Selected pieces from two mailing list projects:
Victory Shag & WTFTTFG
(2000 - 2007)
I woke up spooning K—-. or, as Tennessee Williams would say: “She got the downstairs; I got the up.”
It was our first night together and all I could think of was the way Dave Marr sings, “I can’t believe / I ever woke up /without her here / before.”
My eyes were closed but I could tell she was still sleeping. I kissed her back softly, twice on her right shoulder blade and once in the center.
I looked down at the gap between our bodies. It was small and less naked than we were. I made it smaller.
The movement made her stir slightly and I answered her body’s questions with the palm of my right hand. It found her stomach, her arm, her hip, her thigh, gliding between them, slow, almost hovering. It said “You’re beautiful”, “I’m here”, and “Be with me?” It wondered if she was real, if we were really here together, and whether it would last. I knew she was, we were, and it would.
I propped myself up, doing my best not to disturb her. I watched her breathe. Her lips were slightly parted.
I’d woken a few times during the night and watched her. I thought to myself how I’d never seen someone smile so much in their sleep. She looked peaceful. Content.
She sensed my presence and opened her eyes. I must have smiled at her because she blushed slightly and closed them again. I thought of myself as a child and how I hid behind my mother’s leg whenever we met someone new.
I placed a kiss on her cheek and lowered myself back down beside her. She moved backward against me ’til there was no gap at all, just two warm bodies trying to be one. I pulled the blanket up to cover us and closed my eyes.
I could feel strands of her hair on my face. Two.
If I concentrated, I could smell her shampoo. If I didn’t, I could smell us.
We were still, now, and breathing in synch. Seconds passed, and together we found sleep.
I’ve been busy reading Stephen Dixon’s new novel, I., when I should be finishing Scott Spencer’s Endless Love (it’s overdue at the library).
The book’s got me thinking. About my life. About relationships. About my writing.
It’s been a few months since I’ve heard from you. I’m not sure if you even want me to write. My last letter went unanswered.
We had so little time together but all of it was good. Well, when we were together, anyway. I think maybe the time we spent apart was filled with doubt about where things were going and that’s why I’m writing about things that happened in February instead of things that happened yesterday. I know that you had so much going on with your work and I was trying to figure out what I was doing, or wanted to do, with words and that, for both of us, these things weren’t gelling well.
What was our relationship, anyway? Six intense dates? Seven? Do you know that you and I only spoke on the telephone three times. I guess it’s not that weird, knowing that we both hate phones.
I’m wondering what you remember about our time together. I suppose I’m always curious what moments linger longest in a person’s thoughts–what gestures and movements, words and phrases…
In my own head, there are lots of glimpses of you and I. They’re all sharp–crisp and lovely, like focused sunlight on bare flesh.
I remember something you said on our fourth date, when we were making love for the first time. You told me that you seemed out of place in your body. That you had put on twenty pounds in the past few years and even though it put you at your “proper” weight, it still felt strange to you. You look in the mirror and don’t see you. You wonder “What happened to the skin and bones? God, I was so thin! It was disgusting. Unhealthy.” Instantly, I recalled our first date. We met at Squirley’s and sat at the table in the left corner of the front of the restaurant. I don’t recall what we had, but remember we both ate. You were drinking beer and I was drinking whiskey with a little bit of ice. We talked about music and movies, Toronto and Halifax, our families and friends, our past and current goals. The Joel Plaskett Emergency was playing in the background. You said you still felt weird thinking of yourself as a lawyer. That, though you don’t miss being in a band or painting, you weren’t positive that your new career was you. It was still foreign, but that you were enjoying it and liked that you were making a difference.
And then you started speaking again and I snapped out of the memory and was back in bed with you. You were saying how you couldn’t wait to be comfortable in your new body. And I just looked at you and was astounded with your beauty. I remember being briefly overwhelmed. You just seemed so much a woman–the first adult I’d ever been with. Not age wise, but just–you know when you’re a kid and you can’t imagine not being a kid? You can’t think of what it would be like to be grown up. That’s it. That’s what you were to me: grown up. Mature in a way I thought I would never be. But it was like just being around you made me grown up, too.
It seemed too much for me as I tried to imagine you twenty pounds lighter. I couldn’t do it. You seemed so perfect. I remember that a line from Manhattan ran thru my head: “You’re God’s answer to Job. You would have ended all arguments between them. He would have pointed to you and said ‘I’ve done a lot of terrible things but I can also make one of these.’ And Job would have said ‘You’re right. You win.’” I’m smiling now, thinking about it.
And I remember that earlier that same night we were sitting with P— and S—-, L—- and M—. We were playing Cranium and eating tortilla chips with artichoke dip that L— had baked. I remember having to spell Albuquerque backwards and that you had to draw a “place” that I had to guess. You put pen to paper and started to draw a squiggle. I shouted “River!” and the other two couples looked on amazed, pissed that they hadn’t even had a chance to flip the egg timer. At one point you excused yourself from the room and your four friends starting feeding me information. “Did you know that Chris Murphy wrote both ‘Deeper Than Beauty’ and ‘Underwhelmed’ about her?”
We lost the game but you took me home anyway. “Yeah, you’re coming with me,” you said. And twenty minutes later I was hovering above you, kissing your thighs and breasts and stomach and lips… I remember how you looked so peaceful, eyes closed, legs and arms open. memories of your fragrance and taste–your breath your saliva your sweat and your come–are vivid and sweet. The noise you made (a sort of laugh mixed with “hohoh”) when I bit or squeezed your left nipple; the enthusiasm in your voice when you answered my question, “Do you like that?”…
I think of our second night together. Our fifth date. How your bed was the most comfortable I’d ever slept in but how it tore the skin on my knees apart while we were screwing. That night was the most fantastic sex I’d had in years. It was so comfortable being with you, and inside of you. We fucked for hours though you had to work early the next morning. I told you we should stop or you’d be cursing my name in a meeting the next day. But you wouldn’t have it and we went another few rounds. You didn’t complain that I didn’t come. Instead you just said “So it doesn’t…” and you thrust out your arm and opened your fist and I said “Yeah, it does, it just takes me a lot longer than most” and we both laughed and you crawled back on top of me. You stayed tight against me, our chests and faces pressed together. I reached with my right hand and pinched your left breast. “Hahohohah!,” and we made love into the night.
I think about you a lot when I’m alone and touching myself, but I don’t really think about the things above. Instead, it’s what follows them that’s in my head. We woke together and you went downstairs to bathe. I slept a little longer and woke again when you returned, naked and clean. You stood near the window and the light fought its way thru translucent curtains. I could see snow on the ledges and rooftops outside. You’re brushing and drying your hair and I’m lying on my side, watching you do it.
I thought about crawling out from under the covers and crossing the room. I wanted to touch you with my lips and smell the warmth of traces of bath water evaporating from your thighs. I would have kissed between your legs and felt your trim blonde hair on my nose and tongue. I could have reached around and cupped your ass and pulled you tight, pressing my cheek against you, hugging your middle while you looked down at me, running the brush through your hair.
That’s it. That’s the fantasy I replay when you’re with me at night and I’m alone. Is it terribly romantic or the pathetic attempt of my subconscious telling me I didn’t hold you tight enough or long enough?
You wanna know something strange? About a month ago, a friend and I we were watching a movie in the living room and something was scratching at my brain. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I was quickly sinking into sadness and she asked what was wrong. “What’s that smell?” I asked.
“It smells like…” and I leaned over and breathed in her hair. “I have to pee,” I said, and left the room. I went into the bathroom, locked the door, and sat on the toilet and started crying. She’d switched to your brand of shampoo.
On the toilet, I thought of the last time I saw you. We were on the subway. You were going to work. I was going home. My stop was coming and I kissed you and got to my feet. I went to the door and waited for the train to pull into the station. I watched you through the gap between chrome and thick plastic. You were watching me back. I don’t know what you were thinking but I wonder now if you knew I wouldn’t see you again. Me? I was thinking that I was a fool for getting up so soon. That I could have sat with you a minute or two more or lingered longer, lost in our goodbye kiss.
Sitting here now I sincerely hope that you’re happy. Somehow I’m thinking that you’re free of regret for what we could have had. That it doesn’t really enter your head. That your decision to put work first and not get tangled in an intense relationship was the right decision for both the short and long term. I really hope things turn out for the best. I miss you, but don’t begrudge you your choice.
Maybe it’s best this way anyhow. Hell, if you have as fond memories of me as I do of you, and they can linger as long as I’m sure mine will… well, then, I think we’ll have more than most couples.
However, maybe i’m just rationalizing.
You’re destroying me. You’re good for me.
She said it hours ago, before falling asleep. He watches her now, breathing soft. They’d arrived at his room after supper, the purpose to talk–a long time coming that he now wishes had been longer.
She said, “I know about that girl.”
He knew who she meant, but waited. She learned long ago that he often kept silent hoping she’d continue talking, and, unintentionally, reveal his exit. Not this time.
“Which?”, he asks.
He shakes his head.
“Yes,” she insists.
“Your voice changes.”
“Mmm.” He thinks: A different kind of jealousy. The selfish kind.
She’d seen her in a cafe, waiting tables. They’d gone for a quick lunch between rounds since they’d cleaned out the cupboards days ago. “I don’t think you know her. You probably don’t even know her name.”
“You want her.”
“And you don’t want anybody?”
“Then I should…?”
“Have her. Now. Through me.”
“That’s not fair.”
“It’s better than the alternative.”
“I meant it’s not fair to her.” He shouldn’t have said it. He knew before saying it that he shouldn’t have said it.
He watches her face. Quiet rage overcome with uninvited understanding. Too long under his influence.
“I know you well enough to know that you would think that. Even say it. But I’m not like you enough to think of it on my own.”
“That’s what I like best about you.”
She remembers their first night together. “Not my breasts?”
“They’re good, too.”
She nods once, so not to cry.
She asks, “Why can’t–”
“We’ve been over this.”
An unsuccessful nod. He reaches forward, wipes her cheek with the dangle of his sleeve. She takes his forearm before he can draw it away, but now that she has it she doesn’t know what to do with it. She looks to him for an answer, what action to take, but he has none and she lets go his arm, expecting it to flop lifeless to the mattress. It doesn’t, and he immediately draws his hand to the safety of his pocket.
“Is this the first time you’ve made me cry?”
“That I know of.” Another nod. “Something to eat?” No. “A drink?”
He leaves to fetch the jug, stand in the light of the open fridge. He wonders what to do next, but all that comes to him as he looks inside is, I didn’t think figs had to be refrigerated. He takes the jug and a glass from the cupboard. When he returns to the room, she’s asleep. He pours some water into the glass and places it on the bedside table. He puts the jug down next to it.
He makes to leave the room–go to the couch and sit with the laptop. Struggle. She says it as he passes through the door. “You’re destroying me. You’re good for me.” At first the only thing he can make of it is that it’s not something she would think of, and then he remembers where it’s from. Duras. The same woman who once wrote, “My only allegiance was to love itself.”
He stands in the doorway, out of her sight. He waits there, certain that if he responds she’ll remember saying it in the morning. He doesn’t count the seconds, but there are several before her breathing crosses over and he hears the rustle of the duvet as her she pulls it tight to her body.
She doesn’t say it, but he hears it, and is certain it’s the last word he’ll remember her speaking.
Winter’s breathing down Fall’s neck. A party on Crawford. Red floorboards. Decrepit rooms. University grads, just.
He’s young, all-powerful. People like him. All he can do: no wrong. One of those people. He knows it, but can’t accept it. The modesty adds to his charm.
She’s there in a long skirt, the kind that makes girls take bird-steps and boys puff up their chests. He knows everyone else and wonders who invited her.
She’s listening to Drew. He doesn’t have to be in ear shot to know what he’s saying. Top o’ the world, ma! It never changes. On the surface, she’s into it, but her posture gives her away.
Drew empties his beer and from across the room he wills the boy to go for another.
He walks over, fills the cold space next to her. He hopes she’s relieved, but has no idea. She doesn’t know me yet, he thinks. Who invited her?
“You’ll never hear me talk about one day getting out.”
She slumps/sighs/laughs. “Thank god!” She is relieved. “You heard? I mean, I think this city’s too honest to leave. Do you know what I mean?” He nods, tells himself he’ll figure it out later.
“Howlin’.” She doesn’t realize he’s introducing himself until he offers to shake. People with odd first names are used to this. Punishment for being unique, his mother always said when he asked about it.
“Hannah.” She takes his hand. Holds it for eight months.
“Someone once said that life rests on a pivot: the necessity of forgetting in order to live, and the fear of forgetfulness.”
“Do you believe that?”
He does. “I do.”
“So… what? You’re all fangs? All poison?”
She takes her cake in her hand and finds a tiny bite, tries to figure him out. They’re in her room, listening to Luna on random. The CD changes tracks.
“Ooh. I like this one,” she says, and skips from the bed. He watches her panty’d bottom cross the room. She boosts the volume and turns to face him, cake in hand, crumbs on chin. Chocolate. It begins: California (All The Way).
She moves like a poem. Something he could never do: be in his element while dancing. She steps side, straight, shakes and grooves her ass, guides her flat, perfect, naked chest. Frosting drips. Her face grows a wicked V-shaped grin as she looks inside him, knows that at this moment he’s doing something he’s never done before: wished he was someone else: her, with grace and poise and an uncontrolled selflessness. His admiration grows; a smile bruises his face. It’s too much, throws her. She stops, convincingly, like she meant it. She stuffs too much cake in her tiny mouth and laughs. It tumbles down her front as she chews.
“Fucking right I am,” she hollers, spewing crumbs.
Her friend is angry. She invited Hannah to the party. She invited him to the party. She didn’t invite them for each other.
“So lets just keep it quiet.”
“It doesn’t make you mad?”
“Whatever you want.”
“It makes me mad.”
“I can see that.”
“I mean, what right?”
“Then why should we?”
“Whatever you want.”
“It really doesn’t matter to you either way?”
“Aren’t you proud of me? Aren’t you dying to be seen with me, for people to know I’m yours.”
“I guess I just don’t think that way.”
“I want people to know you’re mine.”
“I just don’t think that way.”
“I think that might make me madder than having to keep it a secret.”
“Then don’t. Lets flaunt it.”
“If you want.”
“You’d do that for me?”
“And you wouldn’t even owe me anything.”
“That’s good enough, then. Lets keep it a secret and I’ll fantasize about all the ways you’ll flaunt it, just for me.”
“How would you flaunt it?”
“On subway cars. In elevators, restaurants, ice rinks, waiting in line when we’re too rushed to make reservations, the market, soup kitchens…” She’s giddy now, taking this all in. Her high eggs him on. “On trampolines–holding hands or solo–in tattoo parlors and billiard halls. The bowling alley. Around a campfire, on fishing trips, at the bank… I can’t think of anyplace I wouldn’t want to flaunt it.”
“Your parent’s place?”
No way. “Sure.”
“If we weren’t keeping it a secret.” The sentence that changes everything.
“Do I embarrass you?”
“Of course not.”
“How come you don’t introduce me to your friends?”
“I don’t really like my friends.”
“What makes them your friends, then?”
A shrug. “They like me well enough.”
“That’s no way to be.”
“I like you.”
“I should hope so, but I guess I’ll never know for sure, will I?” He watches her, hopes his face is a better liar than his voice.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and it takes him a second to feel that that’s good enough for him.
When I woke up this morning none of my clothes fit. Your affections have left me swollen. My favorite shoes are two sizes too small. Who am I now? Who have I become? I’ll see, I suppose. (We’ll see?)
Though this’ll probably sound ridiculous, I really had no idea that I was going to end up inside you last night. Even now I’m wondering whether it was something you’d been orchestrating for a while.
I hate to admit it, but last night when we were sitting in the yard looking at the sky and you said you felt sad for the nameless stars, I thought it was the corniest thing I’d ever heard. Today, however, post-virginity, I’m gonna say you hit it right on.
See you in English,
2002 – 2006
Naked, she moves at the foot of the mattress, Veedon Fleece still on repeat from the night before. She thinks I’ve slept in but I’ve never been able to do that in her bed. Flashes of red–her hair, her nipples, her lips–tempt me as she turns. I’m a bull beneath these blankets and Beth is my torero practicing veronicas in front of the mirror. I throw the covers. She turns to meet my charge. My end is certain. Olé!
I’m on fire. Literally. I’m not certain how it happened. One minute I’m inside Beth in her kitchen and the next my right arm is being devoured by flames. It was probably the oil, I think. She was cooking with oil. I was behind her, at first, looking over her shoulder into the skillet. She stirred, I groped. Things moved rapidly from there. It had been 18 months since we fucked and it was all unspooling–fierce, sincere, immediate.
It says something about a woman when she can make you feel so good that you smell your flesh burning before you feel it. It says even more if your first thought thereafter is not ‘How do I put it out?’ but ‘How long can I stay inside her before she notices?’. I think of ways to keep it from her–moans of pleasure vs. groans of pain, the difference isn’t that vast. The hardest part is not touching her with my fiery limb. It’s so hard that I can’t do it, and soon we’re both on fire, literally. And so what?, I think. What’s the difference? We’re together again, no matter what. Come hell or high water or 3rd degree disfigurement, I’m back where I belong. I’m about to shout it when I see the look on her face: she’s thinking it, too. We are that in synch as we fall to the floor and the flames of our thrusting bonfire swell to consume the house, the block, and this defenseless city.
Even when we press against one another, there will be gaps: folds in our flesh; the concave nature of our palms; the time our lips are apart between kisses; minute dimples in the surface of our tongues.
I’m obsessed with the space between us. It’s miles as I write this. Soon it will be blocks. It can never be too small.
We were at her cottage. She was all water water water and I was all cold cold cold. The truth was I was feeling fat. I still looked good lying on my back–who doesn’t?–but topless and standing? Few things made me as uncomfortable.
In fact, there’d been women in my bed with smaller breasts than mine. It’s called gynecomastia and it’s a goddamn curse. “Exercise like a bitch, eat right, so what?” That was gynecomastia’s motto. It’s like resistance and the amateur writer. The writer doesn’t stand a chance.
But she’s all water water water and tells me she doesn’t care what I look like. I believe her. She may be the only woman–the only person–I’ve known who seems to be honest, not to a fault, but always, always when it mattered.
I wade. I do it for her. She treads a few feet further out. Naked. She’s naked more than anyone I know. You think that makes you immune, right? You see skin 24/7 and it no longer does it for you, right? Let me tell you, when it comes to Beth, you’re wrong. With Beth, it’s the opposite. It suits her, nudity. She’s more comfortable that way, more beautiful that way.
She’s 3.5 years older than me and the most true looking woman I’ve ever known. A living, breathing Starry Night–the Northern Lights made flesh.
She climbs onto the floating barge and suns herself.
I swim up and hold onto the edge. The wood is slick from months and years in the water but I hold it anyway. Fucking trooper, I am.
“Why is it scarier to swim at night?” she asks. “Do we really think the dangerous fish come out only when it’s dark? The fabled Ontario Pirhana.”
“I don’t know. It just is.”
“You coming up?”
“I may go inside.”
“But I’m up here.”
“I feel like writing.”
“What are you working on?”
“I don’t know yet. Something.”
“I should write, too.”
She’s working on a story of her own. I haven’t read it yet, she hasn’t shared it, but she tells me there are wizards in it. I don’t know shit about wizards.
“How’s that going?”
“It’s not. Work…” I nod, absently. “What are you looking at?” She catches me looking her over. I’m not ashamed of it.
“Perfect for me.”
I lower myself in the water, take the lake into my mouth. I spurt it up onto her stomach and breasts.
“You hungry?” I ask.
“I believe so.”
“Here or there?”
“Here. Then there.”
She reaches down to offer me a hand up. I pull her in. We bob, face to face. We kiss and tread and grope. For no reason at all, I’m overcome, overtaken, by sadness.
“What’s wrong, boo boo?”
I nod. We swim. On the beach, I say, “Lets have a kid.”
“You’re just hungry.”
“You’d be a great mother.”
“I’m serious. I mean, I’d be useless financially, but I’d be there in body and spirit.”
“That’s sweet, really.”
She just smiles.
The next morning, I wake her by dragging slow, light circles across her stomach. It’s early but the room’s bright, the air crisp. She’s happy to be woken this way.
“What are you thinkin’?”
“There’s no syrup. How about an omelette?”
She nods. I get up, cook. When she enters the kitchen, she still hasn’t dressed. She sits at the table like she was destined to be there, now, nude, waiting to be served.
I lift her breakfast to her plate.
“Were you serious?”
I leave the stove on, sit down across from her, peckish but too intrigued to turn my back on the conversation. She senses the situation–she always does–and slides her plate to the center of the table. I fork off a bit from the close end.
“I’m getting older.”
“Not that old.”
“Yes. I’m serious.”
“We’re not even a real couple.”
That’s my fault. I shrug. “That bother you?”
“Yeah. Well, no, not baby-wise, but you’re a jerk for making it so.”
“Here it comes.”
“I name him.”
“And if it’s a girl?”
“She’ll have a guy’s name.”
She’s quiet on the drive back to the city. She keeps checking me out from of the corner of her eye. I keep pretending I don’t notice. I’m not very good at it and she laughs at my ineptness.
It’s getting dark fast and we’re quiet for the next five miles. Out of the blue, she smiles, loud.
“What are you smirking about?”
“You really want to know?”
I tell her, “Yes, I really want to know.”
She pulls the car over to the shoulder. She turns the hazards on.
“What are you up to?”
She steps from the car, closes the door. She tries to open the back door, but it’s locked. I laugh. She opens the front door—reaches in—undoes the back door lock. She gets in the back seat, looks me right in the eye.
“Come here.” I struggle to climb over the car seat; I get stuck. “I’m with you because you do your own stunts. You know that, right?”
She takes me in her arms, pulls me over the rest of the way. We kiss. She says, “I love you.”
She kisses me. I tell her, “I want to promise you something.”
“I’m liable to believe every word you say.”
“Too many times. Too many men–”
“Not this time and not this man.”
“I will never lie to you. I will never take you for granted. And I will never leave you.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you didn’t mean it.”
I shake my head no.
We kiss. Soft. Vibrant.
She says, “Can we just make out? Here by the side of the road?”
“‘Til our lips bruise.”
She smiles, satisfied with my answer. She closes her eyes and brings her mouth towards mine. I witness a slight pause in her action as she comes closer. Something happens in that hesitation, something changes. We move on, emotionally, and our relationship peaks in that silent beat before our lips touch.
Take away all that I deserve and give me five more minutes on the back of Beth’s bike.
I see her now, pregnant, after all these years, standing at the margin of the train. Bested by a man I do not know and will never meet, jealousy tears through me like a pack of wolves.
Oh, the man I am not because I was never brave in love.
I loved Beth immediately, and told her so as she was walking out the door two years later.
She was drunk. I figured she’d be back. I put the ice cream she’d been eating in the freezer, bowl and all. I see it there every night when I take Shakedown’s food out to defrost. It’d be nothing to throw it out, of course. It just never occurs to me when I’m standing there, and to get up from my chair when it does occur to me — like it has just now — and then go downstairs and throw it out seems like making a bigger deal of it than necessary.
Every once in a while, I google her. See where she works. Where she’s moved to. Montreal. Brooklyn. Halifax. Jersey City. Berlin. Restless. When we met, she’d just left New York after working for the UN. Been at non-profits ever since.
She liked to do yoga nude. I liked to watch her do yoga nude. She had that kind of relationship with a lot of people: symbiotic; but of course she was only nude with me.
We argued the night she left. I was upset that she’d been taken in by a charlatan, a man who said he could speak to her dead father. She was angry, thinking I believed her a chump. I should have just said, “No. Not a chump. Vulnerable,” but I’ve never been good with words. She’d paid him $1500 and insisted she got her money’s worth. Scott the Seer. Scott the charlatan.
I don’t remember anymore, but I think the ice cream was mint. I can still see dark specks in it, even though it’s frosted over with freezer-burn or whatever it’s called when ice crystals form on things left too long in the cold.
During sex, she’d sometimes claw at me. Occasionally she’d find purchase and rip away strips of flesh. It hurt like hell, but then I’d see her face and the pain would just… float away.
We met online in the late 90s. I met lots of women there. They were always bold and smart and sexy, not like these days where the companies advertise on buses and most of the people who use the service look like they’ve only ever traveled on buses. I remember before we met in real life we played a sort of 20 Questions game and one of mine was “What’s something you’d never put in your mouth?” Her answer was “subway pole,” which I guess is funny considering what I just said about public transportation and online dating.
One of her questions for me was about ghosts. “Have you ever seen a ghost?”, I think it was. I guess that should have been a clue that she was susceptible to the Scotts of this world. I’m one of those people who has seen ghosts and I still don’t believe in them, if that makes any sense. Like seeing or hearing something impossible, and having the ability to know that, even though you don’t know right now, there’s a logical explanation for it, and one day when you’re smarter or just older you’ll know what it is.
A few months before the night with the ice cream, we talked about having a kid. It was my idea and she said she needed to think about it, which to me meant no. Being underemployed, I would have been useless financially, but by then she was the CEO of a major national non-profit, so I don’t think money was the issue. Maybe she just knew. I imagined myself a stay-at-home dad who would homeschool, or, if the kid turned out to be smarter than me, just be there with the food made when he came home for lunch. Had a name picked out and everything.
I sometimes wonder if she’s had a child with somebody else, but I never google that part, not that it’d be easy to do. And if she did have a kid, is she still with that guy, or is there something in his freezer, too? Maybe that’s her M.O. All over the planet, lonely men just sitting in their living rooms contemplating half-eaten desserts and whose back Beth scratched last night.
When you click with someone the way I clicked with Beth, you compare future matches to the experience. It’s wonderful, you think, but it’s not that. And it’s never not-that because it’s better. It’s always not-that because it’s worse. Less intense. Less calm. It’s a ten out of ten, which people who’ve never met their Beth think is great. I need relationships that numbers can’t define. Given every letter and symbol, all energy and elements–you still can’t tie it up or put it on display. It blooms, blossoms, and thrives around and through the invisible spaces between.
Nowadays, the shine slowly fades out of my relationships. I asked one ex what happened. It was unquestionably over, though neither one of us wanted it to end. She shrugged and said she felt the relationship just kinda “bled out.” There’s no answer. I know there’s no answer.
I wanted to name the kid Howlin’, like Howlin’ Wolf. Beth asked, “What if it’s a girl?” I said, “Then she’d be a girl named Howlin’.”
It’s good to have a unique name. I learned that growing up Dobbs. Sure, people look at you funny when you’re introduced, and kids’ll tease you when you’re young — but if you think Steve, Jennifer, and Mike aren’t being teased, you’re wrong. I went to highschool with a girl named Kimberly. When substitute teachers came in, or it was the first day of a new year, the teacher taking roll always shortened it to “Kim,” and she would politely answer, “Kimberly, please.” I don’t know if it was the timbre of her voice or the consistency of her manners, but it wore on the other kids. We all started calling her Kimberley Please, like it was the second part of her given name, like Mary Jo or Emma Jane. Eventually, teachers started calling her Kimberly Please, too.
I knew another kid named Jeff. He misspelled his name on the top of a test and when handing them back out, the teacher read aloud what he’d written. Forty years later his friends still call him Jeef. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t think the sex of the kid would affect the teasing up or down.
The last thing Beth ever said to me was, “That’s why I can’t have a child with you. You don’t believe in God.” I didn’t know what God had to do with her dead dad or Scott the charlatan. I couldn’t recall us having ever discussed religion and had always assumed she was an atheist.
I remember one time she told me she climbed a fence with her highschool boyfriend and together they went skinny-dipping in a public pool. A busy-body must have called the police. The cops didn’t arrest or ticket them, just shooed them out of the water. She told me she was embarrassed, but that the men were very gracious, both of them turning their backs as she stepped out of the pool.
I sometimes imagine myself one of them officers. Seeing her clothes by the side of the pool–sometimes neatly folded, sometimes dropped and jumbled–and Beth’s head above the water. Long, red hair flowing on the surface. I flush with pride as I have the willpower to turn away, wait for her to be fully dressed before guiding her out the fence and into the park. I’ll admit it’s an odd fantasy.
Beth was a beautiful woman. Probably still is. Sometimes, the loneliness is unbearable. When it is, I gently close my eyes, and look for her face.
I kiss her and wait for her reply. Passion rules and she lifts her head, fast. We bang teeth when her mouth goes too far: more a statement than an answer. She’s young, eager, easily aroused. I move south over her body and we laugh through the pain. Things settle down, and I’m delighted to remember how little in life humbles me as quickly as the almost edible sound our mouths make as mine discovers new breasts.
“You think we don’t notice?”
“Don’t notice what?”
“The women you don’t write about when you write about the ones–when you write about the ones you do write about.”
“Is that what you think? It’s all a distraction?”
“What was her name?”
“Yeah, and what was she like?”
“I don’t remember what she was like.”
“That can’t be true. You remember everything.”
“Well, that’s the thing in’it?”
“Knowing you can forget something… someone like that–your sister … makes everything more important.”
“You don’t remember anything about her?”
“A little. I remember the day she died. I was ten. We never had many tender moments. I remember her mostly with my mother or with my other sister.”
I took a sip. She took took a drag. We didn’t look at each other while she exhaled.
“No, nothing. Not your fault. Just, ah… thinking.”
“What comes to mind?”
“‘What comes to mind?’”
I watch the smoke leave her lips this time. I think of the seventies. I think of disco dancing with my mom in the living room of our Regent Park apartment. In fleeting abstract terms, I think of my two sisters and how they were different from each other. How they were different from me. I think of the dogs we had, Winston and Bozlee, Sooner and Taylor and George, and Muffin the cat. I think of my mom’s boyfriends and watching Saturday Night at the Movies with Elwy Yost. I strain to focus, try to remember a single one-on-one conversation I had with Misty. Not a fight. Not an argument. A conversation. But the truth is, I can’t even recall what she looked like. At least, no images come that aren’t photographs that sat in curio cabinets or on hutches for years after she died. Cheats. Memory cheats. I remember that shriveled left hand and the permanent crook of her arm. I remember one white dress, a fragment of a smiling mouth.
“So am I, baby. So am I.”
Pannonica was the first black girl I’d ever seen naked, and the first person outside of my immediate family to tell me she loved me. When she said it, Haitian Fight Song was blaring from a neighbor’s apartment, and she was standing in front of me, topless and panty-assed, running an impeccable Charleston cowtail with her right leg.
I lay on the uncovered mattress my mother had placed directly onto the hardwood floor. We couldn’t afford a box-spring or an air conditioner. I had a bottle of Coke in my hand — they were still glass back then — and the heat of my palm and the August air had warmed away its fizz.
Toronto summers were unbearable. I never wanted to go anywhere, just while away the hours with a neighborhood girl. It wasn’t always sex. We’ddance and drink and read to one another, mostly from a book of Indian love poems that my sister had tented to tatters, making her favorites easy to find. “When your gaze falls on one of her parts, like a sick cow fallen in mud, itcannot escape” or “When the whole city is asleep, I take off my anklets, and come into your room, with soft stolen steps.”
I have vivid and positive memories from those years in Regent Park. I never saw or heard the violence the papers reported. Never felt unsafe or threatened. Like every Ontario Housing unit I’ve ever been in, the hallways and stairwells of our Sumach Street building forever smelled of goat meat and ghee.
Besides the girls, what I remember most are the neighbors. The woman who lived down the hall who taught me to make peanut butter and butter sandwiches while going on about the evils of cooked fruit. Cool Claude Pitt, who lived on the other side of our south wall. He had the most amazing collection of jazz and soul albums I’d ever see. He taught me how to slide out the records without letting my fingers touch the grooves. I still use his technique. It was his copy of The Clown that had compelled Pannonica to dance that day.
Done well, the Charleston is an optical illusion. Done well two-and-a-half feet from my grinning mug, by a half-naked lover who’s just bared her soul? It’s that and everything else.
Pannonica died of breast cancer in 2012. Her mother found my number online and gave me the news. She told me she had intercepted and kept the letters I’d written weekly to Pannonica for almost two years.
“I should burn them,” shes said, “so no one else will know your wickedness. The things you confessed to my daughter.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.
“You knew my own daughter better than I ever did. Might have loved her more, too. I made her break your heart, the way your father had broken your mother’s when he told her about me. And the way he broke mine when he ran. He was a coward and a no-good drunk and I told Pannonica you would be a coward and no-good drunk, too, and that she should leave you.” She paused, expecting a response. I waited, wanting to be so quiet she would fear her confession hadn’t been heard. “Now you know,” she said. “I wanted you to know.”
I held the kitchen counter for support and it took everything for my voice not to crack when I asked, “Did Pannonica ever find happiness?”
She said nothing for a moment, and I thought she might hang up. “Pannonica went through a lot of men,” she said. “Married the worst just to get back at me. You were always her favorite. No harm telling you that, now. What should I do with the letters?”
“Burn them,” I said, and pictured her house engulfed in flames.
She hung up, and I broke down.
I don’t remember drawing a bath. I don’t remember cooking something comforting. I’m unsure even if I told the woman I was seeing at the time. Katie, I think it was.
I do remember softly cradling the phone, and making fists. And I do remember the bottles I’ve hid behind ever since. Tanquerey and Gordon’s, Boodles and Beefeater and Plymouth. Pickling my life in a gin tide that rises between the life I now live and that one sweet memory of Pannonica’s twirling right leg.