You can play with growing up without growing up. You can play with love without loving. You can play with skipping rope without skipping.
In particular, playing Snakey is good for the kids who have no sense of rhythm or coordination. The ones who can’t walk down the street with a friend without bumping hips every ten feet; the ones that need their seatbelt buckled up for them ‘til they’re twelve. Good for them to face jumping over one single thing, or to be the one in charge.
Alice was like this as a kid. And then her son Ben, too, and her daughter Olivia after that. She learned there’s a word for it—dyspraxia. Just like now there is a word for being impossibly nerdy Asperger’s. Or being fussy and worried—anxious. Whereas Alice never got her coordination skills right and was doomed to a life of sporadic individual fitness—yoga, swimming—instead of team sports or even team anything, she got her kids occupational therapists and physiotherapists. She researched the toys and activities that would help them develop their gross motor skills so they wouldn’t be as left out on the playground.
Hold one end and whip the rope outward so it falls down flat and long. Then shake the end that you’re holding, back and forth, horizontally, and the rope will slither there on the ground, in undulating esses, like a snake.
You can make the other kids leap farther, or narrower, depending how wide you make your wrists go.
The cleverer ones know they have to back up and run in order to jump across the fat snake and not land on its spine. They are usually the small boys, the little brothers, pumping their knobby knees and shoulders, elbows askew, huffing and puffing and then whooping as they clear the rope.
The awkward ones can opt out of jumping over the fat snake and just wait for the thin snake.
She showed Ben and Alice how to do this. You work your whole arm up and down, and the snake lifts off the ground in snapping waves. The other kids waiting to jump usually groan, because this is an unwanted pause in the real game, and just a display of your power. They can’t do anything but watch that rope whip up and down, the wooden end clack clacking on the pavement. The gawky kid who bumps into everything and falls over, now holding the end of the skipping rope, finally tastes power.
She watches the three dots inside the speech bubble lift then fall, one by one, indicating he is typing a message. Then the angry snake on the screen disappears entirely. She imagines he is thinking of what to say next, and hesitating, maybe because he is writing the truth, then censoring it, then writing a revised truth, then retreating again. One second she expects revelation; the next, she is reassured that this is nothing but normalcy: a polite withholding of truths. What is the truth? She could never tell.
There were three times, maybe four. Each time Alice would have to sneak away to see him. He was a bit older and a bit of a criminal, so she had to pretend this didn’t happen. Sneak out of the house past curfew, sneak away from her friends at lunch and not return until last period, sneak into the last available seat in someone’s run down K-car to be spirited away into the country, on some verdant concession road she couldn’t even name, and stay out far past curfew, and rely on others to bring her back to town once they were sober enough to drive, the first brave birds croaking out a song at 4 a.m.
They always managed to find a way to spend extended hours together. At a party he found a room and locked the door; at his apartment he drew his blinds and unplugged his phone so his friends wouldn’t bother them; at another party he found a big blanket they brought out to a field that they slept on afterwards for an hour or two. He was considerate: he would lie with her, murmuring and asking her questions, stroking her hair like he loved her.
Then his misdemeanours caught up with him. He had already dropped out by the time she met him; then he was busted for—coke? Weed? On top of stealing that car with Dicky. She heard different things from different people while killing time on the stoop of the Red Roof downtown. None of the other kids seemed actually concerned—he was not particularly liked—and the effort with which she tried to mimic the nonchalance made her voice quake: “But juvie where? Kingston?”
Kent mimicked her in a high lisp: “But juvie where, Kingston?” He was prancing around on the sidewalk, high on speed, waiting for someone or other to pick him up in their car. Tara, in her short haircut and Doc Martins and beefy stance, languidly pulled on her cigarette and stuck her foot out. Kent tripped, laughed, and tried to shove her, but she wasn’t budging.
Alice’s family was the type to send their children to university. Laura Ashley dresses, polo shirts, Ogden Heritage Society, town council. Liam’s was a family of alcoholics who couldn’t hide it. His diabetic mom wore moo moos in the evenings when she came into the drugstore where Alice worked. Alice’s older brother played quarterback and went on to study business at Western. Liam’s dad and older brothers drove snow ploughs and quarry trucks. Her older brother only ever spoke to Liam’s older brothers, and reluctantly so, in order to acquire pot.
The winter she was nineteen she came home from university to find the downtown bars closed. Everything downtown was going out of business. She and Kent and Tara, both still living in Ogden working odd jobs, trekked to the one last drinking hole at the edge of town, a large warehouse turned into a roadhouse, country music blaring, every girl she saw one that she had shunned or been shunned by, or at least with whom she had shared fries or smokes or car rides or dumb stories.
When she first met him, he had worn tapered black jeans, tight white T-shirts, V-neck cashmere sweaters from the Sally Ann. His eyes were deep wells of brown; his face cherubic around the eyes but chiseled elsewhere, and every inch of his body stout but strong. Once he came back from—juvie? rehab? —in a black blouse with flared cuffs and showed her how he was learning guitar.
But at the roadhouse he wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. His face was swollen and red, like it would deflate if she were to prick it.
He had this almost cartoonish way of looking at girls. He would look at you almost sideways, smirk, drag his eyes down to your belly then up again to your eyes.
“Would I be so lucky as to get a dance with the most beautiful woman in the room?” he drawled, looking like she had already satisfied him.
She guffawed. He kept at it all night. She gave him her number but kept up the part of a stern proper girl.
“Why are you still drinking?”
“Well, it’s not last call yet.”
“In general,” jerking her arm out at the whole scene.
He called her dorm room in January at 11:30 p.m. She pulled the phone into her closet and shut the door so her roommate wouldn’t hear. She could tell he was drunk.
“I was thinking, you know, maybe we could work something out,” he said.
Her heart skipped. “What do you mean?”
“We have history, you know. I can tell you like me and, you know, I like you.”
“I’m in Toronto, Liam.”
“Well, we could work something out. Long distance. Or you could come back here.”
She thought of her paper due the next day, about Toni Morrison and the African-American voice. The night before she and her girlfriends had watched a two-woman play at Hart House. A character was transsexual. In the afternoons between her last class and sunset, she picked her way over snow banks to the always empty library at the religious college and sipped tea from her thermos, writing poems for her portfolio.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
She acquired a husband of sorts, had two kids, and got a job teaching English.
One Easter she came home, planted the kids on cots in her aging parents’ room, and got shit-faced with Kent and Tara at the pub by the water, which had over the years been closed then reopened, known variously as Phil’s Filling Station, The Wheat Sheaf, and now The Mill Creek. Tara was still living in town working at the grocery store but married now; Kent had moved to Kingston where he worked at a tattoo shop but took the Greyhound home on holidays.
Halfway through the night in walked Liam and his lads. She watched him until there was a space next to him alone.
“Remember the time you practically proposed to me over the phone?” she drawled, always one prone to exaggeration.
“No, no I don’t.”
She laughed and dipped her chin close to the tabletop.
He didn’t laugh. “I definitely don’t remember that.”
“Well,” she said.
One of his friends came up and put his arm around him, gave him a shake, and a mouthful of happy grunts.
“I’m calling it a night,” she heard Liam say towards his friend’s chest, and then she watched him leave.
“No fun now he’s sober,” yelled his friend, holding up his beer bottle to nobody in particular.
Next, she acquired a divorce, shared custody, and more freedom to sit on her stoop and drink white wine and smoke and stare at the parked cars on her street in the evenings. Over the years she had loosely kept in touch with Kent and Tara, but these bonds tightened after the divorce. She finally understood what had driven both of them, both childless, to call out of the blue, in those years when she was breastfeeding and changing diapers and wanting to talk about nothing in particular for hours. She had found it annoying in its purposelessness at the time, but now she too faced what they had: long wine-steeped evenings with the blue of the television’s rays threatening to pull her into an abyss that swirled with celluloid stories, none of them her own.
Ties to home became melancholic. Dicky Sanderson died. The story goes that he went into rehab for cocaine, came out, owed his dealer money, went out on the town to sort shit out, and did too much blow for his newly clean body to handle. A heart attack killed him.
It was summer. Her kids were camping with her ex. Kent had lived out west with Dicky for a year and shared with him a love of dirt bikes. Kent called Alice: the funeral was on Friday, he had no money for the bus, why didn’t Dicky just stay home with his parents that night? “Stop yelling,” she had to say to him. That evening she drove to Kingston, picked him up, and then drove home to Ogden. They smoked the whole way and made it in two hours instead of the standard three and a half.
The day before the funeral they bought a two-four of cans and divvied it up between their two knapsacks. They stumbled around town in the bright afternoon, clambered down the stone cliffside to the underbelly of the bridge, chucked stones at empties. “I’m not going to be home for dinner,” she said with the utmost effort over the phone to her mom. At 6 p.m. she made herself vomit in a toilet at Tim Horton’s so there would be room for more.
The day of the funeral she and Kent sat in the balcony at the very back. Dicky came from a good family, like hers. The church was packed. Kent sobbed; Alice never really knew Dicky but squeezed Kent with her left arm.
Outside the church, people stood around awkwardly in their best black clothes. She saw her older brother’s friends—she sent his regards from Hong Kong—and every person she had shunned or had been shunned by, or at least with whom she had shared fries or smokes or car rides or dumb stories.
Liam stood off to the side with a heavy-set woman and a baby girl. They each wore sunglasses on their puffy red faces; each of their mouths were drawn tightly. At the wake at the restaurant that has since burned down, she watched from a distance as Liam decisively shook Dicky’s mother’s hand and spoke some words. He then gathered the woman and the baby girl and left.
Her son is off to university next year and is spending the summer working at a computer camp. Her daughter Olivia is sixteen and has her father’s curly black hair. At age twelve, Alice had introduced Olivia to a lesbian feminist boxing coach, and now she has meaty shoulders and a strong left hook, dyspraxia be damned.
When it was time to go home for a short summer visit, Alice’s hips were bothering her and the car was dying so, with Olivia, she took the train instead of driving. Her elderly father picked them up from the station in Fisher Falls, and they drove past the bungalow on the highway Liam grew up in and has owned since his parents died. She spotted a fat happy man with a piece of white cloth tied around his head, wearing a wife beater and long shorts, guiding another man towards a rundown RV parked in the driveway.
This was not the first time she had spotted Liam. It is one peripheral view that lasted a second—one second out of hundreds over the years. He is always there, on the periphery, for one second.
She remembered the way that, when she was still what she would now consider a child, younger than Olivia, Liam had done things that made her feel like she was entering an expanse of cool water. It enveloped her completely. Her body had changed from a plastic ensemble of self-consciousness into something earthy, undiscovered, eternal.
When Alice and Olivia visit Ogden, the octave of daily life lowers. Her father would spend time in his study, or sit in his brown chair in the den, reading library books. Her mother, Judy, would put on her giant sun hat and tend to her garden in the cool morning hours. Mid-morning, she would shower, change into loose clothing and retreat to the basement to work on her sewing. After a short nap in the afternoon, she would slowly assemble ingredients for dinner. She was busy with this task on Alice and Olivia’s second day there when they decided to walk out to the farm beyond the edge of town to look at the horses. They came back and her mom was still in the kitchen. Then they visited the beach, its concrete change house now replaced with a smaller, wooden structure, and what she uncertainly remembered as willow trees cut down so that now there was no shade.
Squelching in their sandals and bumping into each other every once in a while, Alice and Olivia walked through downtown back to the house. There were more tourists than she ever remembered; she was surprised to see so many well-dressed people of various ethnicities carrying square paper shopping bags with twine handles. Sometimes she felt herself staring, searching for familiar faces from her youth. Not only was she expecting to see her former peers, but their children too—for every girl or boy she saw sitting on a stoop smoking or tending to a Slurpee, she recalled a possible counterpart—that redhead could be Becky Dilworth’s son; that girl in the ripped jeans carries herself like Steve McDonald. And every time she saw a heavier-set man or woman with a small child, she simply froze and worried about her damp hair and the towel around her neck.
She decided not to call Tara this time. She needed a break from drinking and smoking. Instead, in the evenings she watched modest rom-coms and ate chips with Olivia and her parents. Mostly, there was not much to do. One afternoon she fell asleep in the backyard reading real estate listings, daydreaming about a quiet life like her mother’s. Was every adult’s life in Ogden this quiet? Had Liam calmed down since he had stopped drinking and had a kid? His rounded silhouette faded in and out of her sleep, and her body felt abuzz. The sudden revving of a lawn mower next door startled her awake. Her mouth was parched. She stumbled into the blinding darkness of the house and touched her arm, hot and sunburnt. She stood at the sink to drink a large glass of water while her mom grated lemons and talked about the pasta she was making, then she drank another, feeling embarrassed for some reason, and not wanting to talk to anyone.
On the train back to Toronto the next day, Alice and Olivia settled in with their bags at their feet and books on their laps. The train was nearly empty. She bristled at the fact of the man in the seat in front of her. She believes that men—especially men—always lunge their seats way back right into the laps of passengers seated behind them. A vertical sort of manspreading. His neat white short sleeves hugged tanned muscles, and a pair of sunglasses she thought of as unnecessarily sporty—we are on a train, not the Tour de France—perched on his square shaved head. She knew he was one of those types.
“May I put this up there?” A woman with a cane and tattoos motioned to the compartment above his head. He got up to put her duffle bag up top.
Alice saw his face, an old grisly face, but a young grisly face; a grisly face, a face she remembered. The skin around his mouth sagged. Someone had pricked his red balloon body. He was deflated. He sat down again.
She became aware: her unshaved legs, her hair undone by the humidity, her forehead bigger than before, the fringed tie-dyed short shorts she had bought at Giant Tiger on a whim to match a pair Olivia had picked out for herself, her dimpled legs, her varicose veins; she was too old.
The woman who didn’t care, the palimpsest bouquet of half-blooming, half-rotten flowers, the busy divorced schoolteacher with two children, disappeared. Now she was a vessel with a leftover inch of green water, past use but not yet discarded. What had been her concerns before this? What had been her self-concept? Nothing, nothing; she was replaced by the unknowingness of a child.
In quick succession she took out hand lotion from her purse and slathered it on her legs, took off her glasses and her droopy cardigan, unbuttoned the top two buttons of her pilly tank top.
“Phew it’s humid,” she announced to Olivia. Would he recognize her voice from behind him? “How’s your book, hun?”
Alice swallowed and tottered to the washroom at the end of the car, past the man she thought was Liam. She was aware of her butt. Crouching on the toilet and nearly knocked over sideways by the swaying of the train, she thought about how if this is Liam on the train, that was not Liam in the driveway of his house. Do he and his wife have a roommate? More importantly, where is Liam going? She has never known him to leave town once he settled down. He works for himself as a handyman; no such thing as travelling for business. And, it’s a Monday night. Doesn’t he have to work tomorrow?
In the mirror she checked for food in her teeth and tried to smooth down flyaway hair. She was happy she was tanned but she thinks: man, I’m old, old and sloppy. She has never gotten her teeth fixed or whitened. Her eyebrows were scraggly. His wife hadn’t struck her as attractive either, but what did that matter? She realized the extent of her distress and felt embarrassed. Maybe, she thought, it’s not Liam. This calmed her.
To stay steady, she touched the headrests of the seat on her way back.
There he was. She was sure it was him—was it? She stepped past his seat, he looked up, she assumed a quizzical look as if surprised. “Liam? Oh my god.” The timbre of her voice was that of a woman running into another woman.
“Wow. How are you? I wasn’t sure it was you.”
“Good, good, I’m just headed to Elizabethville. It’s been a long time, eh?”
“Elizabethville! What’s shakin’ in Elizabethville?”
“I just got out of treatment there, actually. Just today in fact. Just graduated today.” He smiled.
“Treatment! Wow. Congratulations.” She could’ve slapped herself she sounded so idiotic.
“Yeah and,” he looked proud now, “I wasn’t planning on it, but I think I’m gonna stay in Elizabethville for a while.”
“Yeah. I just went back home today to talk to Phil Chaisson about selling the house. I was gonna put it on the market, but I think, he’s my insurance guy you know, he said he’d get back to me in two days. If not, well,” he shrugged. “I’ll put it on the market.”
“Wow. That house.”
“Yeah, yup. I need the money right now. I might start a business—a cleaning business in fact,” he said, looking sheepish. Then his smile turned crooked, and he dragged his eyes down her body and up again. “And you? What you been up to?”
“We were just home visiting my parents.” She introduced Olivia, then turned back to Liam to say, “I teach high school in Toronto.”
“How’s that going?”
“Good! Good,” she paused. “Well, you know, good most of the time, sometimes I hate it, but it’s good overall.”
“And,” she ventured. “How ‘bout your lady? And you have kids now, right? Or, one kid?” In Toronto she would have said partner; she wonders, crossing her legs and rubbing them, if she has also slipped back into a county accent, like the phony she is.
“Yup, Courtney, we’re separated.”
“Yeah. It’s kinda better this way.”
“Right? Me too. Separation is the way to go.”
He chuckled. “Yeah. And I have two kids, two girls, one is my stepdaughter, she’s eight, I raised her, and my youngest is four—Libby.”
“Wow. Fantastic. That’s great.”
They sat there for a moment, nodding, smiling, then a voice on the speakers came on, “Ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et monsieurs, Elizabethville is the next station. This train will arrive in Elizabethville in five minutes.”
“So crazy that I’m only on ‘til Elizabethville,” he said. She thought his face looked contemplative, like he was considering the alternatives, maybe even thinking something that starts with: if only.
After Liam got off the train, Alice craved a drink. On her laptop she worked on her application for law school. She couldn’t shake the sense, which quickly congealed into a conclusion, that law school was a stupid idea. A stupid idea that came from her juvenile desire to be brilliant and righteous, instead of a mere schoolteacher who harps on how to format a proper paragraph. A stupid and expensive idea. Ben was off to university next year, and Olivia in two years. Their grandparents on both sides were well-off—the kids already had enough funds to see them through university. But really, who was she to feel entitled to a costly and luxuriant career change when these two were just getting out into the world? And when—she feels that shame again, becoming increasingly familiar on this trip—people like Liam have to sell their house to make a similar fresh start. People like Liam. She rolls her eyes at herself.
She thinks. She needs, in fact, so little. Maybe a porch that looks out onto a few acres of bush that her dog could run around in. Maybe she could get a second dog. She pictured Liam sitting on a porch with her, watching two dogs run and wrestle in the sun. Her head spun. Her mouth imagined it was snapping, reptilian, towards the promise of the sharp claw of liquor.
She mulled over the idea as though it were a hard, slowly dissolving candy. The kids will be off in other cities soon enough; nothing is stopping her from moving. Would he take her? She can offer: good taste in TV shows, barbeque skills, her Rottweiler named Rotten, a decent record collection, a knack for growing things, an endless amount of listening. Listening to what, though? What would he talk about? Did he vote for Ford? Does he support Trump? She remembered what people who don’t talk about politics talk about: insurance, warranties, snow blowers, boots, deals, ripoffs, accidents, illnesses. It can be interesting enough. She leans back into the headrest. She thinks of his skin—it had looked dry and wizened, like he had shrunken. Even his teeth had looked smaller. Curiosity wracked her body. She wanted to see more of his, to see how it changed, to marvel at it.
In Toronto they disembarked and took a cab home through the city that is like all others: populated, lit, penned in by glass buildings and a constant electric hum. Rotten and the cats were happy to see Alice and Olivia; Ben came and sat with them at the kitchen table to catch up. Alice couldn’t help but to feel pressed in upon by the three animals rubbing against her legs and sniffing around, and by her kids interrupting each other. She vaguely smelled dissipated pot and unwashed dishes, which she did not register, because there was a view from a porch burning in her mind. The kids finally retreated upstairs, and Alice lay on the couch with her laptop. She found Liam’s profile on Facebook. There was a picture of him with those sunglasses on his head, and a cherubic toddler in his arms. His profile showed nothing else; his friends list and his wall were hidden. She clicked the button that will ask him to befriend her.
She typed: “Hey! This is Alice.” Aware that she has contacted him far too soon, she got up to make herself a vodka and soda. Then it occurred to her that maybe he never uses Facebook and won’t see this eager message. She felt relieved.
She returned to the couch then stared in disbelief at the screen: “Hi it was great to see you.” Was he being polite? Does he like me? Or was that the only thing he will ever say back?
“I hope I wasn’t being too nosy with all my questions. It’s been so long so I was curious,” she typed, then felt the faint pressure of nausea. She was being far too obvious, an attention-slut. And, so what, another part of her shoots back.
“No, not at all. It has been a long time.”
She watches the three dots lift then fall, one by one, indicating he is typing a message. Then the angry snake on the screen disappears entirely. She imagines he is thinking of what to say next, and hesitating, maybe because he is writing the truth, then censoring it, then writing a revised truth, then retreating again. One second she expects revelation; the next, she is reassured that this is nothing but normalcy: a polite withholding of truths. What is the truth? She could never tell.
“Liam Munro is a male slut,” one girl had pronounced on the Red Roof steps. “I’m sure he’s crawling with diseases,” Tara had said. “Sorry, Alice, but it’s true.” Once, years later in Toronto, telling each other stories about home, Kent had said to Alice, “Liam is actually the most… the most…” he had struggled to find the word, “inappropriate man.” Alice had burst out laughing at that, knowing what she did about Kent himself.
If these things were true of Liam, what did that say about her? Is it possible for a male slut, an inappropriate man, to have true feelings for a woman caught in his promiscuous adolescent web, or is it just about conquest? Was there more about her that he actually liked—more than her availability, her willingness, her average prettiness?
The dots continue to lift and fall. Then:
“I was just surprised I didn’t see you sitting there. In any case, glad you stopped.”
Alice thinks this sounds final and she wants to lure him back in but instead goes to make another drink. She considers smoking, which she hasn’t done in three weeks, then wonders if Liam still smokes, or perhaps had to give that up in treatment too. She stands at her kitchen counter, frowning. Without drinking or smoking, what would they do as they sat on the porch together, watching the dogs wrestle in the sun? She imagines them reading together. Does he still read? He was reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the first time she met him at the arcade. They could do lots of canning in the summer and fall. Maybe they would go for evening drives, take the dogs to good hiking trails. In the winters she could learn how to ski-doo, which she’s always wanted to do anyhow. She sits as the treasurer of a women’s shelter right now and knows accounting: she could even do his business’s books and help out at a shelter in Elizabethville. She would never be able to drink. It would be replaced by getting to know Liam again—or even, it seems, perhaps for the first time. But the quiet of that life smirks at her as if to say: quit fooling.
She consciously goes back to her laptop pretending that she doesn’t care if there is a new message or not, and that she doesn’t expect one anyhow, so that she won’t be disappointed. And of course, her whole being wakes up when she sees a new message: “I never expect to see anyone when I go back there.”
She assesses the value of about ten different responses then simply responds with: “Oh yeah?” It is a nonchalant but inviting choice.
An hour passes; she checks email, sends a couple messages, uploads pictures of Olivia and her parents from her phone to her laptop. The Facebook tab is motionless. Stupid idea anyhow, she thinks. Her body feels hungover already by the time she crawls into bed.
But she can’t sleep. She perches on the edge of true sleep; Liam’s face, snippets of text, the things he said, float and jostle against each other. She perches on a cliff overlooking a large quarry. The cliffsides are almost white in the moonlight and the water is the deepest black. The sound of one of the cats rustling the bedsheet, then its licking—more like a scraping sound—inserts itself into the dream. She holds her cat Murphy and is trying to put her down, but her claws are somehow still attached to Alice in a way that she cannot feel. Murphy keeps scraping her tongue against her fur; Alice takes her hands away from her, but she sticks to her like velcro. Olivia stands somewhere beside her, then behind her, then beside her again, wearing Alice’s old jean jacket. She’s got Rotten on a leash. With that skeptical look on her face, she says: “That’s a quarry, Mom, not the ocean.”
In the morning Alice wakes up covered in sweat. She lies there, hugging the blankets, thinking, feeling sore and wanting. You can play with growing up without growing up. She remembers being on the cusp of things she had sensed would be pure joy. Negotiating rides to parties out in the countryside; calculating the probability of Liam being there, of girls she could count on to talk to if she was ignored, of partygoers who would let her drink their beer, of people who could drive her back into town before dawn. Pre-joy euphoria. Then the feeling of getting in the car, the driver triumphantly turning up the stereo as they careened into a green-blue and more silent universe that had always been at the periphery of town life, an oceanic sound of crickets studded with cicadas, steady, unassuming, indifferent but welcoming.