Authors: Elizabeth Hay
My old neighbours heard the ambulance. Laura heard it on her way home from the hairdresser’s and told Clara. “She was
wearing this sheet and he had his arm around her, and I says to myself, I says, what happened to the baby?”
It was half past noon on a Friday. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
We used to sit outside in the evening, Laura, Clara, Cathy and I, under the shadow of Frank. We would hear the sound of the second-floor window being raised behind us, and stiffen. I never looked up. Laura looked up.
“It’s your husband,” she would say to Cathy. And our talk would die on our lips.
We stayed out there till early September in a long slow slide from bare arms to sweaters to jackets, as the streetlights came on earlier and earlier and the air cooled down. Frank would come out with his pursed lips and barely perceptible nod, his slicked-back arrogant looks, and stand on
stoop whose outer sidewalk we, as tenants, could use. He would walk down the street saving his jocularity for certain men and his smiles for certain young women.
Last night I dreamt about Frank. We laughed together. He was sitting across the table and reached for my bag of tortilla chips. I nodded, then poked him in the chest. “Now you owe me one,” I said. He laughed, or at least he smiled. How strange that dreams can make such friendliness possible.
The poinsettia has died but I haven’t pitched it yet. It sits on the table next to the wide window that overlooks the playground (Canadian and glass-free) and the complicated and
expensive play structure that dominates it. A memorial to simple childhood. May it rest.
Laura’s words whenever she referred to her daughter. “I fed my daughter – may she rest – puddings and cakes and candy all the time. Never did no harm,” and she emptied her pockets of sweets into my daughter’s eager hands. Laura’s daughter died in a diabetic coma at the age of forty-two.
I tiptoed up the stairs to avoid Laura for one reason and Frank for another. To avoid the punishing excesses of Laura’s company (the mountains of macaroni and gravy she forced upon me) and to avoid any contact with Frank, of whom I had an unreasoning dread. But why unreasoning? It’s too bad I was so afraid of him, but it wasn’t unreasonable. I have never had Ted’s capacity – as natural and pervasive as dew – to ignore people.
We were sitting in Laura’s kitchen. Laura and I were at the kitchen table, Clara was in the rocking chair talking about her second pregnancy forty years ago. She craved apples, she said. In those days an apple tree grew in Laura’s backyard, but Clara was new to the country, and shy, and didn’t ask. As time went on and she continued to forgo the apple, she became convinced the baby would be “marked” in some way. She gave birth and to her horror the baby’s face – as babies’ faces often are – was streaked with red. She thought it was the apple.
Eat everything you crave, said Laura. If you don’t, the baby will get marks.
Yes, she said. My aunt had this longing for wine and she always sat like this (she rested her cheek in the palm of her
hand), and my niece was born with a wine hand on her face.
I was wearing one of Maureen’s pregnancy dresses – a pink sundress with three small buttons at the back, the top one of which kept catching my hair, pulling my head gradually back and reminding me of the Ferris wheel. She was seventeen when it happened. After they extricated her – cutting away long blond hair wound so tightly around the cable that her head arched back – she had a bald spot the size of a fifty-cent piece.
In her dresses I wore her. Or she wore me? Which? She was covering my body, but I was inside her dress. People confused us with each other. One morning the newspaper vendor gave me a message about a possible babysitter, thinking he was giving a message to her.
Another morning I showered, then reached into the closet for one of her dresses. The right sleeve had come loose. I got out needle and thread and spent ten minutes mending it. The dress was mauve and white, striped and long. While I mended I read a story in the paper about a woman who had carried her sewing into the living room, her needle in one hand, what she was sewing in the other, and accidentally knocked against the doorway and driven the needle into her heart.
I miscarried that afternoon, and two months later Maureen was telling me she was pregnant.
There is a process in friendship of becoming the other person, and of erasing yourself and the other person in the process. You see the friend turn away, and in that moment
you stop seeing the friend and see only yourself as someone turned away from.
I was never able to keep all of her in my mind at once, the person I had liked and the person I came to dislike. I remember standing beside her in the Korean fruit store while she bent down to smell a hyacinth in a pot, her long unwashed hair swinging into her face and mingling with the other smell – one sweet and otherworldly, the other salty and human. The smell of spring and the smell of panic.
Whenever her son whimpered in the night, she left Danny’s side and lay down beside him till morning. She slept poorly because of the narrow bed and because of dreams in which young men appeared, intent on following her and eager to make love. She would wake in tears at the contrast between what she might have had, and what she had.
Her mother cornered me in the playground. Another visit, almost the same time of year: April, and the wind kept blowing her words away. She couldn’t understand why Maureen’s talents had borne so little fruit. If only she had more time. “She is
jealous,” she said, “of the time you have to write.”
In that moment I felt a cool wind of ill will blow against my skin – just enough to open up my own storehouse of negativity. I remembered the Russian tale I had read with such a sense of recognition. A peasant was given the chance to choose anything he wanted so long as his neighbour got twice as much. He thought and thought, and finally chose to have one of his eyes put out.
What was the word Maureen used as we went upstairs, the German word for joy at another’s sorrow?
“I don’t mean that,” she said. “Not that dramatic. But, yes, I’m jealous of anybody’s time, especially my husband’s,” and she laughed.
We were halfway up the stairs, she turned around to speak to me, and there was a small smile on her face. The Germans have a word for it.
I walked back home and looked out the window at Clara’s garden next door. It was one of the most beautiful gardens I had ever seen. A narrow sidewalk, two steps, and where the steps rose, a low, roughly made stone wall. Beyond the wall under the magnolia small stones separated semi-circles of ground. It was a poor, graceful, hardworking garden that would produce abundantly all summer long. I opened the window and in surged the smell of laundry soap from down the street. A last snow flurry, a late spring.
A day later it surprised me how much her comments still bothered me. Bothered me more as I didn’t hear from her, as I deliberately left the house early and unplugged the phone when I came home, so that I couldn’t hear from her. Then walked down the block looking for her in the distance.
What saved her was the lanolin she always rubbed into her nipples after nursing the children. She made a habit of spreading it around her chest and in the end it protected her skin from the fire. Jill wrote that she healed very quickly. In a few months she was probably an older version of the wedding snapshot taken when they were twenty-two. Danny and a friend of his had their arms around her thin shoulders,
she was looking down at the ground, she was smiling (unlike the child who knew enough not to smile), and her hair was cropped close to her head. It formed a soft helmet, and yes, she looked like a boy.
oon after we moved here, I picked up a small book about Cézanne. This was in September. I opened the book to dry landscapes and cool still lifes, to late summer and early fall, to the pleasure and pain of seasonal change, the detachment of weather. This is the detachment we seek and usually fail to find in friendships – an unbegrudging, clear-eyed, undemanding, infinitely interesting and natural presence.
Here were pears on a table, apples in a bowl, a flowered pitcher, a leafy piece of fabric. Everything gave the impression of being aware of every other thing but in a way that transcends the human.
I began to read the biographical notes and came upon the description of Cézanne’s friendship with Zola, a deep and long friendship that began in Aix in 1852 when Cézanne was thirteen, and ended in 1886 when Zola published a novel about a painter who hanged himself in front of the painting he
couldn’t complete. Everyone knew the painter was Cézanne.
I reread the paragraph about the end of their friendship. “Although he spoke of it to no one, it could be seen that Cézanne’s grief was bitter and irremediable. Perhaps it was partly because of the sincere compassion expressed in the novel that Cézanne’s grief was so inconsolable.”
I wondered how sincere Zola’s compassion was. I wondered how it was known that Cézanne’s grief was inconsolable if he spoke of it to no one, and how it was known that he spoke of it to no one. I wondered about Zola’s ulterior motives – his desire to hurt an old friend, his competitiveness, his honesty, his dishonesty. The book said that Zola had moved away from his Impressionist friends and no longer believed in them, having been their most valiant champion. But my main interest was Cézanne and the way he dealt with the discovery that his oldest and dearest friend considered him a failure and used him as subject matter in a book.
No more letters passed between them, apparently. There were no more greetings, and they did not meet again.
In 1886 Cézanne was forty-seven. His friendship with Zola had lasted more than thirty years. The first time Zola left for Paris and Cézanne remained in Aix, they were about twenty. Cézanne wrote to him: “Ever since you left I am tormented by grief. This is the truth. You would not recognize me. I feel heavy, stupid and slow.”
The book has two self-portraits: an unfinished sketch in 1880 when he was forty-one, half bald, heavy forehead, dark beard, large face; then
Cézanne in a Soft Hat
ten years later,
several years after the break with Zola and several years in the making. His nose and chin are more pointed than broad; his beard is white and grey; the colours of his coat, hat, and jacket are repeated in the colours of the wall; and he seems less massive – flimsier and more decorative. He is known for his persistence in the face of doubts and for how slowly he painted.