And finally, nouveau noir...
My exploration of noir is coming to an end, with this last post. Thank you very much, Open Book Toronto, for having me as WIR, and a big thanks to all the writers who gave so generously of their time and talent. It's really been a blast!
I'd like to finish up by posting a short story that I've been working on for a while. I am categorizing it as nouveau noir and I'll leave it up to the reader as to why!
I decide to go, just go. But then I hear my father’s voice.
“You burn your bridges in front of you, Amelia. You never learn from your mistakes. You make the wrong choices. I keep telling you.”
So, I can’t go anywhere because the only thing ahead of me are all those burnt bridges.
I’m so cold. I pull on two t-shirts, a sweatshirt, two pairs of socks.
I sit on the sofa, the big blue torn corduroy sofa with pinstripes. I tell myself that I’m free, that the world outside is mine for the taking. I can go anywhere, do anything. But that’s the general mantra; I’ve no idea how to action the specifics. I decide to wait instead, wait for him to come back. I pick at the worn fabric of the sofa, rubbing it raw.
He’ll come back, I know he will. I try to wriggle my toes in the socks but my feet feel bound, castrated, mummified.
I sit in the silence. I take a swig of the whiskey he left behind. It’s so quiet. Why did I tell him to go? Because I didn’t think he'd ever leave. I thought he’d stay and fight and now the only thing left is the goddawful quiet and not enough whiskey.
I wonder if I should turn on the TV but I worry I won't hear him coming back and besides, if I don't listen for it, it won’t happen. He'll know the difference. He’ll know if I'm willing him home with my deep-waiting silence or if I’ve turned my attentions to other things—in which case he’ll stay gone.
I think about the bath. It’s filthy. Dirt has encroached my life in the same way ambition left: slowly. Yes, I noticed the oncoming decay, but I thought something would happen to change things—something or someone would come along to make things better. But instead, my life just frayed and got sticky, and now I don’t want to touch anything and yes, I know, I really should clean everything. But when your bridges are burnt in front of you and, if nothing else, you’ve learned that lesson, why bother cleaning anything?
I close my eyes and my father’s standing in front of me. The skin on his knees is baggy, like a pair of old ladies’ pantyhose.
“Were you ever young?” I want to ask Dad, but he’s not listening. “Were you ever really young and vital and attractive to Mom? I guess you must have been.”
“You’re just like your mother,” my father says. “Full of unrealistic expectations.”
My mother ran off with the bikers when I was four years and three months old.
“Wanted to feel the wind in her hair,” my father reported often in the long years of her subsequent absence. “Talk about great and unrealistic expectations. Even back then everyone had to wear helmets. But she wanted the wind in her hair. Your mother fell in love with every fickle fantasy that offered her a ride. You’re just like her in that way, you always were.”
I know I am.
But Dad, I want to say, I tried so hard not to be like Mom. Can’t you give me credit, A for effort? I deconstructed Mom, not that I had much to work with: a few old photographs of a leggy brunette and some leftover broken jewelry. I tried to understand the psyche behind her glamorous beauty and carefree smile so I could invert her blueprint and be the girl you wanted me to be.
Dad’s still there with his baggy knees, skin like old pantyhose stretched too thin. Fierce hair sprouts out of his ears and his nose is gigantic, big and beaky. He is infinitely sad; a basset hound drooping gloriously.
“And now,” he says, doleful like a church bell, “this young man. Amelia, what are you doing with this young man? Even for you…”
But I don’t want to talk to my father about my love life, so I open my eyes and he leaves; I watch him shuffle off. Now there’s just me and the interminable sleepless night for company. I’m numb. I’m so exhausted my skin burns and my eyes are scorched like poached eggs deep-fried in sand, but I can never sleep.
Where is he?
I think about cleaning the rug under the coffee table; it’s crunchy with old food, hair and crumbled bits of god knows what. But I finish the whiskey instead, hoping I’ll get wasted and wake up to find he’s back.
Even if he does come, it won’t be anytime soon. He’ll want to punish me. Make me wait. Make me sorry for loving him.
I wonder if I should cry. I’m willing to do it if it’ll bring him sooner. But I’ve no way of knowing if that magic will work and I don’t want to waste the effort. Crying isn’t easy for me. I don’t do emotion much. Except for loss. I do loss really well. Ever since I was four years and three months old.
My father took a photograph of me the day my mother left. It’s one of the only pictures he ever took; he even dressed me up for the occasion in my little toddler frock. I look quite happy, gnawing on a pudgy hand.
That’s because it hadn’t hit me yet.
I got stuck in the elevator at my last job. Stuck with a woman with panic and anxiety disorder and claustrophobia. I watched while she nearly lost her mind. I swear her mind would have blown like a stepped-on grape if they hadn’t opened the door when they did.
She rushed out, crying and heaving.
“Well done,” the office manager said to me. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”
To do what?
“To handle the situation so well,” she said.
I shrugged. I hadn’t done anything, I was just being my usual numb self. I was also interested to see what would happen when the woman lost her mind. So I wasn’t handling anything well. My father would have known. I was just watching loss unfold and waiting to see the bull’s eye pierced.
“If only you could be that calm and assertive when you’re taking calls, you might actually be able to make a go of this job,” the manager said.
I nodded. But I couldn’t speak. I had nothing to say. It’s not like I’m shy; it’s just that my voice gets stuck trying to come out. I move my tongue to the back of my mouth and try to find the voice-activation switch, the talk now button, but there’s nothing. I’m stuck.
Sometimes when I’m on the phone, my voice sounds so weird. That’s when I want to conduct my own personal sound check and say things like “Testing, Amelia, are you there? Are you there, Amelia?”
But I don’t say it; I stick to the script with my voice sounding like it’s coming at me through a tunnel, echoing, bouncing. Amelia, are you there?
The day I lose my job I go to Goodwill to buy myself a treat. I know there’s a sense of urgency waiting to be felt with regards to the unemployed aspects of my life, but I just can’t access the necessary panic.
What I need, I think while I survey a stack of chipped ornaments, is a holiday. Of course I can’t afford a beach vacation, so I settle for a stack of cheap reads.
I sniff my bag of books. Not even books escape the unmistakable fragrance that comes with a Goodwill purchase; cheap perfume, sour sweat and life stretched thin by poverty.
I’ll lie in bed, or on the sofa, eke my way through the last of my hash and drink beer for breakfast. A lot of girls don’t like beer but I do. It makes a surprisingly refreshing beverage to kickstart the day. Crisp, cold, tangy. My mouth waters at the thought. And you know, it’s nutritious too. Full of carbs and good stuff.
I find him outside the Goodwill. Or should I say, we find each other.
Why did I let him follow me home that day? He was bent down, tying the shoelace of his ragged black sneaker, and all I saw was the top of his head. Still I knew. I wondered why rich people never have to stop to tie their shoelaces, what, like rich people’s shoelaces know to behave themselves?
I passed him carefully, watching the top of his head, and I knew he was beautiful. He sensed me too, I know he did because he followed me. I watched his reflections behind me on storefront windows. I thought it was romantic, him following me like that, and I led him a merry chase, but he was the winner. He’d already caught me. Pinned me down. We both knew that.
I took him home. He was mine and I was his; we were brought together by chemistry and destiny. He was my fickle fantasy, offering me a ride.
And now we’ve been together for three weeks, inseparable but he’s gone and I’ve got nothing but a cold empty basement apartment with the smell of damp and the rent due. I shiver and look around. I count three inches of filth among my decorative skills.
I crave more alcohol; I want to obliterate my life. Then I remember that he drank all the beer and smoked all my hash.
“Listen, go get your own,” I told him.
“Fine,” he said, his blue eyes cold, and he got up and went. I should have kept quiet.
I get up, dig around and find half a bottle of cheap vanilla vodka in the back of the freezer behind a tub of ice cream I’d forgotten was even there. I investigate the ice cream and find it’s the texture of thick old paint.
I go back on the sofa and drink and drink and drink. The bottle of vodka is a relic from an optimistic time when I was house-proud and had friends; they came over for takeout and conversations and fun evenings. Back in the day when I thought I could hack it, before it all got too tiring.
I hate the taste of the vodka but it does the job and the world goes away just like I want it to.
I wake to the sound of a key in the lock.
“Started the party without me I see,” he says, grinning. His eyes are glittering and red. He’s triumphant. I swear he’s almost doing a shimmy. “Don’t worry, I’ve got enough to last us weeks.”
I’m so glad to see him that I nearly throw up. We party hard and I pass out.
When I wake I’m in a van and my hands are tied in front of me. I’m slumped against the window and there’s a gag in my mouth.
“Listen buddy,” I hear him say into a cellphone, his beautiful fingers holding the phone. He’s a movie star with a cigarette holder, his fingernails dirty. “You know that favour I wanted to ask you? Well, I need it now, I’ll be by in like twenty, that okay? Thanks buddy, see you.”
He disconnects and looks ahead like I’m not even there. He’s humming a happy little tune. He’s casual, relaxed, one hand on the steering wheel, the other elbow out the window. He brushes his hair back from time to time. I wait for the passengers of passing cars to see I’m gagged. Surely we’ll attract attention? But we don’t.
I’m sweating. It’s hot. I’ve got no idea of the time; it must be around mid-morning. We make our way through slow-moving traffic and reach the city outskirts, areas of broken glass, industrial miscellany, auto repair shops and welfare crack houses and we finally pull into a repair garage.
“What the….?” A big guy in a white vest dirty with patches of sweat and grease is holding a big dog on a chain. Looks like it would take a lot to shock this fellow and yet he’s dismayed.
“Hey man,” he says, raising one hand and calming the barking dog with the other. “I don’t want to know, you understand. Just take the piece of crap car I owe you and go, you don’t exist to me, just go and then we’re even, don’t came back, not ever, okay.”
My wrists hurt badly. I need to use the washroom. I mumble, am ignored. My boyfriend makes no sign he’s heard me, but once he’s moved his stuff from one car to the other, he leads me to a dirty washroom, unties my hands and pushes me inside the dark closet. Despite the situation, the sweet relief of urinating brings joy. There’s an ancient handwritten sign tacked to the wall; if you don’t flush drain, piss some where else.
My nose closes, objecting to the filthy toilet, the thick axel grease and clotted auto grime.
No basin to wash my hands, not that I sat down anyway, what with all that greaser-dirt brokenness and filth.
He reties my hands when I come out and leads me to the nondescript white car, puts me in the passenger seat and buckles me in. He starts the car and we drive out, my feet deep in a mess of coffee cups, McVomit wrappers, old crossword puzzles and trampled dirty newspaper pinup girls. Somewhere along the way, someone spilt milk in this car and never bothered to clean it up.
We hit the highway. I keep my eyes on the road; he’s humming again, pulling on a cuticle, biting his nails, his head cocked to one side. His baseball cap is pulled low; for all the world he’s a kid on family road trip.
We drive for what seems like hours when I realize I can free myself of the mouth gag. I think about it for a while without doing anything. I know it’s crazy, but I don’t want to make any kind of movement that’ll put the situation in jeopardy. I’m so in love with him; I fear he’ll deposit me at the side of the road if I give him pause for thought or reason. I’m so afraid he’ll leave me and I’ll never see him again, and I can’t bear that.
I wonder if he’s thought this through, like where we’re going. Does he have money, a plan, a destination, a dream of us being together? I have my doubts.
The signs say we’re headed west. West, the mythical west. Life in B.C., where things are laidback and the weed grows stronger and everybody has a new chance at life. Is that where we’re going?
The sun beats down through the windshield and burns into my clothes. My t-shirt smells like it’s been in the drier, only I forgot to wash it and it’s sweaty. There’s no air conditioning and the window on my side is rolled shut, his is open but the hot dry air blowing in does nothing to cool the furnace of the interior.
Leaving my gag in place, I stare straight ahead, happy to be close to him, excited by his daring. I know other girls would be frightened, but other girls don’t burn their bridges in front of them or drink beer for breakfast. Other girls feel normal things.
My eyes are heavy. I worry I’ll see my father when I close my eyes, but I can’t help myself; I lean against the window and sleep. My father does not make an appearance.
When I wake, it’s dusk and I have no idea where we are. I look over at him for the first time but he stares straight ahead. I sense his mood has changed and not for the better.
I’m not hungry or thirsty, but my gag is wet with saliva, making me uncomfortable.
Feigning the fog of sleepiness, I reach up, pull it off and drop it onto the floor to join the Sunshine Girls. I wipe my mouth with both hands and don’t say a thing. He’s silent, but I know him well enough to know he’s feeling shame, remorse, disgust. I know by the way he won’t look at me. We’ve traversed this road of self-hatred a number of times, even in the short time we’ve been together. I know there’s no way for me to reach him; he’s a small boy caught in dirty act. I can’t make it better.
I shift in my seat. I’m stiff and tired. My t-shirt is twisted, digging into me. I’m in the same dirty clothes and my panties cut into me. My pink sweatpants are bunched over my thighs. My feet and knees are swollen, sweaty and gritty. My shoes, what shoes am I wearing? I’m not; I’m still wearing all those socks. My feet are still mummified in socks.
I study my hands. The rope is thin, tight and well knotted. I twist my wrists experimentally, more out of boredom and curiosity than any real desire to be free. Tiring quickly, I stare out the window at the passing farm fields. I glance at the gas tank; it’s nearly empty. We’ll have to stop soon.
I look at his powerful construction worker forearms. Oh, wait, he likes to be called a stonemason, not a construction worker. Even though I love him, it’s a stretch and I’ve told him so.
We pull over for gas. I sit very still. I don’t want to disturb him or draw attention to myself in a way that will make him reject me.
He takes out a huge wad of cash. Been moving a fair bit of product lately, I think. Well, at least we’re okay for a bit.
On the road again, darkness falls. I bring my hands up to my face and study the rope, this time in earnest. I work at it with my teeth for a frustrated ten minutes, then give up. No use breaking my teeth. He turns and looks at me for the first time since this all began. He pulls over onto the shoulder, stops the car and wordlessly unties my hands. His kindness brings tears to my eyes.
He pulls out onto the road again and I stare ahead, rubbing my wrists for a while.
I’m getting hungry, but I won’t ask. We drive on in silence in the darkness. High above us, a blood-red moon rises and hangs heavy in the night. It’s a blood fruit, looking down on us, watching.
We drive through the night, stop at a coffee shop to use the washroom. In the blue-green neon glow of the fluorescent washroom glare, I study my face in the mirror, wash my hands and ask my reflection is this what you want? I hear the answer. Don’t leave me alone.
My frightened face is not my own and I turn away.
I hurry back to him, fearing he’s left me, and I try not to let him see my fear or my haste. He’s waiting for me. He’s looking out into the night, admiring his handsome reflection on the glass. He watches my reflection join his then he turns towards the door. I follow.
For a split second, I am angry because he doesn’t ask me if I want anything to eat or drink. He could have asked me.
Weird, that tiny flash of anger, because I never feel anything, at least I don’t think I do. I ignore my anger and focus on his beauty instead.
Oh, his beauty. High cheekbones, perfect nose, strong jawline, those pale blue eyes, dimpled crooked smile. In another time, another life, he could have been a model. When I told him this, he said he knew; it wasn’t too late. I laughed before I realised he was serious.
Morning sees a hot sunrise. I’m numb, immobile. I try to summon my father, but he’ll have no part of this.
Suddenly we pull into a roadside motel, without warning. He gets us a room, and I follow him into a cheap hellfire cave. The mosquito-netted window is prison to a single buzzing fly; the orange carpet floor is cigarette-burned, the stained red bedcover welcomes.
Overwhelmed with relief, I sink onto the bed and crush a stale pillow under my head.
He sits on the edge of the bed for a while, unmoving. Later, from the depths of my drowning sleep, I feel him lie down gingerly, he’s careful not to touch me. From his calculated distance,I feel his unspeakable vibrating fury but then I sleep.
When I wake, I move towards him, lie against his back; he shifts away, I follow. At the height of the midday heat I wake in a dry burning sweat, my heart pounding. I get up for a drink of water, run my wrists under the cold tap, clean myself with the tiny bar of soap and wish for a toothbrush. I return to the bed and lie on my side, far away from him. This time my back is to him. I stare at the imitation wooden scarred nightstand and my head feels heavy, uncomfortable.
Stalemate. But then, as always, he surprises me. His touch is sure, confident. I stiffen and for a moment I don’t do anything. Then I sigh and lean back into him, give weight and acceptance to his gesture. Yes.
He stays like that for a moment and then withdraws, leaving a sticky and wet handprint on my shirt. The hot dampness of his touch quickly turns cool and empty. Motionless for a moment, I spin, turn to him and wrap my arms around him. If he pushes me away I’ll leave right there and then, walk out into the anonymous harsh day, find my way out and know we’re done.
I expect him to do just that but he wraps me tightly in his big arms and kisses me boyishly—too much saliva—with a hunger equaling mine. He pulls my panties down. When it’s over, he leans across me, grabs his lighter and fires up a smoke.
The sun passes over us finally. We lie still, neither of us speaking, him smoking.
“So,” he says, blowing a smoke ring at the ceiling, “you’ll go with me?”
What can I say? My father’s nowhere to be seen. My mother’s long gone. I try to find my talk now button, but there’s nothing. I’m stuck.
He falls asleep, his burning cigarette still between his fingers.
I lie awake. Wide awake. I watch his cigarette burn and I think about my life. All the bridges I’m supposedly responsible for having burned. Yes, supposedly because I’m feeling a little restless about the state of things.
You know when someone says you can’t have something and suddenly that’s all you want? Like anything… take for example cream-filled doughnuts from Tim’s. For years I wanted them so badly, but Dad said no, no, no, they were crap.
The day I moved out, I ate six cream-filled doughnuts. The next day I ate two. I ate two every day for about a week and then I slowed down to one a day then I lost interest and now, when I go to Tim’s, I wonder what I ever saw in them.
I think about my mother. Not for the first time, I wish I had a mother who could give me advice, help me. I always saw her as heroic for the brave bold gesture of her leaving. She was an exotic bird who couldn’t live in a cage with dour old Dad. But lying there on the bed, watching the cigarette burn down to the butt, I feel a pulse beating at the back of my throat like a trapped butterfly and I’m so angry I could choke. She was my mother. She had no right to leave, leave me with him – all because she wanted to feel the wind in her hair. My heart is pounding so hard I think it’s trying to jump out of my chest. There’s a prickling along my scalp, a redness to my vision and my skin feels tight.
And something else. A memory, a kind of déjà vu, of a motel room like this one, a long time ago. I’m not an adult, I’m a child and my mother’s on the bed with a man who isn’t my father.
I break out in a sweat. I have no idea where this image comes from.
I hug my arms tightly to my chest.
I close my eyes and let the memory float back to me. I know that if I try to force it, it’ll leave—a timid guest quick to flee.
I rely on the smell of the room to cast me back to where I need to go. Stale carpet deodorizer, cigarette smoke, dirty ashtrays, cheap rayon curtains warmed by sunshine, the melting varnish of the wood veneer.
I’m four years old and I’m sitting across the room in a chair. My feet don’t reach the floor. I’m not swinging my legs because I’m trying to stay as quiet as I can because I’ve been told don’t make a sound.
The headboard hits the wall: thud, thud, thud.
I wait. I don’t make a sound.
Funny, the room’s an oven but I’m ice cold and my t-shirt is wet against my skin. I wrap my arms around myself, trying to warm up or comfort myself.
And I’m not just furious with my mother who never loved me and who left without a backwards glance, but with my father too. He’s never been kind. Ever. He could have been kind, even just once.
And he’s wrong. I don’t burn my bridges in front of me.
I look over at the love of my life. He’s fast asleep, snoring lightly.
I sit up carefully, I don’t make a sound. Swing my feet onto the floor. Stand. Reach for his wallet on the nightstand and I take the car keys.
I light a cigarette and take a deep drag. I lay the cigarette carefully on the cheap bedcover and I watch it smolder and grow.
I move quietly and quickly towards the door, turn the handle and slip out into the night.
- ends -
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