Fiction > Toronto


            Sometimes when she listens to jazz, Sara can completely forget how bad things are.  Tonight she’s in the kind of place she often dreams of:  a small café in Toronto.  She’s drinking a glass of zinfandel while the pianist plays “Teach Me Tonight.”

            It is the night before New Year’s Eve, and there’s a pause in the city, as if everybody’s afraid to start the party too soon.  The bar is almost empty, so Sara and David settled at a table right in front of the piano, where the sleek baby grand curves into its strings. 

            “Look at his foot work,” David whispers.  The pianist is wearing Hush Puppies and they’re going to town on the pedals.  David and Sara are the only ones who can see this.  They smile at each other. 

            “I can’t believe how lucky we are,” David says, still whispering.

            The light in the place is amber, and the black piano is so polished that the candles from all the little tables are reflected on it.  It’s so beautiful, Sara feels as if the piano’s black sides are a gift just for her.  One of the reflections she sees is the candle on their table.  She sees David’s glass and her own.  David looks wonderful to her tonight, his fine chest shown off to its best in a dark green sweater, his body turned thoughtfully toward the music.  She touches his hand.  He’s only drinking a little, taking his time over a bottle of beer, and she’s grateful.

            Through the raised piano lid, Sara sees someone else’s hands resting on a counter top.  The piano lid hides the person’s face, but the hands are articulate.  They grasp a brandy snifter; the fingers go up and down, slowly, on the stem.  The hands look lonely, soft and vulnerable.  The fingers remind her of the little carrots served whole at fancy restaurants:  plump and jointed, sweet.  She shakes her head and looks away, but looks right back.  The hands still cup the snifter, as if the glass is necessary, a lover.  That’s what it’s all about, Sara thinks, holding on to something in a dark place, having a drink and hearing a little jazz.  You could do worse.  There’s something about them – Sara feels sorry for the hands, for the person attached to the hands.   But she doesn’t want to know anything.  She’s afraid it will be a sad story, and she is having a moment here, in this café, of something like joy for the first time in months.

            The trip to Toronto was meant to be a second honeymoon. It is so rare, Sara thinks, to get what you want.  They were trying to recover from his arrest.  It was his first offense, but it cost them almost three thousand dollars.  He got a 90-day suspension and he just got his license back.  She would give anything to forget the night that started it all, but she knows she never will:  how he’d gone off alone to drink, as he often did, at his favorite bar;  how she’d stewed about it but finally gone to bed at midnight;  how she got the call at 3 a.m.  A cop called for him, because he couldn’t talk straight.

            She thought about calling her friend Meg to take her, but she was too embarrassed.  She’d never known anyone arrested for drunk driving.  It seemed like no one drank much anymore – at parties there was more Perrier and green tea these days than gin. David was the only one, the holdout.  So she called a cab.  She wants to forget how he looked behind bars, his shoulders stooped like an old man’s, his glasses slipping down his nose, his eyes red from crying drunk’s tears.  They had actually put him in handcuffs, he said, incredulous, sniffling.  It took four hundred dollars just to get the car back that night, and David’s legal costs were more than two thousand.  They were both surprised.

            They circled each other for several weeks.  Their sex life stopped completely.  David stopped drinking for a month.  Then one night a beer after dinner.  “Please,” she said, “Don’t.”  He said, “Don’t you trust me?”

            If she said “Yes,” he would think she meant it was okay, and that would be lying.  If she said, “No,” he would get angry at her, or she’d have to explain all the reasons why.  All she wanted was to end the agony.  So she shrugged and said okay.  A beer after dinner, just one a day, that wasn’t so bad.

            Yet David’s drinking – whether he did or didn’t, the decision every night, the dread of weekends, took over their life.  Before, she could forget.  She could enjoy all the things she loved about him most of the time.  The Saturday nights he spun off into insolent boozy solitude, the parties where he lost control and wouldn’t even dance with her, leaving her to stay sober and find her own way home – these were occasional matters before.

            But after the arrest she could think of nothing else:  what should she do?  Would he drink tonight?  Would he want to go out?  Would she have to hide the keys?  Often she couldn’t sleep and when she did, she had nightmares about losing control. It was like living with an invalid. He did seem injured, but tried in a sweet way to help.  He became more fragile, and  many days she felt tender toward him and he was very dear to her.  Still, she had to wonder if she had somehow become the wife of a drunk.

            It’s a strain. She still worries: when will he have the second beer, the six-pack, finally the 12-pack he used to drink almost every night? She doesn’t enjoy parties any more, so they don’t go.  She knows she could never have a little too much.  She could never let down her guard.  She couldn’t yet trust him to guard even himself;  she’d have to watch out.  She began to admit that was the way it had been for years, the way it used to be.  She had to be available to drive him home, or more often, get herself home, leaving him behind because he refused to go, leaving him to be dropped off by God knows who long after she’d gone to bed.   And now, in their recuperation, she feels boring and old.

            But he has been careful, she thinks, liking the feel of that word – careful – and gradually, they have begun patching up.  Much of this has been left unsaid.

            They drove to Sarnia to get the train.  It was a lovely winter morning, crisp snow falling.  He dropped her at the station door and went to park the car.

            Through the station window, she watched her husband walk away from her, his familiar posture loping along unselfconsciously, and she felt that healthy old twinge, the old fondness.  Then she saw him lose his balance on a patch of ice.  He flew into the air and slapped down, arms and legs akimbo, his coat buttons snapping. 

Her perverse first instinct:  she quickly checked to see if anybody else had seen him lose his cool. She should have gone to see if he was okay.  Any decent wife would.  But she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to take care of it.  She saw him lying there prone, imagined him catching his breath, and she sidled away from the window to wait for bad news.

            When he got to her his face was white, his coat streaked with slush.

            “I fell,” he said, his voice unsteady.  “On the ice. Fell flat on my back.”  She’d seen that look before, in the jail cell.

            She put her arms around him, feeling for broken bones, exploring her deception.  “You okay?  Oh, honey, I’m glad I didn’t see it, it would have broken my heart.” But it was herself she felt sorry for.  She was tired of worrying about him.

            “My feet flew right up,” he said.  “I think my head hit.  For a minute I thought, ‘Oh, shit, here goes the trip.’ Then I just lay there and moved one arm, and then the other one, and then I wiggled my feet, and then I said to myself, my God, I’m okay.”

            He smiled and she managed to smile back, even as he clung to her.

            And then they boarded the train and it slid out of town into the placid countryside.  Snowflakes pelted down, thicker, and they were served hot coffee by pleasant young men in starched aprons.  Maybe all was well.  Sara snuggled into David’s side and slept.

            Now, in the bar, she thinks of David sprawled on the ice, his dignity kicked out from under.  She thinks of him splayed on the frigid tarmac, adding up his losses.  She has become wary of his body.  She expects the worst.  But he has begun to show his stuff, seducing her inventively all weekend.  She hopes their troubles are over.  She hopes it has all been an aberration, and that everything will be normal, now.

            The waitress brings them a tiny serving of pate and fresh bread, and Sara orders another zinfandel. 

            David watches her take the first sip, and smiles.

            “It was wonderful making love to you last night,” he whispers. “And it was wonderful making love to you this morning.  And after dinner was pretty nice, too.”

            She grins and uncrosses her legs, leans toward him.             

“I think I’m back on my feet,” he says.  There is a long pause, the pause the moment calls for.  She smiles at him and takes his hand.

            “I’m not going to have another beer,” David says, “but I want a cigarette.”

            She stares at him warily and thinks, marriage confounds me.  Quitting was one of their shared achievements.  They haven’t smoked for two years, and it was harder for her than him.  He knows how much she misses it.  She’s dying for a smoke.

            “God, I’d love one,”  she says.  “Do you think we should?” They look around the room.

            “For God’s sake,” Sara says.  “We’re in Toronto.  Who’s going to know?”  That’s when it hits her hard:  all the caution is taking its toll.  She wants to break a rule, and she wants to do it with her husband.

            They hail the waitress, who buys them a pack of Craven “A”s.  It has a cover that slides off, and inside is a box with a lid.  David takes care of it, slipping off the cover. He opens the box.  Sara delicately picks out a cigarette, and David helps himself.  He takes the fancy matches from the ashtray, and elaborately gives her a light.  It makes her feel so…cared for.  He lights his own.  Sara watches him inhale and slowly exhale, the smoke trickling sensuously up, over the black piano, toward the nameless hands with the brandy snifter.  The pianist is playing “I Can’t Get Started With You.”  Sara watches and watches as David’s smoke curves up and disappears, and then she inhales deeply herself.

            It feels so good that she almost doesn’t notice when he orders his next drink, or the next.