Read Small Change Online

Authors: Elizabeth Hay

Small Change (2 page)

She had always imagined bodies firmer than hers but not substantially different. She had always imagined Danny with a boy.

I met the lover without realizing it. It was late summer, we were at their house in the country, a shaded house beside a stream – cool, green, quiet – the physical manifestation of the serenity I once thought she possessed. A phrase in a movie review: her wealth so old it had a patina. Maureen’s tension so polished it had a fine sheen.

All weekend I picked her long hairs off my daughter’s sweater and off my own. I picked them off the sheet on the bed. I picked blackberries, which left hair-like scratches on my hands.

My hands felt like hers. I looked down at my stained fingers and they seemed longer. I felt the places where her hands had been, changing diapers, buttoning shirts, deep in
tofu and tahini, closing in on frogs which she caught with gusto. Swimming, no matter how cold.

I washed my hands and lost that feeling of being in contact with many things. Yet the landscape continued – the scratches if not the smells, the sight of her hands and hair.

An old painter came to visit. He parked his station wagon next to the house and followed Danny into his studio in the barn. Maureen and I went off with the kids to pick berries. It was hot and humid. There would be rain in the night and again in the morning. We followed a path through the woods to a stream where the kids splashed about while Maureen and I dangled our feet over the bank. Her feet were long and slender, mine were wide and short. We sent ripples of water towards the kids.

She told me that Henry – the painter’s name was Henry – was Danny’s mentor, they had known each other for years and he was a terrible alcoholic. Then she leaned so close her shoulder touched mine. One night last summer Danny had come back from Henry’s studio and confessed – confided – that he had let the old man blow him. Can you believe it? And she laughed – giddy – flushed – excited – and eager, it seemed, to impress me with her sexual openness and to console herself with the thought that she had impressed me. A warm breeze blew a strand of her hair into my face. I brushed it away and it came back – ticklish, intimate, warm and animal-like. I didn’t find it unpleasant, not at the time.

We brought the berries back to the house, and late in the afternoon the two men emerged to sit with us on the verandah. Henry was whiskery, gallant, shy. Maureen talked a great
deal and laughed even more. Before dark, Henry drove away.

She knew. It all came out the next spring and she pretended to be horrified, but she knew.

That night sounds woke me: Danny’s low murmur, Maureen’s uninhibited cries. I listened for a long time. It must have occurred to me then that the more gay he was, the more she was aroused.

I thought it was someone come to visit. But the second time I realized it was ice falling. At midday, icicles fall from the eavestrough into the deep snow below.

And the floor which I keep sweeping for crumbs? There are no crumbs. The sound comes from the old linoleum itself. It crackles in the cold.

Often I wake at one or two in the morning, overheated from the hot water bottle, the three blankets, the open sleeping bag spread on top. In my dreams I take an exam over and over again.

In the morning I go down in the socks I’ve worn all night to turn up the heat and raise the thin bamboo blind through which everyone can see us anyway. I make coffee, then scald milk in a hand-beaten copper pot with a long handle. Quebec has an expression for beating up egg whites:
monter en neige
. Milk foams up and snow rises.

Under the old linoleum old newspapers advertise an “equipped one bedroom at Lome near Albert” for $175. Beside the porch door the linoleum has broken away and you can read mildew, dust, grit,
Ottawa Citizen
, May 1, 1979. The
floor is a pattern of squares inset with triangles and curlicues in wheat shades of immature to ripe. Upstairs the colours are similar but faded; and flowers, petals.

During the eclipse last month I saw Maureen when I saw the moon. I saw my thumb inch across her pale white face.

I have no regrets about this. But I have many thoughts.

We pushed swings in the playground while late afternoon light licked at the broken glass on the pavement. New York’s dangers were all around us, as was Maureen’s fake laugh. She pushed William high in the swing, then let out a little trill each time he came swooping back.

It was the time of Hedda Nussbaum. We cut out the stories in the newspaper and passed them back and forth – photographs of Hedda’s beaten face, robust husband, abused and dead daughter. It had been going on for so long. Hedda had been beaten for thirteen years, the child was seven years old.

In the playground, light licked at the broken glass and then the light died and we headed home. Often we stopped for tea at Maureen’s. Her house always had a loose and welcoming atmosphere which hid the sharp edge of need against which I rubbed.

She began to call before breakfast, dressing me with her voice, her worries, her anger, her malleability. Usually she was angry with Danny for staying up so late that he was useless all day, of no help in looking after William, while she continued to work to support them, to look after the little boy in the morning and evening, to have no time for herself. But when I expressed anger on her behalf she defended him …

Similarly with the stomach pains. An ulcer, she suggested, then made light of the possibility when I took it seriously.

She would ask, “Is this all? Is this going to be my contribution?” She was referring to her brilliant past and her sorry present: her pedestrian job, the poor neighbourhood, her high-maintenance husband when there were any number of men she could have married, any number she said. Motherhood gave her something to excel at. She did everything for her son – dressed him, fed him, directed every moment of play. “Is this all right, sweetie? Is this? What about this? Then, sweetie pie, what do you want?”

Sweetie pie wanted what he got. His mother all to himself for a passionately abusive hour, then peace, affection. During a tantrum she would hold him in her lap behind a closed door, then emerge half an hour later with a small smile. “That was a short one. You should see what they’re like sometimes.”

Even when Danny offered to look after him, even when he urged her to take a long walk, she refused. Walked, but briefly, back and forth on the same sidewalk, or up and down the same driveway. Then returned out of a sense of responsibility to the child. But the child was fine.

At two years he still nursed four or five times a night and her nipples were covered with scabs. “But the skin there heals so quickly,” she said.

We moved to the other side of the city and the full force of it hit me. I remember bending down under the sink of our new apartment, still swallowing a mouthful of peanut butter, to
cram s.o.s pads into the hole – against the mouse, taste of it, peanut butter in the trap. Feel of it, dry and coarse under my fingers. Look of it, out of the corner of my eye a small dark slipper. Her hair always in her face, and the way I was ratting on her.

It got to the point where I knew the phone was going to ring before it rang. Instead of answering, I stood there counting. Thirty rings. Forty. Once I told her I thought she had called earlier, I was in the bathroom and the phone rang forever. Oh, she said, I’m sorry, I wasn’t even paying attention. Then I saw the two of us: Maureen mesmerized by the act of picking up a phone and holding it for a time; and me, frantic with resentment at being swallowed whole.

“Why is she so exhausting?” I asked my husband. Then answered my own question. “She never stops talking and she always talks about the same thing.”

But I wasn’t satisfied with my answer. “She doesn’t want solutions to her problems. That’s what is so exhausting.”

And yet that old wish – a real wish – to get along. I went to bed thinking about her, woke up thinking about her and something different, yet related, the two mixed together in a single emotion. I had taken my daughter to play with her friend Joyce, another girl was already there and they didn’t want Annie to join them. I woke up thinking of my daughter’s rejection, my own various rejections, and Maureen.

It seemed inevitable that he would leave her – clear that he was gay and therefore inevitable that he would leave her. He was an artist. To further his art he would pursue his sexuality.
But I was wrong; he didn’t leave her. And neither did I.

Every six months he had another gay attack and talked, thought, drew penises. Every six months she reacted predictably and never tired of her reactions, her persistence taking on huge, saintly proportions. As for me, I never initiated a visit or a call, but I didn’t make a break. As yielding as she was, and she seemed to be all give, Danny and I were even more so.

Tensions accumulated – the panic as she continued to call and I continued to come when called, though each visit became more abrasive, more insulting, as though staged to show who cared least: You haven’t called me, you never call me, you think you can make up for your inattention with this visit but I’ll show you that I don’t care either: the only reason I’m here is so that my son can play with your daughter.

We walked along the river near her country place. William was on the good tricycle, my daughter on the one that didn’t work. Maureen said, “I don’t think children should be forced to share. Do you? I think kids should share when they want to share.”

Her son would not give my daughter a turn the whole long two-hour walk beside the river – with me pointing out what? Honeysuckle. Yes, honeysuckle. Swathes of it among the rocks. And fishermen with strings of perch. I stared out over the river, unable to look at Maureen and not arguing; I couldn’t find the words.

With each visit there was the memory of an earlier intimacy, and no interest in resurrecting it. Better than nothing. Better than too much. And so it continued, until it spun lower.

We were sitting on the mattress on the floor of Danny’s studio in front of a wall-sized mirror. Around us were his small successful paintings and his huge failures. He insisted on painting big, she said, because he was so small. “I really think so. It’s just machismo.”

How clear-eyed she was.

I rested my back against the mirror, Maureen faced it. She glanced at me, then the mirror, and each time she looked in the mirror she smiled slightly. Her son was there. He wandered off and then it became clear that she was watching herself.

She told me she was pregnant again. It took two years to persuade Danny, “and now he’s even more eager than I am,” smiling at herself in the mirror.

Danny got sick. I suppose he had been sick for months, but I heard about it in the spring. Maureen called in tears. “The shoe has dropped,” she said.

He was so sick that he had confessed to the doctors that he and Henry – old dissipated Henry whose cock had slipped into who knows what – had been screwing for the last five years. Maureen talked and wept for thirty minutes before I realized that she had no intention of leaving him, or he of leaving her. They would go on. The only change, and this wasn’t certain, was that they wouldn’t sleep together. They would go to their country place in June and stay all summer.

I felt cheated, set up, used. “Look, you should
do
something,” I said. “Make some change.”

She said, “I know. But I don’t want to precipitate anything. Now isn’t the time.”

She said it wasn’t
AIDS
.

Her lips dried out like tangerine sections separated in the morning and left out all day. She nursed her children so long that her breasts turned into small apricots, and now I cannot hold an apricot in my hand and feel its soft loose skin, its soft non-weight, without thinking of small spent breasts – little dugs.

She caught hold of me, a silk scarf against an uneven wall, and clung.

Two years later I snuck away. In the weeks leading up to the move, I thought I might write to her afterwards, but in the days immediately before, I knew I would not. One night in late August when the weather was cool and the evenings still long, we finished packing at nine and pulled away in the dark.

We turned right on Broadway and rode the traffic in dark slow motion out of the city, north along the Hudson, and home.

In Canada I thought about old friends who were new friends because I hadn’t seen them for such a long time. And newer friends who were old friends because I’d left them behind in the other place. And what I noticed was that I had no landscape in which to set them. They were portraits in my mind (not satisfying portraits either, because I couldn’t
remember parts of their bodies; their hands, for instance, wouldn’t come to mind). They were emotion and episode divorced from time and place. Yet there was a time – the recent past, and a place – a big city across the border.

And here was I, where I had wanted to be for as long as I had been away from it – home – and it didn’t register either. In other words, I discovered that I wasn’t in a place. I was the place. I felt populated by old friends. They lived in my head amid my various broodings. Here they met again, going through the same motions and different ones. Here they coupled in ways that hadn’t occurred really. And here was I, disloyal but faithful, occupied by people I didn’t want to see and didn’t want to lose.

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