Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Fiction #66

New fiction! Issue #66
Submissions now open for #67

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #66: Blake Bennett

Ptolemaic

The Cathedral of the Old City (or Ciutat Vella) of Valencia is bordered on two sides by wide cobblestoned squares in the beating heart of the ramshackle teetering plaster apartment forest that comprises the district. The squares, one larger, one smaller, provide breathing space amid the choked alleyways; when one leaves those alleyways into the sunny expanses, it is as though, having forgotten that they were outside at all, they have rediscovered the sky. The smaller square is centred on a fountain of a reclining classical god.  Its placement just outside the door of the cathedral speaks to the strange syncretism of the country—Roman paganism and Catholicism now aesthetically complementary, if not recognizant of each other, and the architectural legacy of the Moors grudgingly acknowledged without given much credit. The statue faces away from the arcades and colonnades that frame the stained-glass eyes of the church, as though the building is staring at its recalcitrant back, willing it to eventually turn to Christ. The filth of birds blankets the statue’s shoulders and upturned knees. That no-one scrubs it clean in its heathen nudity and languor, perhaps, says something as well. Perhaps it is because Valencia is a beautiful bastard of Iberia; neither Catalonia proper nor Castile, not Andalusia either—its own former kingdom in the Crown of Aragon, as a city smaller than both Madrid and Barcelona, but proud still of its former stature.

Daylight hours see the statue and its fountain teem with tourists spooning gelato to each other in the heat and locals sipping coffee at the shaded tables set out by the cafés, tutting about their foreign counterparts. The late afternoon, as elsewhere in the country, is a period of hush closings of storefronts and rest before the long night. And then, as the sun becomes long and low in the sky and the shadows crawl over the two squares, those store and café and restaurant fronts are thrown open again, their tables invading as far into the squares as can be gotten away with. Native Cava and imported beer flow in equal measure as the well-dressed come to while away the evening and brush away the desperate flower peddlers. Great flat pans of paella! Oiled charcuterie boards piled high with hard musky cheeses, Catalan-style ham sliced paper-thin, plump queen olives, balsamic vinegar and cloudy bread with hard floury crust! Mussels sighed open in buttery sauces of white wine! These smells swirl in the light breeze like the raucous conversation which swells in volume to combat itself. Hours later (for this is Spain, after all) the meal is finally finished, for it began late and lasts far longer than it needs to. But finally, after the innumerable bells in the plenitude of churches throughout the Ciutat have bellowed midnight, the dining crowd disperses. Exhausted busboys and servers remove all trace of their employers’ property from the public space, stowing it deep within their restaurants as the chefs dispose of the night’s grease down sewer grates in the backest of the back alleys.

A large segment of the crowd, searching further for their kicks, relocates to the more modern, trendier, chrome-and-glass neighbourhoods of Valencia. But some stay to wander within the labyrinthine Ciutat Vella, flushed orange with the dim incandescence of outdated bulbs in gothic streets. Shadows are long, faces softened. It is like the deep diffuse of candlelight made unnervingly still by the absence of the flickering life of a flame, steady instead, flat, filling everything and everyone with a quiet sense of tone; tone selected by the painter, the monochrome and its subtle variations that hint at intentions, at a certain mood that should be sustained and inhabited by all so painted, who all feel self-conscious and unsure if they are out of step with the artist’s vision. In the second, larger square is where the canvas is stretched, primed, and awaiting its subjects.

This second square has no central feature. It is simply broad, bordered with descending steps that give it an amphitheatre-like aspect, and paved mirror-smooth with wide granite slabs. The steps are well-lined with these converging nocturnal souls who entered the plaza out of the labyrinth slowly, filtering in like dazed and mismatched couples a-wandering in Oberon’s forest. The drops of petal-juice in their eyes seem at first to guide them astray, until, arriving in the square, they feel a sense of destination has been fulfilled. A mixed crowd, to be sure. Young skateboarders use the smooth surface and the bemused crowd to practise their tricks and flips in front of an audience. A lone guitarist fingerpicks a doleful cançó on his dull nylon strings, not standing out enough from the countless other street musicians throughout the Ciutat to be anything more than background noise. The crowd is gathered but their attention is not faithful. They are by and large more interested in each other than they are in the scattered performers in the square.

He enters meekly in full garb, laden with a large stereo and a small trunk. He doesn’t struggle with the weight, but his white-painted face with the small black inverted triangle beneath each eye makes him seem burdened in other, deeper ways. North Americans in the crowd point him out to each other; in their countries, the tradition of busking is moribund, or at least far enough underground that the sight of a man clothed in baggy, shapeless, white coveralls with matching satin gloves and a conical hat atop his shaved, uniformly whitened head is cause for suspicion and not entertainment. But the locals and other continentals know from his garb that what is in store is neither buffoonery nor sinister. The guitarist winds down his playing according to whatever code may exist between street performers. Does he recognize that while people might enjoy his music at all hours of the day, this harlequin’s act is best employed at only this time, in this tone, in these dog days of summer? The skateboarders feel the hush descend. Some pick up their boards and sit as well, while others, caring more for their craft than for any sense of audience, wheel off back into the labyrinth.

He doesn’t speak. No introduction, no call for attention. He lays a CD in his stereo, presses play, and then kneels down behind the trunk. He unlatches it, lifts the lid. The contents are hidden from the onlookers. The music begins, but first only as a low hum swelling in volume in no particular hurry. The tone of the hum is unusual, like the singing of a crystal wine glass, but so low as to suggest not a glass, but a whole basin or vat being stroked. The harlequin monkishly reaches within the trunk and with the pious reverence due of some saint’s skull lifts out a single heavy crystal sphere the size of a small grapefruit. The look on his face is not one of concentration, nor one of incitement towards the audience. Indeed, he seems oblivious to the audience, as though he would be here doing the exact same routine with no divergences were the square completely devoid of people. His expression actually matches many of those in the audience: a serene bemusement coupled with interest in what’s to come, as though he himself does not know.

Another layer appears in the music: higher, clearer. The instant it emerges, the harlequin begins to roll the sphere from the base of his palm up to his middle knuckle, smooth on the satin of his glove. It takes a full rotation or two for the audience to fully grasp the intended effect. The focal point of the rotation is perfectly tuned to the sphere’s precise position in space. It hangs dead still in midair. His hand flows beneath and around it and even over it without shifting it an inch in any direction. Its surface, which, from the audience’s distance, can appear to one observer lens-like and to another reflectory, betrays not the rolling and manipulation it is undergoing; it merely is, and the illusion of its stillness manifests as an equally illusory centripedal force on the harlequin’s hand, which begins to radiate outward, hypnotically encompassing the whole square into its orbit, all eyes pulled by inwards by its gravity.

Then, all attention captured by the one sphere, the harlequin with his other hand reaches back into the trunk and withdraws another sphere identical to the first. The music gains a new harmonious layer, the glassy melodies melancholic and veering into and out of each other, like liquid stalagmites and stalactites in a windy cavern. The twin spheres hover in plane with each other, the harlequin’s hands dancing a complex ballet around them. The only movement on the stone steps is the occasional sip from wine and beer bottles. Passers-by skirting the edge of the square on their ways home from elsewhere in the Ciutat hush as they go, not staying long enough to be trapped by the trance of the spheres, but enough, at least, to feel the tug.

Then the harlequin alters the effect. Seamlessly the two spheres fall into circumambulation with each other on one hand, then the other, twin planets in each other’s pull. Then the orbit widens as the harlequin extends the rolling up his arm, across his clavicle and down the other, the spheres equidistant and opposite, never slowing or speeding in relation each other. The centre of gravity, of enchantment, has shifted from the single sphere itself to some crux within the harlequin’s body. And at will, he brings them together again, touching and rolling against each other in his palm, and then apart once more. The music, while still glassy and lulling, has intensified in its melancholy. The whole show has pierced each observer. They see within its constituent parts something painful and true and revelatory about their lives, though this is revealed in feeling and impression and not words outright, but if they were to try, then, perhaps, the best guess would be something like this…   

The music infusing the scene is ungraspable and wholly conceptual… whatever meaning it contains is subjective, base to the human soul. That tones, and their changing relation to each other, should have some sort of significance universal to all who hear them is absurd. And yet they do; the sound of the minor scales and the subtle chord progressions within larger changes of key strike one and all with an eerie sense of melancholic insight into the nature of being, as though the sound of an imploding star or of a light-crushing black hole or of a sinking ship or of a breaking heart all fall within that calculus of frequency. And within that frame, that colossal, cosmic scope stands the sad figure of humanity, all humanity, painted and adorned as Suffering, but Suffering detached and accepting and bemused at the fates in his hands. And those, those spheres, those atoms of tiny solidity in this miasmic realm of concept and tone and vastness, those are what create the greatest effect upon the spirits of the observers. They reflect, they focus, and they distort what is seen in them. They are manipulated by the figure of sadness who wields them but they seem to act upon him in illusion.  They are our loves, our losses, our obsessions, our guilts, our memories, our fears, our hopes, and our disappointments, all brought out and spun for our absorption by the satin-gloved harlequin of our own Suffering on earth, who disappears into the scenery as his hand in the matter becomes tenebrous and ethereal. Rotating, devoted to one another, inseparable, the spheres build static from the fabric of his glove, and then are flung apart from each other, back into gulfed hands but threatening always to once again be involved in life’s pitiless, despairing circularity.

The crowd as one ponders. They think back to old loves in the sequences of rapprochement between the spheres, just as they think on current loves as they are torn apart. They look into the spheres within themselves and see that face; that caked, whitened face with the inverted black triangle beneath each eye staring back at them, distorted in the convexity of its surface. Some rail against his presence within themselves; others resolve to dispel him like a curse upon their name; but the wise among them recognize him not as a foe, but as a mathematical constant to be accepted and even embraced.

The show is over. The spheres are returned to the trunk, the stereo switched off, the small hat laid at the harlequin’s knees for any coin come what may. The crowd is quiet. Some try and renew conversations where they’d left off, but this is done out of a vulnerability they are not prepared to admit. Many drink deeply from their bottles, changed not a little by what they have watched and what they have seen in themselves. A scant few open their wallets and leave their spare change in the dainty felt cap, which is left looking like a pathetic cornucopia. Off into the labyrinth they go. Tourists who had been smitten with the quaintness of the Ciutat and with each other look at both with a saddened eye, seeing the satin hands behind it all for the first time.

The harlequin himself departs the square as he entered: meekly, little noticed. Does anyone watch him go, and wonder, aloud or to themselves, who he is when he has removed the paint and the getup? What awaits him back at his home? His daytime hours, what do they entail? Does he possess any more or less insight than any of his observers? Was his message and effect carefully designed and executed, whether by his own hand or through some proud lineage of busking harlequins of centuries past?

No. Nobody wonders. They are too deep within themselves to see him for anything but the symbol as which he dressed.

The Cathedral stares down with stained-glass eyes on the downturned faces of the leaving crowd. The reclining god in the fountain smiles his knowing smile through the filth of the birds.

*

Blake Bennett is a graduate of the English Literature and Language program at Queen's University. A freelance writer and ESL teacher, he lives and writes just outside of Toronto. 

Photo credit: Melanie Winter

Fiction #66: Amanda Kavanagh

Woodland Mystery

“How do you like the rooms?”

“They’re nice, good neutral colours.” She went back and forth from her office to the living room, silently taking in the soft greys and greens Bernard had chosen. “They’re supposed to be calming?”

“The therapist said to pick colours that represented nature. She said you would find them relaxing and I hoped that you might start to forget your worries.” Bernard looked around the room, at the reading chair and loveseat, at the T.V. in the corner, the sun reflecting off the screen turning it into a mirror. With his shoulders slumped he put a hand on Febe’s waist and gave it a comforting squeeze. “I thought the colours went well with the furniture, and look how light it is with the sunlight through the window.”

“I do like how the light seems softer now. What are they called?” Febe didn’t really care about the names of the paint colours, but she didn’t want to disappoint him. Not again, not after he spent so much time painting this past weekend while she had been at her mother’s.

“Well, this room is ‘Gray timber wolf’ and ‘Winter Lake’ while your office has ‘Backwoods’ and ‘Woodland Mystery.’” He said. Now his shoulders were square, his back straight with his hand still resting on her shoulder. “I was hoping it would bring the tranquility of the country life to the place, like you’re on vacation from the city – a haven of sorts.” She was so hard to read. He used to say and do the right things, but not anymore. He didn’t know how much longer he could deal with her; even after all of the years they had spent together. This time she was too different and it had been going on for so long.

Febe stepped away and walked to her office. She noticed Bernard had even tidied her desk and arranged her books as she sat down in her timeworn leather chair. A quick moment of panic traveled through her body, warning her that he may have looked through her things. But it was fleeting. She leaned back with a sigh and thought about the names, Backwoods and Woodland Mystery, what a joke. I’m trapped in this city and no paint job is going to make it better.

“You don’t like it.” She hadn’t noticed Bernard in the doorway, watching her.

“Yes I do. I love it,” she responded immediately. “Thank you. Thank you for making such an effort to help me.” She said while looking at him, hoping he could hear the earnestness in her voice. But he didn’t.

“Christ, Febe. What is it you want? What can I do? I’ve tried to be patient and understanding, I’ve tried my best. Do I stop you from going to your mother’s every weekend? Have I complained that you are never here, that you never seem to be here even when you are? I’ve gone to therapy for you. I’ve just painted the god damn apartment for you. What else can I do?” Bernard said standing completely still in the doorway. But now he walked to the window and looked out, without facing her.

“Bernard, I know you’re trying. I can see your effort. I was being earnest but I understand if it didn’t sound like that.” She got up and tried to circle her arms around his waist, wanting to lay her head between his shoulder blades, but he shrugged her off and walked out of the room.

“Wait. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be difficult. But this is going to take time. I’m trying my best too. We just need to work together, be patient together. Things will turn around. I promise. I just need time, the city is suffocating me.” Febe knew her words would not calm him, not yet. She would have to give him space, time to cool down. No matter how much her depression made her life difficult, she knew it was even harder on him. And still, she missed the patient and understanding husband he used to be. Sure he did things for her, but that wasn’t the kind of love or support she needed from him.

“I’m going out for a bit, I’ll bring home supper,” Bernard said while putting on his coat. He grabbed his keys and walked out the door without looking back at her.

Well that was a disaster, thought Febe as she hurried back into her office, her heart racing. She found her journal in the top drawer of her desk and sat down to write out what had just happened. Her therapist told her it was a good idea to write her thoughts down before they could spiral out of control. It was supposed to help her overcome her feelings of shame and guilt and to get her to stop her negative thought cycle. Fucked up again, she wrote. I must find a way to sound sincere and to take an interest in what B. does for me. I am such a hard person to love, I don’t deserve him. I have to get better or he’ll leave me. It’s my fault he’s so short with me.

As she wrote, she knew she was getting sucked into feeling sorry for herself. She was supposed to focus on what she could change in the future, not put herself down. But this was how it was for her most days. She felt abandoned when Bernard left when he was angry and she could only blame herself. She put the journal away, her hand feeling too heavy and clumsy to write. She leaned back and listened to the sounds of the street. It was rush hour outside, people coming home from their day at work, maybe from the market with food for supper. The sounds of horns and squealing brakes in the distance broke into her thoughts, causing her to picture crowded sidewalks and cars lined up front to back, inching their way down the street. One person to a car, impatient to make it through the light cycle before it turned red. Pedestrians and cyclists waiting for their chance to cross the street bunched up and crowded on the corners. People smoking and exhaust spewing from cars, dust spiralling in mini tornadoes on the sidewalk and flying grit getting into peoples’ eyes. She got up and shut the curtains.

Remember to breathe, focus on the breath coming into your nose, down into your lungs. Hold it. Let it out through your nose, slowly. Think of nothing. Blackness, be blank. With her eyes closed, Febe concentrated on her breathing. After a few minutes, she began to relax and breathe more naturally, her shoulders lost their tension and she allowed her mind to wander. A soft sound came to her attention, one that reminded her of wind through trees. She didn’t open her eyes and tried to focus on the sound. Birds? Could she really hear birds? And leaves rustling? She took a deep breath and even thought she could smell the musty scent of the forest floor, a rich, damp odour. She thought again of the names of the paint colour and laughed to herself.

That night, Bernard and Febe ate in silence in front of the T.V. He brought back food from one of her favorite places, a little Sri Lankan restaurant a few blocks from their apartment. Just one more example of how he was trying. He was always trying. After they ate, Febe sat with her legs across his lap looking at real estate listings. Every now and then she would find a property in the farmland surrounding the city. She would point it out to Bernard and he would give a quick look and nod, and then look back at the T.V.

“Wouldn’t it be so nice to live in the country?” She had said it so many times before and he knew where this conversation was headed. “I could work from home, you know I could. I could even take up a hobby and start an online store.”

“Febe, you know I want to move but it’s going to take time. We can’t afford it yet. Soon though, maybe in a few years you can quit your job and work from home. It probably doesn’t help to keep looking at houses we can’t afford.” Bernard wanted the conversation to end there; he wanted to avoid any topics that might cause her to get upset

“Fine. I know you don’t want to leave the city. You’re just humouring me.” She drew her legs back and sat up and closed her laptop. “I’m going to my office. Don’t wait up for me.”

“It’s still early. You’re not going to be in there all night are you?” Bernard started to follow her, but he heard the office door shut in response. He sat back down and held his head in his hands. He couldn’t get through to her these days, with her outbursts and silent stretches, he never knew what to expect. At least there were no tears tonight. He took that as a positive sign.

Alone again, Febe closed her eyes and started her breathing exercises. She wanted to escape her life, to feel calm and at peace. Soon she could hear the faint sound of the wind. It was louder this time, and she could feel it. A soft breeze moved across her bare arms, making the hair stand up. The fresh scent of trees and foliage once again filled the room, stronger now, as if she really was standing in the middle of a grove of trees. As she sat there, the bubbling sound of a brook filled her ears, it was unmistakeable.

This is unreal, what is happening? She opened her eyes and her breath came up short. She was no longer in her small office, surrounded by four walls, a desk, books, the city. Febe realized she was sitting on the mossy floor of a forest. She pressed her hands into the earth and grabbed a handful of the spongy green moss. This is real alright, but how? She pushed herself up, wiping her hands on her pants while walking forward. The trees were large and tall, but the moon shone through illuminating her way. She walked for what seemed like a long while, touching the plants as she went, pausing every once in a while to listen to the sounds of night creatures. She thought an owl was following her, the hollow sound of its call, keeping her company. When she reached the brook she lay down along the edge and let her hand fall into the fast flowing water. It was cold but at the same time, comforting. She pictured herself lying in the brook, with the water flowing over her body, enveloping her in cold, calm waves.

She opened her eyes with a start at the sound of a clicking doorknob. “Febe? Come to bed, it’s close to three in the morning.” Bernard was beside her, helping her to her feet.
“Sorry, I must have fallen asleep. I was dreaming.” But as she said this, she didn’t believe it. She brought her hand up to her face and looked at it. The skin was all puckered and white, like when she sat in the bath for too long.

Febe spent more and more time in her office, hoping to escape to her woodland mystery world. Most days she could only hear the slightest sounds or smells, but sometimes, when she spent the night in there, she would open her eyes to the trees and earthen floor of her forest. She spent time by the brook, looking into the water, at the way it flowed over the rocky bottom without a care, limitless, with nothing to stop it. She would work up her courage and step in, her feet sliding over the rocks and sandy bed. This was the only place she felt safe and at peace, like she could finally relax and forget her failure of a life. She knew Bernard was increasingly worried about her, but she was feeling better, rejuvenated even. If she spent her time alone, it was not that she loved Bernard less, she would often explain to herself, it was that she was saving him from herself. He didn’t deserve to live with someone like her, someone who was irrational and unstable. She was doing him a favour, and once she was well, they would be happy again.

When she wasn’t locked in her office, Febe was in the bathtub. She took baths constantly, trying to recreate the feeling of when she was in the brook. Bernard often left her alone, his patience running out. He approached her one evening when she was about to get in the tub.

“Having a bath again?” he asked. “I feel like I never see you anymore. Could we spend some time together this evening, maybe go for a walk? Or even a movie?” He watched her slide into the water.

“At least I’m not going to my mother’s every weekend. I think I deserve some credit. I like having baths, they relax me.” She moved down into the water so only her face was left out. The water muffled the sound of his voice, cutting out the harshness.

“Right, I should give you credit for staying in your own home. It’s not as simple as taking a bath. You’re in there for hours, and then you go into your office and spend the night there. I would almost prefer you left the apartment, that way I wouldn’t feel like you were ignoring me.” He leaned against the wall and looked down at her, “Your therapist called. She said you haven’t been in to see her for a month, which means you haven’t been taking your prescription,” He let his words trail off. Not ready to accuse her of anything.

Febe slid even lower, and put her head under the water. “Febe, I’m serious. I’m worried about you. You’re not well. You’re acting like you did last time.”

At that, she thrust her torso out of the water, “Oh, wow. You promised you wouldn’t bring that up. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m going to have my bath. Please, leave me alone.”

“Fine. I’ll go out for a few hours, but only because it’s what you want me to do. I’m here for you.” Bernard didn’t know what else to say. Giving up, he gave her a long, searching look before finally backing out of the bathroom and closing the door behind him. She listened as he rummaged about, getting his keys, his jacket, putting on his shoes, and finally, walking out of the apartment.

Febe was flooded with relief as she leaned back into the water, once again able to relax. She knew he meant well, but she really was too much for him to handle. Trying to rationalize her behaviour to herself she thought it wasn’t fair to subject him to her insecurities any longer. She tried to picture Bernard as he would be if they had never met. He would probably be living in some high-rise condo, with a competent woman who most definitely had a successful career. They would probably have children. He wouldn’t have to take care of an invalid wife who was anxious about the city and her job. Who slept too much and cried over the smallest upsets.

Just breathe. Count to eight while inhaling slowly. Good. Let it out, count to eight. Start again. Febe did this for a few minutes until her heart beats slowed down and the thudding in her ears faded away. She let herself slip lower and lower into the water, savouring the sensation that she was weightless, that her body didn’t exist. She could hear the brook, and smell the decaying foliage on the banks. Opening her eyes, Febe realized she was no longer in her tub, but lying in the brook. She could feel the grainy bottom underneath her and the water flowing fast over her body. She let herself be pushed along with the weak current, every now and then grabbing at tall blades of grass as she passed, the edges scraping against her skin

Finally, she came to rest in a small pool, and holding onto some rocks, she was able to stay still. Febe couldn’t remember a time when she felt more at peace, more at ease with herself. A sense of euphoria overcame her as the cool liquid enveloped her body. Letting her head go below the surface, she noticed the water had turned red, a deep scarlet red that brought her comfort.

*

Amanda Kavanagh grew up in Ottawa, Ontario where she would eventually work as a secondary school teacher. She left that career to take a writing course at Algonquin College. In a totally unrelated move, she is now working on an organic farm. She spends most of the day with two Jersey cows, chickens, and some very pushy pigs. She wouldn’t have it any other way. She and her husband live in a small village outside of the City of Ottawa. 

Photo credit: Matthew Liteplo

Fiction #66: Lisa Foley

It’s Not Really Depression

It’s not really depression. It might be depression. Does depression come with panic? I mean, I should know, but I’m not sure about it this time. Depression usually makes you want to sleep. And drink. I’m doing the drinking part.

People will warn you about alcohol especially if you’re depressed. They should really be warning you about music. Pop songs especially. If you’re depressed, pop songs are enough to make you want to slit your wrists, get a knife out of the kitchen drawer and do some serious damage. Possibly just end it all. Because you’re not thinking clearly because you might be depressed. Don’t listen to pop music at this time, it won’t help you through this and it won’t help you sleep.

It’s hard to sleep through the night when you’re afraid of the dark. And when you’re not ten it’s really hard to explain to people that you can’t sleep through the night because you’re afraid of the dark. People who know you say ‘well, you’ve always been a little weird’. They don’t see that as a reasonable explanation for why you, an adult, fall asleep at work.

I don’t even toss and turn anymore. Now I think of sleeping as something I used to do. I’m so desperate I’ve started turning the lights out. And I’m not afraid of the dark these days. Now darkness is afraid of me. I think all that goes on when the world is asleep is afraid of unnatural occurrences and my ‘vigil’ is something to be afraid of. I can’t sleep at all now and I never doze off during the day. When I’m drinking and listening to pop music I wonder if I should try jumping off a building because maybe now I can fly for real (I do it all the time in my dreams) because my ability to go without sleep is not normal. It’s not anything that could save the world, but it’s Marvel-like in every other respect.

So I don’t think you could say its depression.

I just pulled the trigger one night. I was drinking and listening to pop music and I got this crazy idea into my head that I could live without him. I called him on his cell phone and said ‘this isn’t working anymore. I think we should just end it now’. And being the person he is, he said he understood.
I didn’t sleep that night – I passed out. When I woke up in the morning the world had shifted. It wasn’t the same place it was the day before. And that’s when whatever it is set in. I haven’t slept since and it’s been almost two weeks. I don’t fall asleep during boring work meetings, there is nothing that can put me to sleep now. I feel like a gargoyle or an angel or Batman looking over Gotham City. It’s not sadness keeping me awake, its panic. So you see what I mean – it’s not really depression.

Things changed. Life was going on in a beautiful, unexpected direction. It was all too perfect. I woke up in awe every day because I never imagined, never knew, life could be this good. You don’t know until you’ve experienced it. It’s love, but it’s more than that. It’s like that unconditional-throw-yourself-in-front-of-a-train kind of love you feel when you have kids – it’s not something you can know until you experience it. And then it changed. There was a child from someone else – not anyone he loved like he loved me – and the child showed up on his doorstep with a duffel bag and a tilted head. Who can resist the tilted head? And the duffel bag? I would have done the same thing but in a heartbeat it changed my life.

He said it wouldn’t change things. We talked about how to make this all a part of OUR life. But then a kid needs things. I know that, I have kids. But this kid needed things immediately and of course because he had never been around to provide them before he had to provide them all now. On demand.

I wasn’t depressed I didn’t drink or start listening to pop music. I understood. I was the good understanding girlfriend. For about three or four minutes. Maybe. And then one night, about four weeks in, the kid called him when he was me. He was with me on a scheduled ‘date’. The kid was spending the night at a friend’s house so we had what had become a rare whole night together.

And the kid called and needed to go home. There was a disagreement with the friend and he needed to be picked up right away.

‘Yes. Of course. Go. I understand.’

Are you fucking kidding me?

I started drinking. I put the radio on and fucking Rascal Flatts was singing What Hurts the Most and I knew they were talking to me. They were telling me it was over and I just needed to accept that and I picked up the phone and called him while he was still in the car driving to pick up the kid and when he answered I said ‘this isn’t working anymore. I think we should just end it now’.

The next day I woke up to a different world. I woke up to a world in which I no longer needed sleep.

Or food. I no longer needed food. See? Marvel-like reality going on in my life.

I woke up to a world where I no longer needed sleep or food.

I was drinking two bottles of wine a night, not sleeping, not eating and functioning just fine during the day, thank you. A body shouldn’t be able to do that.

So I wouldn’t call it depression.

It’s like I’m a shadow now, observing the event and seeing everything change. I’m living my real life but it can’t possibly be my real life so I feel like I’ve found myself on the outside looking in and that’s why I don’t need sleep or food. Close friends look past me now when his name comes up. They can’t look me in the eye, they don’t want to or can’t deal with whatever it is that’s going on. I don’t blame them.

They look sad and shake their heads and I start to feel warm, flushed. That feeling you get when you realize you’ve done something really really bad whether on purpose or by accident. That feeling you get when you wish you could set the clock back a few minutes or just stop time altogether and end the world now.

I wonder if he’s feeling the same way. I wonder if he’s thinking about that call – not mine, the one from the kid – and getting that warm feeling and thinking, wishing he had not said ‘I can be there in twenty minutes’ and left. I wonder if he’s having his own vigil thinking he will never see me again and wondering what he’s done.

I’m thinking no. In every relationship there is one person who does the apologizing and one person who never thinks they’ve done anything wrong. Even in the best relationships there’s always hierarchy and anyone who tells you different has never been in a relationship or is lying to themselves.

I wonder what music he’s listening to and what effect it’s having on him. I wonder if he’s listening to one of the CDs I made him. The first time I gave him a CD I said ‘you know what this means? It means we’re going steady now’ and he liked that because I’m pretty sure at one point I was the center of his universe. I wonder if he’s thinking about a knife in a drawer. Of course he’s not – he’s a guy.
I haven’t spoken to my kids since it happened. I’m clearly lacking the courage all Marvel characters have so maybe I shouldn’t try flying. They’ll ask about him, I know they will, and I’m not ready to tell them about the horrible mistake I’ve made. I’m afraid the tears will start to flow when I talk to my kids and so far none have and I want to keep it that way. The lack of tears makes me feel a bit invincible. Makes me feel like I can shut my feelings off and not be hurt. But I can’t put if off much longer. I’m a bit surprised they haven’t called me lately but then they have their own busy lives. But soon I’ll have to see them. I’ll have to look at them and be ready to see their disappointment because they liked him and they knew how happy he made me. I was never the single mom who had a series of bad boyfriends, I never had any until he came along and he was perfect and the timing was perfect and it was all perfect.

They’ll know something’s wrong as soon as they see me because I’m wearing jeans I haven’t been able to fit into in years. That’s another reason why it’s not really depression. When my mom died and I was paralyzed with grief there wasn’t enough chocolate in the world for me. My doctor said it was because there was some brain chemical I wasn’t producing because I was depressed and chocolate made a body produce it. Still, it seemed wrong to be stuffing my face with chocolate when I couldn’t even clean the house because most of the time I couldn’t stop crying and a lot of the time I didn’t know if I would be able to continue breathing. That kind of grief passes and eventually I stopped eating chocolate.

It doesn’t feel like this – whatever it is – will end.

So my kids will see me thin and pale because not surprisingly that’s what happens when you give up sleep and food – you look like crap, like something is definitely wrong with you. And they’ll know that I’ve made a terrible mistake. Not a first for me.

When I woke up the morning after I checked my phone to make sure I hadn’t done any drunk texting. I hadn’t but instead had done something to make sure I didn’t do any drunk texting. I had deleted him from my contacts and deleted all his text messages. I could look up his home number but I haven’t. I could. I still have a bunch of stuff at his house and I could call to say…to say what, I’m not sure. It’s not anything I need. Some shampoo, a toothbrush, a nightie and some make-up. Nothing I need to go get. To be honest, I check outside my back door every day to see if he’s dropped them off but he hasn’t. I thought he might because I’ve seen him hurt before and he doesn’t like reminders. He once had a beautiful piece of art given to him by a close friend and when he and his friend had a falling out the art when into the garbage. That’s probably where my stuff is.

I think my boss must know something’s up. She doesn’t normally display any kind of warmth but since it happened she hasn’t sent any work my way. My inbox is usually filled with requests from her with impossible deadlines, but not these days so I spend my time reading the stack of articles every analyst has beside their computer.

Maybe one of my friends has said something to her. They keep tiptoeing around me, not wanting to stop by my office or even look in. One day the admin assistant stopped my office and it looked like he was going to come in but he didn’t. He stood outside my office looking at the floor, looking around as if waiting for an invitation or permission or something. I waited for him to say something but he didn’t and eventually he walked away.

Tonight I have to do something. Maybe I’ll send him an email - I still have his email address. Maybe I’ll take a sleeping pill and see if by tomorrow the world seems right again. Maybe I’ll try flying.

*

Lisa Foley lives and works in Ottawa. She has been published in Storyteller, Pottersfield Portfolio, Front & Centre, The Loose Canon, and Pictures & Portraits.

Fiction #66: Elaine McCluskey

The Gates of Heaven

I am thinking of travelling to Denmark where they are developing a pill to erase bad memories: Denmark, birthplace of Thumbelina, Hans Christian Andersen, and the tormented, tangled mind of Soeren Kierkegaard, existentialist prince.

I am not sure who determines what memories are bad.  Or how clean they can erase your mental hard drive.  Is your mind like a computer, which means that nothing is truly gone, and that the IT investigators— the spooks with forensic software and search warrants—can still recover your deleted porn and threatening  emails?

But let’s say it works. Let’s say I land in Copenhagen with a bag of gold and find the person with the magic potion.  Maybe she is tall and blonde, a Danish princess, or maybe he is a hunchbacked bachelor who looks like a toad.

I do not care about the philosophical debates that people are having: How can one learn from one’s mistakes if one cannot recall them? Is mankind opening itself up to another Salem or Vietnam?  debates that are immaterial to me, I would argue, given the last six years of my life, and to anyone who deigns to differ, anyone who sits in judgment, I respectfully ask:  “Who are you: the doorman at the Gates of Heaven? “

Life is not an Instagram photo, you know, with all of the colours heightened and the background blown out. The Gates of Heaven are  not manned by mortals, but it does help to have a reference letter, and some of those come in the form of Obituaries.

Obituaries are my field of study and form the research for my doctoral thesis, which I am endeavoring to complete, despite time lost, before I turn thirty.  It is titled Snapshots in time: a study of obituaries in one mid-sized Maritime newspaper from 2000-2014.

Using established means, including a regexp for syntax highlighting, I am analyzing the obituaries of one Halifax newspaper for 14 years, noting sociological trends and/or changes.  “This qualitative exploratory study of obituaries was conducted in the grounded theory tradition. It is intended as a contribution to the sociological study of obituaries, a medium that conveys objective and subjective information about individuals and their lives.”

In  one section, I keep a spreadsheet of individuals, who were, according to their obituaries, raised by non-parental family members, foster parents, orphanages, or other. To date —and I nearing the end—have documented 130, a number that seems today, curious. My adviser is  Dr. Casper Koopenhagen, a puffed-up penguin of a man, who wears robes to lectures and talks at parties about the Cartesian mind until people's eyes glaze over, but that is another story.

                                             ***

At one point, my mother thought Havard and I would grow old together. We bought a Honda.  We rented a Happy Camper van and toured Iceland, bathing in geothermal pools and waterfalls.  We  took photos of Skogafoss and the falling water sounded like thunder, and the mist formed rainbows.  We were, she believed, a binary system, two stars in an eternal orbit, gravitationally  bound to each other

Havard is a commercial photographer, but his hobby is buying items at pawn or thrift shops and reselling them on Kijiji. Sometimes, he convinces himself he has a use for the item. Sometimes, he plans, from the moment of purchase, to resell for profit.  Once in a while, he strikes gold. He found for $3.99 an old Leica IIIF that a thrift-store employee had mistaken for a point-and-shoot. He asked $600, accepted $550, and we bought a tent.

Havard does not view the sales as a mere business transaction. Part of the appeal is the engagement, the interaction with strangers, who in Havard's mind, become his friends. Havard stretches out each sale, searching  for common interests. “Record in a Bag? No kidding! I have all of Hollerado’s albums!"  He exchanges email addresses and chats for months about the vintage amp that he sold.

“I think it’s nice,” my mother said too emphatically. “I think it’s nice that he does normal things.”

                                                                  ***

I tell my friend,  Veronika,  that I want to get the memory-erasing pill, which is, I believe,  a form of beta blocker. The things that keep me awake are not the bad things that others have done; they are my stupid, selfish, and poorly thought-out actions.

Veronika is sitting in my living room, and she is, I notice for the first time,  taking up considerable space. Her body language, the way she deliberately spreads her arms when talking. These are things I am starting to notice, things that give me pause.

“Is this because of Jack?” she asks.

“Jack Jack Jack. . .”

In my family, we ignore the elephants in the room; we give people time to collect their belongings, turn off the lights, and escape. Veronika pokes the elephant with her umbrella, and then, once the animal is disturbed, plows forward, nonplussed.

“Some group that measures things that are, for the most part, immeasurable claims that the Danes are the happiest people in the world,” she adds, ignoring my discomfort.  "Maybe that’s because of the memory-erasing pill.”

“Maybe,” I allow.

I tell Veronika that I once sat in the middle of a group of Danes at an international soccer tournament, and they were, for the most part, odd. They reminded me of children on a class outing. One could not do anything without the others.  If one got up to go for a snack, they all got up, annoying the rows around them. They had blankets and red-and-white jester’s hats, and tins of baked goods, which they passed back and forth, and they were, I suppose, happy, until one of the Danish players missed an open net, and one man in the group started to cry.

“Did he actually cry?” she asks, not allowing for hyperbole.

Over her head is a sculpture:  six stems of dark  wire shooting from an invisible earth with the promise of buds and leaves. As weightless as my story.

“Yes,” I say firmly. “And it was sad, because he was one of the younger ones and he was, when crying, pitiful. He had bad skin and he looked slow.”

“And he cried?”

“His face was enveloped by pain.”

She gives me that look.

                    ***

Havard had some exasperating habits. He would, without fail, drop all of his camera bags, lenses and tripods in the living room as soon as he came home. And it was the first room anyone viewed upon entering, a room that I had tried to make hospitable.

Havard is one of those men who is not happy unless all of his pet possessions are on display. He has to see them, smell them, embrace them, the moment he enters. The giant TV.  His fixed-gear bicycle. His hockey bag and skates.

“Can we please move the hockey bag into the garage?” I once asked.

“What? And get everything mouldy?"

I sighed, and he countered with "Did you touch my bike?”

“No,” I lied.

                                    ***

Skip Whitman lived to the age of 95 because he was lucky.  He had not lived a more abstemious life than others.  He had not cross-country skied across gorges like the allegorical 60-year-old Swede, stopping at the end of the day for a Thermos of coffee and biscuits. He hadn’t given up salt. Skip had not exercised his brain by learning  in his golden years Mandarin.  Nothing unusual had happened to Skip Whitman when he was a young man: no extraordinary riches or success, so this was his luck:  a body that had not broken at 300,000 kilometres and a mind that had not stopped working a cell phone dropped in the sink. Skip claimed that he used up all his luck when he met his wife, Lucy, in 1938, but apparently he was wrong.

I  think my favorite section of my thesis is the section that includes tributes written by family members celebrating people who lived, on the surface, the most ordinary of lives, individuals like Skip Whitman.

“Many will remember Max as the strawberry guy, who greeted everyone with a smile and a box of berries.”

“Never was there a more loyal friend than Marjorie who didn’t know how to be jealous or mean. She helped everyone she could and expected nothing in return.”

Veronika thinks that I am immersed in Obituaries because I am trying to understand myself; I am trying to decide what makes a good life and what a bad one; I am trying to determine how many mistakes one can make and still be loved; how many small kind things one must do to be redeemed, and if so, I have not yet found the answer.

                                               ***

Not all of Havard’s Kijiji sales went smoothly. Once, after he advertised an air-conditioner, a family of four showed up at our door.  English was clearly their second language. When  Havard told them the price was $120, they collectively waved their hands down. Lower lower.

“OK. This is the best I can do,” said Havard, who was not used to such intense negotiations with such a concerted force. “I can give it to you for ninety dollars.”

“Can you say eight-four?” asked the mother. “That  our lucky number.”

Havard sighed “Okay.”

Havard looked down, and the little girl, who appeared six, was trying to hold his hand. He managed to extricate himself without anyone taking notice, and when the mother rifled through her purse for bills, Havard reminded  her of the price.

“Can you say seventy-five?” she asked.

“You said eight-four was your lucky number.”

She just stared back.

If I had to describe Havard, I would say that he was a watercolour painted in traditional English style with a palette of four or five colours, setting—at best—a tone of mystery and gloom.  Now, add a pair of square black glasses. And on risqué days, a grey beanie. Havard was one of those men who had always had a girlfriend, someone who had gone to prom with the cute girl whose parents took photos.
Havard was rattled by the foreign family, who did not give him their email address or become his friends. But he was—like a boy who was never without a girlfriend—back at it  three nights later.

“Hey.”

From the bedroom, I heard Havard escort someone in.

“Wow, that looks great.”

Havard’s customer stayed twenty minutes and Havard offered him a cappuccino. He showed him a picture on his camera back.

“This guy was cool,” he said, money in hand. “And he's a student at your school.”

“What's his name?”

“Gerry.  He said he’s a friend of Jack’s. Who is Jack?”

***

What can I tell you about Jack without making myself sound fatuous and foolish? If Havard was an English watercolor, Jack was a pop art painting by Lichtenstein. Jack had the ability to fix you with his eyes and persuade you  to join him in a secret bond—a nebulous never-defined  meeting of the minds, a collision of the souls—that had, just had, to happen. Jack was blond and sun-drenched. Twenty-two. His checkered shirt looked like it was in danger of flying off at any time.  He had a speech bubble over his yellow head that said, Hey! And you could never be blamed because you were doing nothing to propel these events. You were doing nothing but showing up at class and waiting  for him to raise his hand, your TA’s heart already racing, and you weren’t even sure it was happening, were you?

                                           ***

A tricky section of my thesis is one in which I note how some families obliquely convey the cause of death.  Donations may be made to the Mental Health Society, Anthony Recovery House, The Liver Association, or Daisy’s Womens Shelter. And  so it goes, a wall of good intentions demolished by the randomness of life which  does  not discriminate between sinners and saints.

People who die from the effects of alcoholism are described as such:  “Albert was a very social person who enjoyed fishing and had a love for animals, especially dogs.”

Suicides are written:  “Shaun was too sensitive for this world. He will be remembered for his gentle spirit.  In lieu of donations, reach out to someone before they are swallowed  by darkness.” And I can see Shaun, someone’s much-loved son and beautiful brother, and if he was still here, he would tell you: no one asks to be a poet or a paper ballerina.

                     ***

Havard changed his phone number and his email. He ghosted me, and so I waited until I saw a Kijiji ad and I replied as dawna234@hotmail.com. The ad was for a 16 X 20 Saunders Omega darkroom easel and he was asking $120. I knew it was Havard because, even though he had changed his address, I had been there when he found the easel for $10.
He and dawna234 exchanged messaged, and I went to his house.

“What do you want?” he asked, knowing the answer.

“Ahhhh.” I thought about saying something.

I wanted to apologize, I wanted to make it right,  but he didn’t care because he wasn’t hurting anymore; I was. I wasn’t seeking comfort for him, I was seeking comfort for myself, and then—as he stood there holding his $10 easel and looking, for all the world, like  a bad idea— I decided, fuck it.

***

In Obituaries, I have found, in addition to  tributes, cruelty and pot shots. People use the submissions to settle scores—Abandoned by his mother, Darrell had a very hard life—or to rewrite a life story that should not have been rewritten, an offence most common among second or third wives in control of both the body and, for one day at least, the past.

Dean’s life began when he met his soul mate Barb and her son, Dwight. They enjoyed many wonderful hours at the Windsor Curling Club and at their retirement village in Florida where they made true  friends. He is also survived by his first wife and eight children.

Did you know that Kierkergard  and  Andersen are buried in the same cemetery, and that people can say whatever they want about you after you are dead? Someone wrote a play about Andersen and masturbation. Someone said he stalked Dickens, and that the little match girl  didn’t need to die, and the girl with the red shoes didn’t need to lose her feet. And who, I might ask, said that life was easy?
People can sit in a room with you every day and lie, people you adore. People who neglected to tell you that they were—while you were doing their laundry and editing their paper– apartment shopping.  Four days in a row.  Checking out leases and pricing futons.  After you saw them out of the door with, “Have a great day.  Love you.“ 

And you should not have been surprised when Jack ran away with Heide because she was so bright and so young that you knew that it was supposed to be, in the same way that the ugly duckling was supposed to turn into a swan. Heide was like a piece of fondant-covered wedding cake, butter-filled and divine, left on your plate after your third glass of wine, impossible, at that point, to resist.  And we had both been moving forward, hadn’t we, in our own strange way?

              ***

Kierkergard once asked:  “What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music.”

If you are manning the Gates of Heaven, you have already met Kierkergard and judged him,  but  here is what you need to know about me:  Havard didn’t “believe” in birthday presents; the strewn cameras were passive-aggressive weapons; and Havard’s  mother was a big, bossy woman who took up too much space.  Maggie (her real name was Magdalene, but she called herself Maggie to create the illusion of youthfulness and fun) was the type of woman who would show up at a sporting event with a lawn chair  and park herself in front of everyone,  arms folded, chin cocked like Donald Trump. Oh dear. There she is.

Have you ever driven to a wilderness park with a slender path through the woods—over rocks and tricky stumps—that leads to a glorious cliff overlooking the ocean, and there is, for that moment,  nothing but water and history and air, and your body is lifted by the negative ions, and you feel freedom. Maggie had the opposite effect. She was a one-woman atmospheric condition, killing your mood. And she hated me.

She hated the back tattoo I got when I was 20 during my first round of SSRIs.

And  the sleeve I got at 23,  terrified by visions too awful to share, so I won’t.
She hated the star on my right hand that I turned to each morning, seeking direction, when my life was a cacophony of bad decisions and fear.

And it is the fear that I most want to forget, the fear that comes  from being so ill that you hide knives under your pillow and you hurt yourself to feel better pain.

Havard’s mother hated the fact that I was damaged, even when I was better. She hated the scars that I had covered with ink, and every time I saw her, I could see the judgment in her eyes, and after a while I saw it in Havard’s eyes, too.

                                                 ***

The loveliest section of my thesis is this: the list of old names no longer in common usage. I spend hours inhabiting it, and sometimes I write longhand notes to people named Leander and Toss. I have 409 first names that I have classified as uncommon (Loman, Alricha, Minnie, Halden, Alton, Niva, Effie, Fayreen,  Obediah, Medford, Rufus) as well as 228 nicknames that speak to the character of the people and their birthplace. (Fluff, Buckaroo, So Long, Duckie.)   In some parts of the province, nicknames were not always  given lovingly, you know, and were used as a means of torment. No one, I suggest, asked to be called Pie Face MacNeil, Aluminum Leg Gable,  or Wiggie Hanrahan.

                           ***

Shaun was the son every mother wished for, the brother you would have chosen. He was the kindest sweetest boy who ever walked this Earth and we will miss him every single day.

                              ****

One day, I looked in my closet and realized that everything was black, the black of death, the black of despair, the black of cynics and nihilists with shriveled up souls. The black of people with dialed-down emotions and hearts that have, through suffering, been turned to mute.  When we were in Iceland we came upon a public chalk board and it said, Before I Die I Want to:  and someone wrote: live free, and someone wrote: make it, and someone wrote: meet David Hasselhoff, and I wrote nothing.

And so, last week, I went to a store and I turned the sound back on; I purchased a pair of slim turquoise pants, tight at the ankles, and so exuberant that they smiled when I tried them on.  They were the turquoise that you might find on a vintage car or a sari embroidered with gold or jewelry from Arizona.

“Nice,” said Veronika, who had, at one point, gone through an Emily Dickinson phase,  parting her hair in the middle and only wearing white. It was an act, though. She wasn’t too sensitive for the outside world, and she only wrote one poem, and it was dreadful.

I tell Veronika that I am thinking of  adopting a dog, and it will be happiest, most free  dog you have ever met, and I will let him do whatever he wants; I will take him swimming in the lake and throw him sticks, and when he comes home, he can lie in the middle of the floor where Havard’s cameras used to be and he can be full of mud for all I care.  He can  smell like moss and muck.  And I will buy him toys and I will buy myself a Ford truck and he can sit up front and stick his head out the window, and maybe I will name him Rufus or Buckaroo, and maybe we won’t even go to Denmark, and maybe we will be okay.

*

Elaine McCluskey writes short stories and novels. Her most recent book, The Most Heartless Town in Canada, is coming out in Spring 2016 from Anvil Press. She has published three short-story collections, and a debut novel, Going Fast. She has appeared in journals such as Room, The Dalhousie Review, subTerrain, The Antigonish Review, Fiddlehead, Other Voices, as well as anthologies, including the Journey Prize and the Fish Anthology in Ireland. She lives in Dartmouth, N.S.

www.elainemccluskey.ca

Photo credit:  Andrew Vaughan

Fiction #66: Adam Kelly Morton

The Sprawl

I may have killed someone when I visited you in Paris.

After I left your apartment, bags in hand, I wandered around the Place d’Italie in the October sun, looking for a cheap place to stay. There were so many people in the streets that it looked like the Thirteenth was being ransacked. The Rugby World Cup was happening, all the hotels were booked, and my flight back to Montreal wasn’t for another two days — the earliest I could get it bumped ahead for less than three hundred Euro.

Hôtel de l’Espérance had a room on the top floor. It was roasting, dusty, and the bed, fitted with a beige, stained corduroy cover, was pretty much all that was in there. I threw my bags down on it and walked down to the Avenue des Gobelins. I made my way over to the Marché Mouffetard, where you and I had sipped coffee and smoked on the terrace, or walked by as the Algerian vendors shouted at us, and sometimes we bought their cheap cheese or fruit — it was always good.

Two weeks earlier at de Gaulle you came to meet me, and we kissed, but missed each other’s lips. You giggled it off, and held my hand on the long train ride, past the Stade de France where the rugby matches were playing out. Your tiny apartment on the Impasse du Petit Modèle was crammed with red quilts, candles, scarves, your clothes, playbills and posters of Rimbaud stuck to the chintz wallpaper. But when you told me how much you paid, I said for half that price, we’d get a massive loft in Montreal when you moved back in December. You pursed a smile with those Parisian lips of yours, the upper bigger than the lower, pink, foremost in the only photograph I ever took of you: sitting across from me at the little café on Fairmount, your blonde tresses tumbling over pale shoulders, the summer sun bringing out your cheek freckles beneath steel-blue eyes, your eyelids folding lightly over the lashes — my Gallic lioness.

When we met for the first time, after my performance of The Montreal Massacre at the Players’ Theatre, you told me you were writing your own play about a man who kills women. We agreed to meet again, at Dieu du Ciel, to discuss our morbid passions, ending up back at my place on Laurier. Above all the boutiques and chichi shops was my squalid one-bedroom: cats and ashtrays, fridge empty but for maraschino cherries and a few beers. We couldn’t stop touching, kissing. We emptied into each other.

You were over all the time, because you were staying with a young family on Esplanade. We would shag away, while the cats meowed at us, then suck on Gauloises, order Thai, and drink Beaune, while we listened to Genesis and King Crimson—I couldn’t believe you loved Prog. And theatre. And poetry. And you were beautiful. I wrote a poem about it, and haven’t written one since.

In Paris, we sat on your floor mattress and watched movies on a portable TV: La règle du jeu, Gosford Park, Withnail & I, and your favorite, Peter’s Friends. They all had something in common, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Mostly, I did the watching; you had reading to do for your lecture at the Sorbonne on Les Illuminations.

When you weren’t at the university, we would meander along the left bank. You knew where all the little ruelles were — quiet cafés where we were even quieter. We went to the Louvre on the day it was closed. One night, I drank too much at your local, Connolly’s Corner, and told you I should have never come. The next morning I thought about apologizing, but decided to try and make up by making love — I ended up fucking you instead, and you fucked me right back.

Somehow, it worked. We held hands again along the Seine, to the Jardin Tino-Rossi, where they were dancing tango in the warm autumn evening. You knew how to tango. We watched the couples and the river lights for a while.

Suddenly, I took your hand, led you down, and danced you around as best I could. The bit of tango training I had done in theatre school was enough to get by, and you told me after — sweating as we made our way back to your place — that I was hallucinant.

The following afternoon, we went for dinner at your parents’ in Ivry-Sur-Seine. The house had three floors, and there were three gold cars in the driveway. Your mother greeted us with two-cheek kisses and champagne before giving us the tour of the place. She was probably once quite attractive, but countless cigarettes and dye-jobs had claimed her beauty. She and your father had separate bedrooms, which you said was quite normal in France.

At dinner in your backyard court, your father frowned at me through his browline glasses when I cut away and ate the center part of the Pont L’Evèque. You told me it was the viande and that it was okay — though you frowned at me too. By dessert, your mother was flirting with me, while your father talked about mice in his garden. You explained to him that we had raccoons in Montreal; he was incredulous.

When he drove us back in his Benz, I sat in the back. It was raining, and the two of you were talking, so I watched his single windshield wiper work at unblurring the lights of oncoming cars. He started shouting about the traffic, and l’étalement, or something. You pursed your lips.

Back at your place, you told me that you had no future in Quebec, and that Paris was where you needed to be.

I was already half-cut, so I figured I’d finish the job elsewhere. I left, and worked my way from Connolly’s, to The Fifth, to a place whose name I can’t remember. Soaked, I made it back to yours. You helped me out of my clothes, and let me take the floor mattress, which I wet during the night.
You weren’t mad the next day, but I wanted you to be. I told you I couldn’t stay. You sobbed quietly. We didn’t kiss goodbye.

Not far from L’Espérance, there was a laundromat. I washed my pissed clothes, read a newspaper, and smoked. England was playing France the next day at the Stade. I brought my clothes back to the hotel then walked around some more. You never spent any time on the right bank, so I took the métro up to Montmartre. I wondered if maybe I would meet someone or hire a prostitute, but I didn’t have any condoms. I wasn’t sure if I would find a pharmacy up there, but they were everywhere — their green crosses lighting up the night. After sitting on a noisy, packed terrace for a few hours drinking Duvels, I got tired and went back. On my way, I walked past a statue of Rimbaud in his drunken boat.
The next morning, I called to tell you where I was staying. Your answering machine picked up, so I talked to it. Then I called my folks and told them I was coming home early. My stepfather told me to enjoy Paris and come home on my original date, but I had already changed the ticket.

Still, I figured I’d do my best, so that evening I treated myself to a bavette and a half-bottle of Bordeaux on the Mouffetard. Connelly’s wasn’t too busy, so I had a few Guinness, then played darts with a couple of old Frenchmen. I played really well because I always do when I’m down. They asked what was troubling me, and I told them about you. They said oh la la la la la la, that I should have known that you would never come back to Quebec, and when I asked them why, they said because you’re Parisienne.

I got drunk with them, mostly talking about how the Canadian dollar was now worth more than the American, and how the French had lost that day, but had beaten les Blacks in the quarter-finals.
There was another bar after that, somewhere nearby. I got kicked out. Then I met some people — a couple of guys and a girl. We drank wine by a fountain, and walked around for a while. I might have killed one of them, and then took a taxi back to the hotel.

There was no blood on me, so it probably never happened — just a vaguery from too many binges and blackouts — but sometimes, I imagine it had.

Like us.

You came to my room in the morning. We said goodbye with our bodies. You had set out to do me, clutching me tightly before I went down into the métro.

At de Gaulle, there was a mass of beefy, drunken men at customs, celebrating the English victory.
I drank all the way home on the plane, but there was no escaping it.

You were all over me.

*

Adam Kelly Morton is a Montreal-based teacher, filmmaker, writer, husband, and father of two. He has been published in Transition Magazine, Mulberry Fork Review, Urban Graffiti, Menda City Review, and (Cult)ure Magazine. He is a professor of acting at Dawson College in Montreal, and has been sober for eight years.