Read Small Change Online

Authors: Elizabeth Hay

Small Change (3 page)

September came and went, October came and went, winter didn’t come. It rained in November, it rained again in December. In January a little snow fell, then more rain.

Winter came when I was asleep. One morning I looked out at frozen puddles dusted with snow. It was very cold. I stepped carefully into the street and this is what I saw. I saw the landscape of friendship. I saw Sunday at four in the afternoon. I saw childhood panic. People looked familiar to me, yet they didn’t say hello. I saw two people I hadn’t seen in fifteen years, one seated in a restaurant, the other skating by. I looked at them keenly, waiting for recognition to burst upon them, but it didn’t.

Strangers claimed to recognize me. They said they had seen me before, some said precisely where. “It was at a conference two years ago.” Or, “I saw you walk by every day with your husband last summer. You were walking quickly.”

But last summer Ted and I had been somewhere else.

The connections were wistful, intangible, maddening. Memory tantalized before it finally failed. Yet as much as memory failed, those odd, unhinged conjunctures helped. Strange glimmerings and intense looks were better than nothing.

The last time I saw Maureen, she was wearing a black-and-white summer dress and her teeth were chattering. “Look at me,” she said, her mouth barely able to form the words, her lower jaw shaking. “It’s not that cold.”

We were in the old neighbourhood. The street was dark and narrow with shops on either side, and many people. I was asking my usual questions, she was doing her best to answer them.

“Look,” she said again, pointing to her lips which were shaking uncontrollably.

I nodded, drew my jacket tight, mentioned how much warmer it had been on the way to the café, my voice friendly enough but without the intonations of affection and interest, the rhythms of sympathy, the animation of friendship. In the subway we felt warm again. She waited for my train to come, trying to redeem and at the same time distance herself. I asked about Danny and she answered. She talked about his job, her job, how little time each of them had for themselves. She went on and on. Before she finished I asked about her children. Again she talked.

“I don’t mean to brag,” she said, helpless against the desire to brag, “but Victoria is so verbal.”

Doing to her children and for herself what her mother had done to her and for herself.

“So verbal, so precocious. I don’t say this to everyone,” listing the words that Victoria already knew.

She still shivered occasionally. She must have known why I didn’t call any more, aware of the reasons while inventing others in a self-defence that was both pathetic and dignified. She never asked what went wrong. Never begged for explanations (dignified even in her begging: her persistence as she continued to call and extend invitations).

We stood in the subway station — one in a black-and-white dress, the other in a warm jacket – one hurt and pale, the other triumphant in the indifference which had taken so long to acquire. We appeared to be friends. But a close observer would have seen how static we were, rooted in a determination not to have a scene, not to allow the other to cause hurt. Standing, waiting for my train to come in.

The Fire

I
t’s late. When snow falls at night this room is lighter because falling snow brightens the streetlight and again afterwards because the moon comes out and shines on the new snow. Movie sets use Styrofoam panels to extend the day. The same principle applies: a pulsing between two sources of brightness: snow and moon, Styrofoam and sun, nightshirt and frypan. I learned about the fire in a letter from Maureen’s older sister Jill.

“We started out at opposite points,” Jill said to me once when we were talking about Maureen, “and now we’ve come together.” She meant that my liking had turned to dislike and her dislike had softened.

Behind her glasses Jill’s eyes were tentative and on hold. She was the one who seemed to know so little, yet knew everything. She knew about Danny’s affair with Henry and his various flirtations, and she predicted how everything
would end. What she predicted unfolded before her eyes.

One Sunday morning in June she was drinking coffee while reading a book in a small café in the Village. Jill was always reading, a professional disease, she said, it goes with being a librarian. Her visits to the Village were to see her two troubled sons and her various doctors. For as long as I knew her, she was solicitous, stoical, and ill.

Her table was beside a row of windows overlooking the street. For a moment she looked up, her eyes shifting past parking meters and cars, and saw Danny. He was at the corner with his arm around a pretty young woman. The light turned, they crossed the street and walked right past her window without seeing her.

She had to smile. Danny had done the unpredictable by doing the most predictable thing of all. She said to me, “I felt the way a novelist must feel when her characters come to life.”

Danny’s sweet young thing, as Jill called her, was a student painter who had gone to him for advice. Maureen reacted (I swear this is true) by taking up painting.

She gets up early while the others sleep, makes chamomile tea and drinks it with honey, then sits down at her work table beside the window. This is easier to imagine than what she paints. I suspect she paints picture after picture of the same empty bed.

Her skin absorbs paint. She takes to it as a dry wall, untouched for years, soaks up gallon after gallon of colour. Or a city in decline surrenders to the paintbrush and then
the fire. Her hands go yellow, green, blue – a rainbow bruise extending up her wrists.

One afternoon she puts away freshly washed laundry and notices drops of blood on the white sheets. She looks at her palms and sees on her fingers splits as fine as paper cuts. This hasn’t happened since she was a child. In those days she refused salves and creams, so every night her mother waited until she had fallen asleep, then snuck into her room and rubbed her hands with oil and her lips with Vaseline. Under her mother’s shiny fingertip, Maureen’s chapped lips moved like relaxed limbs. That was the first of the nightly Vaseline rituals.

Let’s say it’s two in the morning. Let’s say the window is open and light from the street falls on the bed. Danny undresses. His face is all bone – teeth, nose, high forehead – but his body is shapely. Maureen has told me how fine his legs are, how fine his chest. His cock waves a little – uncertain top-heavy bloom – smooth and shiny tulip past its prime. Women scrub floors until their hands are the same colour and equally shiny.

Her panic is almost permanent now. She is awake, she wants to talk, but he hushes her. She has the children, which she wanted; they are together still and she wants that. He lies down beside her. Again she tries to talk. “I have no friends. No one ever calls -”

“Shhhh.”

The only man in her life. The only man who has known her since girlhood and has witnessed her in her glory. The panic: not that there is nothing she can do (she works, she earns, she raises children), but that there is nothing she can
do well. A form of amnesia has taken over and she cannot remember how it was that she ever excelled.

She goes into Danny’s studio. She often goes in to look at his work and to see what he has in the small fridge in the corner. This time his notebook is lying on top of the fridge. In her hands it falls open to a male nude asleep in a manner that affords no rest. She thinks of an udder unmilked for days, something unbearably heavy, and feels simultaneously aroused and sad. Even in sleep he has to lug this thing around. The drawing could be a Biblical representation of Lust. It is a good drawing too.

In some ways they are closer than ever. Even more than before, he confides his artistic ambitions and sexual doubts. She listens. She sits on the pale yellow sofa in their barely furnished living room and keeps track. Sometimes her mind wanders, sometimes she turns away in fatigue, but in general she keeps track.

“You’re my best friend,” he says, and it would have consoled her once. Victoria is two, William is five. “I can tell you anything.”

Here she is, a woman who has tormented and aroused herself with the thought of young boys in her husband’s bed, and what lovers does he take? An old sadsack of a drunk and a young woman. Where does that leave her?

“Where does that leave me?” she asks.

She sees him disappearing, yet her footsteps are the ones filling with sand, hers are the fingerprints vanishing
off the wall. He will never leave the house, he will never leave his studio.

By the end of the summer she no longer wants to keep abreast of his every thought and she wants to tell someone in exactly those words.
I no longer want to keep abreast
. But no one calls.

She runs her hand along the back of the sofa, releasing old dust into the late afternoon light. She looks beyond the stirred and shining air, beyond the disturbances in her life (dusty beautiful spore-filled air; a potential for flowers) to the phone.

She doesn’t remember, except intuitively, the nightly occurrence of fingers smoothing her lips, stroking the skin under her nose and the edges of her nostrils, but when her mother returns to apply ointments, she finds that she already knows about this comfort, has acquired the knowledge the way you learn a language by listening to a tape while you sleep. Her mother returns in September after the fire.

Maureen had risen early with the kids. She hadn’t bothered to change out of her long cotton T-shirt and was still wearing it at noon. Victoria was napping, the boy was playing in the living room. He was hungry.

Maureen went into the kitchen to make pancakes. Sun poured into the kitchen while she poured oil into an aluminum frypan. The oil shone, the pan shone, her white T-shirt shone. And because she was leaning into the stove, because she was so close to the gas jet, because the white of
her shirt fed the hot white light of the pan and the light of the pan bounced back to her shirt and back to the pan and back to her shirt, and perhaps because grease spat onto her shirt, (no one ever fully understood), it caught fire.

Danny was in the bath. He always had a bath when he got up around noon. Sometimes he locked the door, sometimes he wore a Walkman. It depended on his mood. There was another bathroom in the basement, if Maureen or the kids needed to pee they went there. He liked the bath to be full and hot, and the music loud.

Maureen sprang away from the stove and flames shot up to her face. There was a sink right there. She knew there was a sink, she knew she needed water. Nevertheless, she fled the kitchen. Later she would say that she wanted to get as far away as possible from the stove, it was only natural.

She ran screaming into the living room. But Danny didn’t hear.

She tore a piece of fabric off the wall, an old, dry, embroidered piece of fabric from Peru. She slapped it against her chest and it went up like kindling.

She banged on the bathroom door and still he didn’t hear. He didn’t hear her, or the fire alarm, or the boy’s screams.

And so she ran at the door. She backed up (this would be the lasting image in the boy’s head: his mother on fire charging a locked door) and ran at it with her shoulder, knocking it halfway off its hinges and somersaulting into the bathtub.

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