She’d been awake for hours, but the sound of the phone startled her as much as if she’d been in a deep sleep. The ring seemed different somehow; the way she imagined it would be in a foreign country. She stared at the receiver seized by a wild hope that he might have changed his mind. She let it ring, once, twice, three times. To pick it up would oxygenate the hope that needed to be stamped out forever. Voice mail clicked in on the fourth ring: “Good morning, this message is for Kate Macdonough. It’s Dr. Wendell’s office calling to confirm your appointment on…” She yanked the covers off her body, exposing bare arms and legs already pricking with cold. Discomfort propelled her into the kitchen in search of coffee. Everything looks better after coffee. Who said that? Her mother? She tried to recall the sound of her mother’s voice, but it was blocked out by the forced cheerful tones of Dr. Wendell’s receptionist.
She removed her favourite mug from the sink, Van Gogh’s sunflowers, and stuck it under the Keurig. Hot coffee in hand she went back to bed. As soon as she’d settled back under the covers the phone rang again. The hope was less this time, and when voice mail kicked in again, her father’s voice came over the phone; the soft Irish lilt a seductive combination of easy charm, warmth, and more than a hint of danger. A salesman’s voice, except her father wasn’t a salesman. For most of his life he worked as a high end mechanic, but he always seemed to be selling something. This time it was a road trip to her Aunt Elena’s wedding in Fredericton. “Let me know if you’re up for it, Katie,” and then a hint of desperation marred his habitual smoothness. “Call me back, Kate, please.”
She lay back on the pillows and squeezed her eyes shut. Just the sound of his voice pissed her off. No way was she going anywhere with him. Fifteen hours alone together in a car? They wouldn’t make it to Aunt Elena’s wedding alive. Why was he suddenly so jazzed to go to his sister’s wedding anyway? Number three no less. Shit! She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes and when she opened them bright spots of colour danced on the ceiling. Aunt Elena had called her father and told him about Kate’s test results. That’s why her father wanted to see her. She’d called her aunt in a moment of weakness and now it’d come back to bite her in the ass. Dad could piss off. He’d used up all his chances long ago.
Afraid the phone would ring again, she decided to have a bath so she couldn’t hear it. Comforted by the sound of running water, she waited for the heat to steam up all the mirrors so she wouldn’t have to see her swollen, red eyes looking back at her. When the tub was almost full she slid into the water. Her body moved easily, effortlessly, all synapses firing. Last night she’d turned on the T.V and watched an infomercial from start to finish called tub assist. The infomercial’s jaunty reassurances of ‘independent living’ were undermined by the mini re-enactment of an elderly woman lying on the bathroom floor. Flash-forward to a man in a white coat telling the woman’s grown children in an ominous Dr. Voice, “she lay on the floor a long time before help came.” A hundred channels and she watched an infomercial for tub assist. Is that what Dr. Wendell meant by preparing for the future? Except she wasn’t elderly, or even middle-aged. She was twenty-nine.
She picked up her razor and began to shave her legs in neat, fluid motions, her hand steady and sure. She pressed the blade harder against her skin just to see if she could. A row of blood beads formed on her ankle and she yanked the razor away startled. Why bother shaving her legs at all? No one was likely to be rubbing against them anytime soon. Still, it was important not to let herself go. She’d shave, pluck and tweeze every last hair for as long as she could. An image of her mother brushing her hair with shaking hands forced its way into her head, but she pushed it away. Submerging her head underneath the water, she let her mind empty, craving the moment when all the bad thoughts no longer seemed to belong to her.
She was still in the bath when the knocking started. The door was locked and bolted but the sound made her stomach clench. She lay completely motionless, hoping the intruder would go away. She knew it wasn’t Gavin because he had a key. She’d presented it to him in a blue velvet box; the kind used for engagement rings. When he opened it he said, “Are you giving me the key to your heart?” They’d both laughed at the cliché, but inside she thought, “Yes, Gavin, I am.”
The knocking became more forceful. Whoever was on the other side wasn’t going away. She got out of the bath, found her robe hanging on the back of the door, and wrapped it around her body. She hated long robes, especially fluffy ones; they made her think of hospitals and convalescence. But when she saw this one on sale at Crabtree and Evelyn she bought it right away. “You might need it,” a tiny cruel voice whispered in her ear. She crept towards the door, not yet willing to betray the fact she was at home.
“Katie, it’s Dad. I know you’re there. The car’s in the driveway.”
“I’m sick, Dad. I don’t really feel like talking.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth she knew it was exactly the wrong thing to say. Now he really wouldn’t leave.
“Let me in, Katie, please. I won’t stay long, I promise.”
She opened the door slowly to make it clear that letting him in was not her preferred choice. “What is it? What do you want?”
“I need a reason to talk to my best girl?” He gave her his movie star grin and she had to stop herself from laughing out loud. Was there any disaster great enough to stop her dad from turning on the charm? In the midst of a terrorist attack she could easily imagine, Michael Macdonough, turning on the gunman, all smiles. “We can work this out, can’t we, mate? What do you say?”
“Sure, whatever. Just tell me what you want so I can go back to bed.”
“What’s wrong?” he asked, his eyes wary, scared. He knows, she thought, her earlier suspicions confirmed. Aunt Elena told him. That’s why he’s here.
“Nothing, the flu I guess. Gavin gave it to me,” she added. Saying his name made it feel like he was still there. Like he hadn’t walked out the door twelve hours earlier, destination unknown.
“Where is Gavin?” He looked around the apartment like he expected Gavin to jump out from behind the furniture.
“Lots of people work on Saturday. He’s on campus doing research.” That much might be true. An associate professor in Microbiology, Gavin often worked weekends. But she doubted he was working today. “I love you, Kate. Before we met, I couldn’t imagine a future with anyone.”
“Well good. That means I have you all to myself. Did you get my message?”
“Yes, and I’m not going to the wedding. I already told Elena and she said it was fine.”
Dad ran his hands down his brown leather jacket. It looked new. She wondered if Ella had picked it out for him. Ella was his flavour of the month; a successor to Candice who was a year ahead of Kate in high school.
“Can we sit down and talk, Katie?”
She waited for him to take the chair, but instead he sat down beside her, making her uncomfortably aware of his nearness. He began to talk, fast, as if he sensed, rightly, that his was a limited engagement; one that she might choose to end at any time. He told her he wanted her to go to Elena’s wedding with him. It would mean so much. That if she agreed to this one thing he wouldn’t bother her anymore. He’d stop asking her to give him another chance. He said he knows he doesn’t deserve it, but would she please go to Elena’s wedding with him?
“What’s wrong? Can’t get a date? Ella got a babysitting job?” His fondness for younger women ensured that she always had an arsenal of insults at her disposal. Usually an effective way of putting him off, today was different. He’d come prepared and that frightened her.
“It’s all over with Ella. If you don’t come with me, I’ll go alone.”
“I can’t take the time off work.”
“Elena told me you booked next week off as vacation.”
“It’s a fifteen hour drive to Fredericton. We’ll kill each other,” she said, amazed that she’s even entertaining the thought of going anywhere with him.
Her father’s eyes, a mesmerizing greenish-gold, are suddenly alight with hope. “We won’t. You know we won’t.”
Her promise to be his “date” extracted, her father made an embarrassing show of gratitude, calling her “his best girl” like she was twelve and kissing her awkwardly on the cheek, and then he fled her apartment like an intruder (now that was the Dad she recognized). “I’ll pick you up around 9:00. Early, but not too early,” he said, before closing the door behind him.
People don’t change. She believed this absolutely and yet here she was filling a small suitcase with jeans, tops, underwear, shoes, and three dresses; one of which she would wear to Aunt Elena’s third wedding. She was going to Fredericton, not because she thought anything would be different this time, but because she didn’t want to be alone. And most of all, she didn’t want to keep her appointment with Dr. Wendell. Her new normal, whatever the hell that meant, still floated in front of her, hazy and indistinct. She wanted to leave it there.
During the rest of the day, and night, she changed her mind about going several times, but in the end she was ready and waiting at the door, suitcase in hand. She left Gavin a note by the phone; short and flirty; the kind of message she used to write when they first moved in together. She pictured the planes of his face shifting as he read it. Furrowed brow giving way to a half smile.
Her dad arrived at 9:35 in a flurry of smiles and apologies, reeking of some expensive cologne, no doubt another gift from Ella. Despite her protests, he picked up her bag and placed it swiftly in the trunk of his blue Camry. “All set,” he said, clasping his hands together like a six year-old on his way to a birthday party.
She nodded wearily. They weren’t even in the car and already she felt what little small talk remained between them draining away. She slid into the passenger side and her father slammed the door behind her, a look of triumph on his face. After he got in the driver’s seat he put the key in the ignition and said so quietly he might have been talking to himself. “Everything’s going to be all right, Katie. We’re going to have fun, you’ll see.”
Mercifully, her father turned on the radio loud enough to discourage talking. Music was the one thing they could always agree on. Alternative rock with the occasional classical piece to break things up. No rap or top forty. Before her mother got sick (that was how she divided all her childhood memories, before and after) they often took family road trips. Nowhere far, usually Niagara Falls or Stratford, and when she was younger, the Toronto Zoo. The Zoo made her mother sad. She never said this, but Kate could tell by the way she looked at the animals, especially the gorillas with their disconcertingly human expressions. Unlike Kate, who seemed born knowing how to hide her feelings, her mother’s face revealed everything, until it didn’t. In the end, the disease took everything, even her power of expression.
“Do you want to stop somewhere?” Her father said over Depeche Mode’s Just can’t get enough.
“We’ve only been on the road an hour.”
“I know, I just thought….let me know when you want to stop.”
Kate stared out her window. Nothing much to look at except a gray expanse of ravaged looking trees. She’d been staring at the same eastern Ontario scenery all her life. Why didn’t she move? A freelance graphic designer, she could probably work anywhere, maybe even overseas. Unlike most of her friends, she hadn’t even gone away for school. Change was like a precipice she could never quite step off of. Maybe because deep down she knew the biggest change was already lurking in the corners of her future life, biding its time, waiting for its moment to come and claim her.
They drove in silence for another hour before her father said almost apologetically, “I really need a coffee.”
“Fine with me.”
In Tim Hortons, she watched her dad head towards the washrooms, struck once more by how handsome he still was. It seemed wrong, somehow, that after everything he should remain so unchanged. In novels, great suffering often wreaked havoc on characters’ appearances. She recalled countless descriptions of lines appearing “seemingly overnight,” and eyes “sinking deeper into their sockets.” Not her dad. At nearly sixty he could easily pass for fifteen years younger. He didn’t even have any gray in his jet black hair. Did he dye it? she wondered.
It used to make her proud at school functions when people would comment what a good looking family they were. Every year around Christmastime they went to the mall and got a family photo done. The portrait studio liked one of them so much they posted it in the window as a sample of their work. They kept it there for years; long after her mother’s illness brought a halt to family photos of any kind. After her mother was admitted to the long term care facility, Kate went into the studio and asked them to take it down. It seemed cruel. An unwanted reminder of who they used to be and would never be again. “Such a shame,” the photographer said, reluctantly removing the photo from the window display. “It’s one of my favourites. The light was just right that day.” He traced the outline of her mother with his fingertips. “See the way it catches the highlights in her hair?”
She fought the urge to tell him that all her mother’s beautiful honey blonde hair had been cut off to make it easier for the care-worker. In the end it was all about making it ‘easier’ for everyone to bear the burden of her mother’s illness. “What about Mom?” Kate had screamed at her father. “Who’s making it easier for her?”
Kate went to the counter and ordered two large double-doubles and a chocolate donut with sprinkles. She never ate donuts, but the rainbow-coloured sprinkles against the thick chocolate icing looked suddenly tempting. Anyway, why shouldn’t she stuff her face with sweets if she wanted to? It’s not like she had to worry about heart disease.
Her father returned from the bathroom and she handed him his coffee.
“You remembered,” he said, taking a large gulp.
“It hasn’t been that long.”
He gave her a searching look. “It seems long to me.”
Suddenly tired, she waved toward the seating area. “Do you want to sit down for a minute?”
They sat down across from one another, and with only the small table between them she felt cornered, wary. Why had she agreed to come? It was stupid, really. If it was just fear of being alone she had friends she could call, so why was she here? Maybe her father was wondering the same thing. He looked suddenly uncomfortable in his stylish leather jacket and tight jeans; too tight. No fifty-nine year old man, no matter how well-preserved, should wear pants that tight.
She unwrapped her donut and took a dainty bite, aware of her father’s eyes on her.
“You should eat better,” he said.
She laughed, scattering rainbow coloured sprinkles across the table.
“I mean it, Katie,’ he said, leaning across the table. “You need to take better care of yourself. It’s important.”
The donut’s sweetness suddenly made her feel sick. “Why? So I can lead a long and healthy life? Not really an option now is it?” There, she’d done it. The seal was broken.
Her father turned pale underneath his tan and the hand around his coffee cup trembled slightly.
Tears pricked behind her eyes, but she stood up, blocking their release. “We’d better get back on the road. It’s going to be a long drive.”
When they got back in the car her father put in a CD, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and she felt a surge of affection for him. It was exactly what she wanted to hear at that moment. Spring might be the pop music of the classical world, but it never failed to flood her with an overwhelming sense that everything was going to be alright. But all too soon the cheerful notes of spring faded into summer, and then the inevitable sombre notes of fall, and she was thinking of him.
When Kate met Gavin at a friend’s engagement party, she was struck by how different he was from her father. He was attractive, but had none of her father’s easy charm that was dispensed to anyone and everyone. Gavin was the kind of man who didn’t smile at you unless he meant it. His words and actions meant something. He didn’t do things on impulse, or because, as her father was fond of saying, “It just felt right.” Although some women might have considered this a shortcoming, Kate appreciated Gavin’s reticence. She didn’t like to be surprised, and Gavin loved her, but maybe not enough. Maybe no one loved that much.
Kate turned to her father whose gaze was fixed on the road ahead. She’d been wrong before; he was changed. She could detect a slackening in his profile, as if the bones were beginning to weary of holding up the strong jaw and high cheekbones. “Do you want me to drive for a while?”
Her father’s face curved into a smile. “The famous Michael Macdonough smile,” her mother used to say, her voice rich with affection.
“No, I’m good.”
She turned back to the window and counted horses like she did when she was a little girl to pass the time. Her eyelids felt gritty, and then so heavy it hurt to keep them open. At some point she fell asleep, and when she opened her eyes her father was watching her with an expression so full she had to look away.
They planned to stop for the night just outside of Riviere du loup, and drive the rest of the way to Fredericton in the morning. Kate would have been fine with a Motel Six, but her father insisted they stay somewhere with a proper restaurant. “I want to make the most of this, Katie.” Her father’s voice was quiet, determined, devoid of its usual cajoling charm.
“OK, whatever.” She was suddenly uncomfortably reminded of Dr. Wendell’s advice to embrace a new mantra: Live your life to the fullest! Seize the day! What he really meant was live like you were dying, which she was. No doubt, the support group Dr. Wendell wanted her to join would be filled with such self-help philosophies, but she didn’t believe in any of them. Pretty hard to embrace the moment when you knew what was on the other side. She knew it, and now Gavin and her father did too.
“I booked us in at a Best Western,” he said. “This one has a nice steakhouse and some good seafood choices if you feel like something different. I looked up the menu online.”
Her dad’s eagerness to please usually brought out the worst in her. Her friends, and even Gavin, were often taken aback by her behaviour towards her father, but now her habitual animosity deserted her, leaving an unfamiliar numbness in its wake. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Hoping to preserve this uneasy truce with her father, she closed her eyes, certain she wouldn’t sleep again, but what seemed moments later, her dad was gently shaking her. “We’re here, Katie.”
She opened her eyes, immediately aware of her father’s closeness. She removed his arm and sat up in her seat. “I’m awake.”
She let him open the car door for her but when he tried to help her out she pushed him away. “I’m fine, just a little tired.” She got out of the car slowly, her hands and feet felt heavy, like she was moving underwater. Her father popped the trunk but made no move to get their bags. He stood as if paralyzed, watching her. A memory of one of those long ago road trips rose up from her mind like a ghost. She always fell asleep in the car, and whenever they got to where they were going her father would lift her up in his arms and carry her inside. He moved towards her, and for one wild moment she thought he was going to pick her up, just like he used to. “You forgot the bags.”
“Right, the bags, can’t forget those. I can check us in if you want,” he said when they walked into the lobby.
Kate shrugged. “Fine with me.” She sat down in one of the wing chairs perched in front of a faux marble fireplace. The last time she’d been in a hotel was with Gavin. They’d stayed at the Royal York in Toronto as part of a weekend theatre getaway package. They went to see The Sound of Music. It was the first time Gavin had mentioned getting married, and so, on impulse, she told him. He was surprised, almost uncomprehending. “But you’re totally fine.” He seized her hands and turned them over in his own as if examining them for some sign of her genetic deformity.
She’d explained slowly, not about the test results, she hadn’t had the test yet, but about what it meant to be a carrier of the Huntington’s gene. If she was a carrier, it wasn’t a question of if, only when. Her deterioration would be ugly, brutal and fast. Early symptoms might include mild clumsiness, uncontrolled movements in the fingers, face or trunk. Add to these, volatile mood swings, hostile outbursts, or deep bouts of depression. And when the end drew near, she might not be able to speak, swallow, or even recognize the people around her. With no cure and few effective treatments, it was hard to imagine a worse fate than the one that lay in wait for her.
Gavin was taken aback but still not despairing. “You don’t have it. I don’t need a test to tell me you’re going to be fine. I just know it. You’re so beautiful,” he added, inexplicably. They had sex and it was more passionate and intense than it had ever been, but afterwards, she’d vomited in the hotel’s chilly white toilet. Was it good because deep down they knew it wasn’t going to last? That they’d already begun the countdown to the finish?
Her father returned from the front desk and handed her a key card. “When do you want to eat?”
Kate had a quick shower and was ready when her father knocked on her door at exactly 7:00 o’clock. “You look nice,” he said, and Kate wished she hadn’t bothered changing her clothes. No doubt he had lots of women dressing up for him these days. She didn’t need to be one of them.
“I’m really not that hungry,” she told him as they waited for the elevator.
“Have something light. A nice salad, or maybe some soup,” he suggested, as if her choice of entree was of the utmost importance.
She stifled a yawn. What she really wanted was a drink.
“Did you get hold of Gavin?”
“I just assumed you’d want to call him; let him know where you are.”
“Yeah, I tried. He wasn’t home.”
“Too bad,” her father said, watching her face.
“He’s probably still at work. I’ll try him again later.”
“How is Gavin anyway?”
Her father nodded. “Good, that’s good. I’m glad to hear it.”
Kate felt a surge of relief when the bill came. “Let me get this,” Kate said.
Her father shook his head. “I told you, this trip’s on me.”
“Why? I probably make more than you.”
Her dad grinned. “I hope so, smart girl like you.”
Kate sighed. “Fine, thanks for dinner.”
“You’re sure you don’t want dessert?”
“Positive,” Kate said, getting up. “I really just want to crawl into bed.”
Her dad nodded. “Of course, you go on up. I’m just going to sit here for a while.”
Kate glanced over at the table next to them where two female conference attendees, still wearing their corporate nametags, were nursing Spanish coffees. Was it possible her father was planning on hooking up with one of them? Although neither was particularly attractive, certainly not beautiful like her mother or the host of look-alike girlfriends that followed, they might provide a useful distraction from a disappointing road trip. Kate strode out of the restaurant and jabbed the up button on the elevator as hard as she could. It doesn’t matter, she told herself. Her father could screw every woman he met as far as she was concerned. Maybe she was just jealous. Instead of climbing under thin hotel sheets and thinking about Gavin, she should be in the hotel bar trying to make herself forget. Picking up some Chardonnay-soaked businessman in a bar would be easy for her, except that it wasn’t. She didn’t have her father’s talent for meaningless escape. She recalled a line from her favorite movie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. ‘It’s too light for me.’ She didn’t have the heart for one night stands. For her, love was a heavy proposition, so thick and dense she felt like she was smothering underneath its weight.
She took off her clothes and lay down on the bed. Where was Gavin now? What was he doing? Who was he with? Did he miss her the way she missed him? She couldn’t talk to her father about Gavin because she didn’t want him to feel sorry for her – didn’t want him to think that she needed him – because she didn’t.
She lay there, unmoving, until the sound of voices in the room beside her started a flow of tears that wouldn’t stop. How long did she have? It might be years yet, or it might not…How long before she couldn’t hide it? Before she couldn’t work? Couldn’t…The list was so long it terrified her. “Don’t think, don’t think,” she whispered to the ceiling overhead.
If this were a movie this was when she would go downstairs and seek comfort in the arms of a stranger. She tried to imagine how the scene might play out, but when she tried to picture the stranger, she saw her father sitting alone at his table. If things had been different she might have knocked on his door. They would sit down side by side like they did when she was a little girl and she would tell him everything. But things weren’t different, and people don’t change, not really. Alone in the dark it scared her how much she still felt like a child; how much she wanted someone to hear her crying, hold her in their arms and tell her it was going to be all right.
It was after ten when she awoke the next morning. Harsh sunlight filtered into the room through a crack in the blinds. She got dressed quickly, brushed her teeth, grabbed her small suitcase and went across the hall to knock on her father’s door. “Why didn’t you wake me?” she said when her father appeared, a whisper of shaving cream still on his cheek.
“I thought you needed a bit of lie in. Besides, the wedding’s not until 6:00. We’ve got plenty of time.”
After a quick croissant from the hotel’s complimentary continental breakfast, they were on the road again. Outside her window, yesterday’s drab skies had given way to vivid, shimmering brightness carrying the promise of spring. Gentle rolling hills, an abundance of trees so luxuriantly green they resembled a Tom Thomson painting, and no end of resplendent white churches, dazzled her tired eyes. Her first perverse instinct was to look away. The contradiction between the sunlit world on the other side of the glass and the full dark of her mood was almost painful. But nature’s lure was too powerful to resist, and the landscape’s wide open spaces soon coaxed her from the cramped prison of her thoughts. She felt a sudden urge to tell her father to stop the car and let her out on the side of the road. Her sense of freedom might be fleeting, but at least her father would know what if felt like to be abandoned.
“We should be there in another hour or so.”
“Good,” she said, not sure if it was or not. “I didn’t get a wedding gift.”
“That’s OK. I put your name on the card.” Her father gave her a sidelong glance. “We got her an espresso machine.”
“An espresso machine,” Kate repeated. In the last few days she felt as though she’d left espresso machines, wedding gifts and other ordinary things for a frightening foreign country filled with men in lab coats, pill bottles and shiny metal hospital beds. “Do you still think about Mom?” she asked, startling both of them.
“Of course I do, Katie,” he said, as if it hurt him to part with each word.
“Then why did you leave her?”
“I never left your mother,” her father said quietly. “You know that’s not what happened.”
“You might as well have! You were never there! She needed you. I needed you. But you needed your girlfriends. And when Mom became too much of a burden you dumped her in a hospice!”
Her father gripped the steering wheel so tightly all the blood drained from his hands, making them appear almost skeletal. “That’s not fair, Kate. I loved your mother, but in the end she needed more care than I could give her. But you’re right, I should have been home more – for her, and for you. The other women…I’m so ashamed. I wish you could understand how much I…”
“Don’t say it,” Kate said, the road blurring in front of her. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I don’t even want to know.”
“No really, I mean it. Let’s just get there, OK?”
Elena was waiting for them at the front door. “I’m so glad you came,” her aunt squealed, racing down the front steps to embrace her.
Kate mumbled something about wanting to be there for her aunt’s special day. She could hardly confront her aunt about her betrayal on her wedding day. Not that she was even that angry anymore. It seemed suddenly small compared to everything else.
Her father greeted her aunt with, “I told you she’d come,” and Kate felt a stab of annoyance at her father’s persistent belief in his irresistibility.
“Yes you did.” Her aunt stared at Kate’s face like she was examining a piece of delicate china for hairline fractures. “Come in, come in,” she said, ushering them inside. “What would you like? Coffee? Bagels? I’ve a couple of hours before the wedding craziness starts. After that you’re on your own.” Aunt Elena batted eyelashes already heavy with mascara. “I’ve got to make myself beautiful you know.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Kate said. “I’ll be fine.”
“Course you will,” her aunt quipped, her voice brighter than the cherry red lipstick she wore. “You’re here and that’s all that matters.”
After they’d drunk two coffees each and talked about what a conservative town Fredericton was, her aunt clapped her hands together. “All right then, first up is a trip to the hairdressers for some kind of up do.” She patted her mass of frizzy dark curls. “And then May is coming over to do my make-up. She works the Clinique counter at The Bay,” Elena told Kate. “Thinks she can make me look like a first time bride.” Her aunt rolled her eyes, but Kate heard a note of wistfulness in her voice. “We can’t all be like Michael here.” She looked at her brother with a mixture of irritation and envy. “Jesus you piss me off. I’m beginning to think there’s a picture of you rotting away in an attic somewhere.” It wasn’t the first time someone had compared her dad to the eternally youthful, but damned, Dorian Gray. The reference used to make him smile, but now he looked almost sad.
“Is there anything you need me to do?” Kate said to her Aunt.
“Not a thing. You and your dad can just relax. We don’t have to be at the hotel until five o’clock.”
“You’re not having a church ceremony?” Kate asked, surprised. Her Aunt’s first two weddings had been full on Catholic extravaganzas.
Lifting both hands in front of her face, her aunt examined the chipped fingernails. “Thought I’d better try something different this time. Three times the charm and all that.”
Kate realized she was relieved. The last time she’d been to a church was for Gavin’s mother’s funeral. He cried during the service, and the sight of his running nose and bloodshot eyes disturbed her. Her father didn’t cry at her mother’s funeral. He didn’t even go.
“Do you want to go for a walk?” her father asked after her aunt left.
“Do people go for walks in suburbia?”
“Course they do.”
Kate made up an excuse about still being tired. She didn’t want to go for a walk with her father, but she no longer wanted to hurt him either. “I don’t sleep well in hotel rooms,” she told him to soften the rejection she saw on his face.
“You should have a nap. We’ve got a big night ahead.”
“I think I will,” she said, heading upstairs.
“Did you get hold of Gavin last night?”
Suddenly dizzy, Kate put a hand on the banister to steady herself. “No I didn’t. I guess he must have gone out.” She continued up the stairs feeling her father’s watchful eyes on her as she went.
At four o’clock the three of them gathered in her aunt’s small living room for some family photos. Her aunt caressed her freshly lacquered hair self-consciously. “I want to remember this day.”
“You look great Aunt Elena,” Kate said, and she meant it. In contrast to her previous weddings where she’d donned the traditional white gown, complete with Cinderella pickups in her long poufy skirts, today she wore a simple champagne-coloured sheath dress and gold high- heeled shoes.
Her aunt smoothed the stomach of her gown. “You think?”
“Absolutely gorgeous,” Kate’s father said with uncharacteristic solemnity.
Her aunt reached out to take their hands so they formed a small circle. “I think we’ll do quite nicely.”
Kate smiled, thinking how little time they’d spent together as a family. Small families are funny that way. You’d think that fewer members would mean greater intimacy, but in fact the opposite was often true. Fewer people often meant fewer opportunities to get together. Kate told herself it was the distance that stopped her from being close to her aunt, but the truth was that feared closeness. She feared that if she grabbed hold of anyone she’d hang on too tightly.
Aunt Elena released their hands. “I want to get a picture of you two.”
Her father smiled at her. “Good idea.”
Removing a disposable camera from her purse, her aunt pointed it at her brother. “OK, Kate, you get in beside him. A bit closer. That’s it. Say…..older brides are sexy.”
Kate thought of the last photo she’d taken of Gavin. They’d just woken up. He was sitting on her bed wearing boxers, his hair ruffled, unshaven. The look on his face was easy, untroubled; the way it might have stayed if she hadn’t told him about the test results. Despite his reassurances, she knew as soon as she’d told him. You will leave, she thought, watching the familiar planes of his face shift from disbelief to despair.
Her aunt put down her camera and blinked hard, leaving a tell-tale smudge of mascara under each eye. “It’s a good one. I’ll send you both a copy.”
“Should we get going?” Kate said. “We can’t have the bride late for her own wedding.”
“I’m ready if you two are.”
Her aunt took a deep breath. “Right, this is it.” She looked at Kate and then her brother. “I’m really glad you’re here.”
Her aunt was marrying a widower named Gerald. They’d met at the funeral home where Gerald worked as an undertaker, after her aunt complained to him about the terrible job they’d done on the deceased’s make-up. The dead woman had been one of Elena’s co-workers at Sears, and Kate could easily picture her petite aunt, hands on hips, shouting at poor Gerald: “Fifty year old women should not look like Kewpie dolls!” Instead of being offended, Gerald found her candour charming (offended or charmed were really the only two reactions Aunt Elena inspired), and they’d been together ever since. Although Kate had yet to meet Elena’s fiancée, her aunt’s happiness seemed to vibrate through the phone line.
Close friends and family only were invited to witness the ceremony performed by one of Gerald’s friends, a retired judge, who spoke of marital love and devotion in a matter-of-fact way. His simple words seemed in keeping with the reluctant bride air her aunt exuded, as if she couldn’t quite believe she was giving the whole thing another go. She watched her aunt take Gerald’s hand and the tiniest flicker of hope lit up the darkness that had settled inside her. For a moment she allowed herself to imagine her own wedding, but quickly blinked the vision away. Gavin was gone and one day she would be sick, but not today, today she was part of her aunt’s happiness, part of a family, however damaged. In this moment she was part of life happening all around her. I’m still here.
Eventually, the other guests began to arrive, and Kate watched the room fill up with her aunt’s and Gerald’s friends. Many brought their children, both young and teenaged, and the room quickly took on a boisterous celebratory air.
After the served prime rib dinner, followed by caramel cheesecake and watery coffee had been cleared away, and the obligatory toasts made, it was time for the first dance. Kate watched her Aunt and Gerald make their way towards the centre of the dance floor. The song was Follow Me, Follow You, by Genesis and she wondered if her aunt had chosen it. Kate’s mother used to play it in the kitchen when she did the dishes. She remembered her singing the words: Stay with me, my love I hope you’ll always be right here by my side, if ever I need you……
Kate took a sip of champagne, followed by a large gulp, and then another. Comforted by the frothy sweetness she felt an urge to drink the entire bottle, but the next moment her throat was dry and sore and she feared she might be sick. She pushed away her glass and caught her father’s gaze. “Gavin left me,” she told him, careless of who might overhear. “He’s not coming back.”
Her father stared at her, the years rushing onto his seemingly ageless face. The green eyes dimmed and the crows’ feet near his eyes widened into deep groves. Kate watched this transformation with a mixture of sadness and curiosity. What would he say to her now? What platitude or reassurance could he possibly offer? But he didn’t say anything – only held out his hand. “Dance with me?”
She hesitated before standing up and following her father onto the dance floor. Kate enjoyed dancing. She and Gavin had even taken a ballroom dancing class once, but she felt suddenly awkward taking her father’s outstretched hand.
“We used to dance together all the time when you were little,” her father said. “Do you remember?”
Kate nodded stiffly. What she remembered most was watching her parents dance together; their bodies perfectly intertwined, moving in a seamless, effortless rhythm. Watching them like that made it impossible to believe they could ever be separated. Sometimes their closeness made her feel lonely, and she would duck underneath her parents outstretched arms and wiggle in between them. They would dance like that, altogether, swaying to the sound of Sheena Easton’s For Your Eyes Only.
The song ended but Kate and her father continued to dance, their taut ungraceful limbs gradually softening, until they found their natural rhythm. The song changed to one of Kate’s favourites, Royal Wood’s, I Will Be Your Guide.
Kate closed her eyes letting the music slide over her.
You’ve been burning your bridge, peering over your ledge, letting darkness come in with applause. The sorrows you keep, while the waters run deep, but tonight I will be your guide.
Kate looked over her father’s shoulder at the other dancers, whose undulating bodies began to diffuse and blur like an old fresco painting.
Oh sad eyes, oh sad eyes,
Tonight I will be your guide.
Kate pulled away, lost her footing, and her body swayed, anchorless; her father caught her and pulled her close to him. He smelled different today, like he used to. Not of some expensive cologne, but of sandalwood soap and laundry detergent.
Oh sad eyes, oh sad eyes,
Tonight I will be your guide.
Two more verses and the song would be over. She pressed her face against her father’s shoulder and let it rest there. Her legs felt tired, heavy, and she wished she were a girl again, standing between her mother and father, both of them holding her up. She felt her father’s hand on her hair, and this time, she didn’t pull away. He was supporting all of her weight now, but he didn’t stumble or falter. Steady and sure, he held her.
© Copyright 2016 Adrienne Clarke
A writer of YA and literary fiction, Adrienne’s short stories have appeared in a number of publications including The Storyteller, A Fly in Amber, New Plains Review, Silly Tree Anthologies, and in the e-zines Les Bonnes Fees, The Devilfish Review, and Rose Red Review. Her story “Falling” was awarded first place in the 2008 Alice Munro short fiction contest. An excerpt from her second YA novel Losing Adam recently won first place in the Young Adult category of the Seven Hills Literary Review contest.
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