Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of Robin Evans’s story — the full version will appear in the Spring 2012 issue of The Fiddlehead. We’re happy to be partnering with both of them to present you with this sample of Robin’s work.
I take the bus to Doctor Patel’s. Usually, I get off a few stops early and walk the rest of the way. I use the time to figure out something to talk about. She’s supposed to be helping me get my life together but the more we see each other, the harder it is to come up with anything decent.
Patel’s not a real doctor, she’s a PhD. She sits in a basement office on West 6th and talks to people like me while hugging Peruvian-style pillows to her chest.
She says, let’s talk about you.
Mom drops off groceries at my new apartment. Two bottles of red wine, canned snails and other pantry leftovers. Dented cans of soup, dryer sheets. The essentials. “This whole situation with Ryan is like a crazy flashback.” Mom talks for a long time.
She eases into it with long silences, then finishes with a rush of words that scatter like confetti. Our age-old family saga, the day Dad left her. A defining moment, a story told so often, she knows exactly where to pause for effect and when to laugh at herself.
But she still can’t say his name. “Your father.” “That man.” Nothing more than that in thirty years. He’s become a faceless ghost-man with an afro and a polyester suit. How did he ever manage to move away, get married and have another kid, when she has him so frozen in place? The last card he sent had a picture of him with his car. A Taurus. He was bald and kind of small-town mall fat with saggy eye pouches. Nothing special, no great loss.
I have no problem saying Ryan’s name. And because he’s the only Ryan I know, when I say it, I’m not fooling anyone, it’s all about him.
I let Patel know, despite what she may have heard, Ryan is a good guy.
“I’ve not heard anything, Lily” she says. “From what you say it sounds like you were very happy.”
Her monotone takes some getting used to. It’s like she’s heard everything a thousand times before. But then she looks at you and it’s a different story. She’ll eat you up when she looks at you, bad news and all.
That’s the trouble with talking about it. People love every minute but act like they’re doing you a favour. Like listening takes so much out of them. Frown, nod, here have a Kleenex, maybe that’ll get you bawling. The worse off you are, the better. Lost jobs, dead relatives, cancer, all of it works. But heartbreak creates a special kind of feeding frenzy. Better just to keep your mouth shut.
“A person shouldn’t have to buy more than three spatulas in one lifetime.” It’s not one of my most inspired openers but Patel takes the bait and leads me in a safe, familiar direction. New life, self determination, reinvention, assimilation.
“How are you settling in to your new apartment?”
“And the neighbourhood, you feel safe?”
“Funny story, I walked up to Hastings yesterday and on the way back this guy’s sitting in his truck getting a blow job. Parked right in front of my building. I had to walk past them doing it. And there was this stupid tricycle on the sidewalk right there, like they used it as a stepladder to get into the truck.”
Patel’s eyes light up whenever I mention sex. She compensates by making her voice go even flatter.
“Did you tell Ryan?”
Sneaky Patel. I’m not supposed to be talking to Ryan. I agreed to stop leaving messages.
“I just went home and got drunk.”
Patel senses I’m holding back. Her nose scrunches up a little as she thinks this. It’s the most unattractive she can make herself look and she doesn’t even know she’s doing it. I throw her a crumb.
“I realized something. I don’t look in the mirror. Can’t even tell you what my hair looks like. What does my hair look like?” I pull on a tight curl, stretch it out until it’s almost straight, then let it bounce back.
“You look fine.”
“Yeah, well, I sat next to this woman on the bus, she was at least eighty. Her hair was just a big cotton puff. And her make up was nuts.” I shake my hands in the air on either side of my head in the universal hand sign for crazy. “How’s my make up anyway? Can you see it in this light?”
“You look fine. About the woman on the bus?”
“Yeah. I don’t think she’s looked in the mirror for twenty years, maybe fifty. I thought, okay, I can do that.”
“The mirror isn’t so hard. It’s looking yourself in the eye that’s the big test. What so awful about you that you can’t look yourself in the eye?”
I know the answer. The egg timer on the back shelf goes off. Time’s up.
“Oh, you know, bad hair day,” I say finally, breaking through Patel’s silence.
I stand up and when I stretch, my fingers push at the low ceiling. The tile wobbles like it might fall on top of me.
“One day, when you’re ready.” Patel extends her hand.
Today is a bad session. We have not made progress. When I give her what she wants, I get a mama-bear hug, a squeeze, a “chin up” tilt of the head that says she knows best and I’m right to trust her. On days when I fend for myself I get a handshake before she settles herself back on the couch to wait for the next fixer-upper.
Read the Spring 2012 issue of The Fiddlehead for the rest of Robin’s prizewinning story!