Authors: Elizabeth Hay
He laughed. He said he owed me a big one. I said I thought so too.
In January I went to Vancouver to give a reading and to my horror I began to cry partway through. I was very tired. At a certain moment an indrawn breath from a friend in the mighty audience of ten set me off, and I had to turn my back because I couldn’t regain control. In my next life I will have Jackie Kennedy’s tear ducts. But I will not have her breasts. No. I will have breasts like melons. On the flight home I read a book of stories by John Harris all the way through. I came to some lines that I read twice, and then a third time. “If you want any kind of work done you get reasonable people to do it. They will do a good job. They will remember to keep
clear records and pry out the gold teeth before the corpses are burnt.”
At a party two weeks later I learned from a friend that X had been in town for his friend’s funeral. That’s typical, I thought; he didn’t even bother to let me know. Some weeks after that I received a letter from him. A note really, with a copy of the obituary. The obituary followed the usual declension in these matters from beloved to dear to loving, beloved husband, dear father, loving son. In his note X said he had called me, but I had been away in Vancouver. He said there had been standing room only at the funeral. He thanked me for my help – a lot to ask – so close to Christmas – so close to your trip – I didn’t know what else to do. “See you,” was the way he signed off.
I have to admire people who buy stationery of a certain size so they can write notes without writing much. The paper is undersized and they reduce the task even more by writing down the middle of the page as though descending a ladder, leaving huge margins on either side. It’s a good trick.
I heard my husband say,
He thinks you’re lucky to know him
. The note made me feel the same way.
Now, tonight, I wish for more presence of mind, so that I can deal with things calmly and out loud as they happen, instead of later and at length, silently, and without effect.
hotographs were the most noticeable thing about the house. They covered the walls of the hallway and extended into the living room, past the piano, and into the dining room. It was a prim suburban house filled with sexually explicit pictures.
We had been invited for a simple cup of tea, but the table was set with deep blue china – plates, bowls, cups, saucers – and a white tablecloth. There was fruit salad, a large cake, and several varieties of bottled juice. Ted asked for a beer. Vern explained that he had none, would a cold drink do instead? Ted said yes, only for his uncle to say, “If you’re having a beer I’ll have one too,” so that Vern had to apologize again, with Ivy chiming in – the two of them apologizing and offering, apologizing and offering – and Ted’s Uncle Jerry turning everything down. “Forget it,” he said. His rudeness flustered them even more.
Ted’s aunt rose to get some milk. Ivy insisted on pouring the milk into a matching cream jug rather than directly into her cup. Ted’s old aunt rolled her eyes. “I was just going to take my tea into the kitchen and add a drop of milk.”
They were the sort of people, Vern and Ivy, who drove most people nuts.
“The poster,” I asked, “the one in the hallway with the tide about sexual dependency. What does it refer to?”
“It was a show,” said Vern, “and a book.” He put the book down beside me and Ivy whisked it away. “Not on the table,” she scolded, “it might get spilled on.” She put it on the china cabinet. After a while I picked it up and went over to an armchair beside the window.
Ivy followed me. She perched on the edge of the sofa, her knees pressed together and her hands very busy with each other. Seeing me turn to the introduction, she became even more agitated and came over to me. “I can tell you who some of the people are,” she said, wanting to push me ahead to the pictures.
The first picture was called
. It was a shot of Vern and Ivy seated in a restaurant, dressed up and stiff with anger. On the facing page were cardboard cutouts of the Duke and Duchess of Kent.
“Isn’t that awful,” she said over my shoulder. “Of course, he doesn’t think of us that way at all.”
The book was dedicated to the “real memory” of his sister. I skimmed several paragraphs in the introduction while Ivy talked over me – talked, that is, over her son – so that of several pages I read only one, yet I gleaned the outlines of the story. The sister hadn’t “died” as Ivy had once
told me, she had committed suicide by lying down in front of a commuter train when she was eighteen. Her brother had been eleven and very close to her.
I kept reading. In the week of mourning that followed he was seduced by an older man. I glanced back to make sure I had his age right, distracted by Ivy’s agitated talk about Karen committing suicide – now she was using the word – and the effect this had had on Don: a fear of death, she was saying. I nodded and continued to read. He believed his sister had committed suicide because she was oppressed by sexual fear. Afterwards he went to a therapist who told him he might well suffer the same fate, and so he began to take pictures, obsessively recording his daily life the way it
was. His book was dedicated to the “real memory” of his sister, rather than the softened parental version of an eighteen-year-old who was terribly talented and played piano and died.
The piano was in the corner of the living room. No sooner had we arrived than Ivy pointed it out to me, “The piano our daughter played”, her eyes greedy for sympathy.
All the pictures on the walls were safe ones, I could see that now. Unless you were told otherwise – Vern told me – you would never have known they were men dressed as women. “That’s a man,” he said to me of one particularly beautiful woman who was looking into a bathroom mirror. The shots were interiors of train stations, bars, hotel rooms.
“This is Berlin,” said Ivy, “this is Tokyo, this is Paris,” nervously, proudly, playing the docent in her own home.
The book, on the other hand, had pictures of a naked man masturbating, of Don’s male lover weeping in
The Parents’ Bed
, of Don beaten until nearly blinded by his lover. That was the one that drew from me an exclamation, and for a moment I closed the book.
“What is it?” asked Ivy, immediately at my shoulder, and I opened the book. “Oh – that!” and she turned the page.
“There’s so much emotion in the photographs,” I said. “Such nakedness.”
“Yes,” said Vern from across the room. “It’s wonderful for art and just terrible for family life.”
The juxtaposition of house and pictures haunted me that night. I saw the parents living their lives surrounded by a never-ending condemnation, wearing it like a scarlet letter in a desperate – valiant – attempt to own the son who felt disowned, to pay for past sins. And yet, like Hester, there was something theatrical about the wearing, something unintended by the forces out to punish. “I love the background in this one,” Ivy said, “don’t you?” She pointed to the yellow-green wall against which two young men had been photographed.
Honest and sly. Brave and calculated. Naked and posed. Each of these and all of them together, none of them cancelling out the other, even while the mother tried to cancel out her son’s version of life and he tried to cancel out hers.
Ted’s uncle had no patience with Ivy. He called her prissy and affected and ridiculed her attempts to trace her illustrious
past. Done for show, on show, the Duke and Duchess of Kent. In the accompanying photograph, obviously taken against their will and after they had been forced to listen to things they didn’t want to hear, Ivy and Vern stare grimly at the table. They refuse to look at their tormenting son. In the photograph of Don taken after the beating (he must have used a timer and tripod) his face is swollen – spread wide – and he is looking down too. All of them are desperate – the son desperately doing in the parents’ pretensions, the parents desperately finding something pretentious about their son – and all of them noble because all of them in genuine pain.
We left them on the lawn. Only gradually were we able to extricate ourselves, sliding into the car and away, the windows rolled down to provide for waves and drawn-out goodbyes. (As hard to leave as it had been to enter; they kept us on the patio for the longest time.)
We drove away and they walked back up the front steps, through the screen door and into the hallway, past the poster about sexual dependency and into the living room, past the piano and into the dining room where they cleared away the blue dishes and dealt with the letdown after visitors, the curious emptiness of the house, the self-accusations about the lack of beer.
Ivy wouldn’t let us go. She kept me in the hallway, holding my hand, holding my eyes with her gaze, her smile, her look of gratitude. She held my hand as though I were the daughter she had always wanted.
Before we left she offered us the remaining half of the thick chocolate cake, but she didn’t want us to take it, we could see that.
I knew an Ivy and a Vern when I was a child. Ivy was an alcoholic, Vern was gay. They were mother and son and both of them played piano, living out their sorrows awash with drink and alive with mannerisms. My childhood Ivy was very beautiful. In a snapshot taken of her at seventeen, she was sitting on a stool, her pale small-boned face framed by lavish dark hair. Kim showed me the picture and told me the love story: her father had seen Ivy in an army canteen, had asked her if he could buy her a drink, and she had slapped him across the face. Kim said this approvingly and I took it the way she meant: This was romance. We were only seven.
Kim and I dressed up in her old taffeta gowns, long and full, patterned not so much with colour as with sheen. We pulled them out of a long closet near an old chest of drawers, maybe the very chest against which Ivy fell one night in a drunken stupor.
Ivy had big plans for herself and later she had big plans for her children. What became of the big plans were big emotions. She was big emotion in a small town. She wept over a stain in Kim’s shorts, threw out shoes for having a single scuff, climbed into other men’s laps. She practised a highly coloured sort of honesty. I use those words, reminded of descriptions of young women who died of consumption, their faces too rosy, too flushed: Ruby who sang in the Avonlea choir. There was something exotic, loose, sexual about such
ill health; something exotic, loose, self-serving about Ivy’s honesty. It was honesty as abandon, honesty as an excuse for saying anything and doing anything, honesty as scandal. She loved to press you with questions about how you
were, eager to hear confessions not for what they contained but for the way they bound you to her. Vern grew up and remained attached, his letters home were always addressed to Ivy.
One Saturday they invited me along for a drive in the country. We drove past a number of scrubby farms, down a hill and towards a sugar bush. Kim’s dad pulled off the road next to the bush intending for us all to take a walk in the woods. Ivy was wearing a new white sweater not as a sweater is meant to be worn but draped over her shoulders. The first twig caught it and this was tragedy. She turned back, so we all turned back.
And what of the husbands who stand just to the side of their unbalanced wives? Calm, supportive, appealing in their quiet resignation, their honesty and humour. They are alcoholics too. Ivy cracked her head against the chest of drawers and died in hospital the next day. Her husband finished drinking himself to death a year later.
My childhood Ivy’s hands were small and bitten, my second Ivy’s arthritic, manicured, be-ringed. She held them in her lap, fingers sliding over swollen knuckles while she smiled, talked, documented our reactions. To live with the memory of your child lying down in front of a train, to live with your every effort to soften the memory repudiated by the second
child, to live with no escape, and then to find an escape. Europe really appreciates him, she could say.
Vern seems to have absorbed the most pain because he makes no attempt to scatter it off himself – no attempt to hide it, deflect it, turn it into anything it isn’t. He seems comfortable with his discomfort, not resigned, just aware it won’t go away. Was his daughter similar, the one who quietly lay down in front of the train?
Before we drove away, Ivy said she would be taking her evening walk in the woods, and she did. It was six o’clock. She walked alone. A small breeze came up (I am imagining this) and she pulled at the sweater she had thrown over her shoulders, tugged it forward with both hands – a new white sweater. She walked slowly in low heels, nylons, skirt, looking down at the leaves. A small bag hung off her left shoulder. Once in the woods she stepped off the path and proficiently made herself vomit behind a bush.
There’s a spot – a small clearing with a large flat rock – not far ahead. In a few minutes she is brushing the rock off with her handkerchief. She sits down and fishes in her bag. Vern will be puttering around the kitchen, making something light for supper, a salad. I picture him washing each leaf, one at a time, and patting them dry between sections of paper towel. They’ll have more of the chocolate cake.