Two in HOOD Eleven, We are Graced by Danila Botha

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Wolf Eyes 

He loves me with all his heart. I know because he tells me everyday. He orders me romantic vintage postcards because he knows how much I love them. The latest was from the twenties, and had a cartoon of a little blond boy, with bubble gum cheeks and little beads of sweat flying off his forehead as heated up an old fashioned kettle on the stove. I’m All Steamed up for you, Valentine, it said, underneath. On the back he wrote, in beautiful looping script, You suit me to a tea, Robyn. All my love, Jack.  He buys me thoughtful gifts, like a framed black and white poster of Audrey Hepburn biking on a street in Europe. We met when I was working in a bookstore. I was wearing a black vintage dress, and he said he couldn’t believe with my dark hair and slim build, how much I looked like Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. He was wearing silver aviator sunglasses and a blue and white plaid jacket. His hair was messy, and he had a goatee. I remember really wanting to see his eyes. He was a screenwriter, he said, and he was looking for plays or books to read as inspiration. I gave him a mix of classic plays and contemporary novels: Shakespeare, Ibsen, Kerouac’s the Dharma Bums. He was floored when I handed him a copy of Hamlet. I can’t believe it, that play changed my life when I was younger, he said. We were meant to meet. I have to take you out for coffee. 

Jack has always had a magic way of knowing how to give me exactly what I need. When things are good, he makes me feel like the most elegant, interesting, well understood woman in the world. So if people don’t think it’s enough, it’s their problem, not mine. Society’s definition of love is too narrow. I mean, look at the movies we watch. They never tell you what comes next, after you fall madly in love with someone. They fade to black at the real test of anything. 

They don’t deal with the inertia that sets in. They don’t know about the fights when he yells or cries, and you retreat into a corner, silently growing more powerful with each non -reaction. They don’t know about the passive aggressive flirting with each other’s friends. They don’t know about the time you smashed his Scotch bottle over his fancy new Ipad because you were sure he slept with your roommate from college. They don’t talk about what happens when you have no time to spend together- when he’s consumed with work and you’re unemployed, then you find a job and then you both work different hours so when you finally do see each other, you’re both too exhausted to interact. How you can live in the same house and sleep in the same bed, but live separate lives? They don’t know what it’s like to have great memories, but not enough present tense. Photoblogs with collaged images of shared interests but when you sit together on your couch there’s dead silence where conversations used to be. 

My friends don’t get the reality of these things. If they do, they don’t like to admit how hard relationships are. You have to want to stay in love with someone.  People who think he doesn’t love me don’t understand. I mean, yes, I admit it, sometimes he cheats, but to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever been with a man who hasn’t, or wouldn’t. The intensity of the joy he gives me is worth the massive undertaking. It happens when he wrestles with and gives in to temptation. Lots of girls like him, and he meets so many actresses and would be writers who are desperate for their shot at something. He’s charming and handsome, and he’s only human. I have to be realistic. 

The fact is, he fell completely in love with me. He liked my soft spoken-ness and how well mannered I was and now he says he likes my strength. He likes that I tell him what to do. He likes what I offer him emotionally and intellectually. 

He just wants them for their bodies, but beauty fades. I said that to one of them once. She was this young writer, Ariel, who claimed she didn’t know that he wasn’t single. She liked all of his pictures on Facebook, including pictures of our dogs. She was pretty in an artsy kind of way. He even flirted back with her until I made him stop. It had too much potential for public humiliation. 

I arranged to meet her at a Starbucks downtown without telling him.  I pretended to care about her, and pressed her for what had happened. He offered to take me out for drinks, on a weeknight, she said, to talk about writing. I wasn’t sure what he wanted. We weren’t alone, this poet friend of his was there too. After an hour, we held hands, and then he kissed me. He offered to drive me home, and we made out but that was it. He said he wanted to be good, which I thought meant, not sleep together on a first date. I snickered. She was hopelessly naïve. We hung out again, and he told me that he lived with his ex, and that it was complicatedAnd you believed him, I asked her, incredulous. You know we’re common law, right? We’re a family. Even if it was true, which it wasn’t, How did you think we were going to resolve our issues if he was seeing you? She shrugged. He seemed unhappy, she said quietly. Happy people don’t cheat. I felt the blood drain from my face. We are happy, I screamed. Jack and I are madly in love. I paused, waiting for the realization to set in. He told me that you were pursuing him aggressively. He told me that you wouldn’t leave him alone. You’ll end up alone, I promised her. That’s what you get when you have no morals, and you go for another woman’s man. 

There was mascara running down her face, and she shook as she stood there, flailing, speechless. I felt like I’d slayed a dragon. There’s a Shopper’s down the street, I told her. You can buy waterproof mascara there. Come here, I whispered like I was going to give her a hug, and pulled out one of those small fifty cent packs of Kleenex out of my purse. Stay the fuck away from him, I said, standing so close that my saliva hit her in the face. 

To tell you the truth, the other women’s feelings are the most annoying part of all of this for me. I can’t believe they actually think he might fall for them and leave me. Look, I want to tell them, he just wants sex. Haven’t you noticed the wolf eyes he looks at you with?  You know that kid’s story, in Little Red Riding Hood? Where the wolf tricks the grandmother into thinking he’s Little Red Riding Hood? The grandmother says, why, what big eyes you have. And he answers, all the better to see you with, my dear.  And then the teeth- all the better to eat you with, my dear. That’s all he wants to do you, you know, just eat ‘em and toss them out when he’s done. 

I mean, I get it. Wolf eyes are flattering. Who wouldn’t want to feel the burning gaze, the moments of undivided attention, those fleeting moments of hope, when all the love in the world seems possible? 

Karma will get her, I told him about Ariel, and he nodded, gently stroked the crucifix I wear around my neck. The only reason we’re not married is that he’s been married before, and it ended horribly. He loves me enough, he told me, not to put me through that. We travel twice a year to see each other’s parents. He’s close to my sisters. He’s a good man. We have the same core values. He just needs more sex than I can give him. I accept his weaknesses, and he accepts mine. I’ll never leave him, so I know that no matter what he’ll never leave me. 

If movies told the truth about love, they’d tell our story.  Our relationship isn’t perfect but it will last forever. I believe in love and I’ll do whatever it takes, even if it means strangling every one of these women if I have to. 

 

What Will Today’s Adventure Be? 

She was hit walking across Yonge street, at Adelaide. It was six forty five, and she was on her way to a spinning class. It was the same route she took from her College Park condo four days a week. She was texting her boss to say she’d probably be there fifteen minutes late. 

They say that your life flashes before your eyes when you’re about to die, but hers didn’t. 

She thought about things that were mundane: whether she was going to be late for work, if her husband would pick her up from work half an hour early. 

When she realized how close the truck was, in the  second when she realized it was too late to run, so paralyzed that she couldn’t even flinch, she wondered if it would hurt. 

It didn’t really.

 She felt her knees crunch like they were made of tin foil. She could hear her heart in her ears, feel her skin tingle. She felt her arms bend forward. She felt the wheel make contact with her lower half. She felt a crush of organs in her stomach. 

She let out a moan. 

She felt her forehead as it grazed the concrete. 

She heard a siren and a car horn.

The last thing she ever saw was a billboard for Sandals Resorts, of a barefoot blond couple dressed in white, frolicking on a sandy coast line. 

It reminded her of her honeymoon six months earlier in Aruba. She smiled. 

Her hearing was her last sense to go. The last thing she heard was a paramedic wondering out loud if they’d pronounce her dead on arrival at the hospital. 

She tried to talk, but no words would come out. 

She was twenty eight. 

*

The last time I saw Shayna, she was wearing my sweater. It was moss green and hung loosely off her bird bone shoulders. She was always walking into my closet and helping herself. When we stopped being friends, she kept all my stuff. I was going through my newsfeed on Facebook when a video of her popped up.  She was dancing in the front row of an MTV studio taping of a No Doubt concert. She was laughing and wearing my clothes.  

We used to love No Doubt. We saw them together when we fourteen, at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Shayna dyed her hair blond, bleached it herself staining all her bathroom towels, while her mother screamed in the background. We used black permanent markers to write We Love You Gwen across the tops of our breasts. We painted our lips the red of fever blisters. We wore gold rhinestone bindis and thought we looked like goddesses. We forgot to actually look in mirrors. 

She’d been my best friend for eight years and not even a month had passed since our fall out. 

When I saw her video, I hated her with the rage of an adolescent. I unfriended and blocked her because I couldn’t take it. 

We’d been friends since our teacher sat us next to each other in grade five. She was a straight A genius, from French to Physics.  People were always telling her how brilliant she was at everything, which made it hard for her to feel any particular passion. For me, it had only ever been music. 

When I was in grade eleven, I answered an advertisement in the back of Now Magazine for a singer in a rock band. When the guys asked me what my musical influences were, I could barely choke them out. Still, they loved my voice. I was wearing a red dress, and a couple weeks later, they decided to call the band Rose Overtone. They said I’d changed the band’s dynamic. 

Shayna came to all our gigs. The night she turned seventeen, she ordered a pitcher of beer and drank the entire thing while we played our set. An hour later, she was throwing up all over his Converse, as John, our bassist held her hair back. Shayna was always complaining about not having enough experience. She didn’t even kiss a guy for the first time until she turned sixteen. 

When I started grade twelve, the band played a showcase for Sony. They signed our band to a development deal, which meant that they would give us money to record then watch us to see how things progressed. 

I was impatient. I wanted to wake up in a different city every day, meeting strangers and playing to new audiences. I wanted to haul gear. I wanted to do interviews. Everyone said I had star quality. 

I didn’t apply to any universities or colleges the next year. 

Shayna applied and was accepted everywhere.  She chose McGill. She majored in Business Management and minored in Biology. She planned to work for a pharmaceutical company when she graduated. She came to visit sometimes, but each time she was a little bit more distant. She used French words and wore more scarves. Most of her clothes were suddenly black or grey. She talked about exams pub crawls and her new friends. She had lots of sex and referred to guys as her lovers. 

Not much had changed with me. I was still living at home. I was waiting tables at a restaurant on Queen St, finishing the album.

A few weeks before I turned nineteen we got the phone call. The label didn’t like our last few demos. They didn’t hear a radio friendly hit. They refused to fund us anymore. 

I didn’t know what to do with myself. The band wanted to keep going, but I didn’t see the point. The label owned the rights to our songs, and we couldn’t even release them independently.

I called Shayna that night, crying hysterically. There was a party in her dorm, and she couldn’t hear me.  “I have a boyfriend, Tara, a real boyfriend”, she shrieked. I started laughing. 

“You don’t even know what’s going on in my life”, I snapped, then proceeded to explain my crisis. 

“You should have had a back-up plan, Tara”, she said, finally. “You’re actually smart. It’s sad.  You could have been more than this”. 

I hung up and cried. 

An hour later, I wrote her an email. I told her that I was more than just a fun, stupid part of her childhood.  I accused her of being elitist, of only keeping me around because my failures made her look even better. The last line I wrote was: “I guess just like all the guys you‘ve blown this year, you’ve blown it with me” 

She responded, coolly, saying that she was happy to never speak to me again. She had traded up, with friends she had more in common with. She added that she’d made copies of my email and put them all over her dorm. Her friends found my immaturity hilarious. 

We never spoke again. 

The band broke up, but the drummer Mike and I started dating and fell in love. We got married and have a son, Kelsey.

I was taking Kelsey to preschool last week, when I ran into an old friend who I hadn’t seen in ten years. 

After some polite small talk, she told me what had happened to Shayna.  I was in shock.  Shayna was supposed to be, and have everything. 

She had died six months earlier, so I didn’t know how to pay my respects. 

There aren’t many things I can tell you about Shayna that are of substance. I can tell you that her favourite chocolate bars were Wunderbar and Hershey’s Cookies and Cream. She also loved coffee. especially a hot white chocolate Mocha. 

She loved trashy magazines, American sitcoms and romantic comedies. She always wanted to travel. 

When we first started high school, I was lost. I had terrible grades. I hadn’t made many new friends.  Shayna and I had exactly one class together, and it was gym. 

She was incredibly uncoordinated and I was bored. I managed to convince her to skip class with me one day, but we couldn’t think of anywhere to go, so we sat in a bathroom stall and closed the door. 

I cried. I told her I didn’t know what I was doing in school, or what I wanted to be, and I was scared of failing. I told her I missed being a little kid, back when everything was simpler. 

It seemed funny to us that we hadn’t been best friends in kindergarten. Alice in Wonderland was both of our favourite movies. We both liked salami sandwiches.  

My Little Pony was our favourite TV show. 

We both remembered the words to the theme song. 

We sat on the tile floor on either side of the toilet. 

We sang the words, quietly, laughing: “My Little Pony, what’ll today’s adventure be? Will there be exciting sights to see?” 

And in that moment, I stopped feeling so alone. 

I’ll never forget you.

 ___________________


Danila Botha Vernon is the author of a collection of short stories called Got No Secrets (Tightrope Books and Modjaji Books, 2010) and a novel, Too Much On the Inside (Quattro Books, May 2015) These stories are from a new collection she’s working on, called For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known.

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