Fiction Fraser Calderwood Literature


Fraser Calderwood

One time I broke Leo’s nose. He let the basketball bounce away and thwack the door of a parked truck and he pinned me on the driveway and sprayed blood on me from his nose. Specks of blood dried on the cement like my head was a stencil.

I can say for certain we were twelve and it was the summer of 1998. I know because Jordan had just played his last game in a Bulls’ uniform—going out on a championship-winning jumper we viewed on a shitty wood-veneered TV in Leo’s basement—and we played ball every day that summer to honour what we recognized as the passing of a great era. We could not know how right we were. The owners would lock the players out that fall, as we were starting junior high, and lesser lights would govern the heavens for a number of seasons. The Grizzlies—the team nearest Calgary—would continue to be terrible, but would move cities and be terrible elsewhere.

I used to have this habit of biting into my nails, only enough to get a good edge, and then ripping the nail horizontally. Made them real short. No crevice for dirt to gather. Sometimes they bled. This one time the middle finger on my left hand swelled up and oozed pus all summer.

Most days we played one-on-one in the driveway for a couple hours and then smoked pot if we could get any from Leo’s brother Julien. This one day we went harder than usual. Leo kept trying to master that MJ crossover, which was a funny move to steal because Jordan, also, had stolen it. Leo kept trying to fake left, but was obvious about it, and I knew he was going to switch back right to shoot. The ghost of that shot haunted both our heads. Julien was tapped that day, and Leo said I acted like that was all I thought he was good for.

He said, “Get your own shit then,” even though obviously I could not get my own shit because my father would have carried my murdered body down into Fish Creek Provincial Park for the coyotes.

I said I provided the hoop and he said, “Your daddy provided the hoop. You didn’t set that shit up.”

So I said, “Get stoned with my dad then, bitch.”

My dad believed principally in getting up before dawn, dressing appropriately for the weather, and not smoking pot ever. School days he would throw open my bedroom door and shout, “Patrick, today’s high will be fourteen and don’t you ever even think about getting high. It will be difficult to sell the house if a twelve-year-old boy was murdered in it.”

Because my father was guaranteed to barge into my room unannounced in the morning, if I was going to jerk it, it had to be before I went to sleep.

Another habit I had was responding to any pain—wasp stings, stubbing a toe, banging my head—by transforming into fifty-eight inches of whirling rage. I’d savage who was nearby. It didn’t matter who it was, or if it was fair or dirty. So when Leo jammed the ball into my infected finger I went off on him. I jumped on him and swung at his face.

Leo had hit a growth spurt and I had not yet. His body on mine, blood trickled from his nose and he let it pif pif pif off my forehead, my cheek, my neck. I fought back and I guess he didn’t know how long he could hold me, so he exhaled hard and splattered me. I felt his dick hard against my leg. Leo seemed just as surprised. He was motionless for a couple breaths, still mashing my wrists into the rough pavement, and then he rubbed his boner against my thigh a few more times, until I knew why he had stopped.

◊ ◊ ◊

One time I stole Leo’s spot on the team. Other boys said because my dad was tall I’d end up seven feet and play professional. I joined them in this hope: it did not matter that my dad was from Edmonton and managed a Home Depot, or that my mother stood five foot one and was what you would call thick if she was not your mother.

In junior high, anyone who wanted to be on the team was on the team. Leo and I only had a flow with each other because we played so much at my house. Leo didn’t try that gay shit again. I wondered why he never tried it again. Once (maybe twice) in the near total blackness of his basement—only the eerie green of the VCR reflecting off our sleeping bags—we lay parallel and apart and not looking at each other and whacking off, calling out images to one another. Girls’ names and anatomies.

The first tryout at Bishop O’Byrne, the Catholic senior high school in the deep southern suburbs, we understood how deluded we’d been. Leo, now shorter than me, thought himself unguardable, a zippy point guard like Iverson. He was quick, ran the hundred metres at track meets when basketball was done. But it turned out other Catholic junior highs in southern Calgary incubated even zippier point guards. I told people I played both shooting guard and small forward because Vince Carter played shooting guard and small forward. By grade ten no one loomed over me; I was six feet and learning to steer my new body with something approaching grace.

After three tryouts Mr. Oliver wrote his list in black Sharpie and cut a red line between the thirteenth and fourteenth name. More a chasm than a line. You knew the names, all the way down to twenty-nine, were in order of how you made yourself known, how much you stood out in that three-afternoon ordeal. Probably Oliver thought this would be encouraging, for those cut to see how close they’d come to making it. When he saw I was number thirteen and he was fourteen, Leo didn’t speak to me until twelfth grade, when my name, also, fell below the line.

Then all at once we were friends again, in that way things go when you’re young. There was a different vibe between us now. Leo had a graduated license and the use of his mother’s Hyundai. I’d been fine with the bus. It was like finding a hole in the back of a wardrobe into a separate universe. You’d stand, hood up against the blowing ice and dust, at a stop hollowed out from cement snow on bleak, wide Fish Creek Boulevard, your rust-hued indoor ball in both hands because you aren’t going to bounce it out here with all the rock salt they sprinkle. You’d watch a zillion idiots in F-150s zoom by and know you were harder than them. After ten minutes, twelve, fifteen, convinced the bus had already gone, you’d be eyeballed by the bus driver, mistrusted about your youth pass, and stoically take your seat among the misanthropes. But it became a mark of friendship that it was me Leo drove to early morning track practice and sometimes home from afternoon ones. This story isn’t going where you think. There was never a time when I glimpsed his dick in the shower after practice. My two years on the basketball team I avoided showering with the other twelve guys. It wasn’t just the acne that dotted my back like rural stars. You worry your body is ungainly, your dick microscopic.

A whale’s cock is called a “dork.” One time I told Leo that and he didn’t seem so impressed.

He was driving me; he parked at dusk in a church parking lot and offered me a joint. Leo was no good at rolling—his brother Julien was at Waterloo for Computer Science—and half-crumbled and still unburnt buds sprinkled onto the seat. He was terrified of his mom finding even one speck, so even though it was his fault I roamed the seat with my fingers to tweeze up any trace. I decided to be bold, and placed my hand on him.

“I don’t do that anymore,” he said, not removing my hand.

“Yeah, okay, I feel that,” I said, unsure if I was feeling a seam or a zipper or a vein.

“I been with girls now,” he offered. “Not like when we were younger.” He took the joint from me and still did not move my other hand. He leaned to the slit of cold air coming in the car and flicked the lighter and sucked in and held it for what felt like over a minute.

“I like girls,” I said. My hand still in the hammock of those loose jeans. Just as awkward to pull it back as to leave it there.

“You done that to someone?” asked Leo.

“Just…” I shrugged. “Do you want…?” Leo shifted his weight to the other hip and I tried to ascertain if he was getting hard or emanated this much heat in repose.

“Naw,” Leo said. Maybe some hesitancy. My hand remained. I held as still as possible. He turned the key in the ignition. On the short drive with the windows open we talked only about the Raptors, who seemed to be on a precipice. They had two good players in Bosh and Rose but continued to slide. My hands retreated into the pockets of my hoodie. When Leo dropped me in front of my house I rubbed chunks of old icy snow over my face and hands to scrape off the weed smell.

◊ ◊ ◊

One time I divulged Leo’s secret.

The only two times I took true pleasure playing basketball after high school were at Law school in Ottawa, where I played late night ball with a group of guys all better than I was, and when I moved back to Calgary and resumed playing ball with the guys from O’Byrne who were still in that end of the city. A few still had moves. We played at the YMCA that shared a gym with our old high school. We knew the lines of that gym with our eyes shut—the warp of the floor and the subtle tilt of the hoop—and this arcane knowledge we lorded over boys five or six years younger whose bellies did not overhang their shorts.

Some nights after a game I’d stop by and see my father. He had not yet sold the house in Evergreen even though he clearly had no need for all that space, without mom. A book he had read on grief before she stopped chemotherapy said not to alter anything in your life for a year after. The house looked inhabited by a very conscientious squatter, who—fearing the owner’s return—disturbed none of their possessions. Two years on, he still went for runs on the paths of Fish Creek Park on days off. He had specialized ice running shoes for winter, and he would tell me what he spied down there.

Dad was telling me about an aggressive beaver when he seemed to forget himself, and asked, “Seen that boy Leo lately?”

“Leo’s my age, Dad.”

“He’s back in the city.”

“I haven’t talked to him in a little bit.” This meant a period of four years or more, but probably my father wouldn’t know that.

Dad continued. “He’s engaged.”

“That’s good,” I said, absently. It used to be my mother provided these updates. She dished about even my most minor elementary school nemeses like they were celebrities.

“He’s engaged to a boy,” Dad pronounced. He had microwaved me two Jamaican patties when I heaved myself into a kitchen chair after basketball, and now he became very focused on straightening my unused cutlery.

I pretended this was nothing to me. “You know that’s the law now,” I said.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “The boy’s name is Vincent. He seems nice.” And with that he returned to the beaver. It had felled a whole stand of poplars. When aspen poplars grow in a circle like that, he said, they’re all part of the same organism. But this beaver had gnawed every one of them down.

“When are you getting engaged?” he threw down, hunched and slow but still a virtuoso at such jabs.

“Who to?” I choked.

“To whom?” he corrected. “To Zola. You’re still seeing her?”

It was true I hadn’t spoken to Leo in years, but I had a vague knowledge of his life. He’d been working up north, some job in the industry, in Grand Prairie or Rocky Mountain House. “I didn’t think there’d be any gays up there,” I said to Zola, later that night at my place.

“I think it’s sweet,” she said. My building was close by the school where she taught, and we’d settled into a routine where she would come over late and stay.

“He was straight in high school,” I said. I was lying on the bed not touching her. We’d just finished and both our bodies were damp.

“Guess he wasn’t.”

“How’s he even find another faggot in Grand Prairie?”

“Don’t use that word. Yeah, that’s the way in a little place, isn’t it? People pair up with who’s there.”

“He’s too young to be married.”

“Isn’t he your age?”

A few of us would shoot around even on weeks we didn’t have a game: me and Simon and Natneal and Clay, sometimes others. Mostly posturing. We bitched about work. A few had infants and talked of apocalyptic geysers of shit and vomit. We talked about Lebron going to Miami. Most were opposed. “You hear about Leo?” I asked, to cover a jumper that sprang back at me off the rim.

No one had seen him. Simon heard he was getting married.

“But you know who he’s marrying?” This garnered a collective shrug. Engagements were not our usual territory.

“Dude’s name is Vincent,” I broadcast. I tried a no-look pass to Natneal but he wasn’t where I thought he was.

I asked Clayton, “Did you know back at O’Byrne he was queer?”

Clayton responded with the smallest possible shrug and a three that actually went in.

No one seemed to detect my look of dismay.

“No one cares?” I demanded. I wanted to know this upset someone in the way it upset me. It felt like a betrayal in some way I couldn’t verbalize.

“Patrick,” said Simon, bringing the ball back to half court, “how I see it is at least he’s likely getting some. I haven’t got laid since Beth was born.” Beth was eighteen months.

“That’s nothing. Clayton hasn’t fucked since undergrad,” Natneal sneered.

“Got my dick sucked this morning,” Clayton boasted.

“Didn’t know you were that flexible,” I recovered. We shot a bit more and then someone broke the rule about checking phones. Texts from wives and girlfriends drew us all to the showers.

◊ ◊ ◊

One time I broke Leo’s collarbone.

Some girlfriends would get totally wet hearing about the three guys who’ve sucked my dick, and some would be horror-struck. They’d think I was gay for certain.

There’s no in-between. Sometimes I guess wrong. One woman, Kaya, made me get a blood test before I even touched her, even though I’d had blood taken four months ago and the last time I hooked up with a dude was a year before that. Julie was the type to be horrified, I knew, so I said nothing. Especially didn’t say that I missed guys. She owned a business buying people’s old china, sets or single pieces, and selling it on to others who needed to complete their sets. She had a favourite Bronte sister (Anne). She moved in after four months. Her apartment in Sunnyside was destroyed in the flood and things were going good and she simply never moved out. In 2015 we married.

It seems weird now but when I was in my mid-twenties everyone I knew moved back to south Calgary. Like we didn’t know where else to place ourselves. That far out in the suburbs, neighbourhoods go out of their way to be placeless. Earthmovers erase whole hills, sandcastle long straight berms against the whine of the freeway. And yet, on wide roads that stretch their arms to embrace all those cars, you can smell the pheromones of the place. Clay. Dry grass. Balsam poplar fluff. Once they have smoothed the landscape to just mud, you see out to the silver peaks of the Rockies.

We hung out again, played ball, got high. The game changed. After some dull seasons of everyone hyping Miami and yawning at San Antonio, Steph Curry bloomed in Oakland and annihilated three-point records. Dudes at the Y looked fools trying to sink threes every possession. I’d always had a thing for the Raptors, and with Lowry and DeRozan they were beginning to deserve that love, even. Then just when I hit thirty, everyone I played with at the Y dispersed to other cities. Or worse: they became at ease with Calgary. They began to belong. Hockey’s hegemonic here. My old friends spread out on battered couches in grave-cold basements, cement walls tapestried with Gaudreau and Giordano sweaters, because the guys at the office would only be talking hockey the next morning or because they actually liked it now.
It happened by accident. Another associate chose this sports bar: Heinekens were four bucks for happy hour. Even this sports bar was against me. Raptors on one screen, some nothing hockey game on seven others. Coyotes at Islanders.

My colleague took off with an inch of beer still in his glass.

And then.

Out of nowhere, there was Leo. He was with a group of women. It’s true the downtown of this city’s about twelve blocks. So where else was he going to watch the game after work?

Still, it’d been years. Could I join? I asked. Room was made.

Not that game, but after the next one, I told Julie where I’d been. “We grew up on the same street,” I said. Leo didn’t drink much, so he drove me home in the two-door Volkswagen he had bought with Vincent. I still took the LRT to work. Train cars showed the city more fully: greasy service uniforms, exhausted nannies clutching their purses tight while they nap, some folks riding the train all the way north and all the way south just to keep warm.

Vincent was from Grande Prairie originally, and once released into the city he never came home before three AM. Whatever he and Leo had could not survive on only those resentful, predawn hours. When they split Leo moved back with his mom, and now she was always introducing him to women from the community. He wasn’t dating yet. Calgary was a rough city to be dating in your thirties. Guys were too scene, women wary when they found out who his ex was.

Games with Leo became regular. So did staying out late. As though Julie couldn’t Google the game times. Last summer Toronto traded DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard—Leo still saying “Kau-hee” into November—and we were thrilled to be rooting for a real contender.

After games we drove to various spots. The ring road wasn’t finished yet so there were dirt tracks and service roads where the city bordered the Tsuut’ina Nation, unlit at night. What drew us to these places was probably different for each of us. What I felt was something like what happens to planets distant from the sun: they remain in their orbits, but some large body in the darkness of space tugs on them, and we cannot see it, only the effect of its gravity—a vibration. I felt it, that pull.

For the first time I think he and I were both content with our lives. I forgot to worry about my dad, who that week got lost in the park he’d jogged for twenty years. We had this secret that in moments seemed harmless and made me feel like a full person. You couldn’t think about it too much.

Then this one time I drive Leo’s car to the emergency room.

The garage door, the floorboards, every item I disturb, all decide to make more noise than they ought to. From the last stair to the bedroom I don’t even feel my way, we’ve lived there so long. Julie says she was awake anyway. “I can’t sleep when you’re out.” I get scared and have to piss. The bathroom light illumes her silhouette sitting up in bed, my old purple Raptors jersey humongous on her. A voluminous tit peeks out at me and I feel the rush of blood again.

I remember Leo kneeling, half his body out of the car. Lying back across the front seats, I didn’t notice I shifted into neutral. The Volkswagen rolled on the gravel shoulder and Leo’s arm got stuck in the door. Snapped his collarbone as he dragged behind. At the emergency room he was embarrassed at his dirty clothes. Our story was weak; even a suburb like Evergreen, which is rarely plowed, didn’t have enough snow to get a car stuck in.

The time glares red at me from the clock radio; it’s past one. I slide into the sheets. The latex mattress squeaks as Julie turns away from me.

“Does he fuck you or do you fuck him?” In the dark it’s easy to believe these words are coming from elsewhere. An accusing spectre. Anyone but Julie.

What is the smallest amount I can confess? Here is a delicate balance in which Julie, who I love, is happy, and I, with my secret, am happy; I have known no other way for this to work.

“It’s nothing like that,” I say. I hold my breath.

“Then what?” she persists.

“You know there’s things we don’t talk about, from before you.”

“Patrick,” she’s sitting up with her arms folded now, “we are going to talk about this.”

The thing must come out. “Leo, like, sucks my dick sometimes.” A year passes. Antarctic glaciers collapse into the Southern Ocean. “Only after games,” I add.

“Uck, I don’t like doing that,” she groans. That’s it? Or is there more ire brewing? I say, “I noticed,” and we both chuckle. What a wonder to be shocked by one’s wife! If only we could inhabit this one point in space and time, this joke, before I have to reckon with the deception.

I lie beside her with my clothes still on. You can hear each crinkle of the sheet, as Julie sobs, and then stops for I don’t know how long, then sobs. We are so still for so long I feel either the sun is going to come up or time has stopped and it never will. I think of twelve thousand apologies. I invent time travel and locate the words to tell her who I am. When she speaks her voice is silted with sleep. “You still gonna fuck me?”

Fraser Calderwood is an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph. His fiction appears in Event, FreeFall, Half a Grapefruit, and The Temz Review. He believes all characters are bi.