It’s the worst thing that has happened to me, except what happened next, which was far worse than that. To understand, you have to understand how happy I was.
Me and Scott always spent the last few weeks of summer at the lake. We had drinks together after Molly, our daughter, went to sleep; bottles of local beer, white wine from the city in metal mugs. We had barbecues with Grégoire and Paul, the couple from Ottawa who owned the cabin beside us. Our small, mosquito-screened front porches were near enough to be neighborly, but far enough to give us the option of solitude I think we all craved, with the exception of Molly, who loved Grégoire and Paul and would have moved in with them if we’d let her.
Some of our habits were the same in the city. We read to Molly before she went to sleep. We talked about work, friends, books, ideas, the new architecture springing up in Toronto, whether to get a cat, whether to go to Mexico or India on vacation, the non-profit we wanted to start as a retirement project. That was far in the future. First, we would age, and so would she. She would go to university, travel. We speculated on what her adult life might be like; she was preoccupied with marine animals, but aren’t all children?
The difference between the lake and the city was work, which meant another routine of alarm clocks and kindergarten, traffic reports and train disruptions, small negotiations about who would leave the office early to pick Molly up and guilt over red peppers allowed to rot in the fridge. We had our city friends who, like us, took art galleries and fragile glassware for granted during the year; though like us many of them spent the summer in a cottage in what we thought of as the wilderness. Most of us had spent our adolescent summers at camps in northern Ontario or Quebec or the Maritimes, learning to portage and discern edible plants from poisonous ones. But in the city our instincts dimmed, and I wonder if that’s why I missed the smell of danger all around me. If I’d inclined my head I could have smelled it faintly, in the fingerprints on my kitchen counter, rising from my shower drain, in the cotton-polyester blend sheets on my daughter’s bed.
That’s how our life was.
What else can I tell you about the time before?
I’ll tell you about Molly’s father, Scott, owner of the default name of all Anglophone Canadian men born in the latter part of the 20th century. That name makes him sound dull, but he isn’t a dull man. Nor, I suppose, is he an exciting man.
We met in the middle of a hard Toronto winter, in a bar with dark wooden booths and stained glass. We were with people from our offices; we worked for rival companies at the time, both competing for contracts with big drinks companies. In my memory, we are young, but it didn’t seem that way at the time. Or perhaps it did, but it was another kind of young, the young of success and frequent change. We were at an age which had meant, for our parents, young children and a mortgage on a split-level bungalow; for us it meant rented rooms, sixty hour weeks and overpriced drinks.
Numbers at both tables depleted, and those remaining merged into light rivalry and loosened ties, unknotted hair, faded lipstick. When the bar closed, me and Scott walked to the subway. As I turned to go to my platform, he called my name.
“Lydia … do you want to get coffee? Real coffee, not this Toronto barista bullshit. I know a place three stops from here….”
I laughed, recalled the uncompromising smell of percolating coffee in my parents house the last time I’d visited. “I’d like that. Jesus, I’d love that.”
We stayed until dawn in a 24-hour neighborhood café with fluorescent lights and plastic chairs. The only others in the place were weary prostitutes who regarded us without interest. We observed that, in our hometowns which lay near opposite ends of the TransCanada Highway, there would also have been truck drivers and one or two families attempting to travel through the night, stopping to fend off weariness and monotony.
“This is like my mother’s coffee,” I said. “She has a no-nonsense approach to caffeine.”
“You could drive for a week on my mother’s coffee.”
“I’d never move back—”
“Nothing to do but have babies and gossip?”
“But the coffee in the city tastes recycled.”
“We could start a small town coffee chop. Percolate at dawn, stew until noon?”
“Wipeable tablecloths. Waitresses who pretend not to know about the bong under your bed.”
“We’ll be our own demographic.”
Outside, the temperature had dropped, but we stood in the station, talking, while both our trains went past. Then two more.
“Come to my place,” I said. “I’ll make pancakes.”
That’s how it began, and that is also how it went on. We inverted our days and nights. We’d start a conversation and it would end days later, with interludes of sleep, work, sex, food, baths. We spent six months apart while I worked in Kuala Lumpur, and we continued in the same way, coordinating time zones and sending rambling, unedited emails. The night I came back to Toronto, we lay on his sagging futon with the curtains open to the waxing moon, listening to the plumbing creak.
“The sky is different in Malaysia. There’s a rabbit in the moon.” He curled his thigh and arm around me. My back sunk uncomfortably into his futon.
“Scott, do you want to get married?”
“No. But I want to stay.”
“I presume you mean you want to stay with me, rather than in this shithole apartment.”
“With you, for as long as possible. But I don’t want to be your wife. Okay?”
“Okay. You’ll be Lydia. I’ll be Scott.”
That was our marriage. I was proud of it; we were free from social expectation, we were confident enough to create our own partnership. I told the story dozens of times, the simplicity of the moon, the uneven curtains, Scott’s roommate, too high to fit his key in the lock, banging on the door just before dawn. I was quietly pleased when Scott’s sister, getting divorced less than a year after her tedious wedding, told me she’d do it the way we did if ever there was a next time.
The futon and bad plumbing were long gone when Molly arrived, five years later.
Molly turned six the last summer we spent at the lake. August was made of lake water, barbecues, cooking and eating in the hot open air, soaked in mosquito repellent. It was the first summer without Grégoire and Paul, who had moved to Germany for three years. We’d promised to keep a surreptitious eye on the family renting their cottage. According to Paul, Colin was an engineer vaguely associated with Paul by work and Andrea was a full time parent devoted to platitudes and the word ‘great.’ Grégoire said he grinned a lot.
“You guys must be the famous Scott and Lydia,” Colin shouted the first time we met, putting out his cigarette and walking toward us with an unbroken grin, his hand already stretched. Andrea stood on the porch, shading her eyes from the sun with one hand while her son Andrew, the same age as Molly, attempted to put on his water wings.
“It’s great to meet you!” she called, waving. I greeted Colin, then walked to Andrea’s porch. Molly followed me at a distance, a little uneasy, I thought; she’d known that cabin as Grégoire and Paul’s since she was an infant.
“It’s great to finally be here! This place is just beautiful. Gosh, the nature is just amazing.” She paused for a moment, seeming unsure what to say next. “This here is Andrew. Andrew, say hello to Mrs. Flanagan.”
“Hello, Andrew. I’m Lydia, and this is Molly.” To Andrea I said, “Flanagan is Scott’s surname., Mine is Gionet, but we usually use first names.” Her mouth tensed. “Unless you prefer that he call adults by their….”
“No! Oh no, gosh, no, that’s great. Andrew, honey, say hi to Lydia and Molly.”
“Hi, Lydia. Hi, Molly.” He looked at his water wings while he spoke, rubbing his thumb against the plastic.
Behind me, I could hear Colin’s booming tenor competing with Scott’s. Scott spoke slower at the lake, and deeper, like he was auditioning to be a voice actor for a wilderness documentary about beaver habitat preservation. Colin’s voice was like a trailer for an action movie.
Scott and Colin took the children to swim. I invited Andrea for iced tea on the porch. It was early August and still hot; we would have sweated in the shade if we hadn’t had the breeze off the lake and the cool of the dark pines. They’d driven from Montreal. Their house was in leafy Westmount. I wondered why they’d chosen this place which, though beautiful, was basic. We bathed in water pumped from the lake. The screened porches creaked in the wind. In our cabin, which we rented from an elderly couple who had moved west to be closer to their adult children, a row of damp murder mysteries lined one wall. Patchwork blankets in the closets needed to be repaired. We loved the place. Even if we had earned more money we wouldn’t have wanted to upgrade our wilderness. It diluted our urban pretentions. It was supposed to keep us alert.
Molly was wary of Andrew’s social awkwardness and the changes in Grégoire and Paul’s cabin. She objected to the lack of music. Our cabin had an old cassette player that ran on batteries, and a stockpile of tapes.
“Don’t they like music?” She said this in the morning, sitting across from me in her nightdress, with orange juice in a metal camping mug. I was drinking black coffee out of an identical cup and reading a three-day-old newspaper with mildewed corners.
“Maybe not. Or maybe they like the sound of the lake more. You know how in the evening, sometimes we just listen to the water? Maybe that’s what they like to do too.” She looked dubious. Scott, frying bacon, peered at her over his shoulder.
“Is something else bothering you?”
She was silent for a while.
“No. Maybe. Why does Andrea talk to me like that?”
“Like I’m a baby. Like she wants me to be excited about everything.”
“People have different ways of speaking. Remember the way Julie spoke to you? She was nice but she was nervous.” Julie was a short-lived girlfriend of a friend in Toronto, who gushed painfully over Molly.
“No! You said it was because Julie wasn’t used to children, but Andrea has a son, so there.” Me and Scott looked at each other. It was unusual for Molly to take offense at something so trivial. Our apartment in the city was often full of people, and she was encouraged to join the conversation. She was used to the eccentricities of adults.
“Molly, we can’t help if you talk to us that way. Is something else troubling you?”
She was silent again. She drank her juice and watched as Scott levered two pieces of bacon onto her plate. The grease soaked into the thick pieces of brown toast, bought the day before at a farmer’s market two villages away. She poked at it with her fork.
“I think she’s sad.”
Scott raised his eyebrows at me. I shrugged.
“She might be, love, but is that a reason not to like her?”
Molly and Andrew bonded over the next week as they became bolder swimmers. Scott and Colin did as well, overseeing much of the swimming, though not without incident. Scott came back to the cabin in a rage one day.
“That Colin prick shouted at Andrew because he’s still in water wings.”
“What did he say?”
“Told him if a girl could swim without wings, so could he.”
“Poor Andrew. Molly’s out of the wings?”
“Yeah, she wants to show you later. Shit, he reminded me of my dad.”
They avoided each other for a few days, then, late one afternoon, I came back from a solitary hike to the waterfall and found them drinking beer on the porch, laughing like old friends. They’d sprouted identical beards. The axe was lying next to a pile of badly chopped wood.
Andrea had taken both the children to the village for ice cream. They came back talking excitedly about an emu farm they’d discovered along the way. Andrea looked frazzled. I suggested a swim.
We left the kids with their fathers and went into the deep part of the lake. Andrea was a good swimmer; she told me she’d been a lifeguard in high school. We swam and floated to the nearest island, a little lump of earth covered in impenetrable pines, then drifted back. In the deepest part of the lake we stopped to tread water while the sun slipped down and turned orange. The clouds were dark pink; dusk at the lake was long and dramatic. On the shore, Molly and Andrew were splashing in the shallows. Scott and Colin were sitting nearby, apparently deep in conversation.
“We had to give up our old cottage. It was too expensive.” Andrea was looking toward the shore as she spoke.
“Where was it?”
“In the Laurentians. It had a satellite dish. We lost a lot when the economy went to hell.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. It’s been such a shit time. Our friend Alfie lost his house.”
“What did he do?”
“He stayed with us for a while, then moved to Winnipeg for a new job. He was unemployed for nearly nine months. It was a horrible time for him.”
“He was with you all that time? Nine months?”
“Nearly, yes. But it was fine. Molly and Scott like him, and I’ve known him since university. He used to be my boyfriend, back then.”
“Scott was comfortable with your ex boyfriend living with you?” There was a long pause while I tried to think of a suitable reply. So she wouldn’t see me smiling at the notion of Scott and Alfie punching one another on a point of macho pride, perhaps interrupting their Sunday chess game to do so, I dipped my head under water. The light seemed faded when I surfaced. Andrea changed the subject.
“We’ve got a third mortgage on our house. We had to, for Colin’s new venture. We owe more than it’s worth.”
“That must be….” I tried to think of something to say. I opened my mouth. “Stressful.” I cringed under the cooling water.
“It’s necessary to make an investment if we want to reach our goals, you know? That’s what Colin always says.” I thought of my uncle, who started a doomed logistics company with his wife’s inheritance. She used to come to our house in the afternoon—it must have been before I started school—and tell my mother about the business. John is going to … John says … John is almost certain we’ll be there by this time next year. She had long, white fingers that pinched the handle of her coffee cup. My mother would wash the dishes in the sink later, slowly, looking out the kitchen window.
Andrea sighed. Her wet hair was smooth against her head. She looked sleek, like rock. She looked harder.
“Let’s head back,” she said. “I’m starving.”
That night in our cabin, drinking beer on the couch, I asked Scott about Colin.
“He doesn’t say anything specific about work, except to name drop. Did you know they go skiing with that politician, the one being investigated for bribing lobbyists?”
“Did you know they’re in shitloads of debt?”
“He’s weird about money. I paid for ice cream for the kids the other day and he insisted on paying me back. Then he wouldn’t stop talking about the price of his office upgrade while we were teaching the kids to swim. ”
“I don’t think she knows. I think he does all the money stuff.”
“They’re retro. I don’t know how they maintain it.”
“They’re like that manual your parents gave us when we moved in together; husbands and wives and sacred duty.”
He laughed. “I think we’ve bypassed some of that sacred duty, Lyd.”
I looked at his profile in the lamplight. His beard was beginning to look like part of him. He no longer scratched it.
“Narrow escape. She asked if you were jealous when Alfie lived with us.”
Scott leaned into the cushions and took a long drink. “Alfie? Because you fucked him when you were teenage hippies?” He tilted his bottle and finished the beer in one gulp.
I put my beer bottle on the floor and straddled Scott’s lap. “We weren’t hippies, and I didn’t fuck him, I made love to him.” I slid my knees into the couch until we were pressed together.
“Was he as spectacular a lover as me?”
I slapped his face gently. “He was acceptable. A gentleman. A lot of boys aren’t, you know.”
He pulled my hips closer. “Hey. I’ve never heard you complaining.” He put his beer bottle on the side table and switched off the lamp.
“Let’s go outside.”
We swam into the lake, to an area shielded by an outcrop of rocks but within earshot of the cabin. It was an old ritual. We threw our soaked nightclothes onto the rocks and made love in the water like eels. Lake water is the best for sex; no chlorine like in a city pool, no salt like the ocean. Just the thick, dark liquid that remained when the land was carved out by whatever slow act of time created this place. We ducked underwater occasionally to deter the mosquitoes, kissing without breathing. When we came up for air we were surrounded by the smell of wildlife and pine.
We surfaced at the edge of the outcrop, where we would have been visible from the shore if anyone cared to watch closely. There was a bright moon that night. I looked toward our cabin, and saw something move. The shape of a man. A tight core of murder swelled in my chest. Then I relaxed. It wasn’t our cabin, it was Grégoire and Paul’s. There was a flicker of light, then the slow burn of a cigarette. Colin.
I couldn’t see his face, but I was sure he was watching us.
I dismissed it the next day. Who cares if he was watching us? We were in the lake, after all, and we weren’t the first people to have a midnight fuck in the water. As I was making French toast, I heard Scott stretching on the porch after his morning run. The screen door opened and closed. He stood behind me and slid his arms around my waist.
“Is she still asleep?” he mumbled into my neck.
“She’s awake, reading her whale book in bed.”
Andrea appeared outside the porch then, calling a tentative hello. Scott sighed into my hair.
“Morning Andrea,” he said. “Would you like some coffee? It’s just ready.”
“That would be great! Thank you Scott, just a small cup.” I recalled that when we first met, she wouldn’t accept a drink without first refusing it once or twice. “I was wondering if you’d all like to join us for a barbecue tonight?”
We went at five, after washing the lake water off. I wore the red cotton dress I’d bought on a business trip in Paris that made me feel elegant and willowy, though I am neither.
Colin approached barbecuing the way I’d seen some of the men in my office approach difficult clients. There was a short-lived imported theory, popular with a few marketing guys, that bullying the customer, turning them into an opponent was the best way to approach a deal. It rarely worked. Fortunately, the steaks responded well to the treatment. We brought fish, marinated with a recipe Grégoire and Paul had given us, and beer. Molly brought marine animal stickers for Andrew. We gorged ourselves. Both the children went to sleep in Andrew’s bed under his camouflage mosquito net. We opened another bottle of wine, then another.
“I’ve never had as much fun as I did in university,” Andrea said. “It was the best time of my life.”
“What did you study?”
“Philosophy.” She giggled. “And my professor, for a couple years.”
“Fantastic, how old was he?”
“Fucking ancient. At least forty.”
Colin rolled his eyes. “Andrea, nobody wants to hear—”
“I want to hear.”
“Tell you what, folks” said Colin. “You’ll have to come visit us in Montreal. The food’s a hell of a lot better than in Toronto.”
“That sounds great,” said Andrea. “We have a science park nearby that the kids would—”
“Bar 37, that’s the place. It’s not what you’d call a good neighborhood, but the steak, Jesus.”
“What’s that about a science park?”
“Oh, nothing,” said Andrea. “Just a nice place to take—”
“You play golf, Scott?”
“No Colin, not for a long time. But I wouldn’t be averse to a game.”
Scott rubbed his hand along the top of my leg, rumpling the fabric and squeezing the muscle that had tightened from swimming. Colin, who seemed to have passed the drunk tipping-point, followed the movement of my hemline with his eyes. I stilled Scott’s hand with mine.
Andrea began to gather plates and glasses. I followed her into the kitchen with the empty wine bottles.
“He’s had too much to drink,” she said, scraping fat into a plastic bin.
“No big deal. We’re on vacation.”
“He’s a shit when he’s like this. Please ignore him.”
“Really, it’s fine.”
She turned away from the dirty plates and leaned heavily on the counter. I could hear Colin talking at Scott in the next room, a noisy description of all that was wrong with Toronto.
“Well fuck it,” she said. “It was a great night.” She grinned at me, took the bottle I was holding, tilted her neck and poured the dregs down her throat. We both began to laugh, and found that we couldn’t stop. Our shadow-eyed reflections in the curtainless kitchen window laughed back at us, cheeks burning with wine.
I crept into Andrew’s room to get Molly. They’d fallen asleep holding hands. She woke when I picked her up and put her arms around my neck.
“I had a bad dream,” she whispered, as we walked outside.
“What happened in your dream?”
“There was a monster in the lake, and nobody could see it, only me, because it lived under the water and it only came up when I was looking, and it had red teeth.”
“Just a dream, love,” I said. The lake was restless; there was a mild wind on the water and a waning moon. The trees were scattering scent. An oar clattered in an unfamiliar canoe, moored nearby. “Look at the water. It’s the same as always. See how pretty the waves are under the moon?” She lifted her head and looked, then burrowed her face deep into my neck.
After we put her to bed and climbed into ours, Scott said,“That was nice. That’s the first time I haven’t wished Greg and Paul would come back.” It was true. Until that night I’d been wishing for the easy talk we had with Grégoire and Paul, the same basic loves and snobberies and politics.
“Did you know Andrea hasn’t used public transport since the 90s?”
“Did you know Colin calls Thailand ‘the third world’?”
“Do you think we’re snobs?”
“Oh god Lydia, of course we are.” He curled his body around me and began to snore.
When I woke up, Scott had already gone for a run. He’d had less to drink than the rest of us the night before, declaring himself the designated parent. The light was thin, the colour of raw egg white, as though the sun had just risen. Molly was sitting next to me in bed singing to her stuffed whale. It was a song I didn’t recognize; one she’d learned from Andrew, maybe. She looked down at me and smiled. It was an odd, grown-up smile I’d never seen before. I drifted off.
When I woke again, the sun was higher in the sky. Molly was gone and Scott was still out. I went into her room. She was in her own bed, asleep. I sat on the side of her mattress and looked at the stack of books she’d brought with her. She was getting too old for some of them. I decided to leave them in case people with smaller children rented one of the cabins.
“Morning, Molly. What do you want for breakfast?”
“Okay. And juice?”
“Can I have coffee please?”
“No, you can’t. Nice try, though. Where’s Wanda Whale?” She was cuddling one of my old dresses that she used to be obsessed with as a toddler. The last few years she’d kept it folded in a closet in the cabin.
“In Toronto, in my box.”
“No, love, you had her this morning.”
“No, I didn’t. Daddy said I couldn’t bring her because she’d get mildew at the lake. She’s in my box next to Spongebob.” She snuffled at my neck. “Mummy, you smell like wine.”
“Sorry, love. I must have been dreaming.”
I’d forgotten the dream by the time we finished breakfast. I sat on the porch with a cup of coffee and a moldy Agatha Christie novel from the shelf. The sun was cooler than the day before, and most of the other families had left for the year. The only noise was the smack of small waves on the shore and dull scratch of Molly’s crayons. Insects dove against the screen. We heard the methodical slap of oars in the lake.
“Grégoire! Paul!” Molly was at the door. A red canoe moved to shore with two men in it.
“No, it’s Colin and Daddy. They’re using Grégoire and Paul’s canoe.” Looking closer, I could see Andrew in the boat with them, trailing his hand in the water. Scott was in front and Colin was steering. Molly went to the shore to meet them. Andrea appeared at her cabin door just then, looking pale. I raised my coffee mug and motioned her over. We sat, commenting on the peace of the day, the small, new chill in the air. I noticed how alike we must have looked, if anyone had been observing us. Two women sitting side by side on a porch with coffee, watching their young children play on the lake shore with their men.
“It’s our last day today,” said Andrea.
“I didn’t know.”
“It was a last-minute decision.” She hesitated. “We have some things to do in the city.” I turned to look at her, but she continued to stare out to the lake.
“We’ll miss you.” I meant it.
They were gone by evening. We exchanged contact details, and invited Colin to stay with us; he told us he’d be in Toronto on business in a week, not long before Molly would start Grade One.
“It’ll make a nice change from those damn hotel rooms,” he said. “I’ll bring a bottle of something special.”
Three days later, we were back in the city as well. After a day in the apartment, it was like we’d never left. Scott went back to work immediately. I had some extra vacation time that I was going to use with Molly until she started school. We filled the fridge and got used to the stream of news on our laptops and the sound of the TV. I took Molly shopping for the things on the list from her new school. We debated clothing choices. She had good taste, if a little impractical. She caught a cold, which we hoped would vanish by the following Monday.
Colin came to stay late Wednesday afternoon brandishing a bottle of expensive whisky, cufflinks shining against the glass as he handed it to Scott. He was different in Toronto; perhaps he fit better. He’d had a successful round of meetings, he told us. We asked after Andrea and Andrew. Molly emerged in her dressing gown, sniffling, a bit shy of Colin in his city clothes, and accepted the fluffy hair elastics he’d brought her on Andrew’s behalf. She went back to her room and returned with the stickers we’d bought for Andrew. Scott gave Molly her bath. We all stayed up a bit later than planned. The talk moved easily around the room, from work to children to politics.
When I got up the next morning, Scott and Colin were eating pancakes in the kitchen. Molly woke up, brushed her teeth and went back to bed with a glass of ginger ale. Scott left for work, wishing Colin a safe journey. He kissed me goodbye at the door, then put his finger in my mouth. It was sticky with maple syrup. I remembered the night we met, eating pancakes in the cafe. Scott had taken my hand and sucked a blob of maple syrup off my finger, in a way that was nearly, but not quite, asexual. Six years later, breastfeeding Molly, I remembered the taste of maple syrup when she looked up at me, quietly, through his eyelashes.
He grinned and winked. Then he was gone.
“Would you like anything else to eat, Colin?” He’d moved into the living room and was fiddling with his tie in the mirror.
“I’d be happy with some more coffee Lydia, if you don’t mind.” I walked into the kitchen, poured two cups and brought them back. He was sitting in the middle of the couch, reattaching his cufflink.
“I’ll just check on Molly.” She was sleeping, with a wheeze but no temperature. I tucked her blankets around her and closed her door behind me.
“How’s she doing?” He’d moved from the couch and was standing in front of a collage of photos from a trip we’d taken to Japan before Molly was born. His fingers lingered over a photo of us on a wooden boat, laughing.
“She sounds a bit congested, but nothing serious. I hope it’s gone by the first day of school. Does Andrew start on Monday as well?”
“Yes. He’s nervous. I wonder if we made a mistake, keeping him home until he started Kindergarten.”
“I don’t think so; there’s probably no perfect way.”
“No, I suppose not. Andrea always wanted … well, frankly Lydia I don’t know what the fuck she wants.”
I felt a twist of loyalty for Andrea, but mainly my own discomfort. I’ve never liked listening to other people’s relationship struggles. I said nothing, and drank my coffee. He walked onto the balcony for a cigarette.
I took both our cups and put them in the sink. I was peering into the Garburator, wondering if I should unclog it. Then he was standing behind me in the kitchen with his hands on my arms. I turned around and he pressed his lips hard against mine. I pulled away.
“Colin, I’m not—”
He grabbed both my arms, hard, and pushed me against the counter with his body. He put his lips on mine again. What he was doing was not, exactly, kissing. It was something different. It was like eating. It was absurd. I waited for him to stop, explain himself. His weight pressed me against the counter; the keys in his front pocket ground against my hipbone. It was no longer absurd.
Everything was sharp; the sound of traffic outside, the drip of the kitchen tap, the smell of cigarette smoke, the faint sound of Molly coughing in her bedroom Colin’s erection was rubbing against my leg. I twisted my mouth away from his and ripped one wrist out of his grip.
“Colin, what the fuck, I do not want to—”
He slapped me. I didn’t know an open hand could cause such pain. I thought I was blind for a moment. Then I thought my jaw was broken. He grabbed me by the arms and shook me. His face, when I was forced to look at it, was unrecognizable. His eyes were unfocussed. His mouth was slack and a dribble of spit hung from his lip.
“You stupid woman.” I tried to speak, but couldn’t. My voice didn’t work. I made a noise that sounded like Molly’s congested breathing. Molly. Molly.
Colin grabbed my hair and pulled. He pulled me toward the bathroom and locked us in. He pushed me down on the rug, which was still damp from our showers that morning.
“Just shut up, and we won’t wake Molly up. Okay?” I nodded once. Molly must not wake up. Molly must not see this, or know about this, ever.
“Take your jeans off.” I pressed my eyes shut. “Take your fucking jeans off.” I looked away, at the tiles that surrounded the toilet. They were white with a faint marble pattern. A film of condensation lay on the tiles closest to the bath, and that is what I looked at while Colin raped me.
No, you’re wrong. That isn’t the worst part of my story. Listen to me.
There’s a place where the worst thing is multiplied, like in the carnival mirrors my daughter pulls me beween. It troubles me to see those versions of us behaving just as we do. I expect one of our mirrored selves to duck out of line. Once we’ve seen the thing that shouldn’t be, we can’t pretend it isn’t there.
The police came to my apartment.
First, I tried to call Scott. No, that isn’t right. First, I locked and bolted the front door. I stayed still for a long time, with my back against the wall and my legs curled under me. Blood and semen seeped into my jeans. I didn’t cry. It would be some time before that happened. Molly, thankfully, continued to sleep. I tried to phone Scott, but his phone had no signal. Then, I called my friend Luce at work. Her voice on the other end was ordinary. I tried to speak but my voice was still useless. Luce said my name several times. I hung up and wrote her an email instead. She was at the apartment a heroic twenty minutes later, and called the police.
There were two, of course, both women, both specially trained, they told me, in crimes of sexualized violence. They spoke softly to me, as though I were a child. Luce told them to stop it. Then there were more of them, polite, indifferent, ushered into my bathroom to collect pieces of me and of Colin, our genetic codes rubbed together in the damp fibers of my bathroom rug. Blood, spit, cum, skin, shit, hair. All the things of sex, yet this was a thing so unlike sex. I was conscious of my worn-out bra from yesterday hanging over the railing, Scott’s beard clippings in the sink, Molly’s toy submarine.
“It looks like his flight has left Toronto already, but the Sûreté are waiting for him on the ground in Montreal.”
Luce sat next to me. We leaned into one another.
“The main thing now is your wellbeing, and we’d like to take you to the hospital. We can ask the rest of our questions after you’ve seen a doctor. Is that okay with you, Ms. Gionet?” There was an obscene glare of sunlight coming through the living room window. I nodded. My voice had returned, but it was barely audible, as though I’d been drinking whisky all night.
“Will you stay with Molly?” I asked.
Luce nodded. She smoothed her cool fingers across the wounded half of my face. She leaned closer, so the police couldn’t hear, and whispered, “You’re still you, Lydia.”
I had to stop myself from going into Molly’s room before I left, from inhaling the clean, soft smell of her hair and skin. I didn’t want to get close in case she smelled Colin on me. In case his smell rubbed off on her.
At the hospital, the nurses took photos of the bruises on my arms and scratches on my thighs, the mark of Colin’s hand on my face and the larger bruises on my neck, breasts and stomach. They took photos of my bruised labia and torn vagina and anus. They photographed the ugly bruise around my mouth. They combed my pubic hair for Colin’s. They tested me for infections. They did not speak softly, and did not seem to think I was a child.
The police came back when the nurses left. There were more questions. Amongst them, when was the last time I had sex with my partner, is it possible my daughter heard or saw the alleged crime, why was I alone with him in the apartment.
“Why in the hell shouldn’t I have been alone with him in my goddamned apartment? It’s not the eighteenth fucking century.” They blinked at me.
“No, of course…. We’ll rephrase that. What we need to establish is…. ”
They brought Scott in and he sat beside me, unsure whether to hold my hand or not. I held his. He was pale; I’d never seen him so pale, apart from the flu he had the winter I was pregnant with Molly, when he sobbed with pain and I had to bathe him with a cloth every day.
“Can we ask you a few questions together, now?”
“Yes, but can we make this quick? I want to go home.” That is when I realized home would be a complicated place. I wanted to have a bath, to soak and scrub every bit of Colin from my body, now that the evidence of him had been scraped and combed and photographed. On the other hand, there was not a single cell of my body that I could imagine passing the threshold of that bathroom again. Standing in the shower, brushing my teeth, bathing my daughter, sitting on the side of the bath to talk to Scott while he shaved in the morning. Watching a trickle of condensation slide down his spine.
“We’ll be as quick as we can, but it’s important to talk to you while it’s all fresh in your mind. You understand?” I did. I understood. My mind as well as my body was the limping evidence of my own rape. My memory must be scraped for detail just as my cunt was scraped for semen, before it lost potency. They had my play-by-play rape script already, complete with the fingers he shoved into my ass, his spit that coated my face, the smear of my blood I saw on his cuff that would, perhaps, still be there, if not on his body when he landed in Montreal, perhaps in a garbage can in Pearson.
They wanted to know the other story. How we knew each other, what he was like at the lake, what he was like with the children. They wanted to know about Andrea; her profession, where she was from, if she’d ever had unexplained physical injuries, if either of us or anyone we knew might have contacted her. They wanted to know about Andrew, which school he went to, if he ever behaved strangely, particularly with Molly. No, we told them, Andrea had no injuries, ever. She was a full time parent. We hadn’t contacted her. Andrew was a nice boy, gentle with Molly. They wanted to know about Grégoire and Paul. They wanted their contact details.
I excused myself to get some water from the fountain in the hall. A nurse’s sensible, rubber-soled shoes tapped the floor, retreated. A masked doctor walked backwards from a swinging door, gloves hands held forward, and backed into another room. Machines beeped steadily. A shout from far down the hall seeped into the corridor and vanished.
The water was tepid, but clear. I drank and drank, letting the water drip down my face. I stood up and attempted to smooth the sweatpants Luce packed for me, ones I hadn’t worn since the months after Molly was born. My other clothes were now in a series of plastic bags on their way to a laboratory.
As I walked back to the room, I could hear Scott and the police. “Mr. Ferguson, I understand you’re very angry. It’s normal to under these circumstances—”
“Why the FUCK haven’t you found him yet? He’s not exactly living under the fucking radar, is he?”
I pushed my back against the wall, listening.
“Please try to understand, we—”
“Don’t let that man get away. He came into MY house, raped MY wife, while MY daughter was sleeping in the next….”
Some of the water from the fountain had wet the neck of my sweatshirt. It clung to my skin like a leech. I allowed the chill to settle under my skin. I stood in the sterile hallway for what might have been a long time, staring at a metal trolley of latex gloves and plastic aprons. I listened, but there was no more. That was all. I went back into the room.
“Can we leave?” They all stared at me.
“Yes, thank you. You’ve done well.” The two police women looked calm. This was their job, which they were doing in an ordinary room, with an ordinary man, saying ordinary things.
In the taxi, he looked out the window. He held my hand. I allowed him to hold it, my hand. I considered the word my. Mine, the hand which belongs to me, held in the hand which belongs to Scott. The hand which is his. His hand trembled. With rage, I suppose. The fury of a wronged man. The taxi driver spoke to us about the weather, the tourists arriving for the film festival. He looked at us in the rearview mirror, not staring at my darkening bruises or Scott’s clenched jaw. He tried to be kind, I think. He gave up and switched on the radio.
Scott distracted Molly while I locked myself in the bathroom. Luce had scrubbed it after the forensic people left. I could have cried with gratitude. But I didn’t. I didn’t cry. I listened to Scott and Molly talking in the kitchen. He was making her soup. I filled the bath with water as hot as I could bear, and sank in. The water stung my damaged flesh. I didn’t make a sound. I moved into the pain. I welcomed it.
I read her a bedtime story, with her bedside lamp turned down low. The bruise on my face was visible, and would still be visible the day I took her to school for the first time. I would chat with the other parents while she unwound her fingers from mine and eased into the current of children. Looking back only once to smile and wave, and shout Au Revoir Mama. Then, I would think of Andrea, and Andrew.
Our bedroom was exactly as it always had been. Scott sat cross-legged on the bed in his boxer shorts and a t-shirt. I’d always loved the long, furry expanse of his thighs in the evening. If it had been an ordinary night, I might have taken a book and lay with my head propped on his thigh. We might have talked or made love, or both.
“Yes, with Wanda Whale.”
“I thought I put that mangy thing in the trash.”
I looked from him to the window. The bedroom curtains were open; the moon was waning.
“Lyd, do you want me to take some time off work?” I sat at the end of the bed with my back to him. In front of me, our mirrored closet doors reflected us and the room. How ordinary we looked, apart from my bruises, like a couple in an Ikea catalogue. I spoke to Scott’s reflection.
“I heard what you said to them.”
“What do you mean, Lyd?”
“Your house, your wife, your daughter. At least he didn’t steal your TV, right?” He was silent. His face didn’t change. His reflection uncurled and moved to the foot of the bed to sit beside my reflection. How ordinary we looked, how exactly like we’d always looked together. His hand moved and settled just behind me on the bed. I could feel the warmth of his arm less than a centimeter from my back.
“I see. I see how it sounded but, Lyd, I’ve never been the kind of guy…. I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say. I was angry. I’d like to kill him, Lydia. I don’t know what to do.”
“I am not your fucking wife.”
Last week, I went to visit a client in their new premises and walked past the 24 hour café Scott took me to the night we met. Nothing had changed, except the weather. Autumn leaves moved in big, wet piles around the building. Molly was at school; she started Grade 2 this year, and is still preoccupied with ocean life. We did not spend the summer at the lake. Me and Molly went to Nova Scotia instead, to stay with my parents. Scott stayed in the city. He found an apartment not far from us, so we can still take turns collecting her from school. We’ve told her that this will be temporary, that we need time apart. This is not the truth.
After the client meeting, I went back to the café. I sat in a plastic chair facing the front window and watched my reflection drinking from a white mug. The neighborhood is not a wealthy one; people shuffled past in ancient coats, dragging scarves and shopping carts. A man in a well-cut wool coat and striped shirt paused outside the window to scroll through his phone. He looked out of place, like me, like my reflection, a thirty-nine-year-old woman in an expensive suit, drinking cheap coffee. A serious face. Hair recently cut short. A woman who lies to her young daughter and can neither laugh nor cry with conviction.
As I watched the man through the glass, I saw the reflections of the people with me in the café. A solitary old woman in a pink winter coat, clicking beads of artificial sweetener into her mug. Two teenage girls trying to look bored. A man and a woman sitting side by side, talking to another couple. The man put his arm around the woman’s chair. His other arm was braced on the table, circling his plate. As he did this, the other man mirrored the motion, putting his hand on the shoulder of the woman beside him.
In my imagination, I traced the route from the café back to the English pub. I traced the route from the café to my old apartment. I watched the map light up in my mind, with a liquid line moving through roads and underground tunnels. Then I followed the line out of the city, through the forest, along the highway, past the caretaker cabin, between the cabin that was ours and never will be again, and the cabin that is still Grégoire and Paul’s. I follow it all the way to the lake, where I swim to the deepest part of the water, and look back at the shore.
Miriam’s work has appeared in international publications including Gutter, Valve Journal, and Retort. She is fiction editor at Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. She blogs at Little Bones and tweets as @miriamvaswani.