Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt Fiction Literature

Playing the Man

Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt

 

The Gardener

Below, leaves rustle and swish. The sound reminds me of an ocean, makes me crave a body of water that’s not a city pool packed with bobbing children. It takes looking at a map to realize Montréal is an island. Pinning my phone to my shoulder, I grip the railing of our second-floor balcony, lean over, and look down. She’s in her garden. Our Lady of the Tomatoes.

“Whatareyou…up…to?” Luc’s words rear-end each other, then pull back, their delivery never quite right.

“Not much,” I mutter. I don’t tell him we have a new downstairs neighbour. Petite-framed. Tiny tits. Curly hair that’s dark at the roots and blonde at the tips. Ombré, or whatever it’s called. Hair I can imagine grabbing by the handful, tugging.

The line goes quiet, Luc’s voice lost somewhere between here and Boston, where he’s participating in a month-long residency. Meanwhile, I’m unemployed, living off a two-bit inheritance. Chitz chitz. Our Lady wields her spray bottle like a gun. I inhale the smoke from her cigarette as it wafts up to me.

Luc would like her. We have similar taste in women.

“—you,” he says.

“What?” I bark into the phone. Fucking connection. Our Lady looks up, her dark eyes meeting mine. She knows I’ve been watching her. Plucks the cigarette from her lips—is that a smirk on her face?

Pardon?” she calls up, her mouth too pursed, another France import. Spray bottle cocked. I imagine this scene downshifting into some brainless, girl-on-girl porn—Garden of Eden Pussy—the kind I used to watch on my laptop when I still lived at home. Muted, so that my parents wouldn’t hear the simulated moans. Within two minutes I’d make myself come and slam the laptop shut.

Rien,” I call, waving off my embarrassment. I take a step back from the railing and out of sight.

“Hello?” I say into the phone.

“I said”—Luc’s voice is clear now—“I miss you.”

“I miss you, too,” I answer, and it’s true. Since Luc left, it feels like I’m mourning something. I miss watching him lift his double bass from its velvet-lined case and the ritual of tuning it. I miss the way he saws tenderly at its strings when he plays his arpeggios, the studied movements of his left fingers on the neck. Every time I think about him, I end up bawling like a kid—there’s my body of water—and I have no fucking idea why. It’s embarrassing. He’s coming back, I keep telling myself. He’s coming back. But it’s hard to be alone and not alone at the same time.

The Bartender

Around the time I figure out that my dad is definitely going to die, I meet Mike at a climbing gym in the Plateau. He goes to Zéro Gravité every Tuesday night for the student discount. He’s an engineering student, like me, but fourth-year, and at McGill, not Concordia. Mike invites me to a St. Paddy’s Day party at his place in the student ghetto. It’s balmy for March. Jean jacket weather. My green dress, a strategically wrapped pool cover-up, makes me look like a sexy stalk of celery.

I arrive at ten, after attending a night class in said cover-up. In the living room, a perfunctory beer pong game is in session, while a green strobe light circles, unrelenting. On my way to find Mike, I pass three girls in matching headbands, four-leaf clovers jutting from springs on their heads. St. Patrick’s Day Bunnies. One of them compliments my outfit. She has clammy, winter-white cleavage, the outline of a push-up visible under her olive tank top. I smile a fake smile, take a slug of Heineken—green can—and move on to the kitchen.

Mike offers me a tour of their third-floor apartment. In his room, he closes the door and leans down to kiss me, cupping my face with his hands. His breath is sour and yeasty, like my dad’s during that first round of chemo. Mike is tall with stocky legs, his body twice as big as mine. Do I like him? I don’t know him. Maybe it’s better that way.

He removes my jacket, pushes me back onto his unmade bed, and starts fumbling with the knot of my cover-up. He thinks I’m going to let him fuck me. Should I stop him? Leave it to a woman not to be able to make up her own goddamned mind, comes my dad’s voice. But then, he always reserved statements like that for my mom. Never me. To him I will always be a girl, which is infinitely better than being a woman.

Mike can’t get the knot undone, so he starts playing with my tits instead. Then he takes his dick out. It’s not soft, but it’s not hard either. He gets onto his knees on the bed, pinning me between his legs, his penis alarmingly close to my face.

“Suck me off?” he whispers. Is that a question?

Zzzn zzzn. On the night table, a cell phone vibrates. Mike looks up.

“I’d rather not,” I say.

Zzzn zzzn. Reaching for the phone, Mike doesn’t seem to register my response.

“Fuck,” he says, backing off me. He yanks his pants up with one hand. “It’s one of my roommates. My girlfriend is here.”

“What?”

“I need you to hide,” he says. “She’s crazy, trust me—just get in the closet. I’ll let you know when you can come out.”

He slaps his own cheek five times in quick succession. Then he disappears, closing the door behind him. I go to the window and lift it open, squeezing my torso through the small opening until I’m out on the fire escape, clutching the cold, wrought-iron railing, the sight of the ground through the steps dizzying as I descend.

When the doctor decided it wasn’t worth doing another round of chemo, my dad asked me to get him some pills. Your mum’s too much of a sissy, but you…

I jump from the last staircase, tripping over the hem of my cover-up onto my knees, my palms meeting hard snow. I stand up. The gate of the fence leading out to the street is locked, so I scale it. My phone vibrates in my left boot as I walk downtown, and I smile picturing Mike’s face when he looks for me in the closet. Asswipe.

Foufs is full tonight. She’s behind the bar, pouring pints and taking bills. Long, dirty-brown hair, her eyebrows thick and straight and dark. A slightly upturned nose. Austere chin, wine-coloured lipstick. I feel cheap in my celery getup, another bunny.

She brings me a beer, waving off my money. “It’s ladies’ night.”

Then her eyes meet mine, and her lips part, and she’s looking at me in a way that suggests she knows, because it happens to her, too. The eye-fucks and stare-downs. Touching or no touching, in a bedroom or a bar, there’s no way around it. It’s a goddamn conspiracy. I look away. Stuffing the bill into the pocket of my jean jacket, I step back from the bar, confused.

The Sailor

Halfway through grade three, our class gets a new kid. Mrs. Gibson stands with her hands on Felicity’s shoulders and introduces her to us with a forced smile and sing-song voice. Felicity’s family has just moved to Montréal all the way from South Carolina. Felicity points out South Carolina on the pull-down map of the world. I have never heard of it, but the name sounds heavenly. I imagine ripe peaches year round.

Felicity is small for an eight-year-old. She has golden hair. At recess, she smiles when we crowd around her like a pack of wild animals admiring a real girl. She doesn’t have a puffy ski jacket like the rest of us, but a red felt coat with fancy buttons that doesn’t look warm at all. I want to be her friend. Badly.

I invite her over to my house and both of her parents come to drop her off. They even walk her up to the door. My mom finally appears behind me in a pair of track pants and a ratty T-shirt which she wears to clean. Felicity’s parents say they’ll be back at five, and hand my mom a card with three emergency numbers on it.

Felicity starts coming over a lot, but she’s never allowed to sleep over because of church. Sometimes we play in Benny Park, where Felicity is not supposed to go without an adult. I laugh at her worry. We build forts in my basement and play dolls. I have shortened all my Barbies’ skirts with scissors. Going to her house is less fun, because her parents are always checking on us. Her mother is alarmed when I say crap. She says it’s not a good word and please don’t use it in their home. Felicity’s parents do not invite me along to church.

It’s hard not to make up stories when I’m around Felicity. I tell her that I French kissed a boy named Noé back in Laval, which is where my family used to live before we moved to NDG. I say I’ve seen a condom on the ground before. Felicity doesn’t know what condoms are, and when I explain, she doesn’t believe me. After overhearing an episode of 60 Minutes, I tell Felicity that a grown man flashed me in Benny Park. His thing looked like a gourd, I say with confidence, as Felicity’s eyes widen.

Then we find the magazine in a filing cabinet in the office in my basement, and it seems to prove my experience in these matters. The women in the glossy, full-page photos are not fully naked, but they don’t look like they’re going to the beach, either. They wear strings and straps and frills that cover as little of their bodies as possible. Their breasts look like water balloons about to burst and their butt cheeks are round and smooth. I convince Felicity to spend the rest of the afternoon in a fort we built in the closet under the stairs, flipping through the magazine, studying each picture. After some prodding, she chooses a favourite: a blonde in a see-through white skirt with small, navy blue anchor patches on her nipples. She’s wearing a necktie and a sailor’s hat and that’s all.

Before it’s time for Felicity to go home, we put the magazine back where we found it. That night, I can’t stop thinking about the pictures. I imagine lying on a bed made of women like that, their bodies all squishy, breasts and stomachs and bums like pillows. The next day, when I go to the filing cabinet to look for the magazine, it’s gone.

Sometime later, I come up with a new game.

“But who will play the man?” Felicity asks.

“I will,” I say. “I’m bigger.”

The Suitor

During the month Luc is away, I spend my evenings out on our balcony, looking down at the street. Our Lady is often out, too, tending to her tomato plants, which are taller than she is. I try not to gawk, looking out at the street instead. Families saunter back to their parked cars from the Italian restaurant on the corner. Twenty-somethings whizz by on Bixis, talking loudly, while can collectors rattle down the sidewalk. The only person to acknowledge my existence is a grizzled old man who walks with a cane, lifting his hat to me as he passes. I suspect it’s just an excuse to look at my legs. Or maybe, like me, he’s a spectator, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

It’s been two and a half years since a bunch of men in suits gave me my iron ring, and I’ve worked since, but never as a real engineer. My days are spent tinkering with cover letters, sending emails, scouring job sites. Twice a week, I volunteer doing admin work for Engineers Without Borders. But I’m bored, and it feels like a bad time for Luc to be away.

He calls every night around nine-thirty. When he talks about the residency, his voice picks up. The masterclasses are rigorous and the teachers demanding. He tells me about the other musicians in the program, who come from all over the world. On the weekends they explore Boston together. I listen through the bad connection. When Luc asks what’s new with me, I have nothing to say.

One night, Luc doesn’t call at the usual time. I imagine the worst: he’s fucking that flautist he mentioned, the Czech one. I bite my nails off one by one and flick them into the dusk. When I notice a man in the street below, I realize I am muttering out loud.

He strides in the direction of our duplex. From the walkway that borders Our Lady’s garden, he looks up at me with a grin, his white teeth glowing in the semi-darkness. Then he disappears under my balcony. I sit straight-backed in my chair as he knocks at the door. It opens. Ça va? His voice as low and as deep as Luc’s double bass. The door shuts.

I should be calling Luc, but I don’t feel like it. What’s wrong with me? He’s not with the flautist. Luc doesn’t even know how to lie. He used to break out in a sweat when women came up to introduce themselves after his performances. I liked that. Standing next to him, I’d tell them I was his sister. That made him even more uncomfortable.

Now, something stops me from dialling his number, from confirming that I need him, that I want to talk to him even if I don’t have anything to say. I sit out on the balcony for a while longer, checking my phone in five-minute intervals. Then I go inside and get ready for bed, turning off lights and locking doors. This is what life would be like if I were alone. I remember my old vibrator in the drawer of my nightstand, then pick up a book and hold it in front of my face for a while, staring at the words. That’s when I hear it. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. A bed being rammed into a wall.

If I close my eyes, I can feel the force of it. Muffled sighs rise up from below the floor. I sit up. It doesn’t stop. I find myself getting up, walking to the front door and down the steps. Then I’m outside in Our Lady’s garden, standing amongst her plants, which smell sharp and almost sweet, green as mint. There is a dim light in the window, and I sense the bodies beyond the glass. I stand there, completely still, waiting. The dull cries become shorter and shriller, then stop altogether. I reach for one of her tomatoes and it falls from its stem and I bring it to my mouth, biting into it like an apple, the juice spilling down my chin.

Back upstairs, my apartment is silent. I get back into bed and switch off the lamp. The red light on my phone is blinking. A missed call.

The Father

When I am twelve, my mom gets a job selling software for law firms. She has to travel often and then I am left alone with my dad for three-day stretches. My dad is not like other dads—not like Felicity’s father, at least, who has a serious and important position at a bank and never raises his voice. My dad is a forklift operator, but more often than not, he’s off work for reasons I don’t understand. He smells like du Mauriers, and tells racist jokes, and calls me his little heathen, and lets me hand him his tools when he tinkers with his motorcycle in the garage. On Sundays, he takes me for rides, which drives my mom into hysterics. I love to cling to him on the back, my nose pressed into his worn leather jacket. I know the magazine we found belonged to him, and I know my dad’s moods are unpredictable, and that he embarrasses me—he once called one of my teachers a hussy—but I still love him and worry about him.

One evening when my mom is away, we get a phone call. My dad answers. Whatever the caller says sends him into a rage. He swipes the frames on the mantle and they go crashing to the ground, glass shattering. I ask him what’s wrong and he points his finger in the air and says he regrets the day he married my mother, the only reason she got this job is so that she could make a sucker out of him. Then he tells me he’s going out. The door slams behind him. When my mom calls before bed, I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything.

She gets home a day later. I learn the call came from the wife of one of my mother’s new co-workers. She had accused my mom of having an affair with her husband. My mom denies everything. My dad doesn’t believe her.

“They’re probably going to get a divorce,” I explain to Felicity over the phone. For once, I’m not happy to be the one with more experience.

The next day at school, Felicity passes me a note that says she’s not allowed to come over to my house anymore. I think of our game—of Felicity’s blonde hair which is never greasy like mine, of her smell, and how she always wants to be on the bottom—and worry that someone found out. But how?

At recess, I ask her about the note. Her eyes go glassy. She says that her mother overheard us talking on the phone last night and decided that my parents were not Christian people.

“But they weren’t trying to be Christian people,” I say. I plead with her, “We can still be friends. I’ll come to your house. And we can still spend recesses together.”

By then, it’s almost summer holidays. The next year we start high school. Felicity goes to a private school and I go to Notre-Dame-De-Grâce, the school for everybody else.

For reasons that don’t make sense to me, my parents do not divorce. Two years pass before I see Felicity again. When I arrive late to the church, some of the people in the audience turn, notice me, and scowl at the sight of my bare legs in a jean miniskirt. I slip into the first available seat. Looking at the audience, I realize that Felicity didn’t make a special point of inviting me, like I thought—most of the girls from our elementary school are here. Felicity is standing half-submerged in a big tub of water up front, next to the minister. He’s reciting something about Jesus, then Felicity plugs her nose, and I’m not close enough to see her expression. The minister puts one hand on her forearm and pushes her backwards, and when she stands up her clothes stick to her skin, and I can see the outline of her new breasts, and I don’t think she’s noticed me, so I duck out.

The Stranger

After St. Patrick’s Day, Kay the bartender and I become friends—the kind that bake muffins for each other and exchange clothes and drink whisky cokes and have lady sex and laugh at everything and everyone.

I write my exams. My dad is still dying. When I don’t bring him the pills he wanted to end it, he tells me I’m useless, and a goddamned waste of a human being. The doctor said that with the tumour, we could expect mood swings, irritability, acting out—but my dad hasn’t changed. Kay tries to get me to talk about it and I don’t want to fucking talk about it. Like daddy like daughter.

Then summer comes, and we spend our days rollerblading around NDG.

“What’s the hardest thing about rollerblading?” asks Kay.

“What?”

“Telling your parents you’re gay.”

“You mean like gay gay?” I ask, cocking my head to one side. “Or lesbian gay?”

“Both,” says Kay. She has never even slept with a man, though all of her male friends are madly in love with her, including her roommate, a graduate student in music. Kay forces him to play for me, and I like him before I ever hear him speak, for the way that he cradles the body of his instrument, the dance of his fingers across its strings.

“Why the cello?” I ask when he’s finished.

“It’s a double bass,” Kay points out.

I glare at her.

“Everyone thinks that.” Luc speaks in a gentle, contemplative way. He smiles. “It’s the biggest, most obvious instrument, but no one really sees it for what it is.”

One day Kay and I roll to the Renaissance to buy some silk headscarves, which we plan to wear tied under our chins with big sunglasses, like proper femmes fatales. The store smells as musty. I remember the basement closet under the stairs in my parents’ house and wonder if Felicity is hitched up with some choir boy by now. It occurs to me that if and when she marries, she won’t be a virgin—at least, not technically—and no one will ever know but us two. Our secret.

“Game!” says Kay, stopping in front of the book section. “Pick a book for me and I’ll pick a book for you.”

I leave her and disappear down one of the aisles, scouring the titles. Within a minute, she’s next to me again. Annoyed, I pick out the first book I see, a cheap paperback about werewolves or vampires or something.

“It has to be one you’ve read,” she says.

“I’ve read it,” I lie. “And it was surprisingly good.”

“Well, here,” she says, handing me Camus’s L’Étranger.

“I’m not really into dead French dudes,” I say, turning the book over.

“But it’s so good,” says Kay, taking my hand. “Try it.”

My dad dies. Kay calls to say she’s sorry and ask what can she do. I say nothing. She asks if she can come to the funeral. I say I’d rather she didn’t. She sends me flowers and starts calling a lot. I go over to her house to break up with her, and when she cries, I realize why men are such shits about breakups. We end up in bed. In the morning, I sneak out, disgusted with myself. I stop answering her calls and responding to her texts.

I spend the rest of the summer at home with my mom, who seems the opposite of relieved about my dad. She spends hours in front of the television. One evening on Grey’s Anatomy, two lady doctors fall in love. My mom places a hand over her eyes when they kiss onscreen.

“Gross,” she says. “Why do they have to show it?”

I bite my cheeks inside my mouth. It’s not the worst thing in the world. I look over at the mantel. The smashed frames have long since been replaced. Back then, I didn’t really care if it was true or not. Felicity wasn’t allowed to be friends with me anymore, and it was her fault.

“Did you cheat on Dad?”

“What?” she asks, turning to look at me.

“Remember that phone call?” I say. “From that woman?”

“Oh,” she says, “that. I’m surprised you remember. No, for heaven’s sakes. No. That woman was crazy. Jealous, or something.” She folds her arms over her chest, gives a little huff, and turns back to the television.

By September, I’m ready for the distraction of school. In the foyer of the engineering library, I find a stack of recital programs from the McGill Faculty of Music and notice Luc’s name. I run into Kay in the hall before the concert. She seems nervous, but she’s with someone.

“I’ve never been dumped before,” she whispers, when her date goes to the bathroom. “I took it hard. Hey—I read that book, by the way. It sucked.”

I want to laugh, but I can’t, because it’s too pathetic. Kay curled up crying, reading about horny teenage werewolves. Straight werewolves, at that. I didn’t mean for it to end up like that. I can’t even bring myself to lie to her about reading Camus, so I don’t mention it.

Seeing Luc up on stage reminds me of Felicity’s baptism in the church all those years ago. It seemed strange to me then that she wore all black. Like a mourner. After the concert, I wait for Kay to leave before I go up to congratulate Luc and ask him out for coffee.

The Jerk

When Luc’s residency is over in August, we decide to meet in Providence. I pack a weekend bag and leave our empty apartment, taking a tomato for the road on my way to the car.

The drive is hot with no AC, and cars are lined up to cross the border. I listen to an audiobook of L’Étranger and wonder why my parents never divorced, and whether Luc and I will ever marry, or divorce, or cheat on each other—with women, or men, or both. For the whole summer, I’ve been grieving something that hasn’t happened.

Vermont is green. I eat lunch at a shady rest stop next to the highway. By the time I reach the outskirts of Boston it’s late afternoon and the road is clogged with commuters. In Providence, I park the car outside the hotel knowing that Luc is already waiting for me inside, and that I could turn the ignition key and drive away, and keep all of my secrets. But I don’t.

That night we forget to leave the room. We drink a bottle of cheap Californian wine and get lost remembering how and why we are together, even if sometimes we are not together.

“Remember when I used to live with Kay,” says Luc, leaning on one elbow on the bed, his other hand in my hair.

“Yes,” I say. Almost three years ago. I close my eyes, letting my head fall back.

“How there was only the one balcony in the front, and I had to walk through her room to smoke, and that morning—”

“You looked at me,” I say.

“And I was so pissed,” laughs Luc, “because you guys kept me up all night with your moaning.”

“I was trying to break up with her,” I say, cringing.

“And if I had to stay awake I wanted to smoke, but I couldn’t smoke without going through Kay’s room, so I had to go all the way downstairs every time.”

I try to imagine Luc on the other side of Kay’s bedroom wall.

“By the morning, I thought fuck it,” he says. “I’m smoking on the balcony. But the moment I walked into Kay’s room, you sat up in bed, and you were naked, and your hair was everywhere, and you just stared back at me, and you looked so … miserable.”

“I was,” I say. “Miserable.”

We make love. Luc falls asleep atop the still made-up bed, and I lie awake, thinking about that summer, right before Luc and I got together. The last time I was alone. Alone and not alone. I had Kay and I had my mother, but I’d lost my father. Maybe the grief I felt this past month was actually a kind of cosmic echo. Something I was supposed to feel then.

The next morning, we drive half an hour south to a beach with a styrofoam cooler and white towels from the hotel in the backseat of the car. I meet my body of water, wading in gradually until the sea is up to my neck and my feet are planted on the sandy bottom, and I can feel the gentle tug of the undertow pulling me backward and then forward. Maybe it takes both.

When we return to our apartment several days later, it’s Luc who notices the sign in Our Lady’s garden, decrying the sale connard—the fucking jerk—who stole her tomatoes.

“I didn’t tell you,” I say, pausing before our door. “We have a new neighbour.”

 

Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt headshotCarly Rosalie Vandergriendt is a Montreal-based writer whose work has appeared in The Malahat Review, Room, Matrix, Cosmonaut’s Avenue, Riddle Fence(parenthetical), and elsewhere. She is currently at work on her first novel. Visit her at www.carlyrosalie.com or follow her on Twitter @carlyrosalie.

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