Par­adise

No­body be­longs to us, ex­cept in mem­ory. —John Updike, “Grand­par­ent­ing” from The Af­ter­life and Other Sto­ries

Geist - - Breaking Light - for WPK EVE­LYN LAU

1.

He calls daily from the sub­ur­ban mall, the gas sta­tion, the cor­ner store. Some­times he calls from home, while his wife bakes muffins, watches TV in the liv­ing room.

You can al­most hear her in the back­ground— wa­ter rush­ing into a sink, ket­tle set upon a stove.

Tinned laugh­ter, a sin­gle gun­shot.

He coughs, low­ers his voice to a whis­per. This ren­ders every­thing he says se­duc­tive. Says he doesn’t love her, says he will leave her— at twenty-four, you are a be­liever.

2.

He brings you flow­ers, short-lived irises blaz­ing like blue fire in his hands. Bent cro­cuses, car­na­tions. He kisses your closed eye­lids, at first noth­ing more.

He’s shy, care­ful, his gaze slips to the side.

His hands nearly small as your own.

In the gilt mir­ror your twined bod­ies are skewed, ob­scene. You shiver and look away, but he con­tin­ues to watch the re­flec­tion— the dip of your head, his spread legs. You grip his hands in bed, shut your eyes against the break­ing light. 3.

He nib­bles his lower lip, fid­gets like a child in the prin­ci­pal’s of­fice when you dare ask.

I can’t just kick her out onto the street. She needs time to move out, there’s the pa­per­work, le­gal­i­ties…

You drink un­til you be­lieve, glass after slip­pery glass of wine. The gem-bright con­fi­dence washes over you, says yes. Mouse-grey hair at his pu­bis, mole on his back, fa­mil­iar as home.

You tick back and forth like a metronome— one day he’s leav­ing, the next he’s not, he flicks the switch. I’m de­ceit­ful at the best of times! he boasts in bed, glint­ing with mis­chief. See, it’s not like he didn’t tell you. It’s not like you were a child, a cap­tive, in­ca­pable of choice. You had a choice, damn you.

4.

When he calls to say he’s left her, his voice cuts in and out. He’s call­ing as if from a dis­tance— some­place in the sky, from a shut­tle poised for a moon land­ing. Well, he hasn’t left her— he’s just asked to spend the win­ter alone, in his condo in the desert. She doesn’t know about you, you don’t ex­ist. Your hand shakes, tips gleam­ing vodka over a glass of bro­ken ice.

Not sure if this is win­ning or los­ing.

5.

This is where you stay with him, in Palm Springs— a gated com­plex over­look­ing bougainvil­lea and a golf course, cra­dled by choco­late moun­tains. Out­side the bed­room a sprin­kler works back and forth, click­ing, whoosh­ing, paint­ing the parched air. All night, by the base of a palm tree, a flood­light flashes off and on—like a disco ball through the slats of shut­ters, a blade slic­ing back and forth across the bed.

He takes you for din­ner in restau­rants with Tif­fany lamps, tim­ber ceil­ings, vel­vet arm­chairs. Reaches for your hand across the white table­cloth— wait­ers, din­ers stare. You flinch, bite the in­side of your cheek, taste blood. He’s old enough to be your fa­ther—grand­fa­ther, maybe.

6.

You walk in the di­rec­tion of the moun­tains, dust blow­ing. The moun­tains seem an op­ti­cal il­lu­sion— close, then far, close again. You pass old men and women wear­ing ten­nis shoes and track­suits. Lutheran churches, health spas, run­down houses once be­long­ing to fruit-pick­ers who worked on long-van­ished or­chards. The air smells of green jelly, cac­tus blooms.

Out­side the pizza par­lour, the drycleaner, the nail salon, sun­light glares on as­phalt.

In ice-cold malls, el­e­va­tors glide up and down.

The av­enue is lined with palm trees, gold stars twin­kle on the pave­ment. Bent­leys and Rolls-royces slide down El Paseo Drive— the faces of men and women in­side, white, well-pre­served, seem full of ha­tred when they look out their win­dows at the sur­round­ing desert.

7.

He watches you en­ter the hot tub, he’s al­ways watch­ing you. Un­der the roil­ing wa­ter your thighs are round as loaves, you have never liked the way you look. He leans back, el­bows on the rim of the tub. The sun slides to­wards the moun­tains, the fringe of palm trees. Yel­low roses in their fi­nal bloom push through the chain-link fence. You walk drip­ping to the pool, swim back and forth across the deep end with your head above wa­ter, each lap a dif­fer­ent emo­tion—

I am happy, I am scared, I’ve be­come a stranger to my­self.

Veins of light spasm in blue wa­ter.

You climb out, fol­low your wet foot­prints back to­wards him. On a lawn chair, un­der an um­brella, an­other old man stares at you. He must be ninety, huge turquoise rings crust­ing each fin­ger. Watch­ing you, his head shakes back and forth in an end­less, ad­mon­ish­ing, No, no, no. 8.

One morn­ing he takes you past the flock of wind­mills, stub­bly green hills. Past strip malls, gar­ment out­lets, dozens of de­crepit mo­tels with am­bi­tious names—aris­to­crat’s Mo­tel, King’s Rest.

Two hours later, you are in LA, shrouded in smog.

The sky leaden, pur­ple. You fol­low the boule­vard to the beach, where sun­burnt home­less men sleep. Di­a­mond width of wa­ter, white band of surf. You walk hand in hand along the pier, he strokes your palm with his thumb.

You wan­der the board­walk, where every­thing is for sale— T-shirts, tat­toos, your for­tunes. The drive home at rush hour takes twice as long, but he doesn’t com­plain. You touch the back of his neck, hot and creased un­der your fin­gers. Is it enough? In a minute, twi­light slips into full night. The round red sun poised in the side mir­ror slips down and now he is driv­ing in the dark.

9.

Christ­mas day dawns sul­try, blue. You spend the af­ter­noon in bed to­gether, eat turkey din­ner in a restau­rant dec­o­rated with holly, painted an­gels, sil­ver stars. The waitress is in her for­ties, face lined with mis­ery. You’re so happy you start to laugh and laugh— he leaves a good tip. You drive home hold­ing hands, along a boule­vard lined with palm trees wrapped in strings of light.

There are tears in your throat, be­hind your eyes like sand. In bed, the round bone at his shoul­der seems tai­lored for your cupped palm. You can taste the grit in your throat, the hot, wa­ter­less air.

Your body wa­ter­less, a thing torched by his tongue.

10.

After re­turn­ing you to the pas­tel air­port with its minia­ture golf course and open-air ter­mi­nals, he will swim alone in the pool. Black, wet smell of tar from the new roof on the com­plex.

The care­taker hacks the yel­low rose bushes with his gar­den shears— they won’t bloom for an­other year.

An ice cream truck passes, jan­gling its manic tune. Wrapped in a towel, drip­ping, he will read his wife’s let­ters, plead­ing with him to come home.

11.

A week later, he fol­lows you home.

In your bed he looks like a wicked an­gel fallen to earth. His shirts bright flags in your closet, his books crowd­ing yours on the shelves. One af­ter­noon, he calls his el­dest daugh­ter: How are you, honey?

I’m call­ing from New York…oh, I’ll just be here for a few days. Weather’s ter­ri­ble, though. Any­way, just called to say hi. I love you too, sweetie.

But he’s not in New York, he’s in your apart­ment.

You watch tea bags seep into wa­ter, colour it sand. Carry two mugs into the liv­ing room, watch him sip and smile. By the way, about that phone call—

I could hardly tell her I was with you! Imag­ine the fire­works! He laughs, the peals of his laugh­ter hurt you like blows.

12.

Again, he waits in the pink air­port.

It’s like slog­ging through mud, the dis­tance it takes to reach him across the tar­mac. He looks old, frag­ile—you feel the blaze of strangers’ eyes when he stum­bles, squeezes you again and again.

I love you. The shadow of fear over your heart.

Then your lug­gage tum­bles end over end down the con­veyor, and you walk along the salmon car­pet, past the car rental counter and the ticket agents, into the desert. The sun casts vi­o­let shad­ows un­der the movie-prop moun­tains, the air dry and light as talc. You breathe it in, it’s like ar­riv­ing home.

13.

Morn­ings clut­tered with the noise of song­birds, neigh­bours’ ra­dios jan­gling awake. Round leaves of eu­ca­lyp­tus brush the win­dows. In dreams, he re­turns again and again to his wife— yet when you wake, he’s there. Your clothes smell of bougainvil­lea, sprin­kler-moist­ened lawns and chlo­rine. When you close your eyes and sniff your bare arm: palm trees, sun­light on a pool.

Sand blows through the cracks of his home, into your mouth and nose and eyes. Red sand drifts across the win­dowsill, the glass cof­fee ta­ble.

Your body is chang­ing, syrup-coloured from the sun, bi­sected by the bathing suit straps.

He sits on the sofa, pre­tends to read the pa­per, watches you. There is such an ex­pres­sion of happy as­ton­ish­ment on his face that you think,

Maybe. Maybe.

14.

To­gether you walk the main av­enue of gal­leries, cloth­ing bou­tiques, restau­rants and book­stores. Pass­ing cou­ples stare, it seems with anger. Slowly you slide your hand out of his, with­draw your fin­gers one by one un­til he is left hold­ing your thumb. The bright street of tourists stretches far as pur­ga­tory. Now the light is apri­cot, nearly dusk. Pass­ing a Mcdon­ald’s, he tugs you in­side for a diet Coke, past two teenage girls who flick their eyes at him, you, whis­per and gig­gle. The rest of the way home, sparkly black cold­ness in your mouths, a small dis­tance be­tween you.

15.

Din­ner­time, his wife calls. It’s great to hear from you, he says, turn­ing down the TV. Hold­ing your breath, you watch him, hands frozen in your lap. Out­side, children chant their games in the early evening. He lis­tens, laughs of­ten, slaps his thigh. Well, not too much, I’ve been go­ing to movies, soak­ing in the hot tub…

He makes no men­tion of you, it’s as if you’ve van­ished into air. At last he says, Well, thank you for call­ing,

I’m so glad you did. He re­places the re­ceiver, doesn’t look at you, goes into the kitchen to peer into a pot of sim­mer­ing soup. The smell of burn­ing fills your nos­trils.

16.

He pours a bowl for him­self, sits on the op­po­site couch— round sil­ver spoon clanks against enamel.

He sips, chews, swal­lows. You look down at your lap, nau­sea ris­ing. He fetches a wedge of pie, an ice cream bar for dessert— fork scrapes against berries and pas­try, choco­late shell crunches be­tween his teeth.

He looks at the screen, thinks about the call. Says, half to him­self, I hope she’ll move out soon. If she’s not gone by the time I’m back, I’ll have to move in with her, who knows what’ll hap­pen then.

17.

Out­side the sky is re­mote, both Dip­pers in ra­di­ant place. A crescent moon lies on its back. You walk past a bas­ket­ball court to a play­ground, lit and empty. Sit on a swing, rock back and forth, back and forth. Cry un­til you vomit in the grass.

He’s on the con­crete path out­side his build­ing when you re­turn, like a wor­ried fa­ther look­ing for his miss­ing child. Says no, no,

I’m not go­ing back to her, is that what you thought?

Presses your face to his chest, into the earnest beat­ing of his heart. I love you. Though you try, you can’t see any­thing but truth in his eyes.

18.

He’s in­vited for a res­i­dency in Florida, sends you a ticket. All night trains rat­tle the win­dows of the A-frame on stilts.

In the drowsy morn­ings you eat or­anges that drip down your wrists, watch spi­der­webs flut­ter in the rafters from the air con­di­tion­ing. The heat a thick sil­ver blan­ket beat­ing down from the sky, cov­er­ing every­thing— fly­ing cock­roaches, pal­metto fronds. He drives past time-share con­dos, beach­front shacks, houses with wrap­around porches and clipped lawns. The sun burns hot-metal be­hind your eye­lids, blazes through car win­dows, strips the skin on your arms. He con­tin­ues over a cause­way, past swamps where dead trees reach sky­ward, bleached branches frozen in sup­pli­ca­tion. Stops for meals in tiny pink restau­rants nes­tled by the side of the high­way, ceil­ing fans cir­cling their cold arcs of air, sam­plers stitched with scrip­ture framed on the walls.

He swings the car into park­ing lots big as base­ball fields, Amer­i­can flags sweep­ing the sky. You buy ice cream, bot­tled wa­ter, post­cards. He takes pho­tos of you, hun­dreds of them— loves the way you look.

19.

Nights in the A-frame you glance up from a book to find him watch­ing you, eyes steady and full of thought in the lamp­light. He’s about to say some­thing im­por­tant, presses his lips against your ear, but noth­ing hap­pens. It’s silent but for the trains shunt­ing beyond the moss-draped trees. On the warm air floats the salt of the swamp, honey, the sky bro­ken up with stars. Day­light takes for­ever to come and then it’s there, spilling down his body, wash­ing out to the cor­ners of the room.

When you open your eyes you see he’s al­ready awake, he’s been study­ing you for an hour.

20.

He walks up the path swing­ing a bag of or­anges fallen from the trees in ra­di­ant orbs. The road trip

con­tin­ues— along over­passes and turn­pikes, past stands sell­ing hot, boiled peanuts,

Waf­fle Houses and Su­per 8s and then noth­ing for miles but groves of cit­rus trees. At a rest stop, look­ing at your­self in the sheet of metal that serves as mir­ror, you think you could be any­one— a run­away, an es­caped con­vict, some­one with noth­ing to lose.

Along the wa­ter, man­sions with swim­ming pools, stained glass win­dows, cupo­las. By the high­way, Chi­nese restau­rants with Bud­weiser signs in the win­dows, their own­ers in empty park­ing lots gaz­ing wist­fully at traf­fic pass­ing. He noses the car down res­i­den­tial streets, past the Bap­tist church, the ceme­tery, the “Open House” signs on singed lawns. You imag­ine liv­ing to­gether in a lit­tle house, stars and stripes fly­ing from the at­tic win­dow, a sag­ging porch where you drink iced tea in the mosquito-thick evenings. Maybe.

21.

Half­way through the stay in the South, he walks up to the A-frame with a cof­fee stain in the shape of a heart on his shirt, a let­ter in his hands, Read this. The let­ter­head is crisp, le­gal— his wife’s lawyer, de­mand­ing two more years in his house, a lump sum, monthly sup­port.

What am I sup­posed to do, he mut­ters.

Wan­ders into the kitchen, peels an orange.

Cit­rus mists the air. A trop­i­cal storm

is fore­cast for the week­end.

He is in a black mood, stays in bed all af­ter­noon. The sky is low and muddy— the branches of the slash pines, the grey trails of dan­gling moss, drip with mois­ture. He wakes with a groan, his mouth out of shape with anger, twists away.

22.

The storm breaks. A blaze of light­ning surges across the sky, pal­metto fronds thrash, drops of rain plop­ping onto the pave­ment turn to tor­rents.

There is noth­ing to do in the A-frame house but look at each other. An­other let­ter from his wife:

I never wanted to send a lawyer after you, but friends tell me I have to look after my­self.

I still love you, honey, I miss you so much… He holds the let­ter gen­tly, like some­thing of value. I don’t want to hurt her. She needs me…

He stares down at the page, and when you touch his shoul­der he glances at you, con­fused, as if he doesn’t know who you are. Flicks the TV on, tugs a chair di­rectly in front, stares deeply into the dull screen. The rain on the slanted roof, the twin sky­lights, is fright­en­ingly loud— like bad for­tune de­mand­ing en­try.

23.

You both pack your bags, leave the house on stilts, drive. Si­lence, coun­try music, laugh­ter. You cross a state line, and the bill­boards ad­ver­tise pa­per­shell pecans, onions so sweet they can be eaten whole and raw, like ap­ples, with­out tears. You pass hun­dreds of pink houses with porches in the old­est town in Amer­ica. Choose inns with four-postered beds be­hind French doors that over­look court­yards where guests read news­pa­pers, drink cof­fee in the moss-heavy morn­ings. In the after­noons, his face buried be­tween your thighs, you cover your face with your hands, wait for the ab­sence to over­take your body—

He pays for tours in car­riages that ram­ble down streets built from ships’ bal­last, cob­ble­stones called cal­ico for their patchy grey-and-gold re­sem­blance to cat fur. Pho­to­graphs you out­side the iron gates of splen­did homes where you will never live. He holds your hand, once grabs your arm on the side­walk and shouts,

I can’t be­lieve how happy I am! He has been lost for the last hour, un­able to find the main street lead­ing back to the ho­tel. You see, if it was my wife, she’d be stomp­ing off yelling and curs­ing me…

But in an­other hour he will be the ir­ri­ta­ble one, as you turn down one wrong cor­ner after an­other, notes of jazz spi­ralling out of crowded bars.

24.

On the west coast, he closes up his condo in the desert for an­other year. Loads clothes and pa­pers into the car, be­gins the long drive to the city where you, and his wife, are wait­ing. The moun­tains of the desert turn to sand, then the ver­dant belt. He calls you from a mo­tel one night, watch­ing rain crash onto the roof of his car in the lot.

We had some good times, didn’t we?

It sounds as though he’s say­ing good­bye.

He is driv­ing home to his wife, her pos­ses­sions in his car— frilled cush­ions, ear­rings in the shapes of sun­flow­ers. It has rained here all win­ter and every­thing is washed blue.

You wait for him in your apart­ment, drink out of a glass shaped like a cac­tus.

Imag­ine his wife stand­ing on the doorstep of their house, her suf­fer­ing for him, mak­ing her freck­les stand out like stars. He will see as clearly as a man who has wo­ken from a long, fud­dling dream: this was the one, all along.

25.

At last he ar­rives, a weary smil­ing trav­eller, ex­pect­ing a glad em­brace— but your mind is clear and bit­ter as the al­co­hol you’ve been drink­ing for hours. He will not make you a fool. You sip steadily, of­fer him noth­ing. He has to go to the fridge, fetch a glass of wa­ter. What was it like, see­ing her again?

He says noth­ing, shrugs. Si­lence in the room ex­cept for ice cubes crack­ing, fir­ing off like pis­tol shots. He glances away, out the win­dow at the per­pet­ual rain. Gives you an ex­as­per­ated look, his face dark.

Whole oceans wash back and forth be­tween you.

26.

It be­gins, the long nights when you lie awake lis­ten­ing to the rhythms of his noc­tur­nal breath­ing, your eyes dry and hard as cop­per pen­nies.

His turned back blocks you out, a thick wall— he could be any­one, a stranger who snuck in dur­ing the night. When he reaches for you, his move­ments are au­to­matic, your re­sponse the same. After, he watches the ceil­ing, blink­ing. I dreamt you didn’t love me any­more, you whis­per.

That’s silly, he says, that’s only a dream.

The room is white, he is so close you can­not breathe. When you raise your­self on one el­bow to look at him, he forces a smile to his face.

27.

He spends after­noons at your apart­ment, feet in wet shoes propped on the sofa, eyes flick­er­ing with a deep, dark­en­ing light. You say noth­ing but there is a hot fist planted in the cen­tre of your chest. Maybe he blames you for the turn his life has taken— his home oc­cu­pied, chequing ac­count empty.

All day he sits, stares out the win­dow, sighs.

His fore­head tight and low­ered, face crum­pled.

Some­times he dis­ap­pears for hours at a time— er­rands, vis­its with friends, movies— only later will you learn he’s with his wife.

Now when you ask about her, his eyes shift to the side. I haven’t seen her, I told you, it’s over be­tween us.

You gulp gin out of the cac­tus glass, fo­cus on the floor. He raids your fridge, com­plains about the toaster, talks with his mouth full. Your stom­ach churns—

28.

Nights you feel as if some­one drown­ing is hold­ing you in his clutches, us­ing your body as a lad­der to the sun­light and oxy­gen wa­ver­ing above the sur­face of wa­ter.

You try to breathe, refuse the urge to thrash and scream. At last he re­leases you, tum­bles down into sleep, a place he can’t be reached. If only he would say some­thing—

but it’s been a life­time of failed re­la­tion­ships and he’s tired. A life­time of women he once loved, that brief tum­bling ex­cite­ment— then the si­lences, the tears for no rea­son, no wound he could even see.

29.

On the phone he laughs, ner­vous.

Swirls diet Coke in his glass, crunches ice.

Things are strange, aren’t they? See, you’re a young woman, I’m an old man. I think I’ve been good for you, but now

I’d be happy if you found some­one closer to your own age. You say you don’t want children, but in your thir­ties…

The con­ver­sa­tion is mov­ing so fast, his sen­si­ble words pil­ing one upon the other like stones around her.

For me, it’s sim­ple. I’m de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. In ten years

I could be a dod­der­ing fool who won’t even rec­og­nize you. Is that what you want? In five years, ten years, fif­teen years—it could be a stroke, a heart at­tack, Alzheimer’s. You’ll need to put me in a home.

His voice turns tight, fu­ri­ous. Is that how you see your fu­ture? Look, we’ve en­joyed each other, but in my ex­pe­ri­ence, noth­ing lasts. It’s a thrill at the be­gin­ning, but soon the bore­dom, the ir­ri­ta­tion, it eats away at what was there. You know, he says, I don’t even think I know what love is.

But he had told you.

30.

Why hadn’t he told you it wouldn’t last?

If you had known, you would have recorded every­thing— the con­ver­sa­tions, what you wore, what you ate, the drown­ing of your senses.

The earth that cracked un­der the white-gold sun.

Ev­ery van­ish­ing mo­ment of hap­pi­ness. CODA

He re­turns to his wife. Over the years, you hear snatches of news— they buy a house in the coun­try, live on an acre of fruit trees, rose bushes. Their lives are small, se­cluded, they be­long to each other and no one else. Christ­mas Eve, after many failed treat­ments, she dies of can­cer at home— he’s at her bed­side with the home care aides.

Her lov­ing hus­band, the obit­u­ary says.

Twenty years after the desert win­ter, you are mid­dle-aged, and he is dead.

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