Fiction: Right Before Your Eyes

antigonish reviewFirst place winner of Sheldon Currie Fiction Prize

You fall in love in Yellowknife, when white is threatening to kill you. White lamplights, white fog, white pathways, white breath exhaling. Idling vehicles emitting white exhaust, ghostly plumes hovering. Slush white, sooty white. Window panes opaque with ice, dense and puckered like fire-burned skin. All of it glaring relentlessly throughout the grey gauze of daylight, the fourteen hours of darkness. Aching for the sight of rainforest greens, you look up at the moon and resent its absence of colour, its shine on crystalline snow banks. You keep telling yourself you should walk out onto frozen Great Slave Lake, lay down and go to sleep. Just Get It Over With. There are four seasons in the Arctic: early winter, late winter, dead of winter, and dread of winter. It’s late winter. Minus fifty-two with the wind chill. A doctor with flaky eyebrows advises medication.

You rent movies instead. It begins in the foreign film section, when he recommends Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a Spanish classic. Discover mutual passions: you love Vertigo, he loves Rebecca; you’re a good amateur photographer, he shoots for the nation’s broadcaster. You imagine him, camera perched on his strong shoulder next to his wavy brown hair, looking right at home.

In a restaurant with golden candles, you tell him you came north for the work, but were really searching for some quintessential Canadian experience. You never expected the worst depression of your life. He laughs, offers tips for coping with winter which include dinner parties, alcohol and drug therapy, a streak of masochism. He doesn’t press for more of your story, maybe it’s enough that you are here now. And you are relieved. You’ve never known how to describe yourself honestly, never been comfortable uttering confident words that pin down, represent, encapsulate. The best words for you are abstract: transformative, open.
When you ask about his life before coming north he says, “I used to live in Toronto, in the red light district.” He doesn’t give street names.
In a flash you conjure a scene, see his lean body exiting his convenient apartment, palmed cash in his pocket.
“How was that?” you say.
He shakes his head while plunging his spoon into chocolate mousse. “Insane. Too much grit, too much noise. Up here is better, more authentic or something.”
Licking clean the crème caramel from your spoon, you then imagine him standing in a third-storey window, his interest purely sociological, his eye alert for framed arty malaise: car headlights resembling marquis spotlights, silhouettes of long legs and stilettos, blue neon reflected on wet blacktop.
“Hope you like single malt,” he says, unlocking his door. “Forgive the mess.”
Enter a long hallway choked with laundry piles, magazine towers, leaning stacks of broadcast tapes. Stepping around it is like walking south over a scale model of the isthmus of Central America. Right foot steps off Nicaragua and lands in the Caribbean Sea. Left foot lifts, clears the mountaintops of Costa Rica and lands in the Pacific. He’s no housekeeper, that’s for sure. You try breaking that word in half. House. Keeper.

The seduction begins with the offer of his Betacam. Balance it upon your shoulder. Put your eye up to the eye piece and smell his lingering cologne. Turn to macro, focus on the freckles like pixie dust on his pale skin and, beneath his lower lip, the childhood scar resembling a pitch fork. One blue eye winks. Follow a ropy neck vein down to pectoral muscles beneath his black T-shirt. Then tilt down to his lap, and his hands, palms up and waiting.

You have so much sex that you think your pheromones must be swarming people’s nostrils, making it difficult for them to breathe. It’s dread of winter: twenty-four hours of sunlight. At dawn and dusk, low clouds throb with fuchsia underbellies, the sky aflame for hours. At deck parties, you repeatedly praise the rippling waters of Great Slave Lake. You’ve never had better sex. Not like that last boyfriend who only watched CNN, who owned a Kodak Instamatic, only wanted to point and shoot. This boyfriend loves how you taste, says he loses himself down there, that he could stay there for hours. And he does, making you so responsive that what used to take forever now takes mere minutes. His fingers trace hieroglyphs onto your skin, he kisses every curve of your silken treasure, coaxing from your sighs those dulcet tones of revelation.

To capture his heart, you put on a slide show. Barefoot Nepali sherpas, Guatemalan urchins on cobblestone streets, dusty camels in Central Asia. Beautiful image after beautiful image.
Like you, he worships composition, the trinity of perspective, contrast and line, is entranced by the sacred union of light and shadow. In the darkness, his hot fingertips rest lightly upon the inside of your wrist.
He leans into your ear and whispers, “Mmmm, I love these. I’ve never Gone That Far, but I want to.”
Be tickled with his geographical metaphor and whisper back, “Mmmm, I’d love to have A Travel Partner.”
Feel his fingertips push down as if taking your racing pulse.

Move into his place, clear away the isthmus of Central America, this is the way it should be. Early winter turns into late winter. White begins to threaten again, try to ignore it, take photographs of tundra snowdrifts. Talk of love, have great sex.

White pathways, white breath exhaling. You walk to the Legislature where the news crew is shooting a speech by the visiting Prime Minister. He’s not at the camera, the crew is evasive. Later, after he gets home from the bar, he says, “A Cam given to a fuckin hotshot from Ottawa. That producer’s such a brown-nosed prick.”
At a party, you overhear someone saying that he’s unreliable, if this wasn’t the north, he’d have been gone long ago. At two in the morning you can’t find him anywhere. You press your ear against the basement bathroom door, hear friction and scuttled whispers. At home, you have a verbal battle. The angry sex that follows is what finally makes you cry.

White lamplights, white fog. Late winter turns into dead of winter. Keep trying to forgive. You even rent romantic comedies. You’ve started resenting the moon its absence of colour. Soon the trucks will be able to drive over Great Slave Lake. You tell him, “I can’t do this anymore. And I’ve got white fatigue, I’m going home.”
He wants to come with you to Vancouver, negotiates for a fresh start: he can’t see living without you and a change will be good for his career.

Rent an apartment near Stanley Park. Get a job serving cocktails. He never comes into the bar.
“I get the feeling you don’t want me to,” he says.
“That’s not true,” you say, doubting yourself. You’re paying all the bills.
Soon his Daytimer is chock-full of appointments and to-do items, which, when completed, he dutifully slashes with green highlighter. Pages and pages and pages go by. Your drinking increases. Your photographs of falling gold and red leaves, however, are magnificent.

Have great sex. It rains; the clocks turn back one hour: fall becomes winter; it rains.
He lands a contract shooting for a Caribbean television station. If it works out, you will follow. Champagne cork pops. He’ll support you, it’s payback time. You anticipate photographs saturated with turquoise, scarlet and Kelly green.
He returns two weeks later with a dubious-sounding tale: the hotel’s thatched roof caught fire, he’s lucky to be alive, he got his Betacam out but his computer monitor melted in the blaze. You’ve missed his buttery skin, hungered for him, craved the delicate heft of his testicles, the cumin musk of his pubic hair.
“What’s this?” you ask, trying to formulate an acceptable answer. Your lips have grazed over a small, hard scab on his penis.
He locates the spot with his fingertip. “From rubbing myself too hard?”
You hear the faint question in his inflection but immediately block it out. Get right to the intercourse. Come twice in rapid succession.
December. You’ve stopped drinking. Kneading the coins in his pocket, he pastes on a grin and says he’s happy when you tell him, “The test results are in, I’m pregnant.” You are happy, too, but in private you monitor the green slashes in his Daytimer. He notices.

He gets another contract right away. Tells you he’s met a producer and director and they’ve hired him to shoot their first feature film. They’re ambitious, want to make a series of films, it’s a ground floor opportunity. His pager warbles at odd hours and he rushes out, cursing the producer. You take phone messages from all the callers saying they’re from The Catholic Movie. It sounds like code. He assures you the story’s about St. Patrick, the patron saint of travelers. Money flows in. Lots of money. His turn to pay the bills. You quit the bar, spend time up-scaling the apartment decor.
His smell changes, it’s no longer sweet. Now he smells like lime and burned autumn leaves. He stops showering before coming to bed, starts putting on deodorant instead. He is preoccupied, impatient, sets a private password on his computer, keeps his home office clear of papers. You wonder if he’s setting boundaries in order to keep fatherhood fears at bay. He doesn’t want sex, says he feels weird about it. According to a pregnancy book, that can happen with expectant fathers. You, however, feel incredible. A river surges beneath your skin. You are evolution incarnate, the creator of forward flowing humanity.
Week ten of the pregnancy. He is always out shooting. You stay at home and try not to worry: could the drinking have harmed the fetus, what if you end up a single mother, will you become a mother like your own? Looking for relief from her anxiety, for years she sought out fringe therapies—art therapy, scream therapy, Rebirthing—and only got worse. In your twenties she sold the family home and went underground. Like a spy she would randomly surface, sound breathless on the telephone as she asked you to meet her in out-of-the-way cafes.
“I can’t stay long,” she would whisper, surreptitiously scanning the faces of the other coffee drinkers, “there’s a man following me.”
She refused help, bristled against reason, chafed against the fugue. Parts of her mind had gone missing, as if she’d been rubbed out by an animator’s pencil. You kept telling yourself, she is not lost, she just keeps taking wrong turns.
Now, though you don’t know where she is, you imagine her holding your baby and offering to babysit. You know you will make up plausible-sounding excuses.

Week twelve. You awaken after midnight, hugging your abdomen. The river has left you alone in your body. Walk gingerly to the bathroom. It drops into the toilet, this poached egg white with a black dot for an eye. Scoop it out with a slotted spoon, slide it into a glass honey jar, then lay on the white couch in the fetal position. He is out, supposedly shooting an animal movie, a remake about two dogs and a cat. Getting the shots has been difficult, time consuming, the cold snap hasn’t helped. The next day, he brings home a large bouquet of flowers and, written on the card, an apology for his behaviour.

Stare at the phone, letting it ring and ring. You haven’t been out of the apartment for days. You have a nightmare that you give birth to a hard-boiled egg which you peel and eat. When just before dawn he gets home and slips between the sheets, turn and face the wall, draw your knees up to your chest. His warm hand softly rubs your back.
“I feel like I’m being punished. What am I doing wrong?” you say into the darkness.
“You’re not doing anything wrong, don’t go there.”
“I don’t know where I’m going anymore. Do you ever feel like that?”
“No,” he will say then, adamant, withdrawing his hand. “You need to get back to work. You’re thinking too much.”
Listen to his breathing as it gradually slows and becomes sonorous.

March. You’re still unemployed. Your mother turns up, heavily medicated. Fleeing her imaginary persecutor, she hop-scotched the country, had a breakdown in Halifax and wound up in a psychiatric ward, then was flown home.
“My therapist thinks I was molested by your grandfather,” she tells you on the phone.
A black aperture opens wide in your mind, all the good memories fall in. You don’t tell her what happened to you. It doesn’t seem as important, and besides, you’d have to say the word miscarriage and can’t. It would have to travel too far to get out.

The temperate rainforest erupts in glory and you feel nothing. The Arctic depression was a bad mood by comparison. Clinging to the simplicity of movement, walk daily around the Stanley Park seawall, listening on headphones to sitar music and the hypnotic chanting of some emaciated guru.
One morning near Second Beach, you come across a baby crow that’s fallen from its nest. All alone on the grass, still too young to fly, no mother crow anywhere.
Cry out to it, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do anything.” A nearby toddler witnesses, her mouth agape. The baby crow caws and caws. You stand guard, searching the sky for its mother. Then you say to it, “I’d like to help you but I can’t.”
The child’s mother swoops in, takes her daughter’s arm and pulls her away. You push the tears off your cheeks, leave the crow to its fate. Keep walking, one foot after the other, around and around the seawall, the trace of your footprints swaddling the park in some nebulous cocoon.
Summer drags on. Your mother calls again, wants to meet in a café, wants to recant about your grandfather and the sexual abuse. She feels like high tide lapping at your nostrils, threatening to suck you under.
Say, “Sorry, I can’t, I’m heading out of town.”
Hang up, fantasize you have given up all worldly attachments and are trekking to a monastery in Tibet.

One glorious sunny day, you purchase a blue spruce sapling in a six-inch pot. In the park, veer off the seawall near Lumberman’s Arch, follow a spongy trail leading inland until you find a peaceful grove of old cedars. Dig into the loam and plant him, the one you will come and visit, the one you will get to see grow up and become so tall he towers over Burrard Inlet, the one you will occasionally water with your tears. The end, of a long line of mothers.
Return home after a weekend with your sister at her cabin: it’s time you picked up the pieces, attended to his needs for a change, got back to normal. You dust off your camera. In the white and black bathroom, take photographs as he steps pink and dripping from the shower. Laugh. Initiate sex. He comes quickly so he can go down and elicit your moans, those dulcet tones. Afterward, you share a celebratory cigarette and make plans to fly to Yellowknife for a fall solstice party. You cook, clean, heal with domestication. The next day, after he leaves for the studio, you’re in the bathroom. You’ve just emptied the waste pail. You stand barefoot on the cold, cracked tiles with a withered condom pinched between your fingertips. The two of you have never used condoms.
When ransacking his office, you are thorough. On Visa invoices dating back months there are significant sums charged by CC Bill companies for internet porn sites. The phone bills are scattershot with 1-900 charges for phone sex. In a file he labels Other, stare without blinking at a hand-written invitation to a voyeur’s party, complete with sex slaves: the date coincides with the miscarriage. On the back page of his DayTimer discover a long list written in his neat, uppercase handwriting:
DAPHNE: loves anal, threesomes, submissive, telephone number.
STEPHANIE: submissive, bondage, whips, telephone number.
TAMMY: fellatio only, DD tits, submissive, telephone number.
You wonder how you could have been so blind all this time. Then you wonder about all that submissive.

When he gets home, you’re well into a bottle of gin. Reveal your evidence. Sourly, listen to the lies. When he finally confesses, he takes the high road.
“You had no right invading my privacy.”
It feels good to bellow. “Fuck your privacy! I may have been exposed to AIDS and STD’s. So much for fucking privacy.”
He tells you not to worry, he always uses condoms. After the tears and recriminations, chisel with words for two hours: he agrees that bringing a prostitute into your home wasn’t right, but he also believes this part of his life is separate, has nothing to do with you. Finally, exhaustion from parrying too long sets in. Then you sigh and say, “You know what? You’ve got a problem, I think you’re a sex addict.”
To which he scoffs, “And you’re a prude. The only place you ever want to do it is in this apartment.”
During the months you grieved the loss of your baby he was busy becoming a member of a new sexual caste, with better, more exciting standards. Sex in certain locations, like home, has become passé—unless, of course, it’s with a prostitute. Smash the framed photograph of tundra snowdrifts before slamming the door.

Move out. Visit the doctor. All the tests come back negative.
In a café on a windy day, he says he misses you. Your pink housecoat with the polar bear cubs on it, your homemade espresso brownies, your neck massages, the almond scent behind your knees.
The way he takes your hand like it’s a wounded bird. The way his warm lips sink into your palm.
“Those aren’t just fantasies you’re dealing with,” you say, withdrawing your hand to your side of the table. You’ve already imagined all possible combinations of flesh, inserted your body into the scenes, doubted that desire could prevail. “They’re real people. I’ll bet Daphne’s a single mom who has to hike her kids’ clothes to the Laundromat. And Stephanie’s real name is probably Gwen and your money is financing her, I don’t know, her law school tuition. And fellatio-only Tammy? Probably a hefty coke addiction, not to mention a sad childhood full of violent sexual abuse.”
“Tammy’s a glazier,” he says, his leg bouncing under the table like a diabetic recalling a tour of a sugar factory. “And we’re all consenting adults.”
Follow his arm as he gestures to the window, his gaze as it lands on some point in the distance. “It’s incredible what’s happening out there.” Traffic whooshes past. High above, cirrus clouds have been whipped into the shape of a fingerprint.
You withdraw your gaze, collapsing his imaginary horizon, and look into his glossed eyes. You find yourself wondering again if the baby would have had his blue eyes. See his lips constrict ever so slightly when he recalls where he is. Watch as he turns to face you then and reaches out, across the table, placing one cool fingertip on the delicate bones of your hand.
“And we could be doing it, too. Together. If you want.”
Notice the tic making his right eyelid quiver.

The years pass. You hear from friends they saw him in a restaurant, but you never see him anywhere. It’s like you’ve been shunted into parallel universes.

Then late one Friday night as you channel surf, there he is. About forty pounds heavier, wavy brown hair strafed with grey, tired crescents beneath his eyes, raffish goatee, videocam held out in front of his pelvis. He’s shooting reality-style soft porn and his camera is pressed in close, close enough for him to be feeling the body heat of a young woman wearing a bikini. She throws back her head, exposing her flawless neck. Her red lips are parted in fellatio iconography, her hands roam her thighs as if unable to find their way. And you sit there, poised with the remote, and think about all the choices we make and all the sacrifices we get, as the narrator’s deep voice drones on and on about what she really wants and what will release her passion.

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