More sequential art: Athena’s Thigh and The Facelift

My online comics class is going well–a great group of creative people sharing work and learning from each other.  Check out the online classes offered at Sequential Artists Workshop if you want to know more. Tom Hart is an inspiring leader/ facilitator and he offers sliding scale tuition.

Here are two more pieces. The first strip is from our homework about “Birth, bodies, and death.” Our prompt was to start with a body part. . . . you’ll see.  And the second one, “The Facelift,” continues with my earlier strip and gives a voice to the dead addict.  IMG_2192IMG_2193IMG_2194IMG_2195IMG_2196IMG_2197

 

The Facelift

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The road not taken

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A few times a week, I ride my bicycle to the University where I work as a writing tutor. The end of the commute takes me along the west side of the Clearihue building, a three story, squat cement slab constructed in the 1960s that houses the English and French Departments. Every time I pass that way, like clockwork, an image floats into my mind.  I travel back 16 years. A spring day and I am walking to the University library wearing leather sandals, my skirt swishing around my legs, a pile of books comfortingly heavy in my arms. As I traverse the path behind Clearihue, I hear the click of an upper story window opening, capturing my attention. I look up and an arm appears—a wide open gesture—a kind of wave. Soon following, a youthful bronze head pops out: close cropped hair, glasses, rosy cheeks. “Madeline!”  It’s my professor, ten years my junior, the one who has just hired me as his research assistant, waving at me with joyful recognition.  “Hello!”

For some reason that chance encounter, my prof seeing me from his office window, opening it, flinging out his arm in a wave, then calling my name, always reminds me of a scene in George Orwell’s 1984 when Winston dreams of the Golden Country, a “rabbit-bitten pasture” where “the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair.”  For some reason, this scene has always haunted me in a peculiar way. The passage is thus:

The girl with dark hair was coming towards them across the field. With what seemed a single movement she tore off her clothes and flung them disdainfully aside. Her body was white and smooth, but it aroused no desire in him, indeed he barely looked at it. What overwhelmed him in that instant was admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm.

Our minds are very odd. Why should my professor’s wave have anything at all to do with Winston’s dream girl who flings off her clothes in a graceful, careless gesture symbolizing the annihilation of a whole culture?  I have thought about that over the years. I was a grad school ingénue, enjoying the exploration of my intellect after many years at home raising children.  I was 42, and I was waking up.  Noting that I was the one student in his graduate class who actually did all of the readings and came to class prepared, my professor offered me an RA position. He wasn’t naked as he leaned out of the window of course; nor was there a sexual frisson. It was an intellectual tremor we both felt—he had found a fresh RA who was dazzled with his intellectual prowess. A “single splendid movement of the arm” seemed to signal the sweeping away of what I had known so far, and to welcome me into the life of the university—A Golden Country of words and ideas, books and conversation, writing and learning. I was waking up to a new way of seeing the world.

Yet I actually first started graduate school at the University of Toronto when I was 27, a false start. I sat among other young people in a wood panelled seminar room, struggling with and ashamed by my incoherence. I tried to keep up with the others, but everything that came out of my mouth seemed sluggish and obvious. I was an outsider in this alien world. The theoretical readings were incomprehensible. After about five weeks, I quit the program.  And went on to have three children etc.

Sometimes I think about what my life might have been life “if.” This line of thinking has been stimulated by reading Paul Auster’s 4321—a magnificent weaving of four stories—four possible lives of one man. If this had happened slightly differently, the outcome might be this. A chance meeting with a young man at a movie theatre changes everything. A car accident and maimed hand shifts life completely. A parents’ divorce creates another path. As I read the novel, I start to think about how my life might have been different if I had stayed in graduate school the first time.  I come back to intense gratitude for the way things happened.

So what if I stuck with it and completed my MA the first time?  I tell myself a story about that alternate life. . . what might have happened. I finish the Masters, then get accepted at a PhD program at McGill. My husband leaves me because I drink too much.  In Montreal, I learn French, continue to drink and smoke cigarettes “to handle the stress,” and produce an award winning dissertation about French theorists’ influence on twentieth-century American women’s poetry and “jouissance.” After a brilliant defense of my thesis, I am offered a job at Princeton in New Jersey, and at the age of 36, I am an alcoholic assistant professor, preparing lecture notes in haze of smoke with a litre of white wine at my elbow. Continuing my research on female orgasm and American female poets, I live the life of an academic, focused on reading, research, writing, teaching, with occasional trips to conferences worldwide.  I live in a small book-lined apartment with a tortoiseshell cat named Denise (after Levertov), my only companion. My first book comes out. A series of flame-like affairs with married men and one lesbian professor leave me wary of love. When I get pregnant by accident, I quickly have an abortion. No babies for me—my primary relationship with alcohol means I won’t even consider it.

My career peaks at 40 when I become associate professor and my second book is published—about Kathy Acker and sexuality. The following year, I am invited to give a series of talks at Columbia University about gender and 20c poetry, but I am in trouble. My addiction to alcohol has become unforgiving.  Drinking during the day is the new normal.  After downing several shots of vodka in my hotel room, I stumble onto the stage for a public presentation on Elizabeth Bishop’s later poems. My body—lumpy from lack of exercise and bouts of hangover eating—is sheathed in a tight black dress covered with cat hair and ash, the hem sagging, my chignon unravelling. My ramblings are incoherent. What was the point I was trying to make? Audience members shift and whisper, looking at each other with embarrassment and pity. I am escorted off the stage. I wake up in a pit of shame the next day, head clanging, gluey lips stuck together. I don’t remember how I got back to the Roosevelt last night, but I am fully clothed, sprawled across the bed and surrounded by cigarette butts and striations of ash on the once-white sheets. I must have tipped the ashtray. The vodka bottle is empty.

Forty-one and childless, hopelessly addicted to booze, thirty pounds overweight, stinking of cigarettes, alone and hopeless, I take 100 sleeping pills that I’ve been hoarding. They were in my make-up kit—I was planning this opportunity. Before I take them, I write a brief note instructing whomever discovers my corpse to call my cat sitter at 609-543-6890 and to tell her to find another home for Denise. Poor sweet Denise, who has a trilling miaow and a deep purr. She loves to curl up next to me when I drink and read and smoke. My last memory as I slip into unconsciousness is of the thrilling vibration of her purr next to me. It’s early December 1999 and I am gone—a nice clean finish—gone before the turn of the century.

***

Of course this is all storytelling. And yet, the exercise makes me grateful I quit drinking at 27 and had three sons. I am glad I waited those 15 years to return to school, clean and sober. Grateful for family, friends, marriage, faith, a spiritual path. It’s a good one, this life.

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.

 

 

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.