Small Ontario Towns
She was dating Philip but not dating him. That is, she had a boyfriend who was away for the summer working for the Ontario Department of Highways, like those anonymous tanned young men you see when you’re on holiday, the one who holds up a stop sign when the highway has only one lane and drivers have to wait until he turns the sign around to indicate cars can proceed. Philip was a friend who was filling in. He didn’t know he was filling in but that is how Maureen saw it. Philip, never Phil, even in those days when Robert was always Bob and Richard was always Dick, was trying to win her over, knowing about the boyfriend away for the summer but still thinking in the back of his mind that he could somehow win her over.
But Philip and Maureen enjoyed a kind of idyllic summer. Everything was Dutch, everything was fun, and everything was misted over with a vague sense of sexual intrigue and intellectual satisfaction. Maureen, who had just finished teachers training had a job lined up for the fall and Philip was still at University just beginning a PhD in philosophy. In a sense they were on top of the world.
Several times they went to Stratford to see Shakespeare plays, enjoying the time before and after, wandering around the park on the Avon River or having lunch together at an inexpensive place, where they had the soup of the day and a sandwich or fish and chips.
He had a car and she was pleased to wander around with him near London, exploring the old gravel concession roads, coming upon a small town one or the other had heard about but never been to, getting out of the car and looking at old stores and houses, perhaps going into a local restaurant for a coffee. And talk, which was what they mostly did, just talk, with Philip taking the lead with all his knowledge of philosophers and literature. Maureen mostly listened but she would comment too when she felt the subject applied in a personal way to her life. Philip rarely talked about himself unless it was, for example, a reference to a childhood schoolyard experience which served to illustrate some point he was making. Maureen talked about how she felt about people and events that had happened to her.
Philip was confident that his intellect was up to the task of explaining philosophy and Maureen was confident that her experience and her way of expressing herself was equally valuable These were two well adjusted people, using each other as sounding boards for what they were to become, whatever that was, although both had intentions of becoming career teachers.
Maureen found Philip mentally attractive but not physically, whereas Philip found Maureen profoundly physically attractive, but was not so sure about the soundness of her mind. During the summer they dated he never once propositioned her, thinking he was being gentlemanly, while Maureen kept asking herself, “why doesn’t he ever try anything?”
Not that it would have done any good because Philip was a skinny guy, with the skinny guy’s narrow face, and neck. He was actually pretty good looking, with brown hair and hazel eyes but had no sex appeal for Maureen. She liked his mind, of course, and how he drew her out to talk about her life, but she did not want him to kiss her. Still, he never tried. Most guys would have.
As for Philip, he was acutely aware of the fellow somewhere up North holding up a stop sign, the big guy with bulging muscles, or so he imagined, who was her boyfriend. Philip believed he did not have much physical courage, having got by with his wit as a student, and never having been forced to confront a bully. He did not believe he would be able to deal physically with the boyfriend, something he assumed he would have to do to win Maureen. Some smart guys like Philip were subtly protected by their fellow classmates and friends, out of respect for what they had in their heads.
Maureen was flattered by Philip’s attentions because she was a girl with intellectual aspirations, even though she had done little serious reading, apart from university courses and still kept her writing, her poems to herself, as she worked out what and how she wanted to say.
In many ways they were a good match, but the guy with the stop sign remained in the background, the guy Maureen always referred to as “my boyfriend who is away for the summer.”
One late afternoon Philip and Maureen drove up to Kincardine on the Lake Huron shore. Philip’s family had an ancient cottage there. First they went for a swim for it was a hot day. This gave them ample opportunity to view each other’s bodies.
Maureen had brought her bikini, a recent, hasty purchase, for Maureen was not really the bikini type. It was an on sale designer item, covered with splashes of bold colours, blue, orange and yellow. To compensate for small breasts the bra had a push-up structure. Maureen was thin too but with a lovely carved waist and hips and she looked good, even though she was embarrassed at being seen in such a skimpy item of clothing in public. Still she looked very cute, standing up straight and running into the water with Philip’s challenge to “race you into the water!”
Philip was lean all over and had a good frame, with wide shoulders. What was surprising to Maureen was his skin which was smooth with an all over light tan colour, with very little hair on his chest, none on his back. His complexion was free of blemishes and so was his body. He moved well, not hunched over, as some skinny guys seem to do and was an excellent swimmer, far better than she, diving and staying underwater for long periods of time and then swooshing up out of the water 20 feet from where she had last seen him go down.
Afterwards lying in the sun on the beach they exchanged surreptitious looks at each other, each surprised at what they saw. She thought she could change her mind about Philip and Philip thought she was a knockout and had to be very careful that his erection did not show. At least his old fashioned swimming trunks were voluminous enough to hide some of the shape but to be sure he lay on his side.
Afterwards back in the cottage when they went back to change, they hardly trusted themselves and were quite formal deciding where they would go. This became a walking tour of the small town and eventually supper in the Chinese restaurant overlooking the harbour. That night The Kincardine Scottish Pipe Band played in their usual Saturday night parade marching up and down Queen Street, followed by throngs of tourists and locals. Maureen giggled with delight when she wasn’t feeling the prick of tears from the maudlin sounds of the bagpipes. Just why this had such an effect she did not know and asked Philip about it. He though it was some ancient response to an instrument that evoked a sense of tribalism and homeland, sad victories over ones enemies, lovers lost in death, women in childbirth, all of human tragedy rolled into one sound.
That night instead of driving straight back to London which they should have done and feeling a bit sleepy, Philip suggested they go back to the cottage for a rest and then hang around a bit longer. Maureen, who lived in an apartment with two friends, had no desire to return. They were in a kind of free fall, as far as time was concerned. Philip actually went in to his room at the cottage and went to sleep, dreaming of fucking Maureen. Maureen explored the musty bookshelves there, looking at 20 year old copies of National Geographic and dusty novels, reading several short stories by Guy de Maupassant in someone’s university text book from many years ago.
When Philip work up it was nearly 9 pm and they went out to walk along the shore on Lovers Lane and into Tiny Tots park, taking turns pushing each other on the swings. Even in the dark, even with Maureen laughing, he did not try anything. Maureen was somewhat disappointed but also relieved that she did not have to say no, to invoke the name of the boyfriend up north. They saw the dawn come up over the tennis courts and Maureen decided that now she was tired so they got in the car and began the drive back to London, with short stops in some of the small towns to look at them in the early morning light. Nothing open, just people sleeping in their old yellow brick houses.
And so it went that summer and beyond with that day in Kincardine remaining in Maureen’s mind, as a highlight, the last word on balance, closeness and separateness, being and nothingness, the most perfect day she had ever spent.
After the boyfriend came back, Philip and Maureen only saw each other occasionally. The boyfriend had saved up enough money to buy her a small diamond engagement ring. Maureen wasn’t sure how she felt about this but accepted it, knowing that the boyfriend who was in medical school would provide her with a good life, along with her teaching. She was nothing if not practical. They resumed their sexual relationship which she found wonderful although less than happy over his insistence when she was not ready.
Philip and Maureen had mutual friends and the following December both were invited to a new years party where they saw each other with a certain amount of delight.
Philip immediately noticed the diamond ring on Maureen’s finger and asked about it. Maureen casually said, “Well, I guess I’m getting married probably next summer or fall, after all he’s still at school and I’m in my first year of teaching so we’ll wait a bit.”
Philip had no warning of how hard hit he would feel as his mind instantly filled with a kind of rage, completely contrary to his usual understanding of himself in the world.
He watched Maureen and her boyfriend dancing together and after Maureen had moved away and begun talking to someone else he edged close to the boyfriend and hissed, “If I wanted to marry someone I would buy her the biggest fucking diamond ring I could find.”
The boyfriend assuming correctly that Philip was referring to Maureen’s ring said nothing for he knew in his heart that Philip was right.
Philip moved to the drinks table where there were arranged New Year’s Eve party favours, including a package of sparkling multi-coloured shapes. He picked up the package, ripped it open with his teeth, walked back over to the dance floor and dumped the bits and pieces over the boyfriend’s head.
Afterwards, even long after her divorce, Maureen thought of that moment, as though it was suspended in a spotlight. Of skinny Philip on his toes throwing the shiny bits of paper up in the air and over the head of the boyfriend whose arms flew up over his lowered head as though to defend himself.