Michael teaches English at the high school. His classroom is in one of the portables set up beside the outdoor basketball court, the garage where the guys in auto shop fix cars. During Grade 12 drama, I spent a lot of time in there with Mr. Chen who’d come from the city, who Lara thought was gay. Once he told me to stop acting so soap opera and get the hair out of my face. Until then I thought it was a gift how I could make myself weep by remembering our cat Smiley who died the winter I was 11, who my dad wrapped in a plastic grocery bag and put under the strawberries in the chest freezer until the ground thawed enough to bury him. Save your tears, Mr. Chen told me, and to this day, whenever I feel like I’m going to cry his voice comes into my head with the soft accent that flattened out the Rs.
The classroom looks different now. Michael’s covered the walls with movie-sized posters of Shakespeare performances at Stratford and pictures he’s drawn and laminated that teach basic grammar rules: a bright red X over ITS’ like the word is akin to smoking. I don’t understand my apostrophes but I don’t tell him that. Possession isn’t a topic I want to bring up.
We’re both teachers but Michael and I met at the bar. I was out with Josie and we were sitting on the Ladies and Escorts side, cracking peanuts, dropping the shells on the floor. Her nose running, a tremble in her bottom lip. Earlier that week, on Wednesday, she and Bruce had had a fight over whether she should put garlic in her beef stew and he’d taken a room at the Lakeshore. I was trying to listen, shoving slim paper serviettes across the table, guzzling from my Canadian because she preferred coolers and didn’t want to split a pitcher. Through the row of windows overlooking the river I could see the moon, a bright orb that lit the wide white plain. Headlights jumped up the shore into the parking lot and that was how he arrived: in a jumble of guys climbing off their sleds to enter the Gentlemen’s area. Our eyes immediately caught, and when I went to order more drinks, he came up to the heavy wooden counter that stretched the width of the building like the middle bar of an H, linking the two sides together, and asked me my name. Josie’s damp eyes stayed on me until finally I invited him over. When she turned to him, I saw her face flicker open with the slightest, shaky smile.
Michael is writing a novel. Sometimes when I let myself into the house he’s rented up the hill from the high school, beside the water tower where the kids carpet the bare rock with the glittering amber dust of bottles, I’ll hear the keys of his computer steadily clacking. While he works, I make him dinner and occasionally he’ll read bits of what he’s written as we eat. I don’t cook anything special: mainly pasta and hamburgers, a meatloaf or casserole, mostly meals with ground beef or canned tuna. Josie is the one who took to that when we were kids and I still love getting an invite from her because you never know what you’ll have: beef bourguignon that took six hours, a Moroccan lamb stew with mint jelly, and always a special dessert, Key Lime Pie or a truffle, no matter the occasion.
The first night we met, Michael and I fucked. That’s what he calls it, the sharp consonants percussing on his lips. Josie left early, drove home in her half broken-down Honda, even though in the bathroom, I’d told her I’d do whatever she wanted. Under the glare of the fluorescents, I’d seen the splotchy weakness of grief in her face, the first lines around her eyes like pins hemming a skirt and thought, We’re too young for that. Drunk enough, I hugged her, and I think that was when she decided just to leave.
Michael took me home on the back of his machine. I left my car in the parking lot. He went fast and the wind bit at my earlobes, pressed easily through the denim skin of my jeans but I’d had a few shots of cinnamon schnapps and the whole situation made me laugh. It seemed grandiose, an unusual adventure, a story to tell Lara the next time we talked on the phone.
As soon as we got through his front door, we did it. Right there in the living room, on the worn carpet, beside a stack of books I kicked over halfway through, hearing the tumble of their hard covers as if from a distance. Michael came, collapsed, and went suddenly so quiet that I thought he might have died or gone instantly to sleep and I’d be stuck there until the morning, pulling thin breaths beneath his significant weight.
I tell Michael my stories. He is fascinated that I grew up in Hixon Bay. We go out with Josie or over to her house, and he draws them out of us, standing up from the dining room table like a gentleman, refilling our wine glasses, stopping any drips with that final, professional twist of the neck. In the attentive heat of his eyes I feel alive and love when he gets so excited that he pulls out his tiny, leather bound notebook and starts jotting things down. It’s like a dare, that pen taking dictation, like an Oprah interview digging deeper, so Josie and I go further, telling all our tales about the four of us, Sam, Lara, her and I, until finally he stops. He shakes his sore wrist, fingers flashing like a wing in full flight and sits back, smiling his defeat. Somebody pours more wine and Josie asks about his own childhood, spent down in Scarborough, in a suburb behind a mall. I act like I’m listening when I’m actually thinking about later, how I’ll pretend not to want to and then let him, let him do whatever he wants.
When the literary journal arrives in the mail, he tells me he’s won third place. The Tar River Review Short Fiction Contest, he says, like it’ll mean something to me. Three hundred bucks, he shouts from his kitchen after he pulls the issue out of its plastic wrapping. I hear the champagne pop. For a story? I ask. It seems impossible but he’s nodding when he comes back through the doorway. His face is flushed, thick auburn hair a mess from the way his hand always pushes through it. His green eyes gleam. I step closer to him, drawn into his orbit. He’s like Jupiter, I think, or whichever planet has those glittering rings of dust. They circle eternally, never flying free, decorating the quiet orb of rock.
He scoops one arm around my waist and taps his glass against mine so they clink. Bubbles float up from the bottom of our glasses. In the liquor store he’d lain down a hundred dollar bill for the bottle and the cashier only gave him a five and three quarters in change. I sip it slowly, rolling the sweet sparkle around in my mouth. Can I read it? I ask, after I swallow, a sudden tartness stinging my throat. He pauses, purses his lips. His eyes settle on the wooden bookshelf my uncle made me for Christmas the year I turned 15 which I gave to Michael for his birthday back in March. Sure, he says. Yes. Of course.
The story isn’t what you think. It’s set in Bracebridge, not Hixon Bay, and the protagonist, the main character, is a guy, a draft dodger, nicknamed Trout.
Still, halfway through, there’s the scene from Josie’s wedding.
He describes it like I’d told him, with a few altered details.
Instead of the community centre gathering room with a Pee Wee practice down on the ice, the wedding is in a former cannery turned into a banquet hall. There’s turkey and mashed potatoes drying out in the chafing dishes. Josie had roast beef and red fingerlings. The same sunflower and daisy bouquets in clear glass vases with blue ribbons around thick stems. Lara, who Michael’s never met, was on her fifth glass of table wine and already hammered. Up at the mic she unfolded her speech and then crumpled it up in a ball and told the 86 people in the room how Bruce first fucked Sam—although she didn’t use that word, she said seduced, I remember—back when they were only 13. In a mildewed tent trailer set up behind his uncle’s barn, a detail Michael retained.
I’m not sure how to feel when I read the story. Robbed, I suppose. Like part of me, a page from my diary, has been shown to everyone on earth.
How…, I start, but he cuts me off.
It’s fiction, he says, voice firm. I shake my head. I’ve spent enough time with him to know that writing isn’t like that: coring stone and hefting it out intact. It’s about the gemstones, he told me once, and I remember that lecture, given in bed, his palm sliding up my bare hip. You take what you want from the grey shatter of life, he’d whispered before he rolled over and snapped on the light to write the line down.
Hours later, when we were all good and wasted, Josie kept saying, it’s fine, it’s fine, like she was the only one who’d been hurt. We were outside, Lara on her back on the grassy median pointing out the constellations as if we hadn’t all learned them at the same time, on the Grade 7 Mackenzie Island trip. Sam wiped at the cake crumbs caught in the sequins on Josie’s dress. My eyes stung from tears that might have genuine or may have been faked. It seemed all right as we edged past the rage, all that sputtering emotion, but I could sense the encroaching cold, and in the last photo taken of us, Sam and I are squished in the middle, Josie on one end, Lara beside me, the lake a blank blue page behind us. We were 18, and there was the rupture. The dividing line between childhood, becoming adult.
In Michael’s story, the women fight, but they take it off stage while Trout does shots at the fake luau bar with his best man, bemoaning his lost lifestyle. He doesn’t deal with the conflict between us and I know it’s because he doesn’t understand, not really. Michael always wanted to hear stories like the one about Chad Dunlop who tried to hydroplane over an open hole in the ice and didn’t make it or Adam Gagnon who dropped acid before he went hunting with his buddies and died from a gunshot wound or how we jumped off the cliffs on Lake Matinenda every July, plunging until our toes touched the architecture of sunken logs like an underwater city. He is a man, so I suppose the drama of female relationships—how deep they run, how rocky—just doesn’t appeal. He wants action, adventure.
What if Josie sees it? I ask, the book hanging from my hand. Or Lara or Sam?
He laughs. They won’t, he says. He licks the sticky champagne off his lips, presses them together so his mouth turns into a thin line. If I’d known it would bother you…, he says.
I want to tap my finger against the black letters on the page, marching so steadily in even explaining lines, and say, This is mine. This is ours.
You cocksucker, I’d add. You asshole.
But how can I?
I lift the story up to my face and finish it. Trout and his bride walk a path in the woods for photos, passing through the mist off a waterfall that tumbles into a crumbling gorge. He drapes his jacket around her shoulders while the family watches, framed by the wide doorway of the old cannery. Later, he fumbles a clichéd kiss with the bridesmaid in the kitchen, his hand cupping her ass through the thin yellow taffeta of her dress while the catering staff moves around them, oblivious, and the bridesmaid, heavy in the story with a flush of acne on her chin, kisses him greedily back.
Oh, shit, I say out loud, the book dropping into my lap. My mouth tastes sour. I think that’s it, I tell him. I think we’re done.
Because of a story, he says, surprised. I don’t hear it as a question although it might be one. He doesn’t speak as I go around his place stuffing items into my purse—a loose sock, the box of tampons from under the sink. While I search out every personal fragment, I remember the night Josie and I told him about her wedding. More and more details spouted out of me, as Josie faked laughter at our old selves and tried to get me to stop. Her free hand heavy on my arm as I plunged forward, thinking all the while how none of it actually meant anything, how no one else would ever care so much, as much as us.
That night, on Josie’s back deck, Michael manned the barbecue while we stood with drinks in our hands, poured into red plastic glasses. Josie’s cheeks burned; there was an embarrassed smirk on her face. I could tell, though, that she was pleased to be the centre of attention so I kept going right to the bitter end when I told him how Bruce had moved out. Fun while it lasted, eh, Jose? I said meanly, poking a finger into the extra flesh on her waist, watching her coy grin disappear. Jealous, I suppose, of how Michael looked at her, as if she was so exotic, had lived such an interesting life.
Lauren Carter is the author of the dystopian literary fiction novel Swarm which appeared on the CBC Canada Reads Top 40 list of books that could change Canada. She is at work on a second poetry collection, a book of short stories and another novel at her home in The Pas, Manitoba. Visit her at www.laurencarter.ca