Leaving a Keeper

excerpt

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“Hey, Beautiful, I haven’t seen you in so long! I missed you!”

Lex greeted me with a warm embrace as I walked onto the St. George platform. She tried to lift me up but her skinny arms could never get me off the ground.

“I missed you so much, Beautiful! Like the kind of miss you can’t fully understand until you’re right in front of the one you’ve been missing. I feel like I’m going to cry.”

“I have tissues.”

“Do you want to just sit and have a coffee before we go anywhere? The place we used to go to all the time is still open.”

“Oh my God, Le Beanery? Do you have gloves and top hats in that bag?”

“No, but I have some eyeliner. We can pencil in fancy moustaches on the way.”

As we waited for the orange hand to disappear, I asked Lex if I ever told her that I saw Margaret Atwood walking by there once.

“Only a million times.”

Lex told me about her job back home in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick. She was being groomed to take over the family business – they ran a few whale watching tour boats. She didn’t know she could love whales so much after hating them as a kid. But she had never hated those amazing creatures, just the fact that she had to work ten hour days in the summer if she ever wanted to see her dad.

I told Lex about my editing job at a small press. It had been months since I’d found a manuscript to fall in love with. All the innovators were publishing independently. And an avant guard publisher can only go so long without good new experimental authors. I was starting to give up on finding the one that would bring our house to Booker shortlist prestige.

We found a table on the patio near the back away from the busyness of others. It was a gorgeous May afternoon. Sparrows were eating crumbs from a plate left on the table next to us.

“So, how’ve you really been, Eleanor?”

“God, you know I hate it when you call me that.”

Lex looked over the top of her sunglasses at me, knowing, even after years, that I was pretending to do better than I was.

“What gave me away?”

“I can’t explain, Nora, I just know.”

I rolled my eyes. “Woke up this morning to a hate mail notification from Sean.”

“No way. You guys broke up, what, three maybe four years ago, right?”

“Yup, and he’s still stalking me online. He’s fucking insane. I’m glad I got out of that when I did.”

“What ever happened to Derick?”

“I don’t know,” I kind of laughed at how stunned that still made me feel. “Whatever happened, it didn’t work.”

“Who has been coveting you these days?”

“Nobody.”

“Fuck off! The girl who had all the uni guys tripping over themselves.”

“Give me a break. They were uni guys. What else would they do? What about you? All those uni girls throwing roses into our window at four in the morning.”

We laughed.

“I think I’ve given up.”

“Who broke your heart?”

“Long story.”

She looked at me.

“Complicated.”

“So he was married.”

“That’s what I get for dating older men.”

“Oh, sweets, it’s not your fault. Some people are just fucked up.”

“Ya, and I think I’ve met them all.”

“So how do you know it wasn’t the married guy sending you hate mail?”

“Sean has his own style of hate, I guess. When the married guy would get drunk after I left, he would send stupid love poems trying to get me back and then go off calling me a cold hearted whore when I said I wouldn’t see him again.”

“Pretty normal.”

“Ya, and Sean isn’t normal. There’s something broken in his brain. We used to watch The Office together, the American one, not the British one, and I have a ‘haha’ Pinterest board with stills from the show. Ever since we split, whenever Sean would get angry about something, he would use a fake account to save a pin that shows one of the characters standing on his desk with a sign around his neck. The sign says, ‘liar’. Since he’s the only one who knows about this account, it’s pretty obvious.”

“Jesus, Nora, you weren’t kidding when you said Sean is insane.”

“That’s not even the worst of it.”

“Do I even want to know?”

I held out my hand, palm up, and started ticking off a list. “Sean got the married guy’s number after I found out he was married and threatened to tell his wife.”

“Holy shit.”

“Before that, Sean lured me to a pub by telling me he was thinking of killing himself and he had nobody else to talk to, then he started crying so I brought him back to my place. I woke up the next morning – a work day- feeling hung over as hell, like I had been black out drunk when I’d only had two drinks. When I went into my living room there was an empty blister pill pack beside my half-drunk beer. And later that day he sent me a text saying he could have fucked me but he didn’t… this time.”

“You’re fucking kidding.”

“Oh, and then there was that one time Sean slept with my sister and posted photos online. She didn’t know he was recording it.”

“Jesus, Nora, you’re right. It is a good thing you got out when you did. You were talking marriage the last time we spoke before you guys broke up.”

“I know.” I looked down at the tea in the mug between my hands. “So, I give up.”

On the West end of Toronto proper, Dan was waking up after a twelve hour staff writer’s meeting that had gone until ten in the morning.

He was looking forward to seeing what Jennifer had sent him after he revealed that he wanted her to surprise him.

It had been a few months with Jennifer online and there was something about this one that seemed perfect.

Dan had been cautious about telling any woman what he was truly looking for after his last girlfriend Julia had ripped him apart with her lies and manipulation and other generally crazy shit.

Indisputably crazy. Poking holes in the Trojans crazy.

But Jennifer was everything he wanted without him having to reveal anything too detailed about his deal breakers.

Dan was going to ask Jennifer, finally, to meet after all those hours of getting to know each other online.

She was a pretty good writer. Not the best he’d ever read. Not even the best who’d ever written him a poem. But the pictures she took for him showed a beautiful creature he couldn’t believe that he, of all people, had resisted jumping right into his old self and coming up with lists of things for her to do that used to help him feel sure that the woman he was talking to was being authentic.

Jennifer was perfect so far. She was nothing like others he’d talked to online. She had taken six weeks to even send him a photo of her bare shoulders. And it wasn’t because she was a prude. She was being cautious because she was a single mom.

Last night, before he started work, Jennifer had been driving him crazy in ways he didn’t even tell her about. Things were heating up. And doing it this way was surprisingly erotic. She asked him what he’d like to wake up to and he told her that he trusted her. He knew whatever it was would be perfect.

Dan thought all this as he was stepping into his ensuite, yawning. He purposely left his phone face down on his night stand to leave her surprise longer, to make sure he was ready to respond.

He got back into bed, pulled the covers up over his half naked body and got comfortable.

Dan’s heart pounded as he picked up his iphoneX. There was a notification from Jennifer on his locked home screen.

He smiled seeing her name.

He opened WhatsApp before checking his texts or anything else.

Dan’s pulse spiked as he clicked on a photo. At first, he thought it looked like a dick. ‘What the fuck?’ He looked closer. It was a dick.

Jennifer had a good sense of humour, but it wasn’t sick or twisted. She wouldn’t have sent that to him as a joke. He checked to make sure it was her account. He looked for signs that she had been hacked. Then he looked at the photo again. There was something eerily familiar about that curve.

Dan pushed down the anxiety that began to overwhelm him. He squinted to make up for the blur that was starting in his vision.

“Holy fuck. What the hell.”

He whipped his phone across his bed as if it was burning acid in his hands.

It was his cock. His own cock. But how would Jennifer –

Dan started listing off the names of any girl he’d sent a dick pic to and then he thought of which ones knew his real name and which of those would want to hurt him in such a malicious way.

After a few minutes of deep breathing and mindful thought exercises, Dan picked up his phone again. ‘Jennifer’ was online.

“How’d you like the pic, lover?”

“Jesus Christ,” he said out loud even though no-one could hear him.

Julia had called him lover, even after he left when he found the useless condom in the garbage. No other girl he’d been with talked in that stupid faux kissy-kissy language.

He didn’t reply. He was about to block her when another photo came through.

It was Julia with a lollipop in her mouth and an exaggerated lusty look in her crazy fuck eyes.

Dan blocked her. He felt anger warm his blood. Then he thought of how filled with glee Julia would be if she knew he was furious. So he shoved the anger down into the pit of his belly and checked his texts.

Rav had messaged an hour before Dan woke asking if he wanted to meet for a beer.

“Hey Rav, I just got up. Worked until 10am.”

“Fuck, I thought Jennifer had kept you up again.”

“Nope. She turned out to be kind of a bitch.”

“Shit, sorry, man.”

“Whatever. Life goes on.”

“Do you want to come out?”

Dan hadn’t started a day drinking since his mid-twenties. ‘Fuck it,’ he thought.

“Sure. Give me half an hour to get shaved and dressed.”

you got this

i know you do

Hey you, hanging in the corner, sneaking down the stairs, I see you and now you know I see you but you’re still running those lines.

We should talk…

You know I love you –

Hey come back here.

I know you know what I’m going to say and now you know that I know you know, but you’re still running up these stairs.

Don’t pay no mind to the man standing next to me with that sneer on his face. He means no harm. His face just rests like that.

Technically he shouldn’t be here bc this, this thing between you and me, has nothing to do with him but there he is believing he’s protecting me.

Now you know I know there’s a man beside me, one who won’t leave my side no matter where I go no matter what I do.

I could tell you all the things he’s done since he arrived that saved my ass. I could tell you all the things I needed to be saved from. But you of all people know what bombs I’m trying to miss in this field.

You of all people know why he’s there. And now you know that I know.

If I take his hand in mine to slow his erratic pulse, will you stay just for a minute? Just long enough to look into his eyes.

You’re both here for a reason.

He won’t speak to you, but I know you know that looking into his eyes will unlock all you need from meeting him.

We could talk about what you will see when he’s not around, but, well, you know. So, take your time.

I know this feels like your place. You’ve had the key for years and even when I changed the locks, I made sure you had a copy, didn’t I?

Thank you. No, hey, don’t panic. I know you of all people, you who’ve been in this place to hear all of my goodbyes, know what it sounds like.

And you’re not ready. I know. And I gave all the others all the time they needed. I know. And I know you want me to tell you that you don’t need what I’ve given to the others because you’re different. And you are different. You’re unlike any of the others.

But you hate it when I lie to you so I never have. You do need some of what I’ve given the others. Not in the same way. Not the same measure. You need to allow yourself to receive what’s in my heart for you. This is for you and only you.

I could tell you that you’ll feel better after, that it will change your life in a good way, but you won’t hear that.

The promises I made you were bigger. You’ve heard them for more years. You of all people who have known me know that the promises I’ve made are possible. You know I could keep my promises and now you know I know you know.

I have something to tell you –

Oh come on, please just stay to hear me out. You’re not going far anyway. If I yell you’ll hear me no matter where you go.

What if I told you that I need my key back bc you just being here gives me totally away? That I can’t keep anything to myself until it’s the right time?

I want to do things differently.

Yes, with that guy.

No, don’t try to stop him from talking. You know he’s going to have feelings and opinions no matter what and you know they will come through anyway. Let him have his say. Don’t take it personally. He’s hurting.

Sorry, fuck, I wasn’t trying to… Please stay. Please keep talking.

Listen, I really wanted to read a fucking book right now but here I am, so can we please all take a deep breath.

Yes, I am going to kneel. You don’t own me. Please let us have a moment. We need a moment.

He will not say something that will change my mind. If he wanted to do that, he’d wait until you were working.

It’s okay, you didn’t cause anything. We’ll be okay. He’s a good guy. Just like you.

Do you see this box I just pulled from my heart and put on the floor between us? That’s for you. Pour it all into the box.

Hey, I know you don’t trust me. I know you think they fucked me up so wholly that I’ll never be able to make a decision on my own. I know you’ve watched them interfere. I know you believe you know better than I do.

But you can’t see the now me when you’re like this. You know how careless I’ve been. You’ve watched me make countless mistakes.

I’m stronger now. I’m more clear now.

I know. I know you’ll never believe me enough to trust me to lead you in the right direction.

But do you see that’s how they fucked with you?

Can you take these words into your heart, knowing my intentions are pure and always have been, even though I’ve made mistakes.

Now, after everything, I’m the only one who can lead you out of this place. Now, after everything, the only way either of us see the sun again unfettered by any roof is for you to take a leap of faith.

Stay here as long as you need to. All I ask is that you carry this empty box with you. And call me when you’ve filled it.

Of course I’ll be here if you need me.

Where else would I be? Would I leave you all alone?

Things are going to change, and I might not be able to keep those promises I made years ago, but I can promise something better now.

You have to take that leap to find out. This might hurt for a minute, but everything that comes after will be so much more than that pain.

Take your time. You don’t have to decide now.

I can’t answer all of your questions. I don’t know all of the answers.

You know I love you. That hasn’t changed. Not for twenty eight years.

this is my fire

Meet me where I am

Oh God, I have sung my love for you before 40,000 people
my heart has been faithful to what I believed you wanted me to believe
Yet, because my songs have been misunderstood, I have found myself in trouble
They think my love is a siren call
and they hand me the keys to the ploughs that clear the catacombs of their hearts
I have always done my best to follow true love’s directive
even before I knew what it was
And now I wish to walk tall and grounded in light
Not just any light, the most brilliant light that washes away darkness from even the stickiest, most tangled black hose webs
God, how can I carry all these keys when the ploughs each need an operator

I admit I thought I knew best how to preserve our goodness, when I thought it was up to me
I confess, when I thought the universe was cold and unruly, my way felt like truth
I lay down my arrogance for you, the ways I have hollowed when I believed I knew how to love
yet I know nothing but my need for your help
You know there are only so many places I can be at once
and though my heart is as wide as your skies and as deep as your oceans,
I’m beginning to question my earliest understanding of love
You know what they did to the pathways that I thought could never be communal but for good
You know what carrying each lost soul has done to me

Forgive me, you must forgive me, for I fear without mercy for us all, we will collapse suddenly across the universe
I fear we will become empty and not know how to fill with unfailing love
Be kind to us all, for I fear without your kindness, once I lay down this whip and turn my face to your ocean, we will be washed away like dust
Be patient with me as I learn to trust, after everything, that love is powerful and graceful
Thank you, God, for holding my hand as I let go of each need I have harboured before I believed in true love
Forgive me, I beg you, as I turn out all that I have held back
I need you to help me have faith that your wrath is just, for I fear no-one on your earth has sheltered quite like me

Please take me into the wings of your archangel Azrael as I allow your courage to follow your will, Lord
Hold me as I weep in the in-between of hope that you have me, that you have us all
For I once believed we were here alone
and I once believed to be alone was the gravest burden
Help me regain your grace, Lord, as I stumble over these stones
Make me an instrument of peace as my heart chokes up all she has hidden in fear
Know my pain as deeply as you know those who hate me
Buoy me and search for me as I turn my back on all I turn out
Help me find some sort of joy in the midst of this grief, Lord, so I can stay close to you, for I fear these sorrows will keep me
I fear this grave sadness doesn’t plan to let me go
Save me from being ripped apart as I reach for You, for I fear that which I’ve harboured won’t give up gracefully
Take my worries, God, take my heart, take all of me
Teach my hands to steady as I walk Your love