“DEAD BODIES CAN F ART ,” her son says. He blinks hard at the linguine dangling from between his fork and spoon. Tries to twirl it, but its ends keep coming loose and falling back to his plate. “Burp, too.”
This is Noah’s immediate response to her saying Jonathan is dead.
Minutes earlier, Kathy stood at the kitchen sink, a steaming strainer full of bare pasta—the smell of it warm, comforting—and she had been almost obscenely grateful for it, that forgotten bag of pasta behind the flour and oil. She wouldn’t have to take Noah out in the dark, after all, drive to the grocery store in the snow. Pasta was always there, no matter how long you forgot about it. It had been the only proper food left in the house. Not that she could account for the bareness of the cupboard. It wasn’t as if she had been busy, wasn’t as if she’d been working. Imagine a world without pasta, she thought, steam moistening her face and rising up to fog the window. A cupboard with no backup. Just empty space where the food is meant to be.
Noah has never met Jonathan, so Jonathan’s being dead should make no difference to him one way or another. Her husband, Carl, is in Toronto for the week, but even if he were home he wouldn’t care, either. So, because she knows it will make no difference to anyone but her, she has told her son the news: “My friend Jonathan has died. I haven’t seen him in a long time. Not for twice as many years as you are old.”
Noah knows all about dead bodies from his fun facts book. He says the proper term for a dead body is cadaver.
As soon as Kathy said those words, she regretted them, like so many other things. She relies far too much on Noah, as if he’s the adult and she the child, but he’s so darn stable for a nine-year-old, she finds it difficult not to use him as a sounding board. To Noah words are simply tools for describing facts, and he loves facts for the real, palpable things they are. Emotions are too slippery for him, skimming over faces, hushed in body language. Noah doesn’t notice she’s upset when she scrapes her dinner into the garbage after just a few bites and stands looking out the window like something important might pass her by, or already has.
Kathy’s mother was the one to call and give her the news, just as she always does when there’s news to be told about anyone—relatives, friends. The local Member of Parliament. The parish priest. When Noah was a baby, her mother had called to say, “Last I heard, Betty said Jonathan was in the hospital again.”
“Hardly surprising,” Kathy had said, as if they were discussing someone they read about in the news. Someone who meant nothing. Not someone who had lived next door to her. Not a one-time best friend. “Sad. So very sad. He sure had a thing for you. Remember how he used to leave poems in your jacket pockets? You were always rolling your eyes.”
“He was a screw-up,” Kathy said, as she held an infant Noah on her lap and leaned his chin into her palm to burp him. What she’d really been thinking was that they “Dark Matter”/Windsor 3 weren’t poems—they were songs. And he was probably on acid when he wrote them. And what else she’d been thinking about was how Carl had been complaining about the price of formula, and why couldn’t she just breastfeed like Everyone Else?
“He was crazy about you, Kathy! How can you be so mean?”
She couldn’t actually say, other than life, little by little, was making her that way.
Kathy got used to these reports, so much so, they became a regular part of her life. There is no Jonathan, and then suddenly, there he is, unearthed. Just there. Then gone, then there again, like some sick game of Whack-a-Mole. There was the time around when Noah was learning to walk: “I hear Jonathan finally got married.” And a few years later, “I hear Jonathan finally got divorced.” Kathy had difficulty believing some of this. Jonathan was not the marrying type
or the divorcing type. But she also couldn’t help wondering about this mystery woman, couldn’t help but be curious. At first she found herself trying to piece together faces and shapes and personalities to hypothesize who he possibly could have both married and divorced. What type of house they would share. Whether she was pretty. Pretty was more palatable than smart.
Around the time Kathy lost her job, her mother said, “I hear since his wife left him, Jonathan’s been on welfare and living in a trailer in South Gillies.”
And finally, now, “Jonathan is dead.”
He disappeared for a few days before he was reported missing. Police tracked him an hour’s walk into the bush before pulling his body from the river, the same river that narrows as it reaches the city and eventually passes under the bridge in their old neighbourhood before making its way out to the lake.
Noah looks up from his plate, eyes the darkest brown, like Carl’s. “Did you know dead bodies almost always float face down?”
Kathy tries to remember the times she wrote Jonathan long letters of apology but then burned them, or tried to call him, or sat outside his house in her parked car and waited to watch him come home, but these memories don’t come easily, because they aren’t memories at all. Between her mother’s reports, she’s sure Jonathan leaves her mind completely—first for days, then weeks, then months. Yes, it’s as if he never existed in the first place, as if their friendship is just an old film she has seen so many times she can’t stand to watch it anymore.
“Sometimes their hearts keep working,” Noah says, “even after their brains die.”
Carl calls from Toronto. His breath is shallow like he’s running to catch the subway. “How’re things?” he asks, without saying hello.
She tells him about Noah’s A on his spelling test, the voicemail from the dentist. Behind her, Noah says, “Did you tell him Jonathan’s dead?”
Carl says, “Sounds like Kiddo’s ready for bed.”
This is classic Carl, hearing but not really listening. He and Noah have that much in common, although at least Noah can’t seem to help it. Carl sees this flaw in his son but not in himself. Sometimes Carl thinks their son is stupid because he can’t catch a baseball or remember to wash his face after dinner, even though he knows the name of every dinosaur ever discovered and can recite pi to an everincreasing number of decimal places.
Kathy says Noah has decided to do a research project on dark matter for the science fair.
Carl says, “If he really wants to win, he should do that levitating magnet-thingy we talked about.”
Kathy says, “It’s extracurricular. It’s just for fun. He should do whatever he wants.” She pulls the receiver away from her mouth. “Buddy, what did you say dark matter is, again?”
Noah says, “It’s a mysterious substance that makes up most of the universe, but scientists don’t actually know what it is.”
“Can’t talk long,” Carl says. “Have to get back to the hotel to work on my presentation.”
Noah says, “It’s everywhere. It’s all around us. You just can’t see
“Right, of course,” Kathy says, even though Carl’s excuse is bullshit and he knows it, and he knows she knows it, and yet, he also knows Kathy will not call bullshit on him, because this is what they do these days. This is how they go on. She has no absolute proof Carl will find some woman at a bar or that he’ll spend the night in a colleague’s room after a long, intense session of discussing Very Important Marketing Strategies. Still, his knowing that she knows he exited their marriage ages ago, his growing apathy toward Noah— it’s always there, an invisible energy that bends and distorts the space between them.
Noah says, “My hypothesis is that dark matter is the God particle. The Higgs boson.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Carl says. He pauses. Then: “Have a good night.”
Noah says, “They built the Large Hadron Collider to find it. They’re getting closer and closer.”
“Have a good night,” Kathy repeats. These are words they say now instead of “I love you,” and “I love you too.” They’ve become experts of this loophole. Because, these days, Kathy feels saying “I love you” is like being forced to give a secret password to an enemy. Like someone has their arm around her throat. Though, she’s not sure who, exactly.
Noah says, “Stephen Hawking says one day it could destroy the whole universe.”
When she hangs up the phone, Noah is drawing patterns on his serviette with a ballpoint pen―circles inside circles inside circles. When he gets to the smallest circles, which are little more than dots,
his hand looks cramped, like it’s difficult for him to grip the pen. He says, “Did you love Jonathan before he died?”
It’s an odd question. Not, “Did you love Jonathan?” but “Did you love him before he died?” She tries to follow Noah’s train of thought: maybe he figures once someone is dead, loving them is an impossibility because you can’t kiss or hug or marry a corpse.
Kathy doesn’t bother trying to explain. Any attempt will set Noah’s mind in motion, and he won’t sleep. How can she explain that love isn’t something that either is or isn’t, that it doesn’t always fit into neat boxes like Mother, Wife, Friend. That sometimes you can love and hate someone all at once. Or mostly hate them but love some small piece of them you see only once every decade or so, so you hang around forever just waiting for the good times. You can love them but not like them. Love them without knowing it. Love someone who hates you. Love someone without wanting to kiss or hug or marry them. How to explain that there are as many loves as there are people to be loved. As many loves as there are Higgs bosons, and just as difficult to put your finger on.
The first time Kathy really, truly thought about Jonathan in years, outside of her mother’s calling to report, was when she lost her job. Being terminated felt something like a bad dream of standing in the middle of the office and having your skirt blow up, and everyone seeing your bare everything, because somehow, inexplicably, you forgot to wear underwear that morning, and now people suspect that you don’t wear undergarments as a matter of principle, that you think yourself above these things altogether, and you know now people will talk about you, about how if you’d been a bit more professional, more diligent, this would never have happened. But then, they say, there are always those who think they don’t have to follow the rules.
In truth, Kathy’s mistake was really just that—a horrible mistake. She’d been thinking about Noah all day, worrying about him on his field trip to the swimming pool with his class, feeling guilty that she couldn’t be there with him, wondering if he would hold it together for the duration of the visit. Would they make him go in the water if he didn’t want to? Would he kick and scream? What if he went in the deep end and slipped under the water and no one noticed? Too many children, not enough lifeguards. Would anyone but Kathy miss him if he suddenly wasn’t there? And that had led to thinking, who would love Noah when she, Kathy, was gone?
She remembers the look on Carl’s face when she told him about being fired. “You did what?”
“It was an accident. I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
“Did you talk to your boss? Did you propose a resolution?” “What? No. I—”
“Did you offer to up your professional development?”
“Fuck, Kathy! Who does that? Who just lies down and dies like that?”
She slept in a chair in Noah’s room that night, with no blanket and no pillow, chin resting on her chest. She couldn’t bear to have Carl look at her. She planned to stop eating, starve herself. Shave off her hair. But the next morning when, desperate for water, she slumped into the kitchen, where Noah was eating a bowl of Cheerios and Carl was pouring himself a cup of coffee at the counter, where the overripe bananas were still sitting in the fruit bowl and a patch of sun still rested in the middle of the floor where it always did, where everything looked exactly as it did the day before when she still had a job, when she was still a human being, she was overcome by a desire to make the whole matter disappear. Not that it would go away, exactly, but that they could somehow see past it. She tried to put her hand in the small of Carl’s back, thinking surely he would turn and put his hands on her shoulders, sigh, tell her they’d figure things out. Somehow. Perhaps kiss her on the forehead in that I’m still fond of you, I suppose, sort of way he sometimes did. Instead, he flinched at the suggestion of her hand on his clean, pressed shirt, and she backed away like a piece of snot flicked from his perfectly filed fingernail.
And that—as she retreated into the dark hallway and back to her bed, where she would spend the next three days—was exactly the moment she thought of Jonathan. Because according to her mother, his wife had left him. Perhaps he too was lying awake. Perhaps he was thinking of her, in a trailer way out in South Gillies. Would things have been different with him? Would life have been better? Worse?
Now when Carl touches her, she no longer senses his anger but, rather, his boredom. As if they are two faceless people who meet in a motel room every couple of weeks when their bodies are so tired and weary and are looking only to meet a biological need. The lights off so they don’t have to look at each other. Like animals. And that’s all they are, aren’t they? Just two animals. Just things that happened to the world but ultimately mean nothing.
These meetings have become less and less frequent, and Carl’s business trips have become more and more frequent. Kathy is quite sure he has found someone, or someones. She no longer waits up for him when he returns home late.
Kathy can’t imagine a time when she won’t want to tuck Noah in after he’s finished reading. The wall across from his bed is painted like outer space, with stars and planets. Soon she’ll replace this scene with bold primary stripes, a lava lamp, something more “adolescent” and less “child,” whether Noah likes it or not. But who or what will replace the giant hole Noah will leave behind when he’s grown? There will be no more children.
At first, when they started talking about another child, there had been at least the polite acknowledgement that a second child would be a possibility, if not an outright expectation. But then, the concerns. “But what if we—you know—get another one?” Carl said.
“That’s the whole idea.”
“Like Noah, I mean. Another one with ... issues.”
Then, for a while, whenever the subject came up, Carl would say, “I think Noah just needs you to be the best mother you can be.” This—an accusation, an attack on her parenting. She felt the sting of implication: “Maybe if you didn’t overprotect our son so much, he wouldn’t be such a weirdo.” “Maybe if you didn’t baby him so much, he would have friends.” “Maybe you’re the one preventing him from normalcy.” “How are you going to handle another child when you can’t make a success of this one? Or yourself.”
Kathy would say, “There’s nothing wrong with him.” And Carl would rub his eyebrows and say, “I’m tired of arguing about this.” Which was always the end of the “Dark Matter”/Windsor 10 discussion. Now, even the thought of having another child seems like a long-ago dream. Kathy does lie to herself, sometimes. It’s self-preservation. Because what it’s like underneath Noah’s skin—in that place between his flesh and his bones, inside those nerve endings, neurons, synapses—she just doesn’t know. All she knows is her own pain as her son, two-thirds her size and barely able to fit in her lap anymore, talks on and on and on about the stars and planets and galaxies she’s never even heard of, and all the other places she knows he’ll never go.
Noah’s hands peek over the top of the duvet. “Don’t turn off the light,” he says. “The dark makes me cold.” Kathy offers him another blanket, but he shakes his head. Repeats, “I get cold in the dark.”
“Do you mean afraid?”
“I don’t get afraid. Just cold.”
“I don’t understand.”
Noah says, “Where do you think dead people go when they die?”
“You know. Their bodies get buried. Or cremated.”
“No—where do they go.”
She says, “They go to heaven.”
This is what all parents tell their children, isn’t it? She can hope, can’t she? She imagines a place she and Noah can sit and talk forever, about whatever. How can she say, they go nowhere. They no longer exist. There is no more Jonathan. One day there will be no more Noah.
“I have a new hypothesis,” Noah says. “When you die, you break up into millions of molecules so small no one can see you anymore. You float around the universe forever. That’s what dark matter is.” Then he says, “Do you think Jonathan could be here right now?”
Kathy dims the lamp to a hush of light. Noah has his father’s hair, her freckled skin. Carl’s logical brain, her fear of heights. But she can’t help wondering who he might have been if she’d ended up with Jonathan instead. If the universe were to fold in on itself right now and knead them into an alternate reality, what and who would her son be? What and who would she be?
“Nonsense,” she says, and chucks his chin. All this talk of dead people—how stupid of her. Just one more thing to add to the list. “Quiet now,” she says. “Close those tired eyes. Dream sweet dreams. Stop thinking, would you?”
Here’s the memory she no longer replays in her head—the not-playing a choice, because each time the memory plays out a little differently, the details clearer or more grainy. The words growing and receding, so sometimes things are only thought and not said, and sometimes things are said without any thinking at all.
Jonathan has promised to meet her at the bridge—the one they used to throw rocks off on their way home from school as children— around the corner from his house. The one they met at to smoke pot as teenagers, before Kathy decided she didn’t want to smoke pot anymore. It has been their meeting place many times in the past. A place to be still and watch the water move past. Kathy has called Jonathan to say, enigmatically, that she needs him. She has something important to ask. In person. She knows that this—the sound of
pleading in her voice—is enough to bring him to her, even on a cold November evening, because this is the type of thing her friends do with men and are always successful. And she’s right, because he says he’ll let his band know he can’t make practice and asks what time she wants to meet.
They have just finished high school. Jonathan is working at The Salvation Army and living in his mother’s basement. Kathy is getting her H.B.A. and has just moved into an apartment with a couple of girlfriends she met waitressing at The Caribou. She drives over to her old neighbourhood, his still-neighbourhood, and parks her little Honda in front of the frosty green space across from the bridge. Jonathan is leaning on the railing with his elbows, looking down at the water. He is wearing a trench coat he might have bought from work with his employee discount. He stands up when he sees Kathy walking toward him, looks her up and down, says, “Nice pants.”
The pants. Hot pink. Of this detail she can be sure. One of her roommates had pulled them off a rack at the mall and held them up against her hips and legs as if to compare, had said Kathy needed a burst of colour, that a burst of colour was just the thing to make a girl—a woman—feel alive. The pants make her feel both playing-atsexy and childish all at the same time. She’s not sure which is the more dominant feeling, not sure she likes being tugged in either direction.
“Thanks for coming,” she says. Surprises even herself with the suddenly transactional tone of her voice.
Jonathan presses his lips into a thin line. “You rang?”
“Yes,” Kathy says. “I’m desperate for a second opinion.”
This, she realizes immediately, is not generous enough. “Your opinion,” she says.
The guy Kathy’s been dating since September, the one she met in her psychology class, says he doesn’t like relationship labels. It has been almost three months. Does Jonathan know what that means? Has Jonathan ever said something like that to a girl? All this uncertainty has her nervous as a junkie, has her buying hot pink pants on questionable advice.
Jonathan pulls a pack of Players Light out of his coat pocket and eases one into his mouth. He takes two drags and blows the smoke in her direction, then flicks the cigarette into the river, like he can’t make up his mind whether he wants to smoke or not. He pushes his hair out of his face with both hands. The wind is cold. His skin is chapped at the nose, peeling.
Kathy asks again: “What do you think?” She thinks he looks like hell, worse than he ever did in high school. Wonders how he hasn’t started growing out of this phase, why he hasn’t yet shunned the long hair and black clothes. Would it take just the right girl to wean him off of this angst? Wouldn’t he look and feel like a new person if he shed all this mask? What about a burst of colour? “I mean, what does that mean? In actuality?”
“It means,” Jonathan says, “he doesn’t give a shit about you. In actuality.”
But this is not what Kathy wants to hear. She wants Jonathan to explain, from the male perspective. She wants him to tell her she is perfect and this guy is obviously just frightened of her perfection and not good enough for her, and is therefore pulling away, because, she thinks, that’s what men do when they’re frightened, isn’t it?
She crosses her arms, shakes her head.
Jonathan says, “Shit’s sakes, Kathy. Is that it?”
No, she wants to say. No, this isn’t it, not all of it. But she’s not sure what the rest of it is, exactly. “I thought you’d care, is all,” she says.
“You thought I’d care. That’s funny,” he says. “I thought maybe you were just looking for a backup.”
“What, you’re jealous?”
“Stop acting like such a fucking idiot!”
Now he’s yelling out over the creek, like she’s down there in the water threatening to drown herself in six inches of water, and he’s calling her bluff. Kathy is glad he’s yelling at her. There is something so deeply satisfying about it, to know she exists enough, matters enough, to make someone so angry.
She thinks for a moment she might slap him, or he might slap her. Instead, suddenly, inexplicably, his lips are on hers, dry. His breath smells like smoke, and she can’t force her mouth to relax against his. This is the first time Jonathan has kissed her, but it doesn’t take long to know it will be the last time he will kiss her. It’s what Kathy imagines it’s like to kiss a man you’ve been married to for a hundred years, and kissing them is as exciting as shaking a stranger’s hand. Their kiss breaks suction as she drops her chin.
When Jonathan turns away and puts his hands on the railing, she’s sure his fingertips will stick like a tongue to cold metal. “You really don’t feel anything, do you?” he says. “You never have.”
Yes isn’t an option, because it will mean things she can’t give him. No doesn’t fit, either.
Jonathan pushes off from the rail and steps back.
Kathy says, “I can never imagine my life without you in it,” but her breath turns into fog between them. She reaches out, but Jonathan is disappearing. He keeps stepping back and back and back, until she realizes she hasn’t actually said anything. Not a word
Or maybe that’s not how it goes, exactly. Because sometimes in this memory it is Kathy who does the kissing, Jonathan who does the rejecting. Or maybe they are both kissing, both rejecting, equally. Sometimes these things just aren’t concrete enough to say for sure.
Noah is thrashing, tangled in ghost-sheets. His voice is stuck like a sideways bone in his throat. Kathy floods the room with light, calls his name—but nothing. He won’t wake up. The room is filled with Jonathans. Water-logged, wrist-slashed, ropeburned Jonathans. Lurching, grabbing. Her hands can’t wake him. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He thrashes until he is so tangled he can’t fight anymore. Then comes the improbable call of Noah not for her, but for his father. For Carl. For Daddy. His voice gets further and further away until it slows to a whine. And finally, like a wounded animal, he is still.
Kathy sits at the kitchen table listening to the growing rush of the kettle, which she has set to boil almost exclusively for the company of its sound. The poinsettia in the middle of the table is dying, its leaves curled under and browning at their ends. She bought it the last time she got groceries but now sees she has never watered it. Not once. The tag still hanging from the side of the pot says, Keep me moist. How could she have overlooked this? Has it been two weeks? More? She will get rid of the plant in the morning. She will dig out the car and take Noah to the store and buy a new one. She will place it in the middle of the table for when Carl comes home, so he will see she has remembered to care.
She dials Carl’s cell because Jonathan is dead, and now for the first time in years she knows what she needs: to hear her husband’s voice. To tell him their son needs to hear his voice. He owes them this much. But what can she say? How to explain this transformation in some coherent, succinct way? Carl does so admire efficiency.
“We’re sorry,” the voice on the other end of the line says. “Your call did not go through.”
Her hands don’t feel like her own but like someone else is moving them for her, pushing them along. She has to punch the sequence of numbers three times before she’s sure she gets them right. She’ll say: I agree now Noah needs some help. She’ll say: we need to sit down and work out all the things we’ve been freezing out of our relationship. She’ll say: I apologize for not being a better wife, a better mother, a better friend, a better person. She’ll assert that—contrary to appearances—she does care if Carl’s sleeping with another woman. But even if he’s sitting there on the edge of a hotel bed and another woman is lying beside him under a damp sheet right this very minute, Kathy will forgive him. They’ll find a way to move past it. She’ll forgive him anything if he’ll just hold the line and listen to her breathing, so he can assure her she’s still alive, too.
“We’re sorry,” the voice on the other end of the line says. “Your call did not go through.”
She will look for work. She will help Noah finish his science fair project and enroll him in swimming lessons. She will learn to make Quiche Lorraine. She will buy black underwear. She will tell Carl “I love you” every day, because what is love, anyhow? And who’s to say she doesn’t? She very well could. And if Carl could think of just one or two small but compassionate things to say in return, even if those words are just empty containers, placeholders for the real thing, that will be enough for now. That will make all the difference in the world.
The kettle rumbles to a boil. “We’re sorry,” the voice on the other end of the line says. “Your call did not go through.”
Slowly, slowly, Kathy is dissolving, becoming transparent, her very substance breaking into its smallest parts. Like steam, her essence moves through the room, swirls around the kitchen and down the hall, in and out again from Noah’s bedroom, slips out the back door, rises over the snow, floats down the street, expands to fill the neighbourhood, all the neighbourhoods, the city, the country. Keeps spreading and spreading until she is so diluted, she disappears completely.