Sunday, October 26, 2008



“Imagine discovering that your husband is a bigamist," I exclaimed, as Lisa and I donned our jackets to leave the ByTowne theatre.
“I'd kill him," Lisa retorted, as she put on her headband to brace the frigid wind.
“You'd have to stand in line!" I replied, as we forced our way through the large crowd that was waiting for the second feature.
The ByTowne was an old theatre with a wide screen, plush red velvet curtains, and hard uncomfortable seats. The seats were so low that I felt that I was leaning back in my own private jet, waiting for takeoff. But the movie house specialized in foreign films. As a result, it attracted a faithful cult audience.
We had just seen My Architect, a docudrama produced by Nathaniel Kahn, son of the late Louis I. Kahn. The senior Kahn was a well-renowned architect from Philadelphia. He had designed a number of impressive buildings including the town centre in Bangladesh, and the beautiful Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. The movie depicted the son's search for the father that he had never known.
At his funeral, colleagues were shocked to learn that Louis Kahn had not one but three wives simultaneously. He had fathered three children with different women and only saw young Nathaniel when he could sneak away from his official family. Nathaniel's longing for his father was captured perfectly in one breathtaking scene where he rollerbladed through the vast and empty courtyard of one of his father's buildings overlooking the Pacific.
An older woman with long unkempt hair was standing in front of the Days Inn. She looked weathered and carried a tin cup.
“And you call yourselves Canadians!" The woman shouted when people passed by without giving her money. I dropped a loonie in her cup and she gave me a weary toothless grin.
Lisa stopped to light a cigarette in front of a store called All Books. She leaned on a table. It was overflowing with used books with campy titles like Soul Centered Astrology and Killing Rage.
Lisa's match kept going out, thanks to the steady stream of snow that was falling. It was early April. This was probably the last snowfall of the season. Two men ahead of us were discussing the film.
“I really liked the play on words," the younger man said. “I mean, I. Kahn. Icon! Do you think that his fate was sealed by his name?"
“Oh, absolutely," his friend replied. "Look at all the children named Jesus in Venezuela. See the way they're prospering?"
“Maybe they'll get their reward in the next life," the first speaker declared.
Lisa and I laughed. “Do you want to go to Nate's?" I asked. We invariably went to Nate's Deli for a snack after our monthly excursions at the ByTowne. It was hard to say which we enjoyed more, the food at Nate's or analyzing the movies.
Occasionally, we’d vary our routine and walk down to Tucker’s Marketplace, a restaurant in the ByWard market, which had an immense buffet. But tonight, the roads were slick with freezing rain and the wind was gusting at 30 kilometres an hour, so I didn't feel much like hiking all the way down to Mother Tucker’s.
Lisa nodded in agreement. “Follow me,” she instructed, as she grabbed my arm and walked across the busy avenue.
“Lisa!" I screamed, to no avail. She was an incorrigible jaywalker whereas I always dutifully crossed at the corner.
Rideau Street was dark except for the flashing lights above the theatre. About one kilometre west of the Bytowne, Rideau became Wellington Street, which housed the Supreme Court, the elegant Fairmont Château Laurier Hotel, and the Parliament buildings.
The centre block of the Houses of Parliament was destroyed in a fire in 1916. All of the Houses had been rebuilt using a Civil Gothic design except for the library. The buildings were warm and ornate with gargoyles, stained-glass windows, and an ornamental fence. Parliament Hill stood on the south bank of the Rideau River just below the swirling waters that explorer Samuel de Champlain had called La Chaudiere, meaning “The Cauldron.”
The Hill and Confederation Square were impressive, and were often displayed on postcards for tourists. This end of the road was old and run down in comparison.
Lisa and I opened the door to 316 Rideau Street and walked up the short ramp. The smell of fresh bagels and cheese blintzes was tantalizing.
Nate’s Deli was famous for its smoked meat sandwiches. The atmosphere was homey and somewhat schizophrenic. Clearly, the store had been an old-fashioned delicatessen years ago, but a modern annex had been added to convert the deli into a restaurant.
We passed mouthwatering displays of candy, juice, gourmet salads, and cooked meat. A waitress with honey coloured hair, tied up in a bun, seated us at the back in a booth. One wall of the restaurant was covered in glass mirrors. Next to it was a large poster that said "You don't have to be Jewish," which made me smile.
We took off our coats and I brushed the wet snow from my forehead. Lisa's dark brown hair gleamed under the yellow lights. She was wearing a tight pink sweater, which showed off her cleavage, snug Guess jeans, and a delicate gold cross. I felt dowdy in my sweatshirt and baggy jeans. The men at the table next to us craned their necks to stare at Lisa.
Although we had been best friends since our late teens, I was always struck by her stark and simple beauty. Lisa was everything that I was not. She was tall, angular, and shamefully thin with a spontaneous, impulsive, and charismatic personality. Her life was full of drama, even though she had been sober for five years, and worked full time as a drug and alcohol counsellor at a small centre downtown called "Straten Narrow."
I, on the other hand, was imminently predictable. I worked as a nurse in the short term rehab unit of a local hospital. I’d been married to Mark, a Professor of Cultural Anthropology, for 15 years, which barely legitimized our 14-year-old son Devon.
The words that were most often used to describe me were "dependable, loyal, and hard-working" – polite euphemisms for "boring." In the past, I had taken pride in those descriptions, but recently, I had been feeling dull and disenchanted with my life. I was approaching 40. Just thinking those words sent a shiver down my spine.
Turning 40 sounded as appealing as being a prisoner in Abu Ghraib. Dead Woman Walking, I mused to myself. I was already sprouting grey hairs and had been making frequent trips to my hairdresser, Chan Juan, to have her colour my hair darker. My hair was an odd shade of henna at the moment, but I couldn't change it since I had coloured it four times in the last two months. It now had the texture of a Brillo pad.
I had heard the argument that 40 was the new 30, but I suspected that the phrase had been invented by someone in her fifties. If I were lucky enough to live until 80, that would mean that I was already halfway through my life. What had I done with it? Where was I headed? I could be hit by a bus or develop breast cancer, like my mother, who died when I was 10.
Every day at work, I saw people whose lives had been derailed by accidents and illness. Maybe I only had 10 or 20 years left. What was I to do with them? The faster I approached the big 4-0, the more I envied Lisa her relative freedom.
Lisa had never gotten married. She’d had a succession of boyfriends. “Cereal” monogamy, she joked. "They stay for breakfast. Then I kick them out in the morning.” Her tone was flippant but I knew that Lisa wanted stability in a relationship as much as anyone else.
When she was doing cocaine that was impossible. She was involved with one loser after another including men who ended up in jail, disappeared for days at a time, and stole money from her. One even slept with her cousin.
After she finished rehab, Lisa went through a long period of voluntary celibacy to get herself together, and to consider the qualities that she’d like to have in a mate.
Eighteen months ago, she met Ryan at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. He seemed like a bad bet to me. At 36, Ryan had been clean for three years and attended meetings regularly. According to Lisa, some people go to meetings but don't actually work the steps, which involve taking one’s own inventory and making amends to those one has wronged. Consequently, the half-hearted members do not have good sobriety.
Ryan was different. He devoted himself to the program, completing one step after another. However, he had a history of physical abuse. Ryan's last girlfriend left him after calling the police several times during their domestic disputes.
I had cautioned Lisa about her involvement with Ryan but she believed in him. Her whole life revolved around addiction and recovery. To have doubted Ryan would have been tantamount to questioning her entire career, as well as her own recovery.
She was like a televangelist since she’d joined AA. Of course, I’d never say that to her. Obviously, I preferred her clean and sober to drinking and snorting white powder, but I didn't really understand her need for the program.
We were both partyers back in our university days but for some inexplicable reason, Lisa crossed a line in her drinking. Alcohol became something that she had to have and it changed her personality. Her grades went down the drain and she was often evicted from bars for being too boisterous, but the next day she’d have no recollection of what she had done.
After Lisa realized that she had an alcohol problem, she went to the Addiction Research Centre in Toronto, since we were going to school at U. of T. She received out-patient counselling at ARC and they encouraged her to go to daily meetings.
One night, Lisa brought home a quiz and waved it in my face. "Look!" she said. "Here's one test I passed with flying colours. It says I'm in Stage Two alcoholism. Scary! Stage three means I'm ready for the asylum. People lose jobs, marriages, and become institutionalized at that point."
I grabbed the quiz and studied it with interest. I decided to take it myself. Lisa had no objections but she was surprised when I scored high enough to qualify for Stage One alcoholism.
"Oh my God, Tara. You need to get into the program!"
I had no intention of joining the Bible thumpers and no real worries about my drinking either.
"We'll save a seat for you," Lisa had said at the time but it never proved necessary. I got pregnant with Devon when I was 24. It was easy for me to quit drinking during the pregnancy. Afterwards, my alcohol consumption dropped drastically. Who can take care of an infant and continue swinging from the chandelier at the same time?
On one hand, I knew that alcoholism was a disease, but I couldn't help wondering why Lisa couldn't cut back her consumption by herself, the way I had, by using more discipline and self-control. Sometimes, I wanted to scream when she talked endlessly about her meetings and used those little clichés: easy does it, one day at a time, live and let live.
Shut the hell up! I wanted to say. It seemed self-indulgent that Lisa spent 24 hours a day dealing with addiction. It was bad enough when she had a job as an assistant at Nortel and went to meetings every night. Now that she was a bona fide alcohol and drug counsellor, addiction was all she talked about. She was a full-time naval gazer.
And I was a disloyal bitch of a friend to think those things about her. I knew that. Tara – loyal, dependable and resentful as hell.
Lisa was aware of my disapproval. She sensed that I wasn't thrilled with her job and was disappointed that I never gave the thumbs-up to Ryan, although I understood her attraction to him. Tall and lanky with dirty blonde hair and athletic good looks, Ryan had always been a ladies man. He worked as a landscaper in the summer and plowed driveways in the winter, when he worked, which was not all that regularly.
I suspected that he was a lazy bastard, who preferred to live off Lisa. They’d been living together for about six months and I wasn’t eager to hear the latest details about their relationship.
We opened the menus, which said "Nate’s – where famous people come to eat." I’d never seen anyone famous in the restaurant but I always kept one eye open for Matthew Perry, Dan Aykroyd, and Kiefer Sutherland to stroll in. Apparently, Kiefer went to a Catholic boarding school in Ottawa as a teenager.
I ordered roast beef on rye with coleslaw, fries, and a dill pickle. Lisa religiously followed the Atkins diet. She requested the “Quick Burger Platter," which consisted of a cheeseburger with bacon. She wanted the coleslaw but asked the waitress to hold the potatoes. We both ordered decaffeinated coffee.
Decaf: a public announcement that we were too old to drink caffeine after dinner. We may as well have requested Maalox or Metamucil. Next it would be the senior citizen discount. I sighed.
"Still persecuting yourself with the American Heart Association Diet?" I asked Lisa, feeling the heavy weight of my thighs as I shifted my legs under the table. No wonder she was so thin but I could never give up carbohydrates. Even if men stared at me open-mouthed, I refused to part with my rocky road ice cream.
“Works for me," Lisa retorted.
“ I don't know how you can stand to live without bread and your mother's pasta. That's not to mention what that diet is doing to your arteries and your kidneys," I said.
“It's great, the food plan. Who else would let you eat an unlimited amount of cheese, steak, and bacon?" Lisa asked. “Atkins used to have a desert of macadamia nut butter that he mixed together with whole cream."
“That probably killed him." I shook my head. "Eat up. It's your funeral."
We had this conversation regularly. I could tell by Lisa's expression that she was tired of my ongoing lectures. Years of being a nurse and a mother had made me a nag, constantly worrying about other people's health, and righteously telling them what to do to improve it. I also had 15 pounds to lose. Obviously, my jealousy of Lisa's appearance had reared its ugly head. I apologized hastily and changed the topic.
"Getting back to the flick," I said, “wasn't that a great line when one of Kahn's colleagues said that we all have some sort of secret to hide? Mark and I just rented a movie called Normal, which dealt with a different theme, but it was kind of similar. A couple had been happily married for about 25 years. Then one day, the man announced that he’d been born in the wrong body! He wanted a sex change but he didn’t want to leave the marriage. It was really well-written and starred Jessica Lange, but I can't remember who played the guy."
I thought about how attractive Lange had looked in the movie. She was old. I now defined "old" as anyone who was older than me, and "young" as anyone who was younger than me. Lange had to be at least 50 or 55 and she was still gorgeous. That buoyed my spirits until I remembered that I didn't remotely resemble Jessica Lange, who had undoubtedly been a knockout in her thirties.
“Kind of like Boys Don't Cry, except with a happy ending," I continued, "because eventually the family came to accept his desire to be a woman. It was hard to imagine how the couple could stay together – that part was implausible – but it was better than watching the protagonist being gunned down like Hilary Swank."
“And what does that have to do with bigamy?" Lisa asked, as she bit into her cheeseburger.
"Both men were deceitful! The Jessica Lange character spent decades with a man who never told her what he was really thinking. How well do we know each other? Does everyone have deep dark secrets?" I waved my arms, so that Lisa would know that I was including the other patrons in the restaurant.
"I've lived my whole life as an open book. What you see is what you get or it used to be." Except for my deep-seated resentments, I thought grimly. “But with my birthday looming in the distance, suddenly, I don't know who I am anymore or what I want. I don't even know who I want, but I can't see myself growing old with Mark."
Alanis Morissette was playing softly in the background. She was quite the local celebrity. Both Lisa and I liked her music, and respected her dedication to the people of Tibet.
Two guys in their twenties sat down at the table across from us. They were flamboyantly gay. The Asian woman with them had the words "Fag hag" written across her forehead in red ink.
Hearing Alanis must have made them think about Tibet, too, because they started talking about the Dalai Lama's upcoming visit to Ottawa, and whether or not Prime Minister Paul Martin would agree to meet with him. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, was as popular culturally as a rock star. The trio was arguing over how the Dalai Lama could refer to himself as solely a spiritual leader, without any political affiliations, when he had spent his entire life in exile, working for the independence of Tibet.
“It’s an outrage. Almost 1.2 million Tibetans have died from starvation, imprisonment, or murder since the Chinese took over. Surely, that constitutes genocide but the United States, the world's self-appointed policeman, does nothing to stop the slaughter,” the woman declared.
"The States turns the other cheek, so they can maintain their billion-dollar trading relationship with China," her companion replied. He was wearing a yellow baseball cap on backwards, a dark blue, short-sleeved shirt, and large baggy pants with balloon figures on them.
Alanis had stopped singing. Melanie Doane was now crooning, “You leave a lot to be desired.”
"Speaking of Mark, this song could have been written for him," I said, returning my attention to Lisa.
"Could’ve been written for any man," Lisa said. "Don't be crazy, Tara! You're still an open book. You're as transparent as pantyhose: the same today that you were in university. You're just having a midlife crisis. And what's this big secret of yours? Your huge crush on the clerk at the grocery store?”
Lisa laughed. "My God, even Devon knows about that! He says you're always weirding out before you go into Loeb, stopping to put on lipstick in the car or to comb your hair."
"Devon said that?" I felt embarrassed. I thought I had been discreet. How could I tell Lisa that it was so much more than a crush? This boy had taken over my thoughts. My brain had turned to mush. It was as though there was a hole in my head that had always been there, just waiting to be filled with thoughts of Alain.
I fantasized about him day and night, wondering what it would feel like to run my hands through his crisp black hair. At least Alain had hair.
Mark’s favourite expression was "hair today, gone tomorrow." His hairline had been receding for years and he had started growing a beard to compensate. Mark had tried Rogaine, acupuncture, and brewers yeast in a vain attempt to restore his lost locks. He lived in baseball caps but fortunately, he was not the type to shave his head.
Alain's hair was alive with little spikes. He had a brush cut and I pictured him applying gel to his hair every morning after his shower. Then I thought about him naked and embracing me: on top of me, inside me, all over me. Graphic images of devouring the supermarket boy left me feeling giddy, and prevented me from concentrating on my work at the hospital.
When I was giving out medications, I was imagining how much hair Alain had on his chest. Did he have hair on his back, as well? That didn’t appeal to me. Or would he have a smooth, muscular, and relatively hairless chest? Could he keep it up for hours, the way young boys do? Was he a cuddler or did he like to roll over and fall asleep after sex?
These were the pure and professional thoughts that preoccupied me as I dispensed Cipro to my 101-year-old patient, who was recovering from pneumonia. It’s a miracle that I hadn't poisoned him yet by giving him one of my female patient’s hormone replacement pills.
The intensity of my desire for Alain shocked me. It had been so long since I’d had any sexual interest in Mark. We’d never had a passionate relationship. Our connection was based more on affection and compatibility than lust. After years of marriage, our sex life was about as exciting as watching the Weather Channel. I knew exactly when and where Mark would touch me, and how many minutes he would allot to lovemaking.
Moreover, Mark had a strange habit of talking throughout sex. He would talk about everything from current events to work to telling me jokes.
Mark and I had been so young when we got married. I remembered watching Lisa suffer heartbreaks with her "bad boys." She seemed fatally attracted to the wrong men. I swore that I wouldn’t make that mistake. Mark was decent. He was faithful, brilliant, and kind-hearted. I could count on him and that was important to me.
We had much in common in our youth. Our parents had been classic left liberals, who had ardently supported the now nearly defunct New Democratic Party. Both Mark and I were active members of the NDP, and we used to love the same authors like Stephen King, John Grisham, Ann Rice, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Crichton.
Now he likes Mordecai Richler and Michael Ondaatje, and you can't pay me to read their works. Like Elaine on Seinfeld, I almost fell asleep during The English Patient. Nor can Mark tolerate my favourites like Carol Shields, Amy Tan, or Philip Roth, who he thinks is "too American.”
American. He says the word in the same disparaging tone that one would use to refer to the kitty litter box in the kitchen.
"What about King and Grisham? They’re American." I protested.
"Yes, but I'm over them now. I'm only reading Canadian fiction and listening to Canadian music.”
“That should leave you lots of free time," I replied, when Mark first made that idiotic announcement.
Lisa was American. Mark often said to her, “I won't hold that against you," but his joke fell flat with me since I knew the depth of his antipathy towards the States.
Lisa grew up in New Jersey with her first-generation Italian family. When she was 18, her father decided to join his brother in the restaurant business in Ottawa. The family moved here and set up a fabulous restaurant called Enzo’s on Preston Street. Although she’s lived in Canada for two decades, Lisa has retained her Jersey accent and still views herself as American, whereas Mark prefers to see her as an Italian immigrant, which is a step up in his mind.
It’s hard to pinpoint a particular time when my relationship with Mark began to go sour. It may have started when he began to spend more time sitting on committees, and working on his research. His area of interest is comparative religion and he has studied aboriginal people in Manitoba and Quebec. His current fascination involves the role of religion in organ transplantation. Mark hopes to publish a book on the topic, thus, he’s been spending countless hours behind closed doors working on his manuscript.
We had also begun to argue over the right way to raise Devon, who had become an avid rapper, with an attitude that was almost as big as the ring in his nose. Recently, Devon came home with a tattoo on his arm that said, "Rot in Pieces." He claimed that he was only copying Eminem.
What kind of a role model is Eminem? I’ve been a feminist all of my life. I’ve taught my only son to respect women, yet he idolizes and emulates a punk with bleached hair, who sings songs to his daughter about how nice it would be to cut up her mother, and put her in the trunk of the car. How am I supposed to react to that?
Mark said, “Just relax. Devon's going through a phase and it’ll pass more quickly if we don't make a big deal about it. If we get upset, he may become increasingly attached to Eminem and Fifty Cents, or whatever the hell his name is.”
I suggested taking Devon with me to a meeting of WAR, Women Against Rape, a small group that I belong to, which has educational and political components. We give lectures in high schools to raise awareness about sexual assault. Although some of the members of WAR have become a bit too radical for me, essentially, I'm proud of the work that we do.
Mark thought that the group was hostile. He didn't like the name of the organization but I believed that we needed a dramatic acronym to get people's attention. Mark was opposed to me taking Devon to a meeting. He thought that WAR was full of man haters.
Women haters were okay. Devon spent hours every day listening to records that referred to women as "bitches" and "ho’s." I wanted to temper that with some reality. Let him hear real girls talk about what it was like to be sexually or physically assaulted.
TV Ontario has an excellent series on Sunday night called "" It’s all about issues that teens deal with, from meeting strangers on the Internet, to bullying to racist attitudes towards Native American kids. I tried to get Devon to watch with me but it was a losing battle.
"He's a kid, for God's sake. Why would he want to sit at home and watch TVO with his Mum?" Mark asked in an exasperated tone. He believes that Devon's fascination with violence on television and in music is normal for young boys, and will not provoke him to act dangerously or irresponsibly. I disagree and now I have two problems: one with Devon and the other with Mark.
Not only do Mark and I argue most of the time, but he is also constantly irritating me. For example, he has a habit of repeating a story a dozen times, always prefacing it with, "I don't know if I told you this." And I want to die laughing at his pronunciation of the name Zdeno Chara, defenceman for the Ottawa Senators. Mark invariably places an emphasis on the wrong syllable.
Worse, he acts as though he knows Chara and drops his name in conversation regularly because he stood behind him once in line at Home Depot, and got him to autograph a piece of paper for Devon. Since that fateful day, Mark has acted as though he and Zdeno Chara are best friends. He rambles endlessly about how tall the hockey player is – 6'9" standing and 7 ft. even in skates – as though this information is not common knowledge to any viewer who doesn't need a magnifying glass to see the screen.
Mark also has an annoying habit of joking with bank tellers, and gas station attendants, then turning right back to me and reverting to his serious self.
But it can't really be these trivial things that bother me about my husband. I suppose that my resentment stems from the fact that our love for each other has died, but neither one of us is ready to face that fact, rife as it is with unpleasant consequences for our lives.
“Alain is not a grocery clerk," I said indignantly to Lisa, defending my lust object. “He is the assistant manager of the meat department."
"Oh, excuse me," Lisa replied, grinning. “Now who's the snob?" she asked, referring to my lack of enthusiasm about Ryan's landscaping job. "At least Ryan is old enough to vote."
Alain was 24. Lisa knew that perfectly well. She was just goading me.
"But I assume your fantasy man has his high school," she added and winked. I looked blank, not catching her reference.
“You remember the B & E kid? She was one of my clients. Had a long procession of asshole boyfriends. Then one day she met someone new. She kept bragging about him. Said this one was a keeper because he had his high school, and didn't have a criminal record!"
Lisa had spoiled the mood, comparing Alain to the paramours of the B & E kid. I had wanted to tell her that Alain was rapidly becoming an obsession. I had increased my trips to the grocery store and doubled our meat order, much to Mark's chagrin, claiming that I was entertaining. Alain must think that we have a lot of barbecues.
I was conscious of my clothes now when I went to the supermarket, and tried not to go shopping after work when I knew that he wouldn’t be on duty.
Sometimes, I called his house just to hear the sound of his voice on the answering machine. I was careful to call from a pay phone or to use the *67 function in case he had call display. I had become Stalker Mom and it scared me.
Not only had I memorized Alain's work schedule, but also I was forcing myself to listen to a double album by Pearl Jam because Alain loved the band. Listening to Pearl Jam was about as much fun as studying for a physics exam. I found them to be bleak: funereal even. Their CD was called Lost Dogs and had one cheerful title after another like "Sad,” "Down," "Alone," and "Fatal." These boys made Pink Floyd look like optimists. Then suddenly, almost at the end of their second CD, the band let loose with their rocking hit of the cover song by The Cavaliers, “Last Kiss.”
Thank God for that song, so that I had something positive to say to Alain about his music. I couldn’t bear the idea of him thinking that I was ancient, matronly or clueless. I barely knew the boy but having him like me was so crucial to my self-esteem that I was studiously analyzing his likes and dislikes, so that we would have more in common. What was next for me? Midriff tops, hip hugger jeans, and liposuction?
I had become Jack Nicholson. For years, I had admired Nicholson's talent. From Five Easy Pieces to The Crossing Guard, he was an amazing and versatile actor. But once I heard him on television and he sounded like a dirty old man – a buffoon, really – going on about young girls and his new wife, who was in her thirties. WAR had no respect for middle-aged men who traded in their older wives for newer models, although this was a time-honoured tradition.
Women who went in search of men 15 or 20 years their junior would look even more shallow and pathetic. The only older women who took young lovers and didn't look ridiculous were the rich and famous like Demi Moore. Dazzling Demi could have anyone she wanted but that didn't prevent Jay Leno from having a field day, mocking her relationship with Ashton Kutcher.
I was a carnal being. My needs were not being satisfied at home. I was just going through the motions with Mark when we had sex, and the only way that I could get excited was to think about Alain. Lisa was wrong in assuming that I might not act on my fantasies, but she seemed uptight tonight, and I had lost interest in confiding in her.
"Come on, Mary Kay Letourneau. Give me the dirt about the grocery boy," Lisa said.
"Mary Kay who?"
"Letourneau! You know, the teacher from Washington State who had sex with her 13-year-old student. They had two babies together and now they’re getting married. So there's hope for you and the meat man."
"Goddamn it," I snapped. "You should think about ordering fries next time round. You have all the sensitivity of cement.”
"It's not the diet," Lisa sighed. "I'm a bitch. I know it. It's just that, um, I don't know how to explain this." Her voice trailed off. Lisa fumbled in her purse for her cigarettes.
"Shit," she lamented, remembering that she couldn’t light up in the restaurant. She flagged down the waitress and ordered another decaf. "This is just between us. I don't want you telling Mark."
"Lisa Campana, you’re not listening to me! I can barely talk to Mark about the movie we just saw let alone anything intimate."
"Oh, Tara, I'm sorry. I'm spaced out tonight. I've been wrapped up in my own problems. My period is late. I haven't had it for almost 10 weeks. I took one of those, you know, tests from the drugstore and it said that I'm …"
Lisa couldn’t finish her sentence. She brushed away her bangs. It was a nervous habit that she had adopted when she was unable to smoke. "The doctor confirmed it yesterday."
"Lise!" I took her hand across the table. "I don't understand. I thought that you and Ryan were trying to get pregnant."
"There's more," Lisa said, removing my hand from hers, as she began playing with the silverware. "Remember my slip?"
"Yeah," I said slowly.
Lisa was just about to celebrate her fifth anniversary of sobriety when she fell off the wagon, and got plastered in January. She’d had a difficult time getting through the Christmas holidays, which had involved extra parties and temptations. One day, she was depressed about Ryan's unwillingness to get married. He claimed to be committed to her and wanted to have children, but he had an aversion to the institution of marriage.
Lisa had been listening to an old song by the Pet Shop Boys, which reminded her of her party days. It was that simple. The memory provoked a craving for cocaine and her depression made her vulnerable to its calling.
"Well, I don't really know what I did that night. It's kind of a blur. I blacked out and was in the mood for Indian food. I do get tired of Atkins! Especially, I miss food with sauce and rice. And I was crashing big time from the coke, so I was ravenous. Anyway, I was in some bar on Merivale but I must’ve left there because the next thing I knew, I was in an Indian restaurant stuffing myself with tandoori chicken. A guy at the table next to me got to talking. Then it’s a blur. All I remember is being in his apartment, putting my clothes back on, and him asking if I was okay to drive." Lisa's voice was barely audible.
"You went home with a complete stranger?" I was incredulous.
"You might want to say that a little louder," Lisa replied. "I think the guys at the back table missed it. Oh, and you should have said black stranger.”
"Black? I thought he was Indian."
"He was, but he referred to himself as a black man. And if this is his baby, it’ll be black, too! You think "Mr. I Don't Want to Get Married" will be happy about that?"
My head was spinning. Lisa hadn’t wanted children in her twenties but when she hit 35, her maternal drive erupted like a volcano. She had often said that even if she didn't have a partner, she wanted a baby. Now that she was sober, the slip notwithstanding, she was perfectly capable of raising one by herself. She would want this child but there was no telling how Ryan would react to the news that it may not be his. What if the baby was born white? If she told Ryan, would Lisa have ruined her relationship with him for nothing?
Worse. She had kept this from me. She had not trusted me enough 10 weeks ago to have told me about the encounter with the stranger when it occurred. Not that I could have done anything about it but I just assumed that Lisa and I told each other everything. I thought that she viewed me as her closest confidant and yet she had been worrying, and feeling alone all this time: all because of my judgmental attitude.
"I don't know what to say. I feel so badly for you! You have some tough decisions to make. Are you going to keep the baby? Will you tell Ryan? What about the Indian guy? Pregnancy should be a happy time, especially at our age. I mean, it's not like we’re teenagers, desperately trying to avoid an unwanted pregnancy.” I paused.
"I also feel terrible that you hid this from me. We're best friends. You can tell me anything. I didn't mean to be so critical about Ryan or your relationship. I've been a real idiot but it's only ‘cause I want the best for you."
"Stop apologizing, already! I lead a crazy life compared to you. You're an old married lady. You don't understand the singles life, let alone the complications of the life of an addict. We've always been different that way but it hasn't affected our closeness. Yeah, I admit I didn't want to hear your moralizing, which is why I never told you about the guy – whose name I don't know, so I could never find him – but also I didn't tell you because I didn't want to make it real.
“I didn't want to say it out loud. I didn't even tell my sponsor. Pregnancy was the last thing on my mind! Ryan and I’ve been trying for so long, with so little success, that I never wear my diaphragm anymore. That leads me to believe this isn’t Ryan's baby since the timing is just right for my slip." Lisa took a large gulp of her coffee, which had become cold.
We stared at each other. Finally, she suggested that we get the cheque. I’d wanted to order the cherry cheesecake with coconut, but I always felt like a glutton eating desserts in front of Lisa. Moreover, I had lost my appetite listening to her story, and it was obvious that she was keen to leave.
I asked if she wanted to come back to my house to talk in private. She shook her head. She wanted to go home. It was after 10 p.m. and we both had to get up early in the morning. We walked out of Nate's on a sombre note. Our lighthearted evening had turned deadly serious.
Lisa had parked in the underground lot at Loblaws whereas I’d been lucky enough to find street parking. We hugged goodbye and I told her to call me the next night.
"You can always count on me, Lise. I may be a smug married but I still love you. And I think that you'll make a great mother. Just send the kid out for adoption when he or she reaches puberty." I smiled. She returned my embrace, but her black eyes were vacant when I looked into them. Lisa lit a smoke and walked off in the opposite direction.