This short fiction Phosphorescence about love, pregnancy and beluga whales from Room Magazine’s Queer issue, now online.
This short fiction Phosphorescence about love, pregnancy and beluga whales from Room Magazine’s Queer issue, now online.
This great piece from The Sun today, compliments of Tanis MacDonald: a place where I am luckily twice-published. Read it, enjoy it, weep, fall in love with the work of Lucie Britsch.
falling ginkos, Jane Eaton Hamilton, 2015, pastel painting
I am pleased and proud to have this story up on Joyland Vancouver. Thank you, Kathryn Mockler!
Tip: Joyland’s site will put the masthead over the text unless you make your viewing window half-width.
I’ve followed my travel piece “Things That Didn’t Happen” with a second piece at Jennifer Pastiloff’s Manifest Station, site of some pretty fine creative non-fiction. I’m happy to say they’ve decided to run fiction now, too. This one’s a reprint of an older story called “Cripples” which first appeared in Paris Trancontinental Magazine.
I love when sites republish work that didn’t originally appear online!
Thanks, Jen and team. You glow, girls.
Lionel Shriver, asked to read a favourite story from the New Yorker for the New Yorker fiction podcast, chose TC Boyle’s “Chicxulub,” from 2004 and joins fiction editor Deborah Triesman in a discussion.
I’ve been a big fan of TC Boyle since the 80s and a fan of Lionel Shriver’s since “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” a book much beloved and admired. Wonderful to pair the two.
Vancouver’s oil spill, April 2015
I wrote a story about an oil-spill clean-up that was first published in Paris Transcontinental.
Here it is again:
I hadn’t wanted a damn cripple on the crew to begin with. Any damn cripple. Not a damn cripple named Mike Pinkle or any other damn cripple, so naturally Pinkle was made my partner, orders of the co-ordinator. We’d both come in late. There were forty-three of us, and damn cripple Mike Pinkle was to be my partner during the Long Beach oil spill clean-up.
The first sight of that Vancouver Island beach was one hell of a thing. I shoved my Honda stick into ‘P’ and took off out of the parking lot toward the six foot waves at a ninny-speed run, stumbling over the logs and deadwood using my hands, across all that thick white sand to the surf line. The water was as purple and violent as a bruise. It pounded inside my breasts and legs like some fierce man. Oh shit, I thought. Goddamn shit. Water, blurring out into a flagstone sky. I’d never seen so much damn sea at once in my life. It excited me. It made me want to fuck. I was standing up to my ankles in yellow gumboots with the water sucking and smelling of muggy blood and all I wanted to do was fuck. But then I heard my goddamn car horn blow. I turned and remembered the cripple. And the rake. The pitchfork. The industrial strength green garbage bags. What I thought was I could use the pitchfork to kill the goddamn cripple and the industrial strength green garbage bags to dispose of his body; the rest of the crew would just figure he was a bag of oil muck. Which thought made me remember why we were here–the oil dump off the coast of Washington State. Now I noticed oil everywhere; broken rainbow slicks on the water to the south, clumps strangling the bulbous heads of bull kelp, even a barely recognizable dead gull to the right of my boot. All that pretty show and all that oil–I had to hold back tears. I was almost grateful for the diversion of the goddamn cripple in the parking lot.
Or at least I was until I had to watch that pathetic half-man haul himself into the chair I unfolded for him out of the trunk. I couldn’t stand to look at him, so I piled him with the rake and pitchfork and the bags, which he held like they were nothing. I dumped on a thermos of coffee for good measure.
The chair was electric. Fancy dancy. My idea–I’d heard he’d been in a car wreck with a drunk driver–was that he’d landed a settlement of ten mil or so. My idea was that he was set for goddamn life. A condo in the Bahamas. Large screen TVs, a jacuzzi. Big fat fucking deal. I was supposed to feel sorry for him?
He sailed down a concrete path in the rain like some alien robot. Then he beached in the sand.
I went around the front of his chair and yelled in his face. My fists were going. I said, “Listen, buster, let’s get this straight. You better realize I don’t like you. You’ve got no business being out here and you freaking well know it.”
He had a very pretty face, the kind that make me want to hang over toilets, they’re so perfect. He must have been about my age, middle twenties. Great biceps. Great pectorals. Boy’s eyes green as bile.
“You don’t like my wheelchair?” He had to shout to be heard over the rain and surf.
I kicked the wheel. “Screw your wheelchair.”
“I would,” he yelled, “but neither of us would feel a thing.”
A funny guy, too.
“The point is,” I hollered, “the point is I don’t know how you’re supposed to help out here! Your goddamn chair is already stuck in the goddamn sand.”
But I’d lost his attention. He was staring out at the ocean.
I bent down to his face.
He said, “My folks and I used to camp here when I was a kid. It looks just the same.”
I’m no fool. I heard nostalgia and figured I better stomp on it before it got worse. “It looks like a sewer,” I told him. “That ocean’s barfing oil, you idiot.” There were hillocks of crusted oil everywhere. Now that I’d noticed it, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it right away. I couldn’t believe I’d glazed over it on account of the view, just like the goddamn cripple was doing now.
He dragged his eyes off the horizon and smiled wistfully at me. He sure did have a pretty face for a cripple–it hardly seemed fair. “Why are you here, Marilyn?”
I stepped back and raised my hands. It was my own goddamn business what I was doing here. If I told him I liked fish and birds, if I told him I dreamed of going to university and becoming an oceanographer, this goddamn cripple would make a frigging martyr out of me. “Who else is going to clean it up?” I finally said to him. Shit, I did not like this guy. “You see the government doing anything? The Americans? You know what it means to them? Sweet piss all is what it means to them.”
“What do you do,” he asked, “in real life?”
My hair was out of my poncho whipping over my face. I was a waitress using up my statutory vacation days. I said, “Gimme the goddamn garbage bags.” I ripped at the pile in his lap and plastic scattered, caught by the wind. “I shovel, you hold the bag.”
He shook one open. It went nuts in the wind, flapping and rippling. I picked out teams working up and down the beach. I bent down and picked up a chunk of oil about a foot wide and two inches thick.
“Mike, Christ, hold the bag steady.” I wrassled it in and Mike bent forward trying to support the weight of it. I said, “Don’t fall out of the chair, for God’s sake, please.”
“I’m not totally stupid,” he said.
I glared at him.
We worked like that, me picking up clods of solidified oil and four dead gulls and one dying rook the ocean had burped, him holding the bags and tying them at the end. Eventually we had sixteen full bags. Nothing on the beach that was supposed to be green was green anymore, and nothing that was supposed to be brown was brown. Everything was slathered with black oil gooey as molasses. I was stiff and cold when the whistle blew in the parking lot, Don the co-ordinator calling us in off our shift.
Two guys had to come and help yank Mike’s chair out of the sand.
Back in the rec room at the resort where we were being billeted, we ate soup that tasted like sand and bread torn from long French sticks–day-old stuff from the local bakery. I tried to avoid the goddamn cripple, but it didn’t work. After a pep talk, Don told us our room assignment and we were bunked together. I went up to complain. My hands were raw and red and every muscle in my body was hard.
“What the hell have you got me with him for?” I asked, gesturing at the cripple.
“Is there a problem, Marilyn?” said Don, consulting a clipboard. “There’re twin beds.”
“Shit,” I said. “Shit.”
Don turned away to answer somebody else’s question.
Mike the goddamn cripple was already in the cabin when I arrived. I stomped past him into the bathroom and drew myself a tub. Hot. The water prickled up my ankles when I stepped in and I couldn’t stop myself from grunting as I lowered down. I was squeezing pain out of every pore and I was bunked with a dildo whose legs probably looked like rotten fruit, all because some tugboat captain rammed a ship and nobody gave a good goddamn about the whales or the freaking ecosystem. Fucking goddamn century. Fucking goddamn sucking puke of a globe. I soaked and stewed till my body and mind curled it out and let go of it, becoming smooth and soft as blankets. I got to ruminating on breaking up with my boyfriend Craig. I got to thinking of the names he’d called me– lazy and selfish–and how most of them were right on. Maybe my coming here, helping to clean up Long Beach–maybe that would make him realize I wasn’t so bad after all. He’d miss me and he’d see I could be as altruistic as the next guy.
Frankly, I forgot the goddamn cripple altogether. It was a shock to open the door wrapped in a towel, hot and steamy, and see that putrid excuse for a man still sitting there cold and red and dirty. It took me aback. I stayed in the doorway till I could bring myself to say neutrally, “Can I help you? Do you want help with a bath or something?”
“I’d like that,” he said. “At home I have equipment.” He shrugged.
It had to be worse for him than me, I figured. I could close my eyes, right? So I pulled on my blue robe and asked him what to do. He could hear by my voice I was not too happy, but he just went about it all matter-of-factly until his naked white shrivelled legs were three inches under water.
Everything smelled of salt and wood.
He leaned back and I sank down the wall so I was sitting on the floor, my knees raised, my robe twisted so one of my breasts was partly out. He must’ve been a hell of a man once, that goddamn cripple. Leaning back I could only see his torso and it was a sight to stir a nun. I sighed. He closed his eyes and soaked. I closed mine and felt myself drifting off. Then I heard him start up.
“I could get reassigned,” he said first.
“Huh?” I opened my eyes.
“If you don’t want to help. I mean, you’re right, I’m not much good on the beach. I could stay back and make hot chocolate tomorrow or something.”
“Where you from?” I asked. I spread my fingers on my knees.
“Keremeos,” he said.
I knew the place. Small, crappy, quaint. British Columbia’s interior.
“You?” he asked.
“East Van,” I told him, naming a neighbourhood in Vancouver.
“You think the government’s going to send in crews?” he asked. “There’s no way forty-three people can clean this oil spill. It must be up and down the coast for miles.”
“There’s a preservation society picking up the birds that are still alive and cleaning them,” I answered hopefully.
“How long you here for?” he asked.
“Three days.” I raised my shoulders. “Not a hell of a lot. This is going to take weeks.”
“Months,” Mike corrected.
“You’d think if the goddamn government wouldn’t pay us, at least they’d buy our food. You’d think they’d do that at least. Buy us food and garbage bags and ponchos,” I said.
“Would you wash my back?” Mike asked.
“Can’t you wash your own back?” I asked, instantly peeved. Lathering up a goddamn cripple could kill me. It killed me once and if I looked reborn, well, I wasn’t. My father came out of an operation when I was little temporarily paralyzed. Fucking wheelchairs. I got up on my knees and watched Mike’s penis bobbing there, caught in a nest of dark hair in the grimy water. He grabbed my wrist, hard.
He looked at me hard too and said, “What is it with you, Marilyn?”
“There’s nothing with me, you goddamn cripple. Let go.”
He held on harder. “Marilyn, what?”
“Now I’m being lectured to. I don’t believe it. Let me go and I’ll help you get out.”
He did and I did and it was no pleasure at all to see that man drag himself into his chair stark raving naked and head into the bedroom to find his pyjamas. It made no sense to me that I was here instead of a couple big guys who could make a difference to him. Plus, I was fucking horny. I was starting to like the goddamn cripple and it pissed me off.
I turned back his blankets and got him sitting on the edge of bed. I folded down beside him. I wanted to cry. Tears were taking up in my throat like boxers. I couldn’t press them back. I felt Mike’s goddamn cripple hand stroke my back.
“Marilyn?” he said.
“Thanks.” He squeezed my shoulder then dropped his hand.
That made me cry. Fucking emotions. First I was pissed because I’d got saddled with a goddamn cripple and now I was crying because he’d stopped touching me. He took my chin and turned my face to him. He was sure pretty.
He said gently, “We should get some sleep.”
I leaned and kissed him, surprised at the softness of his lips and the hard bristle of his beard. The kiss lasted a minute and when I stopped, my arm brushed his penis. It was erect. I hadn’t realized he could do that.
He held my shoulders and pushed me back, away from him. “This is not good,” he said. “We’re strangers. We’re tired. We have an early morning. Go to bed, Marilyn.”
I looked at him and thought how I was about to seduce a goddamn cripple. My trip of redemption was going to give me a sore spot in the pit of my stomach. But fuck it. I wanted to end this day with any kind of sex. I could feel heat radiating off him. I kissed him again and it went through me. He was responding. Shit, a cripple would respond, wouldn’t he?
Was I surprised to wake up in the morning in a woodsy cabin in the middle of nowhere in the semi-darkness in the arms of a cripple. I tried to remember the night before and it came back slowly, the way the dirty morning light slowly increased in our room. He’d been no slouch at pleasing me but I hadn’t done a freaking thing for him. Below the belt he was dead. Or not dead, exactly, pretty lively if it came down to it. Only he couldn’t feel it. He couldn’t feel a jack-off thing. Well, goddamn, I thought. I was not going to be grossed out or remember my father calling to me. Fucking cripples. Let’s just leave it at, heh, I got my rocks off. I tried to slide out of Mike’s arms, which woke him.
He groaned and smiled and pulled me in tighter. “Hi,” he said.
“I’m stiff,” I said. “I ache.” I pulled away.
“Pretty stupid, eh?” he said. “Last night.”
“It felt good. I don’t care.”
“Even with a goddamn cripple?” Crinkles of amusement appeared around his eyes.
I grinned even though I tried not to. “What time is it?” I asked him, forcing the smile off my face. “Tell me what time it is. Okay, Mike? Okay? Can you just fucking shut your trap for a goddamn minute and maybe start focussing on why we’re here?”
All day long on the beach I kept looking over at Mike feeling a quirky, ridiculous pride. God, I hated the work. Those oil patches were heavy; the recently washed in ones gluey and the dry ones like lava. But my morale stayed high. Despite the effects of the January cold, the slate-grey drizzle, the dead birds, I felt goddamn good. I’d fucked a goddamn cripple but I felt goddamn good. It was a freaking surprise.
That night over dinner Don told us the premier’s office was issuing certificates of achievement to the clean-up volunteers. Even Mike, the goddamn mild-mannered cripple, was bitter about it–shit, we all were. Here we were doing our government’s work and the freaking big girl wanted to thank us with certificates. Come summer there’d still be oil washing in and otters dying, maybe whales dying from the crap they sucked up off the ocean floor, but heh, so what? We were offered certificates. We voted to refuse them. We dipped our day-old bread in the watery soup and said no fucking thank you. The goddamn cripple took my hand during this, which made some of the other crew members grin over at us like we were the high point of it, we were the entertainment.
When my father was in a wheelchair I sat on his lap and when Mom wasn’t around he moved his hands between my thighs. He pushed aside my panties. When he got better, he stopped. Just like that. Goddamn sex and then nothing, like I no longer existed. Daddy, I’d say. Daddy? And he’d look through me like the goddamn wall meant more to him. The goddamn wall did mean more to him. All I can think since then is at least he’s getting old. One of these days his heart will misfire and fry him like a steak. Hell, I’ll supply the onions.
But with Mike that second night I thought I was going to fucking heaven. There’s a thing that says people with disabilities compensate, and that goddamn cripple, let me say, compensated. I didn’t notice I was tired, I didn’t notice the oil caked in my knuckles and under my nails, I didn’t notice his moldy legs. I told him afterwards about my Dad, not about the sex, just that my Dad had spent some time in a chair. He told me about his accident and how his wife left him a year into it. When we fell asleep I felt oddly safe, like all around us oil was not building up on the beaches, like the world was sane and I was not fucking a goddamn cripple.
Maybe I wasn’t. Maybe, like Mike said, I just had a chip on my shoulder.
So when on the next day, my last, Mike was distant and cold as the everlasting January rain, I was hurt. And mad. I pitchforked mounds of oil and tossed them at the garbage bag he held often missing the mark. By l0:30, his rain pants were slicked with globs of oil and sand, clumps of seaweed.
“Fuck, you prick,” I finally yelled, blinking back tears. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
His green eyes looked so icy I could skate on them.
I threw down my fork and pushed his shoulder. “I mean it, Mike. What’s going on?”
“Fuck off, Marilyn,” he said.
“Fuck you, too, you goddamn cripple.”
Neither of us said anything. Both of us stared out to sea where the breakers crashed. Tears were pouring down my face.
I heard Mike say, “You’re leaving,” in such an accusatory voice I wheeled to face him.
“I’m a fucking waitress at a greasy spoon in east Vancouver. You think there’s a future for us? Don’t expect me to get saddled with some goddamn cripple. Look, it was nice, okay? It was nice and tonight I’m outa here. The goddamned Navy can start doing their bit.” I paused. It was true we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. As soon as we got rid of some oil, more came in. There was more oil now than when we’d started. 900 bags of oil between us and not a dent. Fucking certificates of appreciation from the premier. A goddamn cripple. I thought about Craig and who he was probably fucking while I was gone. I’d be glad to get out of here. I thought maybe I’d quit work, quit Craig, and go to Mexico. Then I remembered the pollution this winter in Mexico City. Like I could go there and breathe. I looked at Mike again. “You could come.”
“You could quit and come to Keremeos.”
“We’re still strangers, you goddamn cripple.”
“We could try,” he said.
“Forget it, Mike,” I told him. “I don’t like goddamn cripples. I don’t need a cripple in my life.”
“Neither do I,” he said. Then he said my name, Marilyn.
“Up yours,” I said. I grinned because I knew what he was going to say next.
Mike didn’t let me down. “But I wouldn’t feel it,” he said.
I picked up the pitchfork and made thrusting motions at him with the tines. He grabbed it by the handle and pulled me in. I was laughing and sniffling. I fell on the mess on his lap and he kissed me. When he stopped he said, “At least give me your cell.”
I said okay. I said sure. That goddamn cripple. That goddamn oil slick.
I’m really pleased and proud to have this small story up on Compose today. I wrote it a bajillion years ago and have always had a warm spot for it. It’s about a young woman visiting back east whose cousin twists her arm to go to a funeral for someone she never met.
Trying like stink to write a mini essay for the CBC contest today and instead I get fiction. Here is the first paragraph of what may well go nowhere, and what in any case does not further the cause:
“The starlings have landed, hustling their backyard suet. Go murmur, birds, he thinks, go roil in the sky like magnetic shavings, go sweep the clouds, because in a lick, a gobble, an ingurgitate, the beastlings have devoured the two new cakes of sunflower seeds, millet and cranberries. Bastards, he thinks, and listens to them chatter. They sound smooth and watery, calm and reassuring, which they are certainly not, not starlings, not the assholes of the avian world, anymore than he, anymore, is the husband he once promised he’d be.”
UPDATE: I did get a non-fiction piece, finally, called “Battery” about the factory farming of chickens, and no further on the story, above.
My wife painted a fresco on one wall of our living room and now my wife needs surgery on her hands. Those two things are not related. Her nerves were not damaged by plaster and pigment work; her problem, the doctor says, is intrinsic, a degenerative disorder that robs her of tactile sense and causes her pain.
My wife’s name is Mary. You have probably seen her signature on canvasses but if you haven’t it doesn’t matter. I wish no one did; I wish my wife had never sold a painting, not one painting.
There are words I wish I had never heard, too: chartreuse, I wish I had never heard the word chartreuse. Turquoise is another one. That word turquoise goes right inside me; that world turquoise is a bad word. Vermillion. Is there any other word in the English language that goes to work on a man the way vermillion does?
The world is filled with unpredictability. Things wait around corners; words lie in wait around corners. Once I was a boy and I lived with a mother and a father and all that waited around corners for me was love; I wasn’t surprised for the first time until I was eleven and came around one corner too many and there was my mother and there was a man and kissing.
I am a man who appreciates a good kiss. I like a good kiss as well as the next man. What man wouldn’t appreciate a kiss? An excellent kiss can make a man overlook corners and words like chartreuse. This is just the way of things. In this world a wife and a kiss and a sunset make a fellow stop. They make a fellow stop in his tracks just outside some doorway and they make his eyelids widen.
Let us say the sunset seen through the window was chartreuse.
Let us say my wife Mary was kissing someone else.
Let us say her damaged hands were against the breasts of an artist named Diane.
This is the truth.
The truth is two women were kissing and Diane’s shirt was undone and her breasts were bare. My wife’s hands fit Diane’s breasts perfectly; I saw how well they fit. They fit so well an artist could have drawn the four as parts of one body.
One of Diane’s paintings is of a vermillion figure poised on the edge of a globe, bending over. My wife Mary’s fresco is turquoise.
This is just how it happens, a man turns one corner too many in his life and then it happens, that kiss, and he doesn’t know how to act or what to say or how to impart one color, the one he saw, black. He hits his chest with the flat of his hand over and over, he does that.
Here is a photograph: a man, a woman and a woman. Here is a sculpture: a man, a woman and a woman. Here is a story: a man, a woman and a woman. Here is a sunset and a fresco. Here is a painting by a woman named Diane. Here I am. Here is my wife, Diane.
In the photograph I age and age. Soon I am fifty. Soon I am eighty-four. Soon I am a hundred and two. I am lucky to be so old, such a very old man with a thin windpipe.
This morning, the NY Times published an article on the west’s ongoing trouble with wild horses, the yearly culls, and the diminishing numbers of private adoptions of culled horses as the price of hay rises. I am deeply sorry to hear that this issue is still with us.
I wrote this story a long time ago, but it transpires in this milieu, in the American west, with guns, to a family trapped on both sides of the issue, at Christmas time.
The article about the issue appears here first, and then my story appears here afterwards. Please let me know if you’ve read it by leaving a comment here.
I’ve done something wrong, I think, except I am still in bed. I scramble up to peer out the window and there she is, in her truck, smashed against the rear of my green car. There doesn’t seem to be any damage. From my vantage point high above the street, things look fine. Still, I heard glass break. I open the window, but I catch my fingers so that the window rolls up and over them and the pain is enormous. She drives her truck down Pender and is gone who knows where. There are things between this woman and me and every time she leaves, those things stretch and stretch. Or they feel like smashed fingers, how the pain swells up and is bigger than a basketball or maybe this house, just for a minute, that big and encompassing. But there is no one to cry out to so I don’t make a sound.
In an hour, she hasn’t come back. She hasn’t phoned either. I wonder whether she is going to tell me or whether the first I am to know of it is when the police stop me. I can imagine that clear as day. -Miss, a cop would say, do you realize you have no brake lights? I’d hold up my fingers to see if the bruises would impress him, how the nails are swollen and purple. Officer, I hurt myself, I’d say but I’d get the ticket anyway, I’d have to come home to her, waving it and shaking my head. I’d say, Seventy-five bucks. That’s what I’d say. I’d look from the ticket to her and tell her how much. And then I’d be as good as dead. Around and around, that woman doing circles in my brain, attached in my brain like some elastic she keeps snapping back on me.
One day when she came home and I wasn’t expecting her, I hid behind the couch. This was in January, when the days are short and cold. Because she was trying to conserve electricity, the house was hardly heated; she didn’t care, it wasn’t her who was home all day.
-Stupid Bettina, she called, come out, come out. Oh little thick-as-a-brick, where have you gotten to? Where is my supper?
Peeking out as much as I dared, I saw she was in different clothes than she’d left in that morning. But she was early. It wasn’t dinnertime. It was two hours away from dinnertime.
-Here I am! I cried. Catch me if you can! I leaped out and began to run around the living room, up over the couch and coffee tables, into the kitchen and bathroom, then outside even though I was wearing threadbare slippers and there was ice and snow on the steps.
When she caught me, she kissed me. I was right beside a rhododendron bush in the side yard and for a minute it could have been May because I felt like a bloom, hot pink and florid. She kissed me until my lips were broken. I was so grateful. She lifted me light as a memory and carried me back inside the house. -How fast can you cook? she asked me, setting me down beside the stove. Make Spanish omelettes.
I walk out onto our porch, which is now a summer porch, and I look at all our potted flowers. My car is still out there, smashed, but I don’t care. She has blue Andirondack chairs and I sit down. Last summer someone stole one, one chair and two footstools and a beach blanket, but the next night she woke me up at three to say the thief had brought them back. There was a note: I’m sorry I stole your stuff. She’d believed I’d hidden things so she could paddle me. -Bettina, she’d said, you dickens, you bad girl. Come over here now. Then when the thief returned them, everything was ruined. One slap at a time, she took my spanking back. This year, though, it’s the flowers. One too many compliments from strangers passing by, is how I see it, because every day there is one geranium gone, one mallow, one lupin, and one expensive clay pot. I am the one who grows things. It is something I do for her. There are no new plants missing. I look around. She isn’t motoring up the street. I take a plant, a big hanging basket full with seedy fuchsia bells, and carry it around the side of the house and under the other porch where she has old, big furniture stored. I hide it inside a cabinet.
Once, early on between us, she sat between my legs, smoking a cigarette. She was wrapped in a white towel fresh from the laundry. Her friend, the friend she’d brought home for me, was lying on my left, but my eyes didn’t leave her eyes where all the instructions for my life were written.
-Kiss each other, she said behind her fog of smoke. Thick stick, soupbone, darling, kiss Kirsten while I watch.
Kirsten was a girl like I was a girl. I kissed her but I was shy and slow, I barely brushed her lips with my lips, the merest hint of kisses, kisses that were hardly kisses, insubordinate kisses, really, because it was not what my lover wanted from me. Kirsten was too stoned to know. Kirsten was a girl who would do anything. Kirsten’s lips opened and closed while I thought of my lover above us and how I lived in her blue, east end house and how every night she opened my thighs and whispered love into the girl parts of me, words that etched on my tender pink skin so I was scarred, was branded, was tattooed.
-I will never leave you, I told her. Mommy, I said, I will never go.
She moved her fingers hard into me.
-Never! I cried.
She believes it is necessary for me to have a car. It is a car like a preacher would drive, a family car that is boxy and big. I use it to move out onto the streets while she is not at home, to move past the neon signs and over the viaduct. She wants me to stay in Strathcona and Chinatown; she wants me to park in front of downtown churches, seek salvation-to-go, and while God is watching, finger myself. But I cruise further to where men wear suits and soft leather shoes, where women and girls move smooth in heels, briefcases banging at their nylons. I tell her I like the efficiency, when she asks, that I like the idea of becoming an international financier. I cruise to UBC and SFU and bring home undergraduate application forms which I spread under her hands for her touch.
-My adorable moron, she says. Do you love me, do you love me more than life itself?
-Yes, I whisper, oh yes oh forever.
-Don’t go to school, she says.
-Mommy, I won’t, I say. I smell her lips, the yellow toxins of her cigarettes, and move underneath her, promising everything.
-Sweetheart, she says. Darling girl. I will take care of you always.
-Always, I breathe.
A few weeks ago, there was a knock on the door. When I answered it I found a girl who told me her name was Sue; she’d just moved in next door. The house next door is pink but otherwise exactly the same as this one.
-Well, she said and smiled over straight teeth, I just wanted to say hello. To be neighbourly and all.
-Hello, I managed finally.
-Five of us just moved in, she said. We’re film students. Cinematographers.
-Students? I said, perking up.
The British Columbia Institute of Technology: I’ve driven past it many times.
-Three guys and two of us women, she said.
-Students? I repeated.
-Sure, she said. I just came over to say hi.
-Hi, I said. And then I grinned wide and said, Hi, Sue.
Sometimes I believe she’s a mirage and I am grown, and I have a husband and son. Sometimes I understand she is not my mother and that I have a mother tucked in a dark corner of my brain, a mother who hums as she does dishes, who misses me and jolts alert each time the telephone rings. This mother is everything a mother should be and she has hopes for me, hopes as real and true as a vacuum cleaner, hopes as simple as wanting to know I’m alive. She is in Winnipeg, this mother, waiting. I do not make my lover wait. I torture her with my plans to take a business degree at the university, but I never make her wait. She says she’s been waiting all her life for me and now her wait is over.
-Buttercup, she says, holding me like an infant in her arms, rocking me.
I nuzzle close and lose my education. She pulls my education out of me strand by strand until I am a younger girl, a much younger, stupider girl.
-My little snail, she says, bending over me. Tell me what you want. Tell me what to do. Is it that you want a man? Am I not enough?
-I want to go back to school, I tell her.
Her hand is between my thighs. -Turn over on your stomach.
-No! I cry, clamping my legs closed.
She pulls free, falls away and lies on her back. She averts her eyes.
-I won’t leave you, I say, relenting.
-School is for smart girls, Bettina, she tells me.
-I won’t leave you, I repeat.
-I know about school, she says. School would only fill your brain with thoughts of dead poets. With numbers. With geography. School can’t give you a thing.
She is right. I have everything here, with her. There is nothing I need. School could not give me what she’s given me, what she gives me effortlessly, what she’s filled me with.
But at Simon Fraser University I walk the halls carrying books from her shelves. The university walls are plain and there is a faint smell, a mixture of sweat and fear students have left behind. This is what I want, what she doesn’t understand. When clusters of students pass me, I pretend to be looking at the walls, at display cases, but really I am watching them. When they vanish, I scurry towards the bookstore. If it’s closed I press my face against the glass to see the books perfectly aligned on their shelves; sometimes I kiss the glass to make a grey imprint of my lips.
She owns this house. She tells me she has always owned it but I know there was a time when she could not have, a time before she was a woman. I also know she has lived here for twenty years or more, since before I was born, and that other girls have lived here with her. I make them up. I give them names like Pepper and Godiva and stand them, chewing their fingernails, in front of the dishwasher. Once I tried to find a spare key to my lover’s office, a place off-bounds to me, so I could understand these girls and how they came here and how they left. I imagined photograph albums and diaries. I thought of mementos. I turned the house upside down and still, there was no key. But I could not stop imagining my lover bending over these girls, these Pennys and Dots. I saw her face, intent, its crows lines and full mouth. She is mysteriously wealthy, my lover, yet she lives here, on this bad street, with girls.
One night Sue and the other film students set up their equipment in front of this house. While my lover watched TV, I stood at the window barely cracking the drapes. There were vans from which were hauled huge cameras and studio lights; there were many people, much urgent milling about. Finally Sue stood with a blackboard of sorts, clacking it. A girl rushed up the sidewalk, conferred quickly with another, lit a cigarette and rushed away. I couldn’t hear the dialogue, not from indoors, but over and over the scene, which looked intense, was repeated. Over and over. This is what students are like, I thought, full of command and importance, heavy with expensive gear.
-They’re shooting a movie, I said to my lover.
She made a noise from the couch. Lackadaisically she said, Bettina, bean sprout, come over here.
-They moved in next door, I said.
-Honey, she said, lifting her head, I can’t tell you how many people have come and gone from that house. Come away from the window.
She blew smoke rings that flattened in the light from the TV.
I pulled myself away from the window and slumped beside her.
-You’re leaving me, she said sullenly, her eyes on Morley Safer.
I’d met Sue and I’d seen students. Upstairs, under her mattress, I had university application forms filled out and ready to mail.
-After all I’ve done for you.
She turned to look at me, hard and grey. She stubbed out her cigarette and kissed me. She moved so her hands were covering my breasts then lowered her mouth to tongue my nipple through my shirt.
-Stupid Bettina, she murmured and nipped me.
I was certain the students outside could see her. -Oh! I said and grabbed the back of her head.
-If we only have each other, she said huskily. If we stand together, Bettina. All my life I spent looking for you, all my life. Do you love me? Oh little moron, do you love only me?
She eased my jeans from my hips. I thought of the students, the slight rain, the spotlights.
Today, without being stopped for my tail lights, I drive to Shaughnessy. There are no universities in Shaughnessy, but this is an area of town with educated people. In my preacher’s car I have been to all of the good areas, to Kits, to West Vancouver, to the university endowment lands where houses cannot be bought but only leased. I recognize education in the way women and men move. I see algebra in the tilt of women’s creamy necks and architecture in men’s firm backs. In Shaughnessy, though, not many people are evident. But I understand this means the women and men are at work in their beautiful offices before coming home to their beautiful houses, houses bigger, some of them, than universities.
I stop for stamps.
On television I watch Days of Our Lives. I watch in spandex in case Michael Easton, the actor who plays Tanner, can see me. I wouldn’t know what to do with a boy, what to do with Tanner, but I like to look my best for him weekday afternoons at three.
She sleeps with girls when she is gone from the house. She thinks I don’t understand this, she thinks I don’t know. But I can smell girls on her fingers; I can tell who’s a junkie, who’s an alcoholic. She leaves substance traces on my skin.
-Don’t get cocky, she told me once. Nothing lasts forever.
I sat at the table copying out recipes she’d brought home. I said, This Alfredo sauce has cream in it.
-I could tell you to leave.
-I thought you were watching your cholesterol.
-Boom, she said. You’d be gone.
I want her. She knows I want her. I want her so badly it starts as an ache in my stomach and moves up and down me, up to the crown of my head and down to my toes. I dream she will let me go to school, that I will go to school and nothing here will change, that after years of school we’ll sell this house and move to West Vancouver. She will have her money. I will have my education. I dream we’ll be happy.
The first time she touched me I thought I gave birth. I thought her fingers were the head of the baby I once was and I was coming out of myself into the shimmery blue of our bedroom like innocence.
Still, I realize it’s as she said, nothing lasts forever. She will grow old. Already when I pinch the skin on the rear of her hand it doesn’t sink back into place. Already she’s a woman with enough skin for two women.
Sometimes I think the bad streets just past her windows belong to me. Across the way, behind a low-slung group of row houses, a pink condominium grows and grows taller. When I hold my lover mornings, her night-shirted back against my breasts, her smell salty, the big machines start up growling. My lover swears and pulls a pillow over her head, but I am not angry. This condominium, which will block our sunset, will be expensive enough to bring educated people to the neighbourhood. All day I watch from our windows, watch the despairing women and scruffy men who live along our street carrying sacks of groceries, weighted down, and they are mine, as if borne of me, as if walking not on the broken sidewalk but inside her house and my body. They are sad or violent. They steal plants as if my nasturtiums will give them what they do not have.
Where we live, there are rats. Though laundry is my responsibility, I am scared to descend into the basement where I hear, and sometimes see, rats skitter along the ceiling pipes. In another house, in another life, in the life my lover took me from, a cat killed rats and I had to lift their warm, inert bodies in paper towels and carry them to the incinerator. I saw their teeth. But laundry is my responsibility, so after my television show I creep down to the basement, a place of darkness and webs. I feel scared she’ll arrive home and catch me, I don’t know why. I have the hamper in my shaking hands. On top of the pile, her soiled underwear is vibrating. I put the basket down and start to separate whites and colours. I put her panties in the washing machine. I put towels and sheets in the washing machine. I do not see a rat. There are droppings near the dryer, but for today, no rats.
In her fridge are mushrooms, a bag of swollen caps as fresh as I could want. I know she intends me to make a meatless spaghetti sauce, but I decide on mushroom burgers. Sometimes I am reckless with menus; sometimes curious dishes dance behind my eyes and it is all I can do to rid myself of Green Turtle Soup, so vivid does it become. I pull hamburg buns from the freezer. They are plump and covered in sesame seeds. I set them to thaw. While I chop mushrooms and celery I think of education. Education is a drug in my brain, looping through it, startling my synapses.
At seven, I have everything ready. The burgers are in the frying pan ready to cook. The condiments are in the center of the set table. I’ve even been downstairs; the laundry is dried and folded and put away.
But my lover doesn’t come home until a few minutes before midnight and when she arrives she brings a boy, a man, inside with her. She introduces him as Pete.
-It’s time, she whispers to me. High time. She slips her arms around me. Take off your clothes, she says.
The boy, the man, is pretty, a young blonde boy with long hair.
-Bettina, sugar, put on some candles. Fill the bathtub.
Her voice is hoarse.
After it is over, when we have done it, when my lover and Pete are sprawled on the bedsheets sleeping, I pull free. My body aches. I have done things I never believed I would do and I have watched my lover do these same things. I dress and stand looking at them. The room is steamy. Luckily the application is at the end of the bed; carefully I slide my hand between the mattresses and pull it free. They don’t stir. I take stamps from my jean pocket and adhere them.
I don’t clean myself. I know I am messy but I don’t use the bathroom, just dress and leave the house with my car keys.
I use the mailbox at Postal Station K, the closest to her house. I am still not stopped by police – I don’t know if I have brake lights or not – and when I come home I retrieve the fuchsia, none the worse for wear, from the cabinet.
As I carry it onto the porch she says, I noticed that was missing.
I startle. She is sitting in a corner on one of her blue chairs, her legs curled under her, smoking.
-Bettina, she says, staring right at me. You clod. I know what you’ve done.
-Is Pete upstairs?
-Don’t think you fool me.
-I love you.
For a minute we’re both quiet. Then softly she says, I hit your car this morning, you know. My brakes must be going.
Standing on tiptoe I hook the plant on a nail where it sways wildly for a second.
-Nothing matters, she says. She lights a cigarette from the butt of the one she’s smoking.
-Some things matter, I say. We matter.
-I tried everything.
-I didn’t want Pete, I say, or Kirsten. I wanted you.
-Kiss me, she says.
-I’m not leaving you, I say, it’s just school. Maybe they won’t even take me. I go across and sit on her lap as I have sat on her lap for months. Her hand smooths the hair from my temples so gently and sweetly I almost cry.
-Bettina, she says. Little puppy, little pussy.
She surrounds me like a bubble; each of my breaths is the stale air from her mouth. She is everything to me. She is my lungs, my heart, every bone in my body.
-Aren’t you hungry? I whisper at last. Aren’t you starved?
–Hunger, from the story collection Hunger, Oberon Press; first appeared in Paragraph Magazine, winner of the Erotic Fiction Contest