The World I Am Not Writing
I can’t write poems anymore, as I putter in our space
and my husband builds with his butterfly hands;
my boys work their fingers around small objects.
I can’t see the abstraction in the world anymore:
schedules and buses, meals and dishes; the time that sits still
and doesn’t last, sometimes the only stillness,
and the arguments that come later.
I wear a referee whistle around my neck
and step into the ring again and again,
remove their heated, loud bodies from each other.
Then I watch as they create new worlds,
wear their imaginations like cloaks.
I soak in the moments of rest; I see through the mess,
the clock, travel, debates about dinner and bed
or something I promised — I don’t know when.
I remember how I haven’t kept record, journeyed within,
how my writing hand feels stiff, shriveled;
the same blood doesn’t flow through.
I don’t write poems anymore, not on paper.
They leave small imprints
while I wipe away tears from my boys’ bright eyes,
tickle them, miss them,
place stickers on the fridge and blow kisses.
I imprint poems on my heart
while I make lunches, put toys away.
I watch as my husband clears the yard,
cleans the gutters; while these words wait, patiently,
and we build a little world.
An Excerpt of My Unpublished Prequel Novel, A Crowded Heart
One evening, as Ellie was coming to grips with the notion of a person growing inside her body, she was strolling blindly up and down the downtown London streets. She thought of how she was in the middle of the world, and the world existed in the middle of her. The sky was losing its sun like a dying peacock, and the shadows seemed to stretch and rubberband away from her, attracted to the darkening horizon. Yet, the air was balmy and the rain clouds were staying at bay over the sea. She became aware of the heaviness in her shoes, nearly tripping over the cracks in the centuries-old pavement, and her head floating–somehow detached from her body and the fingertip-sized creature in her belly. She turned down a familiar road either on purpose or by design; she wasn’t sure. Ellie drew closer to a large, bright window that emitted happy chatter and light, airy classical music lifting into the grey night. She stopped in her shoes, looking in. She watched the elegant people in their black evening attire sip their flutes of sparkling champagne, mingle in small groups–she was visible in the large window, casting light onto the dim sidewalk where she stood, but they didn’t see her. They were in a different world and she couldn’t cross over to join them. Her eyes left the elegant people and drifted, falling on the art that adorned the walls–canvases that had become portals of the world–some bursting with colour, others drawing on darker tones; living snapshots of memory, places, perceptions, emotions that couldn’t be expressed in any other medium; music for the eye. She was watching the opening night of the art show unfold–Peter’s art show. Then she saw him, shifting in his shoes in the far corner, briefly holding hands with one elegant woman and then another. She watched him anxiously switch his wine glass between his hands, back and forth to create an opening for any patron who approached him–any prospective buyer, admirer, art lover, romantic partner. He looked like a boy trying to find the right person to engage in a slow dance. She watched him as he watched everyone else take in his heart’s work. He was about to turn his head to peer out into the evening–the other world that didn’t revolve around him, yet. Ellie instinctively moved back, away from the window, acutely aware that she could be inside with him basking in that moment of sunshine. She pulled herself away and walked briskly down the street towards the train station, towards home, back into the monotony of the world she knew. She could feel a silver cord pull her back deep down into her body, an insistent unborn cry, the creature, she could not ignore dwelling inside as she fought to stifle her own desperate cry deep in her throat. She had to contain the universe existing under her skin.
Turnstiles excerpt — Chapter 26
The room was filled with light when Evelyn awoke. She thought she had just rested her eyes for a few minutes, and remembered the weight of her eyelids forcing her back into dreams that seemed to entangle her. She awoke with a start to find no other presence in the room, no shadow leaking from the adjoining bathroom door, left ajar, no sound of his shoes or running water. The blinds flapped nervously as the summer air drifted into the room, like a lone bird’s wing that couldn’t take flight. She felt a mild panic.
“Marty?” she whispered in a barely audible voice. She was afraid to crack this silence, and to only have the silence returned. She gathered the sheets around her, slowly moved from the bed, and peered cautiously out of the blinds to see what the day’s clouds might bring. She already knew it was a turning day. She vaguely hoped to see him standing on the sidewalk, waiting for her; to see him look up and acknowledge her face peering down, and wave frantically at her to join him, but she only saw an old woman pushing an overloaded shopping cart down the street. The shopping cart seemed to be filled with all of her worldly possessions. Evelyn saw herself in this woman. Only, she wasn’t sure what items would fill her own shopping cart. These solitary people who wandered the earth seemed to carry with them the material remnants of a previous life; tangible memories of who they used to be. Evelyn carried her memories, too, but she couldn’t put them in a shopping cart, except perhaps a few torn dresses. She would have to put herself in a shopping cart. And then there was the little girl she tried so desperately to escape from—there would have to be room for her.
The old woman suddenly stopped her cart and peered upwards at the hotel windows. She put her hand over her forehead as a visor to block out the sun. Evelyn wanted to move back from the window, but something made her continue looking down at the woman. She wondered if the woman saw her from this height. Could she have detected her own misery through the cheap window glass and distance that separated them? Perhaps this was her daily routine, to wander the streets with her life in a basket and peer up at the apartments and hotels, dreaming about entering such a building and having her own four walls, a bed and a mirror, even though she may never look at her own reflection, and having a set of blinds to block out the rest of the world. Evelyn’s finger slipped and she let the blind snap shut.
Soon after, Evelyn was standing on the same sidewalk, clutching a small bag she had hastily thrown together, after ten uninterrupted minutes of staring at her own image in the mirror, wondering why she had been abandoned and if it were really a bad thing. She had stood naked in the mirror, covering her breasts with her arms, hugging herself for comfort and self-realization. She wanted to smash the mirror, but she restrained herself because she did not want to break anything else. Maybe she had anticipated this. To wake up with only herself… she had not done so in years. She quietly gathered her clothes, and the small bundle of money Marty had left for her on the corner of the bed, and deftly left the room.
The day was cool, and the air was foreign on her skin; a small, teasing breeze that made her small, protective hairs stand up. She held her elbows, standing on the sidewalk. The man at the front desk had given her a kind, fatherly look when she checked out.
“You don’t need him, mademoiselle,” he said. Then nodded reassuringly, by way of saying that was all that needed to be said. She didn’t answer. She didn’t believe him, yet. She lifted one corner of her mouth, and went out. She didn’t call a taxi; instead, she began walking in the sunshine, with her heels dipping in the shallow cracks in the cement. She felt as though she was learning to walk; her legs were thin and unsteady, as she held her chest in. She was afraid everything might fall out, loose, onto the pavement; a cartoon vision of her ribs breaking and her vital organs, even her eyes, falling out, and her kneeling on the ground, mortified, and people walking by and watching. The thought made her hold her elbows and close her eyes tighter, to keep everything in. She had asked the man in the hotel where she was. A small French village outside Paris called Carrières-sur-Seine. She blinked. They had travelled nearly all the way back to their starting point. She thought she could hide here for a while, but she didn’t know how she could manage. Marty had left her money, but it felt greasy in her hand. She had not begun to forgive him, and the money was linked to a part of him she didn’t know or trust. She didn’t care about the money; she never had money before. She had also never been entirely alone before. She was trapped again. Screw him, she thought, not sure of which him she meant. Every man that thought they had her, or decided for her who she was or what was best. They didn’t have her, now. As she walked through the quaint, sunny village, trying to calm her thoughts and decide what to do, she noticed the old woman with the shopping cart coming towards her. She must have looped around again. This was her village, her home. Everyone needed a landmark, a center. As the woman came closer, Evelyn noticed she was not old. She looked haggard, but no older than her mid-forties. Her hair boasted long grey streaks, partly tied back off her tired, weathered face. Her eyes were large and had seen too much. She didn’t see Evelyn, and was about to jostle past her with her life in her cart, until Evelyn spoke, “Excuse moi.” The woman stopped as though a stone wall had suddenly been thrown up in front of her cart wheels, and slowly looked up at the jittery, younger woman standing in the street. Evelyn reached into her bag and took out the money. She pulled a few large francs out of the wad in her hand, and gave the rest to the woman. “Find shelter,” she said. She knew the woman could find a new life, if she wished for it. It would take more than money, but it could be done. The woman grabbed the money in both hands, clearly not sure what to do next. She nodded at Evelyn, her face pale, her eyes moist and her lips twitching. “Pour quoi?” she finally said, in a voice that seemed to have not been used for years. Evelyn shrugged and smiled, “please find shelter,” she repeated, and began to walk away from the older woman with her heart pumping, feeling less helpless. The village was another respite; prettier, and not so remote. She hadn’t kept much of Marty’s money, but she had enough to make a decision. She headed toward the train station. She was going back to Paris. She wasn’t going to be afraid anymore.
A ship’s horn on the edge of morning
calls me to rise as the sun sleeps.
Your beacon cry draws me from dreams.
I stumble over obstacles
in the hall,
small piles of our unfinished lives.
In the dark we sit
on the ocean floor, silent.
my sore barnacle breast.
Your cry drowns in milk
and my heavy eyelids keep watch.
You are not yet asking me
anything beyond this small embrace.
The sun, a fair-weather friend
and the moon, a night light.
The rest is chaos
and a deep silence
between the distance of oceans and stars.
You are finding it for yourself
like waking up in a strange room,
wearing someone else’s clothes
and remembering a dream
you cannot place.
An Empty Chair
For P.K. Page
Late for a reading and only one seat
left by the door.
Not meant for me, and who knew
I’d be beside monarchy – like the wedding crasher
who slides into the head table, and is able to converse
with a woman who could write the universe
and provide a glass of wine besides.
I listened to her connect the dots, with her trademark
hand on hip – a confident tip; a matron who burned in the geometry
of every moment, every perpendicular line
meeting in, or somewhere close to the center,
and every treacherous angle turned.
Jodie was always skinning her knees: on trees, sidewalks and bike riding trails. She was fifteen, and never been kissed. She had never fallen head over heels in love, but frequently fell over her handlebars. She had bruises that no school girl crush could match. She didn’t wear skirts or makeup or talk in high, flirty tones with the boys. She was quiet, but tumbled with the best of them. There was no question, Jodie was a tomboy, and she lived dangerously close to the edge. She jay-walked into traffic and often challenged the neighbourhood boys down the back mountain trails on her dirt bike. She seemed to bounce like rubber, with a few cuts and marks.
She didn’t have a death wish so much as she wished to hide her awkwardness. The more extreme she was, the less people would notice her quiet insecurities. She was like a stuntman, falling on purpose. She didn’t wait around for accidents to happen; she set the stage for them. Her parents were thankful she wasn’t driving, yet. They suggested she wear a helmet, stay off the back trails, use crosswalks, follow traffic rules, walk slower and gear down. Her mother kept the first aid kit handy, and habitually bought her daughter long-sleeved shirts and dark slacks.
Jodie wasn’t an unattractive girl, but the boys seemed to be afraid of her or failed to see her as being a girl at all. Jodie wasn’t entirely unaware of the boys, either. Despite her inner daredevil, she was afraid to bat her eyelashes, walk like a ballerina, and abandon her dirt bike riding and tree climbing. She kept her girl thoughts locked up, and practiced future kisses on her pillow. The boys she knew were so young and uninteresting. They were all afraid, being at that awkward first stage of growing into themselves. Jodie raced down the road to school every day on her 10-speed, trying not to think about her bra digging into her ribs or her period that was coming. She gripped the handlebars, her backpack flying off her shoulders.
On a fall day, she weaved her way down the back mountain trails with her friend, Jimmy. Her tires cut neatly through the leaves, still wet from an early morning rain shower. The bark glistened on the trees. The octopus-like roots of the trees slithered over the trails, half-hidden. Jodie was riding in front, and managed to swerve past the obstacles gracefully. She turned her head to check on Jimmy who was a beat behind her. She didn’t see the large root that met her tire and hurled her bike sideways into the shallow bank. She had ridden down this path a hundred times, and never known that root. It seemed to jump out of the earth, waiting for her. In her sight, the earth and sky flipped like a coin. Her unguarded head hit a tree stump, and she lay limp on the forest floor while Jimmy scrambled off his bike, yelling her name. He was afraid to touch her, despite his overwhelming urge to shake her.
“I’ll get help,” he said. He knew she couldn’t hear him. He mounted his bike and raced back up the trail from where they had come.
Jodie opened her eyes slowly. The blue sky stared down at her through the fern leaves that hovered over her face. She sat up on her forearms… slowly, slowly. Her head hurt, and she touched the back of her skull gingerly. There was no blood, just tenderness. She unfolded herself until she was standing, and turned to see a young man standing on the path in clear view, watching her with interest. He was dressed in white. He didn’t move to help her, but slowly walked towards her.
“Am I dead?” she asked, touching her head.
“Do you think you would feel pain if you were dead?” the young man asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I guess not.” He smiled at her as though she were young and silly. She grimaced.
“You bumped your head,” the young man said. “You’ll be alright. Help is coming.” He didn’t have a speck of dirt on his white sweater and pants. He was extremely handsome with cutting blue eyes, dark hair parted to the side and perfect teeth. She guessed that he was in his late twenties. She was afraid to ask his name.
“Are you sure I’m not dead?” she asked again.
“Positive,” he laughed. He walked closer and placed his hand on her face, and brushed her cheek lightly with his fingers.
“Come on, little girl,” another man’s voice floated into her ear. “Let’s get you out of here.” She felt herself being hoisted off the ground, and wondered how she got back down there. Did she faint? She could still feel the man’s fingers on her face, and then realized the fingers belonged to someone else. She couldn’t form words, and emitted soft groans. Her limbs felt heavy and sore.
“She’s coming around,” the voice said. She wanted to ask: Where is the man in white? She was being carried on a stretcher, and could hear the whirring sound of a helicopter close by. Then she fell back asleep with the blue sky and treetops whirling around her.
Jodie spent one week in the hospital with a bandage on her head. Her parents stayed with her, and she had a stream of visitors from school. Her most frequent visitor was Jimmy. She wished they would all leave so that she could sleep. She felt guilty about wishing for solitude, but she wanted to find the man in her dream. The nurses gave her pain killers at night, so she would fall into a period of black, dreamless sleep. He only appeared during her half-lucid daydreams. He would stand in the corner of the room, cross-armed, looking at her and his watch, as though he was waiting for something to happen.
“Are you my guardian angel?” she asked him. He didn’t answer. Instead, he looked at her, tapped his watch and vanished. When she woke up, a nurse was wheeling in a meal tray. Another day, Jodie dozed while her mother sat by her bedside, trying to solve word puzzles. Jodie woke up abruptly, saying, “Don’t go!” Her mother, alarmed, took her hand.
“I’m right here, sweetheart. I’m not going anywhere,” she said, in soothing tones. Jodie looked at her and sighed. Tears were forming in her eyes.
“Not you,” she said, crudely. Her mother looked stricken, as Jodie lay back on the pillow and stared at the ceiling.
“What do you mean?” she asked, sounding hurt. Jodie grunted and turned over in her bed.
“I don’t want to be awake,” Jodie cried. “I want to be with him.”
“The man in my dreams,” she replied. In silence, Jodie’s mother worried about her daughter’s head. Jodie was watched closely in the hospital and, at her mother’s request, strapped to monitoring devices while she slept. The doctor agreed there was an unusual amount of brain activity in her sleep time, but no real concern.
At home, Jodie’s desire to sleep became worse. She didn’t talk to the boys at school anymore, including Jimmy who liked her. She didn’t talk to anyone. She was intent on seeing only one face. She constantly thought about the man in her dreams, trying to hold on to the features of his face and the sound of his voice. She tried falling asleep in her classes, but soon she realized the young man only came to her when she was hurt. She walked across the fairways on golf courses and busy streets in rush hour. She walked on top of fences and soared over manmade jumps on her bike, hoping to land on her head. She continued to ride the dangerous back trails, looking for rogue roots in the ground. When that didn’t work, she took sleeping pills. One night, she swallowed too many. Her mother went into her room one evening to check on her, thinking that she was doing her homework. She found her daughter face down on the bed with a half-filled bottle of sleeping pills on the night stand. Her mother fell to her daughter’s side.
“No man is worth this, real or not,” she said. She stroked her daughter’s hair. Her husband came in, pushed his wife aside and began pulling his daughter’s eyelids open and listening to her chest. He grabbed the phone and pushed the buttons with a steady, deliberate finger.
The white room spiraled into focus with a clean brilliancy. Jodie closed her eyes, and slowly opened them again. She smiled, looking up, as the young man’s perfect teeth and mouth formed the same words that echoed in her head.
Sorry I Had To
She slept in the middle of the living room, on the couch where they never made love, for a week’s worth of nights after he left. The couch wasn’t comfortable, but she had found comfort there instead of the hostile bed. Her bed was the place he chose to talk about another woman, his failed love, his bleeding heart, as though she was expected to be his bedside psychiatrist. How do you tell your lover it is normal to grieve, and keep grieving, for old loves? The ashes of old flames still dangerously warm. Wasn’t it common knowledge that first kisses and body memories made us human? For him, it was a revelation, a floodgate, a topic of interest. For her, it was boring. To make a point, she would fling herself out of the sheets, already soaked with another woman’s dried sweat and broken promises, and crank up Alanis Morrisette’s You Oughta Know in the living room. She would wrap herself in the angry noise. He would wait patiently in her bed, tea balanced in hand, for her return. The point was always lost. He puzzled at her dagger eyes and pent-up tears — What is the matter? I’m only talking. I’m only telling you that I will always love someone else. Why can’t I talk? — He was a shard of glass, a hard-edged stone, and sometimes she wanted to cut him deep. Sometimes she managed to.
He was gone now. He took his books, most of his clothes, and homesickness for where he was going – home. He left his hiking boots, folk music, and a few second favourite shirts. Still, he didn’t take the other woman with him. She wouldn’t fit in his suitcase. Instead, her name moved from the bed and hung from the stucco ceiling like tiny, sharp suckles. She already knew her name well. Her green-tinged skin would glow at night, watching him dream in another language, and waiting for her name to tumble out in his sleep. One night, it did. She stuffed her pillow into her mouth, soaked the pillow case with saliva and salt, and finally crept from the bed. The computer glowed in the dark living room.
The google page emerged and she typed in each letter with trepidation. A first name, country and occupation, and there she was with her half smirk – conniving and treacherous. Saying her name made her grind her teeth on the hard sounds, and bite the inside of her cheek. It was ludicrous, really; a farce. This other woman didn’t want him – it was only the two of them who foolishly brought her into their bed. She didn’t want to be there. She was halfway around the world, oblivious. He was holding onto a half-love, but still happy to be in another woman’s bed. He was on vacation here, living in a parallel universe, where no one really knew him. And yet, this other woman who didn’t ask to be talked about and didn’t ask for her picture to be found on the information highway in the middle of the night was a threat to her.
She was a two-dimensional obstacle, but she had a 3-dimensional room waiting for him when he flew home. Yes, he was using her, as well. He told her he wanted to cut costs on his accommodation while completing his Masters. He didn’t want to throw his boodles of money out the window on rent. His ex-girlfriend, nay, fiancée, was a means, not an end. Nothing was happening, he said. There is nothing to worry about. I haven’t done anything wrong, he argued, showing his exhaustion for the topic, while she stood in the corner of the room with her arms folded and forehead creased. She remembered how he had leaned away from her, lowering his tones while talking and giggling into the phone, on her couch, talking to his lost love across the ocean. She emptied the dishwasher, slamming the cups back into their cupboards. He didn’t look over, perhaps embarrassed as though she were the one intruding. He thought she wouldn’t know because he spoke in a foreign tongue. For all his intellect, he couldn’t conceal that the signs of infatuation are universal.
Her thoughts were screeching in her head. Was she being unreasonable? Didn’t couples stay friends after breaking up? If only he’d kept his mouth shut about his unresolved feelings. The threat was in him.
She went for a run around the block at midnight. She didn’t care about the bums in the park. They couldn’t catch her. There were enough cars circling, and lights on inside the apartment building windows. People were still awake. She huffed rhythmically in the dark, January air, her ankles pounding into the soles of her feet. She knew deep down she would never leave here.
He didn’t like Canada. He complained daily about the customer service in stores, the way he was treated in the emergency room, the banks and restaurants. He didn’t like the cost of anything, the way the radio broadcaster announced the weather prediction. When the two of them began fighting about the weather forecast, she knew. This wasn’t going to work. Emotion couldn’t be conveyed in a messenger chat room, and she couldn’t be woken up anymore at 3am on a work night because he was bored and miscalculated the time difference. Once she called him, as an experiment, knowing it was the wee hours and dark on his side of the world. He answered, sounding incoherent and annoyed. In a groggy voice, he protested to her, “– but I was sleeping”. She knew then, too. He would also tell her “this isn’t a real relationship if we’re not in the same place.” He was cold, emphasizing his physical distance from her. She was no more than an idea to him, a happy thought he carried in his back pocket, as he strolled around his home and familiar surroundings.
She started to play a movie reel in her mind, hitting rewind, and then watched how she gazed after the couples who strolled by holding hands downtown. How she would wait for her 9am Saturday date with him on the computer, keep his voicemail on her phone for weeks, and send rambling and distraught emails that he wouldn’t respond to. In her mind, she left him. All it took was not thinking about him because he wasn’t there. The idea was a jolt, a breaking of chains around her, and an unloading of bricks off her small and sagging shoulders. She stopped writing. She stopped calling.
He phoned one night as she was watching a late movie before bed. He was in tears – he couldn’t understand her. Why hadn’t she been sending him emails? Why would she end it? What was the matter? Funny, she thought, how he lived in his head, too. Funny, how he would begin to cry only when she stopped. She felt as though after a long sleep she had stepped back into her own body. She felt her happiness tingle back into her arms and legs. He had been giving her mixed messages, just enough to hang on to some small spark. He could have his theories, his nationalism, and his invisible women. She told him, calmly, the truth – that he was right: this wasn’t real love, this wasn’t a relationship, and this wasn’t going to work.