I FEEL LOUSY.
That was as much as Ellen could get out of Yolanda as she hovered above her in the bathroom, holding back her golden hair while she retched.
“Maybe you should stay home,” Ellen said.
Yolanda lifted her face out of the toilet. Pink with misery, she let Ellen apply a cool damp cloth. “I can’t skip Inorganic Chemistry, Mom. It’s unbelievably hard.”
“Fine then. Just don’t spread it all over campus.”
Later, Ellen wondered how she could have been so dense.
Ellen had finished. She’d seen her daughters into adulthood, Mimi far too early, slinking off to child-unfriendly places, fearless in the dark. Yolanda she’d had to drag, but anyway, she’d done it, raised her two girls all on her own, except for that nine-month blip when Yo was seven and Mimi ten and Larry came back. Before that, he’d been out sowing his wild oats, which he kept in a little bag between his legs.
It had always been so. They’d met at a house party during university. Larry was just slipping out of one of the bedrooms, closing the door behind him, when Ellen appeared in the hall on her way from the bathroom. Larry followed her to the living room where everyone was bouncing in a circle to The Clash. Later, a rumpled girl appeared and, in dismay, looked around the room for him. Ellen pegged her instantly; she’d been behind the door that Larry had discreetly closed. In the bed. The girl saw Larry tight on the couch with Ellen, his silvery charms back on display, and ran out heaving sobs.
Did Ellen sympathize? Did she foresee in this girl’s public misery the personal shaming in store for her?
No. She’d married Larry.
They heard about this place, Cordova Island, an hour’s ferry ride from Vancouver Island. It was the 1980s, but might as well have been the 1960s on Cordova. Ellen and Larry absconded there in search of freedom, both of them growing out their hair (Ellen wore hers, auburn and thick, in a braid down her back; Larry, a dark ponytail and beard to match). To be free in a place where deer and feral sheep roamed the forest trails, the locals, too, because it was quicker than the road. Free like the Free Store, which was really just a glorified recycling depot. Anytime you looked up, anytime you consulted the sky, there would be a bald eagle or a turkey vulture high above in a tree, watching your every move, like God.
But that was twenty years ago. These days Ellen’s elder daughter Mimi lived across the bridge in East Vancouver with two roommates she loathed. She worked at Kinko’s and hated that too. Mimi had a talent for dissatisfaction. Yolanda was in pre-med, still at home with Ellen in the house she’d grown up in North Vancouver, a cedar split-level high up the side of Grouse Mountain. Ellen and Larry had bought it just before their marriage self-destructed, bought it with the outrageous fortune he’d suddenly started making in L.A. On rare clear days there was a gasp-inducing view—oh, the silver-plated ocean!—as far as the Olympic Peninsula.
A few days ago Yolanda had begun experiencing flu-like symptoms. Now they had settled into a regular pattern. Violent vomiting first thing in the morning. Violent vomiting if she didn’t eat. Violent vomiting if she ate anything but bread, potatoes, or mushy, Dalmatianed bananas. She walked around the house with these offensive bananas tucked under her arm. While studying, she kept a bunch within reach.
“So what do you plan to do?” Ellen asked from Yo’s bedroom door.
Yolanda glanced over her shoulder at Ellen and immediately shrunk down, like she was still a little girl fearful of her mother’s rages—despite the fact that they were never directed at her. Or rarely. Unlike Mimi, Yolanda had been a model child.
“I’m going to have an abortion,” she said. Just like that.
Ellen bowed her head in case there was any sign on her face of what she was feeling. What was she feeling? A lot of contradictory things. Relief, for one, but also a painful, almost menstrual spasm.
“Okay. Have you made an appointment?” “Not yet.”
“Well, you have to get on it, don’t you think?” “I’ve been studying.”
Ellen threw up her hands, and even this small gesture set Yolanda wailing.
“Tell me what I should do!”
“Isn’t there a clinic on campus? Make an appointment. Get a referral. For God’s sake, you’re in pre-med!” Ellen stormed off, sure now of what she felt.
Two hours later she came back un-angry. Something about the matter-of-fact way Yolanda had communicated her decision troubled Ellen. It sounded like she’d been chanting it to convince herself. Or maybe he was making her do it. The culprit, whoever he was. Either way, Ellen wasn’t going to get involved. But she thought Yo could use a hug, and she was right. Yolanda was still bent over one of the massive tomes that threatened to pop the pegs of her IKEA desk, feverishly highlighting whole paragraphs, flayed banana peels strewn everywhere. She turned in her chair and flung her arms around Ellen’s waist. Her glasses were smeary. She was too preoccupied to clean them, or she’d been crying.
“You’ll come with me when I do it, won’t you?” she whimpered. And a great cloud of fruit flies lifted off the half-rotten bananas and swarmed them both.
Ellen phoned her old friend Georgia with the news. In the background Gary, Georgia’s husband, the last Marxist left standing and an inveterate eavesdropper, asked,“What now? Mimi’s up the pole?”
Georgia shushed him.“For once it’s not Mimi.”
Ellen heard the processor grinding. Georgia and Gary were in the kitchen. They cooked together, which Ellen envied. Ellen cooked alone. She pictured them, petite, delicate Georgia with the phone lost in her sproingy hair, circumnavigating Gary—a fat man—at the counter. Their afterthought child, the boy genius Maximilian, four years old, would be reading out the recipe. Their older son Jacob was away at McGill. Jacob was mild and average. But Maximilian? At two, he would stand on the coffee table during parties and recite “Religion is the opium of the people” to guests who were either shocked or delighted, depending on whether Georgia or Gary had invited them.
To Ellen, Georgia asked the obvious question, the one Ellen had refused to ask Yolanda because of her non-involvement stance. “Who’s the guilty party?”
“I have no idea,” Ellen said. “She’s never even had a real boyfriend. Not that I know of. Last year she took the smartest, gayest boy in the whole school to Grad.”
“Can Mimi find out?”
“I don’t want to involve Mimi. Also, do I need to know who did it?”
“But you think she might have been coerced? Or is being coerced?”
“I hope not. But it’s not like I want her to have it either. Because I’m the one who’ll get stuck with it. I know I will. What do I want a baby for?”
“They smell so good,” Georgia said. “I’d have another if I could. But I can’t.”
“I had my tubes tied,” Ellen said. “Ten years ago.”
“What I mean is, I need to know that the kid I currently have is going to be all right before I commit to another.”
“He’ll be fine!” Gary called from across the room.
“I don’t multi-task with my maternal responsibilities. How did you, Ellen?”
“I made a lot of mistakes,” Ellen told Georgia, “as you well know.”
Ellen remembered something as soon as she hung up. How when Mimi and Yolanda were in elementary school they kept coming home with lice. The school was good, Rayburn Elementary, and right in the neighbourhood, two blocks away. A good school but lousy at the same time. Every year, four or five notices would come home requesting a scalp check.
“Fuck! ” Ellen would roar, which cued the girls to duck and cover before she hurled the comb. Every infestation a toxic ordeal, a nit- picking torture. Both had silky Rapunzel tresses that took hours to properly delouse. Mimi screeched and writhed, but Yolanda would sit quietly, her back to Ellen, paging through a picture book.
During one of these sessions Ellen noticed that Yolanda had been crying the whole time. Her chest was bibbed with tears. “Oh, honey,” Ellen said.“Am I hurting you?”
“I feel so sorry for them.” “For who?”
“The baby lices.”
Spring, the window partially open, letting in a bright green scent. Yolanda tossed and sighed in the dark.
“You seem uncertain.” “Do I?”
They were in Ellen’s bed, where Yolanda sometimes liked to come and cuddle in the middle of the night. She had only started doing this last year, after Mimi left. Mimi, who had once slept between two loving parents, while Yolanda, fatherless at birth, had been banished to a crib.
After a long silence, Ellen asked how she was feeling.
“Awful,” Yolanda answered, and Ellen gathered her up.
It felt strange to be holding a smaller adult in her arms. How many men had she invited into this bed? Too many. Very few who counted and none recently.
“Yo? You don’t have to. You can do whatever you want.” “Can I?”
“Of course. But I’m not raising it. That’s the last thing I’ll say about it.”
“What about school?”
“What about it?” Ellen said, meaning a baby was an inconvenience, not an obstacle. All over the world women squatted in fields and pushed them out, then strapped them to their chests and hoed the afterbirth into the ground. Look at Ellen, a single mother. Larry kept up payments on the house for those years, but that was it. He contributed shelter; Ellen food, clothing, allowance, dance lessons, drug rehab. She’d started Ellen Silver Promotions when Yolanda was a baby and Mimi three. Before cell phones! Nowadays any woman could run a successful business from a playground—but back then? No.
But telling Yolanda this would be getting involved, so Ellen held her tongue. Also, it would sound like she wanted Yolanda to have the baby, which she certainly did not. If Yolanda had that baby the door to Ellen’s life, which had only just swung open letting in this delicious, irresponsible breeze, would slam shut for eighteen more years.
Periodically, Ellen would evaluate herself in the bedroom mirror. Shoulder-length hair, still mostly auburn. A nice nose, long with a slight bump below the bridge to make it interesting. Blue eyes. The thin lips were treatable with lipstick. A B+ face. With a good night’s sleep, even an A– face. Below the neck, though, where gravity had rendered her one-time best asset a defect, her average (and her assets!) declined precipitously. Ellen was juggy. Her hips were wide, her ass too—could it be otherwise? But on the positive side again, she was only forty-one and only twenty pounds overweight. She was going to tackle the excess poundage, really—and then, who knew? Who knew what delights awaited her? Unless she had Yolanda’s baby to look after.
“How could I keep going to school?” Yolanda asked. “No comment.”
“Have you ever?” Yolanda asked. “What?”
“Had an abortion.”
Ellen winced and changed the subject. “You weren’t forced or anything? Tell me you weren’t.”
“No you won’t tell me, or no you weren’t raped?” “I wasn’t raped!”
“Okay. Then I don’t need to know anything else unless you want to tell me about the man.”
“What man?” Yolanda said, and Ellen let go a sigh of her own. Actually, in the case of Yo, it could have been Immaculate Conception. She seemed so innocent. Also stupid, the way really smart people sometimes are. Socially hopeless and befuddled and shy. Not that she didn’t understand sex, far from it. Ellen had made sure of that, always tucking condoms in with the sanitary supplies.
Finally, Yolanda clued in.“Oh, him! You mean him? He was just a boy.”
Yolanda slept with Ellen the next night too, and the next, so Ellen reasoned that, since sharing a bed was de facto involvement, she might as well make an appointment for Yolanda to see the doctor. Apparently Yolanda was too busy studying to do the responsible thing herself.
The day of the appointment, Ellen went in first to explain the situation, leaving Yolanda in the waiting room. “She says she wants an abortion. Obviously we have to act quickly because—Well, you know. And see what you can find out. How this happened. I’m appalled.”
“Ellen,” said Carol, the doctor whom Ellen had been seeing for so many years they were practically friends.
“She sure doesn’t seem it. I mean, if it wasn’t for her scholarship, I’d think she was retarded.”
Carol fixed a look on Ellen. She was a long, sinewy woman with a stare like a mink. Her cropped brown hair even resembled a pelt. “Go,” she told Ellen. “Tell her to come in. And by the way, you are way overdue for a mammogram.”
While Yolanda was in with Carol, trying to determine the date of conception, Ellen opened the biology textbook Yolanda had brought along. The highlighter pen was stuck in the chapter on ferns. Ferns, she read, reproduce with spores instead of seeds. The diagram showed the released spores developing into pretty little heart-shaped gametophytes. Gametophytes had both male and female sex organs. Convenient! There were photographs, too, that filled Ellen with verdant memories of those hidden paths that criss-crossed Cordova Island and sometimes opened into spectacular waist-high ferneries.
Ellen looked up with a start. Yolanda stood there, smeary, twisting her hands.
“Hold on. I want to talk to Carol again.”
Ellen found her in the hall reading her next patient’s file.“What did she tell you?”
“No,” Carol said, waving Ellen away with the file folder. “You are incorrigible.”
This forced Ellen, who really did not want to get any more involved, to ask Yolanda outright when they were in the car driving home.“So? So?”
“She did an examination,” Yo said. “She made me pee on the stick just in case.”
“It’s not the flu then?”
“Ha ha.” Yolanda opened her textbook and resumed reading. Ellen asked how far along she was. She asked when the office would call about the referral. Between her monosyllabic replies, Yolanda uncapped the highlighter with her teeth.
“What else did she say?”
“We talked about being a doctor. How important experience is compared with knowledge. I feel like I have a lot of knowledge, but almost no experience.”
“That’s funny,” Ellen said.“I’m the opposite.”
Abruptly Yolanda groaned and hugged the textbook to her. The highlighter bounced off her lap and onto the floor mat.
“Oh, honey!” Ellen said.“Do you need a banana?”
“It’s why I did it, Mom.” Then she was sobbing her heart out. Ellen pulled over into a loading zone, cutting someone off. She answered his reprimand, a honk for a honk, and turned to Yolanda, collapsed over the dash. “What are you saying, honey? Please. Tell me what’s going on.”
Yet Ellen hadn’t told Yolanda what had happened to her. To her, Yolanda was a daughter in trouble confiding in her mother. They were not yet two grown women sharing private aspects of their lives. It was still a one-way street for Ellen, a street Yolanda had driven up in the wrong direction, causing the two of them to crash.
A decade ago, when Larry and Ellen had already been apart—separated, then divorced—for seven years, Larry phoned.
Normally, Ellen called him. She called so that his daughters could have contact with their father. She would pass the receiver over to them, or suggest he invite them down to L.A. Even though
Ellen felt humiliated when Mrs. Silver II answered, she called.
Estranged from her own family and suffering because of it, she swallowed hard and dialled. She dialled for the sake of her girls.
Now Larry phoned out of the blue and asked to come back. His marriage to Amy was over. Some new woman he’d been besotted with had dumped him at the same time the television series he wrote for was cancelled. Raw with these failures, Larry wanted to be with his children.
And Ellen allowed it. Watching him get out of the cab a few days later, seeing his overgrown black curls, his wrinkled chinos and sad pouched eyes, the way he set down his suitcases and checked every pocket of his pants and jacket to come up with the fare, drawing out a wadded bill here, a bit of change there, she immediately forgave him. Forgave and swelled with a physical ache to have him inside her body and life again.
And Larry forgave Ellen, though he had much less to forgive. Ellen thought they were happy, like during those two crazy, hippy years on Cordova Island living off the grid. Larry had seemed happy the nine months he lived with them in North Vancouver. They had great sex. He and the girls formed an instant mutual adoration society. He even made their lunches—better lunches than Ellen’s, cheese melts with raisin faces, Rice Krispies squares that weren’t square but stamped out with cookie cutters.
Before Larry’s return, the girls used to walk themselves to school. Ellen was working, the only mother who didn’t escort her kids, and for her negligence she received a wide range of disapproving looks, from askance all the way to deploring. But now Mimi and Yo had a father to walk them and pick them up. In between, Larry fixed up the house and wrote his play and pulled the phone out of Ellen’s working hand and fucked her in the afternoon. He stood at the stove stirring Rice Krispies into the marshmallow goop, muttering snatches of dialogue. He’d written plays before getting sucked into television. Ellen told him he didn’t need the money anymore. Ellen Silver Promotions was thriving by then so he could be true to his art again.
“You make me puke,” she told him when he announced he was going back.“To Amy?”
“To L.A.” He rose from the bed and left her in it, closing the door softly with a hand behind his back.
Within twenty-four hours, he was packed and out of their lives. At the time, Ellen had been hired to promote an American novelist on the Vancouver leg of his West Coast book tour. She got the girls up, dumped their cereal in and around their bowls. “When’s Daddy coming back?” they asked. Again, again, again! They couldn’t understand his inconstancy. Mimi was too young the first time to remember he’d abandoned her before. Yolanda had been unborn.
Ellen lost it. “Daddy isn’t coming back! Daddy’s never coming back! Daddy used up all his chances!”
That went over well. It was one of the few mornings she walked them to school. Well, she dragged them, sobbing, Ellen in tears herself, saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But I have to be downtown in twenty minutes. Believe me, I would like nothing better than to stay home with you and cry.”
She met the American novelist in the restaurant of the Hyatt to review his schedule. Interviews, bookstore signings, then the grand finale, the Reading. He asked straight out, “Did you love my book?” “I did,” Ellen said. She’d only read the beginning and the end and some of the middle bits. “It’s brilliant.” It was middling, actually, but you don’t feed two children on honesty. “Before I forget.” She slid her business card across the table to him. “Anytime you need to, call.”
He looked at it.“ ‘ESP.’ Cute.”
Ellen sighed. “Silver isn’t even my name anymore. I’m back to McGinty. I’m divorced.”
How it seared, that admission. Why had she told him? She looked down at the coffee spoon on her saucer and contemplated gouging out her eyes with it. I’m not crying, she would tell the sur- prised novelist, I’m not. It’s just that, when you blind yourself? Your eyes water.
And so the American novelist’s reply didn’t register at first. Ellen was on autopilot, not only contemplating self-harm but miserable for having shouted at the girls that morning. All through the meeting she’d kept picturing herself hauling them, wailing and unbrushed, into the school.
What he’d said was “Good.”
Now she looked up and really saw him, the antithesis of Larry. Tall, even when seated. Also full of himself, though that was more a point of commonality. He would have been gorgeous but for the blond hair ebbing off the promontory of his forehead. But who was Ellen to be critical? Parts of her were too prominent. Fortunately, she was sitting on two of them.
“Do you have ESP?” the novelist asked.
The business was done, his breakfast consumed, their coffee cups thrice refilled. Ellen relaxed. “Let me see.” She closed her eyes and touched her temples. Under the table, the novelist placed a foot over hers, implying not pressure but closeness. A shudder ran through her, half-thrill, half-warning. She felt very slightly ill. “The bill will come,” she intoned, “and you will offer to pay it. But I will insist and you will succumb.”
The waiter appeared. Just before she closed her eyes, Ellen had noticed him in her peripheral vision making his way across the room. The novelist threw back his head and let go a weird, high- pitched laugh, almost a seal’s bark.
“I’ll get it,” he said before the waiter even opened his mouth. “I insist,” Ellen said, reaching for her purse.
The novelist laid the back of his hand across his Gibraltar forehead, behind which all his novels were plotted—his conquests, too, no doubt. “Oh, I succumb!”
Had his publicist in San Francisco succumbed? In Seattle? At eleven-thirty in the morning? She shouldn’t do it. Why did she always do it? To spite Larry? He wouldn’t care. To prove to herself that she could collect lovers too? That she was still desirable even though Larry didn’t want her? Or just to keep opening her wound? She felt so wretched afterward. She always felt so lousy.
“We could go upstairs. But I warn you, I’ll want to hear more about my book.”
“I could read it out loud,” Ellen said.
“While I do delicious things to you.”
The waiter, who had vanished with her credit card, returned with it on a tray just in time to hear the novelist in mid-seduction. He quickly stepped away. Ellen, blushing, leaned over the bill, dizzy with embarrassment and desire. Desire could be so wonderfully distracting. Her desolation was lifting, even as she calculated the tip. Fifteen percent, plus five for discretion.
Something dropped onto the bill, right onto the blank line she was staring at. A crumb, or a speck of dirt.
Not alive. Not a living thing.
Yes. It definitely moved, was probably on its back, kicking its imperceptible legs in the invisible air. You needed the magnifying glass that came in the nit kit to actually see their legs.
In an instant her whole scalp was crawling. She glanced at the novelist to see if he’d noticed—no. He was signing her copy of his book. Ellen swept the tray onto the restaurant floor, oopsed and picked it up.
“Excuse me. I’ll be right back.”
She barely reached the bathroom in time. Vomited, rinsed her mouth in the sink, scratched her whole head hard enough to draw blood. With the comb, she made herself presentable again.
Back at the table, she told him.“Sorry. Suddenly, I’m not feeling so hot.”
On her way home, she stopped at the drugstore for delousing shampoo and a pregnancy test. Now she lay in the tub in the middle of the day, suds dripping down her shoulders, over her breasts.
It took ten minutes to kill the lice. Then you had to comb out the corpses and the eggs.
Deep inside her, a factory was churning out cells. Of course she would have to have it, the assembled product. A sister or a brother to her girls. A living thing.
Except Larry would accuse her of doing it on purpose. To lure him back. She didn’t have to tell him. She could claim it wasn’t his. Thank God she hadn’t slept with the American novelist or she’d have him to contend with too.
But how could she have another baby on her own? She wouldn’t be able to work for months. Larry had no money. She didn’t qualify for Employment Insurance. She’d have to sell the house. And, as if the judgmental looks she received at the girls’ school weren’t bad enough, imagine her waddling in, pregnant, with no obvious father around? She didn’t care for her own sake, but it wasn’t fair that Mimi and Yolanda should be stigmatized.
That had to be ten minutes. Eyes watering, stomach twisting from the smell, she slid down, just her face and knees out of the water, legs bent like she was already in the stirrups.
It was her only option. Then she’d start volunteering on Hot Dog Day.
After Yolanda’s collapse in the car on the way home from seeing Dr. Carol, Ellen sat her down in the living room for a proper talk. She brought her a piece of bread, a glass of water. Yo, cross-legged on the couch, swollen from crying, tore off the crusts, rolled some of the soft part into a pill, and washed it down.
“Come on,” Ellen said.“Tell me what’s going on.”
Yolanda lifted her face, which was so pretty, yet always naked and defenceless. Only the glasses protected her. “I thought I should know what it was like.”
“What?” Ellen asked. “Being pregnant?” “No. Having sex.”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t use a condom. After how I brought you up?”
Then the inevitable complications. She liked him. Especially after the sex. “I read about it,” Yolanda said. “Your body releases a hormone during sex to make you bond.”
“Maybe he likes you too,” Ellen said. “Men don’t have that hormone.”
“Ah,” said Ellen.“That explains a lot.”
Yolanda rolled herself another bread pill. “Also, I hardly know him.”
“So what do you want to do?”
“I’ve never had any kind of operation. It would be another experience. Except, I have . . . I have these feelings.” Her glasses misted over again.
“That’s hormones too,” Ellen said.
“I already love it,” Yolanda announced.
Ellen remembered her glass of wine on the kitchen counter. When she came back, Yolanda’s UBC T-shirt was hiked up, her hand on her belly, which looked more sunken than anything. Ellen set the glass down and light moved through the wine and shone on a magazine, the opposite of a shadow, a burning spot so fierce it seemed the magazine would ignite. Why can’t we feel that purely? she wondered. Why was there always mishmash and contradiction? She wasn’t a sentimental person. She really believed that Yolanda should have the abortion and get on with her life. Yet when Ellen was in the same predicament, she hadn’t been able to do it either. The hospital had called with the date of her procedure and she’d cancelled it in a gush of tears.
“What should I do, Mom?” Yolanda pleaded. “What would you do?”
Ellen took a sip of wine. “No comment.”
“I know it will be hard. Raising a kid on my own.” “Try raising two,” Ellen said.
“I know. I know how hard it was for you, Mom.” Ellen stiffened defensively. “Do you?”
“You seemed so angry.”
“I was angry!” Ellen said, causing Yolanda to shrink back. “You would’ve been angry too. You don’t know the half of it. And your sister. Your sister! Have your baby! If it turns out like your sister, then you’ll see!”
“I wasn’t accusing you of anything,” Yolanda whimpered.“I was trying to be . . .” She started to rise off the couch. “Sympathetic.”
Abruptly she bolted, a hand clapped over her mouth. Ellen set down her glass and went after her.
Yolanda made it as far as the bathtub, where she disgorged the thirteen bananas and half a slice of bread that she’d eaten that day. Ellen sat on the edge of the tub and stared down at the beige sludge. It looked remarkably like baby food.
She wet the cloth, wrung it out, wiped her daughter’s face. “I’m sorry. I was yelling.”
“You were always yelling,” Yolanda said without meeting Ellen’s eye.
“At Mimi. Not me. That didn’t make it any better.”
“Look at me,” Ellen said, and she lifted Yolanda’s atrocious glasses off her face. “I shouldn’t have said what I said. What I should have said was this. I wouldn’t have changed anything about you. Not for the world. You were, are, perfect. And if you have that baby? It’ll be perfect too.”
A buttinsky. Where did that come from? Probably Esther, Larry’s mother, Ellen’s former mother-in-law, an odious person, yet charmingly stuffed with Yiddish bons mots. “I’m curious,” Ellen said in the car, in her own defence, to no one. What mother wouldn’t want to get a gog at the boy who had deflowered her daughter? Who had impregnated her?
She found parking just off campus, then asked directions to the liquor store. Right next door was a café. “You call it Tall,” Ellen told the girl behind the counter, “but it’s actually Short. It’s Small, yet you call it Tall.”
The girl sighed.
“I’m just saying,” Ellen muttered. “Some people have it figured out.”
She took her coffee outside and, at one of the metal tables, pretended to read Pride and Prejudice, holding it upside down for fun. He wasn’t there. Yolanda had said he always was. After a few minutes she turned the book the right way up and that was it. Completely absorbed by the Bennet family’s delightful problems, she forgot the stakeout.
In the middle of Chapter Three, a sound like a train clacking over the rails returned her to her proper task. Him for sure, pirouetting to a stop. The skateboard took flight, its coloured underside flashing. He caught it in one hand. Tan dreadlocks, dirty jeans barely clinging to his hips, a bad cough. His name, Yolanda had said, was Sean.
From behind Pride and Prejudice, Ellen watched. He rooted through his backpack. Out came crocheted juggling balls, a cigar box. To warm up, he flipped two balls in each hand and coughed. A university liquor store was not the most lucrative place to ply his trade. While his coloured balls orbited, frat boys went in and out for beer, ignoring him. “Hi!” he kept saying. “Hi!” The cough sounded like a chair being pushed out, scraping the floor.
Occasionally he’d cajole someone into tossing him a set of keys, or an apple, for a few turns with the balls. Or he’d look at his watch without altering his rhythm. “These balls have been in the air for thirteen minutes. Only your generous donation can keep them going.”
Yolanda must have donated. Ellen pictured her scooting past, hurling change in the Romeo y Julieta box. The bus stop where she always waited was just across the street. When you see a person every day, you start to feel connected. You start to worry when they’re not there, or when their cough won’t go away.
Ellen gave him a twenty, which was stupid, because he watched it flutter down on the mosaic of pennies and dimes in the bottom of the box, then looked at her, amazed. And smiled. Very boyishly. All the while the balls kept circling. Blushing, her cover blown, Ellen slunk off.
“Hey, awesome! Thanks! Good karma to you, lady! That lady just gave me twenty. I didn’t put it in myself—”
He broke off hacking.
Later that night, delivering rotten bananas to Yolanda at her desk, Ellen noticed she was highlighting every word in What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
So, she thought. So.
She made no comment.
But then the feelings jackbooted in and they were not at all what Ellen had expected. Almost faint with them, she took to her bed with a cold cloth over her forehead and a box of tissues balanced on her stomach. She wasn’t angry. She wasn’t even relieved that Yolanda had finally made up her mind.
Back then—ten years ago, when Ellen had been pregnant for the third time by Larry—she’d been all business. She’d had no time to feel anything but nausea. She’d taken on extra contracts, written grant proposals for arts organizations too, just to earn enough money to get them through the year after the baby was born.
Ironically, it made her an even worse mother. Where once she’d rationed the TV—thirty minutes a day, no more—now it babysat Mimi and Yo. Or she farmed them out shamelessly to Georgia and picked them up late. No time to patiently comb every strand. Off to her hairdresser they went, the girls bawling in side-by-side chairs while Tony, making a face, lopped off their infested ponytails and tossed them on the floor.
“Remember?” he told Ellen. “I did that to you when you came over here from that”—he flapped his little hands—“that island where you never bathed.”
Even lopped, Mimi’s and Yo’s hair still grazed their indignant shoulders. Not good enough. “Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby,” Ellen told him. “As short as that.”
Afterward Mimi had said, “Mama? I’ll hate you forever and ever now.”
Little did Ellen know she would hear those words so often they would eventually have no effect, but that was the first time and they felt like a wrecking ball to the chest. Back then, in the sunshiny world of childhood, where forgiveness was dispensed like lollipops, she made everything right just by taking them to get their ears pierced.
At twelve weeks, Carol sent Ellen for an ultrasound. Ellen shuddered, remembering how the technician had buried the transducer so deep into Ellen’s fat that it hurt. She suggested a transvaginal scan instead. For this Ellen had to clamber off the table, dress, and go empty her bladder, which she’d painstakingly filled on Carol’s orders.
“Well, that was a relief,” she told the technician after she had dumped all those cups of tea. “This? Not so much.” She meant being penetrated with a cold, K-Y Jelly–slathered rod. What could you do at a time like this but crack a joke or fake an orgasm? Except the technician seemed humourless.
Because the fetus was dead.
She didn’t say that, though. She called it blighted.
Later, on the phone, Carol had advised Ellen that she could wait until she miscarried naturally, or she could have a D&C. Really, Ellen shouldn’t have cared. She’d been ambivalent anyway. Yet after the procedure, after Georgia drove her home from the hospital, Ellen had made Mimi and Yo peanut butter sandwiches and an enormous bowl of cheese popcorn. She set a travel clock on the TV and started the cartoons blasting.
“When the alarm rings, come and get me. But don’t come until it rings. No matter what.”
“What if we’re hungry?” Mimi asked. “Eat something.”
“What if we’re thirsty?”
“You know how to turn on a tap.” “What if the house catches fire?”
“Run out the back. Don’t worry about me.”
She shut herself in her bedroom and sobbed until, hours and hours later, four hours to be exact, Mimi and Yolanda crept in and woke her up.
“Mama,” they whimpered.“We thought it wasn’t ever going to ring.” Somehow Ellen had managed to put that grief away. For a decade she’d forgotten it completely. She’d also taken measures to ensure she would never feel it again.
And she hadn’t. Until now, with the cold comfort of the cloth across her forehead and the tissue box on her belly, weightless as the very thing her body would never again contain.
The next time Ellen went, the boy remembered her. “Last week.”
“No,” said Ellen.
It was actually just four days ago. Yolanda had an exam today and Ellen had offered to drive her. She had to drop off some posters anyway. She wanted to take another look. Birthmarks, eye colour, et cetera. Things she hadn’t looked for the first time, when she’d been merely curious.
So there wouldn’t be any surprises. So she would know what to expect.
“Do you want something from me?” Sean asked. “Absolutely not!” Ellen said.
“But you gave me a twenty last week too.”
“I must have a doppelgänger. This tall? Big hips? A lot of money to throw around? I’m taking it back.”
She retrieved the twenty, and when she straightened he was laughing. The chair pushed out in his chest, scraping his lungs, yet the balls didn’t fall, or even slow or falter. She was impressed. Quite won over. She noted blue eyes. Larry’s eyes, nearly black, had trumped hers. Larry had blotted the blue right out of his daughters. But this grandchild of hers? It had a chance.
“What else could I do for twenty dollars?” he asked. Ellen, normally unfazable, drew back.
“I give a good back rub. Or I could teach you to juggle.”
It would seem Oedipal if he touched her, even if by “back rub” he actually meant rubbing her back. Juggling? Ha!
They went for a walk.
“How does your meter work?” Ellen asked.“Am I paying by the minute, or the mile?”
“I’m easy,” he said.
A nearly eight-hundred-hectare forest grew right up against the university. In Ellen’s day, when she was an English major here, it had a different name. Barely anything on campus was recognizable. Over there, a familiar building—Chemistry?—but it lacked all context. What context! She’d met Larry here, got pregnant, dropped out, ran off to Cordova Island.
They turned onto Westbrook Mall, Sean clacking beside her on the board, clacking and coughing. The hospital looked the same but the old frat houses had been torn down and replaced by frat condos.
When they reached the forest, Sean stashed his skateboard in a tree. It was easy to get him talking then. His whole story he offered up, how he’d got pneumonia while tree planting and ended up in hospital. Afterward, he didn’t want to go back home.
“Where’s home?” Ellen asked.
“Back east. My brother’s there but he doesn’t give a shit about me.”
Orphan, Ellen noted with a pang. Also, weak in the lungs. “Are you living on campus?”
He flipped back the dull ropes of his hair and smiled.“For now. I was staying with friends, but they went planting again and sublet their place. What about you? Where do you live?”
“The North Shore.”
“Mountains. Awesome. Here. Let’s go this way. I want to show you something.”
He tried to take her hand, but she plucked it back. Had he led Yolanda off the marked trail like this, into the thick of the green where no one would hear them? Ellen followed, freshly appalled at Yolanda’s stupidity. Yet moments later here was Ellen with no idea where she was. She stepped over logs, kicked through salal. The ground, wet and humusy, sponged underfoot. Eventually they came to an enormous cedar, its limbs shagged with moss. Great hanks hung all over it like green tangled hair. What interested Sean was how the tree had grown over a fallen log, its roots partially above ground, elongated, like a pair of straddling legs.
“Doesn’t that look alive?” he asked. “It is alive.”
“I mean, doesn’t it look like it could walk and talk? It’s the fucking Lord of the Rings in here. There’s nothing like this in Sudbury. I can tell you that much.”
All around, ferns clumped, their outrageous crowns like giant Copacabana headdresses. Ellen turned over a frond and saw the tiny regular circles roughing up its underside. They were pale green now, but as the spores matured they would darken to a powdery brown.
“So sperms and eggs are, like, floating all around us?” Sean asked when she explained it.
He gazed up, squinting, and the dreadlocks slid heavily down his back. Ellen looked up too, at the light penetrating the canopy of branches. Something moved. A very fine filament, a silken tail, tracing an otherwise invisible trajectory. Then the molecular burst of connection.
Probably a spiderweb. Probably a water droplet snagged on the afternoon.
Sean said, “Awesome.”
And it was. It filled her with awe until she remembered that she’d only paid the parking meter for an hour.
“This way,” Sean said, striking off ahead of her. “It’s faster.”
“Would you say you’re generally a happy person?” Ellen asked. “I’m really happy,” he said, coughing.
“That’s so comforting to know. One of my daughters gets low. Because of her father. Of course she blames me. Takes it out on me.” He pointed deeper into the trees where he had rigged up a tarp, green to camouflage it. “There’s my pad.”
“Can I?” she asked, and he gestured for her to go ahead.
Ellen bent and peered inside the plastic shelter where Yolanda had probably lost her virginity and gained more experience than she’d counted on. Butane camping stove, sleeping bag, mildewed paperbacks. Some things in garbage bags—but the rest damp-looking and not very clean.
“Cozy,” she said, though already she was fretting about his cough. This was a rain forest. What he really needed was to dry out. And the other thing—she’d been avoiding thinking about it, trying not to notice how often he wormed a finger through the dreadlocks to scratch his scalp.
As he sauntered ahead of her in the tree-dappled light, a song came to her. A song about a forest boy with shy, sad eyes. An enchanted boy. Her mother used to sing it when Ellen was a little girl.
“Is there a place you can shower?” she asked.
“The pool’s too expensive,” he told her.“I found a shower in one of the science buildings. Then, last time? I got caught.”
He lifted one arm and sniffed.“Sorry.”
Some people have it figured out, but there’s no shortage of schlemiels either. Back at the car, a sixty-dollar parking ticket decorated Ellen’s windshield. Plus twenty for Sean.
“You don’t have to pay me,” he said. “You’re letting me use your shower.”
She stuffed the bill into the pocket of his T-shirt, over one weak, rattling lung.“We have to stop for some bananas on the way.”
You can never go back home. Well, she wasn’t. So it wouldn’t be the same story twice. Different people, different story. Maybe a happier ending this time. Maybe a perfect one.
What would Yolanda say when she got back from her exam? Ellen would deal with that after she made some calls. She was going to phone a few old friends and see if anyone had an empty cabin. He could chop wood, do some construction. He was probably strong when he wasn’t sick. Or he could teach juggling at the Waldorf School. Almost everyone had a cabin out back on Cordova Island, or a shack they’d lived in while they built their permanent place.
A lot of people still owed Ellen. They owed her for the oats they let Larry sprinkle in their beds.
Excerpt from Ellen In Pieces by Caroline Adderson ©2014. Published by HarperCollins Canada. All rights reserved.