THE DRESSING GOWN
By Elizabeth Hay
INTO HER ROOM comes her small son. His red hair sits on top of his head like a hatchet. His face is troubled. He comes to the side of the bed and says, “How do you get a thought out of your head?”
She looks at him from her pillow. “Well, sometimes it just goes away on its own after a while.”
“What if it doesn’t?”
“Sometimes talking about it makes it go away.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
She takes his hand, then lifts the covers, and he crawls in beside her. But he fidgets and squirms until he has worked his way into the middle of the bed and awakened his dad. She gets up then and puts on her old white dressing gown, which hangs on a hook on the back of the bedroom door. She goes downstairs. Her son listens to her make hot chocolate, and soon he joins her. He loves hot chocolate this way, the powder spooned on top of milk steamed into thick foam. He uses a spoon to eat the creamy fluff.
His mother also has a few thoughts she’s not going to admit to. She is the only one who knows that her white dressing gown comes from an old lover. She had been lying awake thinking about him, because the light coming down the hallway reminded her of his smile.
THE WEATHER HAS BROUGHT HIM back to mind — this shared weather, since, though they are not in the same city, they are at the same latitude and only a few hundred miles apart. Close. She is close to him with the sort of useless proximity that plagues her in every way. She is home, finally, but what difference does it make? The country isn’t the same, but she can barely see how it has changed.
A friend had asked her what it was like to be back. She heard the question — they were walking across Pretoria Bridge, the sky full of soft greys and whites — and she felt the world and her heart open up. She stopped and looked down at the canal, which was low and not very clean. “You feel,” she said, “as though you’ve fallen out of everyone’s lives.” And she almost looked back as she spoke to see if a baby was lying on the ground. Since it was that image — a baby falling out of a shawl or off a wagon or off the back of a truck — that was in her mind.
And the friend to whom she was speaking — a new friend, since she could not have made this confession to any of her old friends — said, “You must feel like Rumpelstiltskin. You know. You’ve been asleep for twenty years and you wake up and you don’t recognize a thing.”
“Rip Van Winkle.”
“Who was Rumpelstiltskin?”
“The ugly little one who spun straw into gold.”
Rip Van Winkle. An equally strange name. For the rest of the day, she felt grey and bearded, mocked by children and barked at by dogs.
QUEBEC WAS MOVING AWAY while staying on; the rest of the country was dissolving while staying together. The sense of drifting disengagement wore her down. “I hate feeling this way,” she said to her husband. “I don’t care about anything and nothing interests me.”
They were in the kitchen. Light came in over the scattered mess on the white table and onto her hands, busy with lunch boxes. Her tall husband said evenly, “You always feel this way and it always passes. Remember that. In a few days, you’ll feel differently.”
In a few days, it was April 21. Buds were on the point of bursting. Forsythia, maples, lilacs. The seams of her dressing gown were coming apart, the material thin except where it was thinner: at the elbows, across the bottom, and in the crook of her arm where she had carried first one baby, then another. Someone else would have mended it. Her mother would have mended it. Her dentist would have mended it. The last time he had looked into her mouth, this cheerful white-haired man who had grown up on a Saskatchewan farm, he had told her that in the old days, during the Depression, they had all learned how to darn. Every boy and every girl learned how to darn.
It had been a parting gift, the dressing gown, a gift out of the blue. That was how he liked to operate. He liked to come back into your life unforgettably and in passing, much as a stranger meets a stranger for a second time. She thinks of him as X.
X was a charmed man with a gift for boyishness and lopsided smiles, a man without bitterness who engaged everyone he met. In her bitterness that she had failed to interest him sufficiently (walks that floundered on how little she had to say, when pebbles of silence turned into granite rocks over which she tripped, clumsy, clumsy, clumsy, while he strolled beside her, indulgent but easily bored), she had been in the habit of taking her head in her hands and groaning aloud.
He came from an old moneyed family, but he was always so casual and so broke. Except that he wasn’t broke. He travelled without a wallet. Or, as she discovered, pretended to travel without a wallet. He had the ingratiating habits of a moocher.
They had met for lunch once, a pretty café and her choice. She arrived first and took a table beside a window. He arrived half an hour late. He ordered an elaborate lunch; she ordered a salad. They talked a little, and she felt worse and worse as every thought she had ever had left her head. Then he patted his pocket. Sorry. He must have left his wallet at home.
On the way out, he stopped to get his coat. “Yes, sir,” the coat check said with a bright voice, “and you won’t want to forget this.” Holding out the wallet, which X had left in his care.
To understand his charm, you have to understand that this didn’t embarrass him. He was always forgiven. Scads of people wanted to be in his company.
She was embarrassed, but he wasn’t. She was too embarrassed to talk about it. And this, of course, was what he counted on. The embarrassment of others saved him from ever being embarrassed.
Only the rich, she thought. Only the rich have that kind of gall.
HER SON’S HEAD on the pillow, his soft-spoken worries before falling asleep, this vulnerable time alone in the semi-dark. “I don’t really want my own room,” he said to her. His sister, who was nine, wanted a room of her own rather than the bunk above his.
Her red-headed six-year-old son. His hands were not unlike the old lover’s, who also had red hair. The same shape and skin tone, bearing a tinge almost purple.
Her son takes issue with everything she says. He wanders rapidly around the house. He whacks her bottom. He thumps out “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” over and over again on the piano. One day he calls her into the bathroom to show her the marks on his legs, wrinkled patterns where his jeans have pressed into his skin.
“From your jeans,” she explains.
“Like the mark your watch leaves,” he says.
“Does it leave the time on your skin too?”
She sits back on her heels and looks at him then. He is tall for his age, a stripling with Christopher Robin’s arms and legs and with Eeyore’s personality. He interests her and worries her and wearies her, this storm-tossed boy whose photograph she had thought of sending to the old lover. Here is my boy. He even looks like you.
But she knows her son is not a bit like the old lover, and she is glad. Her son is too potent to be charming. He comes at you like something shaken up. Or he retreats into prolonged concentration with Tintin or with Asterix and Obelix. He has few friends. He tries too hard with the friends he has. He will not learn that his overexcitement pushes people away, because he is beyond self-control or self-control is beyond him. Or because overexcitement is more fun.
The old lover had used friendliness and charm as weapons. She’d felt hit around the head by his friendliness — that endless, even optimism and openness — friendliness that the more sour among us might call insincerity.
And this is the weapon she uses. Having thought of the word, she uses it. X was insincere.
ON SUNDAY, SHE SUGGESTS to her husband that they go for a drive in the country. They leave the city, driving southwest, and all the fields look old, their colours left over from the summer before, bleached and worn away by winter and strangely soothing, the mattressy beiges and greys, luminous, even platinum-like. But old. She likes it this way. She wants everything to be old, suffering, as she is, from the new. She knows there will always be hundreds of things she will never know, hundreds of things that happened while she was away and she will never catch up. She will never fully understand anything again. But did she ever? Of course not.
In the back seat, her daughter is reading her son’s palm. “Here is the mansion,” she says, pointing to a spot on his palm, “and here is the garage with one, two, three cars, and here is the swimming pool!” And she spits into his hand and collapses in mean laughter.
She turns around — “Jane!”
Then, relenting, Jane tells his real fortune. She points out his lifeline, his job line, his progeny line.
He asks her, his nine-year-old gypsy sister, “Does your life line get shorter when you get older?”
“That’s a good question,” their father says.
They keep on driving. Soon brother and sister go back to pinching and punching and quarrelling, because they have been forced to come along on this boring drive, while in the front, the two stupid parents watch the stupid fields go by.
FOR SEVERAL WEEKS, her son has complained of various aches and pains as soon as he lies down at night. Sometimes his whole body aches. Sometimes just his head. She rubs his tummy. She strokes his head. She asks if that feels better. She doesn’t believe in the aches and pains because they materialize only when he lies down at night. But they persist, and she makes an appointment with the doctor.
She doesn’t say to her husband that she is worried about their son, because the worries are too fresh and complicated to speak about. It is easier to think about old worries.
She takes her son to the doctor. The three of them go — mother, son, daughter. They wait together in the waiting room, then in the examining room. Her daughter sits on a stool reading a magazine. Her son sits on her lap. The doctor listens to what she says and he examines her son. Then he says, “You should be more worried about her.” He indicates her daughter. “Look at her eyes.”
She looks at her daughter and sees dark circles in a pale nine-year-old face. How terrible and ironic it would be if the insistent little boy turns out to be perfectly well and his quiet sister turns out to be ill.
The doctor examines her daughter. He looks down her throat and into her ears; he taps her stomach and her back and moves her limbs. He says that nothing is the matter with either child. The boy’s stomach is fine. The dark circles under the girl’s eyes indicate a slight allergy to spring air. “It’s very common,” he says, and she believes him even though he is wrong.
ON THE WEEKEND, she reads in the paper that the spring migration of land birds remains thin. Cool northerly winds have discouraged the fox sparrows, swallows, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, hermit thrushes, and brown thrashers from arriving in any numbers. You have to go back to the year 1984, the paper says, to find such a lagging migration.
Then she turns to the arts section, glances at the main photograph and reads the caption, then leans back, dumbfounded. It’s X. She would never have recognized him. He is with his wife, their photo large as life, and he has been transformed — boiled or skinned or baked in some way. For one thing, he is bald. For another, his skin has changed, his face has widened — with sickness? grief? new-found happiness? His collaborator-wife is beautiful. She has thick dark hair and a strong face with penetrating eyes. She is used to being photographed, perhaps. She knows how to look and she looks fearless.
His skin: as though it’s been peeled and, in peeling, has swollen. Without glasses (she knew him with glasses), his eyes are naked, the skin around them shiny as though he’s been sitting, soaking, in water and has swelled.
So there is some justice, after all. Look at you, she thinks. Look at you looking old before your time.
He’s in town, that’s the point, and a few hours later, as she comes into the kitchen, she hears him on the radio promoting his new play. His voice is just the same — the same slight accent, the same flexible, husky sound. His wife is talking too. His wife’s voice is crisp and clear. They are talking about their collaboration, about how they met.
This is not the way to get something out of your head. It’s the way to remember more, and suddenly she recalls that on her honeymoon, she wore his old grey sweater. How did she happen to have it? He had lent it to her. At a baseball game. She had been cold and he had lent it to her and she had never returned it. Never returned it; worn it into the first season of her marriage, then lost it apparently. Not just the sweater, but the memory of it, until now.
She is still listening after the interview ends, and so she hears the next artist being interviewed, an author intent on making the distinction between sovereigntist and nationalist. She is a sovereigntist, the author says, not a nationalist. “I don’t believe in Canada anymore,” she declares. “There was something and now it is gone.”
There was something and now it is gone.
Who says? The person doing the leaving. The person left behind says something else.
A LONG, RESTLESS NIGHT. In bed, she studies the faint shape of her old white dressing gown on its hook. Not even her mother would blame her for turning it into rags.
Before dawn, she gets up and goes downstairs. Standing in the dark kitchen, she promises herself that she is not going to miss the change of winter into spring. She is not going to miss the moment when the buds burst open. It’s a quarter to six in the morning, the light at this beautiful moment an underwater blue. A dry swim through water. It doesn’t last long. At twelve to six, the world is almost black and white. Only three minutes have passed. The house on the other side of the alley is decidedly white (perhaps a greenish white), and their little weather vane in the form of a windmill attached to the fence is yellow, and the grass is green. Yet the whole scene still has an underwater look. The purple hydrangea in her window (an Easter gift) is losing some of its petals to limpness and rust. Long rejected Christmas nuts continue in a basket beside the hydrangea; dusty pecans and filberts cohabit with the nutcracker.
A gauziness, almost a smokiness outside.
Overcast, a cool, soft wind, many birds. She is surprised by the wind on her face when she bends down for the paper on the front step. Looks up at the cool, quilted whites and greys in the sky.
Now it’s seven and the light has a yellow cast.
There will always be a before and after in her life — a before that was half noticed but clear, and an after that is dark and half lost. A before-she-went-away and an after-she-came-home that has left her with a big hole in her head around which she treads very carefully because its perimeter is all over the map.
Listening to his voice had actually soothed her. Something had come along to add to what wasn’t there. He was with someone new and they were very close. And she was not a part of his life at all.
Tiny leaves have begun to unfurl on the tree out front. They’re like moist, supple skin.
IT TAKES SO LITTLE to make life better. The dressing gown gives way to scissors and a few yanks. She uses one of the rags to wash the kitchen windows, inside and out, then polishes the glass with crumpled-up newspaper. How clean the windows are when she looks out at the garden. How bright and detailed the outdoors.
Then without premeditation of any kind, she drops to her knees and rests her forehead on the white tabletop. “Help me,” she says aloud.
She is on her knees, surprised to find herself here. “Protect us.”
Even as she prays, she knows this isn’t going anywhere either, this old patchwork faith she has pulled around herself. Yet she stays on her knees and thinks of her son and husband and daughter. Her son, who every night at bedtime says without fail, “Good night, have sweet dreams, I love you,” as if touching a talisman. Her daughter, who always sleeps with her face to the door because robbers don’t usually come through windows, they come through doors, even though always sleeping that way makes her ear hurt. Her husband, who never goes without a hat, being oversensitive to the sun, and has the patience of Job.
THREE YEARS LATER, still with dark circles under her eyes, Jane is overcome with stomach cramps and huge fatigue. In the bathroom, she whimpers with pain. She drags herself to school and drags herself home. In one of those countries where they used to live, and at a very early age, she contracted parasites. They were treated with disgusting medicine, but not eradicated, it turns out. It has taken this long for the penny to drop. Stool samples follow and more disgusting medicine. Finally, very late in the day, her daughter is free of the internal burden she has been carrying by herself and for far too long.
Her son’s nightly aches and pains have tapered off. By now, he is nine and attending a new school that offers French immersion. He comes home proudly every Friday afternoon with a brand new pencil, his reward for getting his dictée right.
Her husband misses the sea. He consoles himself with baseball in the summer and skating in the winter. He frequently talks about selling their house.
She herself is becoming fond of this city of prime ministers and rivers, this resting place for the bones of old politicians. But becoming fond is very different from falling in love.