“With my daughter,” Genevive said to Mercedes, “all I had to do was ask myself, ‘If I don’t, who will?’ You see, even as a little girl, my daughter would go off on her own and put her nose into this or her hand into that, and she only had one person to come back to. She was pursued so much I didn’t trust any of them after a while, and she ended up in France. She came back of course. She knew I wouldn’t follow her over there when my front porch is here, in Ottawa, where it’s always been.”
Mercedes didn’t say anything. She sat in a squat position with her back against the wall of the pool and only her head above water, facing Genevive. She wanted to stand up, but remained crouched, as the exercise was good for her hip.
“I mean, I’ve just never lived anywhere else is all,” Genevive continued. “How could she expect me to throw up my whole life and go somewhere else? No, even if I were alone, I’d rather stay in Ottawa. At least when I’m here, I know where I am.”
Mercedes, who was recovering from her second hip surgery in the past year, rose from her squat and stretched her arms. It was mid-morning, and the pool was filled with the buoyant bodies of geriatrics, who bobbed and bent and hobbled around the untrammeled expanse of open-swim hours. Only a light swell, not much greater than that of a bathtub’s or a swilled glass of wine, ruffled the water; except for on one end, where a lane had been set up for laps. There, arms and legs beat with vigor. But neither Mercedes nor Genevive were in that section of the pool. The two stood facing each other in the shallow end.
Genevive had orange weights strapped around her ankles and another two clasped in her hands. A number of years ago, she’d undergone spinal surgery, and aqua fitness had been prescribed for her rehabilitation. She’d recovered after a few months, but had decided to keep the exercises as part of her routine. It was widely known among the frequent visitors of the pool that Genevive was more friendly than was often reciprocated, and with her neon waterproof weights strapped on, she would tread around the shallow end each day, her large haunches leaving a small wake, and make her rounds.
Mercedes was one of her favorites. And perhaps sensing that the attention of her audience had drifted, Genevive switched the leg arrangement of her lunge and came to her point: “I’d say, if your daughter won’t talk about what’s-his-name, the only two questions you need to ask yourself are: what to do and how to do it. And fast. Little problems left alone have a way of becoming big ones.”
Mercedes’s gray hair, mounted in a hive, sagged to the side. She propped the bundle straight with her wet fingers; but when the mound drooped the other way she stood up and undid it. She placed the pins in a pile on the edge of the pool deck and plunged her head under. She didn’t like water. Even as a little girl on the beach in Argentina she’d preferred to bathe in the sun next to her father, while her mother and brother splashed around in the ocean. When she was eleven, and her family moved from Buenos Aires to Montreal, she would place her towel down next to her father’s folding chair on the concrete of the public pool. They never said much to each other as they watched the others swim, jump, and exert themselves, but Mercedes always liked the mutual lassitude of those afternoons at the beach and pool, knowing that no one would be going anywhere for a long while.
After her daughter was born, Mercedes made a habit of sitting next to her at her in-laws’ cottage. The sun warmed their olive legs and a cool sweat covered their brows, and while Mercedes’ husband and son swam to the other side of the lake and back, she experienced a pleasure similar to what she’d felt as a little girl. With time, her memories of the beach in Argentina faded. Instead of the smell of salt air and the tickle of sand when she rubbed it between her palms, she thought of the placid waters of Canadian lakes and the quiet hush of wind rustling the leaves. And the days at the cottage, and everything that had led to them, felt important, or at least good enough.
When Mercedes reemerged from under the water, Genevive was still there in her lunge. Reflections of the large globular lamps that hung overhead rolled on the glassy surface of the pool. Mercedes noticed the industrial fans that usually droned had been switched off and that the once-muffled chatter of voices now echoed off the high ceiling. “It’s not a problem,” Mercedes said in reference to her daughter, Alice. “It’s a concern. An unsettling feeling.”
“Unsettling?” said Genevive. “That sounds like a problem to me.”
Mercedes spread her arms out at shoulder height and lifted her leg. She closed her eyes and held the position. Her hip felt steady. Since Alice had moved in with her two months ago there had been real improvement. She walked more and stood longer. She prepared dinners for them, big elaborate meals she’d never had time for when she’d worked at the hospital. They didn’t come close to finishing them, but Alice always brought the leftovers into work the next day.
“By the way,” Genevive said, “did you notice Sandra is here without Dennis again?”
Mercedes’s weight shifted to one side. She tried to compensate but lost her balance and had to put the other foot down.
Sandra and Dennis were married. She suffered from back problems and he from arthritis, but Genevive always called them the young couple because they were in their fifties and did laps. Mercedes was in her fifties too but only did exercises, so she was an “old girl” according to Genevive.
“He must be getting better,” Mercedes said.
“Oh, that don’t mean a toot,” said Genevive. “Do you know how many people I see leave here one day and limp back the next with something else the bother with them? Plenty enough. They don’t realize this is where they belong, that they have to keep it up.”
In spite of what Genevive had to say, Mercedes often thought of when she’d be able to return to work at the hospital, to her colleagues and patients, to where she was needed. She imagined it coming soon. And that she still had a job waiting for her when she was healthy again signified to her that she and Genevive weren’t in the same age bracket—that Mercedes didn’t belong at the pool.
Mercedes swung her arms out perpendicular to her body and lunged forward. “He’s coming tonight to pick Alice up,” she said, changing the topic. “They’re going out somewhere.”
“What’s his name?”
“No—what’s his name?”
Genevive shuffled over to remain in front of Mercedes and lunged forward as well. She often mimicked Mercedes’s exercises. “You know what you might try? Catch him at the front door of the building when he’s coming to pick Alice up and tell him she told you to end it with him. When he doesn’t show, Alice will know he wasn’t right for her anyway because…well, she’ll just feel it, you know? You get a sense of these things when they happen. And then it’ll be done with. Just like that.”
Mercedes considered this for a moment. “I thought I might try talking to him first,” she said.
“You can’t do that!”
The phrase punctured the steady prattle of voices that echoed around the pool, and a few eyes glanced in their direction. Mercedes stared at Genevive, who covered her mouth. “Sorry,” she said in a lower voice. “But if she knows you’re meddling, it’ll only push her towards him. Believe me, I know.”
Mercedes rose gingerly to switch the direction of her lunge, and again Genevive shuffled over to stay in front of her. On the other side of the pool, in the lane set up for laps, Sandra churned through the water with foam and splash ebullient around her as if she were a school of netted fish.
Shortly after her second hip surgery, Mercedes had slept with Dennis. She’d bumped into him in the lobby of the building during her first week back at the pool. She was still walking with a cane. He asked her how her hip was feeling and said it was good to see her. Then he invited her to come for a drink. She remembered the word come because she’d assumed he meant with Sandra as well. It wasn’t until Mercedes arrived at the pub and saw Dennis sitting at the bar by himself that it occurred to her he hadn’t specified. She’d taken a taxi to get there because her hip still hurt when she drove, and after a few drinks he offered to take her home. She couldn’t help laughing a bit when she asked him up for a nightcap. It sounded like something somebody else said. Not her. But it worked just as well.
Dennis had to put three pillows under her leg to keep it lifted when they had sex. For some reason her knee felt immensely awkward, as if the kneecap had fallen out of place. She peeked at it after he’d lurched off her and into the bathroom, but it appeared normal. Perhaps a little swollen.
It happened a few other times. They would whisper to each other on the phone in the evening—why did she whisper?—and she’d buzz him up the following day when they were supposed to be at the pool. Her knee didn’t always bother her, but there was usually something. One time he couldn’t get his elbows right. He said the dry weather made his arthritis worse. Another time she managed to strain her neck.
Eventually they gave it up. She wanted her hip to improve so she could return to work, and some days she found herself avoiding the pool so she wouldn’t see Sandra. Also, around that time, Alice told her she wanted to move back in to save up for law school, so that helped make the decision easier.
Mercedes occasionally still saw Dennis at the pool and in and around the building, but she didn’t pay much attention to him. Often she pretended not to notice him, and if they ever directly passed each other, she’d just wave and keep walking. She was more concerned with Cleveland.
“What’s-his-name isn’t even Canadian,” Mercedes said to Genevive.
“Neither are you,” was the reply.
Genevive was in the midst of examining the position of her bulbous feet as she prepared to squat, and Mercedes stared at her until there was a noticeable silence. “I mean you weren’t born here,” Genevive quickly corrected herself. “Of course you’re Canadian now. Or Argentine-Canadian?” Mercedes stood up and stretched her legs. “Whatever you prefer is the idea, I think.”
“If it really turns into something,” Mercedes resumed, “she’ll have to move. Start all over.”
“Where’s he from?”
“With a name like Cleveland?”
Mercedes nodded, sinking back into a lunge.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” said Genevive. “You zip around these days. Moving there is like moving to Toronto. You’ll see her all the time.”
“I don’t have family there though,” Mercedes said. “If it was Argentina I might understand. I have a brother there, aunts, uncles—people who could help—but even then, why would you leave a perfectly fine country? It’s the opposite of what everyone is trying to do.”
“I thought you said what’s-his-name is from the U.S.”
“It’s not so different than here.”
“Why leave then?”
Mercedes knew the answers. When she’d been twenty-two years old she’d left Canada and returned to Argentina to work as a nurse. She would have stayed, only her parents had begged her to return to Canada two years later when Peron had arrived in ‘73. She remembered the day. Her father had called from Montreal at seven in the morning the day after the Ezeiza Massacre and yelled at her as she sat on her pillow with her legs folded. After a few minutes of rapidly rising voices, her fiancé rolled out of bed. She could hear her mother in the background repeating that they’d left Argentina for nothing if Mercedes were to stay, that her mother would go there and drag her back if she wouldn’t leave on her own. They told her to get married if she had to, bring him to Canada: just leave. But when she left, it was without him. He wanted to stay. It was his country after all.
Genevive seemed on the verge of responding to Mercedes’s question “Why leave?” when Mercedes quickly announced that she was done for the day and started toward the stairs, which led from the pool to the deck. At about midway, she stopped. In front of her, Sandra waded in the direction of the stairs as well. Sandra was lean and muscly, with rounded biceps and ripples in her forearms, and skin like heated milk. A teal bathing cap hid her short blonde hair, and a pink imprint from her goggles, which were now perched on her forehead, contoured her eyes. Sometimes Mercedes could convince herself all she’d done with Dennis was lie there. After all, he’d always been the one with the plans and contingencies for their meetings: what to say if they bumped into someone they knew, what excuse to give Sandra if she asked a question that required a lie in response. And while none of these situations ever arose, Dennis had the alibis. He had them before Mercedes even realized they were needed. In truth, Mercedes hardly concerned herself with the possibility that Sandra might find out. While the affair had been going on, she’d felt guilty some days, but she knew that what she’d done with Dennis had occurred whether Sandra knew it or not. And, as far as Mercedes was concerned, if Sandra was confronted with what had happened, at least she’d be free of suspicion and doubt—at least she’d be able to move on.
Mercedes watched Sandra climb the stairs and walk around the pool toward the changing room. She considered Sandra’s position practically. If Sandra were to find out, she’d get the house. Her family had lived in Ottawa for generations and had money. There’d be people to call in the middle of the night, people to spend weekends with, not just the holidays. She probably had plenty of old friends and places that would comfort her if she needed them. And while none of this would matter to her at first, it would make a difference. Sandra would live in Ottawa, where she’d always been, and be fine.
Once Sandra had left the deck of the pool, Mercedes hobbled up the stairs to her towel and bathrobe, and into the lobby. The pool was located on the ground floor of Mercedes’s apartment building, and while Genevive, Sandra, and Dennis didn’t live in the building, Mercedes had occupied one of the units on the fourteenth floor since her divorce. As she passed through the lobby, with its black and white tiled floor and dusty maroon lounge chairs, she conceded Genevive was right about one thing: if she were going to meddle, Alice mustn’t know. So instead of going straight up to her apartment, she stopped to speak with the superintendent. She felt a bit foolish as she stood in his cluttered gray office with her wet hair dripping onto the carpet, but he seemed to grasp what she asked of him.
She spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning the apartment, which had nothing to do with her plan, but kept her busy. She still had trouble with these sorts of daily tasks because of her hip, and with a broom in her hand she often stared at the top of cupboards or peered into concealed corners, wondering what was going on after so many months of neglect. When she stepped back from the closet in her room, where she was sure a thick coating of dust had gathered on the top shelf, she knocked a picture frame off her bureau with the butt-end of the broom, and broke it.
The photograph was of her grandmother’s house in Argentina, in Rio Negro. It was a flat-roofed structure with an overhang that jutted out to provide protection from the sun if one wanted to sit outside. There wasn’t a porch, or even any grass, but there was a stack of wooden chairs. The photograph had likely been taken in winter, not because there was snow on the ground—she thought it strange that at one time she wouldn’t have expected snow in the winter—but because there was a tree off to the right that had bare branches. It was probably too cold to sit outside under the overhang. That’s why the chairs were stacked. But she couldn’t be sure. She’d only been to Rio Negro once, as a little girl. Her grandmother hadn’t even given her the photograph. A cousin had passed it on, by mail, many years ago. Perhaps the tree was just dead.
By the time Alice came home from work, Mercedes lay supine on the living room floor with her leg elevated and her eyes angled toward the television. She couldn’t see the front door from where she was, but she heard Alice holler, “Hi,” and slide down the hall to her room. When the bedroom door closed, Mercedes picked herself up off the floor, checked the intercom, and began preparing dinner.
Up until recently the intercom had been broken. Cleveland had had to buzz the superintendent in order to get into the building and come up to their door on the fourteenth floor. That was the only reason Mercedes had met him. Alice hadn’t been ready the first evening, so Mercedes had opened the door. Admittedly, he hadn’t exactly been the “Cleve” Mercedes imagined when Alice said his name, but she didn’t think he was far off. “Cleve” made her think of a butcher, or a yokel, or a yokel butcher, perched on the top rung of a wooden fence with his legs snaked through and a stalk of straw or chewing tobacco (or both) in his mouth. It looked like he had a cleft lip—she resisted this part of the image, but often to no avail—so, yes, the appearance of a cleft lip, at least a puckering of sorts, and a heavy brow that drooped over his small eyes. He held a cleaver of course, in his right hand. He was slapping the flat side of the blade against the palm of his left.
In truth, the man in front of her had had shaggy blond hair tucked under a blue baseball cap and a nose that pulled up toward his… yes, heavy brow and small eyes. There hadn’t been a cleaver, but he carried a baseball bat, which she eyed apprehensively as he stood on the mat, absentmindedly knocking the fat end against his calf. When he left with Alice, Mercedes watched the clock all night as though her daughter were seventeen again until eventually Alice came home raving about softball.
At half-past six when the intercom from downstairs buzzed, Mercedes was still in the kitchen.
“Yes?” she said quickly, fumbling with the receiver.
“It’s Cleveland,” came the voice on the other end.
“Who?” Mercedes said.
“I’m sorry. I can’t hear you.” Then in a hushed voice she said, “Wait there.”
Mercedes placed the receiver slightly off the hook and grabbed her keys from the counter.
“Who was that?” Alice asked from the bathroom as Mercedes crossed the hall from the kitchen to the front door.
“They pressed the wrong key.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t Cleve? I’m expecting him.”
“Of course I am,” Mercedes said.
Alice stopped applying her eyeliner and pulled back from the mirror to glance down the hall at the open front door. “Where are you going then?”
“The line was all crackly again. I’m going down to see the superintendent about it.”
“It’s a front door buzzer, Mother,” Alice said with some satisfaction. “It’s always going to be a little crackly. Are you sure it’s not the noise from the air conditioner blasting down there?”
“It wasn’t the air conditioner,” Mercedes said sharply.
There was a moment of silence as Alice stared down the hall and Mercedes listened behind the door. Two pools of light, from Alice’s bedroom doorway and the kitchen, spread over the pine parquet flooring and up the paper-thin sheets of stained wood that made up the sliding closet doors on the other side.
“I always am.”
Mercedes imagined Alice turning back to the bathroom mirror, her eyes wide, and continuing to apply eyeliner. Alice didn’t usually wear make-up, but apparently Cleveland had said something, or Alice seemed to think he’d insinuated.
Sensing her escape though, Mercedes closed the door and hobbled down the hallway, wondering if Cleveland was already on his way up. The ding of the elevator startled her, but Cleveland wasn’t there. The cab was empty. She stepped in and pressed for the lobby. The cab released and a whir started up in concert with the hum that was always there from the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling. The light indicating what floor she was passing skipped through 10-9-8; there was no sound from that, thankfully, for recently noises irritated her. When she had to see the doctor about her hip, the beeps of machines, the running wheels of hospital beds, and the remote, summoning voice of the PA system—all of which she’d heard everyday as a nurse and hadn’t bothered her, had even given her a sense of order—now gnawed at her patience, like a car horn blaring behind her when stuck in traffic. A few times she’d left the waiting room, skipped the appointment, and told herself her hip was getting better anyway. The doctor mailed her the prescription the first time, and the second, because they’d worked together for twelve years, but he stopped after that, and she was left to suffer the noise of her hospital visits.
The light passed through 5-4-3 before the elevator lurched to a stop. She leaned against the wall for an instant to steady herself, and when the door drew back, she saw it was Dennis. His gray hair was swept to one side but with a few loose strands dangling over his forehead. He brushed them back when he saw her, as though to get a better look. He had long, wild eyebrows shooting out like short bits of tinsel, and heavy cheeks flushed from either deep embarrassment or recent exercise. Perhaps both.
“Business meeting?” Mercedes said, pointing to the briefcase in his hand.
He smiled and said, “No,” peering over the glasses that had slipped down the bridge of his nose.
“Visiting a friend?”
He shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “In a manner of speaking, yes.”
The door began to close. Dennis lifted his briefcase to stop it, but stayed where he was. A long beep sounded as the door receded.
“You better get in,” Mercedes said.
He took one step forward and turned around, and they both faced the empty floor in front. She smelled the musk from his cologne and said, “This building has been good to you.”
He didn’t respond.
She pressed the lobby button again to close the door, but it remained open. A faint crescendo of classical music came from one of the apartments. There was a harmonization of voices rising in pitch and a deep sound, maybe the timpani, that beat more and more heavily.
“Your friend’s?” Mercedes asked.
Dennis appeared to have been listening too, as he said, “Yes,” without hesitation.
“Who is it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Tchaikovsky maybe. She likes him.”
There were many “shes” for Dennis. He’d been a train conductor on the Canadian Pacific Railway, and Mercedes had always pictured the women he knew as radio towers popping up on a map of Canada that indicated the signal for the CBC. They were his outstations, and somehow she liked that about him. In Canada she’d only lived in Montreal and Ottawa, and when she used to travel to Vancouver to visit her brother and parents she always flew. She knew nothing of in-between, let alone east or north. She hadn’t even been west lately, as a few years after her parents had died, her brother moved back to Argentina. She had a nephew, her brother’s son, that she thought still lived in Vancouver, but the last time she’d seen him he’d been a boy of fifteen, so perhaps he’d also moved away.
The cab door closed, and she sensed their descent inside steel, suspended by cables, along the dark passageway of the elevator shaft. Sometimes, after she and Dennis had had sex, she’d ask him about all the places in Canada he’d been. She didn’t want to know anything about the women, but after hearing the name of a place she liked to imagine the land, the view from the front porches. Her favorite had been Flin Flon; although, even now she didn’t exactly know where it was in Canada. She’d also liked Swan Landing and Antigonish, and others she couldn’t quite remember.
She tried to think why she’d liked any of these places at all. She knew that what she pictured was inaccurate. Her ideas were made up of vague descriptions Dennis had given her, stories she might have read in the newspaper—a new road being built or a river flooding—and all sorts of other fantasies and misconceptions. She’d never seen or smelled one of the towns, or spoken to one of the inhabitants. They were only names, and worse yet, only the words that made up the names. No particular story fit with a specific place—which meant all she’d actually liked was nothing more than the strange connection of ideas with their foreign-sounding combinations: the yellow of the knife, the medicine in the hat, and the salmon with the arm.
Yet when she thought of Rio Negro it was Rio Negro: there was no black. It was a province in northern Patagonia where her grandmother had been born. She had the photograph. And what’s more is that she remembered a family of gray cats with white paws that she’d looked after while she’d stayed with her grandmother for a weeks. The cats used to kill shrews and leave them outside the front door of the house in Rio Negro for Mercedes to find, right under the overhang.
Mercedes felt a tightness under her ribcage, as if a ball were gathering or expanding, exerting itself against the constraint of her body. It hurt and made her dizzy. She leaned against the wall of the elevator to rest, and as she lifted a hand to her chest, the warm air from her breath tickled the naked skin of her wrist. Strangely, this helped. She was cold, and the sensation distracted her, even if only for a moment. She turned to Dennis.
“What about Sandra?” she asked.
Dennis looked up at the orange light indicating the floor. It had just filled the letter L for lobby, and with a ding the cab jolted to a halt. He turned to her. She could see his arthritis wasn’t any better. He stooped noticeably and his bent knees made him unsure of his balance. “She knows,” he said. “We’re getting a divorce.”
“She knows everything?”
He nodded. The door pulled back and he stepped out. “She’s moving to Halifax,” he said.
Mercedes listened, for what seemed like a long time, to Dennis’s loafers slide over the hard tiles of the lobby floor. Her hip was sore from all the cleaning she’d done that afternoon, and she felt tired and a little out of breath, but the pressure in her chest had eased and her dizziness had subsided. When she pushed herself off the elevator wall to stand straight, she heard the front door open and remembered Cleveland. The superintendent’s office was in front of her. She’d convinced the superintendent to tell Cleveland that Alice was out—even to say he’d seen her leave, if he had to—but she no longer had the urge to go through with it. She waited in the elevator until the door closed, and then pressed for the fourteenth floor.
“Sandra is moving to Halifax,” she repeated several times as the elevator rose.
When she entered the apartment Alice was sitting in the rocking chair, with her legs crossed and arms folded. Mercedes told her Cleveland was downstairs. Without a word, Alice kissed her on the cheek and went out. Mercedes sank to the couch and lay down. She wrapped herself in her daughter’s shawl, closed her eyes, and thought of her patients lying in bed, sick, waiting for her return to work.