Register Tuesday | February 20 | 2024
Red Dye Illustration by Caitlin McGuire.

Red Dye

Ella had Zara ad face. Pinched nose, ethnically ambiguous curls, these huge, saucer-shaped eyes. Her dad, who was my boss, dropped her off at my apartment with a list of things she could eat (gluten, peanuts) and things she couldn’t (dairy, eggs and most importantly, red dye). 

I tried to think of what me and Ella could do. It felt weird having a kid in my apartment; it felt weird looking at that small child and thinking, “Wow, you’re my responsibility for the next six hours.” I didn’t have that much stuff that was kid-friendly or interesting to an eight-year-old, unless she wanted to smoke weed, read magazines and help me organize my pantry. 

“Do you want to go for a walk?” I asked. Ella nodded. “Great,” I said. “Let’s go walk.” 

We walked past the Italian cafe where beautiful boys with thin waists and doe eyes get tipped 25 percent by South Shore MILFs. We walked past the grocery store and gave money to the homeless guy who always sat out front. We walked up and down and up and down the stupidly long city blocks until we saw James.

“Is that your kid?” James asked. He was sitting alone on a bench. He looked so good that it killed me. His eyelashes kissed his cheekbones and he still had a warm, freckled tan from the summer. I wanted to take his face in my hands and squeeze his neck out of extreme affection. He was writing in a journal, which meant he was writing a story. 

I knew that James had a girlfriend and that he was living with her now. And that he’d had to stop fostering rabbits, because she was allergic. And that his old roommate, the one he’d fostered the rabbits with, was moving back to Calgary because he tore his ACL and the wait for a surgeon was too long in Quebec, and the whole “being a musician” thing was becoming too hard for him anyway. And I knew that James was going back to school for social work because he wanted to do something actionable for the community, something good, something that made a person feel happy to wake up and happy to go to bed, happy when they looked at an airplane flying overhead, thinking about how they could help all the people inside it, instead of thinking about how all those people could die horribly and that they were burning gas into the air and trapping us all on a dying planet. And then there was his new girlfriend. 

I knew she was older (thirty-seven, wow, ten years older than him) and I guessed that probably made him feel taken care of. Or maybe not, I don’t know. His new girlfriend was a journalist who’d been shot in the leg in Senegal while reporting on all-female militias and had gotten awards for it and she, too, wanted to help people. She sounded like a genuinely good person who believed in him and believed in them together, and together they believed in the world, which was more than I could say for myself. 

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s my kid.”

“No way,” James said.

“Yeah, she’s five, isn’t that crazy? Gave birth to her myself.” 

“I’m eight,” Ella said. 

And then James’ mouth started to crack and we both started laughing, laughing hard because we broke up eleven months ago. I’d cried non-stop about it for ten. But we were laughing so hard I forgot about all the tears and about how crazy psycho and alone I’d felt once I dumped him and how much I’d wanted to take it back immediately because I had no one to text about my day while I was at work. Every time I saw him I went out of my way to be extra friendly to prove how chill and over it I was. 

“What happened to the father?” James asked. 

I looked at Ella. “He left,” she said. 

“Where?” I asked.

“To war,” Ella said. 

James closed his journal and put his hands on his knees to lean forward. He frowned, and then he smiled. He tilted his chin up to look at me, and my heart sank into my stomach in a beautiful way. 

“But seriously, where are you going with a kid?” he asked. 

I looked at Ella. “I don’t know, where are we going?” I asked. 

“We’re going to the park,” Ella said. 

“Sure, yeah, the park, wanna come?” I sensed some hesitation in his face. “Come on, it’ll be a good story.”

James grinned. He closed his journal and put it in his backpack and grabbed the backpack with one hand, taking Ella’s hand with the other. 

When I was dating James, I hated how good his stories were—not just the ones he wrote, but the ones that made up his life. We’d be sitting together, talking about our childhoods, our relationships with our parents, if we were happy with our lives. I’d mentally take notes to compare and contrast what we’d each say, who did what and what was the most interesting.

James’ stories were so good. I guess this mattered to me because we’d met working for the creative lit journal at school. He was into short stories, he had talent and nerve and he was going to be like Raymond Carver, but better. I was always talking about my novel about young people and politics and memory and neoliberal subjectivity that I could never actually make any meaningful progress on. 

His stories had real stakes, but they also could be real downers. In his stories, people died. They got married and then they cheated on each other. They travelled the world. They took overnight ferries to foreign countries and got kicked out once their visas expired. They had kids and lost them at the grocery store and then they grew up and they grew up resentful, but they forgave each other nonetheless.

In my stories, things were simple. No one ever died. The worst things that could happen were a missed flight or a lost pet. I had emotional issues because my middle-class parents divorced. Easy. But my stories always felt flat and barren. I hated telling them in groups because I knew James was going to tell a better one anyway, and I’d just have to sit there and be moved. Who even cared enough to listen to a story about my sixth-grade hamster? 

One time, we were at a dinner party and he was telling a story about how he was visiting a friend in Rio and they get stopped by the police on a night out. The police have them at gunpoint and are searching them. For firearms, for drugs, for whatever. At one point, one of the police officers goes, “Okay, you can drop them now.” Everyone goes to drop their arms, but his friend bends over and starts to take off his pants. And so everyone starts freaking out and yelling “NONONONO!” and the police officers are yelling too and the guy has to yank his pants back up.

“And the entire time,” James said, “I could only think:  fuck, what if we all get shot and die here on the street and David has his pants down?” 

Everyone loved the story. It killed. I laughed, too. It had all the perfect elements: it was irreverent, it was funny, there was an existential threat of death and then some light commentary on the Global South and policing. 

James always made you believe there was a real world. It was distant, but it existed. He could talk about it but I stupidly could never access it. I was always somewhere in the future, ignorant to anything that happened or was happening. I always wanted to have something to say so that I wasn’t just sitting beside James at the dinner table with my hands in my lap. I had no serious responsibilities then, and I still don’t. The most I can do is babysit someone else’s kid for a couple of hours. And even then, I want someone to help me. 

The park we went to was a dump once and then it became a big field where people flew kites. There were no trees so the wind ripped your hair back completely. The field was dotted with these metal orbs. They were sculptures that also served a second, more functional purpose: they let gas from the underground waste release safely. Otherwise there could be explosions. I stood back a bit and watched James and Ella walk ahead. Ella held his hand and they stopped to look at the orbs. I thought about how silly this was. James and Ella wrapped their arms around the orbs to see if they could match the circumference. They couldn’t—they just stood there laughing, pressed against these giant metal spheres.

That day, we were doing everything a happy family is supposed to. 

We walked on the soft grass. We lifted our faces to the warmth of the sun. We loved each other but we didn’t say it out loud.

In the middle of the park was a small autumn festival. There was a horse pulling a cart through stacks of hay. The hay was piled up around the orbs and down the hills. Ella really wanted to check it out. In front of the hayride entrance was a big heap of pumpkins. A photographer was taking pictures of people in front of the pumpkins, which had been slowly rotting since Halloween. 

“Do you want to take a photo, Ella?” I asked. 

She nodded. We sat down on a hay bale, James beside me and Ella in my lap. 

“Smile, make the most of the good weather,” the photographer said. 

He took the photo and the flash burned my eyes. He was shooting on some dumb retro Polaroid.

“It’s usually ten dollars, but since you’re such a beautiful young family, I’ll give it to you for five,” he said. 

James started to open his mouth and I knew he was going to say no so I quickly jumped in and said, “That’s a wonderful deal, I have cash on me right now, I’d love to have a photo of this moment.” 

I paid the photographer with one bill. I took the photo and held it out to James and Ella so they could see. We did look like a beautiful family. 

“I guess you do sort of look like our daughter,” James said to Ella. 

“We all have the same colour hair,” Ella said.

“You have my elbows,” James said. 

“And my ankles,” I said. We all laughed. 

“We’re old enough that we could be parents,” I said. “This doesn’t look too weird.”

“We could be parents,” James said. “We could be old enough.” 

James and I had always talked about having kids, but while he’d wanted to plan the layout of our apartment and what extracurriculars we’d sign them up for, I was always worried about genetic disease. Recently, I’d felt ambivalent toward kids. Before, I loved them. In high school I’d dream of having a baby, and this baby would save me from worrying about myself. I’d spend all my time thinking about this fake baby and the meaning it would give my life. But dating James snapped the option into focus. We talked about it because it was a thing that we could actually do. Like moving in, or buying a car. Dining in or eating out. Paper or plastic. Better to weigh out options ahead of time. But I don’t think either of us actually wanted a child together. The only time it struck me as a real prospect was when my roommate got pregnant. She aborted it. I was dating James then, and I remember thinking: I could also get pregnant. James and I could have a baby. Maybe that would make things real and serious. Maybe it was something that I really wanted. But then I’d just be the same as I was before, except with a baby. 

We walked around a bit more, looking at the vendors selling vegetables and food on sticks. I wanted to ask him if he was going to have a baby with his new girlfriend, if she could even have babies, if it would technically count as a geriatric pregnancy.

“Let’s get a candy apple for our real daughter,” I said. 

“Yeah,” James said. “And some hot cider. But we can’t let her have too much sugar at this hour, or she won’t go to bed.” 

“Or red dye,” I said. “How could you forget that our daughter is allergic to red dye?”

James slapped his palm against his forehead. “How can I call myself ‘Father of the Year’ when I can’t even remember that my daughter is allergic to red dye? I’m so sorry Ella.”

“It’s okay,” Ella said. 

We got in line for the carriage. It was all young families like us. All the fathers had practical beanies and messenger bags full of diapers and wet wipes, and all the mothers wore fitted puffers and carried tubes of Vaseline. 

“You need to remember to call the sitter for Wednesday so I can go to yoga while you go to the climbing gym,” I said.

“I’m busy all day with quarterly reports, but I’ll find the time,” James said. We were smiling at each other hard. 

I studied his face. There was still a boyishness to him. He was still slight. I wondered what he’d look like old. I filled it in: grey hair, stooped shoulders. He still seemed charming. Then I tried to picture him really old, picture him being fed by a spoon, picture him shitting into a diaper. And my mind swung the other way and I saw him young again, a boy waiting at the bus stop in suburban Montreal in the dead of winter, then the light of spring, summer and fall. And all these images were falsehoods. They were just things I’d conjured in his absence. They weren’t real at all.

The horse pulled up for our turn. James got on the carriage and helped Ella up. I followed, stepping up and over the dried grass. We settled into the back.

The horse started moving. The carriage rolled through the hills. Far away we could see downtown, lit up against the blue-orange sky by a million high-rises and a million street lamps. It stood in the shadow of the mountain, which I always said was “stupid and small,” but which James would always describe as “ancient and gentle.” Ella leaned forward, her small head resting against her tiny hands. I thought of a million things to say but I just sat there in silence. What else could be spoken into existence? We watched the evening fall into night and the year melt away. I sat there and thought more and more and wondered if, one day, I could actually commit to something. ⁂

Katia Lo Innes is a writer and journalist based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal. She is the associate producer at the Breach. Her work has appeared in Maisonneuve, This, In the Mood and Ricepaper.