Sorry for the impersonal nature of this message but I wanted to let you all know that I am making a clean start! Dave and I have decided to part ways and in addition to his new girlfriend Jenna, he has found a new partner for the clinic. With Kayla in Montreal at school (and loving it!) and visiting only infrequently I am feeling quite free to take on new endeavours …
This was a bulk email from my old friend Margie, who was going back to school to get her PhD. She was already a medical doctor, and now she was going to be working on some fertility studies in Toronto. She said she had bought a little house in Rosedale and would be busy practising and doing research and if anyone ever found themselves in the city, she had a spare bedroom and would love to host.
I sent her a standard reply saying that I was sorry she was going through a divorce and that it must be painful, but that the changes she was making as a consequence sounded exciting. To which she answered:
Sweet Bobby! So good to hear from you. I miss you and think of you often. I meant it when I said the spare room is always open. Come for a visit anytime. Hope you and Kevin are well.
◊ ◊ ◊
Margie and I were tight when we were teenagers. And well-liked by others, though not exactly A-list. We were both the kind of players who just made the cut on sports teams. The only slightly remarkable thing about us was that we were a boy and a girl who were best friends. There’s a pair like us in every high school. (And yes—surprise! I turned out to be gay. But that’s not what this story is about.)
We went to different universities. Sometimes on trips home at Christmas or in the summer we’d get together for a quick drink or a hike, but mostly we’d dropped out of each other’s lives. Margie was doing very well—she was one of those people who get mediocre marks in high school and then blossom academically once things become more challenging. The opposite applied to me. In fact the reason we had gotten separated in the first place was that she didn’t get in to Queen’s, and I did. But I drifted in my classes, mooning over the straight boys in my study groups, and in the end never graduated at all. (This story is not about that, either. I did fine. I’m a firefighter—not the big strapping kind, not the breaking-down-barriers kind. I live in Ottawa with my partner and a dog and a cat.)
When Margie went to medical school she met her first boyfriend. She had never had one before, which was also slightly remarkable. Some people have that kind of luck—they are good-looking enough, smart enough, and fun enough, but the stars never line up. She got pregnant after her first year, which was a surprise only in that she had always been quite cautious and sensible. But I have seen all sorts of changes happen to people who finally start getting laid regularly. Complacency. Weight gain. Even previously unrevealed generosity of spirit.
Margie got married. She went through second year pregnant, took a year off to look after her new daughter Kayla, and, this being no longer the Dark Ages, was admitted straight back into third year. She and Dave had to get loans to hire some help but what bank isn’t going to build up loyalty with two future physicians? Everything worked out—they graduated, and after a few years they opened up a family practice in Guelph and went about all the business of working and parenting and accumulating ordinary wealth. We kept in touch, very sporadically, through email. And then for a few years, not at all.
It wasn’t until we were in our mid-forties that I got her update.
I didn’t think that I would ever take her up on her invitation. But soon after that, Kevin’s mom, Dot, came for a long-term stay. The two of us spent a lot of time together on my days off, while Kevin was at his office. We took the dog for long quiet walks through the neighbourhood.
She’d been a widow for seven years. I asked her if she still thought about Gerald, her dead husband.
“All the time,” she said. “Every second.”
“That’s rough,” I said. “I’m glad you’ve come to stay with us for awhile. I know winter’s extra hard with not much company.”
She didn’t confirm or deny this. When we got back inside she went to sit in her chair in the living room and the cat stalked out, affronted. We ate our lunch in silence. I would have made small talk but I hate chatting about weather forecasts and misprioritized news items. If Dot talks at all it’s about World War II.
“I was only a very small child,” she said. “I remember my parents talked about Germany. They said we should have seen it coming. And every day I heard the word Europe but I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know what a continent was. I was five or six before I realized there was colour over there. I actually thought it was a grainy, black-and-white place like in the newspapers! Sometimes I wondered if they had just been dreaming it up in their nightmares and were confused.”
She stared out the window for a while.
Then she said, “I dreamt about it, too.”
“Do you ever still?”
“What do you dream about?”
◊ ◊ ◊
“Why don’t you go visit Margie for a few days?” Kevin asked me. “You could go to some movies. You could go for walks with her in the ravines.”
So I emailed her and she responded enthusiastically. I bought my train ticket to go over on a Friday and come back on a Monday. Then a week before I was to arrive, she wrote that she’d mixed up her schedule. She had a conference in Vancouver and would have to leave on the Sunday morning, but she’d still love for me to come, and I should still stay the Sunday night.
Have some time to yourself! A nice day of solo rest.
We had our visit. We went to the AGO and shuffled around the Henry Moore sculptures.
“I’ve always been so drawn to them,” she said. I didn’t feel the same. They’ve always reminded me of those ultracompetent hippies on the beach in Costa Rica. The ones who travel around for months through all the more tourist-averse countries first, always hitching or using local buses and sleeping under the stars. Deeply tanned, armpit hair, dreads. Surviving on granola bars and bananas and cigarettes and sex with each other. Lazing around, smoking a joint. It’s the girls who would look up when I wandered past. They’d see my pale skin and the red sunburn mark around my neck, the extra belly roll from too much rice and beans, and know that my aspirations were soft. I bet Henry Moore backpacked. I wonder if he was the real deal, or a poser.
◊ ◊ ◊
“They look so relaxed,” Margie continued. “So … languid. Languorous? I’m not sure. I admire them, though.”
We went to the Carlton for a matinee and took a long walk down by the Brickworks. It’s so pretty in the winter with the sun reflecting off the snow and the forest all blanketed and hushed, right in the middle of the city. I am one of those people who love to visit Toronto but wouldn’t want to live there.
I have to say it was a relief when Margie left, though. She was more frantic than I remembered.
She confided over sushi at one of those places at Bloor and Spadina. We ordered the love boat. As soon as we sat down she slipped her chopsticks out of the paper sleeve and smoothed them quickly over each other, like starting a fire.
“This conference that I’m going to? I’m not presenting a paper or anything. I signed up last-minute because I’ve started up a kind of email affair with an obstetrician from Calgary. Doug. He’s chairing one of the sessions. I’ve never met him in real life. I had to call him one day about one of his articles and we struck up a, a … friendship.”
I said that was great, and that I hoped something came of it.
“Yeah,” she said. “Well. Really, I just need to have sex. I mean, I’m committed to staying here for at least four more years and he has a good job out there so nothing could come of it. But I keep thinking about him.”
“Good for you, then. It’ll be an adventure.”
The food came and she dove right into her share of the sliced ginger, scarfing it all down at once.
“It’s good for digestion,” she said. “I’ve told Kayla about him, too. Not about everything. Only about going to the conference just to meet him. She was very encouraging. She said sometimes you have to honour that romantic aspect of yourself. I think she thinks we’re planning on meeting up for coffee!”
She called the server over and asked for another sake. Then she leaned in. I briefly wondered if she was going to tell me that Doug worked for CSIS.
“He has a family but no sexual relationship with his wife anymore.” She pulled her phone out of her purse to show me pictures. First head and shoulders, then underwear, then naked. Hard-ons and everything. It felt funny to swipe through them. I wondered if he could have possibly imagined that she’d be sharing them over yam tempura.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, maybe it’ll be better to just have a nice intense session and get him out of your system.” I had a fleeting recollection of the two us as teenagers, doubled over laughing. Trying to explain stories to each other and not being able to get the words out because it was just too hilarious, though I couldn’t at the moment remember what had been so funny.
“Yeah,” she said. “Hopefully. But I just can’t stop thinking about him. You know?”
She said that last bit in a slightly desperate, pleading way that made me realize she was on a bit of an edge. And of course I did know. We all know. There was a time in my life, too, when I was obsessed with someone, some typically wholly unique bad boy. Not much sleeping and eating, just lots of running and dancing and being ready for his calls. I became quite lean in a way that was unhealthy. He had a boyfriend and I knew it was all supposed to be so lighthearted, though I remember him sometimes asking me if anything was wrong.
“No,” I’d say. “Nothing!” Then I’d gaze searchingly into his eyes so that we could understand deeper meanings. I don’t think it ever worked.
I’m lucky to have good friends, though. They watched, carefully, as I explored the limits of what I could handle. At last, one of them stepped in. He said, “Bob, I know you’re into this guy but this is what I’ve learnt: You’ve gotta take it easy on yourself.” He’s an information technologist and never stays a minute past five o’clock. “You’re going a little crazy now and that’s cool but you’ve just got to take it really easy on yourself. You’ve gotta calm down, brother.”
So I tried this with Margie. I suggested she practise self-compassion (which I’d read about it in the Globe). I told her to think of the Henry Moores. I suggested that it might not appear like it now but getting overly anxious about it wouldn’t help. And I thought too of how impressed everyone at home had been when she’d been accepted into med school. Where I come from, we like credentials. We often disregard suspected craziness in the presence of a nice professional designation or two. I would be wary of that method.
She listened attentively, her mouth slightly open. I know her makeup is the best available but her eyelashes were clumped and there were a few black flakes scattered like random distress signals across her cheektops.
She said, “You know, I do try to do the right things. I get in after work and turn off all my devices. I kneel down on the carpet. Sometimes I’ve had a few drinks, but hey.” She shrugged. “I empty my mind, I reset my thoughts. I try to ride the wave of the present moment and all that. But the whole time I’m thinking, Is this right? Am I reflecting? Will clearing my mind make me sexier? Will I be emanating some kind of peaceful vibe that Doug will appreciate?”
I said I didn’t know.
◊ ◊ ◊
Sunday morning, Margie left. I made a pot of coffee and ate cinnamon buns and read the Star lying down on her couch by the east-facing plate-glass window, napping occasionally, and then took the subway to go work out at the Y on Grosvenor—my own version of an affair, I suppose. Communal showers and eye contact. I love Kevin and am never serious about these things but it is slightly thrilling to be acknowledged, however subtly.
I went for sushi again, then to another movie. It was a crisp, bright night so I decided to walk the couple of miles back to Margie’s. I strolled through the village and stopped for a beer at Woody’s. All the guys in there were staring into their cellphones. Every single one of them. I drained my beer and walked on.
I crossed the ravine along Sherbourne and continued towards her house. It’s more of a fairy-tale cottage—white stucco with black trim, and surrounded by big old maple trees. In my memory it has a thatched roof which I am sure is in fact shingled.
I thought of Margie’s life here. I could picture her after work, parking her Saab and tossing her keys into the thick teak bowl by the entrance. Hanging up her camel-hair coat and unfurling one of her lovely silkscreened scarves. Then padding along the white broadloom into the smooth kitchen, maybe pouring herself a nice glass of shiraz before opening the door of her expensive fridge to plan dinner. There is often a scene like this in a movie, a scene which celebrates upper-middle-class busyness and comfort. And usually the protagonist has a perfect life except for one overwhelming consideration: a cancer diagnosis, a financial scandal, a drug-addicted child.
Or, as I thought in Margie’s case, an urgent sexual longing. One that was preventing her from enjoying her achievements.
I was glad to be alone for a night. I called Kevin to check in and confirmed that I’d be home the next afternoon. He said he missed me and that he hoped I was having a good time. He said Dot missed me, too, and I felt grateful for my life. I poured out a glass of Margie’s scotch and added a single cube of ice. Then I turned on the TV and flipped through her channels for an hour, and went to bed, and thought of how the day had been a true and proper holiday.
◊ ◊ ◊
What is that space called before we realize our sleep is being interrupted? Confusional arousal. It only lasts a few seconds. It is extremely jarring and also a blank slate for anything. There is an expansive, fleeting hope. Everything was deep and black and then there was moaning, such moaning. Even as my consciousness came flooding in I was aware that I was moving too quickly and harmfully. I have had rare moments like this in the hall after nodding off before a drill. I am well-trained, and can become lucid and move into action swiftly. We think this is a wonderful skill but a part of you dies when you thumb your nose at the natural pace of restoration.
I jumped out of bed and ran towards the noise, which was coming from Margie’s room. I flung open the door and interrupted what was probably a very ordinary session of pent-up twenty-something lovemaking.
Kayla knew about the conference and must have been thinking that she and her boyfriend could come to the house for a few days and have it to themselves. (It was reading week at McGill. I know that because I went to the trouble later of actually looking it up.)
Kayla (who I had never met before, who must have been drunk enough to not see my shoes in the vestibule, who must have chosen her mother’s king-sized bed over the guest-room double) didn’t scream. The boyfriend didn’t stand up all white-knight-like to protect her. They just stopped copulating. There was enough outdoor light to see dim outlines, bright teeth and eyeballs. Kayla moved from underneath him and lay on her side facing me, propped up on one elbow. She didn’t bother to pull the sheet up. She was glistening.
“Jesus! Who the fuck are YOU?”
I apologized for intruding. I told her I’d been surprised. I said I was Bob, her mom’s friend, and that I had been visiting and was leaving tomorrow.
“Tomorrow? I don’t think so. When my mother’s away this is MY house. I didn’t invite you here, and I don’t want you here.” She glared at me with that strange type of disgusted look that you only see from people who watch a lot of reality television and I thought, half-hypnotized, Yes, I am the one who is outrageous. The boyfriend seemed neither bothered nor sympathetic.
Now, I am going to say what happened next and I suppose it would be tempting to make some sort of judgment about me—that I’m lily-livered or a pushover—but I was on a little retreat from my regular life and just didn’t feel like arguing. I went back to my room and got dressed. I packed my few clothes into my duffle bag and walked out the front door and left the key under the mat. (On my way down the driveway I realized I needed to pee so I did just that, right there, under Margie’s mailbox.) It was one o’clock in the morning and the city was still functioning. I walked down to the Marriott in the village and got a nice room for a hundred bucks, and in the morning woke up refreshed and got on the train and went back to Ottawa, admiring the view out the window the whole way.
Kevin was slightly appalled, as was Dot. I think the audacity of the story woke her up, though. She seemed more cheerful after that, and more pleasant to be with, and this in fact was the beginning of our real friendship. She comes to visit quite often now, and helps in the summer with the gardening. She talks more and more about Gerald, but she wears her sadness lightly.
“He was older than me,” she says. “Him and his friends all turned eighteen the year after the war. They were ready to go over, though. They lived every day getting ready.”
“That’s a lot for a teenager,” I say.
“He said the things going on over there were too big to understand. It was hard to believe that civilized people who drank good coffee and ate nice pastries in fancy sitting rooms could be living in a situation that had gotten so out of hand. He talked about it a lot. He said that it was a time when people realized how much they love life.”
I never knew Gerald. For some reason, maybe my own prejudices about old white men, I’d always pictured him as quite gruff. “Wow. He said that?”
“He said they loved it so much they were willing to die for it.”
◊ ◊ ◊
I wrote an email to Margie. It was a vague, half-apologetic and half-forgiving letter. I thanked her for the visit and alluded to what had happened that night. I left the door open for her to comment.
Whether it was out of embarrassment, or some version of those events that I was not privy to, she never wrote back. It didn’t bother me. There have been times, with other people, when I have not followed through myself. I have meant to, and wasted days and months feeling guilty about it, but in the end I couldn’t type the words, or make the call, or meet up.
Sometimes we owe each other explanations, but are too overwhelmed to deliver them.