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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fiction #55: Julia Chan

Broken Glass
When things get to be too much, I retreat and come here to regroup. Jacob doesn’t understand. He doesn’t mind the sounds of the city—irritated car horns, the metal reeling of the streetcar. The grinding effort of the bus, exhausting just to hear. These noises get all the way inside my head, rattle around, pile on top of each other. And then I can’t hear my own thoughts.

When that happens, I take off in my ‘94 Toyota Tercel, lightly rusted around the wheel wells. I drive up the highway for a couple of hours and stop at the DQ in Orangeville for a Blizzard or some fries. My parents keep a cottage up north. If I were a man, it would be my cave.

There are neighbours: Edna and Robert, in their early sixties, who are there every summer. They’re friendly—or nosy, depending on your point of view, but I enjoy having them around. They are the type who seems to genuinely care about you even if they don’t know you well. And their cottage is an actual home, a place you could live in all year round. They invite me over for meals or drinks. And every time we have the same conversation.

“Why are you here by yourself?” Edna will ask. “Don’t you have a boyfriend?”

“A husband,” I’ll say, “but he’s back in the city. He doesn’t like the country. Too quiet.”

“Youth,” Robert will say. “He’ll understand, later.”

Edna will pop over in the middle of the day with a baked thing. Her salt-and-pepper hair is cut in a sleek bob, and she wears elegant clothing made of linen, cotton, or silk. She is the kind of woman I want to be.

Robert is tall, thin, and perpetually distracted. He lets Edna do the talking. He will stare out the window, pace, click on his BlackBerry. I’ve never asked what he does. In this place, somehow, it doesn’t seem relevant.

My Tercel rattles down the dirt road, tired from the journey. I see their porch light through the trees: the sun is setting. They must hear my car’s noisy approach.

I settle into the cottage. I unload the few groceries I’ve picked up, get the bed ready, and text Jacob to let him know I’ve arrived. It is quiet but for the constant ringing in my ears, imprinted there by the harangue of city noise. I curl onto the stiff, nubbly sofa with an old Harlequin that’s been on the bookshelf since I was a little kid. The spine cracks and the stale smell of old yellowed paper reassures me. And after two cups of tea, a swelling scene of simultaneous orgasm, and the passing of hour four, the ringing in my ears subsides just a little.

I crawl into the double bed, springy and lined with floppy elderly pillows. The quietness descends like a thick velvet blanket, voluptuous and total. But as I’m falling asleep, in that usually delicious state between waking and consciousness, I find I’m edged back into the grip of city noise: angry horns, an insistent drill, and the crisp ring of glass shattering.


My period is late. Normally I am very regular. I haven’t told Jacob yet. I have opened my mouth several times over the last two weeks to say it, but each time nothing came out.

Jacob has always wanted to be a father. He’s the guy kids clamour over at large gatherings, because he’ll horse around with them and swing them and toss them into the air, and they’ll scream and cackle and jump up and down and call him Uncle Jakey, even if he is not actually their uncle.

I have always envied people like Jacob. People who fit effortlessly into life’s roles. He is what some call a family man. It is, in part, why I married him. He was made to be married. In life, you must hitch your wagon to those who are going where you want to go.
It wasn’t long after the wedding that he wanted to try for children. “They will be beautiful and smart,” he declared, “and they will be organic, artisanal, and locally sourced.”

I try to picture myself as a mother. I imagine me and Jacob loading two young children into an SUV, with primary-coloured toys and bits of cracker all over the car floor. We head to the farmer’s market on weekend mornings. To the park to barbecue. To swimming lessons, playdates. The images in my mind are sun-dappled and vivid. They are taken from the clean, bright lifestyle blogs I read. Even though our apartment is full of dark things and does not face the sun, I fantasize about starting my own luminous blog to chronicle our happy times, my difficult but ultimately satisfying movement into motherhood, the miraculous development of babies into toddlers into children into teenagers. All the stuff that Jacob would be so good at, and so good at teaching me how to do.

And yet. Here I am, alone at the cottage. And there is a heavy feeling in my abdomen. Real or imagined? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, when I wake in the morning and go pee and there is no blood on the toilet paper, the ringing in my head starts again.


I sit outside, facing the lake. It is a clear morning. I listen for the sounds of Edna and Robert on the property next to me, but hear nothing, and their car is not parked out front. Perhaps they’ve gone into town early. It is Saturday and the local market sells out quickly. Cityfolk’s demand for its farm-fresh eggs and rustic boules is fierce.

Last year, Edna and I took a walk along the shore as the sun went down, and I told her that Jacob wanted children.

“You will make wonderful parents,” Edna said confidently. “It is a very special thing, to be a parent. It makes your heart bigger, although it can break your heart too. Either way, it’s worth it.”

A bigger heart? Who wouldn’t want that? Edna and Robert were parents three times over. I had never met their children, but it was easy to see that they’d built a loving community out of their own flesh and blood and spirit. It was a scent that perfumed everything they did. And her confidence in us—did that mean that I, too, was capable of it?

I walk through the thin wall of trees that separates our properties, and up the stairs to their veranda. But my knock is met only with silence. I turn to leave, and hear a crunch underfoot. Thin glass shards cling to the bottom of my sandal. The light bulb over the front door is shattered.

I walk the twenty minutes to the beach down the road. It’s still early and there aren’t many people here yet. I leave my cheap flip-flops on the shore and walk into the cool shallows. My steps become slow motion and my feet sink into the wet, pillowing sand. When I come to rest, a school of tiny minnows dart around my calves and peck lightly at my skin.

My abdomen feels heavy and thick, and a deep low pain clenches inside. I don’t want to stand anymore; I want to curl up. I return to the beach to sit on my portable beach chair and read a self-help book entitled Loving the Skin You’re In, which I’d picked up at the Chapters in Orangeville on the way. Certain self-help books are like candy: sweet and satisfying at the time, but afterward you feel empty and sick. Yet I still go to them. This particular book is full of motivational paragraphs that encourage you to embrace yourself, wholeheartedly, without shame. To become the person you already are. I agree, in principle. But what if you don’t know who you are? Or, more worrisome: what if there is no discrete you at all? I have often sensed myself to be not a differentiated self, but a shifting weave of emotion and thought. Unstable, without an intrinsic form. I am one thing one minute, and completely something else the next. A shape-shifter.

I return to the cottage in late afternoon, feeling like an oven-warmed piece of bread, I hope to find one of Edna’s notes, written on cheerful yellow notepaper, tucked in the screen-door frame, inviting me over for dinner. But there’s nothing, and their car is still gone. Maybe they’ve driven back to the city?

As the sun goes down, I think about calling Jacob.

“Hey, babe,” he will say in his easygoing voice, “are you enjoying it up there?” And I will tell him yes, I am. And then he’ll ask if I feel better, and I’ll say yes, I do, and then we’ll talk about what he got up to with his friends last night (beer) and then I’ll hang up. So, thus having gone through the motions of the conversation in my head already, I don’t bother to call.

I swallow a painkiller and after fifteen minutes the tightness in my abdomen lessens. The rest of the night is spent playing Angry Birds on my iPad with the radio on. Without Edna and Robert across the way, I feel lonely. Could I have been wrong when I saw the lights on last night? Maybe they were never here. I just imagined seeing the porch light the night before. It must have been a boat or the lantern of someone passing along the water line.

Sleep places its heavy hands on my shoulders. As I approach the far reaches of my consciousness, the sounds of the city crowd in again—but this time closer, almost as if they’re at my doorstep: a clanging hammer, a baby crying, the harsh sound of glass smashing.


The next morning, I wake and stumble to the bathroom with an urgent need to pee. Red liquid blooms in the toilet bowl. I burst outside moments later, gasping, and find the light bulb over my door has been smashed, leaving tiny glass shards, brilliant and glittering, all over the ground.


Julia Chan lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in subTerrain; on café napkins in Toronto, Leeds, and Brisbane, made by Brisbane publisher Tiny Owl Workshop; and in The Rusty Toque. She was recently featured at the Emerging Writers Reading Series, curated by Jess Taylor. As a screenwriter, her short film In Shadow (directed by Shirley Cheechoo) screened at the Sundance Film Festival, among others. Julia is currently working on her first book, which she recently workshopped at the Humber School for Writers. She logs bits of her unconscious at

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