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Excerpt: Quality Time by Suzannah Showler

In "Morning Song" by Sylvia Plath, love sets you going like a fat gold watch. But what happens when love makes time stop altogether? In Quality Time, the debut novel from Suzannah Showler, Maisonneuve’s poetry editor, Lydie, an anxious artist, and Nico, an entrepreneurial translator, spend a sensational first year of dating together. In an effort to maintain the chemistry of their early relationship, the couple decided to re-enact the entire year, celebrating their love in a continual cycle of anniversaries. As their project draws on, their unorthodox relationship with time begins to disturb Lydie as she watches her friends and loved ones settle into adulthood without her. This story of love, routine, and coping with the anxieties of adulthood is set in Toronto during the 2010s.

Suzannah Showler is a writer, poet and cultural critic based in Vancouver. Quality Time is her first novel and was released in May 2023 through McClelland & Stewart.

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So, how long have you two been together?

A quick double-time beat starts up in Lydie’s body, the tiniest hit of panic charging towards her hands and feet. It’s the same flutter she gets from counting change, coins flattening into small doses of nonsense shining unaccountably in her hand. Or back to grade-nine math, welling with frustration over ratios, fractions, memorizing truths she could never get to make sense to her: how a negative—less than nothing—crosses the line back into positive when you multiply it by more nothingness. How is that possible?

The woman Lydie’s talking to is wearing a grey dress covered in creamy polka dots made to look like they’ve been dabbed by paintbrushes of varying sizes. Her name is possibly Haley, or Kaylie, or even Bailey—they were just introduced and Lydie missed it, concentrating too hard on her own name to take in someone else’s. Polka-dotted Haley or Kaylie is the partner of Jaime, Nico’s friend, the one he’s talking to now, their conversation pivoted just a few degrees overhead, leaving enough of a gap for the woman to make the call and break off with Lydie. This is the kind of party where people talking is the event.

And now Lydie has been invited to join, to enter the arena, to participate. This question of how long she’s been with Nico should be easier for Lydie to answer than it is.

It’s a question women ask. More and more as Lydie gets older, as the people she meets have aged out of impermanence. How long have you been with your—? How did you two meet? What’s your story? Are you—? Do you have—? Do you want—? Milestones, plans, hopes, hauntings. The relational accounting considered fair game between strange women, what passes as small, civil talk. Somehow both invasive and boring.

Lydie often thinks there’s something kind of messed up about women her age, how quick they are to bond with one another. The way they freefall into conversation like they’re taking a tandem plunge off a cliff, the get-to-know-you as extreme sport. It’s a bit perverse. They are always relating to each other. I so relate to that, they say. Same. Ditto, same here. Nodding so hard it hurts. They are a micro-generation too narrow to be placed on the record by demographers, or whoever gets to say what binds people together in history. Lydie’s cohort are the ones who played all that truth-or-dare and never once took a dare, just gave away truth after truth after truth until there was nothing left.

And it’s not like Lydie is above it. Not at all. After a party like this one, she’ll go home and play back the tape in her head, frantic and amazed, trying to account for all the confessions both made and acquired. These women she’s known so briefly well, her one-night stands with friendship. She knows about their white-knuckled promotions and undefended dissertations, their mentors and advisors and landlords and managers, fellowships and internships and clerkships and tall ships—yes, there was one who worked on the boats that sail tourists in a dizzy little circle out of Harbourfront, her forearms muscular and sunned—she knows about their pelvic floors and ovarian torsions and abortions and abnormal paps, and the dicks, so many dicks, the million wanted and unwanted and borderline, grey-area dicks—mistimed dicks, dicks met, truly, with indifference, which is something Lydie knows in her heart a dick can be met with—seen and touched and smelled, all of it going home with her at the end of the night like sand from a day at the beach, insinuating itself into everything, grains that keep turning up for days.

Sometimes Lydie wants to stop the woman she’s talking to, grab her, say: This isn’t safe! What are we doing? We have to be more careful, even amongst ourselves! Pass it on. Pass it on.

Hmmm, Lydie says now to Haley-Kaylie as if she’s thinking about it. Right, how long have we been together, that’s a good question.

So, this is the thing: Lydie and Nico have been together for a few years, and for most of that time, they’ve been celebrating their anniversary. Or, rather, anniversaries. It’s a sort of—Lydie sometimes has a hard time putting words to this in a way that feels right—it’s their thing.

It started as kind of a joke, Lydie can explain if she has to. On our first anniversary, we went back and recreated the night we met. Nothing crazy—just went to the bar where we hooked up, had a drink, blah blah blah. Anyway, so, then the next day Nico’s goofing around and makes the same dinner as he did on our second date, just to be funny. So then we just kind of kept going from there. With the whole anniversary thing. We kept remembering what we’d been up to the year before, so we kept celebrating. And yeah, we’re still doing it. It’s not that big a deal—we don’t always stage an elaborate event or anything. We just have, like, one moment of anniversary that we play out every day.

Cute! whoever she’s talking to might say, nodding like they get it, like they approve. Or sometimes: Wait, what?

Lydie knows, down to the day, where she and Nico stand. She could tell Jaime’s girlfriend right now that today is the anniversary of Day Two Hundred and Forty-Nine. She could say that before she and Nico came here tonight, they celebrated by watching Eternal Sunshine and eating popcorn with cayenne on it. The third, or fourth, or thousandth time they’ve seen the film, and Lydie doesn’t even like spice because it makes her gums itch, but who’s counting? Better question: what counts? They are cycling through the whole first year they were together, day by day, carrying onward by looking back. It’s a way to be together, an agreement, the terms of their relationship, a project. It’s also just their life.

What trips Lydie up isn’t keeping a tally—the trouble is translating from her own understanding of duration into something more objective, making the conversion from anniversaries into real time. Real time. Like one-size-fits-all clothes, as if something so particular and malleable and strange could really belong to everyone, a nice way to pretend we all agree on what it’s like to live. Besides, Lydie’s not sure a number is ever really the best answer, the best measurement. Of relationships, love, whatever. What’s a unit of devotion? Which parts of your day, your week, your year do you add up? Not everything has equal weight. Not all togetherness feels the same. She and Nico have talked about this kind of thing a lot.

Lydie tries to clear all the numbers crowding her head, tries to act like she hasn’t thought about it in a while, like it’s no big deal, like she’s only guessing, and she tells the pretty polka dots: Like, almost four years now?

Do you live together?

Haley’s or Kaylie’s eyes are earnest, hungry. She sips her white wine.

Excerpted from Quality Time by Suzannah Showler (McClelland & Stewart, 2023) Reprinted with permission from the publisher.