Canada |


by David Ross

The reason I ended up alone in Marta’s closet was that being caught by her parents would have changed everything, and in those days we were particularly careful not to spoil the arrangement we had with them. This was the second time we’d come close. Marta was the girl in high school who liked drugs better than makeup, whose pale oval face implied a melancholy most of us weren’t yet capable of. I still remember things about her closet: how it smelled like rubber and milk, how the piles of shoes beneath me made it difficult to be still. Her parents had come home unexpectedly and were in the next room speaking idly to each other. Their voices had a peaceful quality, and it became clear to me that they were recalling a memory from many years ago. “The bees were out that night. Do you remember all the bees?” Marta’s father asked her mother. “I don’t,” she said. “There were bees.” Marta’s parents were drinkers and smokers, but the pleasant kind. They let Marta have parties every weekend and would sit in the backyard with us in their folding deck chairs. Her father would toss us cans of beer and her mother would watch over us if we’d been sick. That was just the kind of people they were. They didn’t want anything from us in return, except that we call them by their first names: Glen and Kathleen. “The trail of hair on your belly,” Kathleen said. “That I remember. Earlobes I remember.” “I couldn’t keep my hands off you.” “You piggybacked me because my feet hurt. And then … my olive dress.” I had never heard Marta’s parents talk like this. They drank beer with us, but they never talked about sex — it was one of the few topics we, too, never discussed in their presence. It didn’t matter that they looked and acted younger than the rest of our parents and wore blue jeans and windbreakers, there was just something embarrassing about it. Had we been anywhere else, drinking the same beer and smoking the same cigarettes, every sentence would be furnished with innuendo. But at Marta’s house if someone so much as blew you a kiss you’d look at Kathleen real quick to make sure she didn’t see. “I loved that olive dress.” “You had a strange way of showing it,” Kathleen said. “You know, I never did mend the straps. Didn’t seem worth it.” “Battle scars,” Glen said.
The other thing Marta’s parents never talked about was drugs. I wasn’t sure how to interpret their silence, I just knew we did that part in secret — we didn’t push our luck. Marta would lead us down to the beach and we’d smoke our pot there before trickling one by one through the fence into her backyard. There was a politeness about this. I suppose that’s why I ended up in her bedroom closet; Marta was too decent to let her parents find us like that. I used to want to tell Kathleen about us, about Marta and me. I’d been tempted to blurt things out. She could always tell who liked who just by looking at us, which had a funny way of making you feel young. She’d hardly have to watch at all but she had us mostly figured out. The thing is Kathleen never did suspect anything was going on between Marta and me; her intuition failed her there. This, I suppose, enhanced the thrill.
“The grass was so long, it tickled,” Kathleen was saying. “You wanted nature. You were a difficult woman to say no to then. Still are.” They continued in this way, telling a story to no one in particular but each other.
I waited in Marta’s closet for what felt like an hour. Eventually what broke the silence was Marta tossing stones at her bedroom window. I knew what that sounded like, knew the stones were pink like coral and from the garden around the side. “Get out here,” she said, and the air from the open window was so cool. Everything outside was blue, like a photograph aged by sunlight. “What the hell, Marta,” I whispered, “I could have died in there.” She made a face and I knew I’d better shut up — she could make a face and you knew just what it meant. I jumped down and folded onto my tingling legs. “Jesus, Marta,” I said. “You’ve got some stinky shoes.”
She took me down to the beach, along the winding dirt path we always took — a path that seemed to erase the suburb behind us the farther we went. “Do you think they heard you?” “I don’t know. I don’t think so. Listen, Marta,” I said, and she said, “Shh. I know, I’m sorry I stuck you in there but I had to, and don’t worry because we’re here now and look,” and she pulled a small wooden pipe from her sock. Still everything seemed blue because I’d been in the dark for so long. Marta did everything slowly — producing the lighter, pressing her finger over the carved hole — as if it were some comfort to me, as if she were calming me down from a fit. It must have worked because I didn’t want to be mad at her anymore. She passed the pipe to me and I took three greedy drags. When I exhaled I saw Marta’s hair and how long and straight it was. It reminded me of what we’d been about to do before her parents came home, but you could see on her face that Marta hadn’t thought of that yet. She was inspecting her unpainted fingernails. The pot was affecting me the same way it always did: first in the cheeks, and then my heartbeat would quicken and I’d have to talk — about anything or nothing at all — to distract myself from thinking about it. “How do you feel?” I asked her. Marta didn’t answer, but she smiled. “I feel good,” I said. “I feel really good, like I’m warm all over.” Her smile widened like she knew something about me I didn’t. “My feet. I feel like there’s this fur, and it’s all around my feet. It’s so … warm.” I looked around at the beach and it wasn’t anything like a beach in a travel brochure; it wasn’t at all tropical. The sand was coarse, full of stones and wet twigs. The trees weren’t palm trees; they were fat pines. There were too many trees around. I saw a squirrel run up a tree. Squirrels shouldn’t be allowed on beaches. Marta was looking a bit like a ghost now with her hood up, framing her face in dull maroon. I had a hood too. I put it up. “You want any more?” she asked and gestured that there wasn’t much left. I suddenly became aware of how secondary the drugs were for me. I thought of Marta first, and this was my weakness. A girl who wanted to smoke as much as you did was exciting; a girl who wanted more made you nervous. “Take off your hood,” I said. “No, you take yours off, you have yours on too,” she said and laughed, a louder laugh than usual. She seemed suddenly different and maybe not Marta at all, but a spy or an extra in a movie, and I thought: Oh, there’s that girl in the hooded sweatshirt who laughs loudly and tucks her hair behind her pierced ear. I pass her on the street all the time — she walks in loop. As soon as we’d said those things though, even though my thoughts were on a different trajectory, we were undressing each other. As soon as she finished speaking, it seemed, both of our shirts were off and how did that happen so fast? We were laughing at each other like it was a game. Every time you ripped a piece off the other person you laughed like you’d gone too far. Then we were in our underwear and it was cold. The moon looked cold.
The first time we’d endangered our privileges with Glen and Kathleen was just a few months earlier. Usually there were only two girls in our group and the guys outnumbered the girls. The girls were Marta and Sara, but sometimes one of them would bring a friend, so it would be Marta and Sara and Sara’s friend Louise. This time it was Louise. She wore a clinging black shirt that dipped low in the front and scooped her breasts together, which almost made you forget about her braces. Mostly though she was like all the others: mystified by Glen and Kathleen’s lenience yet grateful for it just the same. With calculated politeness she offered to help Kathleen tidy up later, as if aware of some test she had to pass in order to earn permanent membership to our group. Kathleen accepted her offer but treated Louise with a wooden sort of kindness, reserving her most familial gestures and slogans for the rest of us. That night was just after Marta and I had first kissed and it wasn’t so much a secret anymore because Sara knew and Craig definitely knew. The way we were sitting made it obvious but not: our legs were stretched out on the grass and we might have looked like interlocking triangles from above. I touched her leg and she shooed my hand away but she made it look normal like she wasn’t paranoid. “You afraid someone will see?” I asked. “Come on, not here,” she said. I looked up at Kathleen and she was on her deck chair talking to Louise. “Glen doesn’t know the first thing about cars, but he’d have you believe otherwise,” she was saying, because she liked to tell us what Glen was like as if she were teasing him. Glen could only make a face, but the face did an okay job of making you think maybe Kathleen was the crazy one for a second. Plus he couldn’t get confrontational in the backyard and as far as I knew Marta’s parents never quarelled. “You want another beer?” Glen asked, and I said yes. I always said yes, figuring that was the way to make parents like you. One day Marta’s parents would know about our relationship and they’d remember moments like this. I caught the can and wiped the icy condensation on my jeans. There was one thing that made that night different from the others and it wasn’t just Sara’s friend Louise being there, but what she did; what she did that night could have ruined everything for the rest of us. Like I said, I had never seen Marta’s parents get mad before. Discipline was suspended there but we understood our parameters. No one had set them officially but we understood because it had been that way for so long. Certain things were forgivable. Vomit was forgivable. So was breaking a garden lantern by accident. It wasn’t even that we were always on eggshells because we never were. This is why I remember that night so well: Louise threw a watermelon through the glass patio door, and the door shattered into pieces. Louise, despite her plunging neckline, had once seemed ordinary enough. She chatted with Kathleen about the cabin on the lake that belonged to the Finnish side of her family. She was sweet and not particularly pretty, but she was liked. “She was on acid,” Sara said. That was later, though. Later we knew: Louise was on acid and she threw a watermelon through the door. It was a loud crash, the kind that comes from all directions. There were so many glittering triangles of glass and I think most of us were in shock. I followed Marta’s gaze (my first instinct had been to look to her) and saw Louise standing there in the frame of the door, where little chips of glass still clung to the edges. Nothing felt the same after that point; the sky seemed to dim faster than usual. The patio light cast an orange glow on us as we looked timidly at each other and rose to our feet in slow motion, prolonging our reactions. No one knew why she did it. Theories began to emerge, and Craig was saying how earlier he’d seen her weeping at the kitchen sink. If you hadn’t actually seen Louise throw the watermelon, you pretended you did. “It looked so easy,” our friend Dylan said, “like she’d been practising.” Someone else claimed to have heard her say “Catch!” just before doing it. The worst part was when Kathleen stood up and looked at Louise and no one said anything right away. You knew it had to be Kathleen to say something, not Glen, and when she finally did she said, “I think you’d better leave now, Louise.” That was it. There was glass everywhere, and pink water was pooling on the tiles, and that was all Kathleen could say. The watermelon looked so stupid on the patio because it was still in one piece, only gouged. We swept up the glass, and Glen said watch your feet, and separately we decided to put our money together to pay for the repair. Sara never brought Louise back. She held her hand and walked her out, but she never brought her back.
We were standing on the beach in our underwear and we heard a sound. It was a howling sound and it made us both stop what we were doing, which was breathing. We were breathing, and looking at each other, and thinking: where to start. But when we heard the howl we thought only of that. “What was that?” I asked. It was not a noise I recognized. I wanted Marta to tell me whatever it was and I would believe her. “I think it’s a coyote,” she said. “Goddamn, Marta,” I said, and she said, “It’s a coyote, it’s a fucking coyote.” We trusted ourselves because of the drugs; when you spoke it didn’t come from you — it was the truth and it was just passing through you. It howled one more time, and suddenly we were running, and quartered pine needles were sticking to the bottoms of my feet. We must have run for a while because where we ended up wasn’t as familiar as where we started. I kept fantasizing about water and I thought maybe I’d just end up jumping into the lake, dirty as it was. We couldn’t afford to fear the lake at this point; we could put our anxieties aside and the coyote couldn’t harm us in the lake. I was so thirsty that being submerged in water would have been just as good as drinking it. “I can hear it still, it’s after us,” Marta said, but she was a good distance ahead of me and may have said any variation on those words. I could hear it still anyway: running and kicking up dirt, and cutting through bushes so they shushed up against each other. It wasn’t like being chased by a person; with an animal you felt it was using nature in ways you couldn’t. “Marta, we need to slow down,” I said. I don’t know how she managed to keep going the way she did. The waistline of her powder blue underwear was twisted, and I hadn’t been thinking about things like that, but now I was, again. She said, “Just a little farther,” and I could deal with a little farther because it looked like there was a clearing up ahead and maybe we could climb a tree. “I can hear its teeth,” she said. “I can see them,” I said, which wasn’t true. Rather, I was imagining the coyote on top of me and I knew precisely how it would feel. Having the coyote on top of you would be like when you got tickled so much you thought you’d die. You couldn’t move your limbs because you were paralyzed with this feeling, convulsing with noiseless laughter. When we reached the clearing I felt a relief, like we’d escaped our predator. But what we found there quickly curdled that feeling. Suddenly the coyote ceased to exist, and all that mattered was in front of us, in a fleshy tangle: Glen and Kathleen — but I didn’t want to call them that anymore. It struck me only then, perhaps irrationally, that calling Marta’s parents by their first names and treating them as peers was a perverse mistake. We stood there in silence, wearing nearly nothing. Marta’s parents on the other hand were completely naked, their garments strewn about in the dirt, out of reach. Seeing them like that, they really didn’t seem so young anymore. They were shielding each other but you could see through spaces their pale skin and raw elbows and thick pubic hair; you could see Kathleen, twisted to conceal her nipples, and Glen, naked in the dirt, not tossing a beer and saying “Catch!”