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  • Andrea Johnston

Hearts

Updated: Sep 28


By Andrea Johnston


Matthew’s apartment is underground. The few windows look out into narrow wells sheathed with corrugated steel. If you look up at a sharp enough angle, you can see a rectangle of sky above the buildings across the street, and there’s the moon, beginning to glow as the sky darkens. Just half of the moon’s bright face, the Man turned away, looking off towards Mars perhaps, disengaging himself from the foibles of earthlings. Some cultures don’t see the Man in the Moon. Some see a rabbit. Is that plausible? A long-eared ball of fluff with large feet and powerful hindquarters?

“In Japan,” says Matthew, “the moon rabbit is making mochi cakes.”

A long-eared ball of fluff with large feet and sticky rice on its paws. On the moon. And do people worship that?

“Moon worship?” He’s hiking up my skirt to slide his hands under my tights. “Sure, even I’d worship the right moon.”

“Find one worth worshipping?”

“Oh yeah. Not that I’m fussy.”

“Charming. What a compliment.”

“So now I have to be worshipful and complimentary.”

And careful what you say about my feet.”

“Your feet are magnificent. I kiss your feet.” He crouches, sliding his hands along my legs, pushing my dark tights down.

“And about my ears.” I put my hands on his shoulders to balance as he frees one foot, then the other.

“Give me a second,” he says. “I’ll get to your ears.”

This banter with Matthew works well: keeps my brain distracted while my heart makes its escape. So by the time we come to grips I, like the moon, am disengaged. Only my skin is involved in what comes next, the touching and being touched. When Matthew whispers Your ears are like ammonites I am safe, my shell-like ears sealed against his breath. When his tongue slips into my mouth, my own has already created a barrier of words to shield me. Of course a few anarchic glands get into the act, but the rest of me is not involved – my heart, for instance (being the organ most susceptible to aches and pains), my liver (being the organ that, among other things, produces bile). And my brain is only involved in the word play, except for the oldest and most basic parts, which continue to run the physical side of the show, the sweet frenzy of blood and biochemicals. So while my handsome moon-worshipper performs the appropriate rites, giving and receiving a kind of voluptuous baptism, what we experience is nothing like communion. Our bodies may entwine but my true self floats free, even though Matthew’s spread fingers trace net-like patterns over every inch of my skin before we are done.

Waking later, the moon long set, I uncurl myself from his drowsy embrace, dress, and depart. Each step up out of the building’s depths feels lighter than the last until I emerge into the dark, a big, easy breath rising in a cloud through the head-clearing cold of this late November early morning. I pause to admire the stars – how each beam of light cuts one clean trajectory through time – then head for George’s.

Getting myself breakfast in a diner always makes me feel grown up, as if I know how to take care of myself (as, of course, I do). Picking up a newspaper, taking my place in a booth, ordering without looking at the menu. I’ve been coming to George’s a lot in these past three weeks. Maybe too much. I even know the waitress’s name: Karen. She has my coffee on the table before I sit down.

“Morning, Charlotte. Your usual?”

“Please.”

We’re on friendly terms, but it’s strictly a professional relationship, neither of us liable to spill our guts about anything that matters. As I down my poached eggs and delve into the soft-news innards of the morning edition, I feel my disparate parts settling back into place – heart, liver, spleen, coming home to roost. I check myself over, nip off any tendrils of attachment that may be sprouting, adjust my insides the way I’d adjust my clothing after a quickie in the back of someone’s car. This, too – this practised self-sufficiency – makes me feel grown up.

Over my second coffee I wonder for a moment if Matthew’s sleep-heavy hand might be searching for me in the Charlotte-shaped space I left beside him. More likely he will stretch out to fill that space himself, and waken spread-eagled and relieved to be alone. As I am.

It’s still early enough to walk home and crawl into the comfort of my own bed for a while. I lie there listening, first to Beth getting ready to leave for the office – I won’t have to face her until lunch – then to the subterranean rush of water in the pipes: Adrian using his bathroom in the basement. I close my eyes and float: a satellite, a junior moon, aspiring to the elevated detachment of the stars.

When the front door closes behind Beth I get up. My room is on the second floor at the back, with a south window overlooking the cramped yard. The shrubs along the fence are dark with dying bindweed, but bright leaves from the neighbour’s maple tree cover the deck and steps, giving the impression of sunshine. The real sun is just now cresting the rooftops. When Matthew and I sat out there on Hallowe’en night – just three weeks ago; seems longer – most of the leaves were still on the tree, shushing in the breeze. What a rush when I got him to kiss me while Beth held court just inside, playing Hearts with her minions. Char be nimble, Char be quick... But, hey, it’s not as if she was serious about him. He wasn’t her boyfriend or anything. Beth doesn’t have boyfriends; she has prospects, plenty of them, and she treats them all like shit. That’s her modus operandi.

I have to admit that initially Beth was a revelation, a relief. When we met I had just bailed on university halfway through an undergrad science degree. I was drifting, and Beth threw me a lifeline, took me in tow.

“Charlotte,” she said when I applied for the room. “That’s a pretty name. Shall I call you Char?”

She taught me what scotch to drink, where to buy the right clothes (not the store I work in now), how not to care if I was at a party and saw my latest conquest making out with someone else in the space between the couch and the wall.

“Men are hardwired to be jerks,” she’d say, “so govern yourself accordingly.” Her pronouncements had the ring of truth. I wished my mother could have had a friend like Beth, someone to set her straight about such things. Someone to save her from my father.

“Your mother obviously had self-esteem issues.”

It wasn’t violence; he just wasn’t there. Even when he got home – usually long after my mother and I had finished supper – he’d ignore us both, jab his fork into his shrivelled pork chop or whatever it was my mother had kept warm in the oven. She should have thrown it out. When I got old enough I told her so. She said, “I just don’t have the heart to waste it.” Why did she even cook for him, then?

When I was in my last year of high school, my father died in the process of totalling the family Chrysler. After that I really expected my mother to bloom, but instead she died too, a few months later, in her sleep. Coronary aneurysm, they called it, but really she just couldn’t live without my father. By myself I wasn’t enough.

“You don’t want to let any guy get his hooks into you that deep,” said Beth. “Takes all the fun out of it, for one thing.”

I dress in black, ready for work, then go down to the kitchen and take a look in the fridge. The few items on my shelf have been rearranged. When I first moved in Beth had said, “You can use number two—” each wire shelf had a paper label on it “—you’re expected to keep it clean.” It seemed charming at first – eccentric – when she’d move my food, without asking, into some arbitrary order of her own. The novelty has definitely worn off. Practically everything on her shelf (number one, of course) is in colour-coded Tupperware. I don’t touch it – wouldn’t stoop to that, anyway. Adrian (number three) never uses his shelf; he has a beer fridge of his own in the basement.

This morning a plain white envelope is propped against my yogurt. Inside is a pair of orange foam ear plugs sealed in plastic and a note from Adrian: the name of a bar and Sweet electro-funk – you’ll like. Below that: Don’t forget ear plugs! He works the sound board for plenty of local bands and always knows who’s hot, gets me into shows for free and I dance like crazy, craving the physical contact on the dance floor, the tacit permission to rub up against other people – the novelty of that definitely hasn’t worn off yet. This note-in-the-fridge business is new. He used to just tell me, but now I hardly ever see him. Gone are the days when the three of us used to gather around the table or the TV like a real little family.

Anyway, I won’t be going out tonight. I’m on the late shift at work, have to be there till closing. God, I wish that place was closing forever. Afterwards I’ll probably just get something to eat, come home, crash. Or maybe Matthew will call, or come by the store. Not that I expect him to. But he might.

By the time I leave to meet Beth for lunch, the sky is clouding over, the day turning damp. Hard to say which is more likely: rain or snow. I’ve left it a bit late and decide not to go back in for my umbrella. Our occasional lunches used to be a treat, but now there’s constant low-level friction between us that saps my appetite. It’s not a rift; more like pressure building along fault lines. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s changed. It’s not the Matthew thing (she doesn’t know about that yet). She was starting to get on my nerves even before we met Matthew. That was only in September. I can remember the first time I laid eyes on him: he was sitting in another man’s car with his arm around the other man’s date. She was crying. Chris, the man in question, was standing at a massive gas barbecue (he’d been commandeered by Beth) poking underdone chicken breasts with a long-handled fork. It was a Labour Day party at a fancy cottage owned by Raymond, the hotshot realtor, one Beth’s high-level prospects.

Chris claimed not to know what was wrong with Sarah, and didn’t seem to care that she was now crying on Matthew’s shoulder.

“She doesn’t want to stay,” he said. “Wants me to drive her to the bus depot in town so she can go home. But why should I spoil my fun just because she’s being a bitch?”

“Serves you right,” said Beth. “I invited you, not you and some little drama queen.”

“Yeah, I’ll remember that next time.” Chris tried to pull Beth against him, but she moved out of his reach.

Once Matthew had coaxed Sarah out of the car, Beth fluttered over and ushered her into the cottage “to freshen up,” then did her best to keep her isolated inside – “Would you be a dear and just wash up these dishes for me?” – while Beth herself spent the rest of the party flirting with Matthew, who touched her arm every time he smiled. He was an old friend of Adrian’s just back in town, and couldn’t be expected to know that Beth was only asserting her authority as the alpha female.

“I won’t be surprised if that Matthew starts calling,” she said on the drive home. The sun glowed a hot cherry red through the pollution haze on the horizon. “He wasn’t interested in that little Sarah, he was just being nice.”

The city-bound traffic was uniformly slow but Beth wove from lane to lane, passing and repassing the same cars.

“Anyway,” she went on, “Raymond’s getting a little... complacent. What did Matthew say he’s doing? Geology or something?”

“I wasn’t really talking to him.”

“Oh? I thought I saw you two having a little tête-à-tête down by the lake.” She looked at me sideways, her eyes pale under too much shadow and eyeliner. “Well, I suppose he could get into the oil industry or something. He’s cute, anyway.”

“You got that right. He’s gorgeous.”

She smiled without showing her teeth. “Not your type though, is he, Char. I think not.”

Beth had been quick to appoint herself as my advisor where men were concerned.

“Don’t take things too seriously,” she’d said in the beginning. “You need to test drive a few to get an idea of what’s out there. And don’t waste time on someone who’s going nowhere.”

She’d stage-manage dinner parties at the house – all very sophisticated: elaborate concoctions out of Gourmet magazine, someone mixing real cocktails... The men often outnumbered the women, and Beth would shepherd me towards any she deemed suitable. After dinner out would come the playing cards. Conversation was never enough for Beth; she wanted the chance for an indisputable win. I had never played anything except Solitaire, but she was willing to include me in their games. As it turned out, I had no skill or talent for cards. Hearts, for instance, which they played regularly, was beyond me. Before you even started you had to pass cards to your left – or was it your right? Then you had to know whether to get rid of all your hearts or try to collect more. Not to mention that two-faced Queen of Spades: sometimes she’d do you in, other times she’d hand out punishment to every one of your opponents. How could anyone keep it straight? They seemed to think I was faking, though, and Beth eventually stopped inviting me to play.

Now she doesn’t even tell me when she’s planning to have people over. That’s why, on Hallowe’en – the night I ended up stealing Matthew – I wasn’t expecting to find the dining room full of people in costume when I got home from work. Beth’s entourage. No doubt she’d given them strict instructions as to the dress code.

I changed into my flannel pyjamas and slippers before going down to the kitchen to scrounge some supper. On my way through the dining room, Beth said, “Is that your idea of a costume, Char?” She wasn’t even looking at me; she was rearranging the cards in her hand. But she looked up – and glared – at Matthew, who swanned in just then without knocking, wearing his usual jeans and leather jacket. She’d been right about him: he did call after that Labour Day party, and she encouraged him. She’s always very charming early on.

“I’m not that late, am I?” He was jovial, possibly a bit drunk.

Beth, in her rented Marie-Antoinette get-up, turned her head so his kiss landed on her powdered cheek.

“Costume?”

Matthew spread his arms as if submitting to an airport security guard’s metal detector. “I came as my adorable self.”

“Well we don’t have enough chairs. You can go sit in the living room if you want. My deal, is it?”

He leaned away from the table as if the floor had tilted a couple of degrees, and his head wobbled slightly as it turned from Beth to the archway into the dark living room and back again. When he caught me watching from behind Beth’s chair, I looked him straight in the eye and smiled before disappearing into the kitchen. Ten seconds later he was gazing over my shoulder into the fridge with its neatly labelled shelves. Mine was empty and not particularly clean.

“Char-lotte?” He gave my name a tipsy lilt, and stood close enough that I felt his breath on my hair. “Looking for something?”

I glanced over my shoulder. He smiled, showing a chipped incisor.

“Maybe. What happened to your tooth?”

“That was ages ago. Rocks. You know. One got a little frisky. Were you going to get something out of there?”

I was still holding the fridge door open. “Frisky rocks, eh? Want to tell me about it?”

So we filched a couple of Heinekens from Beth’s stock and went to sit on the back step, where he told me about studying geological formations in Alberta all summer and I told him about quitting school the day I recognized myself in the Psych building graffiti that said I thought university would make me a better person, but it just made me a bigger asshole.

He stopped peeling the label on his beer bottle, set the bottle on the step. Up and down the block children were still calling out Trick or treat, but they seemed distant from where we sat, wrapped in the velvet night, the moon rising over the maple tree – hunter’s moon – almost full.

“In the Badlands we’d hear the coyotes yipping at the moon.”

“I’ve seen pictures, those weird hills.”

“Yeah, they sneak up on you,” said Matthew. “You’re driving along and all you see is prairie. Then suddenly it’s like the earth opens up and you look down into it, this crazy landscape.”

I shivered. Matthew draped his heavy jacket around me. His hand brushed my breast as he reached across to pull a stainless steel flask from the inside pocket. He offered it to me.

“What’s in it?”

“Southern Comfort. It’s awful.”

It was, but it didn’t matter. My tongue still tingled from the first mouthful when I kissed the curve of his jaw as he took a sip. He gave me a quizzical smile, kissed the bridge of my nose. And on we went, trading sips and kisses, until we heard a general hitching of cardplayers’ chairs, the smokers heading for the back door.

The day after the party Matthew came to the store and waited for my shift to end, at which point we went to the underground parking lot and screwed ourselves silly in the back of his hand-me-down Buick Roadmaster. It was the first time I felt I’d outdone Beth at anything.

#

I trusted him! The wail bursts out of someone in the far booth to set wounds and scars thrumming throughout the lunchtime crowd. Even the people who pretend to ignore it can’t help hiking up their shoulders as the air hardens with tension.

Beth is the only one who doesn’t react. She’s tearing a piece of rye bread into bits she won’t eat because she’s on the Atkins Diet and carbohydrates are verboten. She watches herself do this. I watch her, too, wondering how long it will be before she figures out about Matthew and me. We haven’t been particularly careful. After all, I want her to know. There’s no satisfaction if she doesn’t.

Beth abandons her knife and fork and goes at the barbecued-rib lunch special with her hands. She’s not being her usual chatty and caustic self, and I feel superfluous, maybe even ignored.

“Are you going to eat that pickle?” I ask.

“Have it.”

On the way out of the restaurant she says, “So it seems you and that Matthew are quite the item.”

I shrug, suppress a smile.

“On the living room floor,” she goes on. “Classy. I bet Adrian could hear everything. You might have a little more respect for your housemates.”

The first snow is starting to fly. I turn up my collar as we stand in front of the restaurant, our workplaces lying in opposite directions.

“Adrian wasn’t home.”

“Is that what you think? And I can’t believe you hit on him without asking me first.”

“For your information, Beth, he hit on me.”

“For your information, my dear Charlotte, that just proves he’s a bigger jerk than I expected. So be my guest.”

#

As December takes hold the city becomes frantic with the annual shopping orgy. An allergic reaction to fake snow and smarmy Christmas music makes the pressure build up in my spleen – or maybe it’s my liver turning Beth’s potent eggnog and the Bailey’s that Matthew stole from his parents’ liquor cabinet into a kind of toxic holiday bile. But when my manager asks everyone to put in extra hours, I’m more than willing – less chance of running into Beth at home: I’ve trespassed and she’s doing her best to prosecute. At work I’m merely plagued by bands of Visa-toting women who prowl the racks of sparkly blouses and snap viciously if you get too close, even if you’re trying to help. I spend a whole shift folding and refolding the sweaters on the sale table, telling anyone who asks that my name tag is from some other store, I forgot to take it off, I’m just helping out because I feel sorry for the “associates” who have to deal with rude shoppers until ten o’clock every effing night until Christmas. As I fold, I daydream about a time when I will no longer work in retail. But what else could I do? Go back and give university another try? Matthew seems to like it. Maybe I should save up, quit my job, catch a ride west with him when he goes to do his fieldwork next summer. Get out of this hellhole at least. If it didn’t work out I could go somewhere else, the Coast, whatever. The hideous cut-price cardigans become clothes I’m sorting and packing for the trip.

As I hang up my coat in the front hall at home, Beth comes out of the living room to stare at me, her phone glued to her ear. “No, it’s just Charlotte,” she says, turning away, “rhymes with harlot.” Laughing. “Yeah, absolutely.” I head upstairs feeling as if I’ve just swallowed something spiky. It’s my home, too – I’ve paid my rent – but I wish I could sneak in and out through my bedroom window. I start inviting myself over to Matthew’s to avoid the house altogether. He’s been procrastinating on a research paper and is holed up at home with his computer humming and Pizza Pizza on speed dial. He keeps his door locked but gives me my own key. Down the dim stairwell I go to his cave-like apartment with its floor of carpeted concrete. At least I feel welcome here. It’s cold, though. The window wells fill up with snow. I dig out my musty-smelling sleeping bag and bring it over so we can make a nest for ourselves against the chill.

As the days go by I start to bring him food: Thai or Indian takeout, sometimes even groceries. I throw his laundry in with my own – it only makes sense. I put clean sheets on his bed. I worry that he’s not eating properly, make snacks and leave them in the fridge for him to have while I’m at work. He says, “Have I ever mentioned that I adore you?” and grins across the table, eyes red from staring at the computer screen. I stand behind his chair to rub his tense shoulders; he sighs and rests his head against my breastbone, then turns to catch me in his arms and pull me into his lap.

How quickly things become normal: a late supper together when I get home from the store, then he goes back to his paper while I tidy up. When I’m done, I browse through his books, pull one or another off the shelves at random: a geology text with drawings that show how the earth’s tectonic plates push against each other, solid rock bending and folding under the strain; a book about marine fossils in the middle of the Rocky Mountains; an anatomy text with a section on the human body like the one in the encyclopedia we had when I was a kid. Diagrams of all the body’s systems – nerves, blood vessels, organs – are on flimsy transparent plastic so you can lift off each layer, from the skin on down to the skeleton. At a certain age – in grade four, five? – those pages had fascinated me, and I remained convinced that our bodies were actually arranged like that until my high-school science teacher gave us formaldehyde-pickled frogs to dissect. I still remember my confusion after cutting mine open. Where were the tidy layers? Even now there’s a part of me that resists the scientific evidence presented by the mixed-up state of that frog’s insides.

“What’s this?” I hold up a dusty chunk of rock.

Matthew glances over. “Part of a dinosaur humerus. Highly illegal, by the way.”

“How come?”

“Not supposed to remove fossils. But it wasn’t a good specimen – too flattened out, the kind they call road kill.”

“So why did you take it?”

“Just that one bit. Because it’s beautiful.”

I look more carefully at the piece of bone. There is a kind of beauty in the asymmetrical shape, the abrupt change in texture where it’s broken, the subtle gradations of colour.

“Not just how it looks,” says Matthew, coming over. “The whole idea of it.” He takes the bone from my hand. “Think about it. This was actually inside an animal living millions of years ago. And now, millions of years later, here I am, touching it. It boggles my mind.”

“Like reaching through time,” I say.

“And not just that, but this isn’t very different from what’s inside our own bodies.” He holds the bone gently in place against my arm – “Like this.” – traces my own humerus from elbow to shoulder. Even through my sweater his fingerstroke gives me goosebumps. “Dinosaurs, birds, mammals, even fish – we’re all put together pretty much the same way. I think that’s so cool.”

There are hundreds of bones in the human skeleton and Matthew knows them all. “...scapula, clavicle, sternum...” He touches each on my body, pressing in to feel its shape, how it’s connected. He names the ossicles in my middle ear, undoes my jeans with one hand while the other feels its way down my lumbar vertebrae to my sacrum, my coccyx. I draw him into the bedroom where we shuck our clothes and dive under the covers to create our own pool of heat within the chilly apartment. Under the dark blankets we go exploring. It feels exciting, taboo, like skinny-dipping for the first time in years, the first time as an adult. Submerged, yet exposed, almost scared – how deep? what’s down there? Newly aware of the strangeness of someone else’s tongue in your mouth, someone’s fingers inside you, someone’s penis. Daring to let someone touch the inside of your body, trusting him that far. His tongue feels soft and hot in his mouth, draws my finger farther in. Our bodies fit themselves together. I feel the space between us close, pull him closer, deeper. Open – that’s how I feel. Opened up.

#

The scent of pine and cut wood reaches halfway across the grocery store parking lot, bringing a memory flash of our living room when I was little, dimmed to show off the coloured lights on the fragrant evergreen in the front window. By the time I was in school we had an artificial tree that my mother dragged out every year. I remember her spraying the room with pine-scented air freshener, but my father complained (rightly) that it stank, so she gave up on that.

As I walk back to Matthew’s with a bag of groceries and treats, Christmas Eve snow starts to fall, big, soft flakes that sparkle on the ground. His parents and sister have gone to Mexico for the holidays – supposed to be a family thing, but he told them he couldn’t take the time. On Christmas morning we curl up in our nest feeding each other chocolate, shortbread, mandarin oranges. We agreed not to exchange presents, but I bought him some decent scotch so he wouldn’t have to keep sneaking over to his parents’ house to take whatever awful stuff he thought they wouldn’t miss. He carefully fills his flask, and we toast the day with some of what’s left in the bottle.

Later we walk over to the house so I can get some more clothes. The city is quiet with snowfall. In places the snow is up to our knees and coats our jeans. We pass the flask of whiskey back and forth, and that, plus the walking, keeps us warm and laughing. As we cut across the tiny park at the corner near the house, Matthew throws himself down on his back in the snow, flaps his arms and legs.

“A snow angel!” I say as he sits up. He twists around and makes two indentations in the snow above the imprint of his head.

“Snow devil!” he says.

“Rabbit,” I counter. “A snow rabbit angel.”

He holds out his hands to be helped up and I pull him into a big hug.

“You’re cold,” he says, unzips his parka. I put my arms around him inside it, and he wraps it around me as far as it will go. Our bodies press together, solid, comfortable.

When we get to the house I’m relieved to see outbound tracks on the unshovelled walk. Beth isn’t home. Neither is Adrian. The standby lights on the living room electronics shine a festive red and green in the gloom. The wooden stairs creak – “Like a ship,” says Matthew as we creep up to my room. “Like a ship, and we’re pirates.”

And I do feel like an intruder in my own home. My so-called home.

In my room he throws his arms around me and we fall across my bed. He licks my ear and says, “You’ve never let me come in here before.”

I say, “I don’t want to be here when they get back.”

Whiskey on his breath. He slides his hand up under my sweater, his fingers icy. I grab his wrist.

“Come on, Charlotte.”

“Not here.” I haven’t been here for days. My space. I suddenly wish that I’d come by myself. Matthew twines his legs through mine, pressing my cold wet jeans against my skin. I say, “I just want to get some stuff and get out.”

He nuzzles my neck, tries to get his hand free.

“Matthew, cut it out!”

“What? It’s not as if they’re your parents, going to catch us.”

“Right, since both my parents are dead.”

That shuts him up. I sit up on the edge of my bed.

“I’m sorry, Charlotte.” Matthew sits up beside me and runs his hand across my shoulders, down my back. With his touch the muscles relax. I take a deep breath, discover I’d been holding it. My lungs expand, my heart swells, there’s a lump in my throat. Matthew’s face is serious and beautiful. He keeps rubbing his hand gently over my back and suddenly I understand that this is how it happens. I want him to touch my breast. My heart strains toward his hand. His mouth is beautiful as he leans toward me. This is how it happens, my heart so swollen it’s almost painful, throbbing, too big for my ribcage. This is how it happens, and then you’re helpless. In a second it will be too late. My whole body is pulsing but I push him away, force myself to stand up. He flops back on the bed, exasperated.

“You have to go.” I should have been more careful. I should have noticed what was going on. I pull at his arm. He’s dead weight. “I’m serious. Go. Get out.”

“What did I do?” He gets up, tries to hug me, I push him to the door, out into the hall. Why did I ever let him come in? My heart fills my chest, presses into my throat. Distant, Matthew’s voice: What’s wrong, just tell me what’s wrong. I can’t speak. I thought it was safe, I knew how to handle things. I made a mistake. I keep pushing, Matthew’s falling, clutching the banister to save himself. He stumbles to the bottom of the stairs, the front door opens, it’s Adrian – What’s up, bro? – Matthew’s gone into the falling dusk. The world is all spongy. My chest is breaking open. Can’t find my room. I can’t. Like in a dream. I’m still in the hall. My throat burns. Adrian halfway up the stairs – Is everything okay? – from the bottom of my guts I’m yelling Fuck off! Just fuck right off!

Finally my own bed, the comfort of covers pulled over my head.

My cell phone rings. I ignore it. When it rings again I hurl it against the wall. Pieces of hard plastic skitter across the floor. A few minutes later, a knock at my door.

“Charlotte? You okay?”

Adrian again. Through the door he tells me that Beth has gone to Hawaii for a few days with Raymond, and if I need anything he’ll be in the basement. I feel flattened, like road kill, barely capable of saying Go away loud enough for him to hear. Off he goes down the creaky wooden stairs.

#

I wake up when I roll over against emptiness instead of Matthew’s body. For a while I cry stupidly into my pillow, then sit by the window looking out, a short-haired Rapunzel gazing at the occluded moon. No men or rabbits in sight. The back yard is a featureless white rectangle, even the vine-choked shrubs are snowed under. I thought I understood that lesson about tendrils: you have to nip them in the bud. Have your fun but keep things tidy. How could I have let Matthew come so close to getting a hold on me? His smile across the table. He kissed my hand, said Beso tu mano, that’s all the Spanish I know. I said There’s that song, Besame mucho... Why didn’t I keep my big mouth shut? I’m usually so good at silence, grew up on it, watching my mother wait in silence for my father. Waiting in silence myself for her to notice me. His absence always meant more to her than my presence. The irony is that they had eloped. My parents ran away together for love. Fat lot of good it did them, my father spending all his off-hours sucking back draft at the Lennox House. I’d seen him – couldn’t help looking in if the door was open when I walked by. He’d be staring up at the TV, or else leaning on the bar talking to the bartender. Were they friends, after all that time together? Was that where he felt at home? Once I saw him sitting with some dark-haired woman, rubbing his hand up and down her back. Her back was to the door. I can still picture it. She was wearing a hot pink blouse that stretched tight and showed the imprint of her bra straps. My father’s big hand looked so gentle. I wondered what it would feel like on my own back. I’d never seen him do that to my mother, but maybe he had, sometime, maybe before I was born. The only time I saw her touch him was nothing like that. It was the night of yelling, that one night, after all the years of silence. She was yelling as she pushed him out the door, and a few hours later the police came to break the news of the accident.

Tears, so salty they sting, bringing more tears. My room feels too big, unfamiliar, the way our house did after my parents were gone, as if I could get lost in it. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere. I don’t even want to.

I go back to bed, the closest thing I have to a home now. What’s home anyway? Just someplace you’re expected to go, someplace to keep your stuff. I don’t want any stuff. With no stuff, I won’t even need a home. Or a job. Not even a body. My body’s just trouble anyway. All the fluid and meaty parts can just fuck off and leave me alone. Just go – the blood, the muscles, the stringy nerves. My internal organs silenced, mummified. My brain shrivelled like a pea in its bony little pan. And my heart – my poor heart – etherized, tucked away: my sleeping beauty, safe in its cage.

All I want now is to be still and quiet, to get right down to my skeleton. When I get down to my skeleton I’ll feel better. Then I’ll go to some far-off place and lie my bones down under a tree and think of nothing at all, and let tiny chirping birds perch on my ribs and hone their beaks on my sternum.

#

When Matthew comes to the house I’m ready. He kept calling my broken phone for days, apparently, and finally called Beth. She rattled my doorknob and said, “You wanted him. You got him. Now deal with it.” She’s right. It’s only fair to tell him of my plans: a small backpack, a one-way bus ticket. It’s safe to face the world now that I’ve pared myself down to the bone and preserved my vital organs in sealed canopic jars, like those of the Ancient Egyptians.

When I open the door his smile is ridiculous with relief. He wants to take me for dinner; we settle on a walk. I put on my boots and my favourite jacket, thick melton wool. I feel good in this jacket, even when it soaks up ten pounds of freezing rain and the cold presses on my shoulders. This jacket is solid. In it I am girded, able to withstand anything. When the rain stops, we sit on a bench in the dark, the air sharp, not quite warm enough, either of us. He offers his flask and I say What’s in it? and he says Christmas whiskey.

“I thought you’d have finished that.”

“No, not yet.” He takes my hand, rubs the ball of his thumb over the rough edge of one nail (I’ve been biting them). “I don’t understand what’s wrong.” When I don’t say anything he adds my name – “Charlotte?” – turning it into a question.

I’m afraid to look at him. But it’s a vestigial fear. Bones can’t send out tendrils. Bones don’t get attached to things.

“Come on, Charlotte. Just tell me. What’s up?”

“Oh, you know...” I gaze up at ragged clouds. “The moon. The stars. The price of soybeans.”

He gives one of those laughs that’s really just a gut-spasm that forces air out of your nose, and gives me a look that says I’m willing to find your flippancy charming if you’re willing to give me a straight answer right now.

“Sorry.” I give his fingers a squeeze. “I made that last one up.”

He lets go of my hand, puts away his flask, zips up his jacket, and gets to his feet.

I am perfectly prepared to sit here by myself all night, watch the moon set and the sun, presumably, rise, and if my body happens to freeze to death, so be it. I’m through with it anyway.

Then Matthew sits down again, pulls out the whiskey, takes a swig. He hands the flask to me and I take a swig. We both laugh a little, not that anything is funny. The cold, the dark, the distance between us on the bench – none of it is funny. But we laugh anyway.

#

When I get home, Beth is sitting cross-legged on the chesterfield in her nightgown and robe, smoking, drinking scotch, and playing Solitaire on the coffee table.

“The basement’s flooding,” she says. I think of all the cardboard boxes down there. None of them belong to me anymore – I already got rid of mine, left them all at the curb for the gleaners, or the Goodwill.

“Where’s Adrian?”

“Took a bunch of stuff over to his parents’.”

“Why didn’t he just move it up here?”

Beth arches one eyebrow, blows smoke, moves a black ace to its spot above the other cards. The ice in her drink tinkles as she picks up her glass. She seems amazingly calm. Our house is taking on water. Something needs to be done. Call the landlord. But then I realize that I don’t care any more than she seems to. The water will rise; the water will subside. Even if it rose right up to the ceiling, so what. I’m not using my lungs anymore. In my nice clean bones I’d clank around as usual, through water or air, makes no difference to me. The others might turn blue and bloat, and float to the surface and start stinking; I’d just sit there watching them like TV, or playing Solitaire with Beth’s waterproof, plastic-coated deck of cards. Wipe Clean! says the package.

#

So it’s official: the house is breaking up. Only Adrian wants to stay on, but he can’t afford it by himself, and can’t face the required new-housemate interviews. Beth always looked after that, doing the equivalent of holding prospective roomies down on their backs like puppies to test for dominance. But now she’s buying a house of her own, and plans to rent out her future basement to spineless strangers.

“It’s not a good idea to rent to friends,” she says.

Adrian is going back to live with his parents until he figures out what else to do.

I don’t have to quit my job: they let me go. All I need now is my bus ticket. It’s already spring on the Coast.

Beth says, “You’re still responsible for your share of the rent until the end of the lease, you know.”

Matthew says, “Wait until May and I’ll come with you.” He’s holding my hand as we walk to George’s for lunch on a bright, drippy, false-spring day. I feel so much lighter now that I might just float up into orbit if I wasn’t attached to something, so Matthew’s hand feels good in mine. But I could let go if I want.

After lunch he drives me to the terminal.

“You don’t have to take the bus, you know,” he says. “I’d drive you. We could go right now. Tomorrow.”

I shake my head.

“Well, call me when you get there, okay?”

“Matthew. I don’t know where I’m going.”

He puts his arms around me, rests his cheek on my hair. I can feel his heart knocking against my ribcage.

“But you have my number, right?”

“Yes.” I lean against the solid thump of his pulse. “I have your number.”

He says, “I can feel your heartbeat.” His breath in my ear. His whisper travels down into my chest and expands until I think my ribs might crack. But he has his arms wrapped around me, that helps. I tighten my arms around him, just in case he needs the same kind of help. And until it’s time for me to get on the bus we stay like that, holding each other so close that our two hearts can feel each other beating.


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Andrea Johnston is a writer and French-English translator living in Toronto, Canada. Her stories and poems have been published in a number of magazines and journals including Geist, Room, CV2 and The Drum.

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