Read Small Change Online

Authors: Elizabeth Hay

Small Change (10 page)

I lied. I hoped. I reassured. I misunderstood. I thought she was a child who didn’t suffer fools gladly, a child driven by a principled refusal to please. In her cubby at school she never looked up. Other children raced around and shouted when their mothers and babysitters arrived. Joyce didn’t. She wouldn’t give me, wouldn’t give her mother, the satisfaction of getting what we wanted. She saw the expectation in our faces, however muted, felt it in the stance of our bodies as we waited for her to stand up.

One morning I realized my mistake. I saw her in the schoolground during recess. Her teacher was carrying her on her hip while the other children ran around, and Joyce was playing up to her shamelessly. I had never seen her so happy.

They drove away finally. They moved. And just before moving Joyce took pains to remind Annie of who was boss. Don’t ever think you don’t need me, and don’t ever think I need you.

Annie looks for mail every day. She pulls a chair into the hall and stands on it to reach the mailbox. When Joyce’s postcard
arrives – after days of waiting – Annie sticks it up on the refrigerator door. The postcard says how much Joyce misses her. This is what Annie wanted to hear, all she wanted to hear.

Annie writes a postcard to Joyce. “All I’m thinking about is you,” she writes. Then says to me, “That’s not all I’m thinking about, but that’s okay.”

A month later she draws a picture of our apartment – the long sofa, the window, the big round overhead light. She writes
shshshsh
across the bottom of the page because, she says, the people upstairs are saying
shhhh
and the cars outside say
shhhh
when it rains.

I suggest that she send the picture to Joyce but she doesn’t want to.

“Would you like to write her a letter?”

No, she doesn’t want to do that either. “I wrote to her already.”

Joyce in Annie: a more determined child, no less easily hurt but eager to be someone. She sits at the table with her new friends and they compete over who has the most cousins, who has travelled farthest, who has plans to travel soon, and her small face runs with feeling. She shows everyone Joyce’s postcard, even as a party we attend brings back memories of the going-away party and sparks the comment, “Joyce did that to me.” We’re standing beside a table of food, children are chasing each other through the rooms. “Joyce did that to me,” she says. And then, “She was thinking she’d never see Linnea again.”

“But why would that make her treat you badly?”

She doesn’t answer. Later I ask again. “What made Joyce behave that way?”

“We talked about that already,” her face flushed – embarrassed – private.

How different we are. Why has it taken me so long to realize? She has never believed that Joyce was mean for the sake of being mean. She has always seen the whole thing as an affair of the heart. She was to Joyce as Joyce was to Linnea.

I dream about my daughter. I have taken her to school, into a room crowded with children, and she won’t stay. She follows me into the hallway where I scold her endlessly, all the while aware of what others are thinking. They are thinking, No wonder the child is so unhappy.

I see everything in stark terms – a child’s capacity for evil, my incapacity to protect my child. I see a fatal flaw, something inherited that my mother and I have never been able to shake – a line of rejection passing down. But Annie (who has the clearest eyes, a man said, that he had ever seen) sees, instead, the nature of love.

Overnight Visitor

A
friend arrived in the middle of a snowstorm. This happened fifteen years ago. She flew in from Vancouver and stayed with me over night, then continued on to Toronto the next day. I was living in Winnipeg at the time. My apartment wasn’t far from Osborne Street, so at dinnertime we walked the few blocks to the bridge, crossed the river, and found a café just beyond the Country Style Donut Shop I went to every Saturday morning for coffee with double cream, one sugar. They used 18 percent cream, that’s why their coffee was so good.

It was still blowing snow when we set out and by the time we reached the café we were frozen stiff. The café was on the second floor of a boutique of some sort and we sat at a tiny table beside a window, looking at each other and down at the snowy street.

My friend talked non-stop. (I may be intense, the odd person has told me I am, but I don’t hold a candle to Bev.) Why do you like her? a friend asked me once. If I had been honest I would have said, because she likes me. I suspect I said that she was lively and loyal, and those things were true too. Her conversation was zany and relentless, full of theories that never made much sense. I thought to myself, it’s only one night, it won’t kill me, but I was glad when we were back outside where I could watch the snowploughs and escape her gaze. It was still very cold and I was looking forward to sleep.

Had I been simply straightforward, or plainly discouraging, nothing would have happened. Surely that’s true. But there must have been some sexual slippage – enough play in the rope – that she felt encouraged. Because after we got home and I came out of the bathroom in my nightgown, she was in my bed. I had made up a bed for her on the couch in the living room, and she had pouted. “All alone? You’re leaving me all alone?” Now she was saying, “We’ll just keep each other warm.” (It’s getting light as I think about this. My daughter called a few minutes ago because she was cold. I put an extra blanket, folded double, on her bed.)

Getting light around the dark gusty leaves and above the dark rooftops. As has happened so often in my life, I went along. I climbed into bed and for a while we talked, then she put her hand on my breast.

I felt a certain inevitability and curiosity. What harm can it do? And no harm was done. I discovered different textures – the thinness of her lips, the sponginess of her breasts, the feel of flesh that gives way, falls in, offers no resistance. I must have slept. In the morning I got up and dressed. I expect I
got up very early, just as now, and that she continued to sleep. In those days my kitchen table was blue. Now it’s white. I must have tried to appear unalarmed. In this aspect there would have been no difference between the aftermath with her and the aftermath with a man. There was a difference though. Whether it was based on fear, or on anger veiled by friendship, I have never been able to say. Partly out of friendship, partly out of fear, I haven’t been able to say, but I felt panic-stricken and I felt sick.

Bev was the one who threw up. She lay on the couch, too ill to move. I covered her with a blanket and she remained there, immobilized, until it was time to catch her plane. She was out of commission and I was safe. Sickness had come to my rescue.

Afterwards, gradually and then precipitously, and for a year, we were estranged. Precipitous when she came to visit and fondled my neck, and I told her to keep her hands to herself. She was wounded, but not in a straightforward fashion. She spoke very little for the next hour, and not at all for the next year. Easily done, since we lived in separate cities. Then her attitude softened. She began to call again, but without making any verbal passes, so that once again I relaxed. Now we speak to each other by phone once or twice a year, and she has gone back to her old ways. That is, she never lets me forget that she has sex on her mind.

Does she know something about me that I don’t know? Something that allows her to think I’m fair game? Or is she this way with every woman she meets?

She feeds my doubts with friendship. The doubts grow fat and glossy, as does the affectionate hand that strokes them.

Now I can see the colour of the leaves. They are yellow and green, yellow on the outer edges, green where the sun doesn’t penetrate. The wind is still blowing.

Where was friendship in all of this? Friendship was everywhere. That was the trouble.

I left this story for a year because I didn’t know how to continue. I could imagine someone saying: she touches upon her inhibition only to shift away.

October, and the temperature has dropped. I look out the window and never in my life have I seen such clarity. Every leaf, every stem, every blade of grass and shimmer of fence comes forward as if brought to my eyes by binoculars. The sky is so blue it could be water washed and hung out to dry. I take my boy to the park, and again I look at him as if through binoculars, but he is only a few feet away.

I haven’t heard from Bev for over a year. This is unusual. She may be in love and very busy, or our last encounter may have killed all interest. Last September I travelled to her city on business. Such words grown-ups get to use. We travel
on business
. I called her. In fact I had written to say I was coming. I was there for three days, grateful for her friendship since my so-called business was even less momentous than my pessimism had prepared me for. I was at loose ends and feeling silly. So I was glad to be able to talk to her on the phone, and to visit.

Her apartment was tiny and marshmallowy. Fluffy. At least in memory. The furniture must have been pillowy and
soft, the carpet thick. The two of us sat almost eye to eye in that little space. I was fascinated that she had a whole wall of videos, not a single one of which I wanted to see, and I like movies.

She was uncomplicated in her friendliness, except for once. She must have been telling me about her new lover (her first relationship in five years) who perhaps had only recently realized she was gay. Or perhaps the lover had known all along and this was the point: no more affairs, Bev may have said, with women who aren’t sure. It was Bev’s theory that many, many women, most of them married and famous, were actually lesbians. She would ream off names ranging from Anne Murray to Dinah Shore, and I would pull one face after another. Seriously, she would say, it’s true. “How do you know?” She had read it, heard it somehow, and knew it to be true.

“And what about Bethie?” she asked me. “Is she gay?” She always called me Bethie.

I looked at her for a moment – at her eager, expressive, strangely youthful face. She always looked younger than she was because of her bouncing-ball sort of energy, even when she was exhausted from studying for yet another degree, yet another career. Strangely youthful, because more than anyone else I know she has had bad luck, a series of grim accidents that have caused great physical pain. The pain hasn’t changed her face except to make it fleshier.

“No,” I said.

There must have been something new about my
no
. I heard it myself: a matter-of-fact, not-to-be-budged, end-of-story tone to my voice.

“I think you’re right,” she said.

Whether right or not, I was glad to be left alone.

My daughter remembers her because several years ago, when she came to dinner, she read her palm. Only days ago Annie said, “Your friend who sees the future.”

“You remember her,” I said, and she said, “I’ll never forget her.”

Bev would be pleased.

“What do you remember?”

“I remember her father was a fortune teller and he told fortunes to get girls.”

“You mean to get them to go out with him?”

“Yes. She said I would have a long life, and that I’d die just like that and not suffer. And she said my love line is very deep.”

“What does that mean?”

Annie, sitting in her nightgown on the foot of my bed, scrunched her knees up to her chin. “Affectionate, I think.”

Twenty years ago Bev told my fortune too, a reading that depressed me for years because she didn’t see a single thing in my future that I wanted to see. She insisted I would go into television, which was preposterous. I wasn’t so gullible as to think she was right, I was just gullible enough to feel a shadow fall over me. I told her that her reading had ruined my peace of mind, and she laughed with great merriment.

Secondhand Rose

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