When it occurs to me that I might be having a heart attack, my life does not flash before my eyes. My first thoughts are not of my childhood; they are not of my wife or family. I do not think, “I’m only thirty-eight, why now?” Oddly enough, the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m going to miss my mother-in-law’s Thanksgiving turkey on the weekend.
It’s an odd thought, I think, as far as last thoughts go.
I’m on the bus, on my way home from work, and I clutch my chest, sit up straight and look around for help. I can feel the fluttering of my heart in my hand. It’s vibrating right through my flesh. I pull open my coat and notice my phone in my pocket. I’d set it to vibrate during a meeting this morning.
An old woman sitting directly across from me glares like I’m someone to be watched. She’s all done up in that way old ladies get done up for the mall. She’s curled her thinning, white hair and is wearing pressed pants with a nice shirt (pink stripes on baby blue). She’s got a newish jacket folded over her lap; a modest shade of lipstick that has bled into the wrinkles above her lips. She must be in her seventies. I can imagine her as a beautiful young woman, as the object of someone’s desire.
I pull out my phone but don’t recognize the number. “Hello?”
“Yeah, hey. I’m calling about the apartment.” It’s a male voice; a slight, unplaceable European accent.
“The apartment, I’m calling about the one bedroom,” he says again.
“You must have the wrong number.”
“Oh yeah?” There’s a pause, as though he’s waiting for something else.
“Yeah,” I finally say, “sorry.”
He hangs up. Almost immediately the phone vibrates again.
“Hey, I’m calling about the apartment.” The same guy.
“Sorry, wrong number. You just called.”
“Is this 416-114-1976?”
“Yes,” I say.
“And you don’t know anything about an apartment for rent?”
“No, I don’t. Sorry.”
He hangs up again. I feel bad, but I don’t know why. I slip the phone back into my pocket then put my hand to my chest. I leave it there for a moment until I can feel the faint pulsing of my heart.
* * *
Sandra’s not home when I get there. I walk into the kitchen and see that she’s got dinner prepped and ready to go: the cooked penne is clumping in a colander in the sink; there are chopped veggies on the cutting board; a jar of pesto and a container of parmesan sit on the counter. I check the oven: French bread.
I pull a bottle of red wine down from the small rack above the fridge, uncork it and pour myself a glass. It’s not normal that she isn’t home, but things haven’t been normal since September when Sandra started her grad degree. It was around this time last year when she told me she wanted to do it. We were at our favourite Vietnamese place.
“Tim,” she said, “I need a change. I need to do something.” It came out like a sigh, like a secret she’d been harbouring for a long time and finally had the courage to say. “I want to go back to school.”
“Oh.” I was relieved. “Of course.”
“That’s it? Of course.”
I shrugged. “Why not?”
She looked down at her bowl of pho, disappointed. “It’ll change our lives a lot. One income.”
“Why now?” I asked. She’d been a social worker, in child protection. She’d never liked her job that much, but it hadn’t seemed like the kind of job that people actually liked.
“If not now, then when?” She burned red. She’d been prepared for a fight. I reached over and touched the back of her hand with my finger. “We probably won’t be able to go down south for the next couple of winters.”
“Maybe we can,” I said, and at the time, I thought perhaps we could.
“I want to do it,” she said, “so that I can finally get out of child protection. It breaks my heart doing what I do.”
I think back to her first apprehension, when she was just barely out of university, and how she had to come home before going back to the office. She had the baby in a car seat that she brought in with her, and there was a police officer there as well who had the stone-faced patience of someone who had done this before. She rushed in, put the baby down and fell into my arms sobbing. The officer stood by the door silently and waited, on guard.
* * *
She gets home when I’m halfway through my second glass of wine. She’s got a flush to her cheeks and looks flustered. Her long, black hair is tied up on her head. She’s wearing compression leggings that cling to her thighs; they make her look more muscular than she is. Her sweatshirt is loose and slips down her right arm, showing the strap of her blue sports bra.
“What are you doing home?” she asks.
“I came home early. Where were you?”
She brushes her cheek along mine, a short kiss near my temple. Her cheek is cool.
“Into the wine, eh?” She taps the side of my glass with her fingernail.
“Why not,” she says and grabs my glass and downs it.
* * *
When we go to bed I see that I’ve missed three calls on my cellphone. There are two messages.
“I’m calling about the apartment. My name is Angela. Please call me back tomorrow. Thanks.” She left her number. I delete the message, and as soon as the next one begins “I’m calling about…” I delete it too. I turn to tell Sandra about the calls for the apartment, but she has already fallen asleep. I sigh too loudly, hoping to wake her. She doesn’t stir, and I even watch as her mouth falls open and her eyelids shudder. I head to the bathroom to masturbate. I think about Sandra while I do it. Maybe that’s a sign of aging, thinking about your wife while you jerk off. There’s pasta sauce on her breasts; nipples salted with parmesan.
* * *
I’m sitting in my cubicle when my cellphone rings. This is the third one today, and it’s not even noon. I take off my headset and answer it.
“Hi, I’m calling about the apartment.” A young woman. “Hello?” She’s got a nice voice; it’s steady, smooth. Feminine.
“Sorry,” I say.
“I was just wondering if it’s still available. The one bedroom. I called and left a message last night.”
There is a particular youthful quality to her voice: no hardness or edge yet. Nothing tarnished. It makes me want to listen to her.
“How did you get this number?” My hand is shaking.
“It was on the website. Is this a bad time?”
“No, no, it’s fine.” My heart is beating quickly. “It’s Angela, right?” I ask, remembering her voice from the night before.
“You think I could take a look at the one bedroom?” she asks.
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” I take a deep breath.
“I’m not even really sure that I’m interested–”
“Is it just you? Alone, I mean.”
“Oh, right, yeah. No pets, either.”
“Good.” I grab a pen and paper and begin to jot down notes. “Your employment?”
“Well, actually, I’m a student. Is that a problem? I’m a hostess at a restaurant on the weekends.”
“Francesca’s. You know it?”
It’s in Little Italy and Sandra and I have been there a few times. I try to think about the hostesses, but nothing comes to mind. They are all attractive, I assume. Hostesses are always attractive.
“What do you study?”
“Sociology. At U of T.”
“Are you single?”
“Excuse me?” Her tone tightens. “This is a lot of information.”
“It’s just that…it’s just that the last tenant was engaged to this jerk and…” A bead of sweat slides into my eye. It burns. “The police had to be called.” I rub it away.
“Oh. I’m single. Right now. I’m single.” Her voice cracks. “Jesus.” A big exhale.
“I’m sorry. You’re right. That’s too personal,” I say.
“No, no. It’s fine. I just broke up with my boyfriend. That’s why I’m looking for a place.”
“Wow. I. Oh, so sorry.”
“He’s not a jerk though. Like violent or anything. You won’t need to call the cops.”
“Okay. Right. Good. Thanks.”
“So can I see the place?” All of a sudden she sounds tired.
“Yeah, sure. Yes.”
She asks when, and I mention this evening, right after work. Then I have to think fast.
“Can I just confirm that you have the right address? I manage a few places.”
She reads the address back to me. It’s across town, but not too far out of the way.
* * *
I arrive earlier than I expected and wait in my car. The apartment is in a small building in a residential area in the west end. It looks more than adequate for a young student living alone. I wonder if her parents are paying for it.
I ate too much at lunch and have to undo my belt a notch as I sit in the car. The other day Sandra mentioned that I was putting on weight. I told her that it was my winter insulation. She pinched the fat above my hips. “You’ll definitely be warm this winter,” she said and laughed. We used to go for walks, but then Sandra started going to a gym about eight months ago; she has a personal trainer and uses all those machines they have. I don’t like to walk alone.
Angela is about ten minutes late, but I know who she is as soon as she turns the corner, eyeing the numbers on the buildings. She’s East Asian, and I wasn’t expecting that. She’s wearing skinny blue jeans, a big wool sweater and has a large reddish purse over her shoulder. She’s attractive in an undergrad kind of way. Her flesh still looks young; her face is full and round and a small chin protrudes. Long, straight black hair hangs in crisp folds over the bulk of her sweater. She finds the right address at the moment my phone rings. I check the number: Sandra
“Mom wants to know if we can pick up a couple bottles of wine for Thanksgiving dinner,” she says without even a hello.
“Sure. Of course.” I watch Angela take a quick look around the building.
“I figure two is fine. I’m sure they’re already well stocked.”
The girl walks up the few steps and tries the door, but it’s locked.
“So you’re okay with that?” I can hear the sounds of Sandra cooking: a spoon tapping the side of a pot. “Where are you anyway?” she asks.
“Yeah, fine,” I say. Angela’s reading the names on a board beside the door. It looks like she’s about to push one, but then stops and takes a look around. She looks right at me in my car.
“Maybe you could grab some now? So we don’t have to worry tomorrow.”
“Yup. I’m driving. I shouldn’t be talking. I’ll be home soon.”
Angela is staring at me. She takes a step down, squinting. I keep the phone to my ear. Now that she is staring right at me, I see that she is attractive. Beautiful even.
I put down the phone and start the car. Angela turns back to the building and pushes a button on the board. As I pull away I wonder if I’m beginning to think that all women are beautiful.
* * *
“No one drinks red wine with turkey.”
“I thought maybe before. Or after.” I bought a bottle each of red and white. Sandra’s just noticed now that we are in the car and on our way north to her parents’ house at the lake.
“God. Hopefully they have a bottle too.” She sits far back in the seat. She looks tired. She was at the library till late doing research. “I’m glad Jim isn’t here this year,” she mumbles. Jim is her younger brother.
“I’m glad the kids aren’t here,” I say. Traffic is moving slowly: the Thanksgiving exodus out of the city.
“That’s what I meant,” she says.
Jim and his wife have three kids. They live in Winnipeg and only make it home for Thanksgiving every two or three years. Last year the kids were four, seven and nine. It was exhausting because Jim and his wife pawned babysitting responsibility off on us. As I would have, I’m sure.
“I’m not looking forward to winter. Why doesn’t winter get any easier as you get older?” She brings her right knee up to her chest. Her shoe is on the seat. It leaves a mark of dust.
“You think we can swing a trip down south this year? Maybe Cuba? It’s cheaper.” We’ve been going down south almost every winter for a while. Different countries each year, but they might as well be the same when you go to those all-inclusives.
“I’m sick of those trips.” Her cheek rests on her knee and she looks over at me. “They’re not even trips; they’re vacations. Remember how we said we’d never go on trips like that.” She’s almost pouting.
“Things change,” I say. When we were younger we used to go backpacking for extended periods of time.
“But for a while there, we actually got more bold as we got older. Remember Vang Vieng?” By our early thirties we’d already done Europe and South America and moved on to Asia. Sandra was a fearless leader on those trips. Leading us through jungle hikes; city tours; long rides on overcrowded, dilapidated buses. She could communicate with people so well – it didn’t matter the race or culture or language. She’d been good at getting her point across.
“That was stupid,” I say. “We got more stupid as we got older.” In Vang Vieng, Laos, we’d decided to smoke opium and ended up staggering around the forest in a dream state, lost for what seemed like hours.
“It wasn’t stupid. Dangerous maybe.” She shifts and rests her chin on her knee, stares up at the highway ahead. “There’s a difference. And it was no more dangerous than dropping acid at that full moon party in Thailand, or getting on a random bus in Goa and ending up in the middle of nowhere.” She looks sad as she says it. Sometimes memories, even happy ones, aren’t good things to have.
“So, I don’t understand. Are you saying we should go on vacation or shouldn’t?”
“I’m saying our vacations suck, so I don’t care if we don’t.” She’s looking away from me, out the window, and I wonder what she’s remembering, and if it’s the good things like the double hammock in our tree house in Chile, or the weekend stay in a blissful Shinto temple in Japan.
I reach over and pat her thigh. I leave my hand there, but she doesn’t take it. I’m not sure how to reassure her because I’m not sure what she’s unsure about.
* * *
When we pull in at the cottage, Sylvia, Sandra’s mother, is already standing on the front steps. She’s got a glass of red wine in her hand.
Sylvia is still an attractive woman. She’s grown solid with her age and, despite a few lines in all the typical places, her face has retained the essence of its youth. Her hair, still dark, hangs down to her shoulders. She’s wearing a long skirt and a shirt that isn’t buttoned all the way to the top and I admire her cleavage. I’ve always thought that, physically, Sylvia is a future snapshot of Sandra, and I’m okay with that. I’m okay with how Sandra will turn out.
She smiles and raises her glass. Her teeth are already darkening with the wine. “Couldn’t even wait for us to get here before you got started?”
“Relax, Sandra, it’s a holiday.” She kisses her daughter’s cheeks and then grabs me in an awkward hug. I worry about wine sloshing down the back of my coat. “Hello, Timmy,” she says and kisses my cheek. I can feel the dampness of her lips and the warmth of her breath against my skin. “Why don’t you tell my daughter to lighten up?”
Sylvia and Mark’s cottage is more like a home. They own a condo in the city but only ever spend winters there. The cottage has a wide-open main room containing the living room, kitchen and dining area, centrepieced with a wall of windows that looks out over the lake. With furniture, they have a tendency for the gaudy: Victorian-like and imposing. Walls overfilled with paintings, pictures. Elaborate lamps with even more elaborate shades.
Mark enters from the back deck through the sliding doors. He hugs his daughter and nods my way. Sandra may look like her mother, but she’s daddy’s little girl, and she and her father share a similar temperament.
“Oh good! You brought another bottle of red!” Sylvia pulls our wine out of the brown paper bags and checks out the labels. “Can we open it now? Let’s open it now.”
“Why not?” Mark says too loudly. “Tim, interest you in a brewski?” He walks to a cooler that he has set next to the fridge.
The beer is cold. Bits of ice still cling to the label, and it sweats in the warm air of the room.
“So how’s the insurance business?” he asks.
“Fine.” We are standing at an island in the kitchen. I can hear Sandra and her mother talking about Sandra’s thesis at the dining-room table.
“You sell to companies, right? Not individuals.”
We have this conversation almost every time we speak about my work.
“Probably more secure a job, right?”
“Why? You know something we don’t?”
“No, no. I just mean if shit ever went down. You know, economic collapse and whatnot. Selling insurance to companies is probably a safer thing to do.”
“Would you just listen to the four of us!” Sylvia stands up and comes into the kitchen area. “Talking about work and school! The things we should be avoiding on the holidays.” She opens the fridge and pulls out a plate of veggies and a dip, and slides them onto the counter. We all reach for something and stand in silence. Sandra walks over to the window to stare out over the lake. I take too many sips of my beer, and eat four slivers of red pepper.
“I see your hair is starting to thin, Tim.”
“Mom!” Sandra from the window.
“What? Sorry? Is it something you’re embarrassed about?”
I can feel myself turning red, “Um, no, no. Not really.”
“Oh yeah,” Mark says, leaning in and squinting at my head.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Tim, you’re almost forty. I’m sure you’ve got a good few years left yet.”
“Jesus, Mom. Are you drunk already?” Sandra moves toward us.
“Sandra, watch your language.”
“You know, Tim,” Mark begins, “it happens to the best of us.” He puts his hand on his hips and bends forward as far as he can. Sure enough, I can see a smooth, round section of exposed scalp right in the centre of his head.
“I’ve only really noticed it myself, recently,” I say to Mark.
“I’m an atheist, Mom. And since when do you care?”
“I thought you said you were agnostic?”
“When was the last time we even went to church?” Mark asks, emptying his bottle.
“I just said that so you’d think there was a chance I’d come around,” Sandra says.
“So you don’t believe in God now, is that what you’re telling me?”
As I turn to escape to the washroom, I hear Sylvia say, “What does Tim have to say about this?” but I pretend that I don’t hear her.
In the bathroom, my phone rings. I answer it.
“I don’t know who the hell you are–” I immediately recognize Angela’s voice.
“Hello? Sorry?” I feel the sweat at my temples. Building along my hairline.
“Don’t pull that bullshit on me. I don’t know what you think you were trying to do–”
“I’m sorry you must have the wrong number.” I want to hang up but I’m afraid she’ll call back.
“It was dangerous. Sending me over there like that. Who knows what could’ve happened–”
I can’t believe I didn’t consider the fact that she had my number. How could I not have thought about that?
“And it turned out the stupid apartment was already taken.” She begins to cry.
“Angela,” I say her name, but I’m not sure what else to say. I look in the mirror and stare at the top of my head. I move forward to take a closer look, adjust a few strands.
“Asshole.” She hangs up. I look down at my phone and turn it off. I know that I’ve done something wrong; I’m just not exactly sure what.
* * *
“The turkey is delicious, Sylvia. Delicious.” And it is. The dark meat melts in my mouth. “Honey, you have hit a homer this year.” Mark’s got a glass of white wine and another beer on the go. I’ve switched to the wine, but it seems too dry after the beer.
Sandra’s mood has worsened. She’s brooding. Sitting in silence, hunched over her plate.
“It’s quiet without Jim and the kids here.” Sylvia has placed a few roasted potatoes, some squash, a spoonful of stuffing and two dainty slivers of turkey on her plate. She’s barely even touched it, but she must be on her fifth glass of wine.
“So I guess we can stop waiting for you guys, eh?” Mark says, his mouth half-full.
“Dad!” Sandra’s fork clatters on her plate.
“Sorry, Sandy, it’s just…”
“So they don’t want children. Not everyone wants children. They kind of ruin your life.”
“Sylvia, don’t say that.”
“Well I don’t mean ruin. Maybe I should have said ‘take over.’”
“We can still have kids. A kid, maybe,” Sandra says, but it’s barely a whisper.
“Aren’t you a little too old?” Sylvia’s got the bottle of wine next to her plate. She keeps filling her glass before it’s empty.
“I’m not too old.”
“I think we might be too old,” I blurt out. We’ve never had this conversation. Once, a long time ago, on a beach in Costa Rica, we even made a pact to never have this conversation.
“Technically, we’re not too old.” She glares at me, and I don’t know why.
“Think about how old you’ll be when the kid goes to university. No one wants old parents,” Sylvia says.
“That’s true.” Mark hasn’t stopped ploughing down the food through the whole conversation. “I couldn’t imagine having kids in school right now. It’d ruin retirement.”
“You probably wouldn’t even be retired,” I point out. I’m not sure how Sandra and I ended up on different sides of this argument, but I stare at her and wait for her to look at me.
“I still feel young,” Sandra says, but she doesn’t look up from her plate.
I want to do something to confront her, but I feel like anything I do will backfire; that the gesture would either make her cry or make her glare at me again. So I jab a piece of turkey with my fork, slide it through the pile of cranberries on my plate and put it in my mouth.
* * *
Mark looks ominous standing over the fire. His face glows red, cut with shadows so specific I could trace the outline of his wrinkles. His eyes are like two glass marbles. He sways a bit. I wonder if he’ll fall into it.
“Sandy says you guys aren’t going south this year?” It was from Mark and Sylvia that we originally caught on to the all-inclusives.
I take a sip from my beer and shake my head, surprised that she brought it up with them.
“Look, if you guys need any help…” He moves away from the fire and plops down in the lawn chair next to mine.
“No, no. That’s not it at all. Really.” I wonder what she has told them. “We could go, if we really wanted to. It’s just more responsible to take a year off.” I take a drink and stare straight into the fire. “You know, with Sandra back in school and all.”
“Sure, sure. Yeah. But–”
“Really, Mark. Thank you.” We sit in silence by the fire. Sandra and her mother retired to the throw rugs in the living room with the remnants of the wine, and Mark decided that he and I should burn the last of the summer firewood in the firepit. Mark shifts in his seat. He groans, and winces uncomfortably.
“Goddamn. It’s a terrible thing getting old.”
“Is it?” I ask, because I’m not sure what he wants me to say.
“The body. The mind. Emotions even. It all starts to go.” He takes a long drink of his beer. He’s sitting to the right of me and his face is only a silhouette against the lake beyond. “It all becomes a war. Or worse, just boring.”
“Every relationship you can possibly have with everything and anything. It all becomes a war.”
He stares straight into the fire for a few moments. “Nothing lasts forever, that’s the thing. There comes a time when everything becomes a job. I…” Then he turns to look at me and even in the darkness I can see the pain in his eyes. He wants to tell me something. Something huge: something that will change my life. But I also see that he doesn’t want to burden me with this information, and he is weighing that. He looks back to the fire.
“But this,” I say with what I hope is a lightness to my voice, “this is what life is all about, right?” All I can hear is the fire and, every once in a while, a light lapping of the water on the lakeshore. “There is just something about sitting next to fire and water like this.”
Mark struggles to his feet and grabs a piece of wood. “It’s just basic is what it is,” he begins. “Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and,” he throws the wood onto the fire; sparks shoot high into the air, “and the deteriorating human body.” He stands there tottering over the fire, and again I worry about him falling in, but now, with the way he’s leaning – and that wild stare – it looks as if he might jump.
Suddenly, there is yelling coming from the cottage, and both Mark and I look toward it at the same time. Through the window, we see first Sandra and then Sylvia come into view. Although we can’t hear them, it is obvious they are arguing. Abruptly, Sandra turns and storms off. Sylvia’s hands slap her hips and she stands, frustrated.
Mark and I make our way toward the cottage. As we enter, Sylvia picks up her wine glass and plops down on the couch.
“What’s going on?” Mark asks.
Sylvia doesn’t turn to look at us. She hesitates. “Just girl stuff,” she says.
“Where’s Sandra?” I ask.
“I think she’s in your car, Tim.”
I begin to turn.
“But maybe Mark should go.”
We look at one another. There is a determined look in Mark’s eyes. I shrug and he hurries out.
“Why don’t you come sit with me?” Sylvia pats the cushion beside her.
I stand there awkwardly for an instant but eventually go over and sit. The couch is too soft; I sink in and feel my feet rise off the ground. Sylvia is sitting on the edge of it, her elbows resting on her thighs, and she’s staring straight ahead.
“Is everything okay? She’s not going to drive, is she?”
Sylvia sits and stares. Finally she brings her glass to her lips and takes a sip. “You know, Tim,” she begins, still not looking at me, “I like you. You’re a nice guy. You seem like a nice guy.”
She empties the glass. “I’m going to bed.” She puts it down on the floor in front of her and stands. Without another word she walks unsteadily down the hall.
Eventually I also stand and make my way down the hall. Nothing has been cleaned up since dinner, but there is a certain stillness to the disorder.
When I get to the front of the cottage I peek out the window. Mark and Sandra are sitting in our car. Sandra’s on the driver’s side and they are both leaning far back and staring up at the roof and talking. Even from this distance I can tell that Sandra’s been crying. I want to go out. I feel like I should, but then I would have to sit in the back seat and that would be awkward, so instead I walk into the guest bedroom and get undressed. My phone slips out of my pocket, and I pick it up off the ground and notice that I’ve missed two calls and that there are messages. I check, but neither is from Angela.
As I lie down, I clutch the phone against my chest. I close my eyes and see Angela, see her turning away from the apartment building and staring at me in the car. I wonder if she’s figured out that was me she saw sitting there. I wonder if she’s lying somewhere thinking about that, wondering who I am. I will her to call so that I can hear her voice again, even just one more time.
Under my hand – clenched so tightly to the warm plastic and glass of the phone – I can feel my heart pounding.