I saw the best minds of my generation… Lindsey thinks of the opening line of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” It keeps weaseling into her head like the chorus of a pop song or a mantra. What was the rest of it? …starving, hysterical… She turns in the passenger seat to ask Scott if he knows the next line. He holds up two fingers, barks instructions into his phone.
She looks out the window, sees mostly harried drivers drinking out of paper cups, takes in the ribbons of asphalt stacked four lanes deep, the absence of trees.
“I gotta get a new bulb for my aquarium lamp,” Scott whispers, holding the phone away from his face and pulling into Walmart in Etobicoke. Scott’s jaw tightens. He pulls the phone away from his face and shakes his head as though it were the one responsible for the dominoing incompetence.
It’s nearly six, but late July, so still plenty of light. The parking lot holds the heat of the day and it rises up through Lindsey’s pink flip-flops, through the soles of her feet. She tries not to think of the million other things she could be doing right now. She’s running errands with Scott on her day off, unwittingly eavesdropping on his fractured conversations and feeling as superfluous as male nipples. Maybe she’s just hungry. Since having a child she’s grown accustomed to regular meal times. She’s come all the way to Toronto for dinner and to spend the night with Scott, a friend of a friend she’s met up with a few times in the last month. A kind of spill-over third date from a connection courtesy of her pal, Marie, who eventually married the guy they knew from the commerce program who is friends with Scott.
The three of them had dropped in on Lindsey unexpectedly one night at the end of June when the branches of the mulberry tree in the backyard of her rental house hung heavy with fruit. Swollen berries dangled from overhanging branches, plummeted intermittently onto the table and the patio. Left purple-red splotches that looked like sores. Lindsey apologized. Felt the need to explain, to excuse her neglect. But didn’t bother. The “child-free” could never understand that sometimes it was difficult just to keep the kitchen table clean. She swabbed a damp cloth over the surface, collecting spent berries into an old ice-cream tub for the compost. Marie pushed her chair back from the table to protect her white jeans and squished further, with the heel of her denim-striped espadrilles, those that had already dive-bombed the paving stones. Lindsey shook a branch, gathering handfuls of berries into a wire colander that once belonged to her grandmother. Took them into the kitchen where, in bare feet and cut-offs, her one-year-old son on her hip, she’d thrown together a sweet-tart crisp. Marie leaned up against the sink as she rinsed the heels of her shoes and whispered to Lindsey, He’s been lonely since the divorce, we thought maybe…
Scott raved about the crisp. He’d played with Sam too. Had put his napkin over his face for peek-a-boo. In yellow, mulberry-stained Crocs, Sam’s chubby legs stomped through the juicy patio minefield, Marie recoiling with each squish. Later in the evening, amid mosquito slapping and Sam’s squeals and giggles, Scott had pulled him around the yard in the wooden wagon that had been Lindsey’s thirty years earlier. They drank cold Coronas, limes wedged down the bottlenecks. Feet up on empty, overturned flowerpots. It had almost felt like something.
Her parents were the sort to hold onto things like that wagon, like her camp trunk, her grandmother’s dishes. The past was so much clutter. No one coveted their Nana’s bone china teacups. Sure, people still wanted things, the same things probably, so long as they seemed different than whatever came before. Out of wedlock baby shaming had gone the way of girdles and polished silver. Lindsey was constantly refusing cardboard boxes of newspaper wrapped glasses, tea cups. Fish forks and floral lidded tureens. Linens. Well, take it. Save it for when you are settled, her mother would euphemistically encourage, patting her shoulder. As if a proper marriage with a china pattern registry was something Lindsey wanted.
Anyway, Scott was attractive. Charming. Available.
Lindsey had begged her parents to babysit Sam for Friday and Saturday. Pumped and pumped her teats of milk until they hurt and hung like deflated balloons against her chest. Had packed suitcases for both of them, farmed the dog out to a friend, written pages of instructions for her parents to follow. Handed them a cooler of bottled breast milk, and finally, drank a third coffee and drove the two hours from north of the city to meet Scott for noon. She felt like she’d already lived a full day before arriving. What a girl had to do these days to get laid.
Ever since she got to Toronto it’s been one thing after another. First he had to finish emailing, then he had to check his phone messages, then he had to pick up BMW parts at the garage, then his dry cleaning and now a new lamp for his fish. He had told her he was taking the day off, that this Friday he’d be free. Like he couldn’t have done some of this crap before she arrived or after she left? He is busy. She is busy. We are all busy. So damn busy being busy. Scott, everyone she knows really, seems like a bullet speeding somewhere full of direction, with purpose, but without target. Madness, that’s what the next line is. That came before starving hysterical—destroyed by madness.
Sorry, Scott mouths, holding his phone-free hand out for hers and directing her toward the pet supplies aisle. She tags along after him, watching him read the back of aquarium light boxes. Watching the hoards of people as though they were following the righteous path of consumerism, seeking salvation with useless crap.
Yet, all the headscarves and black hair delights Lindsey. What a relief to have escaped from the land of beige. She will fill herself with new sights, some conversation, dinner downtown, sex. It would totally be worth her while. Eventually.
“Who are you talking to?”
“Deloitte, work.” He makes his lamp selection and they wind their way through the aisles to the express checkout. From where they are standing at one end, to the window of the golden arches at the other end of the big box store, is probably the length of a football field.
Lindsey wishes she’d parked at a friend’s house and met him downtown. While she had intended to stay at his house, the one overlooking the ravine he loved to brag about, the one he used to share with his wife before she got cervical cancer and then recovered and then divorced, Lindsey didn’t think she was going to be dragged around doing chores all afternoon. She’d hoped to maximize her free time away from Sam, do some things for herself. Spend a couple of hours at the art gallery, read a magazine and enjoy a decent latte. She reminds herself that romance will never be convenient for a woman with a child. Besides, she likes the way Scott’s face contours in from his cheekbones, the way the stubble persists in the cleft of his chin. The way his eyes dart back and forth as he paces like an emergency room doctor during his intense phone conversations about what, she couldn’t imagine, but was pretty sure wasn’t life or death.
She stands behind him in the interminable line up. He scrutinizes the sundries hanging on wire prongs flanking the exit funnel and apologizes to Lindsey for having to make another call. Asks to speak to Priscilla on the fourteenth floor. Walmartians stare at him; they too can’t help eavesdropping. Lindsey picks up a package of gum. Thinks, I saw the best minds of my generation, destroyed by madness, starving hysterical… naked! Yes, naked. She smiles.
Scott looks at the green package in her hand, lifts his chin away from the mouthpiece, says, “I only have enough cash for the bulb.” He should have stopped at the bank he says. He only ever uses cash—it’s the only way to properly keep track.
Lindsey reaches for her wallet, waves her debit card, takes the lamp and says, Don’t worry about it. Scott mouths thank you through a grin and backs away from the cash register. There’s something about the warmth in his brown eyes, the way they look at her, open and expectant. Like they could wrap around and hold her. Reassure her that she wouldn’t always have to work so hard.
Back at the house, Scott replaces the aquarium light and turns it on, illuminating the one remaining fish. Not counting the algae eater that moves along the inside of the tank with its creamy open mouth suctioned to the glass.
Lindsey stands in front of the aquarium watching the silver fish with the translucent tail as it swims back and forth between glass walls. The bored little thing, its whole life laid out before him. This fish inside this tank. This tank inside this house. This house inside this city.
Scott slips his hand up her blouse at the small of her back. Lindsey points to an acoustic guitar leaning up against a mostly empty bookshelf. Light brown, mother of pearl inlay circling the sound hole. “You play?”
“Just learning. Here I’ll play you something.”
Guitar perched on his knee, Scott plays a very clunky “Smoke on the Water.” Lindsey laughs.
“I’m just shittin’ ya.” He plays a second song. She recognizes “After the Goldrush,” Neil Young. His voice is soft and clear. Gentle. And, from what Lindsey can tell, perfectly on key.
“You’re really good.”
“Jeez. Don’t act so surprised. I used to sing in the choir at my mom’s church. Not recently. When I was a kid.”
Scott tells Lindsey he needs a shower. Squeezes her and kisses her mouth. She pulls away. He grabs her hands and tries to draw her toward the bathroom. Removes his clothes. Makes sexy eyes at her.
“C’mon. Let me soap you up.”
“I’m really hungry. Where should we go tonight?”
“This is just an appetizer, we can also have dessert,” he says, raising eyebrows in mock suggestiveness.
Lindsey won’t take the bait. If she gets in that shower there goes dinner. She at least wants to be fed before being fucked. She wishes he’d put his clothes back on. Wishes he wasn’t so eager to get down to it. She isn’t some desperate baby mama.
She retreats to the kitchen hoping for a drink. A glass of wine would be nice. She’s brought a bottle of wine as a gift. Wouldn’t exactly be polite to go opening and swilling it now. Though, that is exactly what she wants to do. She looks through cupboards. They expose yellow and black labels on peanut butter, pasta, soup. Even No Name ketchup and mustard in the fridge. A bottle of vodka sits behind glass doors in the butler’s pantry. Lindsey can think of nothing to explain the tins of No Name in an investment banker’s kitchen other than an inner stinginess. She pours a couple shots over some ice in a heavy crystal glass that clinks on the granite when she sets it down. Then, she guzzles her vodka, then brushes her teeth at the steel sink with the grand looping faucet.
Scott comes up behind her at the counter wearing only his towel and a humid cloud of Irish Spring. Cups her breasts large and swollen now with unexpressed milk and plucks at her nipples. So they’d have sex and then they’d go out. Climax is swift for both, their actual coupling brief, and when Lindsey comes, milk squirts from her over-ripe breasts. She apologizes, is embarrassed by such intimacy in front of someone she doesn’t even really know. Scott says he wondered what the wet was then takes her in his mouth and sucks, which both surprises and horrifies her, though she allows it. It feels somehow like an offering. She collects and reassembles her clothes strewn around the kitchen while Scott dresses in his bedroom. He calls to her from down the hall.
“I know today probably wasn’t the most exciting day of your life but I need you to know that I’m a busy guy. I’m thirty-four, too old to pretend to be something I’m not. Time is money and I like to make the most of both.”
She says, Don’t worry, it’s fine, watches him from the doorway as he flops back on the bed, his towel again wrapping his lower torso, his abdominal muscles defined in creases. Money is a necessary evil, she supposes. Business too. And, she supposes also, that she wouldn’t mind more of it. Day care costs are killing her.
“Hey Lindsey,” he calls out. “I’m tired. It’s been a hell of a week. Sure you don’t want to stay in, watch some TV? I could make us some pasta?”
Lindsey’s stomach bristles and shrinks like she’s swallowed a puffer fish. She thinks of the black and yellow boxes of macaroni in his cupboards. “I understand you’re tired. I know you’re very busy but I’ve arranged babysitting and come all this way and it feels like we haven’t really even done anything or spent any time together.” Oh no. Now she is whining. Or is she? Is this what it means to assert oneself? She walks over to the fish tank, bends down and examines the contents once again. In the tan gravel an aquanaut bubbles up and down in the back right corner by the filter.
“We spent the whole afternoon together!”
“You’re right.” It was a large tank for one fish and that weird sucking creature that looked like a tadpole hybrid with spots. “Here’s the thing. I don’t get out very often and I’d really like to go somewhere besides East Side Mario’s to eat. Nothing fancy, just out.”
“Okay, okay. I know a great little place in Kensington, tasty inexpensive food.”
“Do you think you’ll ever get more fish?”
Scott says he isn’t sure.
By this time it’s dark outside, still hot, but evening traffic as they drive east from Etobicoke is more relaxed. He takes her hand and kisses it. She rubs the joint of his thumb with hers. As they stroll together past the many bustling restaurants of Kensington market, smells of burritos and frying pakoras, the remnants of the day’s fish market mingle in the heady air above the sidewalks and “Howl,” like an earworm, filters through her mind. She rearranges the words, plays around with the opening line in her head.
A joyless waiter in a long, white half-apron escorts them to the patio. Scott reaches under the table and squeezes her knee.
Tires squeal in the near distance. A horn honks. Reggae pumps from an upstairs apartment.
“This is nice. It’s nice not to be rushing around doing something important.”
“Yeah,” Lindsey says, “sometimes people get so busy doing they forget about being.”
“I never thought of it that way. Cool, Lindsey.”
A dreadlocked, tattooed couple walks past them. A puff of weed and cigarette smoke wafts over their table. They sit in the dark on the outdoor patio smiling politely at each other over a flickering tea light, eating pumpkin ravioli dyed black with squid ink and drinking a bottle of “good value wine.” Lindsey begins to feel more comfortable, settles into herself and shares her poetic revision.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by money, besuited, creeping through the bald, ethereal streets at dawn looking for the entrance to Deloitte.”
“Huh?” Scott’s phone rings. He checks the caller ID and lets it go to voice mail. Stuffs a big ravioli into his mouth. Wipes his face with a cloth napkin and spreads it back over his lap. Lindsey imagines having to pretreat with laundry detergent the black and orange lip streaks across the white square.
“’Howl,’ you know, Allen Ginsberg? I was talking about it earlier today.”
“Some friend of yours?”
“Yeah,” Lindsey says, crossing two fingers, “we’re like this.”
She looks at her quarter-full glass of cabernet sauvignon, examines the label of the empty bottle. It will be hours until she’s sober enough to drive and here she is, miles away from home with her breasts so very full.
Cover photo courtesy of Michael Effendy.