“Quick, get in the back? Hide!”
“Mommy, I don’t want to do this.”
“Don’t worry sweetheart, it won’t be for long. Now remember, not a peep.”
The passenger door swings open as the rain outside pummels the roof of the car. A young man, possibly in his late twenties enters the blue 1970 Volkswagen beetle.
“Jesus, it’s brutal out there.” He shakes his black curly, shaggy hair, splashing the windshield and side windows. He looks up at her, and smiles pleasantly. “Are you Katherine?”
His smile widens. “Good, thought for a second I got into the wrong car! I’m Jer. In case you forgot.” She’s taken aback by how good looking he is. She hadn’t fully appreciated it previously. He has full pouty lips and a large grin with perfect teeth. His hair is thick as are his eyebrows, and he is dressed in black jeans, what appears to be a black t-shirt and a thin black leather jacket. He is handsome.
In return he also takes a thorough look at her body and face. Her long, also curly, auburn hair rests seductively on her shoulders. She is without makeup, she doesn’t need it anyway, her skin is luminous, even the fine lines that have developed around her eyes from years of sun exposure and laughing are attractive. She’s wearing faded jean shorts up to her ass, the sort that reveals just enough for a man, he doesn’t have to ask or wonder about anything else.
The little girl makes herself small and quiet. She’s hiding behind the driver’s seat of the car; her mother has covered her body with a blanket they once used to protect the seats from their dog’s fur while taking trips across the province. Stacey places her hands over her ears, her eyes shut tight — she knows the drill.
Katherine and Jer go to work, she climbs on top of him, pulls her shorts and underwear down, he shimmies out of his jeans and soon they are enraptured in each other’s lust. His penis enters her, and as they kiss she begins gyrating fervently on his dick.
They met two night’s previously in a Toronto tavern on Yonge Street but were unable to consummate their passion for each other at the time, partly because they had arrived with friends. Katherine was preoccupied by her more rotund girlfriend Alberta who was unlucky in love, constantly mistaking casual sex with real feelings, or meaning. But Katherine and the young man exchanged phone numbers and when she woke this morning, horny and ready, she called him. They planned to meet outside a rusty old drug store around Church and Dundas streets. The only snag was that she had her daughter with her, and there wasn’t enough time to get a babysitter, not that she’d be able to afford it. As Katherine saw it there was no other choice but to bring her daughter along with her. It wouldn’t last long anyhow. These sort of hookups never did. Often disappointed she was beginning to believe she was entitled to some payment to make up for how awful some of her sexual experiences had been.
A few minutes later and true to form it’s over. He grabs her butt cheeks tightly and comes inside her. They quickly button up and Katherine returns to the driver’s seat, sorts her hair and checks her reflection in the rearview mirror to make sure she appears somewhat decent.
“That was great,” he confesses. “Sorry we couldn’t hook up for longer, but I gotta get back to work.”
“No worries. Do you work far, maybe I can drive you?”
“Thanks, but it’s okay, it’s not far from here. That’s why I asked you to meet me here.” He gives her a peck on the cheek, it’s the first time they have kissed without tongues, and with that, he opens the door, and is gone.
“Stacey, sweetheart,” she peeks over the driver’s seat to her daughter who is crouched behind her and shakes her shoulder gently. The little girl opens her eyes, removes her hands from her ears and stares up at her mother. “It’s okay now sweetheart, it’s over, you can come back up.” She pats the passenger seat three times, accompanied with a big toothy grin. “Come on now.”
Stacey squeezes herself between the driver and passenger seats and takes her place again beside her mother. “Now sweetheart, we’re going to visit Margie today. Would you like that?”
Stacey shrugs and says, “yeah,” but she doesn’t mean it. Margie lives in Rexdale and has four greasy young sons who always leer at her when she plays with the dolls that Margie keeps around her home for when her friends’ daughters visit. She doesn’t much like playing with Margie’s dolls either, they’re old, ratty and unclean. She always feels dirty touching them and they don’t inspire her imagination. Plus she prefers boys’ toys more anyway, and being outside playing on the monkey bars, or climbing trees in High Park when she joins her mother on one of her dates. It doesn’t matter anyway. Even at seven she knows the dolls are designed to distract her so that Katherine and Margie can gab about the men they are seeing.
The home is messy, Margie’s housekeeping skills are nil, and she doesn’t seem to care much about keeping an orderly home. Most of her kitschy furniture was donated or purchased at consignment stores in Toronto. Margie prepares tea by boiling the water in a big pot because she curiously doesn’t own a tea kettle. She told her sons to entertain themselves in the neighbourhood which is populated by Italian, Portuguese and Caribbean born immigrants. Margie, and most of the residents rent their homes from affluent multi-generational families who had bought them for the purpose of eventually flipping the properties for a profit at a later date. Many of the Italian residents had worked hard enough since emigrating to purchase their own homes, and in some instances apartment rental facilities that they intended to leave to their children when they passed away.
Margie is from Newfoundland, born in 1946, Katherine from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and they moved to Toronto for job opportunities in 1970. Margie is an exceptionally striking woman with blonde feather-waved hair that she fashioned after Farrah Fawcett. She is thinner than Katherine, but has bigger breasts, and long red painted fingernails that she often looks to in admiration. Despite her beauty, Margie has been unlucky in love, but lacks self-pity about it, and she is shamelessly promiscuous, holding a male-centric view about sex. But her reputation is known in the neighbourhood, and many of the stay-at-home mothers are bothered by the men Margie brings home, thinking her to be a negligent parent. All three of her children share different fathers, a fact that is widely discussed by the mothers at playdates, in the parks or while passing Margie’s home with their baby strollers.
“What were you up to this morning?” Margie asks.
“Oh, you know the guy I told you about, from the other night, Jer, the guy at the bar?”
Katherine with a sly smile confesses, “We fucked this morning.”
Margie clasps her hands in exuberance, “Look at you, girl! Way to go.” She stands up, wildly flails her hands in the air, does a little dance and crouches down to give Katherine a hug. “This deserves a cigarette!” Margie runs from the chesterfield to the kitchen for her pack of Du Maurier cigarettes. She jubilantly returns and asks, “I’m so happy for you! Do you think you’ll see each other again?”
“I don’t know, I’ll have to wait and see. I’ve got a few more dates next week.” She is lying, but her pride tells her to appear selective, even though she has every intention to pursue a relationship with Jer, even if he resists. Sure it was a one-off she thinks, but maybe there’s something between them after all, and she is now, in this moment, determined to find out. Katherine divorced Stacey’s father Andy two years earlier, and she is desperate to find a man to look after her. Andy is a Brit who grew tired of Katherine’s laziness.
“You know I don’t want to work,” says Katherine. “I want to find a man who’s going to take care of me the way I deserve to be taken care of.”
Margie, always the optimist smiles, “You will, honey, you will,” she soothingly says. “You know there are a lot of Italian men in the neighbourhood here, a few I’ve actually been meaning to introduce you to. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier. You know Italians? They’re good lovers, can cook and are quite handsome. If you can get over their mothers!” Margie giggles as though she has just said the naughtiest thing imaginable.
Katherine smiles back, her eyes gazing at the ceiling and mulls over the idea. “Maybe. I mean I prefer white guys to be honest, but Italians can be sexy. Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”
“That’s the girl I love,” cooes Margie. “There’s this guy named Gabriel, and he has a friend named Luigi, they’re best friends, it might be a good idea to set up a double date.”
Katherine looks perplexed and asks, “What about Randy?”
“Oh honey, we’re not monogamous. Just don’t tell him that!” At that they laugh heartily in unison.
“I’m still going to try and see what I can do with Jer, I don’t want it to be another one-night-stand kind of thing. I’d like to see him again soon, see how it develops.”
“You fucked him in your car this morning.” Again, they laugh. Katherine covers her mouth innocently but is secretly hurt. She’s burdened with the idea that she will never find a man to save her from her current life.
Stacey is kneeling on the floor fixating on the plumes of smoke that Katherine and Margie exhale; her eyes turn to the rainbow on the stucco ceiling that emanates from the sun’s reflection of the crystal ashtray. Katherine and Margie carelessly flick their ashes, without once breaking a beat in their communication. Each adult connects to every word the other utters, as they go on about men. Both divorcées, both single mothers, Katherine and Margie work at the local grocery store, Charlie’s as cashiers. Charlie is a handsy old man who when around, is more concerned with chatting up the young women who work for him than working himself.
On the first day they met, Katherine and Margie had an immediate, intense connection, revealing their deepest fears and secrets to one another with unreserved, implicit trust. Neither has ever betrayed the other.
Stacey grimaces at Margie’s fingernails. She doesn’t like their boldness, they make her queasy. She feels they are inauthentic, trashy even. Though she doesn’t have the words to describe exactly how she feels about them.
As the little girl sits transfixed by the two beautiful women talking she observes the sounds outside. Near silence. The rain has parted way, making room to the sound of birds chirping and she can hear their wings flutter. She thinks of herself as a bird, high above the homes, the searing sense of fear at the pit of one’s stomach, the kind she felt when she was on the teacups with her mother one day earlier in the summer on the Toronto Island. It was both exhilarating and frightening. Might birds at one time, when they’re very young, learning how to fly, feel the same?
At that thought, Stacey rises quietly and makes her way through the kitchen to the back door. To get there she has to walk behind the chesterfield where her mother and Margie are speaking and open the door to the backyard. The grass is long, filled with weeds and there are various children’s toys strewn about, car toys, figurines, even sticks wrapped with wire, tape and elastics, evidently to make crosses for mock crucifictions as there are figurines tied at the centre of them. A sand pit lays at the right hand corner, near the fence, with plastic buckets now filled with drying, wet sand. She sees, in the centre of the fence a gate, ajar, and she walks through it, easily, into the alley behind the row of houses. It is quiet but there’s a slight breeze that gently caresses the branches and leaves on them. She turns right and continues to walk, stumbling upon a deep puddle of water from years of neglected road maintenance. She kneels down at the puddle and looks at her reflection. Her sheer freckles, her thin, knotted, black hair and narrow, squinted eyes stare back at her. She is wearing a pair of jeans and a plain pink t-shirt. She is barefoot, her shoes, which her mother removed upon entering Margie’s house are back at the home she recently escaped. She looks back at herself for several minutes. Observing her face, then the scene of the sky behind her. It is blue, with purple clouds gently passing by behind her head. She thinks for a moment she can see Venus. Suddenly it is early evening, and Venus has dwarfed the moon, rich in vibrant blue and green, with a pink glow. She focuses again at her reflection, looks at her brown, nearly black eyes. She looks at her thin, pointy nose. She looks at her unkempt hair. And she looks at the black streak on her neck. What is she? She’s confused by what looks back at her.
With her small, smooth and undamaged hands, she scoops up the water from the puddle and drinks her face. Then with another scoop she washes her face. Then with one more scoop she washes her hair. And as the droplets of water settle she stares once more at herself, this time a little while longer.
Then, rising from her catatonic observation she hears a slow but steady jingle. Looking up from her reflection she notices a large dog approaching gingerly, like her, taking note of the day that he finds himself suddenly a part of. Sniffing the corners he passes the leaves that have fallen, the fences and the concrete he encounters. They move closer, taking note of each other’s gate. Stacey giggles, and smiles. They come to a metre opposite one another and stop then assess; She his long snout, his golden black fur, his perked, alert ears. He her size, her potential to threaten his dominance, her intention. When he is satisfied that she is safe he cocks his head and moves closer to her, sniffing her body. She giggles more and then he licks her face. Stacey lets out a childish, belly laugh. And then, as though nothing has ever occurred, and with one felled swoop he is off to his next adventure and she stands there once again alone, surrounded by the homes, fences, maple and oak trees. She turns sharply to her left, keeping her balance, and witnesses as the dog saunters merrily forward, passing Margie’s backyard.
She darts her eyes forward to the alley in front of her. When her parents lived together they had a dog, a little gold and white shih tzu named Dusty. She loved her dog, would cuddle him in bed, but her mother never cared much for Dusty. Katherine was always on about how much mess the dog made, how he needed too much care, how he disturbed her when she was in the middle of watching All My Children. Katherine was obsessed with Erica Kane, wishing that her life had similar decadence in it. She wanted the lavish lifestyle, the bevy of male suitors, and her delusions were too far seeped into her psyche for anyone to talk sense into her. She chose fantasy over reality, and pursued it with a wild, irresponsible, selfish appetite. She spoke to Andy about “getting rid” of Dusty because she felt she didn’t have the time to take care of both Stacey and Dusty during the day while Andy was at work. There were too many activities she wanted to participate in, such as going to the gym, or the spa, getting a facial, or a manicure and pedicure. Andy was a bookish bespectacled man with a thin, wiry body and mop of carefully parted light brown hair who worked at the Royal Bank of Canada in downtown Toronto; she had little clue about what he did, but she was content enough that he made enough money that she didn’t have to work.
Katherine spent a lot of time complaining about her life to Margie. “He’s not very sexual,” she confided, “and lately I haven’t been attracted to him.”
“Oh honey, that’s not good,” Margie responds sympathetically. “What can you do? Have you spoken to him about it?”
“What’s there to discuss? In reality, I don’t think I’m going to ever find him attractive, I don’t believe I found him attractive when we married. He has no passion, no warmth, it’s so rote, not spontaneous enough. And he has these long thin fingers, they’re smaller than mine, I don’t feel like a woman when I’m with him.”
“But he takes such good care of you and Stacey. You’d be a fool to give that up!”
Katherine shrugs. “I’ll figure it out.”
It wasn’t much longer after this conversation that Andy figured it out for himself. He became disillusioned with Katherine’s icy attitude towards him, so he found a lover in one of his colleagues; Diane, a young ambitious woman who returned his meager affections. She worked on the legal team at the bank. Soon after they consummated their relationship he asked Katherine for a divorce, unable to live with the guilt of his betrayal. He owned up to every feeling, his growing unhappiness, his fear, his anxiety that he would never find someone to love him. Katherine stared back at him in shock, and she screamed and hollered, afraid of what would become of her. Who would want a single mother? How would her lifestyle be affected? Andy took Dusty, and Katherine took Stacey.
Stacey was permitted to see her father one weekend a month. He would drive from his new home in Burlington to Toronto to pick her up on a Friday, and return her to her mother on Sunday evening. Diane, socially awkward, with her uncombed hair, big plastic glasses and big toothed smile, tried her best to make Stacey feel comfortable, but for Stacey, the interactions were artificial, and she had the sense that Diane was happy to see her leave. Andy and Diane’s house was more sterile than her mother’s, who since the separation had moved into a one bedroom apartment that she had decorated with neutral, warm colours. At Andy and Diane’s house she felt reluctant to touch any of the furniture, even the walls, and there were no colouring books, or crayons to distract her from the boredom she often felt. Diane had peppered Stacey’s plain room with Barbies and dolls, though Stacey had little interest in them. The newly planted trees in the yards were too young and weak to climb, and Diane asked her to stay away from the lawn, to allow it to grow healthy and green.
Not long after they began living together, Andy and Diane had a baby girl, and Diane became more intolerant at Stacey’s presence. She wasn’t allowed to stand too close to the baby, or touch her. While in bed at night Stacey would often overhear their conversations as they prepared for bed.
“She’s weird Andy. She’s too quiet for a seven year old. She has no friends. She’s always staring at me, but never says anything. She makes me feel uncomfortable, you have to speak to her mother.” Stacey noted that Diane never referred to her mother by name, simply as “her mother” or “the mother”.
Andy, because of his nervous, passive disposition often acquiesced at Diane’s demands, “I’ll speak to Katherine. But she’s going through a lot right now. This has been hard on everyone.”
“Well you have a new family now. A better family. It’s not up to you to fix them. They’ll have to do that for themselves. We can only teach by example.”
“I know,” he sheepishly responded.
“And speak to her mother about her interests. She doesn’t touch any of the Barbies I’ve bought her, and she hates pink — she won’t even wear that little sun dress I bought her. It’s not normal.”
“I will,” Andy said. But he never did. He placated Diane’s demands, but never mentioned any of them to Katherine.
After the divorce was finalized Katherine rarely ever mentioned Andy’s name. Even when he arrived for his daughter, she treated it as an afterthought. When he knocked on the door, she acted as though it slipped her mind that he would be standing on the other side.
“Oh right! I’m so sorry, I forgot.” She didn’t have to pack any clothes for Stacey, as Andy and Diane had purchased her a wardrobe they kept at their house in Burlington. Katherine would simply kiss her daughter on the cheek and her father would whisk her off to her second life. Katherine was then free to hit the bars, in search of a new husband.
And Dusty was gone. Andy said that Dusty found a new family that could love him more than they could. But Stacey was confused, she loved Dusty more than anything in the world. He was the only person who seemed to like her, and now, he was gone, vanished. She had visions of him making other people happy. A mom and a dad, and a little girl. In her dreams Dusty would be licking this idyllic family on their faces, running around their backyard; scenes at picnics in the park, of Christmases around the tree.
Stacey stands in the alley looking forward to the dog who is now fading further in the distance; she feels and thinks nothing. In his absence she looks up at an oak tree a couple metres ahead and meditates on the casual way the branches sway. She is calm.
She looks back again to the dog, who is now Dusty, a love, staring back at her, coaxing her to join him, to follow him, to a place where he will take care of her. He is still beautiful, spirited and infatuated with her. She slowly begins to move towards him.
“Stacey, sweetheart!” She can hear her mother walking briskly behind her.
She turns to look at her, and then forward to Dusty.
“There she is,” says Margie. “Honey, you scared us half to death! Come to your mother.”
“What were you thinking? Anything could have happened to you sweetheart.”
She turns again to her mother, and then Margie, then back to Dusty, and as they approach she lets out a deep guttural wail. Dusty fades. Katherine swoops her daughter into her arms.
“It’s okay, honey. Everything will be okay.”
With that they go back inside.