LONDON, ONTARIO – This week we bring you a new work of short fiction . . . OFF THE HOOK.
SCOTT CAME HOME from the tobacco fields on an almost empty Greyhound. An older bus, thank God, which allowed him the inestimable pleasure of opening up his window and letting the churned-up early autumn air buffet his face. Sixty miles an hour he was moving in this rattling tin rocket but what pleased him most was not a sense of movement or progress so much as blessed calm and respite. He was glad to be moving away from the place he’d been and relieved – maybe even a little proud – that he’d seen a self-imposed term of demanding physical labour through to an honourable end.
But the prospect of returning to London and hunkering down in his parents’ basement as he tried to figure out what to do next was not all that enticing. Such a vague and unambitious plan of (ahem) action wasn’t something that could be indulged for more than a couple months before everybody’s patience – including his own – was likely to become strained. Scott was a more than passable acoustic guitarist and was also becoming increasingly aware of a gift he had for manipulating language in interesting ways. If he could just persuade the entire world to fuck off for a spell, he wondered if he could start to develop either or both of these skills into more pronounced forms. But what were the chances of that?
Only in this transit between two disagreeable poles – where nothing was demanded or expected and nobody asked, “So what are you going to do now?” – only in this spacious, mobile limbo could he bask in the merciful shadow of the world’s temporary indifference. He sat back lazy and deep in his seat, reading Moby Dick in bursts of ten or twelve pages, only to be pulled away from the text by something that blew in through the window; a smell or a sound and the hazy associations they evoked, somehow redolent of old excitements that he no longer trusted himself sufficiently to let his imagination take hold of and run with.
Scott was particularly taken by some of the earliest scenes where the narrator, Ishmael, much to his own surprise, forges a deep, transcendent bond with Queequeg in what seems to be no time flat. Ishmael is initially terrified of this strange and imposing harpooner from the other side of the world with whom he has to share a bed at the Spouter Inn as they wait for the crew of their whaling ship to assemble and prepare for embarkation. But within a few days he is so powerfully drawn to this heavily tattooed stranger that their foreheads are practically touching as they sit together exchanging stories about their utterly different lives and answering one another’s deepest questions.
Distracting undertones of gayness aside, it was both thrilling and upsetting to read this account of two disparate people making a connection of such depth with such ease. Scott had never made friends with anyone that quickly in his life; let alone with someone so radically and exotically other. Someone like . . . say . . . just for instance . . . the only female who had ever invited him into her bed and now detested him so thoroughly. And not without just cause. In truth, it shocked him that he’d been such a louse to her.
Marie had picked him up at a Christmas party ten months earlier that was thrown by the owners of the restaurant where Scott was working evening shifts as a waiter. The party was well along by the time they were introduced and the crush of guests was already starting to thin out. Restaurateurs’ parties always have fabulous bars and when Marie whispered a hot invitation in Scott’s ear to, “Walk me home and let’s see what happens,” they pilfered a just-uncorked bottle of Merlot for the road, even though all of their sails were already positioned to catch any wind that was going.
It was a short and shambolic three-block cruise up Richmond Street to Marie’s apartment over top of an antique shop. They climbed the badly listing stairway leading up from the street and then had to squeeze in through the barely opened kitchen doorway to her apartment like spelunkers easing themselves into a cave, lest her marmalade tomcat, Felix, made a break for the great outdoors. And practically the very next thing he knew – indeed, it happened so fast he didn’t have time to properly savour it – Scott had finally been laid. Though he was more than a little drunk, Scott did perceive that Marie probably hadn’t had much of a chance to experience that momentous event either. But within about an hour, one of Scott’s more crucially positioned sails was able to billow anew and they engaged in a considerably more eventful rematch, the exquisite exertions of which escorted him into the land of nod before he’d even finished sighing.
Nine or ten hours later, Scott came to in a large and otherwise unoccupied bed that was graced with a large headboard and smaller footboard comprised of shiny brass piping bent into the half-moon shape of opened fans. The bedside table to his left had a floral patterned, dust-collecting cloth and a little notepad was set up there at eye level; conspicuously propped up against the base of a lamp so he’d be sure to see the message she’d written in red, felt-tipped pen: “Scott – There’s orange juice in the fridge and the fixings for coffee. Help yourself. – M.”
That’s right. She’d said something last night while pulling off his pants about working in the office of one of the big car dealerships – Ford? Chevrolet? – and that she had to go in every other Saturday. “Quelle drag,” she said. “I’m on tomorrow.”
He couldn’t help wishing that her note had said a little more. Something like, “Oh, that was incredible!!!” would give his day a major boost and assuage his first-timer’s performance anxiety. And on a more practical (but not very realistic) level, he wished she’d signed her full name. Yes, he knew what her last name was but he wasn’t certain how to spell it which seemed a troubling thing to admit about the woman with whom he’d just enjoyed – and maybe she did too? – such intimate liberties.
So who was this ‘M’? What sort of portrait could be assembled from the circumstantial evidence arrayed all around him in this admirably high-ceilinged bedroom now flooded with mid-day light? Well, the walls, bulging here and there with unprofessional plaster repairs, were all painted a sinisterly deep shade of purple. Yes, the lumps were the landlord’s fault but not that sick-making colour; unless she was a lunatic who didn’t really want to rent out her units. The floor around the bed was littered with fourteen . . . “No, that’s Felix,” Scott corrected himself . . . thirteen stuffed animals (bears, cats, dogs, a pelican and a frog wearing goggles) that went flying in all directions last night when they yanked back the covers and clambered into bed. And taking up pride of place between the two tall windows on the east-facing wall, was a huge, framed, full-colour print of Freddie Mercury, shirtless in white tights and pouting for the fans.
And while he’d seen a few stray books lying around (including a copy of Brideshead Revisited which would have been more hopeful if it appeared to have actually been read) there wasn’t a dedicated bookshelf, let alone a bookcase, anywhere in the joint. “Don’t be so judgmental,” Scott barked at himself. “Maybe she’s a public library sort of gal. Lots of interesting people with lively minds prefer to spend their disposable income on other things like . . . stuffed animals.”
Scott got up to use the washroom, taking some encouragement from an elaborate assortment of seashells which Marie had artfully arranged on the top of the toilet tank; but again, they were real dust collectors. Returning to the bedroom he pulled on his clothes and nervously eyed the thirty or forty record albums lined up in a row on the floor and leaning against the wall. Menacingly, they beckoned to him: “Come on over here, big boy, and find out the very worst.”
“How can I be such a snob?” Scott asked himself, crouching down with grim resolution and flipping his way through the platters. It was just brutal. Abba, James Last, Grand Funk Railroad, Queen (of course), Christopher Cross, Kiss, the Hair soundtrack, Peter Frampton. Yes, there was also some Beatles and Stones – and they were unquestionably worthy – but everybody in the world had those. They were issued to the entire populace on the same day they sent out your social insurance card. If only there had been one idiosyncratic artefact, a single independent gesture of musical curation; a Fairport Convention, a Van der Graff Generator, a Philamore Lincoln.
Scott went through to the kitchen where, defeated by the complexities of Marie’s coffee-making apparatus, he settled for a half-filled beaker of orange juice with –now here was a good sign – pulp. “None of that filtered crap. Good for you,” he said. Oh dear, he was grasping at straws. Pulpy orange juice was strictly small beer and he knew it. God, how he wanted to sleep with her again. But how would that ever be possible when, to all appearances, there seemed to be no ground of any sort of mutuality on which to build a relationship? Was last night destined to take up residence in his memory as that great improbable one-off that just came tumbling out of the sky and initiated him into one of life’s supreme pleasures?
“Quelle drag, indeed,” he said, ruefully grinning as he rinsed out his glass and set it on the drying board. “Cest la vie,” he added as another dollop of Continental fatalism while pulling on his coat to take leave of this place, probably for good. Remembering to first shoo Felix away so he could slip out the kitchen door unaccompanied, Scott descended the wonky staircase and headed out through a fresh dusting of snow in search of a cup of coffee. He threw back his head in incredulous laughter as he imagined the response he’d like to make to the coffee shop waitress who asked, “And what can I get you?”
“I just got laid, sister, twice in a row. So gimme a big, steaming cup of Joe.”
FIFTEEN DAYS later in the early January doldrums when every person on the planet could use a little cheering up, Scott came up the alley to the street after booking off a shift. Working his fingers with eyes half-closed, he was calculating the total of the tips he’d just earned, when he looked up in startled amazement to find Marie more or less loitering on the sidewalk . . . with intent, he hoped. After salutations and a little preliminary chit-chat (Scott thinking to himself, “This probably isn’t a coincidence but I don’t want to seem presumptuous”) Marie headed straight for the nub of the matter by nodding in the direction of the restaurant and asking, “Do you think you can get us some wine?”
“I know I can,” answered Scott in a – for him – unprecedentedly husky voice. He returned in no time at all with a wholesale magnum of cabernet under one arm and curled the other around Marie’s shoulders as they made their way back to her place.
And thus, this non-relationship of a relationship which didn’t really have a future somehow managed to resume. Scott was then sharing an apartment with his oldest friend Zeke, so they always got together at Marie’s and – except for quick outings to neighbourhood shops to pick up booze or bags of chips or cigarettes – never went anywhere together. They could go as long as two weeks between trysts, never went in for pledges or rings and never really admitted to going out together. Scott had no reason to believe Marie ever saw other men and wasn’t sure he’d be indifferent to the prospect if she did. But there was nothing in their never-formulated constitution to say she couldn’t. Though neither of them had anything resembling a drinking problem, booze was the constant fuel of their time together. This wasn’t a good sign in its own right and doubtless played its part in discouraging much in the way of conversation. And though each of them could happily function in the daylight as independent human beings, as a couple they strictly adhered to vampires’ hours.
In short, Marie’s big brass bed was the only place where their ‘relationship’ made any sense at all. Marveling at their un-connectedness in every other sphere but sex, Scott played with the old nautical metaphor about “ships that pass in the night” and developed it a little further; designating Marie as the flashy pleasure craft that skims across the surface, and himself as the big dark tanker riding low with a ponderous cargo. Certain she wouldn’t find this amusing, it became just one more thing that he didn’t bother to share with her.
Sometimes Scott tried to flatter himself by imagining that he was making love on the several dozen occasions that he and Marie had their way with one another. But in un-drunken moments of honesty, he knew that wasn’t so; that neither his mind nor his heart had any significant part to play in their physical contortions. He’d enjoyed the sex to the point of distraction bordering on obsession. But in the seven months he sporadically consorted with Marie, he’d never found a way to really befriend, let alone love her. Some guys he knew would be fine with such an arrangement; might even prefer it. They’d crow about how great it was to not have to contend with ‘emotional baggage’ and not have to ‘put up with women’s shit’. But Scott didn’t think much of such men and was learning to hate himself for, however unintentionally, joining their miserly ranks.
AS THE DESCENDING sun began beaming its way through the front windshield of the bus, the smells whipping in through the windows moved into a lower register as well. Scott inhaled a suddenly cooler and earthier blast of decaying leaves and felt an old stirring in the region where his heart would be if he still had one. For the last several years, Scott had realized that it was these weeks in September, not New Year’s Eve, which served as the real pivot point of the year. It now was absolutely autumn and last call for those who were going somewhere new. Ships were pulling out of port and planes were leaving every hour. It was a little desolating, to feel that migratory tide swelling up all around him once again and to know that as far as this year went, he’d already had his change of scene and wasn’t going anywhere now except home to Mom and Dad.
It was a punishing job that Scott had seen through to a good end. And resting with significant weight in the inner pocket of his coat was the $2,500 he’d earned. It had taken eight weeks to compile that stake in a Kent County hothouse and field; enduring the sting and the stain of golden, stinking nicotine juice that oozed from the leaves he picked from the plants laid out in endless rows; and which seeped into his eyes with the sweat from his brow and made his arms turn Oriental from the shoulders on down.
A strange racial blend. He’d been the only white man in a crowded, fly-infested bunkhouse full of hopped-up Jamaicans so eager to immerse themselves in exotic Canadian ways that they couldn’t limit their extracurricular attention to just the TV or the radio but had to have both on always. Loud. Jamaicans had suddenly become all the rage in Ontario tobacco fields. They were willing to work for so little that farmers could pay their return airfare as well as a wage and still obtain a cheaper, steadier and more reliable workforce than anything Canada could produce domestically.
At first Scott had pitied the Jamaicans even while he envied their indomitably sunny natures. Quite plainly, they were being ripped off; paid less to do more as the victims of an international caste system. Yet just as plainly, they didn’t care. Looked at from the context of their lives, summer in the Canadian tobacco fields was a rewarding opportunity offered to few and they seized it without hesitation, worked without complaint and enjoyed loud and boisterous fun in what spare hours there were.
Scott was the miserable member of the bunkhouse. He hated the work and disliked the environment, felt underpaid though he received more because his pay packet wasn’t getting dinged each week for the calculated fraction of an airplane ticket’s cost. And yet for overriding personal reasons, Scott would not give himself permission to pack it in. He was here as an act of atonement. He regarded the sweat on his back as a sort of distilled sin which he badly needed to exude and discard. Every day another quart of the stuff would be secreted from the cells of his being. Drained of sin, his heart bleached white by the sun, he would return to London in the fall with a pocket full of cash and a clean slate soul. Well, that was one way of looking at it.
Another way of looking at it - a less pretentiously theological way - was to admit that he primarily took this job to enact his escape and was scared to go back to London until enough time had transpired that both he and Marie fully accepted that they were done. He never wanted to see her again. Their relationship, always disconcerting but so exciting at first, had turned increasingly cynical and destructive. It entered its chronic phase when the restaurant shut up for the summer to undergo expansion and remodeling.
Bored and at loose ends, Scott markedly increased his boozy visits to Marie; placing a strain on their relations and fraying away at the niceties they’d normally maintained. Their never very bounteous conversations were contracting even further and becoming snippy and petulant. Seeing so much more of each other, it became embarrassingly obvious that their only real contact points were physical. And however marvelous those wordless encounters might still be, in their aftermath, there wasn’t much of a glow anymore and the air between them was thickening with mutual disenchantment.
In what turned out to be their final minutes together on a wilting hot morning in mid-July, Marie, desperate to immerse herself in an air-conditioned atmosphere for a couple of hours, reminded Scott in a too-loud voice that he had promised last night to take her to a matinee at one of the movie theatres on Dundas Street. Well, ask a bonehead with a boner for anything at all during amorous negotiations and of course he’ll say, “Yes, yes, yes.” But he sure didn’t feel like it now and Scott shot back with a thoughtless refusal that was so unhinged and cruel, it even frightened him. “Oh God, Marie, I’m sorry,” he said, scrambling out of bed, scooping his clothes up off the floor and going through to the bathroom to dress.
Still shocked by the ugliness of his mood when he returned to the bedroom a few minutes later, he found Marie sitting on the side of the bed facing the wall and quietly sobbing. What was wrong with him? How could even the sight of this irritate him? How could he feel that she didn’t have the right to be hurt by his callous disregard for her? And so, inspired by some wicked genius that didn’t seem to be his own, he made things even worse; fumbling in his pocket for a twenty dollar bill and laying it on the bed beside her. “You should go to the movies, Marie. My fucking treat. I’ll see you later.”
Crashing down her stairway to the street, he knew that last bit was a lie. Scott was determined to never come back. Their whole sporadic relationship had been a colossal mistake. Surely, they’d both known that – practically from the very beginning – and yet they kept making it over and over again. Well, now he’d burned every bridge in sight and to make sure he didn’t relent in that resolve once again, he signed on later that day to begin two months’ labour on a Kent County farm on the second Monday in August.
Even as he made that loutish final exit, Scott did not know the worst of it; that something of far more significance than his squalid affair with Marie was going to have to be put down as well. Scott had only been working the tobacco fields for a week when he learned that while he was mastering the arts of picking and then hanging leathery leaves in the kiln (an operation which unleashed cascades of sandy soil into his eyes), Marie was splaying her legs on the obstetrician’s table and having the underdeveloped fruit of Scott’s spermatozoa sucked up the tube of some medical variation on a vacuum cleaner. What kind of rotten luck was that – to have conceived in their very last tryst?
His firstborn – or, at least, first-fertilized – was in a bag somewhere; one and a half inches long and as stiff and cold as the dead baby rabbit Scott had found in the field the day after receiving Marie’s first letter. Coming upon it at the end of his shift, he’d felt a kind of panic. It was one of those awful golden flashes where life takes something you are not facing at all squarely and shows it to you another way. For a moment it had been the saddest thing he’d ever seen. And the cruelest. Chased to death by one of the farmer’s dogs? Caught and dragged under one of the tentacles of the priming machine? The wrong place at the wrong time. The utter waste of a perfect miracle.
But after that first hysterical moment, he soon realized he was milking it; that – compared to what Marie must be going through – his anguish was strictly hypothetical. Lacking the courage to even hold her hand as she put this nebulous mistake of theirs to death, he knew he didn’t have the right to feel anything so grand as pity for a squandered human life that he didn’t lift a finger to either extinguish or protect. He was that most spineless and contemptible of villains – the guilty bystander.
In a moment of weakness one thrumming rainy night when the oblivion of sleep seemed unreachable, Scott suddenly found himself confessing his sin to the Jamaican named Dudley who slept in the bunk to his immediate right. For those ten or fifteen minutes, had Dudley been his Queequeg? No, they hadn’t bonded but Scott had told this man from the other side of the world what he hadn’t dared admit to anyone who actually knew him. Having just settled under his own covers, Dudley turned to face him, leaning on an elbow and straining to hear Scott’s nervous whisper, nodding his head at the completion of each phrase to show that he understood.
Dudley heard him through, then silently sat there with his head cocked, expecting to hear more. Surely there was more to the tale than this? Finally he looked at Scott and asked, “Is that all you say?”
“You knocked her up then?”
“It is good that she did not want to keep it. Would you agree? You seem so sad but in that way, you were lucky, yes?”
“Yes,” agreed Scott, having to admit he felt marginally and shabbily lucky.
“Did you not use a . . . what do you call it? . . . a sheath? . . . a rubber?”
“Well, I always pulled out just to make sure. But she said even that wasn’t necessary because her body was incapable of supporting life.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“She didn’t believe it could happen . . . that she could get knocked up. She said she’d done some really extreme dieting that messed up her menstrual cycle and made it so that she couldn’t get pregnant.”
“And did you believe this?”
“I think I did,” Scott answered, suddenly appalled to hear himself say it. Yes, he knew Marie believed that about herself. But how could he? And what did that say about his feelings for her? Beyond a fitfully consuming lust for her body and the remorse left behind once he’d discharged it, did he actually have any feelings for her at all?
Dudley looked alarmed. “Tell me. Is this woman very old?”
“No,” Scott laughed. “Twenty-three. Same as me.”
“Then she could not be happy. She could not like herself much.”
Scott was impressed by such an accurate intuition. “Why do you say that?”
“Put yourself there. ‘In her shoes’ do you say? Though in this story she’s probably not wearing shoes or anything at all. But put yourself there, man. If you did not believe that you could make a woman pregnant, then you would think you were sick or weak. You would have to think that. Yes?”
“Yes. I suppose I would. I suppose I did.”
“You would, I think. And she would also. You really surprised this woman. She may not want the baby but in another way, in this one way that she did not want, I believe you made her happy. Happy to be well.”
Scott doubted this but admired Dudley’s logic. It seemed such a healthy attitude. But no, there was not a trace of happiness in either of the two letters which Marie had sent to him on the farm.
The first letter, written just after she’d discovered she was pregnant, was an angry call for help. Repeatedly, she referred to the child as “your leech” and described in gruesome detail the nauseating products of her morning sickness which she had at first mistaken for something more lethal. (Part of the reason for her tears on their final morning together was because she felt so rotten; something she initially chalked up to the extreme heat and Scott being such a dick.) Even before receiving this particularly pungent letter, Scott had been impressed that Marie could be so much more frank about certain bodily realities than he could.
Scott couldn’t respond to the letter, at least not to Marie, not in any way that would do her any good. If he thought she was going to have to scratch together the money to pay for the abortion, he certainly would have sent her that. But the government paid for that sort of thing nowadays; no questions asked. He was off the hook. And if he did go to see her, experience warned him how things would probably go even in circumstances as unutterably miserable as this. Assailed by neediness and horniness, their resolve slackened by mandatory infusions of wine, they’d probably pretend to patch together what clearly shouldn’t be patched and would end up back in bed again for all the worst reasons. No, there was nothing particularly clean about this clean break but he knew it had to be maintained.
In Marie’s second letter she was rightfully pissed off and finally seemed prepared to write him off for good; unloading several choice expressions of contempt such as, “the worst is over,” “Junior bites the dust tomorrow afternoon at one,” “you’re off the hook” (that one, which he’d come up with himself, particularly stung), “thanks for nothing you useless prick” and “fuck off forever and die”. Those sentiments were much more to his liking and, he tried to believe, they justified his silence and his callow abandonment of her.
Scott couldn’t help wondering how she got his address. Zeke knew where he was. And his parents knew, of course. But nobody else. Had she gone to any of them and talked about the trouble she was in? Probably not his parents. She’d never actually met them and he was certain they’d have driven out to the farm to have stern words if they’d been told anything about it. For that matter, Zeke wouldn’t have been too impressed either. But best friends don’t have the same obligation to check retrograde behavior right away. It would be more like Zeke to store the information away and then drag it out for a proper exposition when they next sat up together for the better part of the night, setting the world to rights.
No, he decided, Marie was probably just as ashamed as he was and found a more casual-seeming way to pry his address out of somebody or other. He pictured her dropping around to Zeke’s apartment under some passing, pleasant pretext . . . just returning a book or a scarf or some other item of Scott’s . . . suppressing the dilemma that was gnawing away at every particle of her life and carefully contriving a look of incidental curiosity . . . “Oh, by the way, do you have Scott’s address? I lost the bit of paper where he wrote it down.”
And how completely screwed up was it that Scott felt an all-too-rare burst of real tenderness for Marie as he imagined how she was navigating this time of trial all on her own? That the closest he came to actually loving her was when he contemplated how she coped when he wasn’t there to help or support her at all?
By the time Scott received Marie’s second, undated letter, he knew that yesterday, or perhaps even the day before, their festering little problem had been taken care of by the state. So why didn’t he feel relieved? Why wasn’t he off the hook? The physical evidence may have been destroyed but the moral reverberations hovered all around him as he pushed his way through each numbingly tedious day, working like a dog and sleeping like a tired one. A pseudo-Christian who could never quite bring himself to commit, an abortion was just the kind of morbid fodder that Scott could brood over endlessly. Even if he was able at some future time to push it back from the front of his mind, he knew he’d be mulling over this shoddy disaster for the rest of his life.
Marie would not have been impressed. “You’re always living so much up here,” she used to say to him, knocking on his skull with a fist of bony knuckles. She had no respect for a man who always took life so seriously and who took so long before answering what seemed to her to be perfectly straightforward questions; who always complicated matters by dragging in religious considerations that he couldn’t bring himself to live by. Ordinarily, Scott didn’t think Marie’s appraisal did him any sort of justice but today he was willing to concede that she probably had a point; that there were times when he really could be an unduly laborious pill. And maybe that admission was itself a sign of some perspective he’d gained in his two months away.
WHEN SCOTT NEXT looked up from Moby Dick because Herman Melville was getting bogged down in a supplemental lecture on the history of chowders (Is there a more peculiar classic in all of English literature?), his bus was turning off the highway and heading into London’s centre along streets and avenues that he knew so well, now awash in the glow of street lights. He snapped the book shut and stowed it away in his rucksack, then switched off the overhead lamp so that he could properly drink in the passing scene. It was funny – perhaps even a little pathetic - how compelling he always found the approach to home, even if he’d only been gone for a day.
His sentimental reverie came to a sudden close as the bus swung around the back of the station and pulled into the number three bay . . . and there was Marie . . . rising from a small bench and snugging her cardigan together for warmth, stepping toward the door of the bus as it came to an air-gushing stop and the driver snapped on the interior lights. Tears immediately filled Scott’s eyes. Partly it was terror and dread but mostly it was astonishment. Why had he never told her she was beautiful? Why had he never really seen it before? Was it because in his total surprise that she was here at all, he was seeing her for the first time as her own person and not as a necessary adjunct to the fulfillment of his desires?
Amazingly, she didn’t look angry or accusatory. As hard as it was to believe, there was an apparent serenity to her expression as Marie scanned the half dozen passengers rising to their feet and gathering their gear as they made their way to the stairs at the front of the bus. She gave a little wave, a subtle rippling of her fingers, as Scott started down those stairs, then urged him with a nod of the head to step aside with her and allow other folks to come through.
“I know you probably don’t want this,” she explained, “but there’s some things I really need to say. Will you come inside and have a coffee with me?”
“Sure,” Scott said, inexplicably unconcerned that in agreeing to this, he was totally violating the whole purpose of his long exile in the tobacco fields. Something about her seemed so transformed that he couldn’t believe that distance needed to be maintained any longer.
“There’s a counter where you can get stuff,” she said, leading the way inside. “The man said they’ll be open until ten so we’ve got a little time.”
“How about here?” said Scott, setting his rucksack down in a leatherette booth a good distance away from the counter. “Hold our place and I’ll get the coffees. You still take double/double?”
“I do,” she said, surprised that he remembered. “But right now I’d prefer tea with just milk.”
When Scott slid into his side of the booth two minutes later with a couple of hefty, shaving mug-style cups filled dangerously close to the brim, Marie was looking apprehensive, though not in an agitated way. “Don’t you love these old cups?” he asked. “I won’t even care if this is undrinkable.”
Marie wasn’t going to be distracted by small talk and didn’t reply, silently inhaling her mug of tea as she marshaled her thoughts. “Most of all,” she finally said, raising her eyes directly to his, “I want to tell you how sorry I am.”
“Oh, please,” said Scott, covering his eyes which were starting to water again. “You’ve got nothing to apologize for.”
“Oh, yes I do,” she said, turning away to give vent to some crying of her own which then, quite remarkably, turned into laughter. “I’m so glad we’re both crying,” she said. “This was going to be so hard if it was just me.”
“Marie, I’m not going to let you say you’re sorry for . . .”
“Oh yes you are,” she said, pulling a Kleenex from her pocket and blowing her nose.
“As compared to anything I did to you,” Scott insisted, “it’s nothing.”
“How about setting it all in motion?” said Marie with a redoubled determination to say her piece. “That’s not on you. If I hadn’t dragged you into bed . . .”
“It didn’t take much dragging, Marie.”
“That’s not the point. You’re a decent man. It wouldn’t have happened without my say so and I rushed it.”
“With all my being, I forgive you for rushing it. You made me the happiest man on earth.”
“You know, that might be the saddest part, Scott. I think I did do that – for maybe an hour.”
“Which is about sixty minutes longer than I ever managed to make you happy.”
Marie shook her head impatiently. “We’ve got to stop this weird competition we’ve got going here. I don’t care who was the biggest stinker. All right? I just want to say what’s on my heart. As you could probably tell, I was really attracted to you. But the way we played it out – and I tell you, that’s on me - we never had the time to find out if we even liked each other first. And maybe we didn’t. Not in that way. But once I’d dragged you into bed, it was like there was no way to fill in some preliminary stuff . . . which was probably pretty essential if we were ever going to make a proper go of it.”
Scott felt the sudden jolt of implication in what Marie was saying. He thought back to that first morning alone in her bed, surveying the particulars of her world and being so unimpressed by her cultural accoutrements; having the gall - the witless ingratitude - to sit in some sort of judgement of the woman who’d just given him the infinitely precious gift of her self.
“I screwed up too,” he told her, “And I’m not trying to compete with you. But I can’t stand to see you carry this alone. Just now, seeing you out there waiting for the bus . . . once I got over the shock that you were here at all, I realized that I never valued you at your worth. I never even recognized your beauty.”
Marie's eyes widened slightly at such an unaccustomed pleasure. “That’s my point, Scott. I don’t think anybody values anything that’s been thrown at them,” she said. “Not the throwee and not the thrower. Why would we bother? We’d already snatched the prize. We didn’t have to explore the other person, adapt ourselves to them in any way. It was all pretty selfish.”
“Yeh, I think I’ll agree with you there,” Scott said.
“The sexual fit is pretty straightforward,” Marie said. “It takes about two seconds to figure out where the different parts go and what feels nice. But I think I finally understand that it works best as a crown, not a foundation.”
“Where are you getting this from?” Scott wondered. “Did you know all this . . . did you have this sort of understanding . . . before you had the . . . uh . . .?” Seeing Marie's grip on her teacup tighten, he stopped short of speaking the dreaded word; regretting his offhandedness about a wound that was still so fresh. "I'm sorry," he said with a rueful shake of his head.
Then she took a deep breath and answered him. “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘abortion’, Scott. And I can’t really answer your question because I haven’t had it.”
Thunderstruck, Scott sat back in his seat, raising a hand to his brow and loudly exhaling – all of which could have been construed as signs of disappointment – but the only word he said was, “Good.” And then, “Thank God.” He suddenly had to breathe deeply again. Not knowing how to approach or take hold of this shattering new reality, he touched instead on a strictly supplemental mystery. “I guess that explains the tea.”
“It sure does,” laughed Marie. “And you wouldn’t believe some of the crazy stuff I’m eating. I’ve developed like this mania for custard. And spinach all of a sudden. But not with the custard.”
“That second letter you sent me . . .” Scott almost shuddered, remembering all the anger and contempt and the steely resolution it contained. “You were booked for the next day. What changed your mind?”
“Yeh, it wasn’t a very answerable letter, was it?” asked Marie. “I’d like to apologize for that too. I was putting it all on you.”
“You’ve got to stop doing that, Marie. I don’t blame you at all. You were so alone and I was no help at all.”
They were quiet for a few seconds and then Marie realized that Scott’s question still stood. “Felix came in about an hour before I was supposed to head off to the clinic and dropped a dead mouse at my feet. I just lost it.”
Now it was Scott’s turn to laugh and he told her about the dead rabbit he’d found in the field at the end of his shift that day.
“Oh man, a rabbit’s even better,” said Marie with girlish enthusiasm. “It’s a fertility symbol and all that. And if you inject them with a pregnant woman’s pee, they die. It’s perfect. I wish I’d had the rabbit and you had the mouse.”
“If there was a way to trade with you, I would.”
“Actually, I don't think I would do the swap,” Marie reconsidered. “I must’ve stared at that poor thing for three hours and I think I fell in love. Do they call it a ‘whorl’? The way the fur on his face had this beautiful swirling pattern? And the eyes like little black moccasin beads. And I thought, I’ve done a lot of rash and stupid things in my day but they’re probably forgivable. But if I go through with this, maybe God could forgive me, but I don’t think I could.”
It wasn’t like Marie to bring God into any discussion and she detected Scott’s surprise at this in an infinitesimal arching in one half of his left eyebrow. “You see things a little differently when you’re pregnant, Scott. What can I tell you? I’ve been thinking about forgiveness a lot this summer . . . of taking ownership of what I’ve done wrong and trying to make amends for it. And unless you have an announcement of your own to make, I should probably give you fair warning that I might just beat you in working up the nerve to actually join the church.”
Nope, he didn't see that one coming either. Again Scott could only sit back in a sort of passive exhilaration at the succession of shocks that had been assailing him from the moment his bus pulled into the station. And again, incapable of processing the larger significance of anything just yet, he seized on a supplementary consideration that suddenly took form in his mind : Dudley had called it. He didn't think it was possible that his own personal Queequeg could have been right. But here was all this irrefutable evidence filling his eyes and ears. Marie was “Happy to be well”.
The gentleman behind the cafeteria counter pointedly cleared his throat and started switching off a series of lights.
“Looks like it’s time to go,” said Marie. “I think I covered most of my points. How are you doing with all this, Scott? I feel like I’ve done most of the talking.”
"I'm doing just fine," he told her.
As they eased themselves out of their booth, Scott pulled his rucksack across the phony leather seat and a cord got snagged on a decorative button, sharply jostling it sideways so that a waft of nicotine and a few grains of sand shook loose from the mostly dirty laundry bundled up inside; souvenirs from another world which he’d only left about five hours ago.
Freeing the bag and strapping it onto his shoulders, Scott escorted Marie through the station and out onto the York Street sidewalk where – back at home and back on solid ground – he nonetheless understood that he would be going somewhere new this year after all; that he was already there.
“Let me walk you to your door, Marie," he said. "I won't come any further. But now that we’re finally having this conversation, I don’t want it to end.”
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :