I am thinking now of a day in December when the sun has brilliantly manifested after five full days of snow. Storms have left drifts all over, and the snowfall, pure white on roofs and branches, has begun to melt under blue skies—windows streaming, icicles dripping from eavestroughs, snowbanks moistening into perfect snowball snow. It is a few moments before noon and I am sliding along Hollis Street on the flat soles of loafers once brown and belonging to my uncle now dyed black and belonging to me—for later I have a formal occasion to attend. I am on my way to a wedding, actually, a wedding of some far-reaching repercussion as it will turn out, even for me, for the day, though one of the shortest of the year, will prove to be one of the longest of my life, my last real day as a Halifax person, and the symbolic end to my youth and formative years. But in these first bright minutes the city seems a thrilling, raw, place, an eccentric salt-water city two centuries decaying on the North Atlantic, and possible around every corner is a Dickensian figure of scheme and consequence. I pass through streetscapes where stone townhouses neighbour lofty office developments, a tattoo parlour abuts a low-rise union for longshoremen, and ironstone warehouses preside over grimy wooden piers. At the noon-day gun I am skidding south, towards the harbour, a red Twizzler licorice in my mouth. Besides my uncle’s loafers, I wear an old camel-hair duffel coat inherited from a grandfather, a vintage suit from a second-hand store, and a Fred Perry shirt with all the buttons done up. I am chasing a Suggs-inspired Ska Revival look, some years after it is fashionable, sure, but I am a moody youth, somewhat haphazard, and full of hope for myself and my friends.
I am on a Samaritan trip to see a friend, as it happens, and I bring a care package of unsweetened cranberry juice, a Kit-Kat chocolate bar, and a paper bag of further Twizzlers. The friend is Gail Benninger and Gail in the last few years has been ejected from a few universities (Queen’s, Trent) and is now on a leave of absence from McGill where she’s zigzagged into graduate studies. Things there have not been good. Hit by a rock at a pro-choice rally, arrested for staging an occupation of a campus administration building—there are rumours she was hospitalized for severe depression two months into term and so she’s returned to Halifax to recuperate, not at her family’s home on Robie Street, but in a borrowed place empty over the holidays, a bachelor apartment in a Victorian rooming house on South Street. It’s a three-story clapboard affair, elaborate with porches and dormer windows, and inside the front hall linger smells of oak wainscoting and foreign foods—as if a family from Budapest might have stashed and forgotten a pastrami sandwich somewhere. The complicated odours of the hallway merge with my apprehensions about seeing Gail, flavouring my understanding of her situation, and I think of her faltering in her gloom and isolation—for I am aware that many of her friendships have fallen away and she is more or less estranged from her sister and father.
“My father’s a pervert,” she said the last time I saw her. “He’s a gross and manifest pervert.” She has suspended all relations with him, and her sister Brigid she rarely saw. How to explain this? Gail would lose both parents very young, her mother at eighteen, her father at twenty-six, five years after the day now under discussion, but at twenty-one she was still suffering from the convoluted after-effects of her mother’s early death. It was my conjecture—if I might be allowed some free-form psychoanalysis—that her mother died at a time when Gail was just beginning to construct an adult identity separate from her parents and her mother’s abrupt death from cancer interrupted and jumbled this differentiation from family. Gail would refuse to grieve the passing of her mother and she would refuse to feel sorry for her imperfect, widowed father, and this willful decision to put her own feelings of resentment first became for her point of pride and personal principle. Her grief and suffering instead took the form of anger—anger at her mother for dying, anger at her father for straying— but some of this anger from time to time went deeply and dolorously inside her. Her struggles with authority, her impatience with the status quo, her contentious imperatives of self, her bouts of depression, I feel all of these issued—to conclude my pop psychologizing—from such uneasy transmutations.
“With Gail,” said my mother. “You always have to be careful of her feelings. Well, with everyone in that family. But Gail most of all. Oh she’s great in lots of ways. She’s quick. She’s very quick. And she’s sensual. But angry? That kid’s got a lot of anger. That girl goes looking for fights and most of the time she finds them. But Aubrey, you went with her for years, let me ask you, does she like people?” My relationship with Gail has been a very undefined association, an unpredictable, who-knows-what’s-going-on association, but always a no-boundaries, no-secrets, all-access sort of association and even after we split we’ve been close. Very few weeks go by without some kind of contact between us. Back in September I received two birthday messages from her—the first, happily drunk and slagging off her own delinquency about missing the date by three days, and the second, the next morning, hungover, fragile, distant, apologizing for what she called her drunken obnoxiousness. This very out-of-character humility—with its hints of self-loathing—coordinates in my mind with a moment from junior high when I found in one of Gail’s abandoned Hilroy scribblers, written over and over on the back page in handwriting increasingly slanted and crumbling, the phrase “I hate parties and I hate dancing and I hate me,” and as I push on her crooked apartment door it’s my memory of this more than anything else that provokes my protective instinct toward her—as well as a fear that one day she might cease to be.
She was under rumpled blankets, staring as if just awakened—though I knew just as easily she could have been this way for hours. Twisted beside her was a flannelette sheet, white with a lavender stripe, and further within the blankets was a paraphernalia of supplies and effects: an empty Kleenex box, a container of Gaviscon tablets, assorted books and paperbacks, and a bottle of Buckley’s Mixture cough syrup. The room itself, high-ceilinged and a hundred years old, was decorated in general issue grad student: a bookshelf constructed from cinder blocks and unpainted two-by-eights, a drafting table, a pantry of mismatched crockery, a laminate-topped kitchen table with three different chairs, and a boombox on the hardwood floor surrounded by a jumble of cassette tapes and loose sections of the local newspaper.
“Hey there.” I bumped the door closed. “How are you, freak?”
Either Gail did not hear me or she pretended she did not hear me. She lay where she was, her face drab and unremarkable. Finally there was a flicker from her eyelids and she turned from the window so she could regard me—but still with a sort of mongrel despair in her eyes, as if she were powerless to oppose any new turn in her destiny.
“How the fuck are you? Jesus, woman.”
Gail so often glowed with some grievance or passion it was strange to see her so dispirited—as if something were bleached or drained out of her. “How can I,” she said, quickly wincing, “be this fucking sick?”
“I’m so bloody depressed. I feel like going out and getting plastered. Just—why, why, why am I in Halifax?”
“You really sick?”
“Yes, I’m really sick.” Putting an elbow on the futon, she propped her head up with a hand. “My throat’s so frigging scratchy I can hardly talk and my teeth are like little fucking razor blades. Not to mention my head’s just one big mess of snot.” Though her face was passive, and my presence had occasioned no real reaction from her, I think for Gail a sense of obscure problematics had begun floating in the room. “Why are you here?”
“What do you mean? I’m here about your ad in the Auto Trader.”
“Is this some charity thing so you can feel better about yourself? I’m no charity case.” A wedge of hair, damp from sleep, dislodged with these first movements and flapped over her eye “What’s it like out anyway?”
“Beautiful. You should get some daylight into you.”
She frowned at this talk of the outdoors. Arranging the flannelette sheet and blankets over her head, Gail addressed me from under the covers. “I’m never getting out of bed,” she said. “I hate everybody. I hate everything out there. God, I hate this place. And I haven’t been outside since I got here. I just roll around in bed like some kind of hamster person.” She made a small sigh. “Just so you know, I’ve been in the same underwear for three days.”
“So the legends are true? Fie!”
Pushing the covers away, Gail made a confused face, as if someone had forgotten to inform her that her newest visitor might possibly be a dolt, and reached for one of the paperbacks on the bed. It was called The Woman Warrior and between its pages, as a bookmark, was a run of toilet paper. Gail brought this to her nose and blew into it with real effort, though one nasal passage stayed resolutely congested. “This is the worst part of being sick,” she said, one nostril speckled with dried mucus. “Having a glucky nose. But I think I can almost breathe again.”
“Within her bed she is crafty sick? Fie I say!”
“You say—what?” Gail glanced at me, as she sometimes did, with great suspicion, then swung her face to one side. She seemed inclined to stay where she was, exhausted by all the new, upstart discombobulation. Damp from lying under so many bed covers and because she hadn’t showered for days, Gail was calmly pungent, the smell of her sleepy body recalling to me prior days and nights when we shared a bed, during the musky beginnings of her period, in the mammal warmth of her bedsheets.
She made a move to stand and quickly lurched upright, rising and leaning off the bed to grab at a cotton scrim that hung above the sun-lit window. She slid this along a wooden dowel, straining on tip-toe so she could distribute the fabric over the window. Gail wore an over-laundered grey T-shirt and green underwear with a white elastic waistband. As she jiggled the scrim over a splinter, sunlight settled on her face, animating her chestnut-brown eyes and, for a few moments, she rested her face in the sun’s warmth. I’d forgotten how her profile fairly demanded to be reckoned with—the firm line of the jaw, the nose, perfectly classical except for a small snubbiness that matched the Sephardic curve of her eyebrow, and I remembered further, from four summers past, the radiant sun-burnished Gail of the Naval Reserves, when in her off-hours she went about bralessly, brazenly with closely shorn hair, a thin ridge of starter-pimples on her sunburned cheek. At seventeen she seemed unstoppable, a newly adult woman at ease with her form and possibilities and when she chose at the end of that summer to relieve me of my virginity in the basement sauna of her parents’ house I felt mystified to be transported into the frailties and mysteries of the grown-up world and it occurs to me, as I remember all this, that Gail’s name isn’t really Gail at all but Malka which means queen in Hebrew—she breathed this in my ear, as a reward, as a sort of emotional keepsake, the first night we had sex.
“So what are you doing here?” she asked. “How did you find me?”
“Want to tell me what’s going on? Nobody’s seen you.”
“Ah,” said Gail. “Don’t worry about me. When the Cossacks come, I’ll just crawl under a porch and die.” She considered my outfit. “You seem very pleased with yourself. Poncing around in your little camel hair coat. Why are you in a suit? You look like a Mormon.” Gail lunged for a can of Diet Coke on the floor. She opened it, took a drink and fell back against the headboard. The beverage was an ongoing and habitual aspect of her daily life even though a year before it had torn a small ulcer in her stomach. “Oh Jesus. Of course. What poor woman are you stalking now?”
“Are you really not getting out of bed?”
Gail brought the Diet Coke away from her lips with a light flourish. “I told you, no.”
“Ah, I see. How can you get out of bed if you’ve not deciphered the mysteries of Rapa Nui.”
“Rapa Nui. Gingko Baloba. Baba Ganoush. And again I say Fie!”
“No, I don’t think you get to say that anymore.” Gail was staring at me. “What is happening in that pee-brain of yours, McKee? You’re such a frigging idiot, I can’t believe I was ever attracted to you. Whatever you’re doing, it’s not going to work. And you still look like a Mormon.” There suddenly erupted from Gail a very resonant burp, a burp she made no effort at all to suppress. “My God, I haven’t had sex in so long. Do you know any half-decent men? I mean men who aren’t complete tools who would want to slam me up against a wall? Wait.” Gail slowly squinted at me. “Is it Buf-Puf? Is that who you’re stalking?”
This was a somewhat pejorative reference to Elizabeth Puffett, a female acquaintance three years our junior who bore a striking resemblance to the model featured on an Icelandic sweater pattern in the display window of The Yarn Shop on Quinpool Road. As a general rule, Gail considered my interest in other women to be unadventurous, frivolous, Presbyterian—in a phrase Titsy Goysy—but I detected a note of real dismissal in her voice.
“I could never imagine you going out with anyone,” said Gail. “But there’s no way a girl like Buf-Puf is going to like you. You’re all over the place. You’ve got these—cockamamie plans for everything. You’re this lunatic of a thousand ideas. And Buffy Puffett is a very conservative Convent girl who just happens to be a knock out. You think she’s going to want to go roof-climbing?” Gail swigged from the Diet Coke. “Like I don’t know what you think about things but it’s just—wrong.”
Choosing to busy myself with other endeavours, I stooped over the kitchen table and laid out the unsweetened cranberry juice, the Kit-Kat bar, and the red Twizzlers. But Gail was alert only to an embossed envelope that fell to the floor from the breast pocket of my suit-jacket.
“What’s that? What did you just throw down so officiously?”
“I didn’t throw it down. It fell.”
“What is it?”
“Oh? Is someone getting married today?”
I said she knew exactly who was getting married today and that at one time we had discussed going together.
“So who are you taking instead—one of your sisters?” Gail seemed to be inspecting the cuticle of her thumb. “You know how I feel about your sisters. Your sisters are a tribe. They want to impose their own rituals on everyone. Especially other women.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
“I just don’t know about women who keep dying their hair blonde, that’s all.” There followed a medium-pitched commotion from within the bedcovers—sounding like a sluggish blend of slide trumpet and soprano bugle—after which Gail shrugged and said, “Whoops. That one kind of rose up the crack of my bum. Excuse me.” A soft, legume-y smell, implying in its organic history the green mulch of wet cow yards, dissipated in the air of the room. “McKee,” said Gail. “I asked you a question—what was it?”
“Give me a moment,” I said. “I’m just trying to— Give me a moment, please.”
“It’s just nature,” said Gail. “What was I saying?”
“You were talking about farts as I recall.”
“Okay, Mister Holier-Than-Farts. You know, if you could just stop being an insane, maniacal freak for one second then maybe I could remember what I was saying because—Aubrey, are you even listening to me?”
“I’m absolutely listening to you. I’m listening to every word.”
“I swear you have the shortest attention span of anyone I know.” The dangle of hair spilled over her eye again and with a quick and savage flick Gail cleared it from her face. “Where was I? What was I talking about again?”
“Hey—here’s an idea—why don’t we open a window?”
“Piss on you, McBean.”
“I think we tried that.” I walked over and raised the window—its sash cord tightening with an abrupt jigger—and studied the old-fashioned storm window beyond it. At the bottom of its frame was a hinged wooden slat that covered three circular air-holes. It was frosted shut. Outside, snowflakes were spinning out of a blackening sky.
“What are you doing?” asked Gail. “How did you get like this? Really? I want to know.” Putting down the Diet Coke, she assumed a rather carefree, flat-on-her-back position on top of the bedcovers. “You’re so scattered, I swear to God. You never know what you’re doing. You’re fumfering.”
“Can’t a guy open a window without some daffy broad yapping at him? I’m trying to do something here.” I bumped the window slat with the heel of my hand. I bumped it again. After a third bump, the slat trembled and came free.
“You’re such a fumferer.” Gail was wriggling— writhing—on top of the bed, twisting her hips this way and that, bending one of her knees, and in the next moment she held in a raised hand the green underwear. “You are a complete and utterly tool. In fact, you probably suck.” She pitched the garment at my head and, as I turned from the opened storm window, it caught me spang on the temple, the underwear slipping a little before its elastic band caught on the flap of my ear. Gazing into my eyes, Gail’s scream was full of delight. “Smell my panties.”
“Smell my panties! There’s a pop-up book in there. Ha! That was like one of your jokes. I’ve become infected with your brain.”
I walked, as decorously as I could with underwear drooping over my eyes, to the kitchen table. “Hm.” I sat down. “Now what were we talking about?” There was a small explosion in Gail’s nose as she laughed again—it was a wild laugh, really, it took her into almost any mood—and it was not so much a reaction to my deadpan delivery as pleasure in her own achievement. She flung off the bedcovers, rose out of bed, and walked over to sternly inspect me—though little smirks were dimpling on either side of her mouth. She plucked the underwear off my face and peered into my hair. “You’ve had those cowlicks your whole life, haven’t you?” Her jaw was set forward in a contemplative, cowlick-assessing under-bite. “You look like Fran Lebowitz. You look like a Mormon version of Fran Lebowitz. But exactly. It’s freakish.”
Gail in her loose grey T-shirt was standing very close to me and I was briefly mesmerized by the beautiful pattern of swirling black hair on her forearm, and becoming aware of her further intentions for me, when from the hallway came a few noises off—perhaps a tenant stumbling, or a packet of flyers dropping to the hardwood, or some wino scratching at a door, and Gail looked up, instantly on guard, reacting, as she sometimes did, as if each new mortal was a direct personal challenge.
I went to the door, still crooked in its door jamb, pulled it open, and stepped back as a full-sized mackerel tabby nosed its way inside. The cat’s name was Tinker—she belonged to the apartment’s regular occupant—and Tinker tended to treat all other creatures with maximum indifference. She moved swiftly to the kitchen area where two bowls were set on the floor, one holding stale water, the other crusty with uneaten cat food. I was filling the first bowl with fresh water when I noticed Gail behind me picking up the wedding invitation. She pulled the card from the envelope and read the text aloud. “Mr. and Mrs. Gregor Burr request the honour of your—oh my fucking puke.” Gail’s eyebrows crinkled with complication. “And you want to go to this?” She continued to look at the invitation. “Jesus. The Burrs. Boyden and his brothers. Right. They’re a real masterpiece of a family. I’m sure everyone’s really pumped for this wedding. Or really jazzed. Or really amped. Which is it? I can never remember.”
“I think it’s stoked. I think everyone’s really stoked.”
“Please—” Gail dropped the invitation on the table and returned to her bed. “Someone just put a bullet in my brain. My God, I have to leave Halifax. I have to leave this fucking place. I can’t bear the thought of watching Boyden Burr grow old.” Boyden Burr, the day’s groom, was a rather inescapable Haligonian, an athlete, a rich kid, a singer who founded the stunningly popular Thunderhouse Blues Band, and someone I’ve known since I was four years old. His father, a well-known lawyer and Member of Parliament for Halifax West, was often in the news and a favourite subject of the scandal rags. My policy regarding the Burrs, for a variety of reasons, was strictly non-interventionist.
“And you?” said Gail. “What’s going to happen to you? You couldn’t leave this place. You’ll be here your whole life. Chasing your grand conjunctions. I’m just not sure it’s going to work.”
“What’s not going to work?”
“Because of Halifax disease. It’s all about what you do. What street you live on. What vacations you take. And it never changes. It’s like who you are in grade twelve is who you are forever.”
“But I’m a frigging idiot—”
“No, you’re not. Don’t be a moron. Just stop.”
“Oh dear God.” Gail bounced a fist into the bridge of her nose. “You’re losing it. You’ve lost it. You’ve already lost it. What’s going to happen to you? Really. It’s just—I don’t know.” She looked at me, pensive. “I’m worried about you.”
“You are naïve, Aubrey McKee. Fuck, you’re naïve. I always forget. You still think you can be friends with everybody. And that’s nice. But people are horrible. People are corrupt and selfish twat-heads. And it’s naïve to think they aren’t. How have you not learned this? Maybe it’s because you’re the middle-child peace-maker, I don’t know. You want everyone to get along so you act like a clown and get trapped in your shtick—”
“Like why are you this parody of yourself? Why don’t you ever take yourself seriously?” Gail sprang off the bed. “Can you be serious about your emotions for once instead of having a ten-mile-away ironic distance? Why do you avoid everything? Doesn’t that seem like a fact worth investigating?” Holding unwavering eye contact, or rather forcing unwavering eye contact, Gail began to back away toward the bathroom door. “Maybe it’s worth asking why that happens. Maybe it’s time for you as a twenty-two year-old man to grow up a little and take some responsibility for once in your life.” With these formidable words, Gail turned from me and vanished into the bathroom, the door closing with a pronounced click as the latch settled into the strike plate.
The apartment was rented to a person named Brunton, a friend of Gail, a woman with a low-slung posterior, a crew cut, and a PhD from Cornell. She moved from New York to Nova Scotia to become the ombuds-person for Dalhousie University. She was butchy, low-voiced, mordant, and queer. I didn’t like her at first. I didn’t like her later either. It would be some years before I was comfortable with the concatenation known as Brunton. She was born Shelley-Anne Kudelsky in Saugerties, New York and for reasons mysterious decided at twenty-six to change her name. Her new designation was chosen when in a thrift shop she found the name embroidered into a sewn-in panel on a Maritime Flooring and Tile work-shirt. Brunton was no-nonsense, watchful, and self-contained. She was The Moosewood Cookbook and Joan Jett, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and La Cave Restaurant. I met her two summers earlier when she was marshalling Gail out of a club called Rumours along with a transgendered, mixed-race friend named
Shasta-Ly. That evening Brunton was wearing corduroy overalls, cut off and hand-hemmed at the knee, a Bundeswehr singlet, distressed Blundstone work-boots, a tightly-wrapped kerchief around her left wrist, and a carabineer of seventeen keys clipped into the hammer loop of the overalls. She had deep-set eyes, furry armpits, and a compelling aura of fecundity—but I thought, and still think, seventeen keys was a bit much for a fucking carabineer. She spoke obsessively and snappily about ex-girlfriends, women who seemed to do nothing but infuriate Brunton, though they all still seemed to figure in her life. Indeed—she was spending the Christmas holiday with an ex-girlfriend because the ex had yet to inform her parents she’d broken up so she and Brunton were in Palm Beach pretending to be a couple until January. Gail had spoken vaguely of difficult circumstances—abuse, addiction—in Brunton’s childhood as Shelley-Anne Kudelsky that were supposed to explain away the levels of distrust Brunton propelled toward me and my gender but I did not really accept this explanation—perhaps because I sensed Brunton’s influence would loom large in Gail’s semi-distant future.
Left alone in the main room, I went by the bookshelf and glanced over a few books by authors I didn’t know—Szymborska, Irigaray, Dworkin—then considered the materials on the drafting table. There was a neat array of purple paper clips, seven sharpened pencils in a Dundee Marmalade jar, and an opened Kodak envelope out of which spilled a number of white-bordered colour photographs. In these images Brunton’s hair was long and lustrous and she was pictured with a very fit-looking Korean man. He seemed like the sort of chap in third-year med school who ran triathlons and volunteered at the Kids Help Line. He and Brunton were bent over with exhaustion and laughter, both wearing medals around their necks, joyously hugging each other, smiling breathlessly at the camera. After a moment I recognized him as John Yu, a kid from my Sunday school, and, recalling his details, I realized he and Brunton must have competed and won something at the Head of the Charles Rowing Regatta. They both looked very happy and I was jealous of their success and jealous that Brunton, a new arrival, an American, a Come From Away, was constructing an actualized adult life in Halifax. Most of the time I was haunted by what I hadn’t achieved, frustrated by my inability to realize my best projects, and threatened by a looming sense of disorder. I made messes, sometimes glorious messes, but messes all the same and I knew in Halifax I was mostly understood as a drug dealer, punk rocker, and wayward oddity. There is a line from Northrop Frye, a writer whom in the last few years I’d mentioned so often that Gail had taken to calling him Northrop Dum-Dum, where he suggests we’re all in the situation of a dog in a library, surrounded by a world of meaning we don’t even know is there—and I was beginning to feel like such a spaniel, someone who doesn’t quite get it, and I thought for a few moments of the many things I’d done, or half-done, and poorly, and standing by myself in an American’s rented rooms on South Street, wearing a second-hand suit, and watching as a cat appeared from under the bed to smell along the base of my dyed loafers, I saw myself as sort of strange and sad and isolated in the bizarre personas I’d created for myself.
The bathroom door swung open and out stomped Gail, tutta nuda. She charged across the room, her bare feet slapping on the hardwood floor. There was an ungainly quality to her progress—Gail tended to walk, even in a sundress, like a saddle-sore bronc-rider—and as she arrived at the window her nose bumped through the scrim and into the glass. Annoyed, she pushed the scrim to one side and simply stood there, without clothes, daring the world to judge her, daring the world to deconstruct its own assumptions of nakedness. Faint dimples were apparent on her lower back, on either side of her tailbone, and just perceptible, near the top of her ass, around a dark-coloured mole, was an eddy of fine white body hair. Spinning from the window, she squatted beside the boombox and glared at the cassette tape inside. “I think I’m going out.”
“I don’t know,” said Gail. “Just out.”
“Because we suck.” With a quick scowl in the direction of the wedding invitation, Gail turned to me. “I find it, frankly, sort of fucking ludicrous that you’re going to that wedding.”
Gail was already shaking her head. “I just find it a bit bizarre that you’re even considering attending when that family is such a fucking nightmare.”
“The bride happens to be one of your closest friends.”
“And you don’t think it’s a business decision?”
“Spare me the niceties.”
I was surprised by this flippancy—later I would learn of the twenty-two page letter Gail had written the bride explaining why she could not in good conscience be present at the service—but I guessed that Gail’s misgivings were really more with the groom’s side of the aisle. Gail’s relations with the Burrs were certainly somewhat complicated, vida supra, but I think Gail had been determined to characterize Mrs. Burr as a dingbat Stepford Wife ever since a twelve-year old Gail with her mother encountered the Burrs at the intermission of the play Equus and Mrs. Burr declared Gail too young to see it. Gail normally had in motion three or four Halifax-related thesis topics and The Adaptive Preference Formations of Tiggy Burr was a favourite subset of The Ongoing Pretend of the Halifax South End. For Gail, the South End was home to the tanned and bland, the prosperous and deeply square, and she had a great and open disdain for what she took to be the ignorance and solipsism of the moneyed families of our neighborhoods. To her, the South End was a self-perpetuating family compact regulated by the requirements of social standing and social privilege—and enclosed within sanctimonious notions of community—and so I asked if this was to be yet another diatribe on the limits of my people.
“It’s all about who’s in and who’s out.”
“That stuff doesn’t matter.”
“It does if you’re out!” Gail stood in the center of the room, pubic hair fulsomely untamed, rather as if she were a nude model for a life drawing class who had decided to abruptly commandeer the proceedings. “It’s not all lobster suppers at the Saraguay Club. The Grammar School? The Waeg? You think the kids in Spryfield and Jelly Bean Square—”
“I haven’t met all the kids in Jelly Bean Square.”
“And you won’t. You think they all had the same childhood you did? Because believe me, they didn’t. There’s a gargantuan fucking difference. Aubrey, you grew up in a very insulated pocket of privilege. And the Burrs—putting aside the fact that the father is a serial rapist grab-ass who basically walks the streets of Halifax scot-free—what does this wedding mean, really? And who’s going to be there? It’s going to be Boyden and his brothers and all those fucking reggae stoner sailing guys. Jib Whitelaw, Digby Lynk, Jamie Swim. That fucking council of assholes.” She was looking a little alarmed.
“They’re morons, Aubrey. You’ve known them your whole life. And who else’ll be there? All the little trollops that trail after them—Jody Jasperson, Pippa Flynn, Jenna Tibbets—that’s who’s going to be there?” Gail clutched at her head with both hands. “And Boyden, I know he can be this sort of jocky nice guy but he’s just so awful. He’s like this monstropolous dinkweed. That guy can tell himself anything. What Boyden Burr tells himself and what really happens are two different things entirely. And I’ll tell you one thing.” Gail spoke now with complete certitude. “Boyden Burr is only interested in Boyden Burr and that’s all he’ll ever be interested in. He has no interest in anyone else.”
“How do you know that? We don’t know that.”
“Oh you think he’s going to change?”
“Maybe he doesn’t know any better. Give the guy some latitude.”
“Doesn’t know any better?” Gail shook her head as if she found my opinions only dismayingly juvenile. “Give the guy some latitude? Who am I—fucking Gandhi? No, Aubrey, Boyden Burr doesn’t know any better which is exactly why I would never give him any fucking latitude. Do you think he’s giving latitude to the families in Jelly Bean Square? Of course he isn’t. You think he’s interested in alternatives?”
Gail’s expression implied the situation was shoddy—or worse than shoddy—disastrous. “Boyden Burr is a spoiled little brat and self-satisfied fuck-wad who is going to do just fine now that daddy’s got him into law school. So he can take the summer off and sail around and smile at the babes while he’s butchering Stir It Up or Brown-Eyed Girl or Sweet Jane or whatever the fuck song he wants to destroy.”
“Thanks. Amazing. Really going to open up a dialogue.”
“Dialogue?” Gail’s face deformed with grotesque indignation, as if someone had just thrown dirt in her eyes. “There is no dialogue! There will never be a dialogue. Not with these people. Because I’ll tell you what Boyden Burr wants in this life, Aubrey. He wants a wife as hot as mommy and a house as rich as daddy and a summer place where his kids can grow up to be rich little douche bags just like him and where everyone can go sailing just like him and hang around the same fucking friends he’s known since grade one and be pretty and rich and white together.”
“I don’t know if you’ve had this talk with your parents, Gail, but you’re white.”
“It’s like some bizarre version of false consciousness! The whole place is. I mean, fuck, Aubrey, you’re either someone who thinks things are fine the way they are or someone who thinks things can be changed for the better. Like this might come as a shock to you, but there are people in the world who think maybe investment in South Africa isn’t such a good idea. Or land mines aren’t so wonderful. Or female circumcision isn’t so amazing.”
“I’m not asking you to circumcise anyone—”
“One of the reasons I’m not going to this fucking wedding is because I wasn’t invited to this fucking wedding. I don’t get invited to weddings anymore. I don’t get invited to parties anymore either but I don’t particularly care because I don’t really give a fuck. They don’t want me there. I know I’m difficult. Who cares? But the real reason I’m not going to their wedding, Aubrey, is because every fucking day is their wedding.” Gail pointed at the mess of newspapers on the floor beside the bed. “You know, I read in the paper about this poor girl from Shannon Park whose parents basically let her starve to death—” Gail shook her head as if she didn’t know how to possibly continue. “And then I think of Karin and Boyden’s wedding and all the wedding presents they don’t need and I get so fucking furious at their smug-little, fucking-little, entitled-little lives it makes me want to scream. And I think, ‘Why are people going to this wedding when we could be fixing this fucked-up city?’ That’s what I think. That’s what I think.” Gail sniffed and wiped at her nose, for she was crying now, or trying not to. “Don’t you wonder why nothing ever changes in this city? Why it’s the same families over and over again? Jesus. This city’s going to get left behind. This province is going to get left behind. And you want me to go sit with George and Judy Asshole and Tim and Tiggy Tidbit and make small-talk about Babba’s bridesmaid dress and—where are you going? That bathroom’s really stinky right now. I mean it. It’s a total stink farm! Aubrey?”
Her moods, her moods—in my life I’ve felt so lost and given over before Gail’s moods and it had been so long since I’d been present for this particular vector, with all its variance and deviation, that a getaway to the bathroom seemed for me the only way forward. Gail was admirable, fascinating, self-involved—and quarrelsome, exhausting, ridiculous—and she would always be like this. She couldn’t help but be like this. She was fiercely and impossibly herself. Most of Halifax tended to think of her as someone with an unstable and persistent Oppositional Defiance Disorder—but she had a crazy dignity and prescience. I don’t know where she got it but my God it was hers, she owned it, she fairly burned with it, though sometimes it was just all too much for me. Here she was stark raving naked in the next room, ready for all enemies, foreign and domestic—and I knew Gail in this mood was not about to surrender anything—but my worry was Halifax could not sustain her. For I saw on some subjects Gail had progressed to a sort of fanatical hatred that made up with insistency what it lacked in rationality. My worry was that Gail, with all her struggles, would not be able to process her furious disappointments and would only rage, rage, rage against whatever or whomever happened to be in front of her…. There would come a time, much later, long after the events of this day had concluded and long after their details had dissolved into folk history, when I would miss this version of Gail, the vulgar, lickety-split, farbrente Gail, for this version would not last the years, and the specifics that prompted these present hysterics would be mostly forgotten—even by her. But of course I didn’t know that back then. Back then, as I say, I was still full of hope.
The song Gail was listening to when I returned I didn’t recognize. It was a Cockney voice singing about the year 1649 and Saint Georges Hill and how a ragged band of somethings came to show the people’s will. It was “The World Turned Upside Down” by Billy Bragg—but just then it was a song on a boombox within whose spell Gail was wholly absorbed. Our friendship-relationship-exship played within a continuum of music, starting with our own punk band, yes, but proceeding through Madness and the Specials and into a sea of synthpop—in whose dark wave and ambience were intimations of further purpose. Bauhaus and Blancmange, Tears for Fears and New Order, these were discoveries we swapped back and forth in mix tapes but this singer and his solo-guitar style I’d never heard. Gail lay on her stomach, nodding along and softly singing the song to herself on her bed. She had a way of singing a song and pretending she wasn’t getting the lyrics wrong that I found sort of endearing and maddening but at the moment I said nothing, so personal seemed her connection to the song, so private her communion with it, and when the song hit an open E Major chord it seemed to mean everything to Gail—her solidarity with those who were working toward justice, her sympathy for anyone marginalized from standard concepts of society, her righteous resistance to all those who stood in her way. It was about how other people were obstacles and how, even if she were forced far inside herself, one day she would be proven right and one day, by God, one day she was going to charge through all obstructions with some kind of greatness and by then she’d be a different woman, a woman who wasn’t affected by weddings or cover bands or Halifax—that’s what the song meant to her. When it finished, Gail went still a moment, preoccupied, then pressed stop on the boombox and pushed herself off the bed. She went to a pile of clothes in the closet and pulled out a pair of vintage army pants and a heavy turtleneck sweater. While she dressed, she spoke to me in a deliberate way as if she had some design in mind or as if—and this was a feeling I’d had for some minutes—she wanted something to be at stake between us.
“Aubrey,” she said. “Just tell me one thing. What the hell happened to Cyrus Mair?”
This was a reference to the song-writer of our punk band, the eccentric scion of an old Halifax family, and someone who had not been seen in the city for some years. Although his absence was prolonged, his influence lingered still in our time and space, somewhat problematically, which is why Cyrus Mair was a subject I diligently avoided in Gail’s company. He was also, it bears mentioning, someone who had been twice engaged to the day’s bride-to-be.
“Have you heard from the guy?” Gail pulled the turtleneck over her head. “Someday I’d like to see what happened to the little freak. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s gone for good.”
Before making a response, I contemplated Tinker who had settled herself on the windowsill and was now silently watching a seagull hanging in the wind above Lower Water Street. Gail, as you can tell, kept in motion a number of prospects as to who might play Principal Villain in the skirmishes of her life and it seemed she was entertaining one more possibility. Gail was mostly suspicious of my interest in Cyrus Mair—she felt I understood him to be some sort of star-dusted wunderkind whereas she saw him as a peculiarly damaged and fucked-up person. That folks might be running around the city, moony-eyed with romantic admiration for Cyrus Mair, and there were a few, was not a situation that sat well with her.
“So?” said Gail, after a few this-silence-has-gone-on-too-long moments. “I suppose you’re going to tell me Cyrus Mair isn’t weird?”
Still observing Tinker, I shrugged.
“Because he is fucking eerie. I will never understand your passion for that mutant. I mean I’m sorry if I don’t find him so fucking magical but I just don’t. I don’t trust the guy, Aubrey. I never have. I don’t trust people who don’t trust themselves.”
Tinker twitched as a few drops of sleet splattered on the storm window. Opening my mouth, and forcing my voice into a cracking falsetto, I made an annoyed and cretinous meowing noise.
“Aubrey—what the fuck?”
Looking through the sleet-spotted window, and speaking in a normal voice, I said, “I kind of liked it back when I was saying Fie. Remember that? That was good times. Good times when I was saying Fie.”
After briefly sneering at me—as if I were someone she didn’t really care to know—Gail sat on her bed and opened a balled pair of work socks. “I cannot fathom the weirdness. I really can’t. I mean I know you want him to be a great guy and not a nut job but let’s face facts, shall we? Remember two years ago on New Year’s Eve?”
I said I remembered the story.
“Because I certainly fucking remember. One minute he’s saying how wonderful it is that everyone’s together and the next he’s in this fit of panic and jumping out a window? What the fuck is that? I mean what the fuck is that? Excuse me if I find that a little bit of a horror show. And what he does to the Zubers—breaking into their house to steal pictures of their foster children. Does that sound sane? Does that sound reasonable? Or does that sound like the behavior of a fucking psycho?” Gail wildly shook her head. “I think he’s mentally ill. I really do. I think the guy’s insane.”
“I’m not sure if he’s insane. Just sort of non-sane.”
“Remember when you used to hate the guy?”
“I didn’t hate the guy.”
“And now you fucking worship the ground he slithers on. Because he’s got some psychosexual hold over you. So you two are up in his tree-fort swapping guitar riffs in your little circle-jerk of punk rock fuckery, I get it. Why don’t you just fuck him and get it over with?”
“Why does this matter to you? Why are you being like this?”
“Why are you defending him?” Gail made a horrible motion with her hands. “Because he’s so sensitive—is that it? I don’t think anyone’s that sensitive. Because I don’t think there’s that much to be sensitive about. Do you? Seriously. Tell the truth, asshole.”
“I’m an asshole,” I said. “Boyden’s an asshole. Cyrus is an asshole—” I glanced at her. “What the fuck? We can’t all be assholes. Because, Gail, you say this about everybody. What’re you going to do when you’re by yourself?”
“Look around!” said Gail. “I am by myself. Have you not been listening to anything I’ve said?”
Gail continued to talk, her expressions clever with contempt and outrage, but I would stop listening. It was my turn to look blankly at something—and I stared at the unsweetened cranberry juice, the Kit-Kat bar, and the red Twizzlers untouched on the kitchen table. How can I explain Gail whom I have known so closely? She has been near the center of so much of my life and thinking and there has always been between us a feeling of connection and when we were going out of course I often asked myself if I was in love with her and even if I understood I wasn’t always in love with who she was I knew I could be in love with the person she might become…but I was understanding, finally, with a sense of stalemate and deadends, that she was becoming someone else, someone I didn’t know, and the thought came to me that life was stranger, deeper, and more complicated than I knew—than I wanted it to be—and I guessed the coming years would be riven with conflicts and enmities beyond my understanding.
The few flurries that floated in the air minutes before have thickened into a blowing blizzard, sucking light out of the room and warmth from the hardwood floor. The room lights dim as the furnace surges somewhere below, baseboards creaking, radiators clanking. On the windowsill, Tinker twists her head as footfalls sound in the outside hallway. Someone is moving with purpose toward the door. I am able to exchange one look with Gail before a knocking begins and I open the door to see in the hallway a young man—blond, slim, wearing a suit and overcoat and carrying a heavy-looking briefcase—disparate details that resolve themselves into the person we know as Cyrus Mair. He is nervous, jumpy, his awareness flashing in all directions.
“What’s going on?”
“Everything,” says Cyrus Mair, his eyes glittering.
Photo by Flickr user Dennis Jarvis