They were still breathing in small gasps. Sandra rolled over and squeezed his arm, perhaps a little more firmly than would normally be necessary.
“I go running in the morning at 4:30.” she said, “You might like to take off then.”
Her young acquaintance, eyes fixed on the ceiling, sighed.
“It wasn’t any good?” he said.
“It was fine. You were great. But when I get back I have to eat, shower and get off to work. We’d only be getting in each other’s way.”
“Can I see you again?”
“That might be possible.”
“Am I supposed to pay you?” he said.
Sandra smiled. It only occasionally ended this way but the titillating implications of the question surged through her like the unexpected mid-day rumble of summer thunder.
“No. Better I should pay you.”
“Really?” he said, turning at last to look at her. It was dark now and as they’d both had a bit to drink beforehand things appeared somewhat rosier than they might later.
But Sandra did prefer a leisurely breakfast. Alone.
* * *
Her passion was running. It was a harmless diversion which she pursued at 4:30 in the morning, six days a week, Sunday off. In winter it was dark at that time, and in summer, well, it was dark then too but the eastern sky over the Parkway was beginning to light up and it was really more dim than dark. Either way, it wasn’t as if she was putting her life in danger by venturing out so early. Usually the only person she saw was the Globe and Mail delivery man working his way through the streets in his rusty van, dashing from house to house, launching newspapers into the air, presumably praying they might land on someone’s door step. Or perhaps, but far less frequently, a pair of Hare Krishna devotees from their base on Avenue Road might float by, their orange robes swirling around them like ghostly memories, buoyed by their circuitous chants into realms of which the dozing residents around them were more than content to remain ignorant. Sandra crossed the road when she saw them up ahead.
She ran the identical route every day, across Crescent Road and over South Drive to Glen, down Elm Ave then back up Sherbourne to loop back home. Usually she did three or four circuits, but if she was feeling good – well, who knows? Years ago when she began all this she was little more than a jogger, but she had improved so much that a stranger noticing her on the run, perhaps that same Globe and Mail delivery man, if he paused a moment in his relentless duties, would have declared her a seasoned runner. But no, Sandra swept through the streets unnoticed.
Sandra occasionally pondered how she would explain her ritual to someone who might question the notion of rising so early to trek through the darkness. Running felt good – the cool air, the ease with which her body slid over the asphalt. Despite the way she lived, Sandra seldom felt really good. She felt OK, but not really good. She often saw other runners when she walked to the subway later in the morning and wondered at so many of them wearing ear pieces, apparently listening to music or whatever. To Sandra, this was absurd. The whole idea was to avoid the world. Why clutter her solitude?
But in fact, no one asked such a question since virtually no one knew of this eccentricity. Perhaps this was really why she enjoyed it so much – it was her secret. Of course, people at the library occasionally asked her how she managed to stay in such wonderful shape, but Sandra didn’t take those queries seriously as she could recognize perfectly well that her questioners weren’t really as interested in her state of fitness as eager to dodge around the fact that she was so unattractive. Her appearance seemed to gnaw on people. Through some inexplicable mental twist, the more they tried to humanely ignore it, the more they fixated on it, and the more they tried to dampen that fixation by engaging her on other matters that were so blatantly inconsequential, the more their true perceptions shone through, even more sharply than if they had boldly faced up to the truth. Or so, Sandra assumed.
But when she got back from her run, by then it was after 5:15 am, he was still there, hunched over the kitchen table, a towel around his midriff but otherwise naked, staring at the table and working on a glass of what looked like orange juice but was almost certainly stronger. Sandra, still puffing a little, sweat trickling down her forehead, stiffened when she saw him but curbed the temptation to remind him of her earlier request.
“So,” she said, “A bit rough this morning?”
He turned and stared at her. For a young man who had so recently found love’s most poignant moment he did not look happy. His eyes were puckered as if in her absence someone had pummeled him and the curl of his lip suggested he was plotting revenge for that violence.
“You’re ugly as hell.” he said.
Sandra was used to disconcerting reactions, but usually delivered more subtly, rarely in words, more likely a narrowing of the eyes, a momentary tic at the corner of the mouth, or even a tiny and almost inaudible gasp, usually followed by a retreat to a charitable smile. So she stored his comment for future use, turning her mind to the more practical question of how much of her vodka he had already consumed and what ill-considered confidence that drinking might instil in a young fellow who had almost certainly just jettisoned his virginity, and fueled by that success, might be soaring on a heightened self-image that had little link with reality.
“Did we not agree that you would leave when I went running?”
“Don’t to talk to me that way,” he said, “You need me more than I need you.”
“Is that so?”
“You’re damn right.”
Which wasn’t close to the truth at all, at least from Sandra’s point of view, but she knew full well that in the scramble to launch this guy safely out the door things might have to be said and done which might not match traditional standards of honesty.
She had met him at that coffee shop near College and Spadina. It was far enough from campus that she was able to convince herself she wasn’t mixing work with pleasure, while easy enough to reach on those days when the end of her library duties left her craving something more than a book by the fire. She had spotted him sitting alone in a corner, clearly beaten down by his loneliness, and contrived to bump into him on the way back from the washroom. It didn’t take much more than a few minutes of chatter to guide him round to the notion of accompanying her home for a drink, a snack, and thence to bed. There had been others before him and Sandra was counting on others after him. The abundance of hapless young men struck her as an appropriate recompense for her own realities.
“So maybe I can make you some breakfast while we’re figuring this out?” she said, mopping her face with the kitchen hand towel.
He apparently wasn’t interested in eating, for he seized the salt shaker and hurled it across the room. It hit the wall and fell to the floor, still in one piece. They both studied it for a moment and she stepped back.
“You’re angry.” she said.
“You talk like this has all been worked out in advance. I just do what you tell me.”
Sandra plunked the corn flakes box down in front of him, then a bowl and a spoon. She nodded.
“I can understand why you might feel that way.”
“Why me? Am I really that pathetic? How is it that a woman like you assumes she can trick me into bed and then toss me out in the morning?”
Sandra leaned back against the stove.
“No one tricked you. You’re not pathetic. I rather like you. You didn’t seem opposed to anything last night. You’re not a fifteen year old are you? I thought you were an adult.”
“What if I told you I love you?” he said, “What if I told you I wanted to marry you?”
Sandra leaned forward, her finger in the air. She was not one for happy endings; love and marriage had long ago fled her dreams.
“Let’s not fool ourselves, Tyler. We’ve had our bit of fun. But that’s where it stops. We both have lives to lead. You especially. Don’t imagine throwing your life away for something foolish.”
“So I’m a one night stand. You had that planned from the start.”
“And you didn’t? You were sitting in that coffee shop dreaming of spending your life with me?”
“I’m not leaving,” he said. ”You and I have something special.”
Sandra chewed at her lip. Stared at him for several seconds, made ready to speak, then changed her mind.
Sandra had decided long ago that if an oversized head, a bulging nose, and a lackluster chin all balanced precariously on a tall bony body was to be her lot in life, then she owed nobody anything and would lead her life exactly as she wished. Her pleasure was to savor her privacy, her books, her TV, her running and emerge only enough to satisfy the essentials.
So most evenings when she arrived home to her third floor apartment her habit was to drop her bag on the floor, fall onto the grey chesterfield in the living room, close her eyes and groan away the terrors of her day.
“Thank you,” she said, to no one in particular, for she lived alone, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
She sometimes noticed that what she said out loud and what she said in her head were increasingly indistinguishable. But put into perspective that really didn’t matter. Didn’t matter a damn.
Perhaps more worrisome were the neighbours. Every so often she caught one of them glancing at her place as they went off to work. She wondered if they talked with the other neighbours about where she was and what she was doing and why no one ever saw her anymore. They must have traded observations of course, this one reporting that he’d seen her staring out the window one evening, this one claiming that she’d talked to her about sharing the snow clearing service and she seemed reasonably well, a little vacant, a little nervous, but apparently not unhealthy, and yet another might tell how he saw her trip on the sidewalk when she was walking back with her groceries and she’d sat there stunned for several seconds until the bus driver stopped his vehicle and jumped out to assist her but she’d instantly pulled herself together and fled into the house as if the luckless fellow was intending to ravage her, not even, as much as he’d seen, offering him any thanks at all.
And men? Not a matter of great concern, though every so often the need arose. Sandra had a knack for attracting awkward young fellows who, lacking any form of confidence when it came to things female, were vulnerable to the first woman who took them in hand, firmly guiding them to that realm they had so long dreamed of achieving. Sandra saw it as a form of niche marketing, and had fine-tuned it to a degree that amazed even her.
But that morning Tyler wasn’t playing her game.
“You and I must settle this quickly, Tyler. I can’t be late for work.”
“The hell with work. Everyone is replaceable.”
“True, but not on five minutes notice. It would be easiest if we both got dressed and headed out. Leave me your number and we’ll talk this out later.”
“You must think I’m stupid. You’re never going to call me.”
“I don’t know why you would say that. You didn’t like taking me to bed?”
Tyler tapped his finger on the table. Reached for another drink. Shook his head.
“You were so nice to me yesterday.” he said.
“Well, I’m happy to be nice to you now.”
“You’ve got all the answers, don’t you? So why do I feel like a sucker?”
“That’s quite a question. But the answer is that you’re not. You’re terrific in bed. Now that you know it you can do anything you want. You don’t need me.”
“If I’m so wonderful in bed, why do you want to get rid of me?”
Sandra frowned. That was a leap of logic she might have expected. But she hadn’t.
“Yah,” he said, “Yah.”
* * *
Most fellows weren’t so difficult to move along. Most in fact were eager to get going. Sandra was used to that. She remembered that biochemistry student, the one with the oversized ears and the rusty smell, who claimed he had to rush home to get his mother out of bed; she was paralyzed and had to be moved to her wheelchair or she would be trapped there all day. But most of them could come up with nothing more creative than needing to work on an essay. So boring.
Boring or not, Tyler didn’t seem burdened with any such obligations. Maybe things at his house were even worse than there.
“Tyler, I need to tell you something.”
He grinned. Powered by the early morning booze he was evolving into one streetwise dude, fully on top of his game.
The grin evaporated.
“You’re crazy. You can’t tell so soon.”
“Not by you. Someone else. I’m not really sure. And it’s still early. I only found out last week.”
Tyler stood up and paced across the kitchen. He turned and stared at her.
“You’re not ‘sure’ of the father?”
“They say it might be twins.”
Tyler’s mouth dropped open. The vodka had colored his cheeks but his eyes were black.
“You’re lying. You’re trying to scare me.”
Sandra smiled, leaned towards him.
“Do you know how much a woman needs children, Tyler? Do you know what goes through her mind when she discovers that the miracle has occurred, that her body is swelling with another human being, two little bodies, her own flesh and blood, growing in her, poised to become real live human beings, human beings she will hold to her breast and succor on her own life? Do you understand that Tyler? Do you understand why I’m open to this long term talk of yours?”
Tyler had a sudden itch on the side of his face. He tore at it with his hand, like a bear slashing a newly caught salmon.
“I’m only in second year. I still live at home. What would I tell my parents? They wouldn’t understand.”
“You might be misreading them Tyler. They may love being grandparents. They could help us. Having twins is hard work. A lot of diapers. A lot of all-nighters. You may have to quit school. I’ll need you with me all the way.”
Tyler’s hands were at his hips now, palms down, moving back and forth, almost in unison with the shaking of his head.
“No,” he said, “This cannot happen.”
“Maybe you can pick up some work as a roofer, or a cabbie. The twins will gobble up a lot of money.”
“No bloody way. This is your problem – not mine.”
He bustled around for a few minutes, dashing some water on his face, getting dressed, collecting his things. He turned as he headed to the door.
“You’re making this up to scare me off; I know that. But I don’t need your kind of crazy. You’re too much.”
She watched from the window as he appeared on the walkway, marched out to the sidewalk and off down the road. She saw him cast a glance up at the house but knew he couldn’t see her. The sun was just coming up and the glare would have been in his eyes. Three or four houses down the street and he was out of sight.
Sandra lingered for a few minutes. They really didn’t watch her very closely at the library – if she was late it wouldn’t matter. She could stay a little longer that evening. She worried that he might turn around and come back; sometimes young men have second thoughts, sometimes discover a conscience they never knew they had. Silly boys. But no, he was good and gone.
She put away the liquor bottle, cleared the table, picked up his towels and threw them in the laundry basket. In the bathroom she stopped to peer into the mirror. It was her all right. Such an unpleasant looking woman. She got it from her father. A wonderful man. Long dead. It was hard to hold her appearance against him.
She winked. She thought about her high school classmates, her university friends, the people she worked with. So full of kindly discretion. They couldn’t imagine how she lived. Their nights were likely pretty tepid compared to hers.
It was like she had won a race or been voted class president. It was an achievement; something she’d fashioned herself, like a tailor seizing raw cloth and building it into a right proper dress or suit. Why not relish it?
She brought her hand up to her head in a silent salute. Pregnant? God. Where had that come from? She was a frigging genius. Talk about performing under pressure.
She headed off to work. It would be a struggle, as usual. But at least she could look forward to a long quiet evening at home.