No Chinook Chapter 8
No Chinook is my first book, originally published in 2008.
I met Mark for the second time at a party I didn’t want to attend. It had been a few months since I moved to Calgary, one city jump from a small suburban town a few hours away where my parents lived—the same town Kate was from. I spent most of my time this past week cooking, fucking, and beginning something that might turn into love someday. I wasn’t completely sure about that yet, but I was happy being in a relationship that wasn’t riddled with lies. It was everything I’d ever wanted. Kate had organized this party at her place, and there he was, all dressed up and ready.
I hadn’t yet spotted Shawn, but knew he had to be around somewhere. He had called Kate the night before to make sure I would not be here, or maybe to make sure I would. Mark must have come along. I was perfectly happy to be drinking in the kitchen with Kate’s friend Stephen, listening to him go on about his ex-girlfriend, but in the back of my mind, I knew that tonight something would happen between Shawn and myself. Whatever it was, I just hoped it that it would be for the best.
“The biggest problem with Stacy,” Stephen continued. He had been talking about his ex-girlfriend since the moment he saw me. “Was that she took me to the point where I had become so used to her high-maintenance issues that I began to miss the constant attention. I’d lie awake some nights wishing she’d call just so I could hear her bitch about her stupid job.”
Since I’d spotted Mark in the crowd, I had only been paying lip service to Stephen. I nodded in agreement, but kept minimally involved. Mark was talking to some girl, but I was too far away to hear him. It was fitting. Mark had always been on my mind first. I had always seen him first. But even if he did notice me, it wouldn’t mean anything. My name and my face meant nothing to him. For all I know, he’d seen me a hundred times more than I’d seen him, but it didn’t matter. We had no context between us; I disliked him for reasons I’d probably never have the chance to discuss with him.
Stephen continued, “I tried to go out with this girl Marlene, because she was really easy going and that’s what I used to like. But Stacy ruined everything, man. She changed me. I couldn’t handle how relaxed Marlene was, because I’d fallen in love with a smotherer. That’s all I wanted. Marlene didn’t call me for three days, and I dumped her. It was probably the most pathetic thing I’d ever done.”
I realized I hadn’t been listening. “What?” I asked, hoping he would clarify.
It didn’t faze him. “She was a telemarketer. I was always telling her to find a new job, but she never did. I mean, she hates it, but she stuck with it for some reason. I don’t know. Maybe she thought she deserved it, like it was where she belonged in life.”
“Yeah,” I said, keeping one finger on the pulse of this conversation, which was just enough for Stephen to keep going. The rest of me zoned in on Mark. I noticed his wrinkled jeans and half-ironed dress shirt. He was trying to look easy, but he’d put effort into it. His shoes were squeaky clean and white, as if he’d brought them in a backpack and put them on when he came inside.
Stephen said, “There are people who move, man, and there are people who don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with being either one, but you can’t bring the two together, because motion will always come between them.”
“Motion,” I repeated as if in agreement, realizing that paying complete attention to Stephen would likely result in a headache.
Stephen took a swig of his beer and asked me if anyone had ever changed me. It was a simple enough drunk question, but I think I surprised him.
I thought about Carly. “To tell you the truth, I think everyone I’ve ever been with has changed what I want in some way.”
“Yeah?” he asked. “Well, what about your last girl?”
“My last girl?” I wanted to talk about Kate, but the current situation prohibited it. I didn’t want to bring up Shawn either, just in case he was right behind me. “Her name was Carly. She really ran me through exactly what you’re talking about.”
“She smothered you too?”
“Not really. More like she knew exactly the kind of guy she liked and I did my best to fit the mold. Eventually, I just didn’t fit her anymore and she left.”
Stephen put his hand on my shoulder. “I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes you want to be that dominant alpha-male who makes the decisions, but when it comes down to it, that’s just not who we are, you know?”
“So who are we?” I asked, realizing this particular brand of drunken talk had probably reached whatever depth it was going to.
Stephen, however, looked focused on what he was trying to say. “We’re like buildings torn apart by winds and storms. Women, they’re the wind, man. They come along and they blow by us and rip us from the foundations.”
Roughly half of his rant had been slurred past the point of recognition, so I said, “Motion eventually tears us apart, eh?”
Stephen shouted, “Fucking right man! That’s what I’m saying. Why don’t I get to be in control? Why can’t I be the storm, huh? Why do I have to be stuck waiting for someone to blow me down? That’s not how it’s supposed to work!” The people around us were giving him room, doing their best to be entertained by the spectacle. Stephen continued, “I’m so sick of letting other people control my life! Fuck you Stacy! Fuck you!” He pointed at all of us, and then we could all see him shut down. It was quite the sight, watching Stephen slowly crumble into himself.
I put my hand on his shoulder like he had done to me and I said, “Yeah man, fuck her.”
“Whatever,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. She’s gone and there’s no bringing them back once they’re gone. Not with guys like us. We just don’t have it in us to make them want to come back.”
I liked Stephen. He wasn’t afraid to show exactly what he felt, even if it was brash and came out around total strangers. Still, I didn’t want anything he’d just said to ever be right.
I took Stephen outside to get some air, and when he waved me off, I came back and was caught by Kate.
“Hey you!” she said, being flirtatious but not obvious. “I came to check up on you. How’s the night?”
Kate had done her hair up a little prettier than normal. She had curls coming out of her ponytail, and she was wearing a black dress and boots. This was probably the sexiest I’d ever seen her dressed.
“Can’t complain so far,” I said, “I just hope it stays its course.”
I felt the same about her now as I had when I’d first seen her at Shawn’s party. She kind of danced when she walked and she talked with her arms outstretched. And just like the last time, she wasn’t really paying any attention to me. She said, “That’s great, honey. If you need me, I’ll be around somewhere, okay?”
“You all right?” I asked, spinning her around to face me.
She put her hands on my face and said, “What a stupid question.”
I let her go, and I turned around and bumped right into Mark. He spilled part of his beer on the floor.
“It’s okay,” he exclaimed. “It’s only a little.” He tried to rub out the tiny spot with his shoes, and smiled at me with an idiotic toothy grin that told me that he wasn’t being himself.
In this moment, I couldn’t imagine that Shawn would have trouble choosing which one of us to love.
“There,” he said. “Nothing but spic.”
I hadn’t noticed this before because of the distance and people between us, but Mark appeared to be in bad shape. It wasn’t just his clothes. He had obviously drunk too much; he seemed to have tear tracks on his face and dark circles under his eyes. He backed up a bit to really look at me. “Do I know you? Have we met?”
I said, “Not really.”
“I swear I’ve seen you before,” he said, holding on tight to his beer with one hand and his hair with the other, as if this would help him from falling over.
I tried to escape, “I’m sorry, I’ve got someone to get a drink for.”
I tried to escape, “I’m sorry, I’ve got someone to get a drink for.”
“Did we go out that one time?” He asked. I stopped myself and counted to ten in my head.
“No,” I said, “We definitely did not go out that one time.”
He grabbed my shoulder, “I’m sorry. Really, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to insinuate anything. I was just…”
I said, “I get it.”
“Oh good,” he said, “I didn’t want it to come out like I was hitting on you or something.”
Suddenly, I wondered just how flirtatious Kate seemed when I met her at that party. Had she been hitting on me when she was with Ray?
I told Mark, “Trust me, I wasn’t thinking anything like that.”
“Well,” he said, “My mistake. I guess I’ll just keep looking around.”
“Looking around for what?” I asked him, genuinely curious. Was he looking for Shawn? Did he know Kate too? Everybody seemed to.
“Can I ask you something?”
“It’s a free country,” I said. I did not want to be caught having a heart to heart with Mark. This is just about the last awkward situation I was willing to encounter in my lifetime.
“Have you ever had your heart broken?”
“What?” I needed to leave this hallway. I didn’t want to know that anything had happened. For once in my life, I much preferred to be blind to the truth.
“You know,” he said. “Where you love somebody with everything you’ve got, and they take what you’ve built together and just smash it? Has that ever happened to you?”
He didn’t have to tell me anything more. I could picture everything that happened just by looking at his face. Something remarkable had occurred in the few days I’d been gone from my previous life. It was more than I wanted to hear.
“My boyfriend,” he said. “He told me last weekend that he’s been seeing this other guy for, like, months now. He said he couldn’t live with lying to me all the time anymore. Can you believe that?”
I didn’t want to know any of this because I was fine with Mark being the stupid asshole that drove a minivan. This image sat well with me. But the moment he began speaking about Shawn, I knew I’d begin to think of Mark as a human being with feelings that could be bruised. These few words he’d just been saying transformed him from a dangerous, unwelcome roadblock to a defenseless kitten.
“Come on,” I said, taking his beer. “Let’s get out of here. I think we both need some air.”
I took him outside and tried to sort out the particulars so that nobody would see us together. It was an hour away from new snow; I could smell it. I said, “So, what, you were trying to pick up in there?”
“Well,” he said, sniffling, “I called my friend up yesterday. I didn’t tell her what happened, but I told her that I needed a distraction for a while, so she invited me to her party.”
“That was you?” I asked out loud, fitting another puzzle piece together.
“Nothing,” I said. I had no idea that he knew Kate, but wasn’t spectacularly surprised. “What happened?”
“Do you mind walking me to the subway?” he asked. “The fresh air’s killed my buzz, and it’s a dead room in there.”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s this way. Just don’t pull the moves on me.”
“I wouldn’t,” he said. “You’re nice.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Mark told me about Shawn. He started from the beginning, giving it some much-welcomed context. Shawn and Mark were together for two years until the cheating began, if you could call it that. He didn’t know anything about this other guy—only that Shawn had some pretty deep feelings for him that he couldn’t get over. Apparently they’d had some kind of falling out recently, and that had cut Shawn to the point where he couldn’t keep it a secret any longer. I knew all this already, but my version seemed skewed. Small pieces of me felt bad about hurting this guy. A very specific part of my gut began to feel terrible for coming inbetween two perfectly happy people.
“Shawn and I just fit, you know?” Mark stumbled a lot, but knew what he was trying to say. “I could be honest with him. I told him things about me I’d never told anyone before. God, we were together for so long. What did I do wrong? I must have done something. People cheat for a reason, right?”
“I suppose,” I said, feeling like a spy before an inevitable revelation of identity.
“Have you ever been cheated on?” he asked.
Just like with Stephen, I had to think back to Carly. “Yeah, once.”
“Why did he do it?”
“She,” I corrected him. “I wasn’t exciting enough for her, I think.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” he tried to reassure me. I felt awful. Mark seemed like a perfectly good guy, and it was clear that I was a shit who’d failed to consider the whole arrangement. At some point, I must have thought about Mark and what he could have been feeling. I felt terrible for dismissing him so quickly.
He told me that things weren’t settled with the two of them, and it wouldn’t be right to end it abruptly without letting the feelings settle. It made me feel pity towards Mark, though. I pictured him incapable of handling the end of a relationship, falling apart in his shitty apartment. I couldn’t help but see Mark as a powerful figure in Shawn’s life, and how important it was to him to make sure things stayed straight, as it were.
Shawn was in love with me, but he didn’t want that kind of black mark on him without at least making some sort of attempt at atonement. He wanted to do it right, because he respected Mark, and while I half-hated the bastard, I admired Mark for being worthy of that kind of respect.
“Mark,” I said calmly. “I want you to listen to me.”
“Huh?” he asked. He looked like a lost puppy.
“You’re going to be fine, okay?” I always wanted someone to come out of nowhere and tell me these things. I thought, maybe I’d listen to me this time. “You’re going to meet some great guy and forget all about this Shawn character, okay?”
“But…” I don’t know if he was trying to interrupt because he didn’t want to hear it or if he had more to reveal. But I’d heard enough and needed to finish this.
“No buts,” I said, cutting him off. “I know he was great, and for a while it seemed like he might be the one, but it’s over. Things got fucked up and it’s probably just best to wipe the slate clean and start over.”
He said, slowly, “Look, I know you’re trying to help me, and this is really nice, but I can’t really believe any of that right now.”
“Fuck, I know that much,” I said. I was mostly talking to myself anyways. “But it’s still nice to hear, isn’t it?”
“It is,” he said. “Wait, how do you know my name? I never told you.”
I said, inches away from confessing, “Does the name Scott Clarkson mean anything to you?”
“No,” he said. “I’m sorry. Should it?”
I shook my head. There was no point in even telling the whole truth at this point, because the truth didn’t matter so much as the story. I’d met Mark under sad circumstances, and revealing my role in his misery at this point would only make it worse. I felt bad enough about being the invisible cancer marring his happiness. Nothing would become clear tonight concerning the two of us.
“We’re here,” I said. “You’ll be okay getting home?”
“I don’t know what I was doing at that party,” he muttered. “I don’t know what got into me.”
“You were looking for the same thing we all look for at those parties.”
I remembered what Kate had said. “No,” I replied. “Happiness has nothing to do with it.”
“I’m getting too old for this,” he said.
I shook his hand and watched him take the stairs. I said to myself, “Me too.”
On the way back, I envisioned the scene Mark had just described, where Shawn broke the news. It must have happened after the night at the club, after he called me three dozen times and for whatever reason referred to me as his boyfriend to Kate. Or did it happen before the club? I had seen him that afternoon. I had asked him to choose between Mark and myself. I had stormed out. Had Mark come over soon after? Had they fought about it? Did Mark see me leave? Did Shawn actually confess everything? Did he tell Mark that he wanted to be with me?
For Shawn to refer to me as his boyfriend, he must have chosen me. He must have cockily assumed that I’d still want to be with him at that point, but that’s irrelevant. Kate knew both Shawn and Mark, so Shawn would have told her about the break up—though maybe skimmed a few details—and Kate felt jealous.
That’s why she wanted me all to herself for the week. She figured if Shawn saw me, he’d tell me about the break up and convince me to be with him. She wanted me to herself, so she didn’t tell me. It was all making sense.
But I was happy Kate lied to me. I don’t care what that makes me sound like. If it had been a week earlier, I don’t know which one of them I would have chosen. Now, there was no question. Kate had dug her claws into me, and their grip was strong enough to hold me. I felt like I’d do anything for her. This may not have been the healthiest of decisions, and I’m not sure if it was motivated by love or just crazy lust, but I was stuck with her until she retracted.
Stephen wasn’t on the porch when I got back. He must have found his way inside again. I hoped nobody gave him anything else to drink.
I weaved through the halls, unable to find any of the few people I knew. I checked the living room, the kitchen, and the backyard. I climbed the stairs, and finally found Stephen leaning against the railing, breathing steady.
“Hey man,” he said.
“Hey, have you seen Kate?” I asked.
“A little while ago,” he said, “But then she left.”
“Left?” I asked. “Left to go where?”
“I don’t know, dude. I just heard about it, but someone told me that Ray showed up and they left together.”
For a moment, I wanted to throw Stephen down the stairs. Instead, I ran out into the street, and nearly got run over by a van. Snow was falling. The street was dark and empty. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I couldn’t save her from anything even if she wanted to be saved.
I looked at the house. I’d spent seven straight days in that house. But at that moment, it was the last place I wanted to be. It was filled with strangers I could no longer introduce myself to. I couldn’t say I was Kate’s boyfriend because everyone probably saw her leave with Ray. I couldn’t say I was anyone’s friend, because I wasn’t. I knew Shawn, only I didn’t. I knew Mark, only he didn’t know me. And Mark was gone. And Shawn was gone.
I was alone, and the only move I had left was to run as fast as I could all the way home.