Working Title

We fade in as the sun sets. In Hollywood, they call this “Magic Hour.” It’s brief but timeless in that way that so few things are. The first we will see of Nick is a thirty-five-year-old man: some wrinkles, but ultimately boyish. The production company ensnared a former portrayer of superhero sidekicks and sex-obsessed teens. “Nick” is the actor’s chance for emotional redemption, career resurgence, even an awards show run, perhaps. So Nick is now tall, dark, bankable, and far-more handsome than he should be.

But in this world of magic hours he is awkward and pitiable. We know this because his suit is wrinkled. And mismatched. He is only wearing it because it would not fit in his backpack. That lumbering thing pokes out over his head; it contains inside it everything he still wants in the world.

There is a close-up on his feet as they stand an inch from the Welcome mat. His shoes were once nice, but they badly need a polish. Welcome mat or not, this house is not much. It is easily sixty years old, which is old enough for the City not to have any records.

Sofia, the woman Nick has come for, once found an old inspection card in the basement when they were renovating the laundry room. She kept it and admired the faded ink scrawl dating to 1963. She felt an odd, sincere connection to the building inspector who had a problem with the dividing wall for the laundry room. She tried to explain to her husband this weird connection she felt, and how she wondered if the inspector was still alive. If he was, when had he retired? What was he doing now? Did he remember their house? Her husband shook his head; no, he did not understand. She smiled politely and left the room. Three weeks later, alone in the shower, she suddenly and randomly cried about this.

All the camera shows is the Welcome mat, though.

The door opens. It appears empty until we pan down and there is the dark, curly head of an adorable moppet. There is no place for ugly kids in movies.

Nick freezes. He knows now. Now only did Sofia marry, she reproduced. He should have expected this, he thinks, but he did not. He only thought of Sofia as the transient waif, the big-eyed pixie of his youth. The one exempt from the realities of the present. If he had thought to search, he would have found her on Facebook; he would not be as shocked and guileless as he is now.

All the camera shows, though, is his wide eyes and slack jaw. Nick steps off the top step: the pain, the unease, the pure idiocy of his actions spread plainly across his face.

And it fades to black. Because that is what happens when the filmmaker doesn’t know what else to do. And then we’ll get the title, which hasn’t been decided yet, but it will be in a hand-written font perhaps, because this is a personal story. But it won’t be hand-written. Not really. It will be one font selected from a list by an editor and once crafted by a graphic designer at Microsoft who doesn’t even work there anymore.

By now we are fading back in. But Nick is gone. So is the Welcome mat. So is the moppet.

We are in Romania. A titlecard tells us it is “1980.” Two children run through the streets. It is the streets of “Old Europe,” a place that exists as though it were solely the product of fantasy novels and painted postcards. It is supposed to be Romania, but it’s really Prague. The buildings are garish and stone with cobbled streets: all wet after a rain. The cinematographer had a field day. He dreamed of The Third Man, but this was not to be shot in black and white and so he will always feel like something was lost.

The two children run: a boy, a girl. Nick, Sofia. Aged ten. They wear the clothes that years of Oscar-baiting films have led us to believe children wore in second-world countries. The filmmaker pauses to wonder if the Second World truly exists anywhere any more. He knows it once referred to the Communists. Does it now figure as what the label intends: those neither First World nor Third World, but rather that vague untimely grey area in between? Did the phrase now just refer to anyone who belonged on neither a GAP billboard nor a Red Cross pamphlet? Did it just refer to anyone who was neither Us nor Them?

He doesn’t know. At all. When pressed, the responsibility for Sofia’s dress and the cobbled streets and the grey of the skies lies with his production design team, his costume designer, his Art Director, his cinematographer. He knows the costume buyer hunted through old thrift shops on the poor side of town. No room for political correctness when results were demanded.

Ten-year-old Sofia wears a dress: the fabric is rough cotton, the pattern not gingham, not checks, not houndstooth even, but some kind of black and white pattern with squares. It hurts his eyes a little. The dress looks like it was stitched by a mother at a Singer sewing machine sometime in the mid-eighties, working off a Butterick pattern, then left to fall victim to moths and dustbunnies on a creaking rack at a charity shop in the suburbs.

But on Sofia, in the streets of Romania—Bucharest, it is supposed to be—it reflects innocence in a black and white world. To the child Sofia, black and white mean nothing more than the colours on her dress. The world around her is dull shades of grey, even Nick, in his grey gym shorts and grey t-shirt, blends into the street. But she is radiant against the background, her dress pulling her from the monochromatic world. It is far more effective on the eyes than any colour. It seems as though Sofia is the only thing in focus in the entire world on screen.

She is running before him, his little legs flailing to keep up with her. Their giggles pierce the silence soundscape.

Nick is calling after her, his voice still sounding like laughter. In fact, we think it is until a subtitle appears below. They are laughing in Romanian, a language unfamiliar to any western ear.

“Sofie! Sofie!” he cries, “Wait! Wait!”

“Hurry, Nikolae,” she shrieks in return, “Hurry!”

Two kids skipping through Romania. It is not Bucharest they should be in, but Timisoara. But the American audience does not know the difference, and only Bucharest rings with any kind of familiarity.

It is someplace not here. The people are white but they are not western. The Second World: the world that ceased to exist in 1989, leaving a gaping hole in how we understand the structure of humanity.

And thus the narrative cannot move chronologically. Mostly because the filmmaker realized the permeable fabric of time—that time is a fabric full of holes like a mesh lingerie bag—and all we have is memory, not chronology.

Because the filmmaker knows psychology; it was his major. He spent five years in university going through the motions, knowing he would write. Desperately, he tried to understand people so he could write them better. It never did work for him as planned; he sometimes reflected (while staring at the pulpy rind of a discarded garnish, letting the bourbon work its fingers over the knots of his brain) that he should have spent more time watching how people act rather than studying how they think.

Especially if he wanted to write movies.

In movies everyone acts; no one thinks.

But it did give him this: Nick’s imagined history of his own life. The way humans remember time. The distant past is more vivid than the recent past. Later, he claimed his structure is inspired by Slaughterhouse-Five.

Thus, his lead character, Nick, the one in whom he’s placed all of his neuroses and damaged childhood memories, adores Slaughterhouse-Five, and every other Vonnegut along with it. The camera only sees a flashback: Nick in a now-empty apartment, packing his backpack. Slaughterhouse-Five is shoved on top. Nick clings to the book for a reason. It has sat on his shelf for eighteen years with all the other empty promises and broken aspirations.

He will crack open that book when he boards that plane back to Romania, with Sofia beside him or not. Even the filmmaker does not yet know if she will be beside him.

As Nick rises to his feet, he leaves the room. It’s just a small room, a cheap apartment that he will feel no sadness in leaving. He disappears from the room and, as the door closes behind him, the slam jolts us back into another reality.

The screen crackles with faded pictures. They peel back like a blister: old Polaroids stuck in the frame of a gilded mirror. Cracks run in the glass and the Polaroids hang uselessly, their plastic undersides bounce back their reflection, all these little squares of black stuck behind the images.

Sofia’s Polaroid camera was purchased after she and Nick arrived in Vancouver. She bought it with her first paycheque from The Bay. She still has it somewhere even though she hasn’t taken a photo with it for years. By some sick stab of fate, only a few months before Nick arrived on her doorstep, Polaroid announced it was discontinuing the instant film: another piece of Sofia descended into shards of nostalgia.

The camera pans gently across each lost moment of time.

In faded shades of orange and pink, the sun rises over English Bay.

Sofia’s voice rings over the images: “Sometimes I get well into the day, like ten or eleven before I’m convinced I’m actually still alive.”

The yellow sulfur piles on the North Shore look the same in 1992 as they do now.

“I walk to work sometimes, when the bus isn’t too crowded. This is how the days I sometimes think I died in my sleep start. I touch nothing, no one, because sometimes it works out that way.”

The totem poles in Stanley Park: a perfect tourist trap and just as contrived and forgettable.

“I really start to think I’m dead when things don’t happen like they should. An automatic door won’t open until someone else walks up; the hand dryer in the bathroom doesn’t come on; someone cuts in front of me in the hall… all as if I don’t exist. After a while, I started keeping a mirror at my desk just to make sure I still cast a reflection. This is what had been running through my head the day I first met Ted. He sees me. I exist.”

An ordinary street in Vancouver. Sofia told Ted she just liked the look of the stucco houses.

Another one, this one a closer frame, the white side of only one house, washed out by the Polaroid’s imperfect light. Just an ordinary house, she told Ted. But it’s not. She and Nick lived in that basement for nearly two years. Their first home.

“Now every morning, I have Lucy jumping on my bed.  ‘At least you know you’re alive,’ I tell myself, ‘At least you know you’re alive.’“

The filmmaker had thought this himself; it is a direct part of his soul that he had given to Sofia like some unholy, unwanted gift.

But it doesn’t make the final cut.

“No voiceovers,” said the producer, “We can get it in a glance.”

The filmmaker keeps projecting: he watches Sofia climb out of bed, pulling up Lucy and passing her over to Ted, still groaning and tired, tangled in the bed sheets, that look on her face of grateful joy.  He projects the inner hollow clanging of those empty distant fears collapsing around her, bouncing throughout the shell of her like a pinball. “Am I alive? Am I alive? Is this it? Is this life?”

Perhaps that’s just his projection; perhaps she just looks… happy.

No, that won’t do.

Sofia is not happy. Sofia is haunted—he’s made these notes in his journal—Sofia sometimes wishes she died in Bucharest—sometimes she thinks she did.

The filmmaker cannot really recall his first introduction to the Romanian Revolution of 1989; nor does he recall much of 1989, as he was only six years old at the time. His lack of context means nothing he figures, since his parents were fully formed adults at the time and they recall nothing of it.

Wikipedia helps. The filmmaker edges his First World, middle class guilt to the side of his mind while he creates Nick and Sofia. He does his best to gain context of Romania in late 1989. Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country where change happened with violence, with a revolution, with an execution.

The filmmaker can’t help but read the bare facts and smile in the cinematic romance of it all. He feels a glee he felt when he was told the story of Lenin’s Revolution back in his high school history class. No one died but a Bolshevik in the October Revolution (or so he learned), but 1,104 died in Romania that week (or so says Wikipedia).

Wikipedia told him what happened like a broadcaster tells the story of a football game. It was good for keeping score, but the filmmaker needed to pull out the people who had been there.

Wikipedia said nothing of the families. He saw photos of corpses in morgues. What if they had children? Children nearly grown: children too old to be taken care of but still young enough to get lost.

He wrote of Nick and Sofia.

He wrote of their childhood suddenly yanked from underneath them as their families died. He wrote of them as childhood sweethearts, their places in each other’s hands, their implied promises, their sudden tossing into the world like one dumps old keepsakes from a shoebox.

He wrote of their struggle to find a place in the world, of their fleeing to Canada, of their emotional and legal inability to return to Romania, of the fact they spent eighteen years losing each other as well: each other, the last piece each had of childhood, the last finger each had holding onto home.

The filmmaker wrote this because he was nearing thirty and wished more than anything that someone had dumped him upside down and said “You’re an adult now,” because he had no idea when his childhood ended or how. He just noticed one day it was gone, like a book someone borrowed without telling you but you don’t realize it’s gone until you randomly think of reading it again then can’t find it and inexplicably weep.

The filmmaker’s childhood home is now under a row of condominiums.

It’s a very Canadian tragedy, he thinks, as he tries to distance himself from the experience. Instead, he projects his pain and isolation onto Nick, whom he credits, due to the sheer qualification of having lived through a revolution, as being more worthy of the pain.

But the camera catches none of this: none of the filmmaker’s neuroses, or intellectual bankruptcy, or failed attempts to validate his life.

The camera captures Nick.

Nick’s jacket, from that mismatched suit, hangs off the back of a chair in the kitchen. We have not established the geography of Sofia’s house yet, so we do not know how far into her home she has led him, but they sit on a sofa. At least he does. She hovers. Has she just stood up or is she going to sit down? No one really knows.

The filmmaker wants words on the screen. He knows they should be too scared to speak in depth. But in movies dialogue tells the story and so they must talk. They must talk charmingly and plainly and fantastically. He knows they probably would not really be able to do this, but they must.

“Nick,” she sighs, batting lashes formed over an hour in a makeup artist’s chair, not in a cracked mirror like Sofia would have done.

“Sofia, listen,” he starts, “Please don’t kick me out.”

After a telling pause, she replies, “I wasn’t going to.”

He smiles.

A wide shot at last shows us the room. No one has replaced the wall paper in years, the furniture is worn-in and toys clutter the space. It’s a house, plain and lived-in.

“Sofia,” he continues, “I, I…” he trails off.

“How long has it been, Nick?”

“Ten years.”

“Wow. Already. Where does time go?” She tells it as a joke, a knowing nod to the realization that time speeds up as we age. The actress is wiser than himself, the filmmaker realizes, he pulled it from thin air, as a cliché, something to show the lack of intimacy that ten years has brought to Nick and Sofia. But she delivers the line with an old world-weary self-assurance and a biting dig. Where have you been for ten years? Why have you left me here?! she could be saying.

“Yep,” says Nick, “I can’t believe you’re married.”

She stares at him pointedly: “Yes, you can. You just can’t believe it’s not you I married.”

Sofia feels a pure joy. She’s wanted to say this to Nick since her wedding day. She thought of him every day of her marriage. He never felt gone. She feels like Penelope, but, abandoned and spiteful, she took up with the last suitor. And now Odysseus returned and Penelope wonders why now, of all days?

But all we see is a small threat of a smile as a crossfades takes over. A white stucco house flutters in, looking exactly as it did in Sofia’s old Polaroid. The lawn needs to be mown and watered: patches of thin brown grass intermingle with stringy green weeds in a strange blend of dead and thriving. This is East Vancouver in 1990.

The man living upstairs who will cash their cheques for the next two years stands on the front step, arms crossed over a pot belly. The belly has only been there for about five years; it bloated quickly like a balloon attached to a helium tank. Were he to lose weight, he’d have stretch marks.

The day looks bright; it might be spring or even a cool summer. Sofia steps forward, her lips slowly churning out into a smile. The wind catches her hair, sending a tussle of black waves swirling around her face. As the sun streaks through the soft lens, her hair is not quite black, we realize, just a dark brown with a russet shimmer.

This rusty shine lends itself well to the rusty feel of this old memory.

Her fingers reach out towards Nick. A wave of reluctance passes over his face, but he takes her hand.

Come on,” she says in Romanian. Their first English lessons will begin only a few weeks from now. They will practice as best they can with each other: the words will form awkwardly in their throats, sounds and shapes of a thousand tongues entwined. The meanings will ramble on endlessly in their brains, like cows in a pasture with no idea of their purpose. The language will eventually take hold in a pidgin mix that for months will only make sense to the two of them like some absurd idioglossia.

Sofia will have been working at The Bay for months with her twisted tongue before she actually feels confident speaking English to anyone besides Nick. Even their landlord, a man whose sentences run no more than three words apiece, will make her feel small.

“Come on,” she repeats.

Nick’s face looks the same as it does when he is thirty-five. This is because as much as movies claim to be magic, they can’t reverse time. The world of facelifts and botox and celluloid youth means nothing, not when Nick is supposed to be under twenty but is actually thirty-five.

They’ve tried. They’ve changed his hair. His clothes are different too. They’ve tried to match them to 1990 without dating them. Nick cannot be a joke in an old tracksuit. Nick is a timeless hero: a forlorn figure the filmmaker can pour himself into. He wears a plain shirt, a dark burgundy that would prove richer had the fabric not faded and thinned with the years. His jeans are slim cut; faded too. Everything is faded, even the film this scene has been shot with.

Sofia smiles again. “Nicolae, come on.” She winks. Her lips are crooked but lovely. They are so dark they leap from her face.

Together, they walk up the front path. The filmmaker chose a close-up on their feet: Sofia’s feet, larger than he would have imagined for a woman intended to be perfect, step along the cracked walkway. Weeds grow between the broken concrete: spindly spires of green; buttercups and clovers. She’s not looking and crushes a small, yellow flower with her step.

The same foot is now tapping eighteen years later against a linoleum floor. A kettle is whistling away in the background. “Do you still take it the same way?”

Her English is strong. Eight years living with a Canadian have done that.

Da,” he replies, “Vă aduceți aminte?”

Yes, read the subtitles, Do you remember?

Her face stares blankly. The lines the years have given her show themselves. She knows that she still has a bit of an accent. With effort, she can repress it. She can manipulate her tongue into a crude impression of Ted. From Vancouver, his Canadian sounds nearly Californian at times. She hides her accent from customers at The Bay, from other parents on the playground, and from the less refined of Ted’s relatives.

She hides it now. “Yes, I remember.”

As she turns to pull some mugs from the cupboard, the filmmaker watches her move so stiffly. He knows Nick’s words have worked their way into her muscles, tightening and tensing them. Sofia has been uneasy from the moment she saw him standing on the welcome mat, but somehow it’s much worse now that she heard their language.

She hadn’t spoken it in fifteen years, the filmmaker knows. Not since she last spoke it with Nick. As she spent so long learning English, a part of her wondered if, with each new word that formed in her head, a word of Romanian would forever be gone. She’d done nothing to try to hold on to them; at times she even thought they were never coming back.

It is not the language of now; it is not the language of purgatory, English is.

It feels wrong running into her ears and draining down through her body. It soaks through every pore: the way she can feel Nick’s mouth making the words, the way she can see them spelling themselves out in the air, the way she feels her head vibrate with memories shaking themselves free of the confines she’s kept them in. Sofia can taste the words: listless and bittersweet.

“You speak so well,” he offers, the knees of his suit fresh with sweat from the palms of his hands.

She does not look at him. “So do you.”

Two mugs land heavily on the tile countertop: ceramic clacks against ceramic in a way that brings images of a broken plate into her mind.

They outfitted the white stucco house with thrift store castoffs. Stoneware plates from the seventies are set gingerly into the clean side of the kitchen sink, soapy froth sliding down in search of the drain. Nick’s hands, puckered and pink, reach in and grab it.

Their kitchen is small and barely distinguishable from the living room. The filmmaker knows that the sparse collection of furniture threadbare and rickety had been left behind by previous tenants. The wobbly table is covered by a layer of melamine and a dozen plastic bags.

Sofia is humming to herself; her arms are stuffed in the sink up to her elbows.

Nick runs a tea towel over the plate then slides it into the cupboard. Two identical plates are already in there and nothing else.

Dropping the last plate into the clean side of the sink, Sofia pulls the drain. As she turns to Nick with the murmurings of a cheeky grin, her wet hands fall in unison upon his chest. He jumps back with a laugh and two fresh handprints on his burgundy shirt.

What are you doing?!” he shrieks in Romanian.

She only laughs, which sounds the same in every language.

As he steps back towards her, leaning in for a kiss, the plate slips from his hands, falling to the ground.

But he kisses her anyway.

And it feels as though the plate was in shards before it even hit the floor.

Now Sofia passes a mug of tea to Nick. The gesture carries with it an insincere formality. She has handed mugs of tea to grandmothers and co-workers and strangers with the same kind of rigidity. The mug holds the lacquered shell of an Ikea catalogue. She has eight identical ones in the cupboard. They are the mugs reserved for guests.

Sofia’s mug was a gift from Lucy last year, picked from the shelves of Hallmark, gilded with sentimentality and saccharine intent. As Nick sits awkwardly on the couch, Sofia has yet to find a seat. She leans against the kitchen table instead.

Her eyes flit to the lumbering backpack. “So, where are you going?”

The filmmaker knows a dozen words are passing through his mind, scrolling through like entries in a thesaurus: the airport, abroad, Europe, the old country, Romania, Bucharest. He stares solidly at her while deciding how to answer.

“Home.”

Sofia pulls out a chair and falls into it.

“I see.”

“You’re wondering why, aren’t you?”

She nods.

“I don’t know, Sofie, I don’t know.” Her fingers twitch around the mug with the sound of her name.

As the filmmaker watches their eyes study each other carefully, Sofia’s trailing over the ripples of the fabric of his clothes, Nick’s over every line on her face.

The filmmaker does not close his eyes to dream.

And there, as Nick’s eyes take in this small patch of Sofia’s skin: that tiny spot on her neck, where the slope into her shoulders begins; the camera lingers.

And lingers.

She breathes. We can hear the sigh: the purity and innocence simultaneously cast down with the weight of the evening, no – the weight of the last eighteen years.

So simple but so melodramatic, the filmmaker thinks as he puts works to paper: “A weighted sigh.” But the actress, she nails it. It is everything he felt in Sofia.

It is beyond words, something he realizes either speaks to his profound lack of ability or to the true profound nature of this moment: this sigh as it exists.

Can a sigh encompass all that? All his frustrations and joys, all of himself? All of Sofia? All of Romania? All of 1989?

Can a film?

Sofia’s sigh as Nick watches her breathe is a moment of fiction and he thinks of truth. What truth ever existed in there? Did it lose itself or was it created? Did it begin then fade with each layer of retelling or did it never exist then was slowly given life?

The filmmaker does not know. Nick does not know. Sofia does not know. No one knows how it will end.

And so it does not. It does not end. It only stops. We cut to an image of a sunrise, as promised. The screen fills with those beautiful solar flares, at once natural, silent, and again a stark reminder of the screen before us.

And then we fade to black.

The credits roll.


Originally published in WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Volume 3, Issue 5, July 2015 and Quarter Castle Chronicles, Volume One, September 2015.

Kings Cross

Julie’s waiting at Kings Cross for Eric. There hasn’t been snow for a few days now so she didn’t mind walking to the tube. The station is busy like always. But I’ve let time unspool out before me in that way you can do after you’ve died. So it’s after Christmas now, and everyone here is coming back from their holidays or leaving to go back home. People are saying goodbye to friends and family; getting a bitter slap of reality as they step off the tracks. It’s a pretty bleak atmosphere, all and all.

And she’s still wearing black, is my sister. Her black coat is thick wool and comes down to her knees. She’s got it unbuttoned: letting the world see her dress and tights in all their solemn glory. She looks more like she’s in mourning than she did at my fucking funeral.

As she finds the board she’s told Eric she’ll meet him under, she catches herself suddenly wondering what he’s going to look like now, as many months as it’s been since she’s seen him. Her mind pieces in the picture of his face. She’s struck by how easily she can trace those details. Hair falling across his forehead like thin pins. Such a dark, ragged auburn. A rough jaw that only grows rougher when he’s neglected to shave. His lips are thicker in the middle then on the side so even when he smiles they look pursed. When he stands plainly, arms hanging at his side, his shoulders roll forward and he sinks into himself.

Engrossed with creating this picture in her head, Julie’s eyes lose focus on the crowds before her. She looks glassy-eyed and lost. Like some desolate waif abandoned amongst the throngs. The announcer crackles through the din of the station and she jumps. The words are inaudible but meaningless, serving only to catch her outside of herself. No one saw her jolt but she blushes anyway. Her eyes search the crowds again and there he is. Bundled up, is Eric; she can see the blue scarf wound around his neck even at this distance. It’s more bohemian than she’d normally think for him. As such, it gives him an air of self-importance.

As he grows closer, he waves. Julie is suddenly quite nervous. Without thinking, she pulls her coat closed and winds the dark ends of her plait around her finger. Eric hasn’t changed at all since the summer. Not like she has. A few months on her hair has added an extra curl on the bottom, that’s about all. She’s put on a little weight too. It’s easy to blame it on grief, she’s been telling herself, but now she’s suddenly so conscious of it.

He reaches her. His bag is strapped across his back. He’s wearing a fucking motorcycle jacket, she thinks. Eric does not own a motorcycle. If he got one he would have mentioned it. Her fingers clench as her hands stuff themselves into her pockets.

“Eric, my brother,” she suppresses a waver in her throat, “Dapper as ever. Mum let you out the house like that?”

“She don’t know I’m gone,” he says, “Julie, you look—”

She’s well aware what she looks like; she’s just come from work. “Frumpy? Boring? Pathetic?” she simpers, “Let me keep throwing out adjectives, Eric, and you raise your hand when I hit the right one. Tidy? Responsible?”

He raises his hand. “You don’t look like you. You look like a grown-up.”

“Oh, thank you very much. That’s kind of you to say.”

“You know what I mean.” They turn in the direction of the tube. “New job has a dress code, I’m assuming.”

“You assume correct, sir.”

With a grin, she leads him onwards. Julie keeps a step ahead of him, as though some distance must be observed. As they push alongside a crowd of strangers onto the tube, they both cling to the poles around them. There’s a strange intimacy, Julie thinks, on a crowded tube. Such a close proximity to complete strangers: you can hear their breath, smell their antiperspirant, body odour, cologne or perfume, and see the smallest twitches of their face. You can feel their body pulsing around you. Yet everyone is afraid to fucking speak.

Julie and Eric keep shooting each other quick looks. Julie looks at Eric. Then looks away. Eric looks at Julie. Then looks away. Julie looks at Eric. Then looks away. Eric looks at Julie. Then looks away. Julie looks at Eric. Then looks away. Eric looks at Julie. Then looks away. Julie looks at Eric. Then looks away. Eric looks at Julie. Then looks away. It’s like they’re on strictly observed schedule. But they dare not fucking speak lest the intimacy overwhelm them.

At last their feet climb up side-by-side onto the sidewalk. Late December hits them snidely. “You should have just given me your address,” says Eric, “I could’ve found my way. You didn’t have to meet me.”

“I don’t mind. It’s on my way home.”

Their feet keep skipping along the sidewalk. The only snow still sticking around in this part of the city is grey slush in the gutter. Only the odd patch of ice in potholes and cracks reminds anyone it’s fucking winter. Neither of them realise it, but they’re both wearing the same shoes they wore to my funeral: Julie’s black flats and Eric’s weird loafer things. Funny the details we remember. And the ones we miss.


Originally published in in Room, 37.1 (March 2014).

Ticker Tape Kings

“A time travel story unlike any I’ve read.” – Black Gate

__________________________

Time travel always has rules. These rules bend to nothing but the will of the narrative.

It is not the case in real life. In real life, I am told, time travel has one un-bending, un-breaking rule: you cannot come back.

Lawrence did his best to make sure I understood this: “We cannot come back, Lisa. We go, we are gone. We live our lives there, in the past.”

He said this with such urgency, such gravity. His usual lectures are never so pointed. When he stands before a classroom, he speaks with the rhetoric of a philosopher. He speaks like a man in love.

What he loves is the Middle Ages. He discovered this in the hall of academia, plaid-shirted and guileless in the pursuit of truth. He discovered this when we were together so long ago now.

Those years broke away in aimless reverie of that period of life that can only be called post-youth. While he grew a beard and photocopied journals, I drifted. He looked out and I looked in. Lawrence placed great symbolism in the death of Chaucer while I placed great symbolism in the memory of my first visit to a library, hand clasped inside my mother’s.

It was the day they were selling off the old card catalogue drawers. Confused my mother was for a moment, abandoned by her intentions. Together we both stood by while the librarian pointed to a computer screen. This memory would come to contextualize my vanished adolescence as the last one the western world to remember life before the internet. I have always supposed this means I will be one of the last people left alive with the knowledge of that distance, remembering what it truly is to be disconnected.

But Lawrence does not know disconnect. He finds something of himself in everything. He finds something of himself in people worlds away, in people who lived millennia ago.

He found something in me once.

I suspect now he pities me.

His face fell when I gave him my address. A studio apartment, I said: brick walls and cracking plaster, exposed pipes, sirens in the air and a metallic tingle in the water. I live on the border: one side a memory of industry marked by empty lots and cheap warehouses; the other a prophecy written by bohemian artists. They predict ten years until gentrification. The neon signs are like banner men: each faux-dive bar and restaurant a noble house of those young, educated and poor.

When he came over, I wondered how far he had to travel. I do not even know where he lives now. He stepped inside as though holding his breath. The way his shoulders sheepishly hunched forward told me he’s not proud of what he holds behind his lips.

I laughed at him as I said, “Hippie,” wanting to reach for his blond beard. But the distance between us was too vague.

“How are you?” He ignored the distance—I should have suspected—and pulled me in.

“Fine.” His body pressed quickly against me; his hand patted my back.

Moments like this remind me so starkly of our genders. When I feel a man pat my back, even a man as level and familiar as Lawrence, I remember I am a woman, in the most biological sense. Even Lawrence does this to me and he is only slightly taller than me and not stocky but lean. But his hand feels so big in the brief moment it sits against me and I cannot help but feel small. I feel weak: fashioned into an object of pity and concern, someone to be taken care of. And I hate it.

I pulled away. As I looked him up and down, it all became apparent. He’d barely slept by the looks of his eyes. That pert boyishness was gone. And that moment where I felt weak and pitiable disappeared. He looked like a child knocking on the first door of Halloween, not knowing what horror mask hides behind. “Lisa,” he said, eyes dark and sallow, “We can start over.”

#

As he sat on my sofa, sipping green tea from a china mug, I flipped through samples of the documents they had for him as if these were paint samples for a house we would build together. This first wave of artifacts—historically crafted bills of exchange, manuscripts, stamped coins pilfered from a museum cache—was like blueprints. He had everything but a Lonely Planet guide.

Months of lessons would await me if I decided to go. Or so he tells me. I would learn the language of English before a vowel shift. I would prepare a backstory. I would have to learn to wield a sword. Time travel is tedious, I thought.

Despite his insistence otherwise, Medieval London hardly feels like a place for a rebirth. I know what looms on the horizon.

Thus Lawrence’s nonchalance scared me. That rule stood out blindly: you cannot come back. The finality is terrifying, but Lawrence seemed to enjoy his idea of a one-way ticket.

Here was a man with a lingering question: who killed a Geoffrey Chaucer? So used he is to the easy answers of the Internet age that mysteries frustrate him. Some things are simply lost to history and that infuriates Lawrence.

He has always wished that the answers were like a missing set of keys: turn over enough couch cushions and they show up eventually. Time travel is just another text book to him, another primary document.

But he does not want to do it alone. Perhaps that counts for something.

While Lawrence grew his blond beard I drifted: I floated penniless across the expanse, taking up ventures Romantic and painful: picking grapes in the south of France, teaching English in Spain.

But there was always a notion of home, of a place that could be returned to if desired. Because the mind builds things into fantasies; it is naïve to think otherwise. The world becomes an impossibly perfect universe of Eiffel Towers covered in Instagram filters where no one is lonely and it never rains.

But life, the life that haunts you daily, carries on just below the surface. Other worlds are two months of culture shock and then the norm.

I tried explaining this to Lawrence as he sat uncomfortably on my sofa, picking idly at an old afghan. Stubbornly, he shook his head. “You don’t believe me,” is all he said, “You just don’t believe me.”

“You’re right,” I replied, “I don’t. But it wouldn’t change a thing. Even if this were true, what can you expect of me?”

His smile peeks out, sheepish and coy: “That you wouldn’t let me go alone.”

“Laurie—“

“Lisa,” he lowers his voice, placing his hand on my knee, at once both intimate and innocent, “You’re the only one.”

#

It took a long time for me to even consider believing him. I thought that he was playing some elaborate practical joke. Then I thought that years spent in libraries and lecture halls had melded his obsession into a waking daydream—that he’d slipped into Shakespearean madness.

At last he’d become the something to rescue. The thought of his hand, strong and commanding against my back, awoke some feeling of spite, or superiority. I would play along, I decided, and let him take me to visit the facility.

The facility is in a part of town I’d always thought full of discount textile stores and auto-body repair shops; where the rent is so cheap it feels like the early nineties.

Walking through the side streets, you could almost believe it was. A sign on a corner store was broken plastic. Fading fluorescent light bulbs shone through. Old adverts hung in the windows hawking things I remember from when I was a kid: Astro Pops and Bagel Bites.

I passed a salon. A cardboard woman, faded from the sun, had blue eyeshadow and sprayed bangs. Behind her, frail, immigrant women gossiped, giggled, and wiped their onion paper hands on their smocks.

Nothing here had changed in years, except everyone was older now than they once were.

As the corner store faded behind me, I nearly tripped over a sandwich board with the daily news. I ignored the headline as I have since Lawrence’s proposition. Nothing seemed new after that, as though the world stopped turning.

We just tell the same stories over and over and pretend we haven’t heard them before. At first, we think we’re perfecting them, as if every tales has a right way to be told and we just need to unlock it, chipping away slowly like Michelangelo discovering David.

If we ever get there, there’s barely a thing left resembling truth. It’s all about the nuance: did we get our comedic timing right? Are the details perfect? We tell it like this, and we keep telling it, over and over. The lies we applied as gloss become truths: a flourish of a brush, a slightly adjusted camera angle. We tell it over and over. We forget what is the lie and what is the truth. And after a while, the story becomes boring. It becomes a routine, just another banal circumstance of our existence.

Is this what Lawrence wants so desperately to strip away, the lacquer that hides just how boring it all is?

Perhaps I did believe something of his story after all. Perhaps I just wanted to. Perhaps the image of Lawrence as a victim sat poorly with me. Perhaps the idea of time travel became comforting, like an escape route, even.

As I arrive at the warehouse, Lawrence waits, hands stuffed in pockets, leaning against a wide hangar door. The door takes up a side of the grey building, but it is closed and locked and looks like it hadn’t been opened in years.

There is nothing to indicate a business: no sign, no mail slot, no buzzer.  Dust collected in the corners and weeds poked through the broken concrete. The sounds of the city faded: I’m not supposed to hear anything distinct anymore; it’s all ambient.

I point to the door. “It’s in here?”

He nods. “They’re so secret. Can you imagine if they weren’t?”

“Yes,” I say, “I imagine they’d be exposed as the frauds they are.”

Lawrence stares. I see the resignation in his eyes: the redness, the lack of sleep. “They convinced me, Lisa.” And now he wants to convince me. He wants me here to witness it too, to tell him he’s not insane. “I need you to see it too, Lisa. I need you to hear it. I need you to witness it. I need you to believe it too.”

“In time travel?” I laugh.

He takes both my hands in his. “Please.”

#

Inside the warehouse it is dark. False walls have been propped up as if to preserve a mystery. A man greets us at the door. He is tall and broad-shouldered; his eyes are near black and his skin brown. He tells us his name is James and then he leads us on. He speaks with a shrouded arrogance that leaves me sceptical, but Lawrence is impressed.

“Just follow him, Lise,” he says, gesturing up the corridor. The ceilings are low; it almost feels a tunnel: dark walls and floors. The corridor twists: we turn left, we turn right. At the end is a single door: a halo of light stretches through the cracks.

“This way,” James says. He knocks on the door, “It’s me.”

On the other side is a woman in an ochre suit. She says nothing but lets her narrow eyes drift up and down Lawrence and I. “Mr. Stone,” she says to Lawrence, “Welcome again. You’ve brought your companion at last.”

“Lisa,” Without looking at me, Lawrence places his hand on the small of my back and steers me in towards the room. Instinct digs my heels into the floor. The room is four blank walls and a single desk with a single stack of papers and two pens: one presumably for signing, the other a spare.

These people have shaky faith in ballpoint pens yet they want to send Lawrence back in time.

I say nothing and Lawrence still will not look at me. The woman starts: “Ms. McLean—“

“Stop,” I say, “How does she know my name?”

“I’ve told them about you,” he says, “I needed to clear you before you could see in here.”

The woman smiles; her lips are like earthworms curling on hot tarmac. “We have something for you to sign. Just some simple non-disclosure agreements.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then it falls on me,” Lawrence replies. At last he looks at me, his stare a plea.

And so I pick up a pen.

I only need one.

The woman dismisses James, my signature in his hand, and leads us from the room. From here on, the doors are steel. They clang as they open and close. The echoes seem designed purely for their contribution to the ambience.

Single file, we make our way down the corridor. I follow the woman with Lawrence’s hand on my back. His fingertips rest gently, only in reminder he’s there, nothing more.

For thirty seconds, no more, we walk like this and I find myself thinking this is the deepest prolonged physical contact we’ve had in years: fingertips quiet on my back. What is it as you age that makes you less easy to the simple intimacy of touch?

In college, we’d collapse against each other as nothing more than a greeting. We’d sling arms around one another, link arms on jaunts across campus, spend whole nights with limbs entwined. There’s a cavalier ephemerality to the motions of relationships at that age, because everything one imagines of permanence had yet to happen. Everything feels transition, a pathway. You’re groping along in the dark.

That path never felt like it led anywhere but one day I awoke older, aware I’d lost the pretensions somewhere along the way.

Lawrence’s fingertips disappear as we arrive at another door. The woman, whose name I still do not know, punches in a code. As the steel lurches open, I realise suddenly that those long corridors have slowly been sloping downwards. Before us is an open tract, easily three times the size of the warehouses. Spinning on her thick heels, the woman faces us; her worm lips struggle to repress an eager smile.

“Ms. McLean,” she says, “This is where it happens.”

“Where what happens exactly?”

The room is lined with glass concealing panels of machinery, like a space shuttle control room. It all seems so markedly scientific. From the ceiling hang bars and cords and lights and pathways, like a fly gallery. In the centre is a hollow, sealed chamber. All contributes to the feeling of a set designed by a grade schooler. Lawrence smiles painfully; I grimace in return.

The woman purses her lips. “The actual science would take hours to explain, days if I had to go back to elementary physics—“

“No useful, one line analogies?”

She frowns. “If you want to hear it, we can go back to the beginning. We have people who can do that.”

“Lise,” Lawrence whispers.

“What? I’m sorry. That just seems the easiest way to package bullshit. I think I have a right to be skeptical.”

The woman laughs; such a haughty laugh she should know does little for developing trust. “Ms. McLean, you need proof, don’t you?”

And proof she provides: enough to convince me at last.

To convince me, it did not take Lawrence’s word; it did not take examples of drafted artifacts for the life we would lead; it did not take seeing the facility; and it did not take the briefcases full of pages of ten-point type spelling out waivers and wills.

All it takes is a calico cat.

The woman holds the cat out to me, pointing out the distinctive markings, letting me run my fingers through her fur. “About six months ago, this cat appeared one instant inside the chamber, as a kitten. I don’t know if you know this, Ms. McLean, but cats have this genetic quirk. You can manipulate their DNA all you like, you can clone a cat, but you will never get the exact same markings in the fur. That is something unique to each cat alone.”

“I did know that actually,” I fold my arms, “What point that does that prove?”

The woman grins as James comes back into the room, a small kitten in his arms. “Then how do you explain this?” As she takes the kitten from him, she presents it to me: a smaller, younger version of the older cat. “This kitten was born just a few weeks ago.”

“That’s not the same cat,” I stutter.

“It is, and it isn’t,” she says, “Time is not a loop, Ms. McLean, it is a line, an arrow. When that cat came to us, we split from whatever line it came from, just as this kitten will split into another.”

I swallow as she places the kitten into the chamber, works some magic with the controls, and the kitten disappears.

“That’s why we can’t come back.”

“Precisely,” the woman says, “Time travel is complicated. In fact, ‘travel’ is a bit of a misnomer. ‘Travel’ implies coming and going. What we do, I’m afraid, is provide a one-way trip.”

I look to Lawrence and the sheepish sadness behind his eyes. “One way? So you meant it? You would never come back? You’d be gone forever?”

He swallows; behind his blond beard he could be almost a little boy again. His blue eyes twinkle. He takes my hand and I let him; it feels like years ago.

“That’s why I want you to come with me. The decision is yours,” Lawrence says, although he does not have to. Of course the decision is mine. “But I’m going anyway.”

I stare plainly at him. He avoids the hard truth of my eyes as his toes shuffle against the cement floor. “Laurie,” I insist, “This machine will kill you.”

But as I look at him, I see such excitement. I see the simplicity with which he will twist the medieval world to his will. I see how he has the great mysteries ahead of him to solve. I see him fantasizing about the world at a crux, a world in 1399 where Henry Bolingbroke showed the true way to make a ruler, where divine right dissolves in the face of strength.

I see me, at his side, no more than Cassandra. Where it feels to me a transformation, a submission, to him it is a quest, a self-actualization. He has the battle-ready glee of an astronaut. It is worth it, I think, to go to the moon if you can’t come back for the parade in your honour?

I reply: “It is impossible to ask me to choose this, Lawrence. I cannot believe you would be so selfish.”

“How is this selfish, Lisa?” he retorts, “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“For you. You’ve yet to tell me what I get out of this, other than the pleasure of your company.”

He replies and I retort, and on it goes in that funny way where old patterns thought lost to the years reassert themselves, almost like time travel itself. Lawrence’s inability to realize what he is asking of me takes me back to the moment he assumed I’d move to Berlin with him for grad school, no questions asked. And that realization turns me back into a twenty-three year old.

“We can start over, Lise,” he murmurs, the quiet words of his thin lips like something from another realm.

“Laurie, please,” I whisper, “You can’t ask me to do this.”

As I step out of the room, escorted by James, the calico cat begins to purr.

#

James leads me in silence down the length of the silent grey hallways until we reach the front door. As daylight cracks through again, I turn to give him my thanks. His smile, nothing more than a polite reflex, nearly sets me to tears.

“It is all right,” he says simply, “And I probably shouldn’t say this, but you’ve made the right choice.”

I gaze up at him, at his tailored suit buttoned carefully over a crisp shirt. His eyes meet mine and hold them. “Would you ever do it?” I ask.

James gestures up to his face with a hand brown on one side, pink on the other. “What do you think? When or where would I go?” As he steps nearer to me, his voice lowers, “I am speaking in confidence now. I see all manner of men come through here, waving their cash. They think they can manipulate the world. They want to get rich on the stock market, invent the steam engine, fuck Cleopatra, throw themselves parades, be king of Europe—and maybe they will.”

“But we don’t get to do that,” I say, “you and I.”

He presses his lips together. “Nope. We certainly don’t.”

We stare at each other, James and I, a shared resentment is momentarily relieved by our mutual commiseration.

I will never see Lawrence again.

I will only be able to assume he travelled in time as promised: without me.

The past will always be so for me, but that is nothing to lament; the past is gone and I must let it go.


Originally published in the anthology Redwing: Speculative Fiction Takes Flight (December 2014).

The Stars / Les Étoiles

Just like Scarlett O’Hara, her dress was made from curtains. It was white now but it had once been purple.

A long time ago before she was even born the curtains had been selected for the living room because they matched the wallpaper perfectly. She grew up in a living room of purple paisley. Everything was purple, actually. Her father liked it like that and her mother never thought to complain. But she, their only daughter, never really cared for purple. But they didn’t listen. And so purple it always was.

The last time she had a growth spurt, she outgrew everything she owned so her mother had to spend the morning sewing her a new frock. (She was late for school but no one noticed.) When she returned home, she blended into the wall. Perhaps she would disappear into the drywall, get pulled into the foundations and be left to stew for eons in the dirt under the house. A few years from now, would her father look up over his paper to her mother and ask: “Hey, what ever happened to our daughter?”

It was the only dress she owned. Always she blended in. She had hoped that growing would help. She always wanted to be bigger. And growing would mean a new dress. And so she wished she would be. She wished and wished but nothing ever happened. Little and insignificant she stayed. At dinner times she would pass the salt when requested and that was where she remained.

Then, one day, she heard a rumour: there things upon which a person who desired something could wish. They were called “the stars,” or “les étoiles.” She liked both names and couldn’t pick a favourite. She wished every night now after she put herself to bed: “Please, les étoiles, please. I have grown so little these past few years. I want to be bigger. So big that no one can ever ignore me again. Please, stars, please. I want to grow and grow and grow.”  She wished every night with her head poked out the bedroom window and her hair hanging down in tight braids brushing against the rose bushes below; she wished on les étoiles.

There was something special about one star, she thought. It flickered like the candle she once saw her grandmother carrying down the dark hall when the lights went out. It flicked blue and red. She smiled to herself and felt the cracks between her loose teeth with her tongue as she closed the window. The stars were special, she thought, they would heed her desire.

She knew her wish would be answered. And it was.

By the next morning, she’d outgrown the curtain dress. It stretched tightly against her skin, the seams bursting , the hem skimming far too high above her knees. Again her mother ripped another panel of curtains from the living room windows. Again she haphazardly stitched together a frock. (Again she was late for school. Again no one noticed.) Again her father sat at the dinner table, his newspaper stretched in front of his face: “Pass the salt.”

Again she poked her head out the window. Again her braids brushed against the roses.  “Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

The next morning, she’d grown again.  (She was late for school and still no one noticed.) “Pass the salt.”

That night, l’étoile blinking red and blue:  “Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

“Pass the salt.”

“Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

“Pass the salt.”

“Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

“Pass the salt.”

“Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

“Pass the salt.”

“Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

“Pass the salt.”

By the next week, her mother was setting her alarm clock earlier and earlier in preparation for the new dress she would have to sew.

“Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

“Pass the salt.”

“Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

“Pass the salt.”

Within another week, all the curtains in the entire house were not big enough to make a dress for her.

“Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

“Pass the salt.”

A week after that, she didn’t fit in the house any more.

A week after that, she didn’t fit in the yard.

A week after that, she didn’t fit in the local football pitch.

“Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

A week after that, she was sleeping several miles away in the farmers’ fields, the cornstalks making her pillow, the pumpkin patch at her ankles. She wore all the curtain dresses stitched together around her body.  (The school eventually sent a letter wondering why she had missed so many classes.)

“Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

Her mother stopped sewing all together. Whatever fabric she could find was lashed together with duct tape. They used sticks and wet rags to give her a daily bath. (The school claimed that the field was out of their catchment area and she should longer attend.) But still she had no seen her father. The newspapers did not deliver to fields.

“Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

Her mother and the farmers, gathered together with the sons and daughters who would take over their plots one day, dressed her every morning. The potato farmers hoisted on socks stitched together from a thousand potato sacks. The corn farmers wove their corn silk into rope and thread to bind the fabrics around her limbs. The blueberry farmers used their rakes to comb her hair; it took ten of them four hours to plait her hair and tie the bows. Their field was directly under her; she’d ruined not only their farms but also the bottom of her dress. The curtain-dresses-frock was stained with a blue sweetness that cost more than her parents could afford. Her mother passed along messages from home that the newspapers issued columns reporting on the increase in the price of blueberries and why oh why could these have happened?

“Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

When the point was reached that her mother, along with all the farmers, had to work out a system of ropes and pulleys to get the curtain-dresses over her growing body, she made the front page of the newspaper. They came out in hoards to see her and this wooden contraption built around her growing body. Photos were taken in endless succession of the docks built up to her shoulders; of the toothbrush, like an oar from an ancient slave ship, which took six men to work; of the now-ragged curtain dress hanging in lashed-together shards from her expansive skin; of the patchwork fleet of tarpaulins strung up over her head; and of her face, freckles the size of hula hoops. They needed to back up nearly a hundred yards to get her in frame.  The flashbulbs sparkled around her and she realized with glee that they noticed her. They asked her questions and questions. “How much do you eat?” and “How do you bathe?” and “Is purple your favourite colour?” They did not ask how or why she grew so large. And so she kept the secret of les étoiles to herself.

That was when her father came for the only time to the farmer’s field.  He brandished the newspaper with her picture across the front, grinning proudly. He wore his best sweater vest when he came to visit. She stopped wishing. Even though she no longer needed to poke her head out a bedroom window, she stopped wishing. She wasn’t sure how many weeks had passed since that first wish had been granted, but it was then that she finally stopped growing.

She was famous for a week.

Then the fields fell back into silence. The farmers finished counting up the money they’d made from letting the reporters and sight-seers park in their driveways. Her mother put her hands back on her hips. Her father returned home, the newspaper tucked under his arm once more.

She tried to wish again: “Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I am not big enough yet.”

But nothing happened.

She never shrank again, but she had stopped growing. For years she stayed that size. For years she stayed in the farmers’ fields. She got to know their names, their histories, their dreams. The rains came. The rains went. The snow came. The snow went. The sun came back. The sun left again. The contraptions around her gradually grew more permanent. The seasons swung by: year falling into year springing into year then falling again then bouncing back again. Metal replaced wood; polyester fleece replaced wool; industrial cables replaced corn silk.

Her curtain-dresses faded from purple to lilac to lavender to white.

The crops around her had long since withered. The farmers retired when their money went and nothing else could grow to replace it. The sons and daughters of the farmers, who had once planned on taking over the farms, married, had children, and moved away, leaving the farms behind. She heard occasionally how they went into the city. Eventually none of the farmers were left anymore. When her mother herself disappeared, her knees too old and rickety to row the toothbrush anymore, there was no one left to see her anymore.

That was the first night in nearly ten years that she wished upon a star again.

“Please, les étoiles, please, stars. I don’t want to be seen anymore. I’m sick of being seen. Please. I don’t want to be seen anymore.”

Years later, Stella, grand-daughter of old potato farmers, drove near the fallow fields, remarked casually to her own grandchildren in the backseat of her jalopy: “Look ahead and you will see a giant. I remember her when I was younger than you. She wore all purple then, but it’s white now.”

The grandchildren laughed, “Silly Grandma! There’s nothing there!” As the jalopy disappeared down the lonely, quiet road, the invisible giant let go her breath, sighing again, alone once more.


Originally published in Sad Magazine, issue no. 14 The FANTASY issue (2013).

half of all t.rexes were girls

My aunt was twenty years old when I – the first in the family of my generation – was born. She was mid-liberal arts degree and wore it on her sleeve. The blue onesie she bought me for my first Christmas quickly became a family joke.

But I always resented the idea that a baby girl in a blue onesie was a thing to laugh about. I despised the mandate that girls had to look pretty while boys wore something you could “get muddy in.”

As I grew older and asserted myself more strongly, I fought against wearing frilly dresses and sought out clothes my parents Santa had to scour Vancouver comic book stores to find (namely the one-size-fits-all Batman t-shirt I spent ages five to six wearing).

So, with that troubling childhood memory, I would like to share a great Kickstarter launching today: Jack and Jill Kids. This “gender-neutral kids’ clothing company [aims] to inspire the next generation of leaders to think beyond pink and blue.”

Finally! A kids’ clothing company that does away with this pink and blue dichotomy! This makes me want to breed just so I can dress my child in a t-shirt that says “Half of all T.Rexes Were Girls” (I might even try to stick Stinkymuffin in one. No. Of course I won’t. That would be suicidal.)

Trex2

Forget a child; I want this t-shirt.

There are so many awesome things I could say from here, but founder, Jenn Neilsen, sums it up perfectly:

We all want to make sure that the kids in our lives have as many opportunities as possible, and helping them to see that their options are not color coded will broaden their horizons, and help them to develop their own sense of self, free from outdated ideas and expectations. These kids will run the world one day, and if they pursue their passions, instead of feeling like they don’t belong, we‘ll be better equipped to deal with the challenges that the future will bring.

We need more girls who know that they can solve tough, real world problems and more boys who are interested in collaboration, not just competition. To get there we need to change the messages we’re sending to kids. Giving them more and better clothing options is just the beginning.

I am so grateful for Jenn sharing this positive endeavour with me and I’m so glad to share it with you all!

UPDATE: Okay, so you CAN get an adult version of the Half of All T.Rexes Were Girls if you pledge the Kickstarter! DO IT.

the coolest I have ever been: a story about anxiety

The coolest I have ever been is the day I had eye surgery on my left eye. When I left the hospital with one pupil normal and one dilated, I looked the closest to David Bowie as I ever am likely too unless Tilda Swinton and I are in a horrible accident together and the only way to save one of us is to put my brain in her body.

But I digress.

I bring this up because the follow-up make-sure-you’re-healing-and-not-going-blind-instead appointment was tentatively dated to a time when I was immersed in the heavy production period of a film school would-be masterpiece. I cancelled the appointment and never remembered to reschedule.

Four years later it’s been something of a nagging itch. Did my eye heal? Or am I slowly going blind? Will Pirates in Space be the closest I’ll ever get to my Paradise Lost?*

The coolest I have ever been is still not this cool.
The coolest I have ever been is still not this cool.

So obviously the healthiest way to deal with this was by ignoring it. And so I continued to ignore it. Because things like doctors and dentists and optometrists give me inexplicable and near-intolerable anxiety.

Same with banks. They all make me feel like I’m being judged. Like, while flipping through a decade-old copy of Highlights for Kids in the waiting room, the receptionist is weighing my organs and placing them in canopic jars while cackling maniacally.**

Somehow, the bank teller knows I purposely buy the slightly more expensive organic milk and in her eyes this mismanagement of funds deems me evil or, worse, childish. “Pay into your RRSPs!” She will forewarn as the camera swoops into a low angle and the sky darkens.

Anyway.

So I’m moving to another country in a month and what went from well-intentioned plans has turned to cowering in a corner pleading to a silent entity to not make me have to talk to anymore strangers with advanced degrees.

I began with the rationale that these anxiety-inducing encounters will only be worse if undertaken in a foreign land, so I might as well get all those nagging itches scratched as soon as possible. However, it’s amazing what cold, squidgy rationalization can do.

Suddenly, there is nothing wrong with me. So what if I haven’t been to the dentist in several years. I’m going to Britain, land of bad teeth! I need to fit in!

But alas. I ran out of contact lenses. Sure, my eyesight has worsened in the last four years but I was always afraid of that second appointment I never had. But I sucked it up. I booked what I thought was a really quick prescription-taking eye test.

But this optometrist, he had a sixth sense for bull-shitters. Like Karl Pilkington’s alter-ego, the optometrist swooped in and called “Bullshit!” on my hand-wringing denial of any further concerns.

A set of eye drops later, he calmed my fears. I am not slowly going blind. No holey retinas here. This leaves me pondering the nature of my medical professional-related anxiety. I always fear the worst, but hate seeing someone about it, even if I know they will calm those fears.

What the hell, brain? Should I get you checked out? But then I would have to see a psychiatrist, which might just be the worst possible thing in the entire world. Do you have a disorder? Or a chemical imbalance?

Am I crazy? Or just totally normal…? Wouldn’t that suck.

Oh well. At least I’m not John Milton.

__________

*Apologies for the pretentiousness of a Milton reference. Apologies, apologies all around.

**Oh wow. More pretensions. Was that a reference to ancient Egyptian beliefs of the afterlife? Why, yes! It was! But with a little pop culture witch behaviour thrown in for added offence.

latch keys

Sometimes I think how you remember your childhood varies with how much time has passed since. Each year adds another coat of paint tempered with pop culture and shifting perspectives. Childhood takes on this orange hue, as if a perpetual summer. One coloured with the clichés we remember from movies: bare feet, tire swings, lakes, rivers, streams, creeks – how much of childhood seems to revolve around water? It’s as though youth finds itself in something at once both primordial and perpetual in its motion.

“Childhood” – when remembered as such – is just these images. They are probably not even our own. We have to think further to connect childhood to something. Time comes back in fragments. These are the “stories.” These are the pieces you slot together into a puzzle that can never really be completed. Do you ever start talking to an old friend or family member and they come out with an old story in which you are the protagonist that you have absolutely no memory of? It feels like someone else’s life. It’s a piece to the puzzle, but one you don’t feel comfortable fitting in because it doesn’t connect to anything else. It’s just this lonely jigsaw shape floating about in your life.

Aviary Photo_130301761252105093A while ago, my uncle told a story of toddler me that my parents didn’t even know: he took me for a walk and – toddling about as toddlers do – I found a small rock that I tried to push through a storm drain. When it didn’t fit through the grate, I kept pushing, punctuating each attempt with a “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” I guess I was able to take this “new old story” as my own because I can still relate to it today.

But these fragments, these pieces, become clichés – clichés like: bare feet, tire swings, lakes, rivers, streams, creeks, and the colour orange – because that’s what we need as an anchor.

But I digress.

Summer. Childhood always seems to take place in the summer because when we were kids, summer meant being free. And now, being free means being a kid.

Summer was your own world. For me, my parents both worked. And then my dad decided to go back to school. He became a full-time university student who also worked several part-time jobs (because my mother made too much for him to qualify for student loans, but not enough for us to, you know, have things.)

It is too hard now to construct a daily narrative. I cannot remember the pattern of the average day in the summer. I remember the freedom of being home alone. I remember the freedom of running around with the neighbourhood children, in and out of backyards, over fences, through carports; dirt under our crudely nibbled nails and scabs on our knees. I remember dates with my friend’s family who lived two blocks away (far enough away  to be another land). Last week I saw this friend for the first time since my wedding. I played with her daughter. Her mother stopped by. We conversed as adults. Time passes. Dynamics shift.

In those latch key summers, she would  drive us up to the free outdoor pool. Sometimes it would suddenly close because some kid pooped in the water. Just like in Caddyshack. We would pile back into the car in our swimsuits, barely towel-dry. Once, it was so hot inside the car that my half-exposed ass cheek hit the hot metal of the seat belt. It burnt, blistered, and left a scar that finally disappeared sometime in high school.

We came home and presumably let ourselves in. That seat belt burn left a perfect square in the middle; it was so clearly a seat belt. That brand was an emblem of summer. It marked me a child of free swimming pools, latch keys, and camping in the backyard.

One time we played house in the broken-down car sitting in the carport. We moved in a kitchen shelf, throw pillows and the cat. The “mother” sat in the driver’s seat but all of our bedrooms were in the back. When our game was done, we let ourselves out, made sure we locked the doors (as we had always been told), then realized the poor cat was still inside.

Luckily the car in the shade, but we had to wait a few hours for our parents to get home with the key.

It was the one key we didn’t have.

my mum, the superhero

A short list of reasons why my mum is a superhero. In no particular order.

She wears a Batsuit.

I once nicknamed her housecoat “The Batsuit” in an attempt to mock her. (It had to do with certain resemblances to the Schumacher/Clooney batnipples.) Like any person full of win, Mum turned this around on her would-be bully and now we ALL call it “The Batsuit.” She even put “New Batsuit” on her Christmas list.

Her costume does vary at times.

She cultivates a well-groomed alter ego.

Mum’s the life of the party, Bruce Wayne-style. She’s also got a ton of hobbies and career choices that seem to be perfect cover stories for someone who secretly lives the life of a crime-fighter. Travel Agent = Easy Excuse for Travelling to Exotic Locales in Search of Scum and Villainy. Wine Taster = Senses Well-Honed to Perfection for Sniffing Out Trouble. Dental Assistant = Imagine What You Can Fashion Those Sadistic Tools Into. Curling = Something About a “Clean Sweep.”

Subtlety is not always the key to blending into society.

She has a Fortress of Solitude.

Only she calls it “The Princess Room.” It’s where she keeps her yoga CDs, aromatherapy stuff, and all the family albums. You don’t mess with her down time. But Superman had to fly around the world to reach his little sanctuary. He would be gone for a long time, letting crime run rampant in Metropolis while he was off sleeping in an ice cave,* but Mum just needs a quick twenty minutes after a long day at work and then she’s back in the thick of the fray: re-energized and ready to kick ass.

We all have different ways to relax.

She rules a fear-based regime.

Just like Batman crafts the persona of the Dark Knight as so to inflict fear into the hearts of the criminals of Gotham City, Mum ruled my childhood home with the stern veneer of a ruthless vigilante. After school, but before she got home from work, Disney Afternoon would pop on the television in a fit of rebellious glee. The seediness of our after-school existence was apparent: dishes in the sink, shoes scattered about the hall, backpacks dropped in the middle of the floor. All of it: evidence of the brutality of the underworld. But lo! Suddenly, there would come a noise! The car in the drive: the tires, the engine, the slamming of the door. It struck a terror into our hearts just as deep as any Batsignal or glib one-liner from a web-slinger. Without her even lifting a finger, harmony was restored once more.

We have ways of making you talk.

She’s a marvel of medical science.

She scoffs at doctors and other so-called medical professionals. “Gall bladder? Bah. Don’t need it! Come on, world, what else’ve you got?!” She’s never met a tranq dart capable of taking her down nor a canister of tear gas that could quell her rage. She can write her own damn prescriptions, thankyouverymuch. I’m fairly certain she has the ability to stop time, Zack Morris-style. That’s the only thing I can think of that would explain her uncanny ability to multi-task (as well as all the tiny details she somehow knows about my private life).

SHE may have survived the procedure, but that doesn't mean the medical team did.

She has a sidekick.

He’s called my dad. He’s kind of Robin/Alfred/Lois Lane/Nick Fury all rolled into one. If Mum told him to, I bet he’d even wear the tights and carry the Bat Shark Repellant.

Even superheros have Hawaiian shirt day.

Global TV owes her a printer.

This is actually why I decided to make this list. I got a call from her today while I was at work. Apparently, her expert pub quiz skills were put to good use this morning and she won a printer from Global TV. “Great!” Mum said to the lady who called her, “I don’t have a printer!” “Okay,” the lady replied, “I’ll email you the details and you just need to print it off and mail it in.” “But wait,” Mum challenged, “I just said I don’t have a printer.” And then Global TV vanished in a puff of logic.

Her attempts to save the world from ME may have failed, but at least she gets an annual Mother's Day gift out of it.

She raised me.

That takes balls.

_____________

*Or whatever the crap he did in there. I don’t really know. I never read Superman when I was a kid.

for christmas one year I got a jem doll and middle-class guilt

This is the story of How I Learned to Start Worrying and Hate Class Differences. I’m pretty sure most of why I grew up to appreciate Marx is encapsulated in this tiny little nugget of childhood.

This is the second time I’ve had to write this post (as I’ve already grumbled about). Whenever such a thing happens, I try to be all self-help sentimental about it and tell myself that this simply means it will be better the second time around.

That’s probably not true. I’m pretty sure I struck gold before. This is just cheap brass in comparison.

Anyway.

If you were female and under the age of ten in the late eighties, you may remember a cartoon called Jem and the Holograms. The entire show was basically one half-hour-long toy advert. It told the story of plucky, young music producer, Jerrica Benton, who moonlights as plucky, young, pink-haired rock star, Jem. An entrepreneurial music producer and a rock star. No matter who you were in the eighties, rebel or yuppie, one of these careers greatly appealed to you.

This was also pre-Spice Girls/Hannah Montana, but post-glam rock, so I’m pretty sure Jem was just a female Ziggy Stardust.

Apparently, this is a small child's idea of a feminist utopia.

This show basically treated rock stars as superheroes. They have secret identities. They wear flashing tights. They have magic jewellery. Green Lantern had a ring; Jem has a snazzy pair of earrings which are “able to project holograms around her and [she] uses this ability throughout the series to avoid danger and provide special effects for the performances of her group.”*

Because, let’s face it, you have this amazing “holographic technology” but, rather than use it to fight crime or do something useful, you use it to put on an awesome stage show. I mean, get a fog machine or something.

There are also villains. With their own secret identities. And some of them are after the holographic technology. Some are just rival bands. My favourite were The Misfits, even though they begged a horrible comparison to the real Misfits, which I’m sure left many disappointed upon subsequent trips to Sam the Recordman or wherever else you bought your cassette tapes in 1987.

Not the same band.

One Christmas, my list of demands to the fat man was topped by a Jem doll.

THIS was my Red Rider BB Gun.

Since this was the late eighties, Mum was doing her Christmas shopping at K-Mart and had to drag me along. I shouldn’t have, but I peeked into the shopping cart. Lo and behold, what did I see but Jem. In all her pink-cardboard-boxed glory.

“Mummy,” I asked, “Who is that for? Is that for… me?”

“No,” Mum scoffed, “Remember that box we saw by the door when we came in?”

“Yeah….”

“Well, that box is for people to donate toys to all the little girls and boys whose parents are too poor to get them any presents for Christmas.”

“Oh. Okay.”

My mind was blown.

Keep in mind, I was only about four or five. I was too young to appreciate the subtleties of things like class distinctions and tax brackets. My understanding of rich versus poor had been determined solely by Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim.

Shown: a four-year-old's idea of poverty

The only people I recognized in my life that I could clearly label “poor” were homeless people, who seemed to me then as exclusively male and middle-aged. I didn’t realise that, in real life, children could be poor. The idea that there were kids who didn’t get Christmas presents caused my world to immediately grow four times in size, just like the Grinch’s heart.

That the Jem doll would go to one of these poor children seemed perfectly reasonable. Still unaware of my parent’s own fiscal limitations, I felt guilty that we weren’t buying all the toys in K-Mart to donate to these kids.

But, come Christmas morning, I indeed found the Jem doll beneath the tree.

Despite my initial elation at receiving my most-desired gift, I looked to Mum, a desperate tear in my eye. “I thought this was for the poor kids.”

“Oh,” she lied again, “It was. This one is from Santa.”

“Oh. Okay!”

But dramatic irony is a solid fist of fury. Of course the day would come when I would learn that *SPOILER ALERT* Santa was not real.

I don’t remember how old I was when I realised this, but I do remember that I suddenly felt a great sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. What was this strange, unpleasant sensation? What happened to my secure sense of self? What was this feeling?

It was the first time I’d ever experienced middle-class guilt. It never really went away.

________

* Thanks, Wikipedia!

hungry, hungry internet

So I wrote a wonderful (trust me) post about this Jem doll that I got one Christmas in my wee years. However, the Internet, hungry little beast it is, ate it. No idea what happened.

The internet did to my post what this monkey is doing to this dog.

Later, I shall endeavour to recreate the magic. But, for now, a little taste…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmYU4CeuZQ0