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Authors: Sharon Butala

Real Life

BOOK: Real Life
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Sharon Butala

Real Life

                  short stories

In memory
of
Caroline Heath

Real Life

        When I saw Dan enter the gallery where I was having a show, my knees went weak and I had to lean against the wall, casually, as if I were tiring of standing. In the unexpectedness of his appearance, a sudden memory engulfed me, more physical than anything—a kind of blooming of sensation around and in me, of smell and texture and colour—of how we had been together. It made my face feel hot, yet my fingertips against my wineglass shrank with cold.

When he spotted me, he approached, dodging people and sidling between them, and we stood, staring at each other, he with his hands thrust into the pockets of his raincoat, the shoulders spotted with rain, and me not knowing whether to smile or weep. The people I’d been talking to drifted away, one with a quick, speculative glance at me, the other carefully masking his expression before he turned away. I murmured, “Dan! Hello,” in a breathy, pleased voice filled with surprise and, I suppose, my uncertainty. I held myself ready to brush his cheek with mine or maybe hug him, but he stopped too far away, and made no move to come closer.

“Edie,” he said heavily, a name no one else calls me, so that even in my confusion I was touched with tenderness toward
him. But he was looking around the small space packed with people sipping wine as if to find a quiet corner for us. “We can’t talk here,” he decided, firm, and his eyes shifted to a spot on the wall between paintings, briefly, while I waited, hardly breathing, hearing around us the tinkle of laughter rising above the steady buzz of voices. “I’ll be at that café across the street at—say, eleven—tomorrow morning?”

He had been the most beautiful young man, on the small side, and with perfect, fine-boned features, as delicately fashioned as a woman’s, but with a masculine quality, a combination I tried and tried to suggest in drawings and on canvas and never succeeded. Critics have labelled my work “passionate”; one had already referred to this show—nudes, all—as “brutal,” which, to tell the truth, rather pleased me. Now I saw that the delicacy of line in Dan’s face was blurred and thickened. All that booze, I thought, saddened, and then felt a twinge of nasty satisfaction and was immediately ashamed. It was a moment before I could get my mouth to shape a reply.

“All right,” I said. “At eleven.” My wineglass was suddenly too heavy to hold and I looked around futilely for a place to put it down. I turned back to him and saw that something, some intensity, had gone out of his eyes. They slid away from my face in an odd way, as if now he couldn’t recall what he was doing here, and I wondered suddenly if he were ill—some terrible, life-threatening illness, I thought. But already he’d turned from me and was making his slow way out of the gallery. A few people, recognizing him, turned their heads to watch him go. He hadn’t spoken again, and he hadn’t looked at one of my paintings. I almost gave one of those quick snorts of mixed dismay, humiliation, and anger, but caught myself in time. I’d built up my women with a deliberate bruised raggedness, using a palette knife and dark colours to just hint at an
undiscovered opulence, and now it seemed to me their eyes followed him, unblinking and filled with apprehension.

Dan and I had married when we were still students, me at the art school and Dan at the university on the other side of the city. We fell hard for each other, and we got married, because that’s what you did then. Just a quick Justice of the Peace thing, telling no one, not even our parents. Dan had only an alcoholic father whom he blamed for his mother’s too-early death, and I’d run away from home at sixteen. By that time I knew that I preferred any kind of life to the one I’d been raised in, and so I prepared myself, knew where I was going, what I would do to survive, took every precaution not to be found, including changing Edith-May to Raine (I used to love that glamorous
e
I’d put on the end), and adopting Hamilton, my grandmother’s maiden name. Thinking back to that scared, determined teenager, I believe I chose a family name, knowing it was dangerous, because a tiny part of me was afraid to float completely free. I’ve never missed my father or my brothers, and my mother only once in a while—or maybe what I feel when I think of her is really longing for the mother I wish she’d been—but I have often missed the farm. More, in fact, now that I’m older—the colour and movement of the aspen forest behind the house, the sound of the wind whispering through the leaves, a certain smoky scent in the air that comes in the fall sometimes, even here in the city. Dan and I were married only a couple of years and, except for book covers or in the newspaper, I hadn’t seen him in—it must be nearly thirty years.

I was sitting down across from him before he realized I’d arrived. I’d put a scarf over my short, unruly white hair—it’s been white since I turned forty, a family curse, I like to say—put on dark glasses and, leaving my caftans, billowing pants,
bracelets, and rings at home, wore dark cotton slacks and a sweatshirt under an old raincoat I’d found in the back of my closet. I was aware that this was some sort of statement, but I was too agitated to figure out what I was trying to say:
We have no secrets? You matter this little to me now?
As far as I could tell he was dressed no differently than he’d been the night before. I suddenly remembered that he’d liked clothes once, when he was young, nice sportscoats, trim slacks, he could take an hour to pick just the right shirt and tie. I’d loved that then, even if at the same time it had made me faintly uneasy. That he no longer cared about how he dressed didn’t surprise me.

“On time?” he said, looking up. He didn’t smile. “That’s not like you.” I thought, Is that all you remember about me? but I didn’t say anything. He was sitting sideways to me, his still-skinny legs extended, one arm resting on the table. He nodded to the waitress; she came over and put a cup of coffee in front of me.

“Let’s start again,” I said, holding my voice steady. I took off my sunglasses, set them on the table, and gave him my best social smile. “It’s been a long time. Congratulations on another book on the bestseller list. So nice of you to look me up.”

“I didn’t look you up,” he told me, and gave a small, sour laugh. “I’m here to do a reading at the university. I’m at that hotel down the street—I walked past the gallery. I saw your name. On impulse, I went in.”

“You
could
have gone on by,” I said. When he didn’t answer, the anxiety that had been building in me since the night before, that I thought I’d been containing pretty well, seeped out, and I said briskly, “What is it you want, then, if it isn’t to go over fond memories?”

“You know it’s been twenty-five years since Willie died.” My mouth began unexpectedly to tremble—I should have known it would be about this—and I bent my head to hide it. What
had I expected? I was asking myself, and had to fight down anger, mixed with something I recognized as self-pity. He expelled the air from his chest, then filled it again noisily.

“I—heard,” I said, “as soon as it … happened.” One crazed letter from John (whose real name was Vladimir, he was an escapee like me), blaming me for everything. Then years and years of silence, Dan—I’d read this in a magazine—struggling with alcoholism until his rehabilitation, maybe a dozen years ago now. “I’m very sorry.” It came out a whisper and I cleared my throat.

“Do you know where John is?” he asked, for the first time turning his head to look directly at me. I was in control again, and spoke as casually as I could, as if it were nothing to me.

“He teaches history in Halifax, at some Catholic college.” I saw then that he knew this and had merely wondered if I did. In the silence that followed I could not stop myself from remembering John shoving me away from him so hard that I hit a stud in the unfinished wall of my attic studio—he was six feet, and powerful, a farm boy from Alberta—my arms were bruised for weeks, the next day I could hardly move my back was so sore. He was sobbing when he did it. Maybe I was too, I can’t remember. The strange thing was that although I knew I was hurt, at the moment of it happening, I felt nothing. I sometimes think of that—how I felt nothing. And other memories from my childhood—I took a deep breath through my nose and mentally shoved it all back into darkness.

“He had six children,” Dan was saying. He laughed, but the sound was flat and unamused, painful to hear. “Katie and Joy”—these were John’s two daughters with Willie—”and another four. He went to Ontario to teach—afterward. First, he smashed my windshield and tried to kick in my front door. Then he married again and went to Halifax—I bet she looks like Willie.” For an instant Willie hovered between us, the
gentleness she had, the way she would look at you with a kind of fond tenderness, like a mother at her grown-up child.

“Probably,” I said, my voice as neutral as his. Then that sureness went out of his face as suddenly as it had last night, and I braced myself for some unbearable revelation, or an accusation.

“She’s been haunting me,” he said softly.

“What? You mean … actual apparitions?”

He went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “I think about her all the time. It’s almost as bad as when she first died.”

“So that’s why you came last night.”

“I told you it was an impulse.”

“So why are we here, having this conversation?” I asked.

“Joy and Kate—they came to see me. Not very long ago.” This stopped me, for an instant I couldn’t speak, I hadn’t thought of them in years.

“They came—why?” I asked, and had to clear my throat.

“They just wanted to know—what happened, I think.” He said this as if he were talking about the neighbours or somebody he’d heard of once. I half expected him to yawn. It was bizarre.

“What did you tell them?”

“What could I tell them?” He’d been slouching in his chair and now he straightened, swivelled toward me, cupping his coffee mug in his palms, and staring into it instead of at me. “We fell in love. We left together. Their mother wouldn’t leave without them, so they came, too. I knew it wasn’t what they wanted to hear.”

I made an “Mmmm” sound. But in the silence that followed another memory came welling up and I was immersed again in the ambience of the four of us in that house, John and Willie’s, on a black and freezing winter night, snowbanks piled up around the walls and driveway and down each side of the
town’s streets, a high wind pelting the house with snow, whining around the windows and roof, giving all four of us an excuse for Dan and me to stay the night. Upstairs their two little girls asleep, and us in the living room, Willie woozy from wine, and the rest of us mellowed out, as we used to say, on pot. And that
something
drifting through the air. I remembered it still, I
felt
it; it came to me so clearly that the skin on my thighs prickled, and I shivered and pulled myself back to the shiny tabletop, the waitresses murmuring together across the room.

“After she died, their grief—John’s sister came and got them, took them back to him. I went off the deep end there, for a while. No doubt you heard,” he added, glancing at me. I nodded. “Then I couldn’t get her out of my mind—I can’t—I nearly started drinking again, I—” He stopped abruptly, as if shutting down that line of thought, and I had the urge to touch his hand in commiseration but resisted, as much because he had left me once, long ago, as because I knew he would pull away from my touch. I managed to keep my voice soft.

“How long has this been going on?”

“Months—I don’t know. The girls—they’re women now—really threw me.” After a moment he said, “She was such a good person. She shouldn’t have had such a terrible death.”

BOOK: Real Life
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