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About the Author
Can You Wave Bye Bye, Baby? was the winner of the QSPELL Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the QSPELL/FEWQ First Book Award, and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and the Pearson Canada Reader’s Choice Award at The Word on the Street. It was also a New York Times Book Review Notable Book.
Elyse Gasco lives in Montreal with her husband and their two daughters. She is at work on her next book of fiction.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
IT'S A DIFFERENT TIME and it's one of those homes for girls, a place for pregnant girls to go away to and have their babies quietly, a convent-type thing where it is hoped that all the hushed holiness will keep the girls from heaving and grunting too loudly. One of those places. You know. You've seen the same movies I have. It's a home for these pregnant unweds and an institution for children with Down's syndrome, a kind of catch-all clubhouse for the lost and stigmatized, for all these wounds received during the passion. What difference does it make what the name of the place is? Something French. Sacre Coeur or Notre Dame de Grâce or something. Somewhere in Quebec. Imagine the Plains of Abraham minus the canons and the general war aura. Then imagine that orphanage in Oliver. Now put that orphanage on the Plains of Abraham lots of green and land stretching out, prop up a cow or two, a wire fence that always needs fixing, and a gardener named Jacques-Louis who likes to rub their pregnant stomachs with his rough, muddy hands, and maybe he's just a little slow, a bit retarded, so the girls can fantasize that he is a violent monster, but when that calf gets caught under the wire fence and the Mother Superior wants to slaughter it, isn't it Jacques-Louis who saves the animal and nurses it back to health? And maybe there's a mangy German shepherd, half blind but steadfast loyal to the Mother Superior to the point where these girls in trouble, these girls with reputations, are starting turnouts. The English girls give the place a Native name. They call it Shegoneaway. When they see a new face, bloated andtired, thick waterlogged wrists and ankles, they say: Hello, and welcome to Shegoneaway.
She sits at the edge of the narrow cot, neatly made and covered tautly with a white embroidered blanket, the kind that, if you run your hand over it with your eyes closed, feels like a skin disease, tiny white embroidered circles that pop up like pimples. She is The One. You can tell by the way she plays to the camera, showing only her best side, and plus she has the fullest lips, this makes her oddly lovely and they are always oddly lovely. She crosses her hands over her round stomach, as though she is trying to hide something. She wears mirrored sunglasses and wonders if the nun, a young pudgy virgin with one very yellow big tooth, can see her reflection in them. The nun says something to her in French -- are you comfortable are you a whore to end all whores -- and she answers: Yes, thank you. Oui, merci. The girl in the bed next to hers is wearing just a flannel blouse, some kind of bed shirt, covered in small pink teddy bears, that might give someone the impression of innocence if it weren't for the fact that she is nine months' pregnant, just sprawled there waiting for the contractions so she can get on with her life, and she isn't wearing any underwear. The nun glances at the girl and reaches over to pat the bare knee kindly, saying in a heavy-accented English: Not too much longer now. The girl smiles meekly, but when the nun turns away the girl rolls her eyes and grabs her naked crotch in defiance. There are no men around and so she makes the nun the enemy.
There are three floors and a cellar. Do you really need a full description? Can't you accept this fantasy shorthand, you know, like who cares how exactly he climbed the trellis to your bedroom window, so long as he cut your clothes off with his sword without nicking you. Fine. Picture a grand wooden staircase twirling up three floors, and everyone's body sweat is a kind of spicy mahogany tinged with a lemon furniture polish, and there's always a lot of action on the stairs, great pregnant pauses on landings where nuns stop to grip a banister and contemplate God, or girls about to give birth stagger down as though they've been shot, clutching their stomachs, water running down their thighs, their hands accidentally pulling down those small framed photographs of Jesus crying: Help me, help me. Holyfuckingshit. And the clackity-clack of the social-service woman's pumps, a thin hockey stick with a tuft of greying hair, pressing her clipboard against her flat breasts like a shield. And the young sisters, their electric celibacy giving off sparks as they charge hurriedly up and down the great staircase, their habits flapping against their faces like elephant ears, they are whispering with great excitement and great terror: The Nazis are coming. The Nazis are coming. Can I help it if my only nun reference is The Sound of Music?
There's a lot of coughing. On the first floor, nuns roll over and cover their mouths. On the third floor, girls who can't find a comfortable position, gifts waiting to give their babies away, cough to pass the time, cough and clear their throats as though they were about to say something. And on the middle floor, the children, locked away by their frightened parents who didn't know what to do with those pale dopey faces hack and gasp in their sleep just to remind the world that they are there.
She, The One, is lying under the pustular spread, her eyes open wide against memories and second thoughts. Somewhere on the second floor she hears a kind of screaming, an animal yelping, like something caught in a trap that snaps to crush bone. It is only the sound of nightmares escaping through their mouths, and though she tiptoes down the stairs of her heart that is creaking with pity, still, she is afraid. Afraid that they will move her child down to the second floor, afraid that she'll move down to the first, and eventually end up in the cellar, lurking in the stone corners with only her stories. Ooo, says the girl in the bed beside her, the girl she calls The Crotch. Ooo, the Mongies are screaming. She scowls at this girl and wraps her arms around herself like a straitjacket. I will go crazy with these thoughts, she thinks. And so she escapes into prophecy, a solace for a weak spirit. She plots the life of the unborn, returning to these images like a soap opera. You will travel, she says. You will love. You will hate anything made with dill. And while she prays this way, silently moving her lips, the whole child's life unfolding like a great map, impossibly life-size, The Crotch is sobbing: Someone shut those mongoloids up.
* * *
He leans forward, resting his hairy arms on the desk. He shifts an Eskimo sculpture, some carving of a walrus and her pup, from one side of the cluttered desk to the other. If I look down, I can see his big feet, in his big suede walking shoes, crossed at the ankles. He waits. I don't know where I got that bit about the mongoloids. I guess I must have read it somewhere. I do know that in high school, a teacher who every day seemed to be losing tufts of his hair (poodle-like curls, strangely apricot coloured) backed me against the lockers and asked if I would see him in his office. He was pale and blotched easily and I was half in love with him, so that for a moment I imagined that something huge was about to happen. Instead, he handed me a small folded pamphlet that said Re-examining Adoption. My eyes fixed hard on the word examine and my cheeks burned. In his office, he stuck his head out the small cubicle window and smoked a cigarette while I sat on his swivel chair, spinning myself dizzy. The wind whipped at the smoke and I worried for his hair. Any minute now, I thought, he is going to turn around and kiss me, but all he asked was if I would come to his Family Life class and talk about adoption. Just the word itself made me feel slightly seedy, slightly exposed. Sure, I answered, regaining my adolescent form, snappy, bored. No biggie.
To his classroom I wore a short, pleated skirt and sheer blue nylons, and I sat on his desk with my legs crossed. I made jokes. When some of the kids asked if I felt normal, kids who still thought it was funny to stick a pencils up their noses or show you the chewed-up food in their mouths, I made a spazzy face, eyes bulging, mouth gaping, and asked them what they meant. Of course there was this one girl, also adopted, but she wouldn't tell anyone. She just sat there glaring at me with her dark, dark eyes and her jagged bangs slashed across her forehead. Much later we heard that she tried to stab her mother with a corkscrew and ran away with some musician to Whitehorse. But life is filled with stories. Who really knows why anyone disappears?
You see, I grew up thinking that none of this was supposed to make a difference, but all I can seem to do is imagine, and imagine being imagined. I feel her talking to me in great imperatives, my favourite tense, so confident and unhesitating. She follows me like a camera. I am always looking over my shoulder, fixing my hair, adjusting my underwear, in case she's watching.
He moves his thumb up and down absently, as though he is pressing a lighter, a leftover habit from another time maybe. He sucks on things, whatever he can find on his desk a pen cap, an envelope opener, an uncurled paper clip. He has this way of smiling only with his eyes, his mouth stays as a scribbled pencil line across his face, but on command he can make his crows' feet appear. He thinks that it is charming, but it's just a trick, like making your ears wiggle. It's difficult to ignore and it forces you to say something.
I say: I read somewhere that over half of a normal conversation can be heard from inside the womb. I think some psychologists are trying to get women to read to the fetus, to tell it stories, under the notion that it is good for the baby to begin to relate to its environment. This is all very interesting but someone is going to have to define "normal conversation" for me. But the greatest part, the real clincher, is that the fetal ear is so sensitive to noise, so susceptible to your vibrations, that you have to be extra careful, extra soft and gentle with your language otherwise you could do some real damage.
Underneath his desk he is rocking one big foot back and forth on its heel, like a metronome, or a wave goodbye. He gropes for something to put in his mouth. He starts for the stapler but stops himself in time. Here it comes. You know, he says, reaching for a fountain pen, it's not easy to lose a baby. He is very astute, to know almost instinctively that it is not like a set of misplaced keys, that there are only so many places a baby could hide.
* * *
She is timing The Crotch's contractions and someone else has gone to find a nun. She is holding the sweaty girl's hand and the girl is screaming: Get it out of me. Stupid bastard baby. The Crotch is fierce. She wants to sing in nightclubs, she wants to smoke cigarettes, she wants to wear red dresses and be thin again. I don't know if you can tell, she says, her face suddenly relaxed, almost flaccid, but I used to have a really great ass. Finally, when they take The Crotch away, she leans back on her own pillows and pushes her fists hard into her temples. She thinks of The Crotch doing her stripteases, playing with her fat stomach like it's a third breast, she thinks of her lightly playing bongos on her belly, making up those really sorry love songs she thought she'd try out on a few record producers when she started her life over again. That's how she begins all her sentences, all her stories, all her plans: When I start my life over again I will ... And one day, when a nun was slightly short with her, unusually sour, her habit freshly ironed and stiff, The Crotch said: I'm telling you. Give it to Jews. They know how to laugh at themselves. They're even iffy on the hell thing. And celibacy is not an option. She imagines The Crotch having sex, her mousy hair wet across her forehead, every part of her flexed and arched, fingers and toes, the skin just below her pointy collarbone flushed with patches of red, so completely part of the moment that when she opens her eyes it is as though she has been given a post-hypnotic suggestion: You won't remember anything and she doesn't. She imagines The Crotch giving birth, the same sticky hair clinging to her cheeks, and she thinks: She'll be all right. She will not brood. But in the morning she sees that The Crotch is curled up into a prickly ball, like a hedgehog, and won't speak to anyone.
* * *
Anyway, I'm certainly not the first to hear voices, though I'm not even sure I'd describe it exactly as a voice, more of a presence really, a watching, like voodoo, only you don't need a wax figurine, or a chunk of hair, or a piece of tooth. Think of Moses. Put in the bulrushes as a baby, raised in another woman's house, he suddenly started hearing voices. And when he asked the voice who it was, the voice of Our Father the King, the voice said something like "I am that I am" like some kind of long-haired bohemian free spirit, an ancient freakish guru. I mean, that's an answer the tightest social-service agency couldn't get away with. I read somewhere that hearing voices was the normal way of making decisions before 1300 B.C.
He has a new habit. Tugging at the little tufts of hair in his ears. His hand begins to caress his cheek, his fingers trace the outline of his bones, and suddenly, quite by surprise, he is delighted to find a wee harvest in his ears, miniature sheaves of wheat. He pulls and twirls, concentrating hard on the strangeness of these new sprouts. His hands always near his ears now, he seems to be blocking my voice. Sometimes he strokes his eyebrows, brushing them in both directions, like suede, all the hair on his face suddenly fascinating to him, his hands shielding his eyes like an awning. Maybe I am glowing.
I have a friend, a psychic. She puts her hands on my head and rubs my hair into little knots. She writes a column in the paper called "Notes from the Other World." She writes things like: Josie from Poughkeepsie ... Check the lining of the herringbone raincoat. Ella of Trois Rivières ... the woman you buried was not your mother. She sips a strange tea, a brew of almonds and garlic. I lean back on her pillows, away from her mouth. She shoots geography at me, places I might have come from, looking for the natural features of my terrain, waiting for a reaction, some kind of rash of recognition. Malawi? Minsk? Auckland? You know, she says, I thought I saw your eyes dilate when I said Tonga. She tells me that in the ninth month, eyes are open in the womb. She believes that things live and die because they want to, that we have this much control, that there are layers of knowing, like skin, and you peel and peel but now you've done it look, you're bleeding. She also believes that in a past life she was the Pharaoh Daughter's foot masseuse. When I tell her that I think I am being followed, she says: Are you sure you're not being lead, a heavy, malleable, dull grey element?
On a summer day, I see a man in a black parka and a thick, wiry beard running down the sidewalk, heading right for me. I move to get out of his way, but he hits me on purpose, a solid shoulder check, and runs right past. I think: That was her. And my arm bruises. The telephone rings in the middle of the day and a voice says: Are you satisfied with your paper service? And I say: It's you, isn't it? A young teacher in Baton Rouge sits in front of her grade-five class and suddenly, in the middle of history, begins to eat her wooden desk. By the time the principal gets there she has eaten one corner clear off, and they say it was a vitamin deficiency, and of course I wonder if that's her.
First there was God. Then we invented the video camera sometime, smack in the middle of my adolescence and I was convinced that someone had put one in my bathroom, my bedroom, anywhere that I had to be, anywhere that I had to get undressed. In the bathroom, I pulled down my pants and covered myself with towels, and wiped, front to back, shrouded in terry cloth. If I stripped suddenly and exploded into a kind of erotic modern dance, I'd worry endlessly, worry that this videotape would arrive and there I'd be in a movie of myself doing all the crazy things everyone does behind closed doors but can't admit to until they are old enough to believe that it was all a dream. No sense that this life was my own; it was possible that any minute I'd be caught with my hands in metal cuffs just to see what I'd look like in this sort of position, and somehow none of these secrets was my own. It's like those weird science-fiction stories where privacy is impossible and every woman is every child's mother.
I know he is thinking by the way he twirls a clump of ear hair, by the way he presses his lips together with his fingers into a kind of flat duckbill. And he is rocking, back and forth, nursing his idea. Finally, he speaks. You know, he says. There is in the word mother, the word other. I am thinking: Yes, and the words her, the, and or. And in the word assistance, the word ass. But I am prepared for his silliness. This is not the first time we've played word games. I pull out my dictionary and show him another definition for the word mother. It says: A slimy film composed of bacteria and yeast cells, active in the production of vinegar. You have to look these things up. You have to be clear on your terms. Otherwise, you'll believe anything. And even here, now, I feel her, she knows I am here, she is telling me that I have to be clear on my terms. I am only a figment.
* * *
She was away and now she is not, and she tells herself that the baby is dead, and sees a certain horrible blueness that makes it all believable. It is still a time of privacy when windows still have shades and curtains and people pull them down and believe they are secluded, when everyone suspects but nobody knows anything, when diseases are whispered instead of advertised on billboards, when there are still hedges you can peer over, and people save coupons and canned food instead of trees, and she didn't say to herself: Dead? What do you mean by dead? Do you mean lacking sensation, numb? What about without elasticity, complete or utter, perfect or exact? Or do you mean the coldest, darkest, most intense part as in, the dead of the night? She sits on the long swing, sheltered by the green plastic awning. She rocks back and forth on the wooden porch, waiting. There are still six more weeks of bleeding. She thinks of The Crotch, silent and curled around herself, making the surface of her smaller, shrinking the places you could touch her, bleeding somewhere by herself. When she opens her eyes in the morning, there it is, that feeling that she has forgotten something, that something has been misplaced, that in another time maybe it was her homework, or a friend's good pearl earrings, or her mother's fancy umbrella. There must have been a time, she thinks, when everything had its place. There are many different types of fantasies. She invents order. She rocks herself back and forth. After creation, it is good to just sit and rest and she is too tired to move. You can have a whole life in your head and never have to go anywhere.
There are many things to think about. This is what she chooses: she arches her head back and shows him her neck. He traces the veins, the feeling of them pumping out, bulging, making her really three-dimensional. His is the first body and even though her eyes are closed, she misses nothing. She measures the width of his chest with her palms, the length of his lips with her baby finger. She lets him in because the music that year is so good and because she believes that the body comes first as an ambassador, an emissary of goodwill and promises of tomorrow.
Who knows who he is? I used to think maybe a great poet or a misunderstood Hell's Angel who died playing chicken with an eighteen-wheeler. Now when I see the way she follows the bump on his nose with her fingertips, the way she moves her hips in calm perfect circles, I see that it was not a desperate vagabond love, but something she really believed would last forever. Her promise ring is thin and simple, and it is this simplicity that is surprising, that she could ever, her, The One, love anyone so ordinary. He folds his clothes, he shaves without a mirror, he wraps his legs around her when they sleep, and in the morning he massages her hands and calves when they cramp. She unrolls her future in front of her like a long red carpet. She paces up and down the aisle, smoothing out the little folds in the fabric, but everything seems to be in order, everything seems as planned just the way she imagined it. And then one morning he is gone. That's it. Just gone. A small indentation in the bed where he used to sleep, a coffee cup with a film of grinds left in the sink, light-blue underwear neatly balled up in the corner of the bathroom, and a discarded razor blade. And the police shake their heads with pity, their eyes grazing her stomach, but no, she can't be showing yet, and they ask her if she realizes how many people just literally vanish, poof and it's like they were never there. Like little stars exploding, she thinks. Bubble people just popping off into thin air, thousands every day. As though all the forces keeping him together had suddenly been released. Take heart, says one investigator. Matter can neither be created or destroyed. He rolls a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and tells her that if he's learned one thing it's that these vanished people are always somewhere, but not necessarily in the form you imagined.
* * *
He is excited today and cannot get comfortable. He crosses and uncrosses his legs. He leans too far back in his chair and scares himself. He holds his hands under his chin like he's praying. Finally he says: It is not uncommon for adopted girls to give their own first baby up for adoption. It is a syndrome of this legacy. There is no articulate response, nothing the dictionary would cover, so I say: Fucking fascinating. Just fucking fascinating. He says: Yes, tell me about that. So I do.
I seduced my first boy dressed as a cauliflower. I must have thought it was alluring, coming to him like that, in a white cotton lace nightgown, something more appropriate for nursing than anything else. Big puffy white sleeves, a billowing skirt, and lace sprouting from my neck. But underneath this white stem of a body and I can remember wanting it to hurt, wanting to feel myself changing, but there he was, taut and hairless, some kind of moulting bird flapping against me, and I was saying: I can't feel anything. Please, I don't feel anything. I wanted a ripping, something that might feel like life, and when he tried to pull out, whimpering no, to pull away from this raging blaze, I clawed him to me, forced him back inside with my hips, hissing: Give me something.
In the end, it is only the remembering and the imagining that are important. Moments move too quickly, make up the present. Whatever happens, it's always over with in a second. But you have a choice, and if you wanted to you could haunt yourself so well it would become a religion. My friend the psychic doesn't notice that I am getting fatter every day and tells me that everything happens in my mind before it happens anywhere else. So what if I wasn't wearing that pristine nightgown, so what if there was never such a convent, there are a million ways to tell it, just like a horoscope, eventually I'll be right about something. And I feel her with me wherever I go, I have breathed the inside of her flesh, my face pressed into her blood, and so it's no wonder really that I know that somewhere there she is and she is saying to someone, I don't know, I feel this presence and it is only because here I am, imagining, and thinking: There will be days like these when you will feel this presence, and it is not a gift. Think of it as an inheritance.
He is watching me, his head tilted slightly like a spaniel's. He is looking for marks on me, places I might have hurt myself that he hasn't noticed. He seems tired to me today, and I feel protective of him; he has bits of me now and for my own sake I want to support him. He rubs the back of his neck and closes his eyes for a moment and I am embarrassed because suddenly I know what he must look like sleeping. How many versions of the same life can he possibly listen to? He looks down at his hands. He examines his knuckles and then his palms. Maybe he wants to give me his lifeline, maybe he is giving up, maybe he realizes there is nothing he can do for me. Finally, he clasps his hands together hard and I think I can see the blood in his nails. He says: Eventually, you will find a story you can live with. And he opens his hands again, reading the lines to see if he is right.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The short stories in this collection mostly revolve around mother-daughter and adoptive relationships. Gasco's prose style of writing is beautiful and unique. Some of the stories I skimmed, and others I reread; some passages I read aloud to my partner they were so beautiful and descriptive. The stories were dark and depressing at times, but even then the stories were gorgeous. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered this is Gasco's only published work.