by Karen Faris
I am unnerved. She has found me again. It is always the same. It is when the days darken, when the air holds a chill. It is when the leaves loose their tether and swirl to uncertainty that she arrives with her long shadow of beckoning. I pull the hood of my sweatshirt up as if the October winds were already rattling the apartment windows. I resist. I return to my desk and my work.
All the same, I am unnerved. I spill coffee over a client’s request, some acne-prone twenty-year-old’s term paper. I soak up the mess with an old ska t-shirt, then toss the useless rag into my pile of laundry waiting by the door. My forehead is hot. My palms are sweaty. I was really hoping she’d forget about me. I was hoping that now, here, things would be different.
Things could have been different. Like I could have been living in Maui. In the time that never came to pass, in the million frequent flyer points I never amassed, in the still life of the calendar he still sends. I keep its months blank. Sometimes I think I could have been his lady, maybe even should have been. I could have kicked my misgivings down the road. Like rent, you can go away but the payment is due whether or not you are living there. My current calendar comes with the newspaper and the paperman’s plug for a Happy Holiday tip. It’s a scribbled mess of appointments, obligations, and disappointments, of opportunity lost or never found. They don’t teach you how to find a job in college. But they should.
Enough. There’s work to be done.
But first, I need to see if she is still there. Of course she is. She stomps her foot impatiently, her old-fashioned black boots marking time against the curb. I scrunch my red curls back into my hood and zip up the jacket.
I sit back down to finish the boy’s paper. Drum the pencil. Agi-agi-taa-ted goes the noise to word in the head. Tapping my red pencil against the printout of Calvin’s poorly articulated theories on religion (not The Calvin of course, although I suppose this one too considers himself The Calvin, oh god, don’t they all) the goal to rewrite them and sound like Calvin, only better, but not too good because that’d give it away that maybe the writer isn’t an eighteen-year-old undergraduate student.
Fuck you Calvin. It can’t be done. I’m not that good. I’m tried of being oppressed by the need to make money while you spend daddy’s trust fund account on not quite hookers, but close enough. All of you can go to hell. Liberal Arts—what a rip off. But who knew? By the time you know, it’s too late. Right Kathleen? What do you have to say about that?
The Lady just stomps her dainty black clad boots.
I’m feeling more anxious than usual. More prone to small fistfuls of unwanted sleep, nodding off wherever, whenever. Even gained a pound or two. I’ve always had so much energy, but now I sit down and my eyes close. It’s strange. What can it mean to change and not know yourself? That’s not even the uncanny part. What can it mean when someone out of a painting seeks you out year after year? Mademoiselle, my orange cat, climbs up on my desk and dares me to pull a paper out from under her, her trap already sprung with an outreached paw, the claws reacting and retracting.
I tease the paper out from beneath her, but she clamps down anyway, leaving gash marks. I gnaw at my pencil and circle “refudiate.” “Really Calvin,” I write in the cramped margin, “must you?” But he’s a university student, the black sheep of his ivy league family, with ironic tattoos of “Mother” and a pagan cross, who dabbles in junk and is prone to long digressions on the meaning of “junkie,” and so Calvin, being Calvin, must refudiate. But me—must I? I deserve more than to work at the intersection of commerce and academia, a sketchy netherland with dubious rewards and no credit. But you get what you get. A couple of aspirins seem to be what is required.
I contemplate the mystery of Kathleen, the lady with the black boots from the painting. I believe her to be Tissot’s girlfriend who has somehow gotten out of his “October” painting and is roaming freely through the streets of Montreal. Can this be true? Of course not. That would be nuts. And yet, Holmes himself said, well I’ve forgotten, but something about when you eliminate the possible, then that leaves the impossible. Incroyable, oui, mais impossible, non! The mind is a many splendored thing. Mine is a waste. And April was the cruelest month.
Somehow this must be true. Kathleen has left Tissot. He worked too hard anyway. And no doubt she needed escape. From child bearing and the squalor of crowded housing. Well, she can’t have this apartment. It is big and light and airy and across from the park. And I did not leave this place when I could have. I could be in Maui for Christ’s sake. Nothing can make me leave now.
I moved here from the apartment of the damned. I hated the apartment and probably hated the man more, although I once loved him. Hate follows that kind of intensity when you love too much and it isn’t returned. He did not love me. Of course, he wanted me to have the baby. He had that kind of love. But he would have left me—me—who would have been an us by then. He pressed me. Haunted me from across the bar while I worked, don’t you want this too? We’re in love, he insisted. We were meant to be. No, the callings of cellular material became bound and that is something different. One night he didn’t come home. Something came up and I couldn’t call. I laughed, cried and yelled at the same time. To think of the price I might have paid for believing, actually believing the words instead of the biology. Fight or Flight. That story ends. The next one begins. Here.
I landed here, on the other side of town, in a better kind of dilapidated neighborhood. Better chocolate in the Kit Kats. Imported from Germany, it said. The Greek depanneur owner tells me he gets them special from his cousin. “You should meet him,” he says. His brown eyes do not smile. He adds the disclaimer, “He is an older man,” as he casts his gaze down, “has benefits of experience, could take care of you. Make you babies.” His openly evaluates my childbearing anatomy. I smile politely, “Not exactly what I’m in need of right now.” “Think about it,” he says putting an extra Kit Kat into the bag and pushing it across the counter. The chocolate was good anyway.
I really could have been happy here, on the other side of town away from the man who currently hates me and loves me all at the same time. His friends stop me in the street. They check over their shoulders then whisper in my ear about how much he misses me and how depressed he is. About how I should come back because man, he won’t come to band practice and can’t I help everyone out in this? I told them there’d be another me, a more important me. “Kit Kat?” I offer. I am already gone. Beyond reach.
My stomach has been upset all month. At the slightest foul scent bile lurches out of nowhere and into my throat. My heartbeat echoes in my ears like ants marching. Anxiety over work and money and life is what I think. In sleep, all goes away. I look at the clock. Too early for a nap. To the window yet again. You are my obsession. Go away, I silently tell Kathleen. Go on. Find someone else from another painting. But she stays, resolute, always that secret smile that either laughs at you or with you. Impossible to tell. I long to discover who else knows her. Impossible to ask and not risk your reputation as sane.
Downstairs, 1A takes photos for the French daily paper. He’s always on the lookout for the shot that’s going to get his ass out of this place and into a penthouse with a floorful of plucked and waxen babes. If they’re wanton, even better. If I could just get him to document Kathleen, there’d be evidence. But my suspicions tell me that if he had ever noticed her, he would have said something. He has never once mentioned seeing a woman dressed like she’s out of the 1870s. Neither has 2A. 2A is perfectly nondescript but long and leggy and runs to natural emaciation. She’s one of those glossy models who does the catwalk in foreign countries. Without her makeup, though, she’d be invisible.
I return to the window because I must. Kathleen is too striking to resist in her black petticoats and ivory skin, red hair in fluid ringlets. She’s staring right at me now like a tourist gazing at a well-known landmark, seeking the experience of the foreign.
I wonder if I am to her what the street kids are to me. This I find disconcerting, almost as much as seeing these poor, homeless kids who should have people who love them but don’t. Whenever I go to Ottawa, I look for them, the clump of kids with their backpacks and rolled up sleeping bags. I always look for the same kid, the one who was handsome with a headful of curls and knows it. Everyone who looks at him thinks the same thing: You? What on earth happened? That look makes him mad and he yells obscenities, contorting his face, destroying his own beauty because he knows he can. The last time, he had some girl draped over him. I was hoping they’d make it out of there. That makes me wonder . . . did I see the boy a month ago when I ran up to Ottawa to interview for a job? Waste Management of all things. Could I extol the virtues of garbage for a living? The thought of marketing garbage is depressing. My education prepared me for nothing. Fuck you liberal arts.
That boy should have been around then. It was the middle of tourist season when life is easy and people are free and generous in the warmth of the sun. Then fall comes. Warmth and generosity disappear. Your regular penury existence prickles at your skin like the pebbles of the pavement you sit on. I close my eyes. Things are bad. I could throw up. I grab the wastebasket.
I take it with me to the window. From just outside the copse of ash trees, Kathleen smiles, beckoning. But there’s laundry to be done. And work, of course. Only 9:30 am. A ponderous pile of editing to get through. Mostly editing rich kids’ essays because they’re too lazy to do anything for themselves and I’m too broke not to do it for them. How they’re going to run the world, I haven’t a clue. I’m also reworking a business manual from a man who fancies himself a young, fitter Donald Trump. In the manuscript he calls his admin assistant, “the girl.” I prepare memos about how to communicate with people effectively, with a purpose that doesn’t denigrate, bees to honey and all that, but it won’t matter. You can exchange words, even erase them, but that does nothing to get at what’s behind them. He will always have a girl who feels lucky to have a job, with minimum pay and no benefits. He will never believe in good luck and fortune. He will believe that hard work conquers all despite the fact that he inherited his business and his education. He will be coiffed, cultured and cold, with a distinctive lack of remorse. This will be called success.
The wind picks up. The window rattles. I look down. She’s gone. I breathe easier.
10:34. The day feels done and the apartment claustrophobic. I need release from this feeling that clutches me to its chest that hugs me without affection. My life is somewhere else, waiting. The question is where. I would go to it in a minute if I could find it.
I grab my jacket from the back of the black office chair with the ducktaped padding (dumpster diving). Maybe I could have marketed waste. I open the door to the hallway where I hear 1A trying to convince 2A to be his model. Le plus ca change, yada, yada. I retreat back and make my exit by the fire escape, thundering all the way down the metal steps.
The edges of the clouds are crimped with black. The air is crisp and the sky is a bluer blue than summer permits. After the stupor of a slow, sangria summer, decisions can no longer be postponed. Fall is here. Forget the calendar. Clusters of orange leaves fall from the trees. Even if the leaves touch on their descent, it is still a separate trajectory.
I take the path through the park, keeping an eye out for Kathleen. It’s past Labour Day so people no longer linger, take leisurely walks or sit at the base of statues and ponder anything more than the incredible miracle of lunchables. Suddenly, I hear footsteps. I turn, ready to meet Kathleen, but it is only the rail thin form of a seasoned runner pummeling his joints into the pavement. His grey stretched out t-shirt announces he has done a 100-mile race out West and the way his left leg trails a split second behind suggests he has a hamstring injury. Rest, I want to tell him. It isn’t worth the extra heartbeats.
* * *
Last night down at Boite Centre-Ville, Gerald proclaimed how he hates to sweat. Not that any of us were surprised except by the passion our usually restrained serveur exercised. He ranted about the futility of the gym, the tyranny of the jog and the sheer waste of heartbeats. He suggested that I not waste mine on such a nefarious thing and try video games instead. Studies say it makes the brain go faster. I laughed and told him that exercise made my heart beat slower, therefore lengthening my life, and if my mind worked any faster, I’d only be heading backwards at a speedier rate. He rolled his eyes and still deigned to give me my biere froide with a bow and a “Mademoiselle.” I paid him then because he was going out on his smoke break. Gerald sometimes does not come back from his breaks. Sylvie, the owner is his sister-in-law, and she refuses to say a word to him. The other staff are prone to long blasts of Québécois Francais followed by frequent bouts of inattention. If you had somewhere else to be, best to pay in advance.
But it’s too early for Gerald and the Boite. The chairs are still stacked and chained to the tables; the sidewalk unswept of yesterday’s butts and desiccated popcorn. Pigeons and little brown sparrows compete for leftovers of the fray. The pile of today’s news is still bundled with sharp white cord and sits up against the locked door. The street is quiet with Monday morning’s dislocution. I prefer the energy of a Saturday, when having expectations doesn’t seem quite as foolish, or Sundays, when having no expectations is the only expectation.
A girl with flamingo hair and multiple piercings stops me to bum a smoke and bus token. I mumble n’on est pas and continue on, but it’s stopped me in the head. I’m chasing ladies out of paintings. Have I lost my mind? Have I? No wonder I’m underemployed with a mind like this. I wish to go home. Only that is not where I want to go. I have failed myself. The lady knows. That is why she visits. It can all be too much sometimes. Too much choice and not enough opportunity is where I’m stuck. Last week, I spent ten minutes buying laundry soap and trying to figure out the difference between the $1.99 brand and the premium $5.60 bottle. I almost cried in Aisle 17b. All I wanted was clean clothes. I tell myself I have work to do and return to the confines of my apartment. But even the laundry taxes me with unmet expectations. My epiphany comes right then, not that I believe in God—heavens no—but we all need limitations and being godless is a good start. All the God people seem to fight. My epiphany has granted me the answer. I will buy more underwear. The rest will take care of itself. Take that, Blessed Lady of the Paint.
Tick tick, tick tick. Recriminations seep in through all this silence, find the spaces. You can’t keep going on like this. Piecemeal work. Piecemeal life. Scrounging for change. The laundry. Something must change. This is not a life. The keyboard as metronome. Sometimes even as heartbeat. Or exercise. The breathlessness comes because I hold my breath while I type.
Absurdity follows absurdity. I put aside some asinine science fiction film script and pick up the proofs of M. LeBlague’s manuscript, a dissertation on the meaning of Madonna. Lady Gaga has yet to appear, but she is coming. He is a silly man. Feminism is dead. The daughters learned to be exploited and enjoy it. Wear juicy on their ass and think they’re emancipated or worse, not even want to be. I am confused by the fact that we live in a country where the wearing of the niqab can be an expression of freedom. The young ones go on and on about how things are equal, the struggle is over, they can be who they want to be and so forth. We know, eventually, the joke will be on them and they will realize too late the trap they’ve set for themselves.
It is numeric, this trap. This equals sign, the parts before and after will get rearranged. Only in separateness does this equation balance. By the time they get it, it’ll be too late. They will no longer be separate. Biology is destiny. Biology is always waiting. Every month. Waiting. Meet your maker and be undone. And smile. Of course you should always be smiling, no matter what. You are woman. And you will smile under the gaze.
God. I wake up to dry eyes and a sleep hang-over from an extended middle-of-the-day nap. The phone is ringing. My mouth is parched and I have to pee. I grab the phone and run to the bathroom. The sound of Caitlin’s voice floats out, telling me that she’s going down to the Boite tonight. He will be there, she says in that breathless way she has when she’s trying to entice me into some sort of caper that is usually for her benefit. Why else would she be using my him? She doesn’t even like him. This is not the one I left, but a different one. Caitlin thinks he’s going to leave me high and dry. That makes me laugh. She gives him way too much importance. I am free. He is the one attached, and it isn’t even to me. Thank bloody Jesus for that.
I shouldn’t go to the Boite. It is my season of melancholy. I will make bad decisions. Isn’t that why Tissot’s lady comes to see me? I go to the window to check. No Lady. So I must decide—do I want to see him? For he is not so much trouble as an inevitable waste of time, albeit a fun and amusing and very very cute wastrel of time. He does live with someone, and Caitlin and I have been over and over the moral quagmire of this, if, in fact, such a quagmire exists. We differ and yet, it is she who will be the first one to use him to get me to keep her company. I laugh. Hit the shower. Of course I’ll go. I’m still young. I have time to squander, although not too much time. It’s the Lady of the Painting who’s telling me that. Not that I hear voices, but she’s become a person to me, someone I see giving me advice like the mother who might actually see who I am rather than who she would like me to become. The mother who would be happier if I had been captured forever by a painting. Perfect and still. The fact that Kathleen lived in Victorian England does not escape me. Somehow that just makes it more delicious. She knew these things. Live to live. Don’t stand still and be forgotten. Don’t let expectations chain you. Be wary; biology is destiny. Biology needs to be controlled. One must know one’s power and be ready to use it. Unequivocally. Otherwise you’re just another stupid fuck.
Of course he plays in a band. Several, actually. But this one happens to be a jazz band. Caitlin and I are currently jazz lovers and have been for several months now. Musically, we can go with the flow but we are most firmly fans of the bar Boite Centre-Ville with its hipster tables, backyard terrace and front of house sidewalk carnival extravaganza. But it wasn’t always like this. Before the jazz was ska and before that folkie stuff, and before that Sylvie’s husband and his poetic rants and proclamations. We drank a lot during this period. Quite frankly, we were thankful when Bertrand decided he wasn’t a country unto himself and got out in the world. It was Eastern Europe that changed him. He heard the music. The jazz started shortly after that. And the renovations came then too. It used to be a dive, sawdust on the floors, the smell of smoke and peanut shells everywhere and tables held together by graffiti. Not to mention the ladies room. One stall didn’t have a door on it; the other didn’t have a toilet seat. Now the hipsters come for the chrome, polished marble and artwork. We were here first, though, and we’ll still be here for the next transformation. That’s the plan.
Bertrand isn’t around, as usual. He’s left the day-to-day runnings to Sylvie, his wife. He’s become aloof, grumpy even. No more flashes of his big teeth with bad fillings. Morose, he floats in last thing in the evening, if he’s lucky, before Sylvie gets too far into the white wine. He counts the money. She picks at him. Where he’s been. What’s he been doing? Who’s looking after the kids? Another babysitter? How are we going to pay the bills? And where did all the damn money go? It’s the same fight. Day in. Day out. No wonder Gerald, who lives with Bertrand and Sylvie and their two toddlers, goes sideways a lot. There are other rumors about the place, but we don’t pay attention. It is a big city, after all, and you just never know who’ll pull up a chair beside you. Best not to know sometimes.
Ten o’clock. Caitlin said she’d be there by now but probably isn’t. I leave, cut through the park. Down the strip, people are out . All is how it usually is. But I feel different. Can’t put my finger on what it is.
When I get to the bar, Caitlin is already there proving wonders never cease. Something is up. She’s primped. Hair newly jet blacked and glossy. Kohl eyes and jangly earrings. She’s gorgeous, her lithe body in a flimsy little grey dress that shows how she moves in her skin. Sometimes when I see her, I wish I went with women. But when she speaks, it ruins everything for me.
I sit down. Gerald magically appears with our biere froide. Caitlin is leaning in, whispering in my ear. The music is loud and she has to speak up. See the broad up in front? That’s HER. Who her? His girlfriend, the one he lives with. No way. I whisper in Caitlin’s ear, “But she never comes out.” Caitlin shrugs. Tonight, he isn’t looking in our direction. He does not look in our direction for so long that I know he knows I’m here. The girlfriend sits ramrod straight with a pack of four other women. She watches the entire show in his face. It should be funny, but somehow it’s not. My attention is diverted. There’s a glimpse of red hair and black.
“What?” says Caitlin trying to follow my gaze.
I shake my head. “Nothing.” I turn back and change the subject because even though she’s my best friend, she wouldn’t understand. Best to talk about the man. “You knew?” j’accuse.
“Non.” She does not sound sincere.
“D’accord. I did.” Her hands fly up, flinging her long fingers and magenta coloured nails to the heavens. She taps a cigarette pack impatiently. It is not yet time to smoke. One must go outside. Rules since Sylvie is expecting yet again.
Caitlin shrugs. “So what? Would you have come if you knew? And you should see the girlfriend. It’s for your own good.” She eyes me. “I do you a favor, non?”
I swirl the beer as if it alone knew whether or not that was true. The truth is I don’t care. Her business is her business. “There’s a reason why she never comes out,” I point out.
Caitlin’s kohl eyes narrow. “Well, she’s here now.”
I look over and take stock, evaluate and compare. Again there is an equation in there. We are not equal. She is not who I thought she would be. Slightly dumpy but transfixed by him. Her normalness. Her ability to adore. I have neither. That depresses me.
A door opens from the outside. Caitlin glances to the light, then down and away. “Don’t look now, but the one I told you about? He’s here.” I do not have time to remind her that she’s told me nothing.
My beer is warm and my stomach is queasy. I push my chair over to make room. “Oh goody, he’s brought a friend,” I hiss.
“I’m not even going to start.”
“They’re nice, you’ll see.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“You have to stay.”
“Fine.” I stay for half a beer. The boy is nice. He seems kind, considerate, attentive. Not my type. I bolt for home at the first chance.
By the time I arrive home, the kind one has called, left a message. Oh great, I think. A nice man.
* * *
A different time. “Hold still.” The child is six and we are at the museum. The boy is not my husband’s but it doesn’t matter. At least not to us. To the boy, time has yet to tell who will matter most. My husband and I smile at each other.
“Look with your eyes,” I implore to my son. “What do you see?”
We are standing in front of Tissot’s October.
“I just love this painting, don’t you?” I say to my husband.
“You’ve seen it a thousand times. What’s left to see?” he asks. Then he asks the boy, as if it’s some sort of code, “Do you like it?”
“It’s okay.” The boy shrugs. And the pair of them start moving on to the next one. I time them as they go around the room. Four seconds. Five seconds. That one took ten. They must like it.
I’m left standing by myself at the same old, same old. The Lady is about to disappear back into the painting. There is something in the copse, something she wants us to know, yet something that still must be kept secret. I wonder. I examine her for clues. Like the changing light at twilight, her waist is thickening and her breasts are pushed against the material. She looks rich and well-cared for. She’s got colour in her cheeks and good skin. The clothes are of the upper-class, but not opulent—practical. Her peers swirl in the background and are seemingly oblivious to her.
People turn and look as my baby starts to yewl a bit and mouth the fabric at my breast, hungry milksop that she is. She seems ravenous all the time. Hungry. Thirsty. Wet. Tired. Hungry. Thirsty. Wet. Tired. This is supposed to be a treat for all of us. The boys are at the other end of the room. I watch them stop for a minute at the entrance to the next room. They pause, see how far away I am.
The boy, Stephan, looks like his father. Everyone who knows his father says there’s no denying it, so I don’t, and my husband treats him like his own. Stephan is a skinny thing and moves all the time with a kind of restless energy that is not childhood alone. Even when he’s not moving, his foot is snaking along some contour, a window ledge, a counter, a chair, my leg, investigating, drawing forth reaction. I wave them on. I smile. They enter the next room without me.
I’m standing in front of the painting. I have a strong sense that she’s seeing me and laughing, telling me to forget all this nonsense. Even if you disappear, they will go on, she seems to be saying. I look up for my husband and son. Of course, they are nowhere to be seen. But then out of nowhere, they reappear.
“Mama,” yells Stephan, excitedly running across the gallery floor and causing security to snap to attention, “You’ve got to come and see. This one has maggots in it. For real!”
Now the lady Kathleen seems to be laughing at me. I switch the baby to the other breast. My t-shirt is soiled with letdown.
Ha, I laugh back at her. At least I had my tubes tied. After that, Kathleen does not visit me for many years.
There it was in the newspaper. The name that catches in my throat whenever I see it but here, no, it cannot be in the right place. I turn on the computer. Check the emails. Stephan has sent me the obit. He wants me to go with him to the funeral. Over the years, he has seen his father off and on, but me, I never wanted to walk back and forth between lives.
I talk it over with my husband and he says it is between me, Stephan and the deceased. There is a part of me that wants to see him, only I want him the way he was—not spent having had a life with the other woman, or is it women, I don’t remember anymore, his women and children. That would ruin everything.
My head trembles with the beginning of a migraine. The phone rings and I’m startled out of this half-time reverie. It is Stephan. He is awkward and apologetic on the phone. José, the wife, would prefer that just family come to see him. “Are you alright with that?” I ask Stephan. I can feel Stephan roll his eyes even though we are on the phone. “She means you not me, mama”, he says quietly. “Oh.” “Are you alright with that?” Stephan asks. Perfectly, my child. Perfectly. Stephan goes back and forth in ways I never could. He is adept at living, this child of mine. He has somehow surpassed his genetic endowment. At least that worry is gone.
I move to the window that overlooks the park. My head pounds with the same intensity as my heart rate. The house is lovely. As it should be. We spent a small fortune fixing it up after it had been all but trashed by squatters. It is my old neighbourhood, the neighbourhood of my youth. It was in decline, but when a restaurant or two appeared with table clothes, upscale menus, and barriers to entry prices, we started coming back around. When the sliver of a store, the boutique La Diva Couture, opened, followed by an art gallery and a shoe store, we knew. The time had come. My husband agreed and put up the financing. He’s always been so good at money. We bought four doors down from the other apartment, the one where I’d been so poor and miserable even if I didn’t know it then.
What I knew then and what I know now are connected, but sometimes not by much. Occasionally I feel the same. I can see straight through the park now. The copse of ash trees was felled by the Emerald Ash Borer. Sad. But these things happen. The City replanted with maples before realizing that another disease was on its way. Nevertheless, in the fall, the park shimmers with color. I should take pride in how far I’ve come, but all I remember is the depth of my misery. No, that’s not precisely true. What I remember is the capacity I had to feel in a way that I no longer possess. I suspect this shimmer, this intensity is youth.
I find myself at the window. Suddenly the pen I’ve been clicking drops out of my hand. I gasp like I’m in an episode of The Young and Restless. Can this be? Non, pas de chance. I take off my reading glasses. She’s there in the park—Kathleen. She beckons like on old. My cheeks are burning. Heat radiates in a flash burn, a whoosh from my ankles on up. Come on, she says, and truth be told, I want to follow. I look at the piles of paper on my desk. There’s too much work to do.
Is this true? I wonder about the work. Time slows down. The quietness of the house presses in on me. The children have their own lives, but drop by for dinner when the groceries run out or for a quick infusion of cash. I don’t mind. It is my pleasure to be able to help them in ways I was never helped or encouraged. My husband, whom I have grown to love and whom has always loved me, is out at his Chamber of Commerce meeting, which means he and his best friend from childhood meet with other merchants to discuss the issues of the day. Afterwards, they will go up St. Laurent for a glass of wine and a game of backgammon. When he returns, I will be asleep.
The young girl in me is reawakened. This is not sensible, I think. But I feel my heart race. The young girl, she wants to follow Kathleen. She wants to let herself go and be someone’s muse. There’s a freedom in that too.
Instead I focus on getting injunctions against the demonstrators who plan to picket the clinic tomorrow. Damn fools. Few things make me angry anymore but small-minded people filled with rhetoric and hate do. They carry placards of judgment. Don’t care if women live or die. For them, everything is about becoming. For me, it is about the ones who are already here.
I remember my own experience with that silly nurse who thought she was doing good when she tried to dissuade me at the last minute because I was crying. She thought I was doing something I didn’t want to do. Finally I just reached out and grabbed her hand with my good, solid grip and tightened it until she stopped talking, stopped moving.
“No this is what I want.”
“But you’re crying,” she insisted, taken aback.
“The tears aren’t for the baby. They are for my hopes and dreams. Those will still be alive. I’d rather cry now then deliver them one by one over a lifetime.”
She’d blinked rapidly and backed away not understanding. I could see that. Thankfully, the anesthesiologist came in and saved me from this other woman’s torment.
“Take me away Calgon,” I’d said. I regretted a lot of things in my life, but that was never one of them.
“Sorry,” I mouth at the woman at the edge of park. “Too busy. Maybe next time?”
* * *
Stephan came home one night, and then excused himself to take a call. This was on the eve of his best friend’s funeral. He looked dark, drained. He put his phone into his jacket and wiped a tear away. “Her again. Apologizing.”
“She’s got to stop calling,” I said.
“Mama,” he said, looking so haggard I nearly grabbed him and hugged him as hard as I could, “She’s eighty-eight.”
“No business driving.” We stare at each other, afraid to look away, knowing how close we came. But we are alive and soon, we give ourselves back to the day.
“I have something for you.” He gives me his little boy grin, which is who he always is to me.
“No good can come of that look, my dear boy,” I replied.
He snorted like he was in on a good joke. We go into my office, my husband trailing. A canvas sits with its back to us. Stephan turns it around, hooting in laughter.
“Who is that?” I am confused.
“Je pense toujours,” said my son.
“Where did that come from?” I turn to my son, afraid to know.
“One of dad’s friends painted it for him, years ago.”
Patrick, I thought guiltily and silently. I cursed his father for the thousand time.
My husband smiles at me forlornly. “He did always like to have the last word.”
* * *
I call out her name, but my voice no longer sounds like me. The sounds are garbled. Both Phoenix and Stephan rise out of their seats. Please do not be alarmed, I think, trying to calm them. I must comfort, be comforting, and offer up support because the biology of motherhood has not yet dissolved. But soon it will. When I look back to the doorway for Kathleen, she is gone. I close my eyes again. Phoenix and Stephan resume sitting. They do not speak. Stephan looks at his watch. His expression says it all. Mama, it says, shit or get off the pot. He has a life to lead. I laugh. Good for you. Go get’m, my boy. Phoenix is dry eyed at the moment because she’s been here much longer than Stephan. The biology of it all. Do the boys love you more because they’re with you less? It’s a thought.
* * *
Even before I open my eyes, the scent of old people is in my nostrils. Can’t stand the smell. I’ve become cranky. Irritable. Can hardly stand myself. No one listens anymore. Maybe they never did. I told them not to bring me to this god-forsaken place, but Phoenix is a coward—poor, lovely thing—and she went and dialed 911. She’s a girly girl, go figure—hard to believe she’s mine. But she’ll do just fine. There is safety and long life for those who travel cleared roads. She would not venture into an October copse.
My eyes are closed. There is haze everywhere. Yellow haze. The colour of cornfields. The colour of leaves. Of October everywhere. The sky and the ground are the same shade of shimmering light. I see her. My body jumps. I can both see inside and outside of me, which is sort of interesting and unexpectedly calming. I could have used this kind of othernessness during my life. Instead I suffered through with a good stiff drink or two in hand.
I can’t believe Kathleen’s remembered me after all these decades. I steal a glance at the children. They slumber now, Stephan a full-out sprawl and Phoenix turned in upon herself, the same way they’d slept in utero. Truly, they have no need of me. I have no need of them. I’m not one of those painfully old folks who clings to life, clings to the small beep-beep beats of time that keep pulling the children out of their lives and back into yours only for them to have to go back and forth depending on the daily vigor of your veins. I’m just old and tired. I want to go. Like the dogs when they’re too old to move before we take them to the vet for the needle. I wonder if I should do one last thing and get my sorry butt out of bed to go and pull their plugs. I need my slippers. But I can’t find them.
“It’s the medicines,” she whispers taking me by the arm. She pulls the curtain around us. Kathleen gives me this look that says, Oh come on, it’s not going to be that easy, and I am reminded of when I was pregnant with Phoenix, waddling up to the entrance of the hospital with her head just about visible in my vagina and the nurse taking my arm and saying, “Come on love, before that baby of yours falls right on out,” as if it was that easy.
Kathleen takes my hand in hers. She’s surprisingly warm. That just reaffirms my belief that she has always existed. Already she is unfastening her dress, and then impatiently pulling at the humiliating blue hospital gown I am wearing.
“You are next,” she whispers, her voice soft like dust as she dresses in modern clothes. I wonder if she stole them, but what I ask is, “Next?” I raise my eyebrows. She giggles. “Oh yes. Next.” She is unexpectedly urgent.
“But I don’t understand.”
“You do. I know you do.”
“About being your own muse.” I nod.
She steps back and gives me a comme si comme ca look. “We are alike, but not the same.”
“For one thing, you died young,” I pointed out.
“Not that young.”
“Yes, but I’m beyond the pale.” That stops me. “How can I replace you then?”
“The painting is not literal.”
“Sure it is.”
“Mademoiselle, have you learned nothing?”
“I guess not,” I say just delighted to be called mademoiselle again. I am pulling up my hair, which has returned to the luster of youth, not the three strands carefully combed by some attendant bored out of her skull and thinking about how she’s going to pay for Johnny’s school supplies and make a car payment because it takes her an hour and a half to get to work by bus. I know how she’s going to pay for them: with the cash she swiped from my top drawer. But who can complain? Because if you do, then they won’t come, and you’ll be left in your own mess. Better if we paid them more. DNR. I signed in my shaky script. I am now clothed in Kathleen’s discarded vetements. For some reason, I forget the English word. My noise smells perfume and something else—
“Sh. Only when they’re not looking. It is so difficile to be a good example toujour, toujours.” Her hands fly up in frustration.
“How about one for me?” She passes me one and I inhale. It tastes like memory. I see Caitlin in the bar and wonder whatever became of her and what happened to the years. Where do we all go?
From the side pocket of her skirt, which I am now wearing, I pull out a pretty blue vial. Miss Dixon’s home elixir reads the label. I laugh. I no longer care where this is going. I just want to go.
“We must move quickly, otherwise she’ll be missed and then we would all disappear.” She offers me a lift up to the painting. I step into her two hands and put a foot on the gilded-edged frame.
“Why’d you do it?” I ask, because all of those years ago, I researched her, looked up the painting, wanting to know her story and why she was appearing in my story because she was famous, perhaps infamous, whereas me, I lived a life of quiet obscurity, except for him, of course, him who died young and well before me and him who was the opposite of obscure. She pauses, understands what I am asking. Why did she not rise out of her sick bed? Why did she let herself die of influenza?
“The children,” she said quietly, “they were all grown and . . .” she sighs. “It was just easier to die this time round than live through another round of endless need.” She shakes her head. “I was too old. It was more than I could bear to have that last child, to lose another tooth. I could not bear to be tired forever.”
I nod, understanding. “And him, did he know?”
She smiles, her eyes glittering. “Of course he knew.” She covers her face with her hands. “So much time has passed.” She runs her hands down over her dress. “Let us see if he will come for me now that I am free.”
“You look lovely. You always did.”
“As do you my dear.”
She smiles at me now, all buoyant. “For you, the time will fly by, and then you will be released.”
I have more questions to ask of her, like ”Why me?” but her attention is swayed by the sound of harsh boots on polished floors. Her eyes widen. “He’s come.” Her excitement cannot be contained. “I will be free now.” She turns and takes her lover’s hand.
I stare back out as they saunter away, heads pulled down, speaking in urgent tones, all else forgotten like they are young in their love. Eternity, I think, is what their otherness is. With the children off in their own space, they are free to be who they always wanted to be.
I watch for a while, spun out in the dislocution of time and space. Eventually, I feel the pull and tug to explore the copse, the hidden secret of what is behind the tree line. I move towards it. A sound startles me. I half-turn to discover there is a girl watching me. I smile and beckon.
As an advocate for responsible government, Karen Faris has been complaining for as long as anyone can remember. Rather than go live on a planet for one, as some may have suggested, she decided to write fiction. Karen lives in Rochester, New York with her husband and son. Her current projects include a time travel novel and Seasonal Adjustment, a story told in novellas. She enjoys swimming, riding her bike along the Erie Canal and running almost as fast as she can walk. She is the author of the Grumbles the Novel Trilogy. Further information on Karen and her writing can be found at: http://grumblesthenovel.com. There, she blogs occasionally on random issues.