Sandra caught the light at the intersection of Monkland and Decarie, rounding the
corner only to have the minivan plunge into gridlock. "Shit," she exclaimed. "Well
congratulations, Dan. You've managed to turn procrastination into an art form. Fifteen
minutes last week. We're definitely going to beat that today."
"I just hate going," Dan groused. "He's always asking 'tell me how you feel.' Every
appointment feels like one more hour lost from my life."
It was April, two solid months of Dan resisting the counselling sessions.
"You're twenty-two years old, you keep vampire hours, won't go to school or find a job.
You're either depressed or an asshole and at a hundred and twenty bucks an hour, this
guy's going to figure out which," Sandra retorted, aware that talking to him this way
disqualified her as mother-of-the-year.
The things she said to him: she regretted them as soon as they flew out of her mouth
but she just couldn't seem to help herself.
"Honest to god Dan, some day we'll both need therapy just for these trips to the
shrink's," she said.
He'd been a crier. Nights when he was a baby, she'd nursed him for hours, slipping her
fingers through his blond curls. And now . . . she lifted her eyes from the road and took
in the grotty t-shirt beneath the beige windbreaker, the grey stubble and lavender
smudges beneath bleary eyes. She reached a hand toward the lank brown hair hanging
over his face. Dan recoiled before she could touch him.
"When was the last time you washed your hair anyway, or took a shower?" She wrinkled
her nose. "I'm guessing it's been awhile."
"Love you too, Ma," Dan said. A white ear bud lay on his shoulder like a giant flake of
dandruff, the other one anchoring him to his MP3 player. Sandra heard the annoying
crash of cymbals. These kids, living lives accompanied by their own personal
"You waste your life on that sofa, channel surfing." Sandra blasted the horn as a red
sports car cut in front of her.
"Selfish bastard," she growled. "I just don't want you to end up like your cousin Rhona.
She was hospitalized twice last year, doesn't even remember the first time. Imagine.
She's been getting electric shock therapy every month for a couple of years now. Must
be lots she doesn't remember."
"Eh?" Sandra pressed again on the horn.
"The shock therapy. What's it for?"
"Oh, you know. 'Bad thoughts,' she calls them. About killing herself."
"You don't think so?"
"I think she's just looking to punish her parents for something they don't even know
"I can't imagine anything shock therapy could make better," Dan said.
The red light had them pinned beside a new big box mall. Sandra craned her neck to
look up at a series of inflatables, the bright colours and patterns of hot air balloons.
They swayed overhead, straining against invisible tethers. The light went green. As the
traffic began to move, Sandra found she had to struggle to remain focused on her
driving. She felt something akin to panic--her heart thumping, her throat suddenly
constricted, and a sweaty sheen blooming on her face.
"Well, if holding a knife to your wrist for a couple of seconds once in a while means she
needs to be hospitalized, you can bet most of us do," Sandra said.
"Anyway, does it matter what you think?"
Sandra banged on the steering wheel and turned to glare at her son.
"They say these things run in families, did you know that, Dan? See any parallels here?"
Really, part of her wondered, how far would she go? Damn, damn, damn. She hated
herself for this, verbal diarrhea.
"Maybe. I just haven't tried to kill myself yet," he said.
"Well thank god for small miracles. Just quit fucking up your life like this."
"Ever occur to you that it's my life and if I fuck it up, that's my choice? My choice, Ma.
Nothing to do with you, okay? Nothing at all."
"If you ever have a child, you'll know why I'll never accept that."
She imagined Dan and the psychologist together, silent, gazing out the window at those
bobbling balloons. She was relieved he was about to be someone else's problem for a
while. They jolted to the curb in front of an unadorned beige office building. "Maybe
next week you'll take the bus, eh? I can't take these rides anymore. The traffic kills
me," she said.
Dan had the door open before the van was stopped completely. Jumping out, he spat
"see ya, Ma," at her before the door crashed back into its frame. The minivan jumped
back into the traffic, tires squealing. Sandra shook her head. She couldn't blame Dan for
slamming the door, not a bit.
"Middle age," Sandra said to Jillian. "I look back and see, if not failure exactly, just a
notable lack of success."
They were on the terrasse of a crowded bistro, everyone hungry for the sun in the
early days of Montreal's short, sharp spring. Sandra dug round her purse for sunglasses,
came up empty-handed and sighed. Jillian poured more wine in their glasses from a
bottle sweating on the table.
"Don't be thinking so hard all the time, okay?" Jillian said. "One day you're going to hurt
"Hunh. Your life's so uncomplicated. Divorced, no kids. You do what you want, when
"Right. And if I died tomorrow, it might be a week before anyone noticed. Even after
they did, most of them'd hardly pay me more than an occasional thought. But do I really
give a shit? This is who I am, take it or shove it." Jillian pulled a crushed box of cherry
flavoured cigarillos from her bag. A man in his twenties at the next table offered her a
light with a Gallic flourish.
"A son who's failed to launch, a husband spending all his time on the other side of the
world, a research job going down the drain. Cry me a river. As lives go, yours isn't really
that tragic. Isn't there anything you've ever dreamt of doing? This is the time, dammit.
We're not going to get many more chances."
Sandra moved an orphan cherry tomato in the dregs of the balsamic dressing.
"All I ever wanted was to do research, have my own lab. I thought I'd be saving the
world, you know?"
After she her Master's, Sandra had been thrilled to find work creating a mouse model of
diabetes. But looking back, it all seemed pretty thin. She was so sure then they would
find a cure, that all her hard work would be building something worthwhile. Instead, all
she'd done was prove the disease settled in layers she would excavate, like an
"And to think I killed thousands of mice just for that . . ." Sometimes Sandra thought of
her career as little more than a murine holocaust. She'd had disturbing dreams lately,
herself a Pied Piper trailed by hordes of pirouetting headless white mice.
Their waiter arrived and placed steaming plates of pasta before them. Sandra watched
Jillian and the waiter make the grinding of pepper and the grating of Parmesan sexually
suggestive. Jillian's cigarillo lay in an ashtray; smoke rose in a slow spiral.
When the waiter left, Sandra said, "how do you do that?"
"Forget it." She sighed. Sandra sipped her wine, twirled noodles round her fork, then put
it down. "I just never thought things would turn out this way. I had so many plans."
"You got pregnant and gave up on having your own lab."
"You make it sound like I did it on purpose."
"You said, I didn't."
"Shit happens. I made the responsible choice. Isn't that what being an adult's all about?"
"Honey, we're each of us a work in progress. Stop being so hard on yourself." Jillian
caught the eye of the man with the lighter and smiled.
Sandra made a little moue and took a pull from her wineglass, wishing it contained
something stronger than Chardonnay. "There is this new guy at the institute, works in
Jillian raised an eyebrow. "Go on," she said.
"He gave a lecture on the genetic predisposition to suicide. Hemingway's the classic
example: his father killed himself and so did two of his siblings, one of his kids, even his
granddaughter Margaux. He's asked me to work with him."
"It is an important subject."
"It means starting over again."
"But you've got the technical smarts he needs, right?"
"Yeah," Sandra conceded. "He's got a collection of brain tissue samples from suicide
victims. He wants to do expression studies, says I could even do a PhD with him if I
"Sounds perfect. He needs you, you need a job."
Sandra busied herself with her fettuccine for a moment. "It's just . . . starting over like
this, makes me feel I've wasted my time the last twenty years."
"What a load of crap, Sandra. Shit happens; sometimes you just have to roll with it."
Sandra sighed again and tapped her fingernails on the marble tabletop. "All right, that's
enough about me. Tell me what you've been up to lately."
"Did I tell you I met this guy online a few weeks ago?"
"No. And? Have you slept with him yet?"
Jillian laughed and stabbed the half-smoked cigarillo into the remains of her pasta. "Not
quite, but I'm thinkin' he's definitely sponge-worthy."
By mid-May, Sandra was trying to absorb some fifty scientific articles about suicide:
genetic and protein variants of tryptophan hydroxylase, serotonin transport proteins,
the psychology of suicidal ideation, and theories on impulsiveness, loss and resilience.
Many nights she sat alone in her living room with a glass of Bordeaux, ploughing through
reviews clogged with pedigrees, surprised to discover suicide rivalled breast cancer as a
cause of death, that nearly ten times as many Canadians killed themselves as died from
murder or AIDS. It astounded her to discover an epidemic of such scope and discretion.
Sandra learned the jargon, the difference between 'attempters,' 'completers,' and
'survivors,' the mourners left behind a 'successful' suicide.
In late May, Liam returned home for a couple of weeks and kept harping on all the
details he'd left hanging in Tianjin. He was gambling everything on this venture--their
savings, the equity in their home, money borrowed from her parents--all to set up a
plastics factory to make desks modelled after the hoods of famous Formula One cars.
It was after midnight. The two of them moved between the bathroom and the bedroom.
Water ran in short bursts. Around them the house held its breath.
"Wal-Mart's sniffing around. If they bite, we could make a real killing," Liam said.
"Mm-hmm," said Sandra. She'd heard all this before.
"Come with me this time, Sandra," he said, as he had before every trip for the past
eighteen months. And Sandra responded the way she always did, too. Their
conversation had gone past scripted to approach the ritualistic, the sighs, pauses and
harsh words appearing right on cue.
"We've been through this. I can't. I'm wrapping things up in the old lab, trying to get up
to speed with the new stuff. And Dan's so messed up right now."
"He's not a kid anymore, Sandra. He's twenty-one-"
"Twenty-two," she corrected.
"-old enough to stay on his own. Maybe it would do him good to have you out of his
business for a while, ever think of that?"
"Dan needs me," she said.
"What if I need you? Your lab's closing anyway. Isn't this the perfect time to take a
For a moment, there was silence. "You can be a real bastard sometimes," she finally
said. "It's trivial to you, my lab shutting down. But for me it's the end of something
"Come with me this time, Sandy. Please. It'd be good for us." Maybe if he'd said this
while holding her, Sandra might have recognized his plea for what it was. Instead, Liam
was slipping his shirt over his head, unzipping and stepping out of his khakis and boxer
shorts. She still found him attractive: his middle had thickened but his pecs were well
defined, he'd managed to hold onto most of his hair, and she'd always relished the
strength in his thighs. She watched him slide into bed and prop himself up on the
pillows. His clothes remained puddled where they hit the floor.
"Good for you, you mean," Sandra said, putting his shirt and underwear in the white
wicker basket, shaking his pants into their creases and hanging them in the closet.
"You'll be busy with the thousand and one things only you can handle. And there I'll be,
completely isolated, unable even to speak to anyone, in a place that couldn't possibly
be more foreign."
"If anyone imagines there's a thousand and one things only they can manage, it's you
babe." Liam picked up The Economist from the night table, perched his reading
half-glasses on his nose, and peered over the top of them. "Is it so terrible to want you
in my bed all the time?"
Another of Sandra's sore points: Liam arrived home after weeks away expecting a
Stepford wife, expecting a virtual fuck-a-thon. She felt something snap inside her. "You
want me in bed, you know where I am, dammit," she said. What about all those nights
he was away when she wanted sex? "You're the one chasing some goddam fantasy.
And even when you are here, you're not really with us. You're really still back there,
dreaming." Sandra had put on an old pair of flannel pyjamas and a white tank top. She
picked up a jar of aloe cream from the night table, opened it, and rubbed the cream
hard into her skin. A green scent filled the air.
"I'm just trying to build something there. For all of us."
"Thanks but no thanks, okay? My life is here. I can't just blow it off because you
nurture some pathetic pipe dream."
Silence arrived so suddenly, it made her ears ring. Sandra noisily closed the white jar,
returned it to the night table. She turned out the light and got into bed. Oh shit, oh
shit, she thought.
There was the sound of Liam's glasses on the bedside table. His voice floated to her
through the darkness: "I won't mention it again if that's the way you feel."
It wasn't, not completely. But try as she would, all Sandra could say was, "so I hope
that's settled, then." What the fuck's the matter with me, she thought. What makes me
say these terrible things?
They turned away from one another then, rustled the bedding, drifting further and
For the rest of his two weeks in Montreal, Liam and Sandra were overly polite though
they hardly spoke to each other. Even Dan noticed. And though Sandra drove Liam to
the airport, in itself an unusual event, she saw the hurt had settled in the soft brown
depths of his eyes. When he left her to enter the security checkpoint, Sandra felt the
prickling of tears. Why can't I just say I'm sorry, she asked herself. Why can't I just call
The month that Liam was away, their emails and occasional phone calls had a
perfunctory quality that left Sandra rattled. He was due back the last week in June, for
their anniversary. Sandra decided to book a table at an Italian restaurant in Old
Montreal they'd gone to on special occasions, ever since she proposed to him there.
She had herself waxed in anticipation. The esthetician had been pushing 'the Brazilian'
on her for months, and Sandra finally gave in, thinking maybe this would be a good
thing, a little variety. As the wax was ripped from her body Sandra cursed, almost
crying and yet somehow happy for the pain. She hated herself for having made them
both so unhappy.
She offered an awkward apology when she met Liam at the airport: "I've been so
short-tempered," she said, "what with the lab situation, Dan's shtick, you gone so
"Forget it," he told her, "I know it's been hard." But in bed they didn't touch each other,
as though sex was some language they no longer shared.