No Chinook Chapter 4
No Chinook is my first book, originally published in 2008.
This one night in July, back when I was with Carly, she drove twenty minutes west, outside of town on the Trans-Canada. She killed the power on her bike and we snuck into a wheat field. We had to walk sideways through the first section because the lanes were so thin, but when we got to a clearing in between lanes: she motioned me to lie down. I’d ask all these questions, bullshit teenager questions about life and the universe. She had answers to all of them.
To Carly, the sky was a prison door, keeping us all in. We were all here because at some point in time, each and every one of us had done something wrong somewhere else. Like in Dante’s hell, she’d say, some of us suffered more than others, but we all hurt in some way. The point of life, according to Carly, was to snatch the moments that didn’t hurt and hold on to them no matter what the cost. To her, the stars were always teasing.
Carly would fill my head with all these negative ideas about the world and then light some wheat on fire. We would both stare silently into the crimson flames until she said, “See? Suffering. Even a kiss can hurt. Even sex can be deadly. Even paying your taxes can sponsor terrorism. All the great and wonderful feelings we’re promised in this world can hurt us more than a shark or gun or tsunami.” Even then, I knew these were messy philosophies, and if left unchecked would result in a bitter collapse of truth and beauty. I wondered if she said all that stuff so that kissing her would be the only thing that brought me any real joy.
Carly drifted off in a fog as I came back to the present. It was the next morning, and there was dried blood on my lips. I was in a bed I’d only met the night before. The sheets on top of me were purple, making it hard to figure out exactly where the bruises were. I had a cramp in my left leg. My chest felt collapsed. My wrists felt as if I’d written six novels. Even the roots of my hair hurt. As I opened my eyes, I winced. My wide-open eyes triggered each of these individual pains instantly.
Kate must have been downstairs or gone. It took me a minute to sit up, and a few more to get my pants on. I took the stairs one at a time, down to the living room with the busted chair and the yearbook on the table, through the narrow hallway to the kitchen, where I found Kate reading an old issue of Maxim.
“I got muffins,” she said, smiling but not getting up. On the table, there was a box from the coffee shop. I reached in and grabbed something resembling a blueberry muffin, sitting down on the other chair.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Better,” she said, as if her confidence had a voice of its own. And, as if her ego had its own voice, she asked, “How are you feeling?”
“It was the least I could do,” I said. “I mean, I think this makes me a pretty good friend. I haven’t held your hair while you puked after a keg party or anything.”
“I’ll have you know, I’ve never done a keg stand.” I laughed, but she was dead serious on this keg stand issue. She put her magazine down and bent over, her elbows touching her knees. “Don’t write this off as a bullet in the line of duty, punk. You wanted it just as much as I needed it.”
I didn’t know how to answer her, so I just tore some muffin off and chewed. The thing was, I was always conflicted when it came to the right way to go. It didn’t know whether to accept this recent stroke of luck and go with the girl I had pined over for a few weeks at the end of high school, or to see it as some kind of a sick test.
Sex changes things in ways it always shouldn’t. Last night, I felt so much longing for Shawn; he was never out of my head until Kate kissed me. This morning, all I could think about was this woman reading a boys’ magazine and eating cheap muffins in her pink housecoat and ponytail.
“You’ve finally got a ponytail,” I said. “That’s the first time I’ve seen you with one since high school. You remember back when that’s all you did with your hair?”
“Please don’t remind me,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “And don’t change the subject.”
“What were we talking about?”
“Let’s get this out in the open right away,” she said, kissing me quickly. We both tasted like blueberries. “I didn’t want you to leave today without me talking to you about this.”
“About what, Kate? Last night? I understand the whole thing. You don’t have to spell it out for me.”
“Not last night,” she said. “Tonight. I want you to stay tonight, too.”
This was the moment when it all changed between Kate and me. More importantly, though, it changed how I had to think about Shawn. Having re-met Kate, reminisced with her about our lives, consoled her failed relationship, and even having sex with her hadn’t change the course, really. In my head, I had cheated on Shawn with Kate, but all that it had done was make us even. I had still felt I belonged to him. But now I wasn’t so sure.
“Yeah,” I said, “I’ll be here tonight.”
Kate smiled and stood up. “I’ve got to run,” she said, “But I couldn’t go until I was sure.”
“Work?” I said.
“Something like that,” and she kissed me again.
“I don’t have an extra key,” she said, suggesting that I should leave with her. In a moment, I was standing on her doorstep kissing her goodbye, wishing her a good day, and watching her drive off. She offered me a ride to the LRT, but I told her I liked taking the long way.
I thought about finding a way around Shawn’s place. I really had nothing to do today other than start the newest column, but I didn’t want to see him. I could simply walk north a block and turn back at the main street where the LRT was. Going south would be just as easy. But, as I walked towards his place, I neglected to turn. I didn’t avoid his street. I was no longer just the guy Shawn was seeing. I was the guy who was seeing a girl living near Shawn. It was all in my mind, but as Kate said, why not?
Whatever I had been worrying about vanished the second I noticed that Mark’s stupid van wasn’t in the driveway. As soon as I was close enough to see its absence, I felt happier. Even after thinking through so many scenarios last night, I still had no practical idea as to how the confrontation would happen. But maybe it wouldn’t happen at all, now that I was sort of with someone else. Maybe it would be fine.
In fact, no cars were in the driveway, which was strange for a house full of people in this city. Sometimes it seemed like everyone had one. I couldn’t tell if there were any lights on, so it was possible that nothing would come from knocking. Still, I knew I had to. I had to be honest with Shawn if there was any chance of it working. I knew, as I had known since Carly, that it was always best not to make the same mistake twice in the same night. It took about a dozen knocks before Shawn came to the door. We hugged and I came in. He was wearing his blue robe; it made him look posh, even though he hadn’t shaved in a few days and had bed-head. He was still sexy in a gruff way, and I followed him into his bedroom and plopped onto his bed.
“Good morning,” he said, kissing me and touching my hair. “No gel today?” I shook my head. “Well, aren’t we daring? I thought I told you that you always needed something in your hair?”
“You know, I’m not about to obey everything everyone tells me,” I said, trying my best to sound defiant.
“Sure,” he said, “Whatever you say. Still, your hair is a mess without something governing up there.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “And compared to yours? Can you really say anything?”
“The difference is that you’ve been out of the house and I haven’t. I’ve had no audience to make up for.”
“Like the guy walking his dogs down the road over there?”
he kissed me to get me to shut up. I rolled onto him and began kissing his neck when he pushed me off and said, “Shit. Shit! I forgot to call the model.”
“The guy who was supposed to come into the class today. It was cancelled, but I never called him.”
“Is he cute?”
As he rummaged through his clothes on the floor in search of his phone, he said, “And what does that have to do with anything?”
“If he his, maybe I’ll sit in on it,” I said. “Or sit on it.”
“Don’t be cute,” he said. “This is serious. If I don’t call him at least a few hours before the class, he’s going to be pissed, and we need him.” Shawn jumped up as he found the phone, dialling. I plopped down on his bed and waited.
“Hey, Damien? Yeah, sorry man. Fumigating. Yes. They’ve got to do it every now and then. Low ceilings, yes, exactly. Can you make it in next week though? Same time?”
It’s not like Shawn’s bed was ever really made, but it seemed to be more and more unmade after Mark every time I came over. The sheets felt rough and dirty, and none of the filth was mine to take credit for.
“Great. You’re my favourite guy, Damien. You know it. Thanks,” Shawn said, hanging up and tossing the phone back into the pile of clothes. He came back to the bed and kissed my nose. “So,” he said. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”
“Well, it’s a really funny story, actually,” I began, but right then Shawn’s phone rang and he excused himself to the other side of the room to talk business with someone wanting to do something complicated and long-winded with a tuba.
Shawn usually wasn’t this busy around me, but then again, when I’m around the lights are off and the moon is out. I didn’t usually see him like this, with a phone glued to his ear, checking off errands.
In a few minutes he came back and said, “Sorry, that should be it for a while, anyway.”
“It’s no problem,” I said, “I like seeing you work.”
“You like seeing me work on you,” he said, looking around, noticing how dirty the place was, and deciding that instead of sitting with me he should tidy up a little.
“That too,” I said.
“What were you saying before? About why you were close to my place?”
He was only half-focusing on me, concentrating on cleaning.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “Are you expecting company? I can come back some other time.”
“No, just, I guess I feel like I need something to do, right now.”
“You were with him last night,” I said, playing with the bed sheet. He threw some clothes into the hamper halfway across the room, and tried not to look too guilty.
“Is that why you came?” he asked. “I told you before. You can’t push me.”
“No, that’s not it.” Maybe half of it was to do some fighting, even though I had a smaller box of ammunition than before. I was stupid, I knew it, and it had to be best to drop everything and not press on. “I’m sorry, I guess I just get jealous. Forget it.”
“I can’t forget it,” he said, sitting next to me and touching my shoulder. “I have to deal with this every time I see either of you, and it hurts. It hurts because I don’t know what to do. I thought I did, but I don’t. I’m sorry.”
He had never told me this before. I thought of collapsing, ripping off all my fingernails, exsanguinating. I put serious thought into how deep the glass would tear into my skin if I were to lunge at the second-story window. I had made horrible mistakes in life, and all of them had to do with trusting my own assumptions. They were never right.
Had he ever told me he preferred me? Had he told me he was leaving Mark? Had he told me anything I could use as a factual basis to our future? I wanted my eyeballs ripped from my sockets to prevent me having to see him in this moment of uncertainty. Having him right in front of me, inches from my nose, made uncertainty much more inescapable, and much more painful.
I used to think that all of my rage stayed inside, bubbling up to reach a point when I could not take anything else. I used to think I was one of those people who was like a giant black pot above an ancient fireplace, cooking stew. That stew was everything I harboured inside, feeling I was unable to communicate like a mature adult. I pictured an old hag there, stirring the stewing hatred until she lost control and it boiled over, covering the creaking wooden floors with a sticky mess that would take her all night to rub clean.
And while this was true to an extent, I knew my stew pot wasn’t full. I had taken my entire relationship with Shawn in stride and never once showed a lack of trust in his word. Someone else had filled it once before, back in high school before I met Kate, and I could feel there was still plenty of room in me for understanding and compassion and understanding. That’s why, when I began to scream and shout and run around Shawn’s room, offering an ultimatum I never really considered giving, I realized I was not the kind of person that had a giant black pot inside them.
“I can’t believe you don’t know yet,” I said, pacing in a fit. “How long have I been here, in your room? How many times have we been together, huh? How many times have we fucking made love, you asshole?”
“Calm down,” he said, getting up and trying to hold me. I was having none of it. I continued to point and pace and wreck myself.
“Fuck, man. In my head I’ve been with you for months, and now you just lay it out there casually that you don’t have a clue what you’re doing? Like I knew what you were doing? I didn’t know for five minutes what you were doing! You were with Mark, then I came along, and you liked me better, right? If you hadn’t liked me better, there was no fucking reason for you to waste your time with me. I thought you hadn’t broken up with Mark yet because you lack fucking confidence or timing or strength or someone else to do it or what the fuck ever. I could never figure that out, before, but I guess now I know, right? You haven’t broken up with him yet because you just don’t want to. Is that about right?”
“It’s not that simple,” he said.
“Isn’t it?” I asked. “I realize this whole thing is complicated. But my question is easy. Unless you really do know nothing at all, but then all those fucking brilliant things that come out of you are just recycled pieces of garbage you get from lectures. Is that how it is?”
“No, not exactly,” he said, tugging at my shirt. “Let me explain.”
“No,” I screamed, shrugging him off. “I’m really getting sick of your bullshit explanations, Shawn. So I’m going to say something I should have made clear at the beginning. I really fucking like you, and I thought we could work, but there is this one thing about you I just can’t stand. And you know who that is.”
He paused, and then, as dramatically as he could, said, “I know who that is.”
“Good,” I said. “Then you know what I want.”
I hadn’t come to do this, but there it was, anyway. The culmination of my frustrations with this stupid boy.
Shawn stopped trying to hold me and sat down to think. He did this sometimes, when something heavy hit him like a truck. He would just shut down and withdraw for a while. It was something I really liked about him, because I knew he was really listening and would take as long as he needed to figure something out. He wouldn’t ever give me the brush-off with anything this serious.
At that moment I felt terrible, knowing that I was putting this lover of mine in a difficult position, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. Facing the problem head-on, as fast as I could get it together enough to do so, always beat the idea of just letting things continue on as they were. Being with Kate the night before had given me a freedom I hadn’t felt in forever, and with that came the strength to do the obvious and the righteous.
I looked at my shoes and my hair fell over my eyes, and no amount of sighing or shifting seemed to hasten the process. Shawn just sat there, almost motionless, for what seemed like forever. I went back and forth wondering if he was spinning bullshit or fighting the truth. But the truth was simple, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t it be?
Finally, I had to interrupt. “This should be an easy answer.”
“Well,” he muttered. “It isn’t.”
“Why the fuck not?” I screamed, not a foot away from him. “What kind of fucked up math are you figuring out? You’ve already made your decision, haven’t you? Didn’t you make it that first night we kissed?”
“I thought I did,” he said flatly, and I looked at him with the kind of vulnerability I don’t believe I ever felt possible.
He said, “But now, I don’t know.”
This is when I stormed out. There was nothing else to do in that room.