Arts & Culture

2nd Annual Short-Fiction Contest Winner: Heartbreak and Enter

I blame Oprah. Well, not just Oprah, also Ellen and the ladies on The View. While I’m at it, I blame Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem too. Female empowerment. Believe in yourself. Take control. Well, I took control, which is why I now find myself in Marc’s apartment at The Regent Arms. I’ve just committed a B and E. I’ve even got the lingo down. That’s break and enter for a law-abiding citizen, which is what I used to be. Now I’m a common criminal. No one will believe it. I’m level-headed. Responsible. I don’t do crazy-ass stuff like cook pet rabbits on the stove. I’m a nice girl. Really! 

(Illustration above by Anthony Tremmaglia)

I’ve never been vindictive. Even when my high school sweetheart made out with a chesty redhead under the bleachers at a football game between the Hillcrest Hawks and St. Pat’s Fighting Irish, I didn’t take revenge. I simply broke up with him — clean and simple. Secretly, though, I wished they would each contract a virulent case of herpes.

Now I’m standing in a spacious foyer with glistening marble floors and mosaic inlays, staring at a priceless bronze Giacometti sculpture. Marc told me he knew nothing about art. Nothing! He let me ramble on when we went to the museum. And how I rambled. As a junior cataloguer for Christie’s auction house, my love for art history came flooding out. I was thrilled to have an eager audience. We discussed the Italian Renaissance, and I pointed out Titian’s mastery of chiaroscuro, the use of contrasting light to achieve a sense of volume. I delighted in explaining the aim of the Impressionists, who challenged accepted concepts of colour and light. I gushed with admiration at the rebellious Abstract Expressionists with their anti-figurative aesthetic. Marc had a restless curiosity, and he listened with genuine interest. He joked that my lip gloss matched the lipstick stain on the cigarette butt in Jackson Pollock’s painting Full Fathom Five. How cute is that? “Teach me,” he said. “I’m a blank canvas,” he said. Then I walk in (or, rather, break in) and come face to face with a Giacometti!

Marc said he had a linguistics degree and had finished law school — I had no reason to mistrust him. He told me he was subletting a modest apartment at The Regent Arms and described his typical bachelor flat. Mattress on the floor. A much-loved, lumpy armchair and an array of flea-market finds in desperate need of restoring. In the refrigerator, a lonely six-pack of Molson’s (preferring Canadian beer to its watery American counterpart) and a solidified box of baking soda, well past preserving the wilted iceberg lettuce and shrivelled wedge of cheddar. Marc said he was saving for a larger place while he studied for the New York bar exam.

Well, if this is modest, the Queen lives in a Motel 8. 

I notice L’Essence de Courvoisier cognac in the liquor cabinet, a fortune at thirty-two hundred dollars a bottle. In the built-in refrigerator, I discover organic cheese, foie gras, and truffle oil. Not a leaf of lifeless lettuce to be found! He might have mentioned that he was a foodie. That he lived in a four-thousand-square-foot apartment.

That he was married.

I had promised myself, after the last messy breakup, I would wade carefully into a new relationship. But at our first meeting, there was an instant connection. Ignoring my cautious inner voice, I did a swan dive into the thrilling rush of early love. There was something so disarming about him: his dishevelled hair and crooked grin, the way he lingered on the syllables in my name and stared at me with those hazel eyes.

Marc playfully poked fun at my “perceived” accent and repeatedly asked me to say the words “about” and “house,” convinced I was saying “aboot” and “haa-oose.”

He called the combination of two vowel sounds a distinct diphthong. I thought he was referring to my provocative tulle-and-lace panties from Victoria’s Secret.

We had so many shared interests. During our six-mile run through Central Park, with our legs burning and our bodies charged, I regaled him with stories of growing up in Ottawa. Skating on the Rideau Canal with the winter wind at my back. Hiking the trails of Gatineau Park in autumn, the leaves lit up like torches.

Our perfect date night? Watching an old black-and-white film or a campy ’80s movie, with takeout from the corner deli and a bag of popcorn laden with butter. Sundays would find us challenging each other to complete The New York Times crossword puzzle. Just last week, I was stumped on 16 across — duplicity, eight letters. The answer eludes me even now. 

Over the months, I wondered why he never had me over to his place. He said I would find it meagre and cramped and preferred to meet at my apartment or the Internet café around the corner. Mischievously, with the menacing tone of an evil inquisitor from a film noir, I asked, “Why don’t I come over to your place next time? Are you keeping something from me? Are you a spy? An international man of mystery?” Marc answered, “It’s classified. I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you — or at least tickle you.” Then he proceeded to find that spot on my kneecap that sends me into fits of laughter. 

We really had something special. Magical. I actually envisioned our wedding. The gown. The flowers. The splendid surge of white doves soaring skyward. I believed him when he said he loved me. My heart leaps and falls with bittersweet nostalgia, remembering our first date. Was the magic just smoke and mir…? Betrayal! Eight letters. Of course.

It was twice-divorced Catherine from the accounting department who alerted me to Marc’s deception. She was reading the society pages and came across the list of patrons for a recent gala. There it was. In black and white. “Mr. and Mrs. M. Bailey of The Regent Arms.” I stared at the article in disbelief. My heart sank. Old insecurities bubbled to the surface. With smug satisfaction, Catherine explained the statistical improbability of two Baileys living in the same building, her stinging words coloured by the bitterness of the jaded.

Oprah would say “channel your anger.” When I plunged the knife into the Baileys’ goose-down comforter and ornately tasselled pillow shams, I was channelling. When I ripped into the Egyptian cotton towels on the heated towel rack, I was focusing my rage. Now I am standing at the grand piano with family photos displayed in gilded frames and a sterling candelabra worthy of Liberace. A portrait of the happy couple transfixes me. Thunderstruck, all feeling drains from my limbs. My head feels weightless.

I am once again eight years old. Mr. Nold, my elderly and kind piano teacher, has interrupted my playing of Beethoven’s Andante in F Major to ask me a question. “Alexandra,” he says, his soft eyes staring at me. “Which hand plays the bass clef?” I answer him with youthful assuredness, “The left hand.”  A smile crosses his face. “And which hand are you using?” he asks. I look down at my hands. “Oops!”

The photo of the happy couple brings me back to the present, and a grim realization takes hold. The man in the photo is not Marc. Not in this photo. Not in any photo. I am simultaneously elated and sickened.

I had entered the building under the guise of delivering a bouquet of flowers, propping up the vase to obscure my face. The distracted doorman waved me in.

“Bailey? Suite 308,” he said. “Third floor, second set of elevators, fourth door on the left.” He continued a heated discussion with an electrician fixing the buzzer.

(Incidentally, I’m not impressed with the security in this building.)

So, dear residents of this magnificent suite, I know that we Canadians have a reputation for saying “sorry” for harmless, petty offences, like brushing against your shoulder in a crowd or bumping into inanimate objects, but I think, in this case, “I’m sorry” is truly warranted. Please accept these flowers and my deepest, heartfelt apology. I hope the cash I am leaving on your Chippendale table will partially cover your insurance deductible, maid service, and expert dry cleaning. (That’s ketchup and Worcestershire sauce on your matching silk bathrobes. And by the way, you really do have exquisite taste.) I have laid bare my lovesick tantrum all over your beautifully appointed rooms, now utterly decimated. Please forgive my reprehensible behaviour; it was fuelled by an acerbic accountant, too much coffee, a penchant for spy novels, and a really bad sense of direction.

The doorman said left. I went right.

Karen Zunder is a graphic designer, writer, wife, and mother of three. She lives in Ottawa’s west end