Monday, August 18, 2014

Fiction #53: Julie Paul

Weeping Camperdown

“What makes you happy?” Andrew asked her.

Joni was blowing on her tea and looking smart in a thick orange sweater. She stopped and smiled at him. “Good question,” she said. “Do you want a list?”

Andrew flushed with embarrassment. He’d been too forthright and now she thought he was looking for easy ways to bring her happiness, a cheap way in. He smiled at her, but he could tell that his lips looked thin.

Still, she took his smile as an invitation to carry on. God, he hoped she wouldn’t say flowers or chocolate.

“Peonies,” she said. “They remind me of those fluffy dogs. Shih Tzus, maybe?”

He nodded. A bit off, but yes, he could see it. “What else?”

“My children,” she said. “Especially when they’re asleep.”

They laughed and then the sandwiches arrived and they spread their paper napkins over their laps. She ate her pickle before anything else and the crunch made him jump.

As he was into his first decent bite, she came up with another item for the list. “The moment when you turn off the kitchen lights at the end of a long day. The dishes are done, the fridge is full, everything is put away and ready for the next morning.”

Suddenly, he felt close to tears. They were so alike—equals in this ridiculous field they were now playing. Their baggage was of similar heft and vintage. He wasn’t thinking Brady Bunch; it was just so good to be sitting with a woman who knew fatigue of this level. The last woman he’d taken to lunch on his flex day had kept talking about Red Bull and e-books and she had updated her location on Facebook right in front of him, as if to tell him that she had people out there looking after her, who knew her coordinates in case the date went bad.

Joni’s hand was on his arm now. “And you?” she asked. “What’s the biggest happy thing in your life?”

“Ah,” he said. “Not a thing.”

“Nothing?”

“No. It’s not a thing.” He’d made a bad play on words and his daughter would cringe if she heard him. At eleven, in her critical phase—another play on words—Maddie was still the joy. “My kid,” he said. The comment made Joni smile.

They’d just started talking about their kids when a girl with a pink streak in her hair popped up beside their table. “Are you done yet?” She was about nine, he figured, and more full of nerve than his daughter would ever be. Would he still think of Maddie as his biggest joy if she acted like this girl? He remembered the year she’d made animal sounds when spoken to and he’d had to reassure the teacher that nothing was wrong. Predictably, it had been the year his wife had moved out: another sign of how they’d hurt Maddie. Of course he’d still loved his daughter then, although the chicken noises had made him a little crazy.

“No,” Joni said to the girl, who stood there staring at their food. “And we’re getting dessert.”

Nerve, he thought, was all right when properly used.

The girl moved on, to another table, and got the answer she wanted.

“I don’t want dessert,” Joni said, after she’d leaned in toward him. “I just want to linger.”

Andrew smiled, pointed at his plate. “We haven’t even finished half!”

“Kids,” she said. “Do you think they’re less observant these days?”

“I’m not sure. I’m not that observant when it comes to kids.” He didn’t like to break things apart, to analyze and compare and pass judgment. He imagined that judging things made most people feel powerful, or more involved in the world. Whenever he turned critical, he just felt old. A curmudgeon was what his daughter called him when he was grumpy.

“Oh, I dunno,” she said. “You seem pretty aware.” She looked into his eyes and goosebumps rose on his arms. Fifteen again! That’s how he felt. He hoped she didn’t notice.

“I have an idea,” he said, before he even knew he was speaking.

She nodded.

“How much time do you have?”

“Pickup’s at three, so about an hour?”

“Right. Me too.”

“What’s your plan?”

“I’m going to get these wrapped up.” He pointed at the sandwiches. “We’ll eat them, but just not here.”

In ten minutes they were at his favourite place in the city: Ross Bay Cemetery. He led her to a tree in the centre of the park-like burial ground and spread out his jacket for her to sit on. There was a small headstone, and a nearly obscured footstone, both engraved with the name Mott.

“This is incredible,” she said, and immediately laid her orange-sweatered self down to look up into the leaves.

“It’s a Weeping Camperdown Elm,” he told her. “One of only a handful in the whole city.”

“Do you visit the others?”

“No,” he said. “This is my favourite.”

They both lay back and stared into the tree, the leaves arranged like tiles over one another, only growing from one side of the branches. This made them easier to count: a relaxation technique he’d been using since he was little. When his parents started to yell at each other, he used to run out of the house and sit beneath the one decent tree in the backyard—an old broadleaf maple. There he would try and count all the leaves above him to calm himself down.

“I’m expecting gnomes to appear at any moment,” she said.

“It’s happened once or twice,” he told her. “And I hope you like the bagpipe, because they’re Scottish gnomes. That’s where the tree comes from, originally.”

She giggled and turned on her side. “I’m so happy we’re doing this.”

He heard her words with his blood, his joints, his tendons. Even his bones softened. Soon he was touching her at their command.

When they were done kissing, they both lay on their backs and held hands.

“I was at the library yesterday,” she said. “I was just sitting there, reading in the quiet, and it was quiet, aside from the old coughing men.” She paused, and pointed up at the leaf ceiling. “God! The light!”

It was their ceiling now; before it had been his alone but now he was willing to share. Oh, how ready he was for this.

“Anyway.” She squeezed his hand. “All of a sudden, a woman started crying. It was so, so strange.”

“Why? I mean, why was she crying?”

“I had to know, too, so I casually got up and moved closer. And there she was, at a table, reading, and weeping, and not even noticing anyone else.”

“Wow.” He didn’t want to think about libraries or sorrow right now—he was under his tree with a warm hand in his and a woman had just kissed his mouth for the first time in three years. The ache of that was so acute, he had to physically restrain his muscles from contracting so he could roll on top of her and—

“Guess what she was reading,” she said.

“The newspaper.”

“Not too far off.”

“Oprah?”

“No,” Joni said. “A book on the fate of the planet.”

“Whoa,” he said, but it was a misplaced whoa, because he’d forgotten, again, that when people said the planet, they meant this one, Earth, mother ship. He didn’t think of Earth as a planet. Planets were objects swirling with gas and ringed with light and really didn’t concern him, day to day. But this planet. Well.

“I know,” she said. “It made me teary, and guilty, and I got in my old clunker and drove to the ocean, just to make sure it was still there.”

“You want to go there now?” The sea was just thirty or so metres from them. He didn’t want to move, but he liked to leave his options open.

“No,” she said. “I know it’s there. I’d rather just stay right here.”

She had such a way of saying just what she meant, and wanted, that he remembered why his marriage hadn’t worked. His ex had never said what she wanted, directly. She was the queen of passive aggression, and eventually he went mad from the subversive demands.

Joni let go of his hand and turned on her side again. “Do you bring women here often?”

“None ’til you.”

She smiled and put her hand on his sternum. “Can I take you to my favourite place, the next time?”

Was she feeling his chest for a jump in his heart rate?

“I’d love that,” he said. Then he looked at his watch. “Dammit.”

“Already?”

“I know.”

She sighed. “Without dust, no rain.”

“Okay,” he said, slowly, because he had no idea what she meant.

“Raindrops form around dust bits.” She’d understood his slow okay. “And if we didn’t have histories, children, past lives, and so on, we would never have met.”

He felt jealous when he thought of her having a husband, even though the relationship was long over. Her honesty didn’t help. She’d spoken at lunch about her marriage, described intensity so extreme it made him squirm. Back when they were young, she had pursued her husband in the library stacks, and she always found him. She told Andrew she could find him by his scent, a feral thing. They’d done it in a study room, more than once.

That felt like too much information for a first date. But they were both coming to the table—the grass, the burial ground—with luggage. There were many things Andrew was not proud of, and she didn’t need to know any of them, because he had changed. Although he was already sensing that she was the kind of woman who would find out about his past, and he would most likely tell her everything. Men weren’t supposed to change, he knew from what his ex had shown him in her magazines, but he was different. He had changed. Perhaps he’d become sappy, late to romance, but it had never occurred to him to bring his ex here. Only a small example of what he was now versus then.

“We really better go.” She sat up and looked him right in the eye, a challenge in the look. “Promise we’ll do this again?”

He rolled over and got up onto his knees, kissed her forehead, then her lips. “I promise.”
They came out from under the elm and walked back through the cemetery, under the brocade of branches and turning leaves arching over the path. His hand longed to hold hers but now wasn’t the time. There had been no public announcement of anything—no private one, either, but he was lost in the speculations, hope burning in him—so they kept a slight distance from each other as they returned to his car, to the lives they lived, to the world that had vanished while they were lying under his tree.

*

Maddie was waiting for him, sitting on the brick fence around the schoolyard, head bent over a book. She was looking up from time to time for him—he watched her for a minute before getting out of the car and walking up the street—but she didn’t appear worried. A book is better than a friend, she told him once, and he’d felt both bereft and very pleased, in equal parts. He’d tried to arrange more play dates after that. He could see she had fun with the girls who came over, but she was even happier when they left. Maybe it came down to noise, a lack thereof in her life with him, and she simply preferred the quiet. Their visit to the library was as much a part of his week as her washing her hair, the bottle collecting for the class fundraiser, the takeout pad Thai.

“Hi, honey,” he called now, and she looked at him, and then marked her page before putting her book away.

“A bit late,” she said.

“You got some reading done, I see.”

She hopped down from her perch and walked beside him.

“You weren’t worried, I hope.”

She shrugged. “You’ve only forgotten once this month, so I was pretty sure you were coming.”

“Good,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He’d become good at apologies, and so far, at least, they’d worked on her.

*

The phone rang at 9:30 pm, while Maddie was brushing her teeth.

Joni. She needed to see him. He hoped his heart would stay in its cage. Especially when he had to say no, not tonight. He had his daughter.

“I’ll come there,” she suggested.

Maddie was standing in front of him now, Sears Wish Book in hand. They were going to search through the store catalogue together and circle dreams.

“I’m sorry,” he said into the phone, business-like, sorry he had to use that tone. But his kid was watching him, and he didn’t want her to know his secret, that he was a man looking for love. This was not a thing he could share with her. At least, not yet. Not until the relationship evolved into something more, if that ever happened, a day when they would all get together and announce the news. “It’s not possible tonight.”

“Okay,” Joni said, lightly, seeming to know he was adopting a voice, an attitude. “But I’d really like to see you soon.”

“That sounds fine,” Andrew said, more gently. “I’ll speak with you tomorrow.”

“Work?” Maddie asked when he hung up the phone.

“Yep. Ready for bed?”

“No, ready for shopping!” She held up the catalogue and pulled him into her room, where they lay on her bed and imagined these objects making their lives better. Maddie circled at least one item every two pages, until they got to the lingerie section.

“Eww,” she said. “I’m skipping this.”

He didn’t protest, but he wanted to look, to see what to put on his future list.

*

It was eleven by the time he got himself ready for bed. After Maddie went to sleep, he did the dishes, folded laundry, made a grocery list, and answered a few emails. During the weeks she wasn’t with him, his evenings were empty; he still had to do the same things but the volume was halved. Fewer clothes, dishes, groceries. He liked fullness. He was not a loner by nature. Nor a single man. He needed a woman and he was not ashamed to admit the fact, at least to himself. The last few years had been hard, but gradually the debris from his marriage had begun to disperse. Maddie was still here, and not debris at all, but the beautiful result of a non-beautiful union.

When Andrew went to the front door to check the lock, he saw that the moon was full. He opened the door and stood on his porch with the light off to get a better view of the sky. He heard someone walking toward him, high heels striking the sidewalk lightly—a woman, alone. He hoped he wouldn’t startle her. He stayed completely still, and watched as she came into view. She was tall, and had long hair, and was wearing an orange sweater, like—

It was her!

“Joni!” he called out when she was nearly past his house. “Joni!”

She stopped walking and turned to him. “Andrew?”

“Yes! What are you—what a crazy thing!”

She walked up his short walkway. “I know! Is this your place?”

“Yeppers,” he said. “Home sweet home.”

“Cute,” she said. “I was just out for a walk, and—”

“Come and sit.” He wanted to rush over and hug her, but for some reason he was shy.

She sat down beside Andrew on the top step.

“You were out for a walk at this hour?”

“Sure,” she said. “I love the quiet.”

“You’re not afraid?”

She laughed. “Nah.” She put her hand on his knee. “What should I be afraid of, strange men on their porches?”

He felt the warmth from her palm penetrating through his pants to his thigh. “It’s a pretty safe city, I guess.”

“Especially around here.”

They sat there looking at the moon. Joni asked, “Is Maddie asleep?”

“She better be. It’s nearly midnight.”

Joni was quiet for a moment. Then, facing him directly, staring at him the way she had in the cemetery, she asked, “Can I come in?”

He was split in two—one half was already saying yes, of course, let’s go and strip down and see what happens—and the other half was holding the reins, as if this whole thing were an antsy horse, a horse he wasn’t sure of with all its energy, because he wasn’t used to horses. In a second he would have to find out which half was bigger, or stronger, or more in charge. In a second she would need an answer. He looked to the moon for help and all he could see was a breast.

“Come in,” he said. “But I’ll get you to take off your shoes out here. We don’t want to wake the baby.” He said this in a put-on voice, hoping she would pick up his tone, for humour. And she did. She took off her heels and exaggerated her tiptoeing as they entered his house, on the way to doing what he had wanted to do all day.

*

Andrew would not let her walk home by herself at 1:00 am, and because of that, she was hinting at staying. He had to say no. “Maddie, she’s not used to anyone being here but me.”

Joni smiled and stretched her long body out like a slack cat on the rec room couch. “That’s good to hear.”

Andrew blushed, surprising himself. He was self-conscious about his dry spell, sure, but he shouldn’t have reddened in front of the woman who’d just broken it.

“I’ll call you a cab,” he said. He kissed her forehead on the way to the telephone. She sighed, and got up very slowly, as if she could barely move, like a modern dancer’s version of lethargy.

When he had the cab company on the line, he asked her, “Where to?”

“Huh?”

“They need a destination. Your address.”

“Oh, right. Uh, 2578 Browning.”

He repeated what she’d said into the phone, and then hung up. “You live all the way up there?”

“Yeah, well, it’s not the nicest part of town, but it’s cheaper than here.”

“It’s not that,” Andrew said. “It’s just so far away.”

“I told you, I like to walk.” She was pulling her orange sweater on over her head. Her breasts, braless still, pushed out from under her Mexican cotton shirt and made him wish, for the tenth time at least, that it was his ex’s week with Maddie.

“Let’s walk together,” he suggested. “On the weekend. Unless you have your daughters?”

“Not ’til Sunday,” she said.

“Great.” He could already hear the taxi idling at the curb. “I’ll call you and we’ll make a plan.”

Once they were on the porch, after she’d put her heels on and in full view of the cab driver, they kissed. Their first public display.

“Goodnight, Joni,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

She waved as she walked out to the cab, swaying her hips a little more than he’d remembered. He’d done that to her. Loosened things up. He went to bed, feeling like a hero, already dreaming of the weekend.

*

At lunch the next day he told Buddy about her. He kept it basic, but the portrait was rosy. Then, as they were getting their coffees to go, Joni walked past the café.

“Hey!” Andrew said. “That’s her!”

Buddy frowned. “It is? That’s weird, isn’t it? Just like last night?”

Andrew was all smiles as he made a dash for the door, foregoing the cream. “It’s awesome,” he said. “See you back at the office.”

And it was awesome. Two coincidences like that. Maybe it was a sign, although he didn’t lean toward signs. Still, he caught up to her down the block, where she was window-shopping at the bookstore. He wanted to stand behind her and clap his hands to her eyes, like a schoolboy, but he resisted. Instead, he just said, “Well, hello, stranger,” and watched her eyes light up, just for him.

*

Andrew was late getting back to the office. He’d decided to walk the long way around the block with Joni, who was out looking for a birthday present for her youngest daughter. That was the thing about self-employment he envied: flexibility. She wrote curriculum for online education and her timelines were her own. He had a decent boss, but he still felt the pressure of the clock, and he left Joni at the toy store with a kiss—even more public than last night—and dashed back to his building.

Buddy gave Andrew looks all afternoon, and he deflected them all with blank smiles, busying himself with the Johnson account.

“So that was her,” he said when they were getting their last coffee in the staff room.

“Yeah,” Andrew said. “She’s pretty, hey?”

Buddy nodded. “How long you known her?”

“Uh, well, about a year. When our girls started taking ballet in the same class. But we just, you know, last night—”

“Yeah, you told me.” Buddy opened a package of digestive cookies and passed it to Andrew.

“No, thanks. I’ve gotta watch this now,” he said, hands on his little belly.

Buddy took three and set them on top of his mug. “Don’t go changin’,” he half sang.

“To try and please me,” Andrew half sang back. Oh, it had been a wonderful day.

*

When he arrived home, Maddie was already there.

“I thought you had volleyball.” Again he’d come upon her with her head in a book, this time on the front porch, right on the step where he and Joni had sat before moving inside. He didn’t know if the flush in his neck and cheeks was from the memory or for mixing up Maddie’s schedule again.

“My coach was sick, so Jane’s mom dropped me off.”

“Ah,” he said, relieved. “But you could’ve called me.”

Maddie shrugged. “It’s okay. I’m really into this book and I wanted to read.” She stuck her face back into the pages.

Andrew slowly looked around, at the porch, at the yard. “I have an idea,” he said. “Let’s hide you a key.”

She closed her book. “Really? Like in a secret compartment?”

Andrew smiled, but not beyond what she would tolerate. He had learned the hard way to hide his amusement at her reactions. Often she closed up like an anemone, humiliated. “Something like that,” he said. “Help me find a spot?”

They examined every nook and cranny, and eventually decided on the pot that held the rosemary, at the end of the porch. They put the key right in the dirt, in a Ziploc bag Maddie had raced in to get from the kitchen.

“Only for emergencies,” he told Maddie. “And times like these. And, it’s a secret, so no telling friends. Okay?”

“Okay,” she said and gave him a spontaneous hug. Apparently this new freedom was a big deal. He was ready to give the freedom to her, if she could show she could handle it.

*

The next day after school, Maddie went to a friend’s to work on a project. But when Andrew got home, his front door was unlocked, and jazz piano was coming at him in waves. Shit, shit, shit. He’d been watched. Invaded. And only a day after he’d hidden the key!

Just before he called the police, he wondered: Would a robber play the radio? Had Maddie’s schedule changed again?

“Hello?”

“Hello!” a voice called back.

Joni. She was lying on the couch in a sundress—or was it a nightgown?—reading the book he kept on the coffee table: The World in Photographs.

“Welcome home!” she said and closed the book. She opened her arms like she was a showgirl. “Voilà!”

“How did you—”

“Well, I figured you might be the kind of guy who keeps a key hidden, so I just had a little look around.”

Andrew perched on the arm of the couch. “That’s so weird,” he said slowly. “I just put the key out there yesterday.” He was still holding his cellphone, 9-1-1 keyed in but not sent. He looked at her, smiling on his blue blanket. “How did you know?”

She laughed. “I didn’t, silly. I just wanted to surprise you, and there it was!” She got up on her knees and kissed him. “I thought we could have fun together.”

She smelled like oranges. He loved oranges. They reminded him of Christmas and Florida and mornings. He had to ignore the memories right now.

“But, Joni, what if I’d walked in with Maddie? Or what if she came home alone and found you here?”

She sat on her heels and smiled. “I would’ve hid in a hurry.”

“And then what? Slipped out the door when we weren’t looking?”

She nodded. “Sure.”

“Joni,” he said. “We are not on television. It’s just—just too weird, coming home, finding you here. Not that I don’t like seeing you, but it’s just odd, you know? Like yesterday, you just being there on the street when I was out for lunch, and the other night . . .”

He stopped. He felt like he was disintegrating as he spoke, the space between his cells growing, as if he were more empty than full. Porous, like coral. And in those spaces, the truth came flowing through.

She was on his couch, no longer smiling, but fixing her eyes on him with a sort of animal stare, as if she’d been cornered but still felt confident that she could get out alive. Or maybe he was making that part up. Maybe the look on her face meant she’d misjudged him, couldn’t believe he’d jump to such a crazy notion, a woman chasing him.

He looked back at her, matched her gaze, and waited for her to speak. He was waiting to hear the words that would make everything go back to normal, a return to where they’d been just a few days ago, eating sandwiches, talking about their children.

She started to cry. And try as he might, he could not just sit there and watch her, waiting for a decent explanation. That explanation did not exist, and never would. He pulled her to his chest.

To stalk was to pursue, to track, to chase and hunt—it meant you were in pursuit of something worth following. There was so much risk these days, with privacy all but gone, cyberstalking, identity theft, and fraud of various types, that Andrew had never given it a second thought. But who really did? Who walked around expecting someone to be hunting them? Who felt worthy enough of this sort of behaviour, except criminals and celebrities? Could this woman, a mother, sobbing against his shirt, really be guilty of this? Did he give off some sort of scent she could track, the same way her husband had? No, Andrew was just an ordinary guy. Not worth any sort of pursuit, least of all with this kind of determination.

“Joni,” he said softly. “Tell me what’s going on.”

She pulled herself back so she could look at him. Her face was red and wet; she tried to smile. “You’re not angry?”

He shook his head. “No. Just confused.”

“Oh, thank God,” she said. “I can handle anything but anger.” She moved over to make room for him on the couch, and patted the space. “Sit down, Andy. There’s so much to talk about!”

Something in her voice made Andrew’s hair prickle. Her expression had changed again, from sorry to enthusiastic. Her eyes were wide, her cheeks flushed.

“I thought we could go here for our first weekend away.” She picked up a glossy brochure from the coffee table. “And then we could go back, for our honeymoon, you know, to reminisce. I know the girls would love it—this place even has a waterslide!” She opened the brochure to a photo of the pool. “Isn’t it perfect for us?”

Yes, she was definitely wearing a nightie, pale green and covered in tiny leaves. As she spoke, he imagined her buying it with him in mind, because of their picnic under the elm tree. His elm tree.

He began to count.

*

"Weeping Camperdown" will be included in Julie Paul's forthcoming collection, The Pull of the Moon, which will be available September 30, 2014 (Brindle & Glass Publishing). 
 Julie Paul is the author of The Jealousy Bone and The Pull of the Moon. Her stories, poems, and essays have been published in numerous journals, including the New Quarterly, the Malahat Review, the Fiddlehead, the Dalhousie Review, Geist, and Canadian Living, and in the anthologies Coming Attractions 07 and Women Behaving Badly. Learn more about Julie at juliepaul.ca.

Photo credit: Ryan Rock.

2 comments:

  1. First, I want to thank another of Danforth Reviews published writers, David Menear, for posting your story on facebook. Had he not done so, I would never have discovered it. I am an instant fan! What a terrific story. The character development, tension and arch are spot on. I love the way all the vulnerabilities are expressed both overtly and subtly. Such hope and optimism expressed with simple actions and brevity to be thwarted with the sinister undertones of compulsion! I look forward to reading more of your writing, Julie Paul,

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  2. Thank you, Laurie! You made my day. I'm so glad you liked this story, and I appreciate your close reading of it. Hopefully you'll enjoy the other eleven in my new collection, out in a month. All the best, Julie

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