Read The Better Mother Online

Authors: Jen Sookfong Lee

The Better Mother (4 page)

BOOK: The Better Mother

Danny nods to his right and they silently enter the bush. In his favourite spot, there is enough air and ground for him and him on this sweltering night. Their outermost selves—the ones who drive to work in the morning, or who don’t answer the phone because they know their mothers are trying to reach them—have fallen away, expelled because of this need to feel the velocity of their bodies together. Danny’s breath emerges from his chest easily, without pain.

Branches crack in the quiet. If he leans forward, like so, he can rest his hands on the trunk of the tree in front of him. His narrow hips are grasped from behind and his body opens until he and this colossus of a man are no longer distinct as two separate people. They are an eight-limbed, brand-new creature, slick and burning, its double mouth closed in case a police officer happens to be walking on the other side of the trees. Danny relishes the feeling of another man’s hands holding him, encircling his body like he will never let go, like this one meeting will somehow turn into a lifetime of late brunches on Sundays. He wonders if he should ask his partner’s name, then thinks better of it, realizing that, in the months to come, he would rather wordlessly remember him with echoes of these waves that push and pull. Besides, asking might spur this man to question him in turn, and how would Danny ever explain his compartmentalized self to someone else? This is something he has never done in the park and he doesn’t want to start now. Please, not now.

For one second, a streak of moonlight falls through the tree cover, and their combined shadow, defined by lumps and
the sharpness of joints, appears and is then gone. When they separate, the man kisses Danny on the lips before walking away, waving once before disappearing down the gravel path.

As Danny makes his way home through the downtown streets, he exhales in relief that neither of them had spoken. It’s the newness he craves, the change from face to face to face, the constant march of men through his nights, none of whom ask for details or stories of the past, just this sliver of a moment in the hush of the park. The fulfillment of his wants helps him believe that he is not a failure, that he is still running and immune from capture; words will only suggest the opposite.


Sometimes he is convinced he can touch people through the camera, that the lens is a finger that grazes the backs of people’s necks, smoothes down tufts of hair standing in the wind. He wonders if the simple act of pressing down on the shutter release means that he has left a trace of himself on his subjects’ bodies—a filmic thumbprint, a flash of light that tans the skin ever so slightly. If he actually reached out and grazed them with his hands, they would turn around and stare, not comprehending how in a city this size, human touch is even possible.
How strange
, they might think.
How uncouth

He leans his body against the hot Orpheum wall on Granville Street. The day has just begun and everything is still new. Hurtful conversations have not yet started. Women still walk through the city with their blank, nighttime faces. He grips his camera tightly. Every week, he leaves his apartment trusting that he will take that one picture that will breathe otherworldly beauty into ordinary, unsuspecting things and people. He walks, looking for that moment that exposes what twirls inside, the secret loves or hates that shimmer through eyes and open doorways. The photo that will make him famous.

He had come downtown at eighteen, camera strapped around his neck, convinced that he would one day see his images in a white-walled gallery, that people dressed in black, holding glasses of wine, would tilt their heads to the side while gazing at his thought-provoking, visceral photographs. “So raw,” they might say, “as if someone splattered their feelings right there.” And he would smile because everyone would finally know how the world revealed itself when he saw it through his viewfinder.

He sees an abandoned bicycle, wheels upended outside a corner store. The blinking of a Pac-Man machine at the arcade down the street. A backyard bordering an alley that is unintended for casual observers and filled with the particular remnants of family: a burnt-out television, a stack of car tires, a one-eyed dog sniffing its own feet. He even sees the sunshine, cutting diagonally across his viewfinder, yellow slashes on grey sidewalks.

But it’s the people he looks for most.

He sees them walking, driving; sees them eating in the big front window of a diner across the street. Their faces
move and wrinkle, their expressions fall or light up. They are lovely, touched by light and shadow, dwarfed by the tall lines of buildings, or made giant when their faces fill the viewfinder with pores and wrinkles, their eyes moving up and down with thoughts of what they might have done better, or what they did best. He stops in mid-stride at the sight of a woman with laugh lines around her mouth and a shiny, dangling handbag that he imagines her drawing tissues from. His breath catches in his throat and he wants to tell her story in one glorious, well-focused frame. But when he finally brings up his camera and looks through the viewfinder, this woman, like every person who catches his attention, turns away and he is left with a shot of the back of her head. Frame after frame of the permed, greying curls of older women, the hatted heads of businessmen, the barrettes of little girls.

His body curves in on itself and he lets the camera dangle from his neck. He must spook his subjects; they can sense his hovering presence and turn away even though he is across the street or behind a rhododendron. He might be a bloodsucker, and the men and women and children are simply protecting themselves. Perhaps he clings to the beat and thrum of other people to counteract his own pale, quiet self. He has spent years staring at his collection of images, and none of them pulse with the beat of human breath, or drip desire and pain and longing. They are pretty little pictures and no one ever made it into a New York gallery on pretty pictures alone, something even his more hopeful, younger self understood.

Now he sees a small figure leaping down the sidewalk, wearing a red-and-blue-striped T-shirt and brown shorts. The little boy comes closer, and Danny watches as he very carefully
avoids the cracks in the sidewalk and mouths the words of the schoolyard rhyme. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”

Danny lifts his camera and the little boy looks behind him in the direction of the rickety rental houses near the bridge, possibly checking for his mother’s watchful eye in the living-room window. Grinning, he breaks into a run, taking advantage of the mostly empty sidewalk now that everyone has reported for work. His arms and legs pump like a marathon runner’s, eyes closed against the wind tunnel he’s created. He shouts into the street, “Watch me! I’m faster than an airplane!” Danny presses the shutter as soon as he can, but the boy speeds past him. The photograph will be a blur of arms and legs, a swirl to indicate the cowlick at the back of his head.

He begins to walk away, mentally listing all the things he has to do for the next Saturday wedding. Tomorrow he will buy film, pick up his suit from the dry cleaner, fill up the gas tank in the car so he can make it to the church for the ceremony, the park for photos and the hotel for dinner. He’ll have to crouch in the aisle of the big church on Burrard, focus on a bouquet of lilies and gladioli and, of course, the heavy wooden cross hanging above the pulpit.

As he turns the corner on the way to his studio, he thinks about the bride, how she will see his pictures as her memories. She will not remember seeing out of her own eyes, not even that moment when she joins her groom at the altar and he brushes her cheek with his thumb. She will not remember having to pee and marching her bridesmaids to a tiny washroom stall so they can hold up her skirt, the toilet-paper roll digging into the back of her beleaguered sister. She won’t even remember her father whispering to her during their
dance, “Your room is always yours in case you need to get away.” All these memories will be sucked into a vacuum where other, older things wait: the name of her first kitten, her favourite sandwich during her entire grade six year, the running shoes she saved her babysitting money for. One day, in a hospital room somewhere, long after her worn vocal cords have fallen silent, there will be a flood, and she will remember everything. But no one will hear.

All of this Danny understands and, strangely, loves. Years ago, when he first began looking for work, he was disappointed that he couldn’t find anything more interesting to photograph than weddings. But soon, he began to see their beauty—the dresses, the light diffused and coloured by stained-glass windows, the flowers that cost hundreds but would wilt the next day. And the rest of it: the pinched face of a father not willing to let his daughter go. The hunted look of a groom who proposed because he thought it was time. The shifting of flesh underneath the big white dress, each chunk of skin manipulated to fit the shape the bride always dreamed she could be and not the shape she really was. What Danny ended up loving was the shiny veneer of glamour and happiness, and the human ache and smell and longing that always seethed underneath.

On the street ahead of him, he notices a bulky man with a shaved head and tattoos climbing upward from the collar of his T-shirt. Blue, green and red inks swirl into snakes and thorns, shiver slightly whenever the man looks from side to side. He walks briskly, turning down Smithe toward the Cambie Bridge. Danny hurries after him, fumbling with his lens cap as he goes.

The man stops for the red light and Danny puts his camera to his eye and starts shooting, zooming in on the tattooed skin, the way the snake undulates around the roll of flesh between skull and shoulder. The shutter clicks. The film creaks as it advances.

The man turns around, and Danny can see his small green eyes staring at him through the lens. Danny drops the camera and lets it dangle around his neck.

“What the fuck are you doing?” the man booms, taking a step closer.

Danny hesitates, but manages to choke out, “I was just taking some pictures of the buildings.” He points at the law courts across the street.

The man scans Danny, toes to head, and sniffs. Danny wonders if he smells like a gay man, if there is some sort of pheromone that betrays him.

“You stay away from me, skinny boy,” he says, pointing his beefy finger in Danny’s direction. “If I catch you following me again, I’ll smash that nice camera you’ve got there. Understand?”

Danny nods and turns around, walking away as quickly as he can without breaking into a run. The camera bangs against his chest but he doesn’t notice; he is concentrating on the incline of the street ahead of him, and how long it will take him to reach the top of the hill and rush down the other side.

That afternoon, Danny walks down Davie on his way home from the studio. When he stops at the crosswalk, he sees a stocky Chinese man standing outside the corner store across
the street, carefully unwrapping a Creamsicle and flicking the pieces of paper onto a browning strip of lawn. It’s Edwin, of course, in a light-grey suit and well-shined, darker grey shoes, with a thin moustache lining his upper lip. Edwin’s brushed-back hair is like freshly poured tar and so glossy that Danny wants to dunk his head in a bucket of soapy water. Danny exhales sharply and walks across the street.

“Danny, what a coincidence!” Edwin steps forward, grabs one of Danny’s camera bags with his free hand and grins, his lips already turning orange from his quickly melting snack.

“How is it that I always run into you?” Danny asks, as they walk together toward his apartment.

Edwin grins. “We’re meant to be together. It’s fate, you know, the universe making sure we’re thrown together as much as possible.” He stops walking and lets out a bellowing laugh. “Don’t look so scared, Danny. I’m just joking. God, you’re not my type anymore, all right?”

It’s never a coincidence, no matter what Edwin says. Whenever Danny sees him standing at a traffic light waiting to cross the street, or drinking a glass of Chardonnay in the window of a bar he’s walking past, he always thinks that Edwin has somehow figured out where Danny is going to be and purposely waits for him, the surprised look on his face so practised it’s almost believable. Danny thinks he can see a triumphant glimmer of
I knew it
in the lines of his mouth.

At the apartment, Edwin asks if there’s any coffee (“What a day—I can barely stand up”) and settles on Danny’s couch, his feet resting on the table in front of him. Danny can see Edwin’s eyes moving and then resting on the Lucite table
lamp, the black leather armchair, Danny’s own photographs hanging on the walls in geometric groupings of three and five. When the coffee is ready, Danny hands a mug to Edwin and stands, arms crossed, watching as Edwin sips noisily and winks over its rim.

“I saw you looking. What are you thinking?” Danny asks.

“Why are you so suspicious? I wasn’t thinking anything.”

“Liar.” Danny sits down in the armchair and looks out the patio window at the building across the street.

“Fine. I was thinking that this place looks like a show home. One of those modern apartments we keep building around here. Do you even live here? Where’s the dirty laundry, the crumbs on the table, the fingerprints on the window?” Edwin puts down his coffee and clasps his hands behind his head. “I could sell this place tomorrow, it looks so clean.”

“Listen, not everyone’s a slob like you. You live in that huge house with all that furniture your parents bought. Look at it now. It’s a complete mess.”

“True enough. If it weren’t for my parents, I’d be a total failure. People remind me of that every day.” Edwin closes his eyes and Danny is unsure if he is hiding disappointment or tears, or if he is simply exhausted.

“Did something happen?” Danny asks quietly.

Edwin laughs, his hand on his stomach. “My dear father called at seven this morning from Hong Kong to tell me that our sales aren’t up to snuff and that if I don’t turn it around in six months, he’s going to close the Vancouver office. We’re making money, lots of money, but not fast enough for the Hong Kong crowd. We can sell the properties, but it’s not like Asia where they have ten bidders for every tiny apartment or
roach-infested office.” He rubs his forehead. “And then my mother picks up the extension and starts asking me when I’m going to get married. She’s aching for grandchildren, she says, like having none is a disease or something. I should say to her, ‘Ma, I’m never having children because I like to fuck men,’ and then take bets on whether she has a heart attack, or falls mute and never leaves her bedroom again. What do you say, Danny? Care to wager?”

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