You and Sarah both live in the same direction and what she’s just said doesn’t change that. Jason and Gill have left already to smoke cigarettes. Sarah is telling you how much she enjoys their love, which is a lot.
You walk two steps and then stop because your phone is vibrating in your pocket. You don’t recognize the number, but you answer. Your mother’s voice is thin and empty, much farther away than the three time zones separating you.
“I’m at the General Hospital,” your mother says. “Dad is having a heart attack. He’s in the operating room.”
You put your hand on Sarah’s arm.
“Are you okay?” your mother asks.
“Where are you?”
You’re at an Italian restaurant. With some other people.
“I’m glad. I’m really glad,” she says. A long, black car purrs through the spaces between her words. “I’m glad you’re not alone. I’ll call you back. The operation should be over in an hour.” She hangs up.
Your father is having a heart attack, you say to Sarah. Your mother will call back in an hour.
Steam leaves Sarah’s mouth, white as it catches the light of the streetlamp. The condensation twists into a whirlpool as it reaches toward you.
“You shouldn’t be alone right now,” she says. “Come over, at least until your mother calls back.”
When you were thirteen years old, your grandfather died. Your mother found solace by going to prayer services at the Jewish Community Centre. You went with her once, more as penance for having made her feel unappreciated while she was in Calgary, visiting him in the Foothills hospital, than because you thought it would help.
At the end of the service, the congregation recited the mourner’s Kaddish for everyone who had passed away that year. The prayer says that God is great. It doesn’t say anything about death. The man who chased you around the house when you were a kid, wiggling his toe-socks around corners, was gone, and you felt his absence in your chest like a broken rib. You dropped the prayer book and the woman sitting next to you said you had to kiss it to show that you still loved it, or God, or something; that the sin of shaky hands could be cured with the mouth.
Sarah had asked how Jason and Gill got together.
“We met a long time before,” Jason said.
“I was terrible,” Gill said. “I liked him, but I just kept blowing him off.”
“One night we were both at our friend Pat’s party. You’d like him. He grows vegetables. I kept going out to smoke, to the backyard. And every time I’d invite Gill out to smoke with me. We were looking at the peppers and I was making myself sick. And then after we’d ashed almost a whole pack of cigarettes, that’s when we knew.”
Sarah looked at you, then back at the others.
You made your mother feel unappreciated when she was visiting your dying grandfather because she wouldn’t let you come with her to see him. She wanted you to remember him as he was when he was still lucid, she was careful to point out.
You never tried to fight her on this point. She won arguments by saying, “Yes, what you’re saying makes sense, but I’m still not going to change my mind,” which made arguing pointless. You won arguments with her all the time, and she admitted that you won arguments, but it never got you anywhere.
So instead, you were critical of everything she did. You tore into her for her distracted driving and her slight increase in weight and her burnt meals and her oversensitivity. She had to stop the car and, you sensed, nearly told you to get out, when you pointed out that she was driving a little too close to the parked cars on your side.
Maybe both your parents had agreed to keep you from seeing your grandfather at the end, but your mother was the one who told you.
The last time you were at Sarah’s apartment, you sat on the flowered sofa she inherited from her grandmother and she sat as far away from you as possible given the constraints of the couch, with her knees folded up to her chin, but you didn’t have it in you to ask what was wrong. You said you should probably go, unless she was going to charge you with something, and she said, “get out of here,” which normally would’ve been in keeping with her sense of humour, but her voice was hard and when you hugged her goodbye she leaned in towards you without moving her feet so your bodies formed an A-shape, sharp and separate, like the twin blades of garden shears.
Now you are back at Sarah’s apartment and you are sitting on the couch and she is sitting on the couch with you and you can feel the heat of her leg next to your leg.
“Tell me something about your father,” she says. “Whatever comes to mind.”
Your father once told you that although he felt emotions, he couldn’t conceptualize them the way your mother did. He wasn’t embarrassed to talk about feelings because he’d been taught not to talk about them, the stereotype of fathers of that generation; he simply couldn’t make the leap between how he felt and the thoughts behind it. He could feel anxious or he could feel comfortable or he could feel frustrated but he couldn’t say, “I feel unappreciated when you talk to me like this.” You know how your father feels without him saying anything, and maybe that makes it more meaningful than when your mother expresses her feelings with parenting-textbook clarity. He’s never said “I love you,” but you know he does.
Your parents met on a hiking trip along the west coast of Vancouver Island. They were at a rest stop, and your mother put her backpack on upside-down. Your father pointed it out and helped her rotate it into the proper position. You don’t know how they got from there to marriage in your mother’s parents’ backyard with your father wearing a white suit; you don’t even know who proposed to whom or how they established how they felt about each other in the first place.
Feet scuff down the stairs. Sarah’s roommate Jessica. “Just wanted to see who it was,” she says. “Haven’t seen you in a while.” You say hello.
She has concerns about your presence here, you can tell by the way she stands, but you don’t want to tell her what’s going on. You want to hang onto this moment of self-immolation.
Sarah’s leg still buts up against yours but you can’t feel it anymore. All you can feel is a warmth all over your body, a good and human warmth. Your body and Sarah’s body cease to be distinct, in a way that never happened even when you slept together. Then you still had to think about individual desires and individual anatomy. Now there’s no motion and no expectations. Now your flesh combines to warm the cold metal of your thoughts, which are hanging in empty space, and pour them into shapes you can recognize. And now your desire for Sarah has disappeared. It won’t come back. This momentary redemption from the cooling of the universe, this spontaneous coming together, transcends anything that could ever happen with clothes off. Shaky sins don’t have to be cured with the mouth. Later you’ll wonder if she had the same experience, but for now, you’re not thinking anything at all.
Your hands are still when the phone rings.