Joyland

Toronto |

The Only Detail That Matters

by Stacey May Fowles

One In our fifth roadside motel room Alice is standing in front of the mirror examining her face carefully. She is wearing nothing more than a pair of white knee socks with a tiny lavender bow stitched just above the back of each slender cotton calf. While she studies herself her tailless grey and white rescue cat, Olive, circles the perimeter of her ankles methodically. Alice leans down, mascara wand in hand, and scratches the animal’s eager brow. The cat is not travelling well. We both knew this would be the case, but Alice insisted and I relented. This particular motel manager said no pets, but Alice managed to charm him just like she charmed the rest of them. The rest of them. All of them. Me. I have been in love with Alice and her ever-changing pair of knee socks for six days and two hours now. I have known her for four months and two weeks. I will not tell her that I am in love with her for another six and a half months, and by then it will be far too late. But here in this roadside motel, with this mangled, rescued cat, I know this love to be entirely true. CBC plays an animated version of “O Canada” that they have been playing for as long as I can remember, a watercolour homage to national unity to end the viewing day. I change the channel. Despite the fact that the CBC has informed us the day is over, Alice deftly applies her eye makeup while blinking into a pink hand mirror hung crookedly on the motel wall. She’s secured it there with a wide piece of silver duct tape she snagged from a maintenance cart in the narrow hallway outside our room. “I could never get lost in this hallway,” she said after she tore the tape from the roll with her teeth. “I always seem to be getting lost.” To me, the fifth floor motel hallway felt like the kind one would be marched down before an interrogation. I pictured myself being forced down it with a gun at my back — likely a neurotic symptom of my guilt over what I had done. But Alice was just so damn charming, so damn happy to have made it from the noise of Toronto to this quiet roadside motel room without being caught, that I smiled as the tape dangled from her teeth. The duct tape was a necessity because she refused to apply her makeup in the bathroom. She was convinced the lighting was designed to make her feel ugly. I couldn’t tell the difference. “No one’s gonna fuckin’ ruin this escape for me by making me feel like a dogface,” she said as she pressed the tape to securely the wall, smoothing it out with her fingertips. Now that the problem of bad lighting has been solved, I watch as she combines a mass of powders and paints, scrawling on each lid like spray-painting a filthy phrase on a brick wall. My stomach feels as if it houses a number of small sparrows splashing in a puddle, the way I assume love should feel. I’d never felt it until Alice; the love I had with Tom was a feeling of mild and fading comfort akin to a hot water bottle. If I’m honest, I’ve all but forgotten about Tom. In the glow of the bad bathroom light and the flicker of too-early Sunday morning nostalgic television reruns, I am already trying to figure out a way to confess my lovesickness. Clad in a too-small bath towel, I am carrying the weight of the world. I am listening to a Frankie Valli tune on the AM radio, smoking a Belmont Mild, eating a bag of Cheetos, and drinking a Diet Coke from the vending machine in the fluorescent lit hallway. After a good half an hour — the time it takes for a Facts of Life rerun to reveal its moral lesson on the Christian Television Network — Alice finishes her theatrical preparation and collapses suddenly on the bed. Her mangled cat quickly follows, finding a snug place beside her. Within moments she is sprawled out, smoking a cigarette while reclining a mere foot from me, wearing those knee socks. Thankfully she’s now found the modesty to coordinate them with Wal-Mart purchased boys’ Y-fronts and a worn AC/DC T-shirt. She takes a sip of my Diet Coke and steals a few of my Cheetos. In an attempt not to stare, I read the want ads in the free paper of whatever irrelevant town we’re in (and every town is irrelevant if it’s not a large round dot on our map in the glove compartment) and I wonder about the personal lives of typists, machine operators, and telemarketers. As I read through the classifieds, I imagine I’m looking to rent a one-bedroom plus den or am searching for a Lincoln Continental. My fingertips become newsprint-grey like the room. All this imagining of a more normal life makes me so tired that I lie back on the scratchy sheets. “It’s almost five.” Alice says, standing up. “Let’s get eggs. Full three-egg breakfast at some greasy spoon.” “You hate eggs,” I reply. “I hate everything. But a girl can try,” she says, approaching the window. I watch as she closes the stained roller blinds and then quickly opens them again, blowing smoke through the open window of our non-smoking room. The comment doesn’t faze me — I’ve always been clear on Alice’s quiet distaste for everything living — and anyway, her sudden passion for breakfast is getting those fucking sparrows splashing again. In fact, I yearn to tell her about my love for a single thing in knee socks standing a few feet away, in the hope that she will try. “Yeah, alright,” I say instead. “Let’s go get breakfast, Alice.”
Two For the good of the narrative, I’ll let you know some things about Alice. Alice never talks about her father. Maybe he was in a war. Maybe he’s a trucker. Maybe he’s in The Don Jail. (Which one of these details would be most accurate when trying to explain a girl like Alice?) Maybe Alice’s mother is a waitress in a diner. Is a secretary at a Bay Street accounting firm. Is a schoolteacher. A single mother. (What kind of history would form a girl like Alice?) Maybe Alice has a brother. A developmentally disabled brother. A retard, she’d say. Age thirty. Mental age: seven. Maybe she took care of him. (Or even better…) Maybe, at age eighteen, Alice ran away from thirty/seven. She ran away from taking care of all of them. Maybe she was the kind of clichéd city girl who had to grow up too fast. And maybe I met her at a bar on College Street that played classic rock and sold two-dollar drinks on Tuesdays. Maybe I met her at the post office. She was working at the bar. She was working at the post office. She was drinking gin and tonic. She was putting envelopes in neat little piles, licking stamps, soliciting signatures for package pickups. I was drinking a Coors Light in a can. Tom’s favourite brand of beer. I was mailing a letter to a wronged lover. A lover named Tom. And then I met Alice. And then I met Alice.
Three Why we left: It was Alice’s dad, or Alice’s boss, or Alice’s brother, or Alice’s boyfriend, or someone else’s boyfriend, or maybe even Alice herself. She never really told me why we had to run from the city like we were in some bad made-for-TV movie about good girls gone wrong. She just told me we had to go, and I said yes without blinking, without thinking. Alice always had bruises — so many of them over those months that I couldn’t count — but they were always clear to me despite the fact that each one was carefully covered with pancake makeup. Thighs, chest, upper arms. I even spotted a cigarette burn on the inside of her right wrist once when she was standing in my kitchen stirring a cup of instant coffee. I was never clear on what had been done to her and what she’d done to herself. By the time we were on the road together there was a violet mark on her jaw in the shape of a tiny crescent moon, a mark that seemed deliberate, like a purple-blue tattoo that you might call pretty if you didn’t know its source. Every time we drove into a truck stop to buy snacks or gas up she would pull the rearview mirror towards her and reapply, blotting out the enflamed imprint with a carefully saturated sponge. I would help her with the marks on her back before we’d go out dancing on Richmond together. When she was fresh from the shower, she’d let the towel fall to her waist as she sat in front of me on the bed. I’d smooth the thick paste onto her skin until she was perfect again, hook on her bra, help her slip a dress over her head when it was too painful for her to do so. “I gotta get out of here. Get to the coast. I need the clean of the coast.”
Alice’s list of reasons to leave might have included: 1) A beautiful South American boy with the longest eyelashes Alice had ever seen, who wrote songs about her and sang them at local bars, who moved in with her without asking, who eventually came over to her apartment after she had kicked him out, came over in the middle of the night wielding a half-empty bottle of seven-dollar red wine and threatened to “cut her open” with a kitchen knife in hand, screaming about how she had fucked someone else. 2) A tall blond actor — the someone else she’d fucked — who did the voice-over for commercials about joining the Canadian military that still play on television. A boy who, when the condom broke, said “Whatever, you’re on the pill, right?” 3) A saxophone player with a U.S. passport who wanted to live in Canada, who called her long-distance from the port of Barcelona to tell her that he loved her, he always loved her from the moment he met her, which she later came to learn meant I really need a place to stay. 4) A perpetually drunk and unemployed boy who enjoyed doing mushrooms with her, who played Twister naked with her, who lent her that favorite sweatshirt she never took off, who had a tattoo of an anchor on his left calf, who kept three ferrets as pets. 5) There was a woman as well, a beautiful Greek woman who ended up living with the saxophone player, a woman with long black hair and an insatiable sexual appetite — better than all the men combined, a woman Alice consumed until the taste of every man who had ever wronged her was cleared completely from her system. The story of this single woman, conveyed to me in Motel Room #2 when Alice had too much Jack to drink, was the one story that gave me hope. Alice had lots of reasons to leave, but why I left Toronto is a little simpler and a little more complicated. “It’s too dirty here. I need to go somewhere clean. Will you come with me?” Alice asked me. Maybe I was always the good girl, and maybe I’m really a bad girl made for TV. It was a Wednesday afternoon. With an engagement ring of questionable quality on my left hand, I left work and got in Alice’s car. I didn’t even think twice about it. She called me at 2:24 P.M. and told me were leaving, and at 3:07 we left. I didn’t explain, I didn’t call Tom, and I didn’t call my mother. I just got in that yellow station wagon headed west, took my shoes off, and put my naked toes on the dashboard. As she drove, Alice rambled on about every man who’d left a few bruises on that beautiful back. But then there was Tom. Beautiful, simple, Tom. Tom asked if I wanted to get married, and I said yes because it seemed the right thing to say. When it’s too hard to explain the no’s of love, you can end up confined to the yes’s. Tom got down on one knee in front of me at the Lahore Tikka House on Gerrard before I’d finished my chicken tikka masala, and as I looked down at that sweet dopey face I knew there was no possible answer but yes. I remember the other patrons clapped and cheered as he slipped the tiny ring on my finger. I wanted only to finish my meal. Alice never asked for a yes or a no from me unless it was whether I wanted a three-egg breakfast at a greasy spoon or a Diet Coke from the vending machine.
When I finally did tell Alice I had fallen in love with her, she never spoke to me again. She disappeared completely, and the pain of that was far more intense than the fear of the altar that drove me to her in the first place. For a while though, Alice and I managed to play a neat and tidy game of house in our ever-changing grey and beige motel rooms of varying degrees of outdated decor, sharing bags of potato chips and Diet Cokes. At night we would curl up against each other in the sweltering summer heat, our hands entwined and bodies spooned, until our skin got slick and sweet with sweat and we had to pull ourselves apart. Before we left I emptied the joint account Tom and I shared — the one we were using to save up enough money to have what Tom had called a “real wedding.” Alice and I routinely dumped our dollar coins and crumpled bills on the obscenely kitsch Canadiana bedspreads and counted how much we had left — everything pooled so Alice, Olive the cat, and I could survive as long as possible, pretending the toughest challenge we faced was the question of what we might have for breakfast.
Four I kissed Alice for the first and last time on the very same day real life caught up with us and our yellow station wagon headed west from filthy Toronto. We were standing together in front of the motel’s only pop machine, my hands cupped and outstretched in front of me while she tried to find exact change for her third Diet Coke of the day. After she’d managed to collect one dollar and fifty cents from my open palms, she smiled her trademark pink, lip-glossed smile, and said thank you sweetly. Without thinking, I leaned in and I kissed her. As I did, the remaining change that was collected in my palms fell from my grasp. Our kiss was accompanied by the steady symphonic sound of lost nickels and dimes — silver beavers and Bluenose schooners — descending the concrete stairwell. Then she pulled away. “Don’t be like the rest of them.” The rest of them. The list of reasons why she left. It was the sadness in her face that struck me first, a dismay that seemed to suggest I had broken the rules of our game, and as a result it had to come to an end. She turned from me and began feeding quarters into the slot. “Alice, I’m —” “Don’t. Just don’t.” Alice punched the Diet Coke button with the side of her fist, collected the can quickly, and walked through the lobby back towards our room. I thought about following her, but instead I got down on my hands and knees in the stairwell and began collecting coins. When I finished, my pockets were full and Alice was long gone. I walked into the motel lobby to find Tom putting an engagement party photograph of me into the nicotine-stained hands of the bearded motel desk clerk. And it was okay. Because Alice had already left me anyway.
Five Tom forgave me as I had predicted. I found out later that he created some elaborate story to disguise what had happened, a lie that I had gone to tend to a family emergency on the prairies. I had no family on the prairies and pretty much everyone knew that. We drove in silence back to the city, back to the filthiness Alice had tried to escape, back to its classic rock bars where people drink two-dollar drinks on Tuesdays, and its post offices where people send letters to wronged lovers. On our way we had sex and slept in some of the same roadside motels Alice and I had stopped in, and much like when Alice and I were together in those motels, we never spoke about why I left in the first place. The most Tom said on the subject was, “She’s a fucked-up girl,” and we left it at that. As previously scheduled, I walked down an aisle towards Tom at our “real wedding” that fall, my cold feet warmed only by my mate’s ability to forgive and forget my love for that fucked-up girl. We never spoke of Alice again, left her and her memory there in the same roadside motel I was “rescued” from — the last place I ever saw her. She didn’t reappear in my kitchen stirring instant coffee, nor did she appear at the wedding, as I had hoped.
In the spring I received a postcard from Vancouver with nothing but a phone number written on the back. I knew it was Alice, that her and her yellow station wagon had made it to the coast unscathed, clean. “Alice?” “Yes?” “I was in love with you. That was the thing that made me different from the others,” I said, staring at the place in the kitchen where she had stood so many months before. The rest of them. “No. That was the thing that made you the same. Until that moment, the thing that made you different was that you didn’t expect anything back.”