Evan Paley woke up alone. Dana, his wife, was already moving. Steam from her shower diffused into the bedroom. And condensed on the marble window sill overtop the grain. The gilt picture frame on the bedside table had been knocked over, so Evan propped it up. Inside, there was a stock image of a smiling woman. Their automatic curtain retractor activated and revealed the blue glass tower across.
“Can’t you stay home today?” Dana said. Steam licked the air. Her blow-dryer shrilled. The knot Evan was intending for his tie proved difficult. It came out deformed.
“I wish,” he said quietly.
“What did you say?”
“You know I have to go.”
“You don’t even like it there.”
“Fuck,” he said, again quietly. His tie was just not working.
“You said partner was close. You said it a month ago. You’re always at work. I never get to see you. When you get home, you’re tired, and you snap at me. And then in the morning, you’re gone before I wake up,” she said.
“I’m seeing you now.”
“I woke up early.”
He stared in the direction of the mirror. His tie’s front flap squeezed half-way through its knot. He could only hear his wife pulsing her blow dryer on and off. Cutting her voice out. After a silence, she said,
“Will Mia be there?”
“She works there.”
“Do you think she’s pretty?”
“It’s about twenty past seven,” Evan said.
“Mia. Is she pretty.”
He passed her on his way to the kitchen. She looked at him with an eyebrow raised. Evan smiled and flushed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He went up to her and put his arms around her. She was wearing the maroon dress, the one he loved. He loved when she wore skirts, dresses, anything that showed her bare legs. He ran his hand down the front of her thigh, touching her skin.
“I have time now.” He went to kiss her neck but she turned away. When he tried again she wriggled out of his arms.
“It’s the morning,” she said. “I have things to do.”
“That’s not fair.”
Maybe it wasn’t fair, but he felt it was, and that was why he said it. She was unemployed. What did she have to do, where did she have to go? What was more important than him? He sat on the toilet and watched her braid her hair along her hairline. She knotted the end, then began another braid above her left ear, then knotted that end. It was a style no-no, but on her it worked. Everything on her worked. She bunched up a pair of black leggings into a Venn diagram and slid them on.
“Don’t,” he said. “I love your legs.”
“Are you insane? It’s cold outside.” And she said this so matter-of-factly that he wondered why he ever said what he had in the first place.
It was morning, chilly, they drove downtown in the Honda. On the incline out of the garage the door opened to light refracting off the opposite tower. Then off their own tower. They drove at the bottom of a glowing U.
Evan drove down Laurier, past a crowd huddled outside the ministry of finance with their bare arms crossed against the wind. A fire drill, maybe. But Evan paid more attention to the radio. Each station was static.
“There’s India and New Zealand,” Dana said. “And Australia.”
He scanned between hard rock and classical.
“Don’t forget South Africa,” Evan said.
“Evan,” she said.
Dana looked down at her knees.
“How many other tropical paradises speak English?” Evan said.
At a red light by the Eggspectation on Bank, Dana stared at a white cuboid pillar supporting a mezzanine. Evan said, twisting the knob, “Don’t get me wrong. If you can find a job in, I don’t know, Hawaii, I’m be on board in a split.” The radio’s black bars jumbled. “Imagine. Honolulu!”
“You say that like it’s a game. You’ve never gotten it,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re a man. Men just want to be comfortable.”
Evan gripped the steering wheel. A bike messenger whizzed past, banking around a Ford.
“Hey,” he said, raising his hand. “You just need a job. I’ve seen you. You just stare at your computer all day. You do nothing. You go to the gym…the pool…and what good does that do? Don’t take this out on me.”
She did not seem to hear him. Since she said,
“I see people walking along the sidewalks, talking, going places. And I get jealous. I need to feel like I’m going somewhere.”
“I go to the gym. I go to the pool,” she said. “In the mornings I send out resumes. None of it helps.”
A green light came, then changed back to red. Evan saw, in his mirror, blocks of congestion.
“You know, in Fiji, they have these huts in the water. Round little dots over the water. To the horizon.”
Evan pursed his lips and nodded. He began staring intently at the tinted window of a Jeep. She started with the little things, usually; the huts in Fiji, neon blue water, rum and coke in coconut cups. Tiny colourful umbrellas. Wouldn’t it be nice. Then she’d veer off. A look would cross over her face, as if the inside of her head were playing slide after slide of pleasing landscapes.
“With what money?” he said.
“Evan-” she said.
“You mean my money,”
He stalled to drop her off at the public library, a low concrete pile amidst high towers, but she turned and knocked on the window. Evan saw her fist cranking, fingers-up. He brought the passenger-side window down.
“We can’t stay like this forever,” she said.
“I know,” he said. She stared at him. And then kissed her fingers and pressed them on the windshield, smudging the glass.
He merged into the polite file of cars.
Evan drove east on Montreal Road. From his car he saw thistles and roadweed. Further away, bales of soaked hay. Black trees on limestone veins, the rock striated from ages of pressure. In his rear view mirror, the glass cap of the city.
He saw on entering the cafe rows of pink, yellow, and purple bottles in an exposed chiller. White floors, walls. He ordered a cappuccino, with a crest of foam. On top he sprinkled cinnamon, cocoa, and vanilla. Mia and Gregson sat at a far table, in a corner, where the walls met.
“I think we’ll refuse all offers,” Gregson said. “Rosenblum and Hardy are fucking around.”
“What are they offering?” Evan said.
“Two.” Gregson said, removing his scarf.
“There’s no way we can go to court with this,” Mia said.
“Why not?” Evan said.
“Evidence?” Mia said.
“But Title 14-”
“Title 14 won’t apply,” Gregson said. “This is negligence.”
“Christ, Evan,” Mia said. “You and Title 14. Get a room.”
Mia’s lapels, in a hard V against her bare chest, shifted as she breathed. Evan couldn’t help but look. He laughed, and she laughed as well. Gregson didn’t.
“Evan’s a bit eager,” Mia said to Gregson. “He’s got a boner for Title 14. Must have been his real estate prof. He wants to use 14 at least once before he makes partner.” Mia reached over to Evan’s chair and patted his wrist. And Evan, very discreetly, (so discreetly he almost missed) touched the tips of her fingers. Her smile disappeared. She crossed her legs, and stared out at a passing truck.
Evan saw her breathing intensify. He watched the skin slide over her ribcage. A faint trace of glitter over her freckles. Then her perfume. Roses.
“Didn’t you go somewhere, Charles?” Mia said to Gregson.
“Yes,” Gregson said, rubbing the back of his neck. “My cottage near Thousand Islands.”
“Oh,” Mia said, as if she’d just seen something adorable. “It’s gorgeous up there.”
But Gregson threaded his fingers together. He looked like he didn’t want to go on but he went on.
“I brought our dog up for the first time. It seemed like a good idea. The lake, lots of open air. But he disappeared for the first night. And the next morning there was a mole on the verandah. He’d strewn it over the front steps. Its guts were hanging out and half its face was torn off. And there was this beeping. It was still alive.”
“Geez,” Mia said.
“I had to kill it with a shovel, bury it, then clean it all up. It ruined the day. When I brought him home I told my wife what had happened. And she just kissed him on the mouth.”
“Get bleach on it,” Evan said, still staring at Mia’s chest.
“On the dog?”
“To clean the deck up. If you leave blood on wood it’ll stain.” When Evan said this, Gregson cast his gaze into his lap and shifted in his seat. Evan detected shame on his face.
“That’s exactly what I did,” Gregson said, quietly. Evan nodded sagely. He sipped the stiff foam on his coffee and started to hum. He could feel the milk bubbles dissolving on the roof of his mouth.
“It’s so creepy you know that,” Mia said, smiling and touching her temple.
Evan shrugged. “It’s common sense.”
“To psychos, maybe,” Mia replied, rolling her eyes but still smiling.
“The worst part was what he did with it,” Gregson said.
“My dog. After I found it.”
“For two minutes. He just rolled in it.”
Evan and Mia went silent. They didn’t know what to say.
“I guess this is what I get for being spontaneous.”
Evan and Mia both made excuses. Evan said he needed to pick up a cake for Dana’s birthday. Mia said she was going to the optometrist for contacts. Evan waited behind the cafe in his car blasting the heat and playing the radio louder than he ever had before. Then he saw her legs approaching from around the corner.
Mia’s condo had a nice view of the river – Evan could see it from her bed. On shelves were variegated soapstone carvings of arctic animals. One sculpture of a walrus he admired every time he was there. Its head bucked up in surprise. Two pieces of ivory, polished, for tusks. The gap between those tusks was arresting.
Mia rolled onto her stomach and put her chin on Evan’s collarbone.
“These kinds of things are in kitsch shops all over,” Evan said, resting his hand on the bedside table next to the sculpture. “Banff, Quebec City, St. John’s, it’s all the same. Loons. Polar bears. Soapstone, serpentite. It’s always animals, or Inuit hunting for animals, or something else. There’s always animals.
“Get a new idea,” he said to the sculpture.
“I went to a workshop in Cape Dorset,” Mia said. “They carve them with power tools. Tiny drills, like at the dentist. The air was filled with particles.”
Evan ran his finger along the back of the walrus. It was so smooth and cold it could have been wet. Mia nestled her cheek into his chest, and raised her thigh to his waist.
“I wonder if they export,” he said, “to other countries. The U.S. or something. It could be a real racket.”
Mia said nothing. She closed her eyes and pushed her cheek harder into him.
“I’ve always wondered,” he said, shifting under her, “if you travel the globe and poke your head into people’s houses, how many of these things will you see? Are they in, I don’t know, Fez or Athens or Manila. Or do they all just stay here.”
She ran her fingers through his chest hair.
“Never leaving the country,” Evan said.
Her fingers stopped.
She was quiet.
She shook her head.
Very quickly Mia removed herself from his body and sat on the bed with her feet touching the floor.
“I think I’m in love with you.”
After a moment, she stood and walked to the bathroom. They had had sex while on her period. She left long dark streaks on the mattress cover. She came back with a sullied tissue scrunched up in her hand. Then sat in a chair. Craned her head back. She watched the river from the bottom of her eyes.
“Your wife has to know,” she said.
Evan tugged the sheets out from under the mattress, gathering the material in his hands.
“What are you talking about?”
“She has to suspect.”
He kept bundling.
“No,” he said. “I’ve been careful. Only during work hours. Only when she’s seeing friends. There’s absolutely no overlap.”
“You spend so long with someone…how could she be so clueless.” Mia closed her eyes. “Besides. Would it be so bad if she knew?”
He’d pulled out the sheets so much he touched her streaks. They’d crusted over.
“We’ve talked about this,” he said. “It’s not the right time.” He fixated on the jagged tops of the soapstone. “She’s vulnerable, she can’t support herself. Her confidence is shot. Something like this might set her off.”
Mia rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. “I don’t care. I just don’t care.”
Evan stood and walked to the back of Mia’s chair. “We should enjoy being together now.” He made knots, one after the other, and didn’t know when he’d speak again. He pictured himself far away. Just him, with the view of the river.
He ran his fingers through her hair and she let him, and then he began tying an awful braid. But his motions drew her head back. By the time he’d knotted the braid they were looking at each other upside down. Moist eyes under open lips.
“Gregson will wonder where we are,” she said.
She asked him to dress, and twenty minutes later he left.
Evan walked through a pink brick courtyard, along King Edward to Laurier, then up Nicholas to The Albion Rooms. He bought an overpriced scotch. To his left was a young party of four around a low table, quiet, seemingly indifferent to each other, looking in different directions. The bar was metallic and black. Champagne flutes hung off steel rails. In a demolition site outside, strands of rebar stuck out of a chunk of concrete covered in red and blue graffiti. Orange helmets sprayed water where a large bit from a yellow robotic arm punctured the ground.
He’d invited Mrs. Plat out for drinks to celebrate a case he’d settled. She’d moved into a new house and found a skeleton buried in her back garden. She sued the realtor. He met her for the first time in his office. She sat on the other side of his desk, eating caramels he had placed in a small dish. Her hair was dyed platinum gold and pulled into a ponytail. He could see the outline of her skull. As Evan outlined what services he could provide, Mrs. Plat looked at him and pulled out of her mouth strand after strand of the caramels’ plastic wrappings.
When she arrived she wore a cream-coloured cardigan with the sleeves rolled up, displaying her shaved forearms. At the ends of her fingers were long, obtrusive fingernails.
“How about a drink?” Evan said.
Mrs. Plat put her hands between her knees.
“I’m on a cleanse,” she said “But maybe.”
And when the waiter came she said,
“A glass of rosé.”
The waiter brought a glass of rosé on a paper napkin. She tipped her head back and sipped and when she set it back down her wine slid up and down the bowl. Evan watched the legs inside the glass well up.
“I want to thank you for all your work,” Mrs. Plat said.
“My fee’s plenty thanks, trust me-”
“Because it’s been hard. Lately. With the divorce.” She paused and sipped again. “My husband found out that I met this banker online. The ad said he wanted to sniff cocaine off my stomach. Let me tell you. Having someone walk in on that is, just, the worst.”
“I’m trading up. I’ve had enough of Vanier. When we moved in, we found a pentagram painted on the ceiling of our closet. One day I was out getting a wax. I come home and Mark says this Croat guy came to the house. He’d heard we were selling. He only looked inside of the kitchen cabinets. When he left, he said, ‘I used to live in Ecuador. In Ecuador, you have to check the cabinets.’”
While she talked he took in her cardigan. The colour was inviting, yet sharp, and showed no individual threads. Maybe mohair. Alpaca.
“But with the settlement money, I have room to play. I’m planning a trip to Machu Pichu. I love the Aztecs.”
Incas, Evan wanted to say. The Incas built Machu Pichu. He’d been mouthing the word Dana to himself as she’d been talking. He’d been trying to find some modicum of love for his wife that would help him fight his desires. But despite his efforts, the love he found retreated like surf against the high white cliffs of Ms. Plat’s beauty. Her jacket was the cliff. Or her hair. She was beautiful. Dumb but beautiful. He flushed and clenched his hands which he felt were now quite damp.
“Incas,” he said. “The Incas built Machu Pichu.”
“Oh. Are you sure?”
“Well, whatever. I always wanted to see Brazil. I’ve never been south of Pennsylvania. Can you imagine, me on a beach, in a two-piece?”
“That’d be a sight.”
“You’re too funny.”
“Which beach will you go to?”
“A long one. Where I can spread out and lay.”
When she said this, she stretched out her arms, arched her back, and stuck out her chest. How many curves, he thought. He was no longer mouthing his wife’s name, but his mouth remained slightly open. He closed his eyes. The cliffs were no longer battered by the surf. The cliffs were the surf, limestone marrying the salt and spray. It was impossible, he couldn’t bear it, it was impossible, why bother trying. He often thought, if he just tried a little harder, if he just got a little closer to Dana, her love would evaporate these desires, and he’d have all he’d ever need. But there was her swimming, her job hunting, her friend-visiting. And he felt, even though she didn’t work, that she had less time for him than when they first met, in the bakery, both reaching for the same raspberry chocolate cake, when he was articling and she worked for the headhunters in Westboro. A surge of blood rushed to his head so that he couldn’t distinguish any features of the restaurant around him and following the desperate shrill voice behind the white noise in his head he put his hand on the inside of her thigh.
She’d been holding her glass of rose by the stem. When he did this she nearly lost her grip, and the semi-circle of pink liquid nearly spilled out the top. Her voice, before loud and expansive, turned soft.
“I don’t do that anymore,” she said. She avoided his gaze, but left his hand where it was.
“I’m sorry,” Evan said, shaking his head and suddenly bursting out in a sweat. He didn’t know what to say. He downed his scotch and looked out the window. (He just remembered: he hated scotch. Why did he order it? He resented the alkaliney burn in the back of his throat.) The yellow arm was still puncturing. Every few minutes, the orange hardhats lifted the bit, inspected a hole Evan couldn’t see, and then resumed puncturing. He wondered what new monstrosity would soon be hunched over the city.
“Doing it left me stranded,” she said. “Even worse than I’d felt before.”
He fumbled with his keys in the dark condo hallway. On the floor of the bedroom he saw Dana’s legs. A brittle towel surrounded her hair, tied twice in a turban. Her right hand cupped her head. She was staring into the marble’s grain. Next to her face, a remote control pointed at the curtains, her finger on the button.
“What is it,” Evan said.
“I saw Kam today,” she said.
“He sent me a message last week. I hadn’t seen him since high school. We’d tried to meet for months, but I’d been avoiding it. His life, I can already see it all on the internet. Every time you open the page, there it is…Friends, jobs…he’s married.”
Evan faced the mirror. She pressed the button, and the automatic curtain retractor rolled along its slat, erasing the glass tower from view. He waited for the light. Then the curtain reopened. The tower’s lights were slowly going out. Window after window. Evan unbuttoned his shirt.
“But…we met at Whispers. He showed me pictures, the ones of his month in Saudi Arabia…of burkas…the sandstone compounds. The school where he taught – it had this minaret, like a huge teardrop. He had given me his phone and was looking at me. He poured packet after packet of sugar into his coffee. At the fourth packet he started crying.”
Evan removed his pants.
“He lost it. He said the job drove him up the wall, he was lonely, he saw no one. And when he came back to Canada, everyone had left.”
He checked his pockets for coins.
“Evan, I know this sounds awful, I got…I got annoyed. I just couldn’t understand. He had a job. A steady job. A purpose. And all that money he was making,” she said. “He was away from here.”
She pressed the button, the curtains went through their cycle. Closed and open. Open and closed. Evan clenched his belt in his fist.
“I’m thinking of taking the ESL job in Mexico.” She looked up to the window, to the sky. “I need to get our of here. It’s almost winter.”
The air chilled Evan’s skin. Clenching his hand came with it a sensation of tearing in his tendons. He considered his body in the mirror. His slick skin. Rearing shoulders. The large space between his legs.
He kneeled beside her with both hands on either side of her head.
Forgetting himself, he said,
He lowered his pelvis. Kissed her neck. At first dryly. He lowered his torso over her back.
He was on her then, no longer supported by his own strength. And he tried to align his body to hers. His legs on top of her legs, his arms on top of her arms. Her cold body on the marble. He hoped his heat would transfer – and soon he felt something resonating in her. The pelvis and shoulders underneath him trembled.
“Evan…I can’t breathe.”
The uppermost floors of the glass tower could be seen. Stark angles and edges. Shapes. Its stillness meant the offices inside and the streets below were empty. Everything had been shut down.
When morning came Evan lay prone in bed. He didn’t feel as sick as he did when he finally got to sleep. Dana’s clothes were shed about the floor. He’d knocked over the gilt frame again. There were so many things to clear away.
He knew if he stood he’d have to begin a reconciliation. The sickness returned as a grinding feeling at the bottom of his stomach. So he focused through the window at the blue glass tower.
Normally, if he looked out at that tower, all he’d see was a reflection of his own tower, and the sky. But he saw something then he hadn’t before. One single window, right across, opened its blinds. And in that single square, a woman. Her skin a dark pink. She looked as if she had just finished bathing in hot water. And Evan watched her. She let a towel drop from her torso. And he saw her back. Then an arm as she lifted the towel back up. She turned. And turned again. Over and over again, turning.
He was smiling as Dana opened the door.
Kit Jenkin was born in Ottawa and graduated with an MA in English and Creative Writing from the University of New Brunswick. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Wrong Quarterly, Transect, Far Off Places, ROPES and others. He currently lives and works in Manchester, UK.
If you enjoyed Loneliness, leave a comment and let Kit know.
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