I remember standing there, staring at the back of him. His slouched shoulders, the irregular shape of his head. Marco was always at the kitchen window, after supper when he got back from the gym. He’d come in and plunk his kit bag down on top of me, the smell of barbells and wet socks, and I’d kick it off. I’d take the T-shirt and throw it at him and he’d open it up, spread it across my face like a shroud.
I liked the smell of him. I liked when my parents left and the house got so quiet I could hear the sound of Marco’s footsteps on the floor above me. When my life was predictable. In the days when my parents were still pretending to love each other and I had an older brother who spent woodworking classes building model airplanes to hang in my room.
Sometimes I’d come in and climb up on the kitchen counter beside him and he’d ask me about the science-fiction books I was reading, or tell me some obscure fact about Godzilla or King Kong. He was in high school, eight years older than I was, and felt sometimes more like a surrogate uncle. He had a way of making me feel wanted, calling me His Little Bother, inviting me to his football games where I’d stand huddled among groups of his friends.
When he noticed me behind him in the kitchen, I held it out so he could see it. Bright yellow. Its propeller cracked. One of the wings missing. We’d been fighting and I’d gone crying to my bedroom. When I’d slammed my door it had fallen from the desktop.
What did he say? Sonja rolls over. She pulls the hair out of her eyes. She wants to look at me. To let me know she’s listening and not drifting off to sleep.
He asked what happened. I’d been intending to get him to fix it. When it had fallen, all the anger had drained from my body. Everything around me had lost importance and only the plane had mattered. But standing in front of him, I felt something else.
It’s broken, I told him, in case he missed it.
He’d made me a blue one. A red one. A yellow one. And to me he’d always been a man of magic. A bald god. Like an eagle at the window, looking down over the trees and city lights. But there was a look in his eyes I’d never seen. It made him seem weak and pathetic.
What did you do? he asked me.
I smirked and it made me feel dizzy. A good dizzy. A disoriented high.
The blue one’s next, I said, but he didn’t answer. It stunned him. He turned back to the window, wouldn’t look me in the eye.
Sonja grabs my arm and slides her hand back behind my neck.
I bet he wouldn’t even remember, she says. What were you? Ten?
I check the crack of light coming through the edge of the blind. It’s moonlight. I’ve been beside her waiting for sunrise before, when the first sign of the sun made it morning and appropriate to get out of bed and out the door, down the littered hall of my residence to the washroom, hoping that when I got back from a long shower Sonja would be gone.
You hear something? she asks.
I take her hand and whisper, I love you, and she smiles and brings her lips together, kissing the air.
When I pull the covers up over her, she lowers them. She likes her own breasts. She admires the shape of her curving shadow on the bedroom wall. She rolls over and pushes up into me. Her smooth brown back and round shoulders.
Is this such a good idea? she asks.
We’re in my sister Marjorie’s room. Marjorie’s bed. It’ll be her second year in a row spending Christmas in Australia. She went for two months and met a guy from Brisbane. My mother predicted it would happen. The same thing happened with my brother Marco. He was supposed to spend 10 weeks in Thailand, but met an Indian girl from Ontario living there and ended up staying a year.
Not you, my mother used to say to me. You’re not going anywhere. You’ll find a nice New Brunswick girl.
When Marco came back, he and his girlfriend lived in Halifax, two blocks from the university. I remember the first time I saw her. I’d just finished high school. She was getting out of a taxi on Argyle. My parents and I had driven up from Moncton to check out the residence I’d been assigned to come September, and we were meeting Marco and his girlfriend for supper. My mother stood with her arm around me at the side of the road.
Mom, said Marco. This is Sonja.
On Sundays Sonja cut vegetables and chicken into long thin strips. She made pad thai and sushi, though her Indian was my favourite. Her mother was from Delhi and taught her daughters the art of curry and dahl. She put spices into corn soup, filled the halls with ginger. My mother assured her we were meat-and-potatoes kind of people and though Marco preferred French fries to basil chicken, on Sundays after I moved to Halifax she’d invite me over and I’d often have supper with Sonja alone.
You should go, she says, and I lie there fully clothed under the covers of my sister’s bed, kissing her before moving to my old bedroom.
Marco’s married, I say as I’m leaving. You’re an old girlfriend.
I don’t think your parents are going to like it.
They’re fine. Everyone knows.
She nods and lays her head back on the pillow.
When I told my mother I was bringing Sonja home for Christmas she thought Marco had put me up to it. She told me that Marco can’t go sleeping around on Virginia every time they get in a fight. When I told her I was seeing Sonja, she told me matter-of-factly that we’d have to put her in my sister Marjorie’s room. The cot was taken, because Marco and Virginia weren’t speaking. They weren’t even sure if Virginia was going to show.
I’ve talked to Marco, I told my mother. He’s fine with it.
She was too young for him anyway, said my mother, and I was torn back to the three years Sonja spent with Marco when he’d come in wearing gym pants and a sweatshirt with stains in the armpits. Sonja would kiss him and then turn her head in disgust.
Smell good do I? He’d slap her ass and she’d yell at him to stop it. She’d take the spatula or a carving knife and make like she were about to run him over, and then break into laughter and slap him twice as hard.
Marco had a way of cutting out reality around a girlfriend. He’d grow softer and touch her in public like there were no two people besides them in the world. He called her NJ. He’d stand in the middle of my parents’ kitchen in gym sneakers and boxer shorts, pressed up against her, playing with her long dark hair.
The hall is quiet. I leave Marjorie’s room and pass Marco’s. For a second I stand in the doorway and watch him sleeping. There’s an eerie red glow from the Christmas candles my mother puts in the windows and a folded cot beside his bed in case his wife decided to come.
In my own room the candles flicker. I climb into bed and still feel Sonja. Still smell her. My body transported to those nights in residence when the guilt of loving her would dissolve until the weight of the morning. Through the dark I see a picture of Marjorie and my mother at her Brisbane wedding. Then Marco and me in a boat at the lake. He’s two feet taller than I am and has his fishing rod up over his head like a trophy. On the wall above the pictures hangs a Bollywood poster with a silhouette of a plane going down.
Sonja is a film buff. She started film school as soon as Marco got a job teaching English as a second language in Halifax, and the two of us would go to the Monday-night film co-op movies that Marco never cared for. She thought he silently resented her wasting her time and money on the classes she was taking. It takes time to know Marco, I told her. He used to piggyback me down Centennial Drive and do face-paintings on the island by the water. He had a table set up with a thousand colours. On weekends there’d be dragons and spiders and bright butterflies splashed across everyone’s faces.
One Monday, standing in line for concessions, Sonja’s face glowed with excitement. She and Marco had just made up after a week-long fight and when she smiled the air shimmered around her. She was wearing an old hat of Marco’s and I wished it was my hat she was wearing. At times I’d see a crack in the armour of their love and feel a guilty sense of hope and happiness. It was never a genuine belief in ever loving Sonja beyond our secret glances, but a sad admiration for fate. For its indifference. For the strange pleasure I got from submitting to its power.
You know, you and your brother aren’t that different. Sonja stood on her tiptoes, squinting at the various popcorn sizes.
You seem like the kind of guy who’s completely unselfish, but I’ll bet Marco’s going to give himself over to some woman some day. You on the other hand.
She touched my arm as she said it, and it was innocent. It meant, I know you, and by the time she took her hand back to shuffle through the change in her pocket, something about that gesture had shifted. The innocence was lost.
I got you something. She reached into her purse and pulled out a kind of parchment I’d seen poking out like a baguette from a grocery bag. She pulled off the elastics and unrolled it. It’s a real one, she said. My mother brought it back.
It’s for me? I asked, still unsure if I’d heard her.
It’s about a plane crash, she told me. Or the moments leading up to it. All these contradicting hopes and regrets flashing before the passengers’ eyes.
When I look around I realize there are other things that Sonja gave me. Mixed CDs and old books. The dried flowers from her and Marco last year at my graduation. Though he was engaged to Virginia, Marco insisted he and Sonja go together like a divorced couple faking it for the sake of a child. By three in the morning she was at the door of my room in residence where I had one last weekend. She said she had pictures she wanted to show me.
It was nearly sunrise before she lay asleep beside me. I’d gone from euphoria to holding my hand over my throat. My stomach felt queasy. I imagined the night breaking off from the morning, and day and night co-existing, so I could love Sonja in some parallel world. The moonlight cut through a crack in the blinds and fell across the dark skin on Sonja’s shoulder. I kissed her and the panic subsided. I pressed my body to the back of hers
It was a week ago that I called Marco. Virginia answered and passed him the phone, and I hadn’t decided what I’d say to him. I kept wondering if it’d just be easier to move to another country and live with Sonja in secret, though my mother’d know it was all for a girl.
Marco. It’s me.
Where have you been? he said, the TV blaring behind him. I keep calling but you never answer.
I’ve been working a lot and graduate school’s been...
We should go out for dinner. You, me and Virginia. You like seafood, don’t you? Virginia’s got me into it. Her uncle is a fisherman. She’s got me into eating mussels and lobster and...You going home next week?
I think so.
You think so? It’s Christmas. Mom’d kill you.
I held my hand over the receiver and paced back and forth across my bedroom carpet. I tried to imagine what he’d say, how he’d feel. I wished it was he who was hurting me.
You seen Sonja around?
I didn’t answer.
You remember when I got her that sweater for Christmas that was about10 sizes too big and she wore it out to Mom’s for dinner? And the way she used to snore? I don’t know if you ever heard it but…
You never heard her?
No. I mean I haven’t seen her.
The TV stopped as a door closed and I pictured him standing in a dark closet beside cleaning products and piles of old shoes. I imagined his wife, wondering where he’d disappeared to.
Hey, he said, and then was quiet for a moment. I miss her. Sometimes. I mean Virginia’s…I love Virginia. But. It’s so…stable. There’s no intensity. Have you ever really fallen for someone?
I can’t sleep. I get up and pass Marco’s room and then Marjorie’s where Sonja is sleeping. I descend the stairs into the hall that leads to the back of the house. In the kitchen there’s a figure sitting on the counter by the window I assume is my mother. I squint to see her. The reflection of the porch light off the snow burns my eyes.
Couldn’t sleep either?
She half turns and I recognize her.
Virginia? I thought you were my mother.
I thought you were my husband.
I didn’t think you were coming.
I wasn’t going to, but my parents are away and I didn’t want to spend the holiday with an alcoholic uncle. Your mother made the couch up. She points to the pull-out on the strip of carpet in the corner. It was either that or hauling the cot downstairs.
I turned the Christmas tree on, she says and looks toward the faint twinkling coming from the room down the hall. I heard you brought someone home. She smiles and I know Mom hasn’t told them. I wonder how long it’ll take before Virginia realizes, and if she’ll believe that Marco doesn’t know.
We snuck in a few hours ago.
I thought I heard something.
She turns back toward the window and I move over beside her.
Quite the view.
I’ve never seen it at night. She runs her hands across her bare knees. Like my earrings? she says, tilting her head and stretching one leg so it marks a line across the window’s light. Your brother made them for me last Christmas when we got engaged. Little skiers. She holds the left one out with her finger and then pulls it down into her hand. I’m a skier, she says.
Where from again? Alberta?
The Mirimachi. She laughs, and I remember my mother saying he’d finally met a girl from New Brunswick who was even his age.
I look at her hands, the skin on her forehead. She doesn’t seem older.
He talks about you endlessly, you know. You should come around more.
We turn again to the window, side by side on the counter where Marco used to sit and stare. Beyond our backyard, down the wooden slope, there are trees for miles and long mazes of walking trails. The two of us used to get lost in there. Sometimes we’d branch off and go separate ways and see if the trails would reconnect. I remember the excitement of pretending I was lost and starving, knowing that if I yelled loud enough Marco would cut through the woods and find me.
I was nervous, you know, to meet you, says Virginia. That first time. More than your sister and your parents.
Is everything OK with you two?
She takes a deep breath and accidentally drops an earring that caroms off the ledge of the window.
I just love him. And I guess it sometimes seems like his heart is somewhere else.
I nod. I keep my eyes down, as though considering what she’s said. As though I’m weighing what it might mean.
I should get back to bed, I tell her, staring down at the little skier that my brother built contorted on the kitchen floor.
I hop off the edge of the counter. When I look again from the hall she has her legs up, pressing her chin into her knees, and she could almost be Marco as a teenager, waiting for the gravity of morning. I’d come down the stairs at Christmas and find him. Lights flashing on the wall from the tree around the corner. We’d huddle on the counter beneath a blanket, and he’d stay up with me as late as I wanted. Pretending that he, too, was too anxious to sleep.
Ryan Turner recently won an Honourable Mention at the Atlantic Writing Competition for his novel, Radiostation Berlin<>, which will run in The Coast’s bottomwriting, starting in the first issue of the new year. His play, co-written by Sarah Mian, will be produced by Halifax’s Metamorphic Theatre, fall 2007.