“Peat, I said I’d do it for you! Both my grandfathers were barbers, you know.”
I move toward him, raise my hand to riffle what’s left of his hair. He flinches away.
“I know,” he says. “I just wanted it done. Anyhow, who does who think they’re kidding?”
“What?” I say, thrown off by the haircut, his distance, the whole shooting match. “Oh. Dug. In the paper. With Tanisha whatsit. God, I’m sick of him.”
“Oh, he’s alright,” Pete says absently. “You should get over him, already.”
“Wow,” I say, slowly. “Are you ok? Because that was a not very cool thing to say to me, you know?”
Pete moves toward the counter, takes down a coffee cup, pours himself some. “Matter of fact, Stellah, I am not ok. Funny you should ask. My mother died yesterday. And all you care about is some guy who never loved you in the first place. That and my hair. That’s all you care about.” Steam pours out the top of mug as he gulps it down. I stare at him, imagining the coffee burning the soft insides of his throat as it courses into him, struggling to understand the nonsense he’s speaking.
His eyes flicker my way for a half-second, over the top of his cup. “I gotta go,” he mutters. He put the cup down solidly in the sink.
“Where,” I say hoarsely. “I want to come with you.”
“No,” he says, “you don’t.” He grabs his jacket from the back of the chair and bangs out the door. I get down on the floor with the scissors and cut Dug and Tanisha to ribbons.
I sleep, a little, but I don’t dream. The phone calls continue, a few each day, maybe, some days none, some days a lot. I have, by now, simply accepted them as part of the fabric of my crummy life. I cannot be bothered to wash my hair as frequently as perhaps I should, and so Fatty and I roam around the apartment with our matching dreadlocks and terrible outlook.
I find out from reading the newspaper that there will be no funeral. Just a private memorial service. I send flowers and a note. Peat doesn’t call.
Spadina is absurdly dirty. It is the last filthy dreg days of winter, and the snow banks appear to be man-made. Even the days when the temperature gets and stays above freezing, they just won’t melt. They could be made of muddy styrofoam, like a low budget movie set for some post-apocalyptic tale. The bedroom window is streaky, impossible to see through. I cannot see out, and I feel like no one can see in. So washing my hair, in addition to being an annoyance, would be a ridiculous waste of time, to boot. I twist my new dreads up in a bun and put a tuque on it. It will do.
I fear I am becoming feral. No Peat to talk with. Mona and I are drifting apart. Mickey is in Bermuda, visiting his aged mother and stocking up on rum. The closest I get to communication is the phone calls, the ceaseless no-one-there phone calls.
And I just can’t face another one of those. Add it to the list of things I can’t face, alongside the shower, the Harlequin and the coffee maker. I don’t particularly want to go outside, but I don’t particularly want to stay in, either. And if the day is to be salvaged at all, it will require at least one coffee. And so there isn’t much choice.
At Doughnuts of the World, Brendan asks how Peat is. I gaze at him for longer than I should in silence, uncertain how much to say.
“Stellah?” Brendan says. He snaps his fingers in front of my face. “You in there?”
“Huh? Yeah. Sorry. Peat, um, I think he’s ok.” I pull my tuque down to my eyebrows, wriggle it around, push it back across my forehead. I look Brendan in the eye. “Ok, you know what? I have no idea. I don’t know how he is, I don’t know where he is, I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about anything, If I should be trying to find him, or just letting him be, you know?”
Brendan pours a coffee, sets it in front of me. “Dude, sit,” he says. “I heard his mom died.”
“Yeah,” I say. I pull a cigarette from my pack and light it.
“I heard he cut all his hair off.”I wince, blow out smoke. “Yeah,” I say. The coffee is good and hot and black and bitter. “Well, not all of it.” I swallow. “A lot of it, though, yeah. Yeah.” I tap the cigarette against the side of the ashtray, though it does not need tapping yet.
“I heard he kind of freaked out,” Brendan says, leaning on the counter.
“Yeah, well, I don’t know too much about that. I mean, his mom died, you know?” I pull on the cigarette.
Brendan peels back the top of a creamer, raises it to his lips, tips his head back and drinks,. He wipes his lips with his fingertips. “I heard he split town.”
“You sure hear a lot of stuff,” I say, draining my coffee. I stab the butt out in the ashtray, and wave my hand through the smoke that lingers. I am starting to think that staying inside and risking going feral would be worth it. Outside is proving to be kind of a bust, it turns out. Brendan is making me super twitchy with the rumour report, and anyhow, the longer I stay outside my apartment the more I risk running into Dug, and that’s just not on. I just can’t. I dig in my pocket for change, slide it across the counter to Brendan.
“If you’re talking to him, Stellah, tell him I said hey,” Brendan says.
I pull my tuque a little further down on my forehead. It has become oppressive, and yet I cannot be without it. “Yeah, you too,” I say, and then I get the hell out of there.
I hustle back home along the muddy, slushy Kensington Market streets, head down, hands jammed in pockets, going as fast as I can, just to get home. So when I bang into Mona, I really bang into her. The impact throws each of us back a step or two.
“Oh,” I say.
“Hey,” she says.
“Haven’t seen you in a while.” She’s trying to catch my eye, but I’m not fit for being looked at so closely, what with my dready hair and my feral nature.
“Yep. I’ve been, ah, busy.” I say, eyes darting wildly. Mona gets it. “Uh huh,” she says.
“Ok. Well, see you around.”
“Yeah, see you,” I say, and I scurry away from her as fast as I can through the slush. I need only to make it home without seeing anyone else I know. I don’t care if I’m an asshole. It’s nothing new, sadly.
I can hear the phone ringing as I bolt up the stairs to the relative safety of the apartment. If it’s going to be Peat, I want to answer it. If it’s going to be anybody else—or nobody—I want to throw it out the window. It rings and rings as I jiggle my key in the lock. I imagine Fatty, nonplussed, sitting in the hallway in that disturbingly human way she has, as if she has a cocktail in one hand and a smoke in the other and has partied perhaps only slightly too hardy, and now her skirt is somewhat askew and she risks embarrassing herself, and someone really needs to take her home, but no one is willing to step up to the plate and be the killjoy, you know? Or maybe that’s all just me.
I get in, finally and tear the oppressive tuque off my matted hair. Fatty is asleep on the kitchen table. The phone stops ringing a beat before I pick it up. There is, not surprisingly, no one there. I look around wildly for things to kick. But I am not angry enough to kick something that will potentially hurt me back, like the table or the chairs. And I am a jerk, but not the kind that kicks cats. And even angry I can see that kicking the assortment of my shoes and boots inside the doorway would be wildly unsatisfying. I screw up my fists instead, throw my head back and shout, “I am so tired of this fucking BULLSHIT.” And then, inspired, I kick the wall above the assortment of shoes and boots. Which makes the mirror hung a little higher up jump off the wall and crash to the floor. It shatters to smithereens. “FANTASTIC,” I shout. Fatty shoots me a disgusted look as she hurries from the room. “Seven more years bad luck. Just what I need.”
I tear my tuque from my sweaty, dready head and whip it unsatisfyingly across the kitchen. It lands on the goddamn coffee maker. I ball my hands into fists and, damage done, kick the wall a time or two more, just for good measure. I am winding up for a third kick, when a clattering knock comes at the door. “Who is it,” I growl. I jam my eye to the peephole.
“Stellah,” I hear the familiarly sibilant tones of my neighbour. “You alright in there?” The sight of him drains me of my anger. I look around at the shards on the ground, my hat on the coffee maker, boots and shoes everywhere and feel ridiculous. I lean my hot head against the cool steel of the security door. Defeated and absurd. “Yeah, Mickey, I’m alright.”
“Put some lipstick on and come over for a drink then, dear. I’ll tell you all about my trip.” I open the door.
“A drink? Mickey, it’s still the morning.”
“Oh, well,” he says, waving his long, slender fingertips before his face like a magician. “I’m still on Bermuda time.”
“Bermuda time. Aren’t they, like, a mere hour ahead of us?” Mickey smiles patiently.
“Are you coming for a drink or not, dear?” He looks past me, to the dissarray in my kitchen. “Sure looks like you could use one.” I turn my head to follow his gaze. God, who lives here? Who does these things? Is this what I’ve become? Mickey’s right. I could absolutely use a drink. And a housekeeper. And perhaps a life coach. My dreads are starting to itch. I reach up to scratch them. “Come on over,” Mickey says, “but for god’s sake, put a hat on first.” He turns and glides back into his apartment.
I sweep up the shards of mirror as best I can, and think again how handy it is that I wear combat boots every day. Otherwise, I’d have to worry about picking glass out of my shoes for weeks to come. I don’t know why I have all these shoes, even. Half of them were left here by roommates and houseguests long past. I make a little pile of shoes to give away, shaking out the obvious pieces of glass first. I don’t want to keep Mickey waiting, though the longer I delay my appearance, the more time it gives him to whip up some chocolate ganache layer cake or artichoke frittata or whatever else is on his mind to make. Lipstick isn’t going to happen, but I make an effort in the bathroom, ‘washing my face and brushing my teeth. I think about trying to separate my hair, but I think that’s going ‘to be something of a bigger job. I find a wide black elastic headband and pull it on. That’ll at least keep them in one place.
At Mickey’s house, the drinks are poured, the peach upside down cake is cut and Mickey is all ears. “Now, Stellah, what’s going on with you. Tell Auntie Mickey all about it.”
I take a deep swallow of rum and immediately feel my face burn. I can’t imagine where to start. I look at him helplessly.
“That nice Peater Moss,” he says. “Where is he these days?” And then I’m off and running. I admit to not knowing where Peat is, and to how very strange that feels to me. I tell him about us getting together, and then about Peat’s mother, and the haircut and what Peat said about Dug and how he pushed me away. I tell him about Mona, and how she started to drift away when Peat and I started hanging out. I tell him about the ceaseless ceaselessness of the phone calls. I even tell him about the Harlequin, how impossible it is to write a happy love story and keep the characters from dark sarcastic thoughts. “I can’t do it,” I say. “I just can’t do it.”
“The Harlequin?” says Mickey. ‘So what?”
“Not the Harlequin,” I say, dropping my head to my hands. “Or, at least, not just the Harlequin. All of it. None of it. I just can’t do it anymore.” Mickey cuts us each another slice of peach upside down cake.
“So don’t.” I look up, startled.
“Don’t,” he repeats. “You don’t have to write a Harlequin. You don’t have to run after Peat or explain yourself to Mona or ever look at Dug again—although, as I understand it, he’s quite a looker.”
I nod, in spite of myself. “You don’t owe anyone anything. Except yourself. And you need to figure out just what it is that you owe yourself. Me,” he says, picking up his fork, “I owe myself another piece of this cake. I had a very trying time in Bermuda. My mother is not well, and my sister is a bitch.”
“I’m sorry, Mickey,” I say, picking up my fork too. “I didn’t even ask you about your trip.”
That’s OK,” he says, “you don’t owe me anything either.”
“Common human decency,” I say, stabbing the cake.
“Well,” he allows, “there’s that. OK, my trip. It was, in a word, hellish.” And we’re off, into the tangled tale of Mickey’s many distaff relations and their complicated personal lives.
“And so my sister,” he says, as the story nears end, “is decking herself out in my mother’s jewels, and I tell you, Stellah, my mother is not well at the moment, but she is srong, and she’s going to live, oh, god, another decade at least. And here’s this bitch, while the body’s still alive and kicking, already pawing through the estate? Well, I went up one side of her and down the other. The nerve of that girl. Then again, she always was nervy. Anyhow, finally, I hired a local woman, just to keep an eye on things. My sister is greedy, but she’s not smart. So I don’t think she’ll pull anything. But I don’t want her there making my mother’s last years a horror with no one to even cluck a tongue at her.” He exhales, sits back, clinks the ice cubes in his glass. “Another drink, my love?”
I squint at him through one eye. His life is much messier than mine, and yet, he handles it with such aplomb. And manages to bake a peach upside down cake within hours of returning from a whole other country. Meanwhile, I can barely be bothered to shake broken glass out of shoes I’m planning to give to charity. Common human decency, for god’s sake.
“No, no thanks, Mickey. I think I’d better go. I feel a lot better.”
Mickey smiles. “Me too, Stellah. Me too.”
I have five garbage bags of stuff to give away. Clothes, shoes, random kitchen items and knick knacks. I don’t know who you give this stuff to, but I am determined to get it out of my house. It’s not needed here anymore. I wear the same overalls and jeans and thermal shirts over and over anyhow. Whatever life I thought I was going to lead when I bought half the shit that’s in my closet is clearly being lived by someone else. No reason for me to keep holding on to this crap.
I am sweatier and dirtier than ever, so with the bags all lined up by the front door, I run water for a shower. I make it as hot as I can stand it. When the bathroom fills with steam, I get beneath the stream, and feel it trying to part my hair. I lather it up and rinse, lather it up and rinse. The worst of the knots seem to be coming out. I condition it and wait, my head just outside the shower stream. The phone rings. There is no way I am getting out of this heavenly shower to answer the fucking phone. It can ring all it likes. I let the water race through my hair, rinsing away the conditioner till I can almost run my hands through the mop without breaking a finger. Close enough. I even shave my legs in the hopes that I’ll feel more human afterward. It comes close to working.
I slide into clean jeans and a fresh thermal shirt and twist my hair into a ponytail. I am ready for anything. I just don’t know quite what that will be.
I drop into the kitchen easy chair, put my clean feet on the dingy wall and look out the window till I figure it out.
*******I make little forays outside for supplies and fresh air. Not that the air in Kensington Market is all that fresh, but at least it doesn’t all smell like broccoli in black bean sauce. There seems to be a run on that stuff at the restaurant downstairs, and everything I own is starting to reek of garlic and ginger. I fit right in with the dirty hippies in my neighbourhood.
I keep my head down, outside. I don’t like knowing what comes next, and I just can’t brook small talk when I feel like this. I can’t stand the thought of groping for an answer to everyone’s classic opening salvo. So, what have you been up to lately? How can I answer that honestly and not drag them down where I am?
Because the truth is, I have been up to shockingly little.
I started reading Looking for Mr. Goodbar the other day, and I finally had to stop. Actually, I cast the book aside in disgust. It sounds a little dramatic, sure, but it’s true. It’s an endlessly depressing book, and I can’t decide what’s more upsetting—that the protagonist has so much meaningless, damaging sex with so many strangers, or that the sociopolitics of the time demanded that she end up murdered for her wanton ways. At least, I imagine she ends up murdered. The story thoughtfully includes a prologue complete with meaningless-sex and murder scene so that if you become horrified and depressed midway through the book, you can be relieved of finishing it but still have the satisfaction of knowing that Theresa dies for her sins.
Either way, I chucked the thing across the room and tried to go about my business—which admittedly isn’t much these days. Ever since his mother died, ever since Peat up and left, I’ve been mooning around. I never thought of myself as much of a mooner.
There was a time I longed to be tragic and Opheliaesque, but that time has passed. I grew up and stopped wearing dresses and admitted that I am allergic to pollen, making prolonged, Opheliaesque exposure to flowers uncomfortable at best. I am much more straightforward, determinedly no-nonsense now. Or, I was, till Peat packed it in.
Instead of working on my Harlequin, which seems even more like a sick joke now than it ever did, I spend my days coiled in my kitchen easy chair, leaving dirty smudges on the wall where my bare—or, I admit it, sometimes shod—feet rest, paging through magazines and devising recipes. I read every advice column I can get my hands on. I do not limit myself to love Q&As. No, I read everything; I’m looking for answers to everything. I read about smart investments and car care. About dealing with roommates I don’t have. About eyeshadow application and hairdrying methods. I read much and absorb almost nothing. After the first few times, when the phone rings, I let the machine pick it up. I come to understand it won’t be Peat, Peat won’t be calling me. And most of the time it’s no one calling. Telemarketers or wrong numbers or that caller who says nothing and just hangs up. When the sun goes down, I make elaborate meals for one, seafood risottos and gourmet grilled cheeses with gruyere and roasted red peppers and pesto, cream of wild mushroom soup from scratch and pad Thai with chicken and shrimp and egg and tofu. I eat standing up or slumped in my chair, balancing bowl or plate on my breasts. I figure I might as well use them for something. When she can rouse herself to notice me, Fatty shoots sad and poignant looks my way from across the room. She approaches now and then to headbutt me, and I might absently scratch between her ears, but she knows my heart’s not in it.
Ah yes, my heart. About that. To say it has been broken would be to greatly understate the case. It has not been merely broken; it has been splintered, shattered, divided, disassembled, devoured by despair, made defunct, disabled and disappointed. It has been sliced, diced and fricasseed. It has been abandoned, not only by Peat, but also by me. I cannot be bothered with it any longer. I cannot make time any more for an organ that has done nothing but distress and discomfit me. Beyond disowning my heart, there doesn’t seem to be much I can do for myself—and there’s even less others can do for me. Mona makes a brave effort at first, dragging me out for coffee and to flea markets and for trips down to the lake to stare across its icy expanse, but I have become even more cynical and less fun than I used to be, and I guess she finally got tired of listening to me berate her for taking an interest in me, because not long ago, she stopped doing so. I have no one to blame for this but myself. It is my least favourite set of circumstances.
And, of course, because I made the ill-advised decision to fall in love with my best friend, I currently find myself without his support in this difficult time. Isn’t that just like me, to go and do something like that? And so, without Mona and without Peat, I am forced to resort to the only thing that gives me any relief these days: list making. And herewith, Some Things About Falling in Love With Your Best Friend:
It is easy and convenient, most times, to fall in love with your best friend. They are—OK, he is, if you want to get specific—always around. You know for sure if he is available in a romantic way. You also know you two can choose a movie at the video store without starting world war three or having to break up. You talk to each other every day anyhow, so there are no stupid hang-ups about phone dating etiquette. You can say outrageous things to him without him thinking you’re a slut, and he can tease you without you bursting into tears, even if it is that time of the month. Everybody thinks you’re dating anyway because you’re always together.
You worry that it might not be very exciting, since you already know everything there is to know about each other. But you have underestimated how exciting it is to kiss somebody you always considered off limits, just a friend before. It can be unnerving and strange, certainly, but that’s part of the excitement. Besides, you only think you know everything there is to know about each other.
One thing you do already know about him is his bullshit. And he knows about yours. This gives you no end of comfort. You often count yourself lucky not to have to act like some kind of dating supersleuth psychoanalyst. It is a relief.
He doesn’t care for pizza crusts; you like them almost more than you like the rest of the slice. It all works out like that.
Because he has been part of your life for way longer than all the other boyfriends you’ve had put together, it hurts like anything when he’s not around. When he takes off suddenly without saying where he’s going or for how long, it leaves a giant Peat-shaped hole in your heart. You breathe differently when he disappears. Less willingly. Less fluidly. It’s not so much that you worry about him, about where he is and how he is; you’re not lucid enough to even do that. It’s just that you’re different, you’re less, somehow, without him.
A knock on the door interrupts my list making. I consider not answering it; I don’t think I could stand an afternoon visit with Mickey, and I can think of no one else it might be. Still, I creep quietly to the door and peer out the peephole, holding my breath in case I don’t like what I see.
It’s Mona. I open the door.
“Can I come in?” she asks.
“I guess so,” I tell her. “Can’t think why you’d want to.”
“Yeah,” she says, “me neither. But here I am, so I might as well.” I swing the door a little wider and step back into the kitchen. She follows.
“Do you want some coffee,” I ask her. She nods and sits down at the kitchen table. “Sure, thanks,” she says.
I put the coffee on and then settle myself again in my armchair.
“I’m surprised to see you,” I tell her.
“Not as surprised as I am that I’m here,” she says. “But there’s something I have to tell you, and since you don’t answer the phone or return calls, I thought I’d better come do it in person.”
“Yeah, well, there’s no percentage in answering the phone these days,” I say.
“Whatever,” she says. “For me there is. I heard from Peat.”
“You did,” I say. “What the hell’s he doing calling you instead of me?”
“He tried,” she tells me, “but he kept getting your machine and he wanted to talk to you, not just leave you a message.”
The coffee maker sputters its last. I draw two mugs from the cupboard, splash coffee into them. I need a minute to think. I’m mad at Mona and madder at Peat, and though I can’t remember why at the moment, I know the fury is important. Vital. I take one of the mugs and the sugar bowl over to Mona, leaving the other one on the counter. I go into the bathroom and begin brushing my teeth.
“Where is he?” I growl over the running water. Mona stirs sugar into her coffee. Round and round the spoon goes, clanking against the side of the mug.
By the time she answers I’m done with my teeth.
I am obsessively checking and rechecking my suitcase when Mona appears with two coffees in paper cups. I fiddle with the outer compartment of it, unzipping it, rooting around inside for god knows what, while she patiently holds the cups. Finally, she snaps.
“Stellah! Leave it!” As if I am a bad puppy. I pull my hand away from the zipper as if it is on fire.
“Sorry, can’t help it.” I pat the zipper as if to smooth it. “So nervous.” I shake my head. “Gah.” I barely make sense to myself. Union Station is busy with commuters, they flow through the station and around Mona and me, past the bagel place and the dollar store and out into the balmy air of a mushy Toronto spring day. I don’t want to leave, somehow, just when it’s finally getting good, but I know I must.
“Take this,” she says, thrusting the coffee toward me. “It’s burning my hand.”
“Sorry,” I say. I reach for the coffee, feel its heat smoothing out the skin on my palm, so hot it feels like it’s erasing my fingerprints. Mona and I have fallen back into our comfortable way. I have admitted to being a jerk, and she has conditionally forgiven me. It’s not perfect, but it is what I have.
I also have a one-way ticket to Halifax. Peat is there. And in twenty-nine hours, I will be there, too. And I’m not sure what will come of it, what I’m hoping will come of it, what should come of it. I have the ticket, and I have two books by Jane Austen, and I have a Peat-shaped hole in my heart that has barely started to grow over. I am going where I’ve never gone before.
I sip the coffee. It scalds on the way down, the way it should. It tastes like nothing but hot. It tastes like penance.
“Are you sure you don’t mind living with Fatty for a while?”
Mona smiles and rolls her big eyes. “Fatty. Yeah. Well. We’ll be alright.”
“And there’s always Mickey,” I say. “He can help out. He once killed a massive cockroach for me, with his jeweled bedroom slipper.”
“Well,” Mona says, blowing on her coffe. A creamy surf forms, pushes its way out the hole in the lid. She slurps it off. “We’ll be alright,” she says again. “What about you, twenty-nine hours on the train.”
“Northanger Abbey will see me through,” I say, patting the Jane Austen in my pocket. “And I’ll sleep. I love to sleep on trains.”
“And Peat will be there at the other end?”
I look longingly at the zipper on my suitcase. I am sure there is something I have forgotten. I move toward it, but Mona says my name again.
“Sorry,” I say. “I’m kind of freaking out.”
“I know,” she says, kindly. “You’ll be ok, though. It’s Peat. It’s fine. You’re fine.”
“I guess so,” I say. The big clock in the centre of the station chimes. “I’d better go check this beast in,” I say, gesturing to the suitcase.
On the train, I look out the window. The countryside goes by in a blur of brownish grey. Spring is slow, so slow this year. In Kingston, it hasn’t even started to come at all. Cornwall. Same story. In Montreal the train stops and I get out. I have seven hours. I wander the city, speaking pidgin French and gesturing at things I want. People give me disgusted looks and speak English. I pretend I don’t. The Jane Austen, still in my pocket, notwithstanding.
I buy a paper bag of warm bagels to take to Peat in Halifax, and his father, with whom he’s staying. I have endless curiousity about this man, a father to Peat, so far as I know, in name only. Peat barely remembered him, hadn’t seen him since, I don’t know, the early 70s. He rarely talked about him.
I sit in a café and toy with an espresso. I should have ordered a latte, I think. Espresso is gone so quickly. Hence, I guess, the name.
I put a tiny sugar cube on the bowl of the tiny spoon I’ve been given, and barely submerge it in the coffee. The coffee seeps in, infiltrating every cranny of the cube. I won’t let the whole thing melt into the drink. But a little sugar will go a long way, I think, toward sweetening me up. I page idly through a People magazine, a guilty pleasure I can only imagine allowing myself in a town where I know no one.
The little bell jingles on the café door, and a rush of cold air comes in. Spring has not yet found this place, either. I look up at the blast of the outdoors, and pull my scarf around my neck. Oh for chrissakes, I think. Before I can even finish rolling my eyes, he oozes up to my table.
“Stellah!” He opens his hands toward me, as if I will place mine in his in some grotesque mockery of old world courtship. But that ain’t happening. “What on earth are you doing here?”
He’s wearing little glasses, though he didn’t need them last time I checked. His hair is long again, and pulled into a ponytail, a look of which I am beginning to weary. He wears a wool overcoat and a long stripey scarf. His glasses are fogging up. He takes them off, and there are his eyes, as piercing as they ever were, and I can’t believe I have come all this way, only to run into goddamn Dug.
“Fucksakes,” I say.
“And hello to you,” he returns, rubbing his glasses on the end of his scarf. He puts them back on his nose, where they start to fog up again. Heedless, he starts to pull a chair over to my table. The sound of its iron feet dragging across the café floor sets my teeth on edge. It only seems appropriate, given who’s doing the dragging.
“I’m not here for very long,” I say peremptorily. “I’m just passing through, on the train. In fact, I have to go, it’s boarding any minute.”
Dug looks at his watch, an obnoxious one, on a fob, of all things, which he pulls from his pocket. “No it isn’t,” he says. “Where are you headed, Toronto?”
“No,” I say. I pull the sugar cube out of my espresso. The last thing I need right this second is to be feeling sweet. I bolt the coffee. “The other way.”
“Even still,” Dug says. He waves his hand in the air commandingly, summoning the girl from behind the counter. “That train doesn’t leave for another three hours.”
“Goddamn it,” I say, under my breath.
“What’s that?” he asks, still beckoning to the girl. She has asymetrical hair, it hangs in her eyes. And a pierced lip. She’s reading a graphic novel at the counter, and scratching her scalp. There’s no way she’s coming tableside.
“It’s counter service,” I say. I sigh. There is no way around this. I am having coffee with Dug.
You have to actually go up there.”
Dug bends his raised arm and scratches his ear casually. “You want anything?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “No, I’m fine.” It is only the latest lie I’ve told, but there’s nothing I want that they’re likely to have behind the counter in this espresso joint. And there’s nothing I want that I’d tell Dug about anyhow. So really, how much a lie is it? I slide the People magazine into my bag and smile weakly as Dug unfolds himself from his chair and lopes toward the counter.
In the bathroom, I splash cold water on my face. I feel grubby and unloveable, not that I’m looking for anything in this situation, I really am not. But Dug gets me every time, whether he means to or not, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I sort of can’t stand him, and yet here I am in this crummy Montreal café bathroom, fixing my hair and washing my face. I dig around in my pockets and come up with a chapstick. It is the best I can do for cosmetics. If Mickey were here, he’d cluck his tongue at me, and then he’d pull out some fabulous and embarrassing red lipstick. So it’s probably a good thing that Mickey’s not here, because I am not interested in having Dug think that I made any kind of effort for him. I rub the chapstick over my lips and pucker them at myself in the mirror. Goddamn Dug. He makes everything so murky. I scowl at the mirror, pull myself together and head back out to face my fate.
Back at the table, Dug has worked his usual charm, even on such an unwilling recipient as Lip Ring. He’s sprawled in the little café chair, all arms and legs and eyes. He raises his latte to the girl behind the counter, and she blushes and twirls one of her asymmetrical strands. I roll my eyes. I can’t believe I put on chapstick for this guy.
“Made a new friend while I was gone, I see,” I say, dropping back into my seat. I wish I knew what I wanted out of this encounter. I think I will be happy just to get through it and come out the other side relatively unscathed.
“Oh, Madeleine?” Dug says casually, as if they go way back. “Yeah, she’s a great gal. Anyhow, Halifax. What’s in Halifax?”
The question takes me off guard. It’s so direct. “Um,” I say. “Well,” I say. “As a matter of fact, Peat is.”
“That so?” Dug says. He’s barely listening, I can tell. “You going for long?”
That really is the question, isn’t it. “I don’t know,” I say honestly. “I haven’t really figured that one out yet. It will kind of depend.”
“Huh,” Dug says. He doesn’t ask the obvious follow-up question. I leave it. I toy with my espresso cup.
“How about you,” I ask. “What are you doing in Montreal?”
“Tanisha moved here a couple weeks ago. I’m just helping her get settled.”
I nod. Tanisha. Of course.
“And my band is here now, too, so I’ve been spending a lot of time in this town, actually.”
“Your band,” I say. “I don’t think I knew you had a band.”
“Oh yeah,” Dug says archly, as if everyone knows he has a band. “We’ve been playing together for ages.”
“You don’t say,” I say. “I must have missed that one. What instrument do you play?” I rub my lips fiercely with the back of my hand. Chapstick, for this asshole. What is wrong with me?
c“I do a little singing,” he says. “I write most of the songs, of course.”
“Of course,” I agree. If Dug and I were in a Harlequin, this would be a prelude to the hottest love affair of our lives. This would be a funny story we’d tell our grandkids, about how long it took us to get together and stay together and be in love forever and ever. This is the trope, after all. Girl meets boy. Girl loathes boy. Girl has ill-considered relations with boy before coming to her senses. Girl runs into boy absolutely fucking everywhere, and sparks fly. Eventually, girl and boy realise they don’t hate each other—they love each other. Cue the hot love scene, cue the wedding bells, cue the end of another million-selling paper back.
But Dug and I are not in a Harlequin. Dug and I are in a café in Montreal, at the sloppy butt-end of winter, with nothing in common but the table we’re sitting at, barely tolerating each other, for real. And anyhow, that whole Harlequin thing hasn’t exactly been panning out for me on paper, either, has it? I can’t get Len and Charlotte to stop being sarcastic and ironic and just fall for each other already. Maybe I should be paying attention to the way life and art are not merely imitating each other, here, they’re blatantly ripping each other off.
In my perfect imagination, Dug is not an asshole. He is cool and creative and kind and friendly and not an asshole. This café, though, is not my perfect imagination. In this café, Dug is what perhaps he’s always been. Insufferable. Self-obsessed. An asshole. And suddenly, I don’t find it so appealing anymore. He is what he is now, not what he could someday be.
I push back my chair and its legs make a sound on the floor like nails on a chalkboard. I stand up, put my bag over my shoulder, and I don’t even care that Dug can plainly see the People magazine poking out of it.
“I gotta go,” I say.
He pulls out his stupid watch on a fob. “You still have two hours,” he says, “relax.”
“No, I don’t think so,” I say. “I gotta go now. Good luck with your singing,” I say. I turn away from the table, feeling like I’ve just said goodbye to my only friend, which is so ridiculous, because Dug and I have been a lot of things, but friends? No. Never. Which makes the lump in my throat and the water in my eyes all the more confusing.
“Stellah, wait,” Dug says, urgently. Something in his voice makes me pause. I don’t want to show him my face, I do not want him to see me cry. He hasn’t earned it, and anyhow, I’m not sure it’s him I’m crying over.
“What,” I say, without turning around. My heart is fluttering like the last leaf on a tree in late November, waiting to get swept away.
“I need you,” Dug says. “Um, I need you to do something for me.”
“What,” I say again. My voice can’t be trusted with more words than that.
“Can you tell Peat he owes me ten bucks? And I really need it back. Maybe he could give it to you when you see him and you could let me know when you get home, and I can pick it up from you.”
I shake my head slowly, take a deep breath. I dig around in my pocket, then turn back to face him. “Here,” I say, dropping a crumpled ten on the table. “Take this. Especially if it means I don’t have to call you when I get back, or ever make plans to see you again. That’s worth at least ten bucks to me.”
And then I turn again and move towards the door. Dug says my name one more time, but I don’t stop. I push through the door and out into the brisk Montreal afternoon and I am free, freer than I’ve been in some time. And I laugh, and the sharp air fills my lungs. I laugh till I cough and then I laugh a little more. Passersby stare a little, but I don’t care at all.
Best ten bucks I ever spent,” I tell a woman in a full-length fur coat. Her little dog is wearing a pink angora sweater and pink rubber boots. The woman twists her mouth at me and pulls on her little dog’s jewel-encrusted leash. “Les meilleurs dix pieces que je jamais depensé,” I repeat in French, just in case. She clucks her tongue at me and hurries past, but I don’t care. I practically dance to the metro to make my way back to the train station. I try to get into the Jane Austen on the train, but there’s something about the relentless rhythm of the ride that takes my attention and puts it to sleep. I sleep from Montreal to Riviere-du-Loup, and then again from Rimouski to Campbellton. In Miramichi, it’s almost morning, so I get off the train and stretch my legs for a minute. The air is cold and damp, and snow falls from the sky silently and steadily. The sky is a velvety violet, and the train station lights make hazy halos against it. I jam my hands down into my pockets and huff out a lungful of air. I wish I could see into the future. Not all the way in—I’d still like to be surprised by my life. But I wish I could see even a few days’ worth of future, just to know how this trip will go, if it will end in tears or otherwise.
The train chimes. “All aboard,” I say to no one on the pre-dawn platform. And then I climb back up the steps and find my seat again. I sleep through Moncton, and wake up just outside of Amherst. The landscape is like none I’ve ever seen before. Red mudflats go on forever, a ruddy open mouth on an otherwise pale and snowy face.
In the dining car, I order fishcakes and beans, because it seems like the right thing to do. I have never in my life had such a thing as a fishcake, nor a baked bean that wasn’t from a can. The elderly waiter brings me a small silver pot of coffee, and as I pour and sip my first cup it is easy to imagine that I am living some other, more romantic and meaningful life. In this imaginary life, I am not writing a Harlequin romance. I am not stupidly obsessed with my not-even-likeable ex. In this imaginary life I always say the right thing. I probably don’t have much fun, but at least my existence is uncomplicated. I sigh and drink the coffee. Breakfast arrives and is relentlessly homey. I eat it and feel full and starchy and sleepy. We’ll be in Halifax in two hours, which is about enough time for a final nap.
My sleep is dreamless, steady. I curl in my seat as best I can, lean my head against the window and shiver beneath my coat. The slowing of the train wakes me up. We’re creeping through the outskirts of Halifax, through open-topped tunnels blasted through rock. My stomach swirls as the train lurches around the town, along the harbour and into the station. There are faces on the platform, but they blur as the train chugs past. I fumble with my things, cramming the unread Jane Austen in my pocket, winding my scarf around my neck, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and pushing my hair behind my ears. I am ready and not. But the train doesn’t care. It has stopped and the doors are open.
My legs are stiff and cranky and I come down the three steps from the train to the platform like an old woman whose lumbago is giving her trouble again. I peg-leg along, shivering in the winter humidity. The crush of passengers and greeters carries me along the platform, toward the station. I want to look around, but my head feels like a balloon full of fresh helium, and I am worried that if I don’t stay focused on just moving forward, it will lift off my neck and be gone. I find my suitcase among the gaggle of them that stand on the sidewalk in front of the station. I fight a nervous inclination to unzip it then and there and catalogue its contents. Instead, I open the front compartment, stow Northanger Abbey, still largely unread, and pull the zipper closed again. I take a deep breath. It’s time.
Peat’s hair has grown out again, and is standing up the way it used to, before he cut it off. My heart is a giant lump in my throat, and I try to swallow around it. Peat’s eyes are green and gold and glowing, and I feel like it’s been years since last we saw each other.
“Hey,” he says, and puts his hand out. Flustered, I stick mine out too, as if to shake. “Your bag,” he says, and laughs. “I’ll carry it for you.”
“Ah,” I say and blush. “How gallant.” I hand the suitcase over. “It’s kind of heavy,” I say. “Sorry.”
Peat hoists it. “Christ,” he says, “how long are you staying for?”
The question hangs between us, unanswerable. I look at the ground for a moment, then shake my head and say, “how are you?”
“I’m ok,” Peat says. “Yeah. I’m alright.” He nods, as if it’s news to him, too. “How was the train?’
“Sleepy,” I say. “I slept about twenty hours. Couldn’t stop.” I feel shy, as if we are on a blind date. We haven’t hugged, or even touched at all. I pretend I don’t have arms.
“I have my dad’s car,” Peat says. He pushes through the train station door. “I’m parked just over here.”
“Your dad,” I say, the words a strange, untasted fruit. “How’s that going?”
Peat tries to swing my suitcase. “Man, this thing is really heavy,” he mock-grumbles, as it dangles off his hand like a cartoon anvil, a moment before it plunges to the ground. “My dad,” he says. “Yeah. Well, it’s going alright. This is me, here.” He lifts the suitcase into the bed of a battered navy blue pick up truck, pulls the keys from his pocket.
“The door only opens from inside,” he says. He hops in, cranks the door handle on the passenger side and the door crunks open. The cab smells like cigarettes and sour coffee and no sleep. I peer inside timidly.
“Come on,” he says. He pats the seat next to him. I climb up gingerly. “It was nice of your dad to lend you his truck,” I say carefully.
“Mmm,” Peat says, cranking the ignition. He squints at the rearview mirror, shoulder checks, and backs out. “Yeah. It’s mine for as long as I want it. He’s on tour.”
“On tour,” I repeat. “What kind of tour?”
Peat pulls out into traffic, the truck jerking and sputtering. “Uh. He’s in a bar band called The Egyptian Sexologists.” He looks at me out of the corner of his eye, his lips curling up at the edges.
“Really,” I say. I can’t tell if he’s kidding. It seems like he should be, but then again, what would be the point of that?
“Yeah,” Peat says. “Turns out they’re enormously popular around here. Go figure.”
At Peat’s dad’s house, I splash water on my face and consider my options. The apartment is small. A kitchen, a bathroom, one tiny bedroom and a living room. It’s not clear to me yet what the sleeping arrangements will be, what I want them to be, what I’ve come all this way for. I look soberly at myself in the mirror. I look old. Older, anyhow.
I can hear Peat rattling around in the kitchen. “There’s not much in the fridge,” he says sheepishly. “I didn’t get a chance to shop.” He gestures toward the fridge. Two kinds of mustard, a container of orange juice and some celery.
“Wow,” I say, surveying the contents. “That’s even beyond my talents.”
“Which are considerable,” Peat says, smiling.
“I guess we’re going out, then,” I say.
The night air is surprisingly mild. Peat lets me in to the truck, and belching and bumping, we make our way downtown.
We eat supper at a pub near the water. Fish and chips and beer. Peat assures me I am a cliché, and I tell him I never expected to be anything different.
The place fills up and we drink another pitcher of beer. There’s a band on stage, with a singer in tight jeans and a guitar player whose face seems permanently drawn from some Gallery of Classic Guitar Facial Expressions.
It gets loud, which is fine, because Peat and I are barely talking anyhow. I don’t know him in this town. I don’t know this Peat who has a dad who plays with The Egyptian Sexologists, who drives a truck, who has two kinds of mustard and nothing else in the fridge.
The band is semi-convincinglly playing Blow at High Dough when Peat snakes his hand across the table and covers mine. I’m greasy from fish and chips and my fingers are cold from the relentless damp, but it is such a relief to feel his skin on mine at last.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he shouts above the guitar.
“Are you?” I shout back.
“Of course,” he yells. “What kind of question is that?”
My cheeks feel bright red. I pick up my pint with my free hand and drain it. “I don’t know,” I say. “It feels like a good one.”
“I am glad,” he says again. And then again. “I am.”
“Ok,” I shout. I don’t know why I can’t just say I’m glad I’m here, too. The waitress hurries by. I lift my empty glass toward her, and say “Can we get another pitcher?” I wriggle a cigarette out of my pack with my left hand, the one Peat’s not holding, and pop it in my mouth.
“I kind of need my hand,” I say. “Can’t work the lighter with my left one.”
The air in the pub is blue with smoke and boisterous. But Peat’s eyes have gone dim.
“Let’s go,” he says.
“But we just ordered another pitcher,” I point out.
“I don’t want any more,” he says. “And you don’t need any more.”
“Hey,” I say, as he pushes back his chair.
“Come on, Stellah,” he says. “You must be tired.”
“Must I,” I say. “Why must I?” I stub out my cigarette.
“You had a long day,” he says.
“I slept 20 hours on the train.”
“Ok, then I had a long day,” this new Peat says. He pulls on his jacket. “I’m tired. I want to go to bed.”
“With me?” I ask. The words are out before I know I’m saying them. They hang in the space between us, with the cigarette smoke and the cries of sociable.
“Come on, Stellah,” Peat says. “Time to get you home.” He turns and heads for the door.
Outside, the damp air settles around my head, cooling my skin.
“Wanna go to the water,” I say.
“It’s late,” Peat says. “And cold. Let’s get you home, to bed.”
“Wanna go to the water,” I insist. In truth, the cool night is clearing my head, but I feel stubborn and childish and not totally in control. I stop short of stamping my foot.
“Fine,” Peat says. “We’ll go to the water.” He starts to walk. “This way,” he says. I tag along behind him, downhill. “People who live here must have amazing calves,” I say to Peat’s back.
“Huh?” he says. “Oh, yeah.” He keeps walking. “I guess so.”
“Hey, wait up,” I say, trotting a little behind him.
“Hurry up, Stellah. It’s getting late.”
“What’s the big hurry?” I ask. “We’re on vacation.”
“YOU”RE on vacation,” he snarls. He has stopped walking, turns to face me. I’ve got my eyes on my feet, though, and so, not looking, I crash into him. I snap my head up. His eyes have gone grey.
“You’re on vacation,” he repeats. “This is my LIFE.”
I shake my head. “No it isn’t. This isn’t your life. Your life is back in Toronto. With your friends. With me.” My hands are on his chest. I tap him lightly. “Come on,” I say, “it’s getting late.” I start walking again, toward the water, which is in sight. I walk out on the boardwalk, and along a wooden promontory that juts into the harbour.
“This is my life here, Stellah,” he says. “I live here now.”
I stare out over the inky expanse of the harbour. “No, you don’t,” I say. “You’re just slumming, sleeping on your dad’s couch when he’s in town, using his truck when he’s not. You’re just waiting for what’s going to be next. You’re just sad, Peat,” I say idly. “That’s all. You’re just sad.”
Peat is quiet, but I can feel him next to me. His hands balled by his sides, waves rippling out from him the way they ripple away from the end of the pier.
“I do love this place, though,” I say. “There’s something about this place that’s very loveable indeed. I can understand why you’d think about living here. I felt it as soon as I stepped off the train.”
“That’s just the fog,” Peat says. His voice sounds dampened, late-night.
“Seriously,” I say, “it feels like magic. Hey, have you ever seen noctiluna here? I saw this documentary once about sea life and the noctiluna just knocked me out. They’re these tiny little glow in the dark bitty little jellyfish, so cute. I doubt they hang around in the winter, but in the summer, we’ll have to come back down here and check them out.”
“I can’t live where you live,” Peat says suddenly. His voice is low and measured, and his breath puffs out in front of him. It’s much cooler at the water’s edge than it was downtown.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I say. Peat didn’t seem drunk when we left the bar, but he’s clearly not in his right mind now. “That’s crazy talk.”
“No,” he says. “Nope. I cannot. It doesn’t work, you and me,” he says. He chokes on it a bit, but finally spits it out. “It just doesn’t. I can’t. There’s no room for me when you’re there.”
“Peat,” I say. I stretch my hand out toward him, but he leaves it hanging. “Peat, don’t. You’re not right. Your mom, and being away from everyone. It’s been a long day, you’re tired. We’re both tired—“ my words rush out, as if the sheer volume of them can change the way this scene is unfolding. But Peat is resolute.
“It doesn’t work. It just doesn’t,” he says. And then, “I’m sorry, Stellah. I’m so sorry. I want it to, but I just can’t.” He walks away.
And I am a broken girl on a Halifax pier.
We walk back to the truck in silence, get in, drive.
“I’ll go tomorrow,” I say, as Peat shuts off the engine. “The train is at noon. I’ll grab a cab.”
“I’ll drive you,” Peat says. “Stellah.”
I hold up my hand, close my eyes, shake my head once. “It’s ok,” I say. “I’ve got it.”
“I don’t want to hurt you. Stellah,” Peat says softly.
On the porch, Peat puts his hand on my shoulder.
“It’s ok,” I say. “You don’t have to do that.”
He moves his hand, unlocks the door.
“I’ll take the couch,” I say.
“No,” says Peat. “I got it. I’m used to it by now. You sleep in the bed.”
I nod, grab my suitcase, start down the hall. I am bone weary and suffused with disbelief.
The train’s wheels squeal against the tracks as it pulls into Union Station. I wake up, peel my forehead off the window and wipe the drool off my chin. I look around, but no one has noticed me. They’re getting their things together, waving to people on the platform, moving toward the exits. I stay in my seat, waiting while my train-dreams recede.
I turn the key in the lock, but my front door swings open. Fatty is standing on the table, happily slurping from a china bowl. The apartment smells meaty and delicious.
“Hello?” I call. I swat at Fatty. “Get down from there, that’s not for you,” I tell her, though I have no idea who it might be for or where it came from.
“Hellooo!” comes a voice from the living room.
“Mickey?” I call.
“Stellah? You home already girl? What the hell happened to you?”
I drop my suitcase. Fatty has climbed back up on the table and is nosing toward the bowl.
“Fatty!” I say sharply. She looks up.
“Oh no,” Mickey says, “it’s alright, that’s hers. I made her a little something special.”
“I—oh. Ok.” I drop into a chair. “Hey, Mickey, do you have any of that 151 proof rum kicking around?”
“I do,” he says, his eyes shining. Within minutes, Mickey and I are installed on the horsehair sofa in my living room, drinking rum and eating cake.
“Prague?” Mickey says and wrinkles his nose.
“I know,” I say, “but Peat was quite determined.” I lick my fork. “Is there more cake?”
“There is,” Mickey says. I hand my plate to him.
“Keep it,” he says. “I’ll bring the pan.” He starts out of the room.
“Oh, and Stellah,” he says, “you’re better off, honey.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I call after him. It’s like it’s the only sentence I know any more.
“I’ll be right back,” he says over his shoulder. Several drinks later, Mickey convinces me that I am, indeed, better off.
“You’d have eaten him alive eventually, sweetie,” he says. “And that’s a compliment, by the way. That boy is awfully sweet, but he was never going to give you what you want. And eventually, you’d have gotten tired of trying to get it out of him. Better off this way, darling. Mark my words.”
I drain my glass, set it carefully on the coffee table.
“I hope you’re right,” I say.
I am pawing through the bags in my front hall and Mona is sorting through the plastic containers under the sink when Mickey knocks on the door.
“Listen, Stellah,” he says, “did I ever tell you what happened when you were away?”
“I don’t think so,” I say, “but then again, I was drunk on cake and rum.”
“Well,” Mickey says. “I came over here to watch *90210* with Fatty and the phone started ringing. It rang about five times in a half hour and there was never anyone there.”
“Welcome to my world,” I say.
“So, I called the phone company and complained, and they traced it and guess what?”
“I have a secret admirer?” I say.
Mona snickers and dumps a bunch of mis-matched lids and containers into a cardboard box.
“No, you were being stalked by a fax machine---at the offices of a certain publisher of paperback romances.”
“Fuck off,” I say.
“One of their editors has a fax number that’s very close to your phone number, that’s all. But I straightened them out.”
I bury my face in my hands. “I can only imagine,” I say. “And then I told them what a genius you are.”
“You didn’t, Mickey.” I peer at him through my fingers. He smiles. “Mickey,” I say.
“I didn’t,” he says, laughing. “But I should have!” he says.
“Uh huh,” I say.
“Alright,” Mona says, “I’m done. I think I’m gonna like living here.” “I did,” I say. “Except for the black beans and broccoli smell. And the flashing arrow to my bed. And the twice-nightly garbage pick ups.”
“Don’t oversell it, Stellah,” Mona says. She picks up the cardboard box. “Let’s get this stuff out of here.”
“I’m going to miss you, Stellah,” says Mickey.
“I won’t be far,” I say. “You can come see me sometime.”
“Are there beaches?” he says.
“Of course,” I say.
“Is there rum?”
“Oh, there’s rum,” I say.
“And does it get warm?” he asks excitedly.
“Well,” I say, “there’s rum.”
I pick up the garbage bags and follow Mona down the stairs. They are heavy, but I’ve never felt so light.