No Chinook Chapter 1
No Chinook is my first book, originally published in 2008.
I met Kate Foley for the second time at a party I didn’t want to attend. It had been a few months since I moved to Calgary, a tiny jump from the small suburban town a few hours away where my parents lived. I didn’t know too many people, and I wasn’t making any money. I spent most of my time watching Best Week Ever and throwing paper basketballs, and only ever went out for coffee and groceries. I was happy because I was finally living in a small, expensive apartment, with bad fixtures and a shitty refrigerator. It was a housewarming party, just after New Year’s. Shawn had invited me, but I remember this party because of her.
Kate looked beautiful as ever, but I didn’t recognize her at first. Her hair was down, something I had never been lucky enough to see before. But it was more than that. She was wearing a green dress over jeans and had bracelets on her arms. She had gained a little weight, and she looked taller than what could be attributed to the heels. She also never used to wear heels. Kate was the kind of girl who wore running shoes and shorts and skirts and was focused. Here, she was laughing. I never saw her laugh this way before, more patronizing than genuine. It was as if someone had sent her back to the shop for remodeling.
At first, I thought she was just another beautiful girl on the other side of the living room, but she stopped laughing and began listening to someone I couldn’t see clearly. She crossed her arms. As I watched her, she tapped her nails against her arm, and smiled–courteously, almost–at an interval. I knew it was really her at that moment. Kate was being patronizing in the prettiest way.
Other than Shawn, I didn’t know anyone at that party. Still, I found myself in conversation with some guy. We were talking about music. I remember that he had a ponytail, and that I was bothered by it much more than by his obsession with Nick Cave. I yawned as I listened to him drone on about misrepresentation and getting breaks. I was in a bad mood that night. I don’t know why I agreed to go. I think it had something to do with my leather jacket. I think Shawn told me that I had to come because I had a cool leather jacket. I don’t want to say that this was the kind of person Shawn was—because he was so many different kinds of person—but at least a few of them were fashion victims.
I stopped him mid-sentence and told him that a friend of mine had just come in and I had to go say hello. Kate was in another room, but I could see her down a straight hallway. I walked right down the middle, breaking up everyone’s conversations and trying not to knock over paintings and end-tables. I kept apologizing to people I bumped into. I was heading toward someone I hadn’t seen in seven years. It was forever, and I had every reason to have forgotten her. But I hadn’t, and I began to think why.
As I came into the room, I remembered about a dozen quick things about Kate Foley. This short-list scared me into the opposite corner. I remembered that Kate had started out wanting nothing to do with me. Then, suddenly and without any kind of fair warning, she began to pay attention to me. And then, with the dumbest amount of awkward propositioning, she stopped. I stood only a few feet from her, and I saw her clearly enough to know that this wasn’t some stranger who just looked like a girl from seven years ago. I felt that familiar sense of panic. I wanted to be in Tibet, up on a mountain, praying with Buddhists, holding beads in my hands and wearing nothing under my ceremonial robes. I wanted that kind of ideal peace at this moment, when my memories were telling me to run away.
There was a girl right next to me who wasn’t talking to anyone, so I introduced myself and turned my back to Kate. I needed more than a few seconds to think about what I was going to say. I shook her ringed hand in that half-flirtatious way that guys and girls shake hands, but this was completely instinctive. The plastic rings rubbed against my skin in a funny way, almost like a squeak. She had glasses and freckles and cute shoulders. We talked about Shawn just like I’d talked about Shawn to almost everyone in the house. He knew entire worlds of people. She went to school with him, and thought once that he was the cutest guy. What eventually turned her off was the realization that just about every girl thinks about Shawn in the same way at first. Still, the two of them work together on art projects at the school where he taught, so they’re the kind of friends where other colleagues would constantly wonder if they’ll hook up. I gave the same kind of patronizing laugh that I had heard Kate give a moment before.
I looked over at Kate and wondered if this was all a big joke on me. Shawn had orchestrated this, and was doing this to test me. I’d figure out how he found her later. He was waiting for me to slip and make a mistake so some drunk ex-boyfriend would steer the crowd in my direction, and then it would all crash down like mid-afternoon hail from the west. The party would become a lesson in humiliation, culminating in my being thrown into the dirty pile of old snow on the front lawn. Almost every time I came to one of these kinds of parties, I envisioned something like this happening to me.
Suddenly, I felt like I absolutely had to leave. I excused myself from the conversation, walked away, and stuck my hands in my jacket pockets. I had no drink. I didn’t fidget. I kept my head down and headed for the door. It wasn’t that far. I just had to get by some people who wouldn’t suspect a thing, because I didn’t know any of them. I didn’t have to grab my coat because it was still on my shoulders. If Shawn saw me, I would say I was just going for air or a smoke or something. I had been trying to quit, and he knew this, so maybe going out for air was a better excuse. Sure, it was probably eleven below, but it was crowded and he’d buy it because I’d made him believe that I’m shy. I could be out in the midnight winter chill and home within an hour. It would have been safe, and I would have been warm, and no Chinook would have hit me.
I was looking at my feet and trying to shuffle out of the room when Shawn grabbed my arm. “What’s up, buddy?” he asked. I smiled at him, one of those sober smiles that he did not appreciate. He didn’t show any awareness of my intentions of leaving, and it was too late for an excuse now. His eyes caught mine and I’d go where he took me. He said, “There’s someone I want you to meet.” Shawn held my arm and led me to the room I was last in and trying hardest to avoid.
She was turned away from us, but I could picture all the things that might happen once she turned around and saw us. I tugged away, and looked at him somewhat pleadingly. I knew what he was doing, and I’d seen him do this with impunity to others. He kept his grip on my bicep, because nothing was going to stop him from introducing us.
Shawn tapped Kate’s shoulder and she turned around. She had a drink in her hand, and she smiled at him. She didn’t even look at me, even though I was staring at her intently.
“Kate!” he exclaimed, forcing me to remember this name. “How are you doing tonight? Enjoying yourself?”
“Of course,” she said, the bottle of beer barely escaping her lips long enough for her to speak. “What’s up?”
Shawn, as only he could, said, “I’m making introductions. I’m going around and introducing people to other people, you know, people who don’t know each other and probably won’t get along.”
“Are you trying to start a fight?” She asked, and they both laughed.
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” he said, too cocky for most people’s tastes, but not either of ours. “So, Kate Foley, this is Scott Clarkson. Scott, this is the lovely Kate.”
She extended her hand and I gave her mine. “I’m sorry, Scott, but I don’t think I’m going to fight you tonight.”
She shook back as if she had no damned clue who I was.
“Well, you never know,” I said. “Fights tend to break out at the most inopportune moments.”
“Exactly,” she pointed out. “But in the middle of a party where the host is trying to pick fights to entertain himself, it wouldn’t be exceptionally inopportune, would it?”
Shawn looked pleased. He half-giggled, for Christ’s sake, and then he gave me that look he always gives when he runs off earlier than I want him to. He proceeded to take the arm of the girl that Kate was talking to and undoubtedly went to introduce her to some other crazy stranger who enjoys a misunderstood relationship with our host.
“You never used to talk like that,” I said.
Kate turned her head and looked at me cock-eyed. She took a swig of her beer and shrugged her shoulders. “Did we go out sometime or something?”
This only made me more uncomfortable.
“Yes, we did,” I said. Her face paled and she looked guilty. She let out a breath that let me know she was trying to remember me. She must have been scanning every face of every guy she’d ever come across, but still couldn’t quite place me. She didn’t remember my name. She didn’t remember anything. And her face, with all this written on it, instantly made me feel bad.
“No, we didn’t.” I smiled, alleviating the tension and returning us to proper strangers.
Her next breath expressed relief. “Okay,” she said. Another swig, and she punched my shoulder. “Don’t fuck with me like that, man.”
“I couldn’t help myself,” I said. “I pick fights, sometimes. You know how it is.”
“What do you mean?” She asked me, and it was at that moment I knew she had only changed in minor little ways. Years ago, when I had really wanted to know Kate, she asked me this exact same question. She was sitting across from me and I was doing my best to ignore the world. I was writing a story that I was, at the time, taking very seriously. Out of nowhere, she asked me what I was doing. When I told her I was writing a story, she asked me what I meant, as if she’d never seen anyone write a story in her life.
“Leaving,” I said. “I’ve got to go.”
“Why?” She asked. “Aren’t you having a good time?”
God, that question. It was miles away from the original context. It was in that moment that Kate showed me some truth. She was still the same girl that broke my heart. She looked different now, but the energy, the snappy lines and the wilder hair were all just extra.
I just looked at my shoes and said, “I don’t know,” which was exactly how I replied to this question seven years ago. I sort of laughed, but what else could I say?
I had killed the conversation with this, and Kate looked like she was reaching for small talk. Like everyone else at this party, she found it in him. “So, how do you know Shawn?”
I laughed and shrugged my shoulders. She tilted her head again and smiled, looking torn; perhaps only half-interested in the answer and half-hoping it would always stay a mystery.
“How do you know Shawn?” I asked.
“It was a dare,” she said. “He was sitting across from this group of girls I used to hang out with, and one of them dared me to talk to him.”
“To talk to him, or to ask him out?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“I know those kind of dares,” I said. Someone once dared me to ask this girl out in junior high. He had no idea that it would be my first date, and I’d remember the entire debacle for that lone fact. I’d later forget all about my second date, with a less pretty but more interesting girl, because of this, and it would make me kind of angry.
“You know,” she said, changing the subject back to us. “You do look sort of familiar. Are you in film?”
“Not at the moment,” I said, wholly lying. It was lame and one of those bohemian answers that only frustrates people, but I wanted to keep this going long enough to give her a fighting chance of actually remembering. “You’ve probably seen me on the train or somewhere like that.”
“Maybe,” she said, as if it were the climatic line in an alternate universe Archie comic.
Her eyes were flirting. Was she drunk? She was smiling at me, not drinking too quickly. She wasn’t looking around for anything to use an as escape. Kate, for maybe the fourth or fifth time in my life, was actually paying close attention to me. The most recent time flashed in my head, but only for a moment. I was doing my best to keep this new moment with Kate completely independent of outside influence.
Two thoughts brushed over my mind. The first thought was that this party and Kate were a dream. Not in a dream in the actual sense of the word; I knew I was awake and that it was happening. It was a dream in the way that talking to a stranger on a bus is, or dialling the wrong number and finding yourself in a conversation is, or buying groceries and hearing a pop song that you used to love is. It’s real, but it isn’t your real life. It’s outside somehow, and it can’t interfere with the regular goings-on. There are spiritual boundaries and rules for these sorts of things.
The other thought was that I should ask for her number and scratch it into my arm so that I wouldn’t go seven more years without seeing her again.
“So are you studying anything right now?” she asked.
“I’m not at school, if that’s what you mean,” I said.
“I think that’s what I meant,” she said, “but now that you mention it, I’m not so sure.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying the question out for myself.
“Well,” she said, ready to get into a debate she’d clearly had before. “I guess I asked because, hey, that’s what we do, right? What’s your name? What school do you go to? Survey questions, you know? But the way you answered, it did something. Like, it flipped a switch or something. It made me think, why did I ask you that at all? What am I doing? What am I doing here, even?”
If it were anyone else, I have been surprised that she’d stumble over her own logic. She was only self-aware when she stumbled. I always wondered what her friends thought of her clumsy forays into questioning the entire universe.
“I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm by it,” I said, getting back on track about the whole thing. “You’re going to think I’m so boring. Um, I write up these weather reports.”
“You’re a meteorologist?”
This is how the conversation about my job always goes. “No, I work at a magazine; a weather magazine. I take charts and figures and reports and I turn them into something like an essay so that professors and, I guess, meteorologists can do research.”
“Cool,” she said, in the same inflection that I probably used when I said ‘cool’ to the guy with the Nick Cave obsession a few minutes ago.
I had a line in the back pocket of my mind that usually saved the conversation from falling into the “what was your major” realm. I said, “I’m working on a novel.”
“Really?” I nodded. “What’s the plot? You got a hero?”
“I guess he’s me, so far. Though I don’t know. It might be a girl.”
“You see yourself as a girl?”
“No, but I thought it might be more interesting to write a book using a girl’s perspective. I always thought so before, but now I’m not sure.”
“Before now, actually. Right now.”
“You,” I said. “You’re showing me that I have no idea and never did about any woman I’ve ever met.”
Kate choked on her drink. It was only for a second, but it was the first time we’d broken eye contact since we began. “You’re definitely a writer.”
“Trying to be,” I said.
“Well, whatever. Scott, right? That’s what Shawn said your name was?”
“Yeah,” I said, knowing now that she was drunk and stumbling on something she wouldn’t otherwise. She was great with names, with lyrics. It was one of those talents one has, but that one has no practical application. I don’t remember Kate ever really liking music.
She surprised me again. “I want to go home,” she said. She was drunk, but still in enough control to know she couldn’t drive home. “And my boyfriend doesn’t seem to be anywhere anymore. I mean, we came together, but who knows. He always leaves early when he’s not having any fun, you know?”
“How could you not have fun here?” I said, “I mean, a party where nobody knows anyone but Shawn. Where’s the lack of fun, right?”
She had a boyfriend. There was something else new.
She laughed again, “Exactly. It’s a blast, and I just can’t stand all the excitement. It’s stunning, really. Would you mind?” She raised her arm, elbow-first to me.
“Not at all,” I said, knowing the question before she could say it.
“I’d really appreciate it. This city, you know? It’s dangerous at night.”
“All cities are,” I said.
Looking at this so far, it was clear that Kate didn’t remember me at all. Still, there must have been something, because we had been together for three minutes and she was asking me to escort her home. There must have been a register in her head of people who were, among other things, completely safe.
“I’m not far from here. Won’t put you out of your way much, and you can come back and soak in all the fun if you so desire.” She put down her drink on a table, and wobbled only slightly. Kate rambled like an honest girl from Alberta, the kind that could keep you up on the phone until four in the morning in a conversation neither of you remember until two years down the road.
“Sure, no problem,” I said. I followed her to the closet. She grabbed her coat.
“Nice jacket,” She said. I’d had it on the whole time.
“Thanks.” I grabbed the door. I’d wanted to say goodbye to Shawn, but he wouldn’t have any right to care if anything happened anyway. Not that I was really thinking about it at this point. It wasn’t completely out of the question to hook up with someone you fell in love with years ago on some random drunken excursion. It didn’t matter if she had a boyfriend, or that she was half-unconscious and completely trusting her well-being to a veritable stranger who had somehow gained trustworthy status because he’s claiming to be working on a novel. But nothing was going to happen because nothing between Kate and me was ever supposed to happen.
I would saunter back and tell Shawn everything while helping him clean up, because doing so always purged me and brought us closer as friends. I wouldn’t tell him about Kate in any context he didn’t already know, because lying was something that needed to be done every now and then to save ourselves from referring to each other in terms not altogether comforting or complimentary.
We stepped out into the biting January weather. It wasn’t snowing. In fact, there was no snow in the sky and nothing had come in the past few days, so what was on the ground had long been properly shovelled, sectioned off, and used primarily as a place to pick up and drop young children. There were lots of dog prints showing where they’d leapt. It was a well-lived snowfall and one of the few things in the city that reminded me of home. As we walked I mentioned this, and she agreed.
“Wait,” she said, “What nice, tiny little hovel of a town did you say you were from?”
“Strathmore,” I said, knowing exactly what was coming.
“Oh my God, me too! What school did you go to? We’re about the same age, right?”
I stopped, “You really don’t remember me, do you?”
“I thought you said you were joking. Shit, you weren’t joking?” She was worried that she might actually have to feel bad if I turned out to be a past lover, but she had no responsibility to feel anything if I was nobody.
“The name Scott Clarkson means nothing to you, does it?” It was fair for me to say that, at least. I wouldn’t push it. I’d do my best not to be completely pathetic and mean.
The thing was, she looked like she was really trying. She looked up and I could tell she was reaching deep into her memory. She spun around. She held my shoulders and looked deep into my eyes. God, she was pretty. I’d never seen her hair down before; it was long, wavy and nice. Everything about her was so nice, even her drunkenness.
“I’m sorry, Scott. I don’t remember you.”
I’d like to say that this pierced me in some way, but it was exactly what I would have expected, and knowing I was right all along actually hurt more.
“That’s okay,” I said. “What’s important is that we get you home safe. Are you far from here?”
She pointed, and said, “That way, just another block or so. I live with my boyfriend. But it’s my place.” My time with Kate hadn’t been nearly long enough. From the second I saw her, I’d had a thousand questions to ask but no pretext to inquire. They didn’t matter now. If she didn’t remember me, if I had absolutely no place in her memory, then any question, anything at all, was pointless. I was a stranger and had no right to ask her how she was, what she had been doing all these years, why she broke my heart, why I have no confidence when it comes to women, how to solve that, if she’d love me now, if she’d give up everything to run rampant with me through every romantic setting we could muster, or if everything was exactly as it was supposed to be. She’d had such a great idea of most of that before. I wanted to know what her thoughts on these things were now. But I had no foothold and was lost in a sea of anonymity.
“This is me,” she said, finally stopping at a homely-looking porch. There were leaves where the snow had rescinded.
And that was it. She said thank you, gave me a wave, and went inside. I was so afraid I’d never see her again that I quivered. It might have just been the cold, but I couldn’t be sure.
The walk back to Shawn’s was fast. It didn’t give me enough time to work up a proper sadness. What did I care, anyway? This was happenstance. It was nothing material in the giant schism of whatever it was I was doing here.
As I came in, nobody turned around to say hi. There was a group of people all leaving together, and my arrival did nothing to evoke a reaction. It was a quarter to three. Between now and sunrise everyone would eventually bustle out.
I needed Shawn like I needed warm blankets all over. I had this idea once —after having moved out of my parents’ place, of course— that I’d cover every single wall of whatever kind of house I lived in with blankets. They would be so warm that when I needed to, I could throw myself into any of them and be instantly comforted. The walls wouldn’t hurt because the blankets would be so thick. They would catch me, like giant furry Muppets, whose only purpose was to keep me warm, alive and comforted. I needed Shawn on every wall. I wanted to throw myself at him and tell him this stupid little fantasy of mine and have him laugh it off as childish. Shawn never really thought highly about any of my ideas, but this never bothered me. I wasn’t here to seek acceptance or mutual respect. I scanned the first floor and the living room and the kitchen, but I couldn’t find him.
Shawn had just moved here from his last place, where we first met, and I had no idea how massive it was until I found myself searching all these hallways. He couldn’t afford a place like this by himself. He lived with other people but I had no idea how many. It had to be seven, at least. This place was a mansion. It was only two floors and from the front looked like any other flat, but it ran so damn deep. I found the kitchen, but its only occupants were a couple, younger than me, and better looking, knocking fridge magnets onto the ground with their clumsy kissing. The dining room was empty. The living room had half a dozen people inside, but none that I recognized.
A girl was sitting on the stairs, reading a book. She read with a focus so unnatural to the setting that I wondered if she was an illusion. I passed beyond her, and at the top of the stairs I saw some doors on both sides of the hallway. I envisioned people running from one door to another with no justification for coming out of a door they hadn’t entered. This was my first time here. I had no idea where Shawn’s room was. He hadn’t had a chance to give me the grand tour. I was home visiting my parents when he moved, and I couldn’t help. It was getting late; there were only a handful of people left downstairs. All the doors were closed. This was hopeless. Even if I found the right door on the first try, Mark might be in there and I was not prepared to handle anything that serious or that heartbreaking tonight. This was already a night to forget.
I sat on the stairs next to the girl. She was dressed like someone who lived here. She had giant, comfortable slippers on. She wore a robe, but the black t-shirt and jeans she had underneath were hardly hidden. She looked like she was waiting for everyone to leave.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m Alice.”
“Scott,” I said. “I’m Shawn’s friend. What are you reading?”
“It’s for class, but I kind of like it,” She said. “And isn’t everyone one of Shawn’s friends?”
I ignored her comment about Shawn and focused on the book. “Whose book?” I asked. I studied quite a bit of poetry in school and wondered if she could’ve been in one of my classes.
“Anne Sexton,” she said. “You know her?”
I nodded. I liked her. Generally, I was a fan of artists whose negative aspects became the inspiration for their art. It worked with my spectrum, verified it in every way. And I kind of liked the idea that if things ever got really bad for me, then at least my writing would soar.
“Can I see it?” I asked. She handed me the book, and I flipped through until I found my favourite.
“You like that one most?” She asked.
I nodded. I skimmed parts of it, lines that I liked:
For My Lover, Returning To His Wife
Lets face it, I have been momentary—
This is not an experiment. She is all harmony—
I give you back your heart—
I give you permission—
She is the sum of yourself and your dream—
She is solid—
As for me, I am watercolour—
I wash off—
“Which one do you like best?” I asked. She shrugged.
“Probably the one about Snow White,” she said. I smiled. She was studying in the middle of the night in the twilight of a house-warming party. She did not have time to care about favourites. I had never studied this late. Maybe that was why my grades stunk.
I heard a door open upstairs and footsteps slowly heading our way. Shawn’s house creaked like something haunted, and I wondered how anyone could have any privacy here.
“Hey man,” I heard from behind and above. Shawn. Sanctuary. “I looked around for you a little while ago. I thought you left?”
“I came back,” I said.
Shawn looked tired, spent. This was the end of the party, even for the host. I wasn’t tired, though. Perhaps it was the walk in the fresh air. Or perhaps it was the strange combination of seeing a former crush in the house of my current one. The whole strangeness of tonight had been a little dizzying.
He came and sat down above Alice and me, and now there was no room to pass on the stairs. People would have to climb over us or find another way.
“Did I introduce you two?” He asked.
“Did you want us to fight?” Alice asked, without looking away from the poetry.
“If you want,” he said, “but do it down there. You can’t really get into a good scrap halfway up a staircase.” Alice laughed a bit, but I just looked at Shawn pleadingly. I needed him now. I needed his abilities to fix anything that was ever wrong. He noticed the look I was giving him, and signalled me to follow him upstairs. I waved goodbye to Alice. She waved back, glancing upwards for just a second.
Shawn’s room was off-white and all I could think of was how much he must hate it.
“You’re probably itching to paint this room,” I said.
“It’s hideous, isn’t it? Next week, how about it? You and me?”
“You’re on,” I said, plopping down on his bed. It wasn’t made. It smelled of new sex, but there was nobody else there. Perhaps they’d left before I returned? Perhaps they were hiding behind the curtains? Nothing would have surprised me. I hoped I wasn’t breaking anybody’s ribs by sitting on the mattress.
“Mark?” I suggested, motioning to the strewn pillows.
He nodded, looking both ashamed and affirming, “But not since before the party.”
“I don’t want to hear it,” I said, and the look I gave him let him know which was the correct path to take.
“So,” he said, “Where did you go? You were gone just long enough for everyone to get sick of the place.”
“I walked Kate home,” I said.
“Where was her boyfriend?” Shawn placed a hand on the terrible paint and looked like he was trying to remember the lyrics to an old favourite. “She has one, doesn’t she?”
“Somewhere, apparently,” I said. I felt at least partial satisfaction that absence was Kate’s boyfriend’s only known characteristic. He existed, but nowhere tangible and always on the move.
Shawn knew immediately. “You have a thing for her.”
I tried to dodge it: “I barely know her.” But he was unrelenting.
“And somebody blonde, too. Well, you are full of surprises.”
“It’s not that she’s blonde.”
“Still,” he said, “It’s clear.”
“Nothing’s clear. Not about this one.”
“You walked a girl with a perfectly good boyfriend home from the party. Or, at least the boyfriend she claims to have.” Shawn lay down on the bed next to me, stretching out like a cat. It was then I realized he was barefoot. “You think she lied about the boyfriend? Maybe to you, but why me?”
“I used to know her,” I said, ending his lame conspiracy. “Back in high school.”
“Fuck her?” he asked, hoisting himself up onto his elbows, enjoying every second he got to be frank as much as possible.
“Barely spoke. We were on opposite ends of the spectrum.”
“Ah, the spectrum,” he said, realizing we’d had this discussion before.
I ignored him. “We did speak a few times though, and when we did it was like…I don’t know, like she was interested or something. It was like I represented something curious to her, unique, you know? Maybe she was like that with everyone.”
“That sort of blows your whole spectrum philosophy out the window then, doesn’t it? I mean, how could she be interested in you if she was on one end and you were on the other?”
“Exactly,” I blurted. “If she was interested in me then my theory was completely off. But that’s the thing. Even back then, when she talked to me, I felt it was throwing off every idea I’d ever had about that spectrum. She did that. Kate threw everything off.”
“That’s very sweet,” he said, cracking his neck and falling back down. “I hope I find someone who changes my view of the world.”
I stood, knowing what was coming. “Shawn, don’t.”
“Oh wait…” he said.
“…I already did.”
Whenever he brought it up, I cringed. I got that he was trying to be romantic, but very few of his come-ons rang true with his charm. Lots of people thought that Shawn was charming, but only people who’d slept with him recognized his insecurity and sleaze. Still, the uneasy feeling of having this twisted compliment flow through me was nothing like his guilt trips. Still, I knew the amount it hurt me meant nothing compared to how much he was hurting himself.
“Mark still doesn’t know,” I retorted, knowing it would piss him off but unable to leave it alone. “Does he?”
“Don’t be cute,” he said.
“This is getting fucking stupid,” I said, knowing now that the subject was cracked open, realizing that since he took the first shot that everything was fair. “If you tell him, we can stop fucking around and…”
“And what,” he said. “Start fucking around?”
“Without the around,” I said. “Maybe.”
Shawn knew that telling Mark the truth would crush him and end whatever it was they had going. It wasn’t love, no matter what either of them would say about it. It couldn’t be love with me in the picture.
“Just for the record,” I said. “I’d like to be without the around for once with you.”
Shawn looked like a boy about to break apart, held together only by his ego and his ability to grab unforeseen toeholds. I knew that face and knew that nothing would happen with this subject tonight. It was still at last in Shawn’s house. Everyone else had begun their journey home or fallen asleep elsewhere. I could feel that Shawn and I were the only two left awake.
It was at this time I lay down beside him and nestled my head under his arm. The bed creaked slightly under our weight, and by the silence I finally knew that no one was hiding underneath. He returned my little cuddle and before too long our breathing synced. We both knew that what we were doing was wrong but weren’t bothered by it. I could smell Mark, but it was just a ghost of a presence and didn’t matter. Shawn’s smell, although present, was more subtle; I focused on him.
Being held by Shawn reminded me that I was okay and safe and fine, regardless of what happened.
“Good housewarming,” I told him, whispering next to him, barely awake. He shifted to face me, and I could feel his breath just above my mouth.
“Thanks,” he said. His eyes were half open and his gaze fixed on me through the slivers.
“Mark went home, right?” I asked in a last gasp of jealousy.
“What a stupid question,” he whispered. He was asleep within seconds.
I drifted in an out, thinking about Mark and Shawn and myself, finally settling on a renewed image of Kate. First, I thought that how she looked tonight was a figure completely separate from my previous memories. Her dress and her hair and that little bit of extra weight tricked me into thinking I’d found a different person altogether, but her retorts brought me back to my reality. Her interest in me was just as much of a hallucination as it always had been. Surely she was just drunk, eager to have anyone remotely available help her home. I was harmless and it was precisely that simple. In her eyes I was something to fall back on if the situation required it. In her eyes, I was little.
Still, I couldn’t help but dwell on the precious seconds I had with her, both now and before. Shawn’s arms held me tight, as though by unconscious instinct. I thought back to how Kate walked around in high school. She always wore black athletic shorts or pants and grey t-shirts or sweaters. Her ponytail was a fixture, as permanent as her eyes or lips. She only wore running shoes, and walked with an even pace, strutted without vanity. Her backpack was from a camping store, and that implied trips up north or out west, weekends with friends, drinking, fucking; experiences in which I hadn’t yet had my turn. I didn’t invest as much time memorizing her friends, but they were similar, though never quite as perfect. From an outsider’s view, Kate was always happy.
I slept beside Shawn until morning. We ate grapefruit for breakfast while he complained about his hangover, and talked about the coming few days. It was one of those mornings that I felt married to him, and I treasured the chance to be involved in his daily routine. The house was sweaty with slowly stretching bodies and left-over liquor. Sometime after breakfast and before Mark came back to grab his forgotten wallet, I found an exit in the excuse of having to finish a column I hadn’t yet begun. Shawn only hugged me goodbye, but I knew it was because of the audience that knew only half the truth.
Outside, the day was bright and the sunshine hit me through cracks in tree branches and rooftop spaces. This morning, I was happy to be walking down city streets, to have a convoluted social life, to finally be away from my parents. I had seen Kate Foley in the present tense, and it didn’t break me in any way. Cars steadily drove through the streets across which I jaywalked, and the people of this bright city were out enjoying the hint of warmth in winter. The air and the people I passed had a briskness to them, and I felt separate, like a tourist without his camera. The lack of sleep gave me a distance from those shopping or chatting on patios, and a refreshed eye for every reason I came here in the first place.