Their anniversary fell on a Thursday, June 29th, a few days after the Fête Nationale.
The night was perfect, warm, too early in the season to be humid, with a cool breeze
coming up from the river. Throngs of people, Montreal natives and tourists alike, took
calèche rides or strolled narrow cobblestone streets, stopping to watch the fire eaters
in the Place Jacques Cartier, to goggle at the gold-lamé Elvis who stood like a statue,
the mimes handing out balloons to the children, the musicians who alternated the love
songs of Daniel Bélanger with The Beatles. On the ruelle des artistes, the occasional
artist could be picked out among the charlatans who painted posters with water colors
and tried to sell them for seventy-five dollars a pop.
When Liam and Sandra entered the restaurant, it was already filled with smiling couples
and perfumed with garlic, rosemary, and candle wax. They were seated at a table
covered with white linen and silver plate. Sandra was content, thinking she had
stage-managed this well. Liam ordered their favourite wine for special occasions, a
robust Le Serre Nuove dell'Ornellaia.
An hour later, he poured the last of it in their glasses. Conversation had been
agreeably low-key: Liam's progress in China, Jillian's new boyfriend, Sandra's pleasure
in discovering that Dan had taken up jogging. They discussed the possibility of her
pursuing a PhD and whose parents they were due to visit at Christmas. She took
another sip of wine, rolling it in her mouth, savouring its earthy bursts of chocolate and
Liam put his glass down and lowered his eyes. "I have to tell you Sandy . . . it wouldn't
be fair not to. I've met someone, over there." He looked up at her as she choked on
the wine and coughed. He handed his napkin to her then went on in a rush, "Dan's
older now. We are too. Maybe we've changed, you know? Maybe we're just not on the
same page anymore. These things happen."
Sandra was still spluttering; she dabbed at her mouth with her napkin. She couldn't
speak. She coughed till there were tears in her eyes.
"We can be adult about this, though, can't we?" Liam went on. "Let's just take it from
here and deal with whatever comes."
Sandra could only nod and look away. She felt for a moment as though she was
hovering above her chair, as though she was about to float right up to the ceiling, as
though gravity had ceased to be a force of nature. She brought the napkin up to the
corner of each eye. She had done this, she knew. She had pushed him away, just as
she'd done to Dan. The stupid, vile things she would say and never take back. How
could she blame him, really? How could she understand the harm she was doing and
still be completely unable to stop herself? Now at last she was speechless.
A young couple sat at the next table, leaning toward each other, the candlelight
revealing a vital expectancy in their faces. They could have been Liam and herself, a
lifetime ago. She felt suddenly there was something she must tell them, something
urgent, but she wasn't quite sure what it was. But from that moment on, and for the
rest of Liam's visit, Sandra felt she was auditioning for the lead role in her own life.
In mid-July, Dan offered to make his own way to the psychologist's. Sandra took this
as evidence he had finally engaged with the therapist and regained a sense of
responsibility. It wasn't until she came home a couple of weeks later and took her
messages from the answering machine that she realized something else might be going
on. Dr. Lala's secretary had called to ask if Dan intended to keep his regular weekly
booking. He had missed three consecutive appointments. "Please let us know as soon
as possible, as Dr. Lala has a number of patients on a waiting list who would be
pleased to take it if you don't." Mulling it over, Sandra realized Dan had been out of
the house a lot lately, too.
She confronted him the next time their paths crossed. He was in the kitchen, making
himself a strawberry and banana smoothie.
"Dr. Lala's office called earlier today," she said, looking him over. He was clean shaven
for a change, his hair and clothes neat and cared-for, if you could forgive the oversize
jeans threatening to drop to the floor any moment. He'd lost some weight. The jogging
had firmed him up; his features were better defined, less like the Pillsbury doughboy's.
"I've been meaning to give you your cheques back," Dan said, intent on pouring the
drink from the blender. From a voluminous pocket he pulled out three envelopes
containing cheques she'd given him for the psychologist. She took them and slowly
unfolded them, then looked up at her son.
"I wanted to tell you," he said, his voice trailing off. He took a slug of his drink and
wouldn't quite look her in the eye.
"Tell me what?"
"I stopped going. I met someone. A girl," he said, blushing.
"Really," she said.
"Yeah. And, well, she's fantastic."
"You met a girl and she's fantastic."
"Yeah. I met her in the waiting room, actually. She was there to talk to one of the
psychologists. Not as a patient. She wants to study counselling after her bachelor's
and her mom knew him and, well, she was there when I came in and I met her.
Manon." He looked at his mother and smiled. "I don't think I'm going to the psychologist
"'Call me but love and I'll be new-baptiz'd,'" Sandra said.
"Shakespeare, right? Manon loves Shakespeare. She's going to London in August to see
a couple of his plays at the Globe Theatre. It's new, but they've tried as much as
possible to make it like the original. It sounds wicked sweet." Sandra doubted he had
spoken this many pleasant words to her in a year.
"You thinking of tagging along?"
"I'd like to," he said, looking away for a moment and then back at her. "I haven't asked
her yet. I'm afraid she'll say no."
"That's wonderful, Dan," she said, and stepped forward to put her arms around him. He
felt so much larger than she remembered. She said, "welcome to the adult world."
That August, Sandra rattled around the empty old house, living on her own for the first
time in her life. Liam had left her and she was exploring the dimensions of loneliness. It
wasn't just Liam's abandonment that got to her, although that was a major part of it.
Jillian was away, on a Mediterranean cruise for the entire month of August, with that
new man she had taken up with. It was as though all her attachments to the planet
were dissolving, her family, her work.
She started waking at regularly at three-thirty or four in the morning. She'd lie there,
going over it all, wondering what was wrong with her, why she had behaved so badly
to her husband and her son, what was it that made her always say too much or not
enough. Sometimes, lying there, she had the curious sense she could levitate.
On the bright side, Dan was doing well. This girl Manon was ambitious, knew what she
wanted and pursued it full-bore. He would meet her in Europe for the last month of the
summer. Liam had pulled some strings, but Dan would join Manon in Halifax that fall; he
was going to start university.
She went to see her doctor. He gave her a prescription for sleeping pills, told her she'd
had a shock and was in mourning for the loss of her marriage, that it might take some
time to get over it. He added for good measure that it might also be menopause
coming on and asked her to come back to see him in a month. He offered her
antidepressants and the name of a therapist. She thanked him but refused.
Sandra tried to get involved in the new lab but found it a hard slog; she wondered if
maybe she truly was too old to start over. Many of the people who worked at the
institute had taken August off and she discovered she couldn't schedule her
experiments without technical help. Passing her old lab every day weighed on her, too.
Sandra began to feel a strange sort of disconnection, like she was going through the
motions, a caricature of researcher, someone who didn't really care about the
outcomes of her experiments one way or the other. Outside, the sky looked the wrong
color blue, the sun, the wrong shade of yellow. At home, she discovered how much
she hated to eat alone, and food gradually lost its appeal. She dropped fifteen pounds
and became slow moving, sluggish, as though the air had become some more viscous
fluid she moved through with difficulty. She spoke so little her voice began to feel
rusty. By mid-August, her diabetes lab was finally history. She'd received a gold Seiko
watch from the lab director at his retirement party. She never wore it. It sat in its box
in a drawer, counting down the seconds.
She began to have the same dream over and over again, that she gradually became
transparent until she finally floated away. She had to wonder: if she really did
disappear, would it make any difference?
The late-August day was stifling, the midday sky almost white with heat. Through the
windshield, the asphalt shimmered. Sandra concentrated on the road, aware she was
hardly at her best. After ten days with almost no sleep, even walking a straight line
would have been quite a challenge. She was certain she would fail just about every
sobriety test except maybe the breathalyser. She negotiated the empty streets
without incident; most people were probably still away on vacation.
Sandra parked the van in the lot of a familiar sculpture garden beside a lakeside bicycle
path. She saw a man working to get a multicoloured kite aloft, running, switching back
repeatedly, trying to scare up some wind. Must be too hot, Sandra thought. After a
while he gave up, offered the kite to his little dark-haired girl and flopped onto a red
gingham spread where a woman sat amid the ruins of lunch. The toddler wandered,
dragging the kite behind her as though she had sprung a tail.
Sandra pulled things from an old tote bag. As the air conditioning dissipated, the sides
of the van seemed to press in on her. There was no note: she wasn't sure what to
say, or to whom to address it. Why was she doing this? She had run out of steam.
Liam had his own life. Dan too. He wasn't completely grown, true, but he didn't need
her anymore, she had to face it. And for her? Her old life had vanished and she just
couldn't imagine herself into a new one. Sandra hoped neither of them would blame
themselves but frankly felt was tired to care, too tired to keep it all going, this
pretence of a life, a life that had morphed somehow into a sentence to be served. She
was tired, that was all. And she could no longer see that it mattered whether she was
actually there or not.
On the upholstery beside her sat the vial of insulin she'd taken from her old lab and
stored in her fridge the past few weeks, the syringes and needles in their shrouds of
paper and plastic, a pill bottle with eight orange sleeping pills knocking around inside,
just to take the edge off-she'd decided on insulin for the main event. It had a certain
symmetry she admired.
The new wallet she left in the tote bag. She bought it only for the small card that read
'CONTACT IN CASE OF EMERGENCY.' Sandra had written her new boss's name and
phone number on it. As someone who thought about suicide all the time, she figured he
was the person least likely to be upset by the call, capable of identifying her and
conveying the news. After all, how distressed could he be? He hardly knew her. The
practicality of this decision satisfied her: at least she could still organize this. The
wallet was small and black, not even real leather. Everything of value she'd left at
home. She didn't want anyone taking her credit cards. She didn't want any more
Just knock back the pills--she fished a bottle of water from the bag--slurp up some of
the insulin, attach the 25-gauge needle to the syringe and away we go, she thought.
Not much to it, really. She popped open the pill bottle, and threw them into her mouth
in several bursts, washing them down with tepid water. Overwhelmed suddenly by her
own heartbeat and the closeness of the van--like a coffin she thought,
uneasy--Sandra got out for a moment to calm herself.
She leaned her back against the van door, breathing deeply, face to the sun, eyes
closed. In a bid to soothe her own agitation, she focused on the world around her.
There was a small breeze after all, she found; the air steamed with humidity. She
smelled the water in unpleasant, foul whiffs. She heard the gulls fighting over
leftovers. Gradually she became aware of voices calling. They grew louder, then so
insistent she reluctantly opened her eyes. It was the man and the woman from the
picnic blanket. She watched as they tried to catch up to the little girl, still trailing the
bedraggled red kite. The child skipped along the bike path, zigzagging, oblivious,
dancing to some music only three-year-olds can hear. Then Sandra saw it, a
fast-moving cyclist, an approaching blur in royal blue. The rest seemed to happen in
slow motion. The cyclist swerved as if to avoid the child. The parents streamed toward
their daughter, waving their arms, shouting, too far away to attract her attention. The
child bopped along erratically, dragging her kite, until the bike finally smashed headlong
into her, and then both she and the cyclist were briefly airborne and moving in
Sandra ran the short distance and dropped to her knees by the little girl who lay
crumpled and unmoving, like a rag doll on an emerald rug. Carmine blood oozed from her
ear. The parents arrived an instant later, looking as though they'd aged ten years.
They appeared much too old to be responsible for such a young child. From their
expressions, Sandra could tell they felt the same way. The mother stood wailing,
hands on her cheeks. The father scooped the girl to him as Sandra tried her best to
dissuade him, warning him her spine might be injured, some old first aid training
returned to her in a wave.
Other people rushed over, cell phones plastered to their heads. Sandra felt herself
elbowed to the periphery as the group buzzed like a disturbed beehive. She looked
away and spotted the cyclist, alone, splayed on his back on a grassy incline, and made
her way over to him. His head moved from side to side. He moaned. Bloodied bone
poked through the flesh of his right leg. His heel pointed skyward; Sandra was afraid to
look at it too closely. She knelt on the grass beside him and asked if she could help.
"The girl," he said, finding her eyes with his. He looked sixteen or so, to Sandra's eyes
impossibly young. "The little girl. I really hit her? She okay?"
"She's okay. Don't worry, she's fine, her parents are with her." Sandra's words all ran
together as she prayed she was telling the truth. "Relax now, you must lie still.
Someone is calling for help."
"I'm so cold," he choked out. He sobbed then and started to shake.
Sandra reached forward to unfasten his helmet, liberating a cascade of blonde curls.
She stared at him for a moment, then reached forward to push the hair away from his
eyes. "It's shock," she said. "You've hurt your leg and you're going into shock." Sandra
felt drained and abruptly exhausted. She sat down heavily on the grass and then down
on her back beside the young man, on his uninjured side. She took him in her arms.
"Shh," she soothed, "it will be all right." He continued to cry and shake. Sandra felt the
weight of the young man's body hold her firmly against the Earth. She gazed up into
the hazy blue sky. High above them the gulls floated freely.
He's just a boy, Sandra thought. Someone will have to take care of him. Someone will
have to tell him it wasn't his fault.