For lunch, Brian picked up a sub from the cafeteria and settled on a bench in front of his building. It was an assorted, and even though he had asked Mr. Wesenberg to leave them out, the sub was lousy with purple onions, which made the sun all the hotter. A few minutes after he sat down, Brian smelled the citric lightness of her and turned and spotted her standing beside him in fashionable sunglasses.
“Mind?” she said.
“Of course not, Helen.” Brian paused, replayed the words in his head. In recent weeks, he had arrived at the realization that Helen Daigle from crisis management, and the fields and hills west of the city he lived in, visible from his balcony, were aligned in some way. Not only the fields but the wolves and horses and leather and blood and mighty rivers they implied. But had the tenor of his voice given him away? Tension requires mystery. He wondered if a slip in his voice had unmasked him. Brian also wondered if she smelled the onions on his breath.
“It’s like terrorism.” Helen spooned blueberry yogourt out of a Tupperware container. “To work up there without air conditioning.”
The blue of the yogourt against the honey brown skin on the back of her hand destroyed his appetite for assorted submarines. There is no reason why this shouldn’t be simple, he told himself, as a bead of sweat trickled down the inside of his arm. “It’s hard to think.”
“I’m sore from power yoga. It’s killing me to sit in my chair today.” She lifted her legs and winced to demonstrate.
Brian allowed himself to imagine Helen in a unitard, arching her back and exhaling mightily.
“Big plans for the weekend?”
The freckles across the bridge of her nose and under her eyes, only visible in this light, were proof of something. He nodded.
Helen took a spoonful and looked up. “You and the wife heading out to the lake?”
Brian didn’t like it when Helen asked about Kate, which she had been doing with some regularity. An eyebrow-lifting veneer of satisfaction surrounded Helen when she asked these questions, and it made him wish he could legitimately tell her that his marriage was over, that Kate had, in fact, moved out and was now living with her parents in Surrey, BC. But in truth the problems between Brian and Kate were quiet problems. He had been watching them inhabit their new-smelling house together in an arbitrary and spiritless mannerærituals had begun to feel vacantæand sometimes, in the edges of her silences, Brian sensed that his wife felt the same.
“No.” Watching a bicycle courier pull up his spandex shorts, Brian crumpled the remainder of his sub into a ball. Some of the mayonnaise and Italian dressing squirted out and into his hands. To give off an air of relaxed playfulness that might offset the way he truly felt, Brian began to whistle “Heart of Gold.”
“Is everything okay, Brian?”
Yes. No. He wanted to be honest with her, to tell her nothing was okay. He wanted to admit that he was a weak man like all weak men, and that the oldest story in the history of gender relations was beginning to take hold of his life. But more than that, he wanted to take Helen Daigle up in his arms and whisper his strong points in her ear: a full head of hair, some knowledge of cooking and wines, intermediate Spanish, an interest in gardening, sexual experience, a competitively flat stomach, the grey Saab, impeccable taste in jazz.
“Yes. I’m okay. The sun’s doing a number on my brain. No plans for the weekend. No plans. You?”
“Well. I don’t need to tell you that the social calendar of a single girl in this town is never empty.” Helen lifted her sunglasses and gave Brian that smile again, the one designed just for him. In the sun, her eyes were bluer than in the office. Never empty? Was this sarcasm? Brian had been noticing that people in their late twenties, the generation just below him, had trouble making direct statements.
“But mine, somehow, remains barren.”
Helen closed her Tupperware container and dropped it into a Safeway bag. With the sunglasses blocking her eyes again, Brian wondered if she were scrutinizing him for faults. Old pimples, maybe. Helen rubbed her hands along the nylons of her knees and leaned forward to take off her blazer before letting out a sigh and flopping back on the bench in a sunbathing pose. Her white shirt was thin and sleeveless.
Without moving, Helen said, “I like you without a beard. You don’t look so serious.”
Brian studied her arms. There was some definition where the shoulder began, the result, he assumed, of power yoga and kickboxing. Brian had never been a physical person, and the full realization of her athleticism allowed him to retreat. He imagined Helen now as a fierce woman filled with a sweaty, endless endurance, an energy he could never match or satisfy. “You think I’m a serious person?”
When she said nothing for a few seconds, Brian wondered if maybe she hadn’t heard. Was talking over? Then she smiled. “I don’t know. It’s more a feeling I got than a criticism.”
Peeking behind her lenses, Brian discovered her eyes were closed. He was able, now, to fully consider her. The tanned economy of Helen Daigle. As he investigated, a ladybug landed on the back of her right hand. A red and black candy on her honey hand. He reached over to flick it off, and as he did, his fingers lingered. He swept slowly from her wrist to her knuckles, over the thin blonde hairs of her hand. With every second that she allowed it, Brian crept further, to the hard and lightly pink-glossed nails and around to the tips of her fingers. Suddenly, Helen slapped his hand away and stood up.
Brian opened his mouth to apologize. Blocking the sun, in silhouette, Helen seemed to smile. Then, as she turned, Brian realized she wasn’t smiling at all. “You caressed my hand. You caressed me.” Helen put on her blazer and snatched the Safeway bag from under the bench. As Brian searched for words about the ladybug, Gary MacLean, one of the junior accountants, approached from behind Helen. Brian didn’t care for Gary MacLean, who repeated phrases like “no freakin’ way” and “take ’er down a notch.”
“Yo, Helen,” said Gary. “What jumps?”
Helen stomped in front of Brian and into the building.
Gary raised his eyebrows. He sat beside Brian and slipped off his shoes. His socks were sweaty in places. “What’s her problem?”
On his way up the bright, chalky steps, Brian dropped his ball of assorted sub into the garbage bin. A team of wasps swirled inside.
All afternoon, Brian sat in his office and pretended to work. Who would Helen tell? Would his indiscretion remain an internal matter? Would Kate believe his version of the story? He called the minister’s office and spoke with Terence, the executive assistant, for half an hour. Terence was about Brian’s age and blunt and single. After Brian told Terence about how the air conditioning was out in the tower and how it was all a ridiculous misunderstanding, that Helen just lost her mind, Terence said not to worry an ulcer about it. It’s more trouble for her to complain, especially for something as benign as hand touching. And Brian felt redeemed. He was, after all, only chasing a ladybug.
For the sake of safety and prudence, Brian decided to hole up in his office until everyone was gone. At 5:30, after drafting a few press releases for small papers in the northæan aboriginal initiative planæBrian called home. Kate would be getting back early from the library today and he wanted to hear her voice. Moments of weakness, he had reasoned, will come and go; a man must fight against the profane extremes of the heart, lest he succumb to penalties of abandonment, guilt, solitude. As Kate answered the phone, Helen peeked around the door and walked slowly into his office. Brian hung up.
“Is this a bad time?” Helen held a sheet of paper.
Brian attempted a cordial, PR smile. “Of course not.”
His phone rang, but he let it go.
“Shouldn’t you?” said Helen.
Sweat soaked through his underwear. There was something fearful about the office, the faulty air conditioner, the lack of protection it provided. It seemed to Brian that no matter how hard people tried, they were always destroyed by the relentlessness of nature. Helen waved her paper. “I tried to write you a note.”
The phone rang again.
“I didn’t mean to offend you. There was a ladybug.” Brian had been rehearsing this speech. “You’re an intelligent woman and I respect you…” Brian stopped there because the look on Helen’s face had transformed. On her forehead, a thin layer of perspiration. Brian picked up the phone, banged it down, and stood. The room seemed to contract, then to expand. He had stood up too quickly and he felt faint.
“No. I reacted poorly.” Helen folded the paper and unfolded it.
“It won’t happen again. Whatever it was, it was unprofessional.” Brian put the letter opener into the middle drawer, and pulled two pencils out of the pencil holder and stuffed them into the pocket of his damp blue shirt.
Helen took a step forward. “I was afraid to give you this because I thought you might show your buddies. Or your wife.”
Brian groped behind him for the window. The glass burned his fingertips, so he pushed off it. Brian focused on the Haida print beside the door instead of making eye contact with Helen. A red and blue bird with a big head, flying somewhere noble.
“But I wanted you to hear what I wrote. It’d be pretty hard to say.” Helen cleared her throat. A lock of hair had escaped from a barrette and dangled over her left eye. What was going on here? Were the director and the minister and several members of the press standing outside the door, ready to snare him? He decided he wouldn’t be snared. No matter how wet he was, no matter how fully time and histories and responsibilities seemed to disappear when Helen was in the room with him, in this heat, he would not give in to chaos. Helen laughed. “This used to be four pages long.”
“You don’t have to read it, Helen.”
“I want to. I’d hoped you’d stay late.” She cleared her throat again, flashed the smile.
This is it. Brian had not formulated the beginning, only its middle, its day-to-day operations. He and Helen driving down the highway, on the way to the beach. Running a bath for her. Cocktails. A Mexican all-inclusive. Making love with layers of shared sweat between them, the soundtrack from Last Tango in Paris coaxing them on. Brian scratched nervously at the corner of the desk and a sliver came off under his fingernail. As much as he wanted to, he didn’t stick his finger in his mouth or curse. He just swallowed the pain and stood and looked at Helen, and let out a long, shaky breath. He smelled her and imagined that her skin must also be slick underneath her clothes. In these moments, Brian forgot that he was a potential candidate for a workplace harassment suit, and imagined a cool dusk with Helen Daigle, a sunset west of the city, west of everything.
Before crumpling the note, Helen ran a hand through her hair and mumbled something Brian couldn’t hear. Then she said, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here,” and backed out of the office, dropping the paper. A few minutes later, after standing and looking at nothing, swallowing, rubbing the back of his neck in that spot between regret and relief, Brian picked up the paper.
Highway traffic was furious. Commuters and truckers competed for lanes as the weekend people inched along in their campers and their motorhomes sipping cans of discount pop, pulling trailers and boats. Brian had taken off his shirt and tie, and hoped no one in neighbouring vehicles could see the sweat stains on his undershirt.
They lived in the far southeast, on the way to the airport. A bicycle path wove through the subdivision, from the site of a plane crash in the flatlands to a reservoir. It was quiet here.
The plan was to have two children. One in late 2008 and another in 2010. What an opportunity, to be born in the year 2010.
With his jacket, his shirt and his tie slung over his shoulder, Brian walked up the steps of the balcony. He heard Kate laugh, and the voice of Mr. Nitch, the old man who lived next door. Mr. Nitch, wearing a light blue suit, finished his story, another one of his bank manager stories, before Kate got up to give Brian a kiss. “Did you call?” she said, into his ear, and returned to her deck chair without waiting for a response.
“Hello, Mr. Nitch.”
“Damn hot,” said the old man.
Kate, a tall and long-limbed woman, reached up to where Brian stood by the door. She pointed to his sweat stains. “What were you doing all day? Rowing?”
Mr. Nitch laughed deeply and coughed before taking a long pull of his Pilsner. “Brian could use some rowing. Look at those hands of his.”
You’re right, Mr. Nitch. I’m soft.”
“Get changed and grab yourself a beer,” said Kate. “It won’t be summer forever.
The note had been short.
It couldn’t have been any worse, or better.
He folded it into his pocket and ran for the elevator. After waiting just over ten seconds, he went for the stairs and hopped down all fourteen flights. In the underground parking lot, he checked all three levels, cursing and running up the CARS ONLY exit when he remembered that Helen didn’t have a car. She biked across the bridge to work. Since he parked above ground that morning, Brian had to go to the bank machine before paying the woman in the booth on his way out of the lot.
Not knowing Helen’s exact address, Brian parked in front of a Mac’s in his old neighbourhood—the neighbourhood where all the young and hopeful people lived—and walked. He passed his old building, and the house he shared with three friends during his second year of university. The impossibility of being young and hopeful again, of sitting in basements night after night smoking cigarettes and listening to guitar music again, eased him into taking off his tie. After half an hour of frustrated and fantasy-filled searching, Brian gave up. He took off his blue shirt and bought a watermelon slushie before returning to the car.
Highway traffic was furious.
Kate had a soft spot for the widowed Mr. Nitch. And, in his way, so did Brian. Though he didn’t especially like the old man and the feeling was mutual, everything about Mr. Nitch broke Brian’s heart. The formal care taken in his slow movements, his combed hair. The way he dressed in a shirt and tie every morning, no matter what. After finishing off a case of Pilsners and half a bottle of brandy between the three of them, Kate helped Mr. Nitch home. While she was gone, Brian sat on the balcony, under the warm yellow and orange patio lanterns he had set up, and finished his last beer. Even at 11:15 he could see the dying haze of the sun shining off the clouds over the prairie. He thought about Helen Daigle, and wondered what she might be doing tonight. What would she be doing at this moment, and thismoment, and this moment? Where would she be? Might she also be looking west from a balcony somewhere, thinking of the end of this day? Might she also be thinking that from this sunset forward the days shorten until December, when they are so short it’s hard to remember this privilege of daylight at all? Soon, like Mr. Nitch, they would all be dead, dead, dead.
Behind him, Kate opened the gate. “You were quiet this evening.”
“Did he put up much of a fight?” Brian didn’t turn around.
Kate pulled a deckchair from behind the table. She poured herself another glass of brandy and sat facing him, lifting her long legs so they rested on his thighs. “He just whispers things in my ear. Tells me I’m too good for you, he’d do anything for me. Money stuff. I tell him he’s too old and he tells me I should leave you anyway.”
“Sweet old guy.” The wind chimes tinkled as a warm, dry gust swept over the balcony. Kate tickled his beardless chin with her long, bare toes.
“Big morning for you, shaving. What’s the occasion?”
A group of low-flying bats darted over their heads as Brian thought about pouring another brandy.
“You know what I want to do in the morning, Brian? I want to linger in bed, then get up and do the crossword puzzle out here on the balcony. Then we should go to Skeleton Lake.”
Kate closed her eyes. Brian took a deep breath and looked straight up. Not a sound here.
“On the way, we’ll pick up some fruit and a few cobs of corn. We can see each other in our bathing suits, have an adventure.”
Brian smiled at his wife and drank from the bottle of brandy. When he changed, he had transferred Helen Daigle’s note from his suit to his jeans. He reached into his front pocket and touched the note, still moist from his hands, and hers.