Authors: Stacey May Fowles
stacey may fowles
For J, because we had a deal.
Perhaps all romance is like that;
not a contract between equal parties
but an explosion of dreams and desires
that can find no outlet in everyday life.
Only a drama will do and while the fireworks last
the sky is a different colour.
Anything or anyone that does not
bring you alive is too small for you.
They say it takes a lot of nerve to leave someone at the altar. To call it off or just simply not show up. I say that's bullshit. I say it takes a lot more nerve to show up. It takes a lot of nerve to try to do anything that normal.
The safe thing always is to run. To just assume you're too fucked up to do anything that remotely resembles normal. The good wife. The doting father. The safe thing to do is to be satisfied with being abnormal. To accept being fucked up. And to be alone in your abnormality and fucked-uppedness. To know that you are bad and alone and there's no fixing it or even wanting to. To not do the work.
I was sitting on our back porch, smoking a cigarette, which is significant because I don't even really smoke anymore, in fact I only ever smoked when I was with Charlie, but I knew I wanted to smoke that day, and so I did. I was sitting on our back porch, surrounded by the potted flowers Aaron had diligently planted and cared for in anticipation of our backyard wedding, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and I started to think about how normalâhow healthyâI had become without even meaning to do so. Preparing to become the good wife. I was thinking about how I had quit everything bad, as if crossing off items on a list of everything that I enjoyed, and how I had started doing absurd things like eating organic, taking folic acid, and running, and how I had done all of those things for Aaron. In the name of being good. Good enough.
When I first met Aaron I was drunk on JÃ¤ger shots at a bar, and my drunkenness had made me charming and malleable, delightful even, and he went home with me that night and told me I was beautiful and exciting. He told me he wanted to take care of me. I think that was actually the last time I was drunk on JÃ¤ger shots. Everything I knew that made me who I was, every last filthy habit, fell apart because he willed it so. He never asked, but I liked him, even loved him, and I wanted to be better. It took me forever to do so, at least a couple of years, but I did it. I stopped smoking, stopped drinking, stopped sleeping until noon and eating red meat. I cut out sugar and the occasional line of cocaine. I stopped wearing makeup. I stopped wearing short skirts. I whitened my teeth.
I stopped kissing strangers.
I always loved kissing strangers.
I was very good at kissing strangers.
I stripped off so many things, so many layers of bad behaviours and filthy habits, that I started to forget who I was. What was I if I wasn't reckless? Who was I if not my vices, my foibles, my faults? I was a cardboard cut-out of a girl sitting on an IKEA folding chair on a back porch, with gleaming white teeth and no makeup.
So it was a week before the wedding, and I bought a pack of smokes. I knew while I was doing it that it meant more than I was pretending it did. The nice lady at the Korean grocer at the end of our street looked at me strangely when I asked for them.
“But you don't smoke,” she said.
“They're not for me.”
“Wedding soon! Excited?”
Was I embarrassed or taking pleasure in lying? About the cigarettes or the wedding? I loved lying. I loved the thrill of having a secret you couldn't, didn't have to share with someone else. Aaron loved that we “have no secrets between us.” Loved that we “tell each other everything.”
When I got home I slowly peeled the cellophane off the box, and I pulled a cigarette out. I stared at it longingly and realized that it was a week until we were going to be married, and I needed more than just the cigarette. I needed wine. I needed to be wearing lipstick. I needed to call a random ex-boyfriend and ask him if he was still in love with me.
When I was self-destructive I was never afraid, but as Aaron helped me work my way toward “healthy” I became terrified of everything. When you are not willing death by your own hand, you're terrified it's going to jump out at you from every angle. Killer bees, left-turning buses, botulism. Aaron took care of me, but in doing so he ripped wide open a world that sought to destroy me. I was much more comfortable destroying myself.
So I put on red lipstick and poured myself a glass of red wine and smoked a cigarette and another cigarette, and a week before we were due to be wed, I knew I would leave him.
( CHAPTER ONE )
Ronnie knew the moment she saw Charlie that she would follow him somewhere. It didn't really matter where, she just knew it would happen sooner or laterâthat one day she would desert everything important and chase him down. And that somehow it would be worth it.
Ronnie wasn't the kind of girl who had ever felt that way about anyone. Ronnie was the kind of girl who rarely felt anything. Since she was young, Ronnie had always been quite skilled at numbing herself to external influence.
She was wearing a short black strapless dress and open toed shoes despite the fact that it was the middle of a Toronto December. Her legs were bare, and every time the front door on the two-storey Annex house swung open to let in another reveller she would shiver slightly. Ronnie never dressed this way, generally wore blue jeans, beat-up brown boots, T-shirts and cardigans, but Aaron had asked her to dress up. She had styled her short brown hair, when normally she would have simply let it dry after the shower. She had put on perfume, from an old bottle she found in the back of the medicine cabinet behind a row of prescription medicationâa bottle that was a gift from Aaron two Christmases ago.
The party, a university affair full of scholars and students and assholes, twinkled with tinsel and blinking white lights. Everyone betrayed the slightest hint of discomfort, straining to have conversations with people they couldn't conceal their contempt for. They were drinking heavily to ease into the situation, and as the night wore on discomfort evolved into inappropriateness. Ronnie felt the burning stare of lechery on the hem of her dress and the curve of her cleavage.
Standing alone, far from the mistletoe that was trapping and tormenting some of the female guests, Ronnie tipped back a third glass of red wine and lamented agreeing to come.
Three glasses of wine meant she was drunk.
She had come for Aaron, who had needed her help carrying the many platters of food he'd prepared for the party. It was money, and they needed money more than ever now. Aaron was firmly set in “planning for the future” mode and was taking every extra catering job that came his way, even if it meant Ronnie had to assist.
“You'll have a great time, Ronnie, I promise. These are smart people. Like, smart famous people.”
Ronnie wondered if there was such a thing as “smart famous people.” The glossy pages of the magazines at the hair salon where she worked always suggested otherwise.
When her glass was empty again and she decided to go for a fourth, she saw him across the room. Through the maze of tweed coats, pencil skirts, and loud Christmas cheer, she spotted him slowly chewing something and staring blankly into the bottom of his whisky tumbler. He was a robust, rosy, bearded man with a slightly timid and mostly awkward look on his face. He looked decidedly lost, as if he might get swept away by the bumping shoulders of stodgy academics and earnest doe-eyed students. Despite his confused expression, it appeared that all eyes were on him. Ronnie overheard people whispering about him with a sense of awe, glad to be in his company yet afraid to approach him.
He was scanning the titles on a bookshelf while an angular and severe-looking blonde with a blunt-bang haircut and red-rimmed glasses was talking at him without any concern that he was paying attention. He looked up from the last drops of his whisky mournfully, as if it were the last whisky available in the world, and caught Ronnie in a stare. It should have been awkward, should have made her blush, turn on her heel, and clip off to the kitchen, but he seemed to derive so much pleasure from the eye contact that his mouth spread into a wide, welcoming grin immediately, and hers did the same.
The look on his face, his slight eye roll referring the blondeâin that moment she knew that he would have the capacity to make her do stupid things.
She put her wineglass down on a coffee table carelessly, without a coaster (a party grievance Aaron had warned her against), and, walked boldly toward him. Ronnie wasn't generally shy, but in situations where she had to be on her best behaviour because Aaron's job demanded it, she made careful exceptions to her generally animated personality. But for some reason this man and his canapÃ© seemed a safe bet. When he saw her approaching, he raised a hand to excuse himself from the angular blonde, gesturing in Ronnie's direction in a way that suggested they had met before.
For some reason Charlie thought to put his left hand in his pocket so Ronnie wouldn't see his wedding ring as she approached.
, he thought.
He had a few brief moments to lament the mustard stain on the left breast pocket of his beige long-sleeved shirt, a shirt that his wife had picked out for him that morning.
“It's so good to see you again,” he said at full volume.
“Don't worry, I don't think she can hear you anymore,” Ronnie said in a half whisper, looking over his shoulder at the blonde. “She looks really fascinating.”
“That's Sarah. She's a wench. And sort of my boss. I told her you were an old friend,” he said.
“Well, maybe I will be.”
“Charlie,” he said.
“Ronnie,” she said.
They shook hands lightly. Then, reaching into his pocket with his right hand, he withdrew an oatmeal cookie.
“Why do you have an oatmeal cookie at a cocktail party?” she asked.
“I brought it with me. You can get all sorts of things from the fish at these things. Botulism. Ebola. Scabies,” he said. “And who calls them cocktail parties anymore? What, were you born in the twenties?”
“Ouch. Are you mocking me?”
“It's not hard. You smuggled in an oatmeal cookie in your pants pocket.”
“And you can have half.”
He carefully unwrapped the cookie and split it in two, handing her the bigger half. When he bit into and realized it was actually oatmeal with chocolate chips he playfully told her he wouldn't have offered it to her if he'd known. “A waste of good chocolate,” he called it. She smiled and snatched the remainder of his half from his hand and shoved it, along with her half, into her mouth with both hands.
“Naw you haf nuffin,” she said with her mouth full. Cookie crumbs tumbled from her lips and onto the front of the black dress Aaron had made her wear. He looked at her mouth, full of half-chewed cookie, and wanted to kiss it. He reached out to brush the cookie crumbs from the front of her dress but quickly stopped himself.
Things they would find out later:
He was more than ten years older than her.
She was an Aries and he was a Leo.
She knew what that meant and he didn't.
She cut hair for a living and looked in the newspapers for her horoscope every day.
He wrote poetry and she did not.
“So what brings you to this party then, Ronnie?”
“I know the caterer. You know, the one who prepared the scabies fish that you're so afraid of.”
You know, the one I share a bed with,
Three and then four drinks in, with Aaron in the adjacent room, she suddenly longed for the thickness of Charlie's flesh, the width of his chest to curl into, the breadth of his arms around her, warming the skin exposed by strapless dresses and open-toed shoes. Admittedly this was not an uncommon occurrence for Ronnie, as alcohol always made her want to fall into strangers.
“We should do shots,” she said.
“I'm close to fifty, Ronnie. I don't drink shots.”
“It's called being a âgrown-up.”'
“Again. Yawn. How close to fifty?”
“Don't worry, old man. We'll just do girl shots.”
Ronnie flagged down one of the party's servers, a petite blonde whose buttery flesh was both awkwardly and sensually spilling out of an ill-fitting waistcoat, and exuberantly requested two B-52s. The girl, clearly out of her element, stared at her blankly.
“I don't think we . . .”
“Peach schnapps? Can you do that?” Ronnie suggested.
The blonde nodded and scurried off to the kitchen.
“Peach schnapps? What are we? Teenage girls at Bible camp?” Charlie asked.
“O-M-G Charlie. L-O-L.”
“By the way, nobody orders shots at a cocktail party.”
“Oh, Charlie. No one ever calls it a
The shots arrived and they drank them, toasting “Bible camp” and “a time when they called them cocktail parties” while the other party-goers eyed them strangely, their faces still expressing a strange awe over a man Ronnie knew nothing about. Ronnie was swaying now, the liquor impeding her balance and increasing her volume. Also warmed and buoyed from the inside, Charlie suddenly told Ronnie that her hair was nice.
“There's that word again,” she said.
“Well it is. Pretty. It's shiny. Very Vivien Leigh. Natalie Wood. Elizabeth Taylor.”
“Well, you mean young Elizabeth Taylor, I should hope.”
“Bloated, wheelchair Elizabeth Taylor.”
“Hey. Also, don't be awful.”
“Don't be silly.
A Place in the Sun,
“Does that make you Montgomery Clift?”
“God, I hope so.”
“You like old movies, then?”
“Oh yes. Simpler time. They don't make them like that anymore.”
“The movies or the women?
Ronnie could take a doctor's pressing questions much better than she could take compliments. She looked at her shoes and then back at Charlie. In doing so she noticed a chocolate chip cookie crumb still lingered in the corner of his mouth. She reached out to wipe it away and then, like him, stopped herself, realizing it was too intimate, her hand hovering between them.
“Cookie,” she said by way of explanation, motioning toward the corner of her mouth.
“I'm sorry, did you just call me
?” Charlie smiled and wiped the crumb away himself.
The angular blonde returned suddenly, obviously deviously curious about the identity of Charlie's young companion. “Charlie, there are lots of people you need to be meeting tonight,” the woman said, momentarily ignoring Ronnie's presence.
“Yes, you've mentioned that a number of times, Sarah.”
“You're not just here for the drinks, you know,” she snapped back.
“Well, they don't even have B-52s.”
Sarah ignored him and turned her attention to Ronnie. “Who's your friend? A student of yours?”
“This is Elizabeth. She's an actress. But don't bother talking to her. She doesn't speak any English,” Charlie said without pause.
Ronnie attempted to stifle her drunken laughter while the blonde stared angrily at them both, quite aware that she was being lied to.
“Oh, I meant to ask youâhow's your wife, Charlie?” Sarah asked. His grin quickly faded. Ronnie turned away from them slightly, wishing she had bothered to refill her wine glass.
“Tamara's doing very well. Thank you for asking.”
“Oh, and your son? Noah? How is his treatment going? Elizabeth, are you aware that Charlie has a very sick child at home? He's such a devoted husband and fatherâoh I'm sorry, how rude of me. You can't understand a word I'm saying, can you?” Sarah was being cruel now, clearly intent on ruining Charlie's good-natured flirtation.
“Noah's not âvery sick,' Sarah. He has autism,” Charlie spat, suddenly too offended to be embarrassed.
“Well, I do know it's been quite the struggle for the two of you. You and
“You've had enough. I suggest you excuse yourself.”
“I should get a refill,” Ronnie offered, meekly trying to diffuse things.
“Yes. Maybe you should,” Sarah retaliated.
“No. Ronnie, you stay. Sarah? If you could excuse us?”
“Please remember that you are here on behalf of the department.”
Sarah exhaled noisily and then offered a dramatic exit, throwing Ronnie a mocking, loud, and slowly sounded out
sooo niiice tooo meeet you
before scurrying off to a more accommodating conversation elsewhere.
Ronnie gazed toward the kitchen, visibly uncomfortable. “Maybe I should go get that refill.”
“I think she told me I should go, and as much as I'm loath to admit itâtoo much whisky I'm afraid,” he said, again looking deep into his tumbler.
“No such thing,” she said, raising her shot glass.
“I'm likely embarrassing you.”
“I think I may be embarrassing myself. And the caterer.”
“Please don't be put off by her. I told you she was a wench.”
She smiled. “Maybe it's for the best if the fish gives everyone botulism.”
“Ronnie, would you like to run away with me?”
“Where are we going?”
“I don't really care. Away from all of these godawful people.”
“All these godawful people you're supposed to be meeting tonight?”
She looked around the room and, after deciding no one was eyeing them, she stepped forward, lightly pressing her body against him while slipping her empty shot glass into the same pocket the plastic-wrapped cookie came out of. She let her hand linger briefly inside the pocket before pulling away. He panicked slightly, but then eased into the moment letting his clumsy fingertips graze the hem of her dress, and then the outside of her bare thigh. Then the inside of her bare thigh.
“I'd like to see you again. Please,” she whispered.
When she stepped back they both noticed the blonde staring.
“I should go find that caterer I'm embarrassing.”
“We should run away.”
“I should go find the caterer.”