Mon 25 Aug 2008
ah perspective. when i was in junior high, the only English teacher i ever really disliked taught me an invaluable lesson…ostensibly about fiction and short stories, but really about living, about the art of narrativizing and understanding one’s own life. Perspective, he intoned, in a faux Oxford accent, is all in where you’re looking from. To be able to tell a thing means you’re looking at it from somewhere.
we took a whirlwind trip over to Halifax and back between Saturday evening and noon today – whirlwind because now that my doctor here has agreed to try to be there for the impending-ish birth, being away from her and back to square one in terms of attending physicians feels like i’m Linus in Peanuts and my security blanket got left behind and i need to get back to it. now. but it was a fine whirlwind nonetheless…Oscar got to attend his cousin’s second birthday party, replete with trip to local farm, plus cake, Dave got eat Limburger with his brother-in-law, who is the only person in his circle of cheese philistines who can stand the wondrous stink, and i got to visit the IWK. whee. the IWK, for those of you who have not been memorizing my life’s story as we’ve gone along here at ye olde crib, is the maternity/children’s/neonatal hospital where Finn was born, where i spent weeks on bedrest, where i was seen once or twice a month through this pregnancy.
but i wasn’t there for me.
a friend from here, a friend due a month behind me, got airlifted over on Friday. and so Sunday night, once O was nestled all snug in his, uh, travel cot, while visions of farm animals danced in his head and his poor pancreas tried to process more sugar than it had ever been overloaded with in his short life, i found myself riding up the elevator to the seventh oh-so-familiar floor, bearing chocolate and licorice. a visitor. a total role reversal. the smells of the place chewed at my memory like termites, and i found myself looking over my shoulder as if someone was going to order me to hop into a wheelchair at any moment. but they didn’t. i was free to come and go as i pleased. i blinked, all wistful and joyful and strange. because it is now and not then. because from the perspective of someone who didn’t have to be there, my eyes could see all that i escaped this summer by getting to stay home, by not having to take up residence on this bedrest floor again. and i was grateful.
her room looked bleaker than i remembered them being, the four or five i’ve been in over my three stays over the three-plus years it’s taken us to get to this point in our attempts to have a family. the walls are the coldest blue. i talked too much. i oohed and aahed over the new tvs, little tiny flatscreens, replacing the Atari-era versions that hung on the wall even in March when i stayed there last. i kept looking at her in the bed and thinking, that’s not me.
i wanted to negate the place, take her up in my arms and brush away the fear and the monotony and the frustration and isolation like cobwebs and whisk her to another time when it will all be past. but she will have to find her own way there, and i know no two paths are alike. i hope hers – and her baby’s – is smooth. i am glad mine has come full circle, so that this place is no longer within my circle of possibility. i like where i get to look at it from, these days…the privilege of distance, far from cold blue institutional walls, for now. i like that i can walk out, walk away, as i wish.
i was glad i’d gone. and i nearly jogged to the car.
perspective, of course, is also key to telling a story you make up. and telling a story from the perspective of a character you don’t much like is a fascinating exercise, i discovered last week. to those of you who took the time to muddle through draft one of my first foray into fiction, may the lord bless you and keep you, especially Awake and her clever husband, and Anta and her mad googling skillz.
and just in case y’all really meant it when you said you’d like to read the more polished – um, read finished – version…and because i’m kinda proud of myself for actually completing the piece and reading it out loud to real live people and all, i give you version 2 of the Yep it was Poison but Don’t Believe Everything the Newspapers Tell You Because It’s All Perspective, Folks story. you may of course please tell me if you think it makes no sense. i will only cry a little. and the perspective? hell, in the long view, it’ll be most helpful.
He couldn’t say he hadn’t been warned.
Gordon normally ate oat bran for breakfast. Seven days a week, whether the girls were there or not. Oat bran – no sugar – soy milk, coffee. After his run, before his shower. At nearly fifty, it is work to stay trim, regular, ship-shape.
Gordon generally paid little attention to whether the girls ate breakfast – he refused to keep crap cereals in the house, though they were welcome to oat bran or toast or fruit as they desired, and he suspected the elder of throwing up most of what she ate anyway – so when the school counsellor had caught him in the midst of a meeting Friday afternoon – an important meeting, a single-malt meeting – and mentioned pancakes, it had thrown him off, led him to assume that the conversation was a prank, a charade.
“I don’t eat pancakes,” he’d said, flatly, into the phone, grimacing towards his Scotch partner with a look he’d hoped was both authoritative and blameless.
“Sir…Mr. Herbert…” The voice on the other end of the line had sounded awfully young. Gordon had grown irritated. Some stupid joke. Maybe his youngest had pissed off some of the in-crowd at school? Fourteen year-old girls can be such a mess. Gordon has little tolerance for mess.
“Thank you for your time.” His voice had been curt, final, all Father-Knows-Best as he’d hung up, making it clear that he did not appreciate the interruption, the incursion of drama. School counsellor, his ass. But when he’d flipped the phone over just to check the number, the display had read “Wilmington Charter School.”
Gordon’s run at 06:00 hours Saturday had taken him down towards the stream in the park. He’d noticed the faint tinge of yellow in the foliage, there, amongst the stately old trees that dappled the path with leafy light. “Odd,” he’d thought. “That’s early.” The leaves seldom fall until well into November.
When he’d gotten back to the house and found both girls up and in the kitchen, his thoughts were identical. This was odd. This was early, for a Saturday. He was irked, alarmed by the change in his routine. Julia, sprawled on the couch by the breakfast bar using his laptop, waved sleepily. He opened his mouth to bark about That Damn Myspace but then noticed movement by the stove and, on instinct, smiled instead, vague and solicitous. Gordon smiles when he is nervous.
Tess, curls askew, had her back to him. She was…making pancakes.
“Hey…hon.” Gordon was aware, for a moment, that he sounded unusually hearty. He approached her, suddenly tense, like an animal wary of a trap. A part of his brain reeled, scrambled to recall yesterday’s phone conversation with the alleged counsellor. Another part nonchalantly scanned the countertop for his coffee.
“I don’t eat pancakes,” Gordon said, for the second time in less than twenty-four hours. He picked up his coffee cup and stared at his youngest child. She stood casually at her griddle, the picture of sleepy adolescent innocence…if such a thing existed. He willed her to look him in the eye.
Tess raised her gaze to his. Flecks of gold that mirrored his own caught the morning light. She looked younger without all the usual makeup. She laughed.
“Who said they were for you, piggie?” she teased. She poked him where his belly had been, before all the running. For a second, her father remembered her, small and round and still in diapers, the two of them playing piggies with her tiny, stubby toes, oinking in abandonment.
Gordon looked back at her, this specimen of near-womanhood, coy and unpredictable, and wondered how the hell he’d lost so much control. Piggy indeed. Was she trying to goad him? Was he just being paranoid? Why the hell had someone called him about pancakes yesterday when here she stood in front of him cooking the damn things? Was this a fucking joke?
He leaned on the counter across from Tess as she flipped the little circles in the pan, sipping his coffee and wondering who’d taught her that trick of the wrist. Another marquee announcing his little girl’s all-grown status, he mused, maudlin. Her mother had never been able to make a civilized pancake, let alone flip one. His jaw twitched. Her mother. If someone had called to tell him his ex-wife was planning to poison him, he might have believed it…except he felt confident she’d have skipped the pancakes and gone straight to rat poison. Pity. It would have given him the chance to have the bitch locked up…which would, everyone would have to admit if they were honest, make life easier for the whole family. Gordon has lawyer friends. Lost to reverie, Gordon fantasized revenge, again.
“Want some, dad?”
She caught him with the spittle of his fantasy fury dangling between his lip and his coffee cup. He straightened. No daughter of his would be so stupid or so uncontrolled as to advertise a poisoning.
Tess was his kid. It wasn’t that he trusted her, precisely; rather that he did not fear her. He wouldn’t hurt her. That meant there was no reason she’d hurt him. She was closer to her mother, sure…girls were soft that way. But she was fine. They were fine.
Gordon decided pancakes were fine, too…if Tess was toying with him, making oblique threats through her friends, he’d show her he would not be intimidated. He’d sprinkle some oat bran on his, though – in the end, what counts is that one’s bowels are fine.
His smiling nod was precise as steel.
Behind the curtain of her tangled bedhead, he did not see his daughter smile in return; a private, crocodile grin.
They sat to the table with the stack of pancakes, far too early on a Saturday morning, all three of them present. Each seemed out of place, discomfited. The family gathering ’round the breakfast table serves nothing so well as to point out what is missing, like a cheery family picture with the faces scribbled over in Sharpie. Tess ate steadily, her pancakes plain as usual. Julia poured syrup liberally on hers, helped herself to seconds. Gordon took a pancake, made an elaborate show of loading it with oatbran and sliced berries, gave into his old weakness, the maple syrup. They ate in silence. That was normal. Then Julia disappeared into the bathroom. That, too, was normal.
While Julia’s car careened into the hospital parking lot an hour later, Tess sat curled beside the vomit in the kitchen, replaying the scene. Her father’s disbelief, fury, panic as the nausea overtook him. He hadn’t believed she’d do it. She hadn’t really expected him to. She couldn’t decide which of them had failed.
She gnawed on a pancake. Beside her, in a garbage bag, were the remains of her father’s half-eaten breakfast, the one pancake littered with chunks of oat bran, traces of syrup. The jug of sugary maple was there too, nestled against the ipecac bottle, clean as a whistle. Her sister had used that stuff to throw up, back at the beginning, but had moved on to more sophisticated methods. The ipecac, nearly two full ounces of it, had sat, unnoticed, at the other house for a year or more now. No one would miss it. No harm done.
Gordon woke in the hospital, throat raw from the stomach pump, IV dripping into his left arm. He sat up too quickly, eyes darting left to right and back. There was nobody there. It was 0:900 hours and change.
A nurse entered, looked at his chart, raised her eyebrows. “You thought you were poisoned, huh?” Her voice was pleasant, slightly forced. His eyes lit on the restraints, the locked door. This was not the emergency room.
“I don’t eat pancakes,” said Gordon, flatly.