It was six o’clock in the evening and the kids were at her mom’s for a sleepover. The night was open wide, spread-eagled before her; she and Jimmy could stay up as late as they dared. Laura had her head in the fridge, looking for the tonic water. She found the plastic bottle in the back, behind the pickles. It was flat, but she made do. She splashed some into a glass, cut it with equal parts gin and ice, threw in a slice of lemon.
She heard Jimmy pounding up the stairs. He leaned in through the door frame and held up a Ziploc bag. ‘Look what I found,’ he said. Jimmy was still wearing his old Megadeth t-shirt which was nearly translucent with age.
‘I wish you wouldn’t wear that shirt,’ said Laura. ‘I can seriously see your nipples right now.’
‘You don’t like my nipples?’ he asked. ‘My nipples offend you?’
‘No, Jimmy. I love your nipples.’ Laura took a sip of her drink and sat down at the kitchen table. ‘Never mind. What’s in the bag?’
‘I found some pot in the basement.’ Jimmy ran a hand through his dark, sweaty curls. ‘In that box with the passports and the kids’ birth certificates. It’s from Kim and Caleb’s wedding – you remember, right? We never got a chance to smoke it.’ He took the shrivelled green buds out of the bag and examined them in the late-afternoon sunlight.
Laura finished her drink and stood up to make another one. ‘Are you sure it’s still good? Isn’t that, like, four, five months old?’
Jimmy shrugged. ‘It’s not ideal, but it’s what we’ve got. I don’t have a lot of potheads on my contact list right now, so it’s this or nothing.’
‘I’m not sure that’s better than nothing. It looks like a shrivelled little turd, doesn’t it?’ She came up behind him and leaned over his shoulder for a closer look. ‘Looks just like those little turds we found in Brady’s room the other night. Remember, when he pooped on the floor?’ Brady had taken to pulling down his pants and his Pull-Ups and hiding them in his toy bin so he could run around the house naked.
‘Yeah, poor little guy. He’s still constipated, isn’t he.’ Jim was breaking up the buds and sweeping them into a little pile on the kitchen table. ‘It’s because all he ever eats are those breadsticks. We just need to be strict with him, you know. No breadsticks until he eats some real food: some meat, some veggies. That parenting article I showed you, it’s all about being consistent with shit like this. Anyway,’ Jim stood up and kissed her hurriedly on the top of her head. ‘I’m going to 7-11 to buy papers. I’ll be right back.’
While Jimmy was gone, she turned on the shower. She used the good, smelly soap, washed her hair and shaved her legs. Steam filled the bathroom, and Laura stood for a long moment beneath the pulse of hot water with her heart and head beating in her ears. Grabbing a towel, she stumbled out of the tub and wiped the steam from the mirror with the heel of her palm. She fished out her lipstick and her black eye-liner from the bottom of the drawer. Laura laid it on thick, smudging her eyelids with her right index finger while intermittently adding some eye-shadow. She got that smoky look she used to wear back when she wore make-up.
Laura leaned against the sink and stared at her fractured reflection in the steamed-up mirror. ‘Fuck yeah, baby. Let’s get wasted.’
She came back to the kitchen ready to leave, and found Jimmy sitting in the same chair. He had an open pack of rolling papers, a dismembered cigarette, and a messy joint in front of him on the table. ‘I cut the pot, so it shouldn’t be too harsh. Come on,’ he grabbed the joint and a lighter and stepped into his old sneakers. ‘Let’s go smoke this, and we’ll go out right after.’
It was early May, and the snow had finally receded in the afternoon’s steady sunshine. They stepped around the sopping, semi-composted mass of wet leaves covering their lawn. Jimmy lit the joint while Laura walked around the yard collecting plastic toys and throwing them into the deflated kiddie pool. He took a drag and coughed. ‘Ugh. It’s pretty rough.’
Laura took a sip of her third drink. She took the joint, inhaled, then screwed up her face, coughing and hacking. ‘That’s awful. That’s definitely bad. Just throw it away, Jim.’ But he seemed intent on getting high, even a little bit high off some stale pot. While he smoked and coughed into the chill, Laura watched the clouds move against the darkening sky.
They went back inside and Jim disappeared into their bedroom to get dressed. Laura leaned against the kitchen table and sipped her gin. Through the blinds, she could see the pale orange beginnings of sunset. She sat down and passed her glass from one hand to the other. Laura watched the colours darken to scarlet streaks, then to a bruised plum bleeding to blackness. Finally she set down her empty glass and went to look for Jim.
He was sprawled face down on the bed, still wearing his sweatpants and his Megadeth t-shirt. ‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
‘I’m sorry, baby. I have a killer headache.’ He mumbled this into the pillows without opening his eyes. ‘I just need to lie down for a little while.’
‘I told you not to smoke that pot. What did you think was going to happen?’
He said something unidentifiable, and Laura stormed out of the room, paced up and down the hallway twice, then burst back inside. ‘This is bullshit, Jim. We were supposed to go out tonight. We never do this. I’ve been waiting all week. All month, actually.’
He rolled over and leaned on one elbow, squinting against the hallway light coming in through the open door. ‘I’m sorry. I wanted to go out tonight too, sweetie. I just can’t. I feel like my head’s being ripped in half right now.’
‘Well, I still want to go,’ she said, but she couldn’t quite hold on to her anger. Jim looked pale, and his eyes were red and watery. But she had a dress on, and lacy underwear. Her face felt heavy with make-up. She was three drinks in.
‘You should go. Really. Just give me a call later.’ He rolled back over and buried his face into a pillow.
Laura left her husband at home and walked into the biting cold. She was too drunk to drive, so she walked towards the train station, scrolling through the contact list in her cell phone as her feet carried her forward. It was nearly dark now, and the air had a fresh chill to it that she could feel in the prickling of her bare arms. She scrolled past the names of people who had moved away to Toronto or Vancouver, those she’d lost touch with since the kids were born, those she’d never been close with in the first place. She was on the platform when she dialled a name.
‘Hi Jocelyne? This is Laura.’
‘How’s it going?’
‘Pretty good, I guess. Just got home from the gym.’
‘Oh yeah? Good for you. I haven’t been to the gym in ages.’ Laura was pacing the length of the platform. The neighbourhood was dead silent and she was the only one waiting for the downtown train. She could hear the swish of traffic on the other side of the highway divide and the hum of the electric lights beaming down onto the platform. ‘So, Jocelyne, do you want to get together? We could catch up, go out for a bit.’
The other girl paused before answering. ‘Yeah, ok. I’m free Tuesday night, if you want to go for coffee.’
‘Actually, I was thinking tonight. You live downtown, don’t you? I’m on my way there right now. We could meet up in half an hour.’
There was another pause. ‘I don’t know. Tonight?’ Laura sucked in the cold air and released it slowly. A headache was beginning to creep at her temples. ‘I guess we could do that.’ The other girl’s voice sounded far away, and Laura realized she had let the phone droop down below her ear.
‘Great,’ she said, adjusting it with one hand and massaging her forehead with the other. ‘That’s really great, Jocelyne. I’m looking forward to it.’
They met in a bar that Laura had gone to once, many years ago, with a guy she’d met at a Halloween party and had gone out with a few times before they’d gone their separate ways. She remembered his name – Mathew – but nothing else about him. What had he looked like? What colour were his eyes? Had he been short? Did he have a lot of body hair? She was thinking about this and sipping a gin and tonic when Jocelyne walked in and waved.
They talked about work: The photocopier was still broken. Wasn’t it weird that Jason got that promotion even though he was clearly incompetent? Olivia had her baby. It was a boy.
The bar filled up slowly with shadowy bodies that were indistinguishable in the poor lighting. Jocelyne ignored the beer she had ordered and watched Laura finish another drink.
‘You want to get food?’ Laura asked.
‘I don’t know,’ said Jocelyne. Her shoulders were bunched up and her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, her fingers scratching incessantly at the label on her beer. ‘Actually, I can’t eat bar food,’ she said. ‘I’m on a diet. I already had dinner, so I’m fine. Order something if you want, though.’
‘No, that’s ok.’ Laura’s face felt too hot, and a shapeless yearning born of gin and restlessness was beginning to form at the base of her skull. She began to stare at the flickering tea light on the wooden table. ‘We should go do something,’ she said to the tea light. ‘Let’s go do something crazy. I don’t know. Let’s go to a club and dance.’
‘I don’t like clubs,’ said Jocelyne. ‘They’re all really seedy, you know. Full of perverts. It’s getting late, anyway. I should get going.’ She shrugged.
Laura shrugged too. They paid the bill and said goodbye.
Laura walked alone down the busy downtown street. People passed her in small, laughing herds. Cars blinked past. She walked by a restaurant’s open patio where young people were laughing, their glasses clinking and their garble of conversation rising into the fresh-aired night. Laura looked up. There were four lonely stars scattered wide apart on the canvas of the night sky.
She walked for a long time, and then sat down on a bench. A few bodies bustled past. There was music playing nearby, wafting from a small cafe. It was an old French song she knew by Edith Piaf, and the singer’s melancholy voice drifted through the late evening. The streetlights reflected off the pavement in rippling shades of white. Laura swayed a little, Edith’s voice humming in her hazed-up mind. She looked at her white hands, her chewed-up fingernails. She stared hard at her hands, and then she stood up abruptly and ran, her shoes clicking on the sidewalk, and nearly collided with a group of teenaged girls who walked in a cloud of perfume. Laura wove between them and ran down the block, back towards the train station. She could see herself in the dark glass windows of the downtown shopping malls: alone, in her short dress, her hair tangled above her head like a messy halo. Her face was dark in the mirror, her smudged eyes darker. Laura saw herself, and she kept running.
She was back on the train heading home. It was almost empty. There was a tattered-looking older woman sitting across from her wearing at least four large shawls, each one layered over the other. Two Asian boys sat near the front of the train, next to a skinny girl with a backpack propped up on her knees.
A homeless man got on at the next stop. He had an knitted hat pulled over his thin hair, and he smelled strongly of something…of mint. ‘Hey, Marjorie,’ he said to the shawl woman in a raspy, slurred voice.
‘Heya, Harold. Good night?’
‘Yeah.’ He didn’t sit down, but swayed with the rocking train as it tunnelled forward. In his coat pocket Laura could see a bottle of Listerine. His hand would flutter toward it every few seconds, but never settled.
The train stopped. ‘Ok. See you around Margie,’ he said. He staggered back out through the open doors, and the train left with a lurch. Laura swayed and listened to the rush of the wind. She looked up at the woman across from her, at her small, shiny black eyes sunk deep in her soft face. The train squealed on the rails. Laura started to shake her head from side to side, side to side, as if to dislodge a demon that would not give, its little claws sunk deep in the soft tissues of her brain. ‘Oh, man,’ she whispered. She was feeling nauseous again, too drunk, too unsettled, unsteady. ‘Oh, no. No, no.’
‘Whatsa matter, dear?’ said the older woman. She sounded like a kind woman; she had that sort of voice.
‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’ said Laura. It came out harsh, like a sob, even though her eyes were dry. ‘What kind of person am I?’
‘You having a bad night?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ Laura breathed. She turned to look directly at the woman, who kept rearranging her dirty shawls. ‘I’ve got these two little kids, you know. But some days I just don’t know if I’m together enough to have kids. And maybe I don’t want to be together. Maybe I need a little piece of this, I don’t know, disarray in my life.’ Then she thought of the homeless man and his bottle of Listerine, of his raw knuckles and his wind-scarred face. ‘But not too much disarray,’ she said. ‘Not for real. It’s just all in my head, just a feeling I grasp at every now and then.’
The old woman nodded very slowly. She put a soft, fleshy hand on Laura’s knee. ‘I have four of my own,’ she said. ‘Grown now, off living their lives. I know what you mean, hon.’ In the windows, the blackness whirred by behind her, scattered with blinking lights.
Laura nodded, her whole body rocking on the plastic seat. ‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ she said. ‘I just don’t have anyone else to talk to about these things. And you’re so nice. You’re just so nice.’ She paused for a moment, staring at the windows, at her own grey reflection blinking back at her. ‘You know, I’d be all alone without them. Without Jim.’ Laura could feel the alcohol coursing through her body in quick, disorientating pulses. The whole train was stuffy and humming as it shot down the tracks. The skinny girl had gotten off. The Asian boys were talking in low tones and avoiding her gaze. ‘Why do I keep running from them?’ she asked the older woman. ‘For what? For this?’ She lifted her hands and gestured generally at the empty train, at the dirty streaks on the windows and the grey night behind them.
But the old woman wasn’t listening anymore. She had gotten off the train and Laura hadn’t even noticed.
As Laura walked home from the station, it began to snow in small, hard flakes that peppered the wet sidewalk. The front door was unlocked. She kicked off her shoes and left them in a heap next to the shoe rack. The lights were on all over the silent house. She flicked them off as she walked down the hallway past the bedrooms. The kids’ rooms were empty. The Mega Blocks were all piled into their box. The stuffed animals were still in the hamper where she’d thrown them that morning. The beds were stiffly made, the blankets tucked neatly into the sides. She brushed her teeth and made a half-hearted attempt to wash the make-up from her face, smearing dark rings around her eyes.
Laura slipped inside the warm cocoon of blankets and moulded her body against Jimmy’s. He stirred, grunted. She buried her face in his warm back, and inhaled the smell of him. She felt okay. Jimmy rolled over.
‘Hey,’ he muttered. ‘Hey, are you ok?’ he was awake, his pupils swelled large with fading dreams.
‘Yeah,’ Laura kissed him on the cheek, on the mouth. ‘I should’ve stayed home with you, Jim.’
‘Yeah?’ He scooped her against him and Laura felt herself winding down, her jittering heartbeat slowing, her mind floating away towards sleep. ‘I’m glad you’re back,’ he whispered.
As her thoughts lingered on the edge of consciousness, she heard the song again from the cold downtown street, that old-fashioned, sad song from a different time. Laura’s mind drifted, and she gave way to old fashioned dreams.
DINA LYUBER is a writer from Canada. She is currently living a nomadic lifestyle while traveling around the world. She writes short stories as well as experiential travel narratives.