The kiss was out of character. Thinking about it afterwards, Serett felt as though it was someone else’s moment she was remembering, as though she’d slipped into the body of a woman driven by impulse, and was taking this wild stranger’s mind for a joy ride.
A cat let out a high-pitched, hollow wail.
“Yes, Mouser, your life is so hard,” Serett murmured, bending down to pat the orange tabby’s head as he weaved through the kitchen. His lean hindquarters brushed against a vacuum cleaner that was propped next to a kitchen table piled high with books, papers, chew toys and old computer parts. The cat continued into the living room where Moses, the oldest, was stretched on a blanket covering an old plaid couch. Pickles, the baby, snored unapologetically on a lounge chair that lay unrecognizable beneath a Tiramisu of blankets and sheets. In the air an odor of kitty litter, mothballs and patchouli lingered like the scent had settled into the walls over time.
Serett prepared the guacamole. She peeled garlic with multi-coloured fingernails while adding in her head the years she’d been in Canada, since leaving Estonia in her late 20s. Time was throwing her off again. It seemed like she was forever misplacing it, and always trying to find lost months while tampering with recipes in the kitchen. First were 15 with Roy, which had felt equal parts long and short; like a death row inmate waiting for the execution date. Then eight years, mostly alone, with several casual relationships that had multi-tasked their way through that cramped phase of wild anxiety. Then two languid years with sweet Mitchell.
Time had always been a difficult concept for her to master. Cooking was the only task that reminded her to watch the clock, and as she side-eyed the second hand, she felt the shards fall, unearthed like fossils from the striated landscapes of her mind.
Fear pulled her back, and she stabbed at the contents in her bowl to keep busy, concentrating on the next ingredient to avoid a landslide. Moving forward was a coping mechanism. Staying still was risky. She walked to work and back every day – four kilometres each way. She collected live concert videos of her favourite musicians and watched them at night, imagining herself in the audience. She went out occasionally with the girls, and sponged up spiritual insight through workshops at the Wellness Centre. She was 100 per cent involved in her life and yet, if Serett slipped and peered to closely, like she was doing now while crushing the garlic into a pulp, she saw that she was so far removed even a kiss was nothing more than an inexplicable dream.
It happened two weekends before, on the dance floor of a small-town bar tucked beneath a big-city bridge. She’d been there with the girls, on a night that developed into more fun than was intended. Serett avoided alcohol, after her years with Roy, but this night her guard fall. The performer on stage had loosened her, blurring her boundaries. She was on her third apple cider and giving into the presence of the singer’s deep, echoing notes. At the front of the stage, her red cowboy boots tapped to the rhythm of love and loss and she dusted the beats with her leopard print hips.
A gentle pressure of fingers against the small of her back snapped her into reality. She was tipsy, and her bad knee throbbed against the smooth fusion of the night. She shrugged off the hand, which was attached to a man her age; white feathered hair, crow’s feet, and sheepish smile.
“Sorry, you were close. Not that I mind. I just don’t want to step on your toes.“
“What?” she said, holding a hand to her ear. He motioned to his feet, making goofy clown actions to indicate his clumsiness. She threw her head back and laughed.
“I’m getting carried away,” she called into his ear, as he bent towards her.
She could feel the heat of his breath against her neck as he turned in to answer. “He has that effect.”
“Have you seen him before?” she asked, so close she could have rubbed her cheek against his salt-and-pepper whiskers. He smelled like cedar chips and fresh linen.
“First time,” he replied, and felt his lips brush the hair by her ear. She continued swishing, reveling in their closeness. After a pause, he continued, ” I have to say, I keep getting distracted by this woman on the dance floor.”
They watched each other with curious, glinting eyes. Serett flashed on a lost image of her 20-something self and it didn’t seem far off then. Wordlessly, she reached out, inviting him to dance. Pressing together amidst the other slinking bodies, she gazed up at the lips that peeked out beneath a brash mustache.
The phone rang and Serett flustered back from the memory, quickly thrusting her hands under the tap and wiping them dry on her apron before answering.
“What are you doing tonight?” asked Bee, not one for introductions.
“A young woman I work with is coming over for a visit,” said Serett. “I’m just making a snack.“
“Well, I’ve finished.”
Serett self-consciously patted her salon-streaked hair. “The portrait?”
There was a mumbled response to the affirmative, from the receiver, as her friend’s attention shifted back to her easel. “It’s not too bad. I worry about the hands being too much in the foreground.”
“Well, I never understood why you wanted to paint that picture.”
“That picture is magic, Serett. A classic. Cherry cheeked, full lips, innocent rosebud expression. Very pre-Raphaelite.”
Serett giggled; the lines around her eyes deepening in grateful response. “Well, I don’t know if I should put up another portrait of myself. You already did that other one, after the divorce.”
She caught a flash of Roy, telling her to go out and buy him another bottle. The remnants of his anger tore into the happy corners of her conversation like fire eating paper.
“You were different then,” said her friend, in a gentle tone. “This one is pure pleasure. As you should be, the fighter, survivor. The adventurer, with the heart of a-”
“Teenager?” suggested Serett.
Bee’s deep belly laugh floated through the receiver, before she replied, “Always! I’ll bring it over this weekend, we can watch that blues documentary you keep telling me about.”
“Speaking of, did I tell you what happened at the Yale, with Rose and Daphne?
“I met a man.” Serett smiled shyly, entering the living room where Pickles opened his eyes leisurely. She described the mysterious stranger, while at the same time gauging the space on the wall for another portrait. She joked to others that she was the Bee Gallery. Her favourite piece, one that had become the focal point during a party in the 80s where mushrooms had been involved, depicted an indigenous woman emerging from the branches of a tree; deeply shadowed beneath the sliver of a new moon. It felt powerful because she used to think the new moon possessed an empty quality; but this wooded enigma illustrated a trusting relationship with darkness, as if to remind her that uncertainty didn’t have to be frightening. Bee explained during their mushroom trip that the painting reflected the moment when the old passes away and the new has not yet arrived.
Their 20-year friendship was a lifeline that had begun in a Laundromat when Serett was beginning to challenge her belief of happily ever after with Roy. Bee was her strength; a woman with a true sense of purpose, who lived her life with a passionate Spanish husband she’d met years ago on a solo vacation in Mexico. That’s how Bee operated, everything was spur of the moment with no sense of regret.
“I can’t believe you kissed him! I’m so proud of you.”
“It happened, while we were dancing,” said Serett, thinking how the mustache had scratched her upper lip enough to leave a lingering sensation of his mouth the following morning.
“Have you talked to him since?”
“We never exchanged numbers.”
Her friend understood. “It was a private minute of life. Had it been yanked into the real day-to-day it could have led to disappointment.”
Serett nodded, relieved. “We’ll meet again if we’re supposed to.”
“We are our own mysteries of the Universe,” mused her friend.
A small part of Serett, one she didn’t vocalize, was doubtful of this philosophizing, knowing that part of the reason she didn’t get his number was simply because he had not asked. She had been too anxious to meet him halfway. It had taken her over a decade to learn to say no; she could not skip to yes so easily yet.
When their conversation ended, she returned to the kitchen where she separated a bag of tortilla chips in two baskets, placing them on her patio table outside. For ambiance, she turned on the switch that lit up her paper lanterns, which lined the railing over the avenue in front of the building. Back inside, she filled a jewelled jar with truffle chocolates, where it sat among a variety of knickknacks: miniature Buddha statues, small plants, a jar of pussy willows and several framed pictures. There were small, black and white photos of her parents, stiff and formal, and faded photos of herself, thick glasses and tube tops in vintage 70s glory. She reached inside the jar and unwrapped a chocolate, letting the sweetness melt into the crook of her cheek, and then she dragged the vacuum to her front entrance, so it wouldn’t be in the way. Next, she rummaged through the pantry cupboard to retrieve a plastic bag for the vacuum appendages, thinking about her impending guest, Lucy, who was half Serett’s age exactly. The young woman was so full of youth Serett had both envy and a sense of wonderful familiarity when speaking with her. Lucy worked in administrations at their office. She dressed only in black and her spiky blond hair matched a prickly attitude that Serett recognized as a porcupine shell covering up a soft inner layer.
“This fucking thing is so slow,” Lucy had grumbled the previous morning, waiting for the computer to boot up after she’d arrived to work, late as usual. “I don’t have time for this!” She collapsed against the back of her chair and swiveled around to glance at Serett, aware of her audience.
“Good morning,” Serett said to her cheerfully.
Lucy plunged into the latest news of her life, as though Serett had been waiting expectantly. “My boyfriend and I finally finished moving all our stuff into the new place at like four am last night. Total gong show. We’ve got two of every kitchen appliance, but no vacuum.”
The phones interrupted them both, but when Lucy hung up Serett could no longer contain her own news. “My letter to the editor was published this morning in the Daily!” Serett picked up the newspaper that she’d gleefully carried to work that morning.
“Cool,” said Lucy, her voice placating. Serett wanted Lucy to ask to read it, but the other girl picked up the ringing phone again, and answered in her aggrieved monotone.
Serett fingered the inky page in her hands, looking down at her name in print. Her letter was a reprimand to the rush-hour commuters who had boarded at a particular skytrain station the previous afternoon. She had been exiting the train, on her way into the city to run a few errands after work, when she saw an old woman collapse on the platform. The stranger lay face down and unaided, as people sidestepped her body, most not even bothering to glance at the obstacle in their way.
Serett rushed over and knelt down, gently scooping up the head of white hair. A pair of milky blue eyes looked up into Serett’s with simple confusion. “I fell.”
“Do you think you can stand?” asked Serett, and receiving a nod, she brought the elderly woman to her feet. Together they shuffled over to two metal seats beside a garbage can.
Serett pulled a water bottle out of her handbag. “Drink this.”
“Thank-you, my dear.”
“Do you remember what happened?”
“I was stepping off. Everyone was in such a hurry.”
“Shameful!” reproached Serett, glaring at the sea of strangers.
The older woman took a shaky sip of water and after wiping at a bead of water from her chin with a liver-spotted hand, said to no one, “Good manners are made of petty sacrifices.”
While they sat together in silence, Serett recalled a story she’d heard about the blues singers of the 20s and 30s, the famous names who lived in shacks in the south, with no water or electricity, or transportation. Never obtaining the royalties owed; record companies stepping over them. The public dancing in nightclubs to their music while they died in poverty. She sat guiltily on the station platform beside the other woman; watching the stone-faced, hurried commuters who were milling in all directions. It was all money, walking money, money rushing in and out of automatic doors.
By the arrival of a third train, the elder insisted she was herself again, and did not need to be taken to a doctor. As they parted ways, Serett was reluctant to let her go, watching the old woman shuffle off and get swallowed up into the hustle.
Lucy hung up the phone and kept her back turned, logging into one of her many social media accounts, hovering over her keyboard and snickering at a publicly private joke. Serett folded the newspaper, tucking it away.
The apartment buzzer rang as Serett was wrapping up the pieces of the vacuum cleaner. She pressed the speaker button on the wall. “Hi! End of the hallway on the right.” Then she removed her apron and stood expectantly in front of the door. The cats, sensing her anticipation, slunk down from their perches to circle around her feet in solidarity.
“Lucy is here,” she told them. “We’re going to have a nice visit.”
There was a rapid knock, and Serett yanked open the apartment door as her guest stepped inside, squinting her heavily lined eyes as if staring directly into the sun. “Wow, these walls… are… orange.”
“Orange is said to replenish the spirit,” explained Serett, stopping herself from saying more at the expression on the younger girl’s face.
“You don’t say.”
“Come on in!”
“I can’t, my boyfriend is waiting in the car.”
Serett waved her arm. “He’s more than welcome to come in too.”
“No,” said Lucy, quickly. “We’re on our way to a, his brother’s birthday. I just thought I could grab the vacuum.”
“Of course. Here it is. Works like a charm. More or less, it’s not the best with cat hair but you don’t have any cats.”
“No,” said Lucy simply, reaching for the vacuum and knocking Pickles in the head with the hose. The cat gave her dirty look before retreating. Lucy pulled the plastic bag of vacuum appendages awkwardly from Serett’s grip.
“Thanks, this is a lifesaver.”
Serett smile faltered. “Like I said, I just bought a new one, so it was meant to be.”
“Right. Well. Guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Are you sure you don’t want-”
And then Lucy was gone. The cats stared up at Serett, waiting. She inspected the closed door, running her finger across the top of her lip and thinking about how unforgiving time can be to lost opportunities.
The car idled on the street, near the lobby door, Lucy’s boyfriend leaning against the back end and smoking a cigarette. Lucy rolled her eyes as she approached, lugging the vacuum. He snickered as he flicked the butt onto the sidewalk, and popped open the trunk. “She didn’t try and feed you a poisoned apple?”
“No, but she tried to get me to stay.”
“Ha. What did you say?”
“That we were going to a birthday party,” said Lucy, wrestling the hose into submission. Her boyfriend let out an appreciative whistle for the subterfuge.
“Well, honestly,” said Lucy, disgusted. “I can’t think of anything more mind numbing. She’s older than my mother. What are we going to talk about, RRSPs?”
Her boyfriend rattled the car keys, while Lucy reached for the pack of smokes in his shirt pocket. “Whatever,” he cried, shrugging. “Free vacuum!”
On the balcony, above the car, Serett was standing frozen in place with the bowl of guacamole. The overheard conversation settled against her skin like particles of dirt that had been churned up from a duster. She was overwhelmed with disappointment, and a sudden clarity that life really did require her to look more closely. She suddenly wished, with a hurting heart, that she’d put more effort into finding someone who was good for her.
As the car engine roared to life, and a dying muffler gruffly destroyed the night’s peace, Lucy was granted forgiveness. A familiar tune of heartbreak played out from a faraway bar, and Moses appeared, slinking around her calves, letting out a mournful cry. “I know,” she told him, reaching down to pat its head.