history, and Shig was her identity, even though her hair was super short now, and she hadn’t worn a chignon since high school.  Sometimes she was even Shiggy when a friend was being affectionate.  Back on task, Shig, she told herself. Change, cups, two Americanos, one machiatto with legs.

Shig rhymes with dig, and her first boyfriend, Aaron, had written a ditty for her on the back of a McDonald’s napkin: My sweet Shig, You I dig.  But Shig also rhymed with prig.  Aaron had called her that when she didn’t want to remove her clothes in public. A group of her friends took Ecstasy after graduation and had ended up dancing around a bonfire in the woods, semi-nude.  Sure enough, she had taken the Ecstasy, greedy for the experience, but then she was the only one who refused to take her shirt off.  Oh Shig, You’re such a prig. The boys and the other girls tore off their tops and flung them into the bushes, laughing.  She remembered the blur of coloured bras in the firelight.  And the boys’ chests, bronzed and luminous.

Still, there were times when the cathedral flung open its doors to outer life, and she let that interior glow guide her.  That was happening more often.

Just after her nineteenth birthday, Shig started to think about leaving her hometown of Kamloops. She and Aaron had broken up, and she had no interest in going to Thompson Rivers University like her brother.  She was ready for a change from the job at Starbucks and the home routines that had played out since childhood.

Shig imagined how it might go if she announced her intention. There would be an argument about why she should stay, followed by grudging acceptance, the U-Haul rental, arranged by her Dad, the choosing and packing items, supervised by her mother, and maybe a family party to say good-bye, to which her friends would be invited via her mother’s Facebook page. To Shig’s dismay, all of her friends were Facebook friends with her mother.   Basically her parents would take over.

She wanted to do it alone, to start over, to strike out. Her parents’ love felt like a hoodie that was warm and protective, but starting to feel too warm.  The hood blinded her from seeing peripherally, and she was aching to throw it off.  Shig started by searching Victoria Craigslist every morning before work. That way, she thought, I will catch the right job and nab the room in the best shared house before someone else does. Around that time, Shig’s cathedral started to bloom with light.

Always disciplined and methodical, at age six Shig had lined up her beanie babies in categories (cats, dogs, reptiles) at nine, kept her pencils and felties organized by colour in Bonne Maman jam jars on her bookshelf.  She had decided at age eight to get better at gymnastics and forced herself to practice every day for 30 minutes. Soon she was winning medals.

Now she applied the discipline to a secret plan—to find a home and a job in Victoria without assistance, and to make it all happen with minimal parental involvement.  Loco parentis, she thought. In the place of my parents: me. I can be responsible for me.  And I can do it all in lists of four.

She had made it happen—saved her money, found a place to rent in a shared house—all arranged without her parents’ knowledge. Nailed a job online after a Skype interview (she had Starbucks experience and that counted for a lot).  Decided not to bring anything but herself and a few books and clothes, thus no need for a U-Haul and her father’s interference.  She took the train two months ago and here she is.

Shig makes lists in her mind, four things at a time as she moves throughout her day. It might be, for example, teeth, boots, cat, earrings. That meant first she would clean her teeth, then put on her boots, then feed the cat, then choose earrings.  (She missed the family cat Ollie the most, followed by her brother, then parents.) This listing kept her focused on the tasks at hand. One of her father’s favourite sayings was “be where your hands are.” That was good. She couldn’t get too far ahead of herself. It kept her on task and in the cathedral when she needed to be.

Sometimes she wrote down her lists of four. She had her little coiled notebook, but when it wasn’t near, she used scraps of paper. Listing was private. Once her brother found a list of four on the floor in the dining room—it must have fallen out of her pocket. “What’s this?  Dishwasher, library books, toast, make-up. Shig, this is your writing. What’s it about?”  She was embarrassed. “Just a list of things to do.” “What? You need to make a list to remind you to eat toast? To put on your make-up?” He laughed and put the list in her palm.  “You’re a sweet strange one Shig.”

Another thing Shig does is wonder about sayings—where did they come from? What’s the meaning? Her grandmother had given her a book for her seventh birthday: Mad as a Wet Hen and other funny idioms.  She loved that book. She still had it—stained and dog-eared, it was one of the few books she had brought with her on the train. And since then Shig had kept a running list of idioms and their meanings. First in notebooks in her neat cursive, then transferred into a Word file when she got a laptop.

And so here she is at Caffe Fantastico, taking orders.  She used lists, determination, the cathedral, her borderline OCD-ness to get here, get this job, get that room, save enough for the septum piercing for her twentieth birthday last week (a gift to myself, she thought). On task: order doppio, take money, make change, clean cups up on Zocco.

The latest idiom on the list troubled her. After she got her nose pierced, she posted a picture on her Facebook page.  Her mother commented, “You look like a bull, Shig. Watch you don’t get led by the nose.” Whoa! She wasn’t prepared for that. Yes, she knew that her mother, though appearing supportive, loving and cool to all of Shig’s friends, could also be sharp and mean in private. But this was public—right on her timeline.  Was this to get back at Shig for taking responsibility for her own move to Victoria? Was this a subtle revenge tactic?

Her parents had been shocked when at dinner one night she made the fait accompli announcement she was leaving. It was as if she had betrayed them. All she was doing was what they had told her to do all of her life. Be responsible for yourself. They were surprised because they were used to her taking her cue from them. Both parents had been hinting about TRU—what would you like to take? Why don’t you do a “fun” year taking classes you are interested in, a try-it-on year?  That’s what we both did, then we found our majors.  We’ll pay for it, honey.  Just figure out what you want to study. But what if she didn’t want to go to University at all? What then? Would the world end?

Domestic cattle, usually bulls, often had their septums pierced and rings inserted, the easier to lead them and control them. To be led by the nose meant to be easily controlled by others.  So was her mother, then, suggesting she was weak, gullible, liable to be controlled? Why the fuck did Shig care so much? The irony, she thought, was that yes—she had been controlled by others, and those others were her parents. She had taken their cues all of her childhood and teenage years. She had been led by the nose. And she had taken steps to change that by executing her plan to move away. And now here she was.

Why did she even friend her mom on Facebook? Because it seemed unkind to ignore the friend request, and she was a kind person, she reminded herself.  She touched the nose ring yet again and noticed the next customer in line looking at her with—what was that—disgust? It looks unsanitary, me touching my nose all day, Shig thought. She asked Rose to take over the cash. “I just need five minutes,” she said, taking off her apron and shimmying around the back of the horseshoe shaped counter. She went out into the bright light of day.  People were scattered over the patio, sitting at the spindly tables, sipping coffee, talking and laughing, some jiggling babies on their knees.

Okay, I need to list, thought Shig walking purposefully down the road away from the cafe. I have five minutes. This is the Shig way—listing makes things better. There is no try, said Yoda, only do. Her father had a t-shirt with some Yoda saying that had shaped her childhood. Don’t try, just do. Just do it. No, that was Nike, not Yoda, but both ideas prevailed in her house.  And now she had to undo this discomfort, this feeling she had somehow capitulated to the “system” by getting a nose ring. She was pissed off at her mother, she was embarrassed, and she was resentful.  Tell Siri set alarm, five minutes, then breathe, then stride, four: turn back at the corner. Shit shit shit shit, it’s time to go back in. She slipped behind the counter, pulled the apron back on, tied it absentmindedly, and started in again at the cash. I don’t need a list of four things to do. I need to just tell my mother to fuck off.  Take the bill, make change, clean cups, put the order slip on Zocco.  One, two, three, four.

“You alright?” asked Blondie, nudging closer to her. “You look upset.”

“I’ll be fine. It’s a stupid thing. Just mad at my mother.”   Then a funny thing popped into her mind. “Gird your loins,” her father used to say, jokingly, as he drove their Jetta around town dropping them off at school or gymnastics. She even remembered him saying it to her as he escorted her into preschool when she was three and still in diapers some of the time. “Gird your diapered loins, Chels.”  My father is so weird, Shig mused with a smile.

That saying, that particular idiom, popped into my head right now because it’s a sign, she thought. I need to gird my loins, I need to protect myself from my mom. She can be mean, and now I need to protect myself. Maybe not my loins, exactly, but she does get me where I am most vulnerable, my sense of autonomy.

During her lunch break, Shig got her iPhone and looked up “gird your loins” in her running list (alphabetical).  She had been thinking it meant to protect oneself as one went into battle. Well not exactly. It means to prepare yourself mentally to do something difficult, and it came from the Bible, where girding up your loins meant to tie up long loose clothes to get them out of the way when you were working or going to war.  In effect, you made a kind of diaper out of those robes men used to wear. So it was still relevant to her situation, she thought. Yes, that’s it. I need to mentally prepare myself to confront my mother and tell her something. . . .  But I’m not sure what yet. But yes. Gird my loins.  Tie up my loose apron and focus.  Except the idea of the diaper kept interfering with her image of being fierce.

At 3:30 p.m. Shig was standing on her front porch, digging around in her deep leather purse for the keys to the house she shared with three others. After letting herself in, she took off her helmet, dropped her stuff and sat on a stool at the kitchen island with her notebook. Lists had been formulating all the way home. When she got anxious, as she was now, the lists got granular.  When she really needed to calm down she would lay out the four things to do on the cathedral pews, like they were little bits of paper, one on each pew. So, one on the first pew, get laptop from room. Two on the second pew, go to Facebook and sign in. Three, on the third pew, take three deep breaths (a way to gird my loins). Four, on the fourth pew, re-read the post. Then I’ll need another list to figure out what to do next. But that’s okay. One thing at a time. Be where your hands are. Cathedral.

Wait, I didn’t eat at lunch. New list. One, bread out of fridge, two, two slices into the toaster, three, cut cheese, four, mayonnaise.   As she sat at the stool chewing her sandwich and swallowing, she started wondering about Raymond Carver and what he had meant.  She had loved the story, but a tug in her solar plexus told her she was missing something important. She wasn’t satisfied with the explanation Mrs. Romney had given, that the narrator had finally realized true sight at the end, a kind of spiritual vision that the blind man already had.  Somehow there was more to it than that.  She liked to think about the blind man’s big paw wrapped around the smaller hand of the narrator, the two of them sitting close together on the couch with Robert’s full beard grazing the narrator’s neck. They had just smoked a big joint. And the wife in the doorway yammering, “what’s happening? What’s going on?” Shig chuckled aloud just thinking about it.

She started working through the list she had made prior to the sandwich, running up to her room, grabbing her laptop, and bringing it back to the kitchen island. She liked sitting here in the afternoon because the sun splashed into the room like a big stream of honeywater.  She logged into Facebook and paused, taking her three deep breaths. As she completed each of her numbered tasks, she picked up the paper from the pew and crumpled it, putting it into her pocket. Not really, of course.  There was no actual paper, no cathedral, but she went through the actions in her recessed interior, where light played over the mosaic floor, the rood cross.

Okay, my loins are girded. She went back to the post she had made to accompany the photo.  Lulu, the woman who had done the piercing, had offered to take a picture of her. Though her nose hurt like hell, Shig was radiant in the photo, proudly showing off her jewelry, eyes sparkling, huge grin, her gamin hair pushed back on her sweaty brow.  She checked the comments underneath and breathing slowly, read through them all to find her mother’s.  “Shig – way to go you wild woman!” “Shiggy you are so brave.”  “You look wonderful” “Shig come home we miss you!” “You look hot” “Hey I want one of those” “Can I come visit, Shig?” all peppered with brightly coloured emojis.  She exhaled, smiling. Her friends were so lovely.

But where was her mother’s post about being led by the nose?  Nowhere to be seen.  She read through the comments again, more slowly. Not there! She closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the feeling of the sunbath. My cathedral, Shig thought.  She opened her eyes, closed her laptop, and started a list of four.  Laundry, pee, shopping list, email.  No, that should be pee, laundry, email, shopping list.  She felt so good, so satisfied, so content, that she risked a second list of four before she went up to the bathroom. Part one of the shopping list: eggs, almond milk, avocado, kale.

Story and photo by Madeline Walkerimg_0776

 

 

 

Cones and Bottles

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The evening sky—hot, curdled, yellow—sat heavy on the balconies of 522 Wishart. A few people lingered in deck chairs with drinks, some with cigarettes, some with joints. Angela was one of those.  She would have to go in soon, though, because the sounds from Hell family, one floor below, were making her prickle with rage.  First, the small girl, perhaps four or five, “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, can I have more ice-cream? Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom,” the incessant whine. Then the presumed father—“shut the fuck up, Ape” (short for April?). Then a pitch perfect response from the mother—“stop fucking swearing at her!” and this would rise to a crescendo, with the kid finally running out onto the balcony, screaming, and the two parents inside screaming at each other.  Angela could see the little “Ape” now, a bird’s eye view, her fat ice-cream painted hands clutching the metal rails, and her pigtails quivering as she howled.

Angela wanted to phone somebody. Who? Social services? What’s the crime? Emotional abuse? Yes! That’s real. She had suffered it too. Would this April grow up to be like her, one of the walking wounded?  Probably. In the meantime, she went into her apartment and phoned the superintendent of the building for the fourth time this week. Left another voicemail. Could she get this Hell family evicted? They had been disturbing her since they moved in six weeks ago.

Ape seemed a little bit like her as a child, she surmised. The product of a fucked-up couple.  Okay, if your parents don’t even like each other, find every opportunity to criticize and wail on each other—why do they stay together? To torture their offspring?  Angela’s first memories were a fuzzy collage: She watches from a playpen in a corner of the kitchen as her parents scream at each other, their red faces just inches apart. Or another one—she is in her crib watching her father fuck her mother roughly, her mother pummels his chest, trying to buck him off her as he thrusts into her over and over, the puckered scars on his lean white buttocks flexing in ghastly rhythm.

On her father’s tenth Halloween, somebody thought it would be funny to light the string of Big Tom Thumbs hanging out of his ass pocket. Hilarious. A few skin grafts later, her Dad’s left butt cheek looked eerily like a deformed face, the rough scar pattern resembling eyes, nose, and mouth. And when, from between the crib slats, she watched her parents fuck, which was, unfortunately, too often, that butt-face looked like it was leering at her, mouthing obscenities.

Jesus, thought Angela, I have to stop this nonsense.  Going back to those memories always spelled trouble. And this little Ape was uncovering all kinds of crappy dregs from the past.

Some days had passed, and then the unthinkable happened. The couple from Hell invited Angela for dinner.  There was a knock on the door that evening—it was Friday.  Angela got up from the couch where she was parked for the evening with Nurse Jackie on the flat-screen, one joint, and a 142 gram bag of New York Cheddar chips, her end-of-the-week treat. Angela was the kind of person who precisely doled out her medicine: ten cigs a day went into the silver cigarette case, boxed wine (she alternated white and red) measured each evening, marijuana divided over the month, small bags of chips purchased by the case from Costco and stored in the linen closet.

“Hi, I’m Edie, below you, 304?” The fat thirtyish woman stood before her in all her slovenly glory.  The hair, purple dye washed out to a silver violet at the straw tips, was piled up in a thick and greasy coil on top of her head.  Her arms were thick and dimpled, popping out of her tight tank top and glistening with sweat. Edie had a dark shadow above her upper lip.  The purple hair, the incipient moustache, distracted Angie from looking into the guarded eyes.

“Hi Edie. Angela” she stuck out her hand, but then realized it was covered with the oily salt from the chips she had been munching when the knock came. She wiped her hands on the back of her jean shorts and tried again. Edie’s hand was clammy and reticent in hers.

“Hey sorry to bother you, but Hen and me wanted you to come for dinner tomorrow, if you’re free that is. Just burgers on the barbie. You might have seen—we got a little barbecue this week.
“No, I hadn’t noticed. I don’t usually look at your balcony.”

“Oh, no, I didn’t mean to say you were spying. Except somebody’s been calling the Super about the noise, and I wondered if it was you. Peace offering,” she laughed nervously, pulling at her cotton batik skirt. The elasticized waist bunched under her gut: a stripe of striated white flesh between the skirt and tight tank. A rhinestone stud protruded from the cavernous navel.  Angela felt herself contract in revulsion. Could she actually smell the rotten-cheese odour of an infected piercing, or was it her imagination?

“Oh, sorry, but the noise was driving me crazy.  No hard feelings, I hope. Sure, I can come to dinner. Can I bring anything?”

“Oh just yourself. We’ll have plenty of everything.”

“Hen – is that your husband?”

“We’re not married, but yeah, Hen is short for Hendrix. His parents named him after Jimi Hendrix. Can you believe it? Like they had a death wish for him or something.”

No rejoinder came to mind, so Angela smiled unconvincingly and started to shut the door. She was anxious to get back to the solitary pleasures of the evening, and this Edie was starting to irritate her.  “What time?” she asked just as the door eclipsed Edie’s face.

“Let’s say six?”

“See you,” said Angela to the last sliver of cheek before the door clicked shut.

Saturday at six, Angela stood in front of 304 with a six-pack of beer in one hand and a bouquet of cut-price flowers wrapped in cellophane grasped in the other. She leaned over and knocked on the door with her head, then smiled at her cleverness.

Angela heard Edie yelling from within. “Ape, get the door.”

The door opened slowly, and the little girl stood stolidly before her, holding the doorknob and a grape Mr. Freezie in the other hand, a purple stain around her lips. She wore, like her mother had yesterday, an elasticized skirt and tight tank. And like Mum, her fat bulged from between them. The only difference was that her fat was young and unblemished. No piercings around the navel, yet.

Saying not a word, Ape looked at Angela and then started sucking on the Freezie.  “What are you doing, Ape? Aren’t you inviting her in?” yelled Edie again from the kitchen.

Ape stepped back to indicate Angela should come in, but she stayed mute, making sucking noises and slamming the door loudly. That was another irritation for Angela. The slamming door from underneath her, at all hours.

She laid the beer and flowers down on a chair near the door.  “Hey,” she said, sotto voice to Ape. “Don’t slam the door, Ape. Shut it gently, like this.” She opened the door again and demonstrated a soft close for the little girl who stood as if dumbstruck, betraying not a shred of comprehension as she watched this adult talk to her quietly.

Edie came out of the kitchen with a plastic plate piled with frozen hamburger patties and hotdogs.  “I see you’ve met Ape,” she smiled. “C’mon in.” Angela picked up the beer and flowers from the chair and held them out to her hostess. “Oh great! Thank you!”

Hen came back from getting beer – now there were 24 plus the six Angie had brought. The three of them sat on the small balcony drinking beer, crowded together in plastic deck chairs, while Hen cooked the food on the little grill and Ape played in the living room with a couple of Barbies. She was eating dry Fruit Loops from a plastic container, occasionally smashing one onto Barbie’s unresponsive lips. Heaps of cereal dust decorated the grimy carpet like tiny insect mounds in pastel colours.

At one point, as she carefully negotiated her sawdust hamburger, Angela ventured a question, “So is Ape short for April?”

“Ha, no, actually. That’s a good story,” answered Edie, licking mustard off her pudgy fingers. Angela noticed she had letters inexpertly tattooed on each finger of her left hand, just above the knuckles: P-A-R-T-Y.  “Her real name’s Mariah, you know, after the singer.” And then she interjected a phrase from a Carey song. “Touch my baw-dy, put me on the fl-o-o-o-o-r,” Edie crooned in a scratchy voice, pretending her hot dog was a mic.  “But when she was little and we were trying to toilet train her, she used to shit on the floor, then start throwing it at us. I kid you not. Just like the apes going apeshit in the zoo. So we started calling her Apeshit, then Ape for short.”

Hen chimed in. “She still does it from time to time.”

“No kidding,” responded Angie, her flesh crawling.  She didn’t want to keep that image in her mind—the kid scooping soft turds from the floor and lobbing them at her parents. She imagined the damage done to the last apartment: smelly brown stains on carpets and walls.

Angela looked at the girl through the open balcony door. Now she was messing around with a hot dog, breaking it into pieces before she popped each piece between lips still stained purple from the freezie.

Angie stayed just as long as would be considered polite, then escaped back to her apartment. Later that evening when she heard some muted yelling, she took a Zoplicone to block everything out.

A few days later, Edie was at the door again.  It was Wednesday evening.  “Angela, hey I hate to do this, but I have to go do a night shift at work—they just called me in—and Hen isn’t home. He’ll be home soon though. Can you watch Ape for just half an hour, an hour at the most?”

Angela froze. Seriously? She is seriously asking me to babysit?  Angela had just poured a glass of wine and was one-third of the way into an Ian Rankin novel.

“Don’t you have a regular babysitter?”

“Yeah, but that was at the old apartment, miles away.  I need to find some teenager in the neighbourhood. But in the meantime, do me a favour?” She raised her eyebrows and shoulders in an inquiring leer. Apparently she had washed her hair and was now wearing it loose, showing bleached roots above the purple tresses.

“Okay, just this once, though,” Angie said. Oh, well, she could just read the novel one floor below. Ape was practically comatose, anyways. Edie went off to her night shift at Mac’s Convenience Store, leaving her cel number and Hen’s too.  “Help yourself to anything,” she said. “There’s beer.”

Angela sat gingerly on the couch, placing a thermos containing her ration of white wine on the scratched coffee table and her novel beside her on the cushion.  She looked at Ape, sunk into an armchair watching an episode of “My Little Pony” and slowly licking an ice-cream cone with her grey tongue.  Her bare legs stuck straight out in front of her, nicked and cut, her toenails painted hot pink. She wore only cotton underpants and a Dora the Explorer pajama top.  She hadn’t acknowledged Angela’s presence.

After the episode ended and Ape had crunched the last of the cone, she licked her fingers and announced, “Another one.”

Angela looked up from her book. “Another what?”

Ape continued staring at the screen, watching the animated figures from a cereal commercial strut, fly and, yell. “Another ice cream cone.”

“No,” said Angela in a low firm voice.

“What?” said Ape, finally looking toward this intruder.

“You heard me. No,” replied Angela once more, making eye contact with the girl.

Ape, as if bewitched, looked slack jawed at her neighbour. Rather than asking again, she hauled her small plump body out of the deep armchair and started walking to the kitchen.

Angela unfolded her legs, got up, switched off the television, and followed.

She watched the girl pull a kitchen chair up to the fridge, climb onto it, and yank the freezer door open. As Ape put her hands in to get the big five-litre tub of fudge ripple, Angela came up behind her, grabbed the little paws, pulled them away, and shut the freezer door with a slam.

“You don’t want to turn into an ice-cream cone, do you?”  she said in a censorious voice, lifting the heavy, squirming kid off the chair and onto the floor.

Ape beat at Angie’s legs, yelling “ice-cream, ice-cream, ice-cream!”

“That doesn’t work with me. You’re done with the ice-cream. You look like you’re turning into an ice-cream cone, you little fatty.” Angela grappled to control the octopus limbs thrashing out every which way.

She hadn’t counted on the tenacity of Ape, who was trying to drag the chair once more to the fridge. Angela struggled with the child, finally hauling her out of the kitchen into the living room.  She found herself in the weird position of wrestling this flailing sixty-pound body, trying to pin a strange girl onto a filthy carpet.

Finally, in a moment of revelation, Angela threw up her hands. “Jesus Mary Joseph, have your fucking ice-cream, then! You’re going to turn into a big fat fudge ripple monster cone!” Angela rapidly pulled herself off the kid, returning to her book, her wine, and the couch, while Ape, bawling, staggered into the kitchen where she negotiated the chair, the freezer door, the pail of ice-cream, the scoop, and the cone, with lots of banging. Throughout the process, she keened the anguished cry of the persecuted, a rhythmic, almost mechanical wail.

When Hen arrived about an hour later, his daughter was slowly munching to the bottom of her fourth cone, occasionally pausing for a long, shuddering breath, expelling the remnants of her crying jag. Her Dora p.j. top was streaked with melted fudge ripple, her hands sticky, her eyelids fluttering down, down.

“Wow,” he said, “Ape is in her cups tonight.  Am I supposed to pay you for babysitting?” he asked Angela, who had not moved from the couch for 60 minutes.

“No of course not. What are neighbours for?”

Pitch black deep in the night, Angela was woken by a siren, growing louder, louder, then it seemed to be shrieking right in front of the building. After a time, she fell back into the blue funnel of drugged sleep. She had doubled her Zoplicone intake since Hell family moved in.

The next morning she was in the bathroom with the hair drier going when she heard a loud rapping on the door. Through the peephole she saw Edie in her pajamas, looking distressed.

She opened the door. “What’s up?”

Edie started in a low controlled voice, filled with venom. “What did you tell my daughter last night, you warped fuck? Told her she would turn into an ice-cream cone? What kind of mean fuck are you?”  Edie pushed her mascara-streaked face into the doorway in a threatening gesture.

Angela noticed the strong smell of sweat and the fetor of decaying teeth, and she started to back away. Mute, impassive, she started to slowly push the door shut, preventing Edie from advancing.

“Did you hear the siren last night, you bitch? That was your doing.  You gave her a fucking nightmare.  She woke up grabbing her stomach and wouldn’t stop screaming so we had to call 9-1-1. She thought she was turning into an ice-cream cone, for fuck’s sake. Where do you get off telling her that shit?”  She was yelling now, and 402 had opened his door to see what was going on.

Angela closed the door on Edie’s raging face and locked it. She went back to finish styling her hair. Serves the Apeshit right. The greedy little shit.  And her moron parents. Some people!  Letting their kids run the show.

That night she took another Zoplicone. Although she had been careful in dosing her New York Cheddar chips, her pot, her wine, and her cigarettes, the sleeping medication was harder to control.  The desire to plunge into that deep blue-black hole was powerful. She dreamed. An old memory had surfaced. She was turning into a bottle of chocolate milk, just as her father had predicted.  “You drink so much of this stuff, you’re going to turn into a bottle of it,” he would tell her often, fixing her another one. Hershey’s black syrup swirling into the white. Her chosen elixir.  In the dream, Angie’s legs were transforming into cold glass, her head became a big rubber teat and inside, she felt the chilly swish of brown milk coursing through the tomb of her body. She woke with a start, mid-yell, her heart pounding.

At 7 a.m. Angie called in sick. She made a pot of strong coffee and took a cup to the balcony, where she sat in her lounge chair, wrapped in a fleece blanket, and lit her Friday night joint 12 hours early.  As she watched the trees bucking in the strong wind, she wrapped the fleece more tightly around her shoulders.  Then she cried. She cried for Mariah, for Angela, for April, for Apeshit, for Ape, for all the girls turning into cones and bottles, for all the lost little girls.