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The Republic of Love
By Carol Shields
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2010 Carol Shields
All rights reserved.
IT'S GOOD FRIDAY, a cold spring morning, and Fay McLeod, a woman of thirty-five, is lying in bed beside a man she no longer loves.
His name is Peter Knightly. "Happy Good Friday," he murmurs against her mussed hair, moving toward her under the blanket. He says this in his modified Midlands accent – which always sounds to Fay like someone doing an imitation of an Englishman – and at the same time he's working her thighs apart with his right hand. We can stay in bed, his right hand is saying, we can take our time, and then his thumb moves sideways, elaborately positioning itself.
Yesterday she loved him, but today she doesn't.
No, that's not quite true. She's known for a while. The knowledge has been working away at her, giving off its muted signals. For one thing, she finds that she looks in the mirror a lot lately, squinting, making rude faces, and some mornings she sits on the edge of her bed, hunched there for minutes at a time, shivering. She has a longing to scrub herself down, cut off her hair, floss her teeth until her gums bleed, buy herself a lacy peach half-slip. She's caught herself calculating lately, with her breath drawn in sharply, the length of time she and Peter have been together: three years, one thousand days.
This morning she finds it hard to concentrate on Peter Knightly's thumb, what it's doing. Nevertheless, she registers his words – Good Friday. An official holiday. The folklore center where she and Peter both work is closed today, and somehow the next twelve hours will have to be filled.
She ponders this while Peter Knightly's thumb rotates back and forth – persistent, and very cunning, twiddling away. She's going to have to tell him, today, that it's over. Going on like this is making her sick. Her stomach, right this minute, is burning, and she knows it's not hunger or even pain, but some species of angry embarrassment. The worst of it is that all this – this predicament, this loss and damage – it's her own doing.
Now Peter's mouth has fixed itself on her left nipple, whispering and sliding, a suave licking. Oh, this is very familiar. He's learned after all this time how to please. Don't ever stop, she thinks, but knows he is about to, travel over to her right nipple. Dutifully. Fairly.
Her hand comes to rest on his back, where she discovers an appalling patch of dry skin.
She tries to concentrate on the reverberations of Good Friday. The thoughts spill and roll. Does he know, she wonders, rocking him gently back and forth, that Good Friday has pagan roots? That it is the ultimate day of contradictions? Celebration mixed with gloom. Suffering with satiety. The dolorous and the delightful. Winter and spring. Cold and hot. Did he know, she silently pursues, that in certain quaint corners of England the entire population rolls a giant barrel of beer through the streets, and that this barrel has its origin in the bloodied heads of animal sacrifices?
She is a woman plagued with information, burdened with it, and always checking an impulse to pass it on to others. Is Peter Knightly, her lover of a thousand wasted days, aware that in certain Slavic villages young men on Good Friday fashion squirt guns from reeds and spray each other with water, and that this, of course, has strong sexual implications?
What is he thinking about at this moment? Is he thinking about anything?
Does he realize the importance of Easter eggs? Could anything be more symbolically charged than an egg, a lustrous, fragile egg snatched from a hen house and piously engraved?
No, it's not just her stomach that hurts, it's her heart. It hurts for both of them, and for the passage of time. Shouldn't time add up to something?
"Well," Peter says to Fay – and his voice comes out in aggrieved gasps – "You seem a long way off this morning."
He pulls away, slides his arms from around her body, smoothing the blanket binding over her shoulder in a way that is faintly conciliatory. But his face, drained and hurt, gives him away. Why do you always have to spoil everything? his face says as he retreats to the bathroom.
IF FAY MCLEOD no longer loves Peter Knightly, there is still the question of whether she can live without him, live alone that is. She is thirty-five years old, after all, and should know something about compromise.
Toast, she says to herself, might be the test.
She is being whimsical, of course, which is one of the ways she protects herself, but she is partly serious too: can she bear to stand alone in her kitchen on a Saturday morning, or any morning, for that matter, and push down the lever of her ten-year-old General Electric black-and-chrome toaster and produce a single slice of breakfast toast? One only.
Other things she can do on her own. Traveling, for instance. Last summer, tracking down mermaid legends, she scoured half a dozen American libraries, California, Texas, Boston – three happy weeks, traveling light, one suitcase, three changes of clothes, two pairs of shoes, that was it. She relished the ease of arranging single-seat tickets and the sight every night of a neatly made-up hotel room, avoiding, if she could, those pompous doubles with their giant puffed duvets and bulging headboards. "A very small room, please," she said to a succession of hotel clerks, interchangeable behind their crisp summer haircuts and narrow shirt collars and eager looks, and they'd complied, beaming as though she'd bent forward over the desk and smoothed their faces with the flat of her hand. Occasionally, vacationing families with young children called out greetings, but mostly she sat alone by pool sides or in hotel dining rooms with a book open by her plate. People looked her way and smiled, pitying or else envious, she wasn't sure which, and it didn't matter. She finds the bewilderment of travel rousing. Next summer she'll be off again, Europe this time, her mermaids again, a second research grant, more generous than the first. She departs at the end of July and will be gone for four intense weeks. Most of the arrangements have already been made – and the thought that she will be on her own adds to, rather than subtracts from, her anticipation.
The solitude of living alone does worry her, a grim little visitation of concern – mostly in the late afternoons, when the day feels vacuumed out, but she's not at the point of paralysis, not yet. She's capable, for instance, of going for a walk alone. The street she lives on, Grosvenor Avenue, is old, lined with trees and with Victorian houses, now mostly converted to rental apartments, or to condominiums, like the one she shares with Peter Knightly. The snow is almost gone, the sidewalks more or less clear of ice, and she likes on Saturday afternoons to put on a pair of jeans and her suede jacket and strike off, saying to herself: I, Fay McLeod, have every right to breathe this air, to take possession of this stretch of pavement. (Occasionally during these walks, the word "single" presents itself. She makes herself sigh it out, trying hard to keep her mouth from puckering – single, singleness, singlehood, herself engaged in a single-ish stroll.) Blasts of wind smooth the sky to a glossy blue-rose, and the sun sits weak and yellow. She can set her own pace, that is her right after all, and fill up her lungs with the chilly air, stop if she likes at the Mozart Cafe for a cup of coffee, come home when she chooses. Along the way she smiles and nods at elderly couples or joggers or women dragging shopping bags, and each time this happens she feels her ties to the world yank and hold firm.
Sleeping alone is harder than going for a walk alone, oh yes, she admits it, but she's learned a few tricks of accommodation. And sex these days is everywhere, abundantly, dismayingly available.
As for the future, there will be other men. Or at least there probably will be others. This is one of the hopeful thoughts Fay has about herself. Before Peter Knightly, she lived for three years with a man called Nelo Merino, an investment consultant who was later transferred to Ottawa; she still feels swamped at times by her lost love for Nelo, who is married now, she's been told, and the father of three children. Before Nelo it was Willy Gifford (two years), who produced business training films and was a philosopher of sorts, a Cartesian he liked to call himself, whom she might have married if his political views had been less rigidly anchored and less tiresomely voiced. Between Willy and Nelo, and again between Nelo and Peter, there had been short periods of living on her own, and she honestly can't remember these intervals as being lonely. She has her job at the National Center for Folklore Studies, her friends, her family (mother, father, brother, sister, all of them living close by), her summer trips, and her book on mermaids that she hopes to finish sometime in the next year. She's always busy, too busy, and is always reminding herself of this fact, so that the notion of an empty apartment, even an empty bed, holds no more than a faint flush of alarm. And only when she thinks about it – those late afternoons when her blood sugar dips and the overhead lights in her office go on. She'll manage, though. She knows she will.
It comes down, then, to just one brief moment, which is inwoven in her morning routine and located in that most familiar of rooms, the kitchen. Peter Knightly, with whom she has lived for three years now, will be making coffee, stooping in the manner of tall men and registering on his long face the kind of seriousness she finds silly but endearing. A temporary hood of domesticity and sexual ease hovers over them, sending down its safe blue even heat. He grinds his special French-roast beans and measures out water, and she, standing with her back to him, is making toast, dropping the seven-grain bread into twin slots, pushing the lever down and eliciting a satisfying double click as it first strikes the bottom of its long silvery groove and then locks into place. The heat rises gradually to her face. Her image bends on the satiny chrome – a woman performing a simple but necessary task – and inside the mechanism, down there where she can't see, separate molecules of bread are transcending their paleness and drifting toward gold. She imagines a pair of scented clouds, rectangular and contained, rising up and mingling with the coffee odors. The toastness of toast, its primary grainy essence. Peter is pulling cups from a cupboard, smooth white porcelain objects out of a cartoon, and heating a little jug of milk in the microwave.
Then the toast pops. It always takes her by surprise, those two identical slices bounding upward, perfectly browned and symbolically (it seems to her) aligned, and bringing every single morning a shock of happiness.
FAY IS GREGARIOUS by nature. She's even wondered from time to time – and idly worried – about being perhaps overly sociable, too dependent on the response of others and incapable of sustaining any kind of interior life for more than a few seconds at a time. Who is she anyway but a jumble of other people's impressions? A receptor of external stimulation. A blank lake.
It's a vaguely frightening thought.
People ought to be able to appreciate a sunset, or a waterfall, or a flower, as a solitary experience; she's heard people say so a thousand times and believes it, but doubts she could pass the test. She likes sunsets but doesn't know what to do with them, doesn't distinguish much between one sunset and the next, and isn't chased by them into flights of private reverence or extrapolated awe. She'd never dream of sitting down and writing a sunset poem, for instance. What would she say? Crimson hues, orange bands. Blah, blah, blah.
When pushing up against the world, she needs companionship, someone by her side. Is it because she's the daughter of sociable parents? she wonders. She has a lot of strong curiosity about people, and often she's been praised for her ability to draw out individuals and set them at ease. People relax in her presence, grow expansive. Hannah Webb, who heads the folklore center, frequently asks her to show visitors around. She appreciates, she really does, how time can be telescoped, an hour reduced to minutes when in the presence of agreeable company. The addition of another person can lighten the most routine work and make ordinary experiences luminous – just going to a restaurant or a movie or even on a walk. When she reads about political prisoners locked up for years in solitary confinement, she marvels that they manage to hang on to their sanity. She knows she'd never survive.
Yet here she is, about to make a great change in her life, a change that frightens her with the specter of loneliness. It's Sunday morning, and she and Peter are in their small blue Honda on their way to Fay's parents for Easter lunch. It is 12:45 by the car clock, which has yet to be reset on daylight-saving time. They are driving down a bare sunny boulevard and quarreling over the nature of time.
"It's gone," Fay is saying. "One hour just wiped out. It's like when they do those bowel operations, cut out the tumorous parts and rejoin the sections and try to fool the intestine into not noticing."
"Not really," Peter says in his adult-education voice. "The daylight-saving hour is just an illusion. It never was an hour. Nothing gets thrown away. You have to think of time as a device. An arbitrary invention, that's all. You always go and personalize things, Fay. Why are we talking about this anyway?"
"It feels like robbery, losing the hour at night when we're all asleep, that's what offends me."
"Christ. You're being whimsical again."
"You're nervous," she charges, but keeps her voice small.
"You're right." He says this acerbically, which reassures Fay.
"Just think," she says, "what you could do with that hour if you had it back." But she's having trouble keeping this going.
"What?" The edge on his voice dissolving.
"You could" – she stops to think – "you could make a sandwich. A fried-egg sandwich. With plenty of mayo and salt."
"I've never seen you eat a fried-egg sandwich, Fay. Never."
"Or you could stay in bed, then, and have an extra dream or two. A good classic REM dream, getting on the bus in just your underwear. Or finding a new room in the apartment, a whole room where you thought the closet was."
"You know what that one means."
"That things are out of control."
"Look, Fay, about your parents. Do we tell them today or leave it?"
"It's Easter. Let's leave it."
"Why not get it over with?"
"The whole family'll be there, everyone. Bibbi's even coming."
"This week then. Promise me you'll phone your mother tomorrow. And I think you owe me one thing, Fay."
"That you tell them this is your decision, not mine. You're the one that wants out."
"It's not a decision exactly."
"Then what in God's name do you call it?" His eyes are directed straight ahead, fixed on the light Sunday traffic.
"You make it sound as though all of a sudden I just clenched up my brain and decided."
"You said yourself you felt things were coming to an end."
"I didn't say that exactly."
"Something like that."
"Anyway, let's not drag it out. I'll see about getting a place tomorrow, a room or something.
And then we'll have to think about what to do with the car."
"And the apartment."
Fay looks sideways at Peter, who is glancing up at the telephone wires, his forehead going into lines, too. She wonders what he's thinking. What have their three years together meant, anyway? One thousand days and nights, about to be swallowed up – like last night's hypothetical hour, that lovely light-spirited hour that never was and never will be.
"OH, GOOD HEAVENS," Fay's mother said on the telephone. Chipper, breathless. But disappointed.
Excerpted from The Republic of Love by Carol Shields. Copyright © 2010 Carol Shields. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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