Paul Cavanagh

Now you know why I’ve never told you about your grandfather or my childhood or the old scars on my arms. I’m already having second thoughts about sharing this story. Perhaps there are things kids simply shouldn’t know about their parents. If that’s so, this would definitely qualify. I’m tempted to delete what I’ve just written. It would be simple to do. I wouldn’t have to worry about you losing all respect for me. But I promised myself that I would set the record straight, so that’s what I’m going to do.

I once heard an “expert” on a TV talk show claim that it’s girls who cut themselves, not boys, at least most of the time. And those who do generally have much sadder stories to tell than what I just shared with you. If, on top of everything else, Dad had been an alcoholic who beat me regularly and Mom had resorted to turning tricks to keep the cash coming in, then I’d fit the profile better. I stopped watching TV talk shows after that.

Your grandma and I didn’t part on the best of terms. No surprise there. After discovering the scars on my arms, she never looked at me quite the same way again. During my last year of high school, I wasn’t able to leave home without her insisting on knowing what I was up to. She took to calling the mothers of the few friends I had to check up on me. She made me feel like the disturbed boy who couldn’t be trusted alone around sharp objects. And so, I went about satisfying her worst fears about me, hanging out with all the wrong kids at school, coming home stoned, or neglecting to come home at all. We had nasty fights that solved nothing. The morning of my eighteenth birthday, I stuffed some clothes in a knapsack and stormed out the door. With thirty bucks in my pocket, I hopped the first bus headed west and didn’t look back.

I don’t mean to put ideas in your head, you understand. Just because I made reckless choices in my life doesn’t mean you have my blessing to follow suit.

I bounced around the country, picking peaches in the Okanagan Valley, pumping gas in Lethbridge, even doing a stint as a security guard at a mall in Winnipeg. Meanwhile, Perry graduated near the top of his class in medical school, as Mom was careful to inform me over the phone one time when she tracked me down. She was offering him up as some kind of gold standard for getting on with life, one that I’d be silly not to follow, even if she’d already resigned herself to the sad fact that I’d never be half as successful as he was. She made sure to pass on his latest phone number, no doubt hoping that I’d finally have the good sense to give him a call, to let him take me under his wing and show me a way out of the dark, self-destructive mood that I’d been in since I was a kid. Maybe then I could learn at the very least how to be happy. She would have contented herself with that. But I never did call him, probably for the very simple reason that I knew how much she wanted me to.

Now we come to the part where your mother enters the story. My policy has always been the less said about her the better, but since I’m coming clean, I might as well tell you everything. Even though it’s been years since she left, I still have mini panic attacks when I think I’ve spotted her in a crowd. One time, when I was picking you up from school when you were in fifth grade, I saw a woman standing in the rain, across the road. I thought it was her, waiting to catch a glimpse of you. But a truck pulled up at the traffic lights,and blocked my view before I could be sure. By the time the truck moved on, there was no one standing there. I told myself it was a trick of the light, but as we drove home, details of how she’d looked began to surface in my brain. Her jet-black hair was longer than I remembered it. It had looked scraggly, as wet as it had been. The old blue rain jacket she’d been wearing had seemed awfully thin for the near-freezing temperature, which was probably why her ears had been huddled so close to her shoulders. And even though she had likely been chilled to the bone, that slightly off-kilter smile was still there.

Of course, it could have been just my imagination filling in the details the way it did when I thought of Dad. I despised her for walking out on us, but I still felt the old familiar flutter in my stomach on the ride home that day, like I’d felt the very first time I saw her.

I met her nearly ten years after I left Ottawa, when I was running my own little courier service in Halifax. There was this place downtown just a couple of blocks up from Barrington Street that I went into after my last delivery one night. She was behind the bar. She liked to wear tight black T-shirts at work, and she was wearing one that first evening when I plunked myself down on a stool across from her. The thing that struck me right away about her as she pulled my pint — besides how good she looked doing it — was the colourful tattoo on her skinny little arm. Women weren’t into sporting tattoos back then like they are nowadays.

“You mind switching the channel?” I asked her, pointing my chin up at the TV mounted from the ceiling. A couple of sportscasters with ugly network-issued jackets were interviewing each other as part of some pre-game show.

She tossed the remote control onto the bar next to my pint. “Help yourself,” she said. I could tell that I hadn’t made much of a first impression. It seemed that as far as she was concerned, I was just another guy swilling beer, trying not to be obvious about giving her the eye.

I tuned into Jeopardy! like I did most evenings and started playing along. I guess I felt that by giving my memory a workout each night, I was giving it less chance to waste away like my old man’s had. I knew a lot of the answers, except for the ones about recent pop culture. Having an encyclopedia salesman for a father gave me an edge over most people when it came to spouting arcane facts, despite my lack of success at school. A few friends had told me I should try to get on the show, given how I outshone so many of the contestants on the tube. Others just looked at me as if I were some kind of idiot savant. That’s kind of how your mother looked at me that first evening.

As I started to become a regular at the pub, I took note of the crooked smiles she occasionally directed my way. I had no illusions about having any chance with her. I wasn’t the kind of guy who could pick up women in bars, particularly a woman who had more than likely heard every pick-up line imaginable. I was content to simply sit there and let her treat me like a curiosity, even if we didn’t talk much. My reward was watching her work behind the bar. She had a dancer’s body, thin but muscular.

She didn’t pay me much attention. She was usually too busy. But every once in a while, I caught her sizing me up from the other end of the bar. When I say “sizing me up,” I don’t mean in the meat-market sense. I got the feeling that I had become a puzzle that she was determined to solve in her spare moments, an idle distraction from the grind of filling orders. The first step in her process was to deduce as much as she could about me before actually asking me anything about myself.

One day, as she was wiping down the counter, she glanced down at my arms as they rested beside my drink. “What’s with the old scars?” she said.

It was July, and I’d long ago grown sick of wearing long-sleeved shirts through the summer. I preferred the numbing effects of alcohol over cutting nowadays. “I used to do a lot of landscaping,” I told her. “Rose bushes can be pretty nasty on the arms.” It was my preferred cover story at the time. To most people, who weren’t really all that curious, it had the ring of plausibility.

Clearly, my explanation didn’t match the backstory she had created for me. “What did you use?” she asked me, gathering up a tip another customer had left her. “A penknife?”

I looked at her, my cheeks burning. She simply smiled. Not a triumphant gotcha smile, mind you. A surprisingly gentle smile, one that told me she thought no less of me.

“So you were mixed up as a kid,” she said. “I was too. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I should be going,” I said, fumbling for my wallet. As accepting as she appeared to be, I wasn’t prepared to stay and let her uncover any more of my dark secrets.

“Oh, come on,” she said with a little pout. “Don’t let me scare you away that easily.”

Was I imagining it or was she flirting with me all of a sudden? I got the impression that now she knew I was damaged goods, she was warming up to me. I wasn’t sure that was a good thing.

“Really, I gotta be somewhere,” I lied. I set a twenty on the bar. “Keep the change.”

I never entered the pub after that. Call me a coward if you like, but my sorry little childhood was something I’d resolved not to explain to anyone. All the same, I began to wonder whether I was overreacting. Your mother hadn’t been interested in passing judgement. If anything, the fact that my scars were self-inflicted seemed to give me added character in her eyes. She wanted to know more about me not because she was looking for reasons to dislike me but because she was genuinely curious. At least that was the sense she’d left me with. She struck me as a kindred spirit, someone with stories of her own to share. Maybe that’s what intimidated me about her, the fear that my past wouldn’t stack up to hers and that she’d turn out to be way more successful at sucking it up and getting on with life.

Although I didn’t have the courage to revisit the pub, that didn’t stop me from imagining myself bumping into her downtown — in a coffee shop, on the sidewalk, or in a store — and acting more sure of myself. I wouldn’t cut the conversation short this time, I’d ask her about herself, and we’d talk like two normal human beings enjoying each other’s company. Sometimes between deliveries, I’d find myself parked across the street from the pub, hoping to catch a glimpse of her coming or going. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I ever spotted her. Stay sitting in my minivan, I suppose. I told myself that I should give it up. I’d blown it, missed my opportunity. Time to move on and get over it. Then, the next day, there I’d be, parked across the street again.

Finally one day, I saw her coming out of the pub. I felt my heart shift up a gear. There was a bounce in her step, like she was glad to be free of the place. She lit a cigarette while waiting for the crosswalk light to change, tilted her head back, and blew a long stream of smoke into the air. Along with her customary black T-shirt, she was wearing black shorts that accentuated her spindly legs. I was so busy gawking that I didn’t fully notice until it was too late that she had crossed to my side of the street and was about to walk right past my minivan. I grabbed a clipboard off the passenger seat and acted like I was studying a bill of lading. I didn’t dare look up again until, several long moments later, I heard a tapping on my window.

“You wouldn’t be stalking me now, would you?” your mother asked with an off-kilter grin when I rolled down the window.

I felt a bead of sweat trickle from my armpit. “Oh, hey,” I said, trying my best to act nonchalant. I nodded at the courier company logo on the side of my door. “Just doing a delivery in the area.”

“Uh-huh,” she said sceptically. “I don’t see you in the bar anymore. I didn’t realize I was that scary.”

I smiled awkwardly, unable to think of a witty comeback. She stood there, her eyebrow cocked. It took me a few seconds to understand that she was waiting for me to make the next move. This was my chance to redeem myself.

“I’m done for the day,” I said. “You want to grab a bite somewhere?”

“You buying?” she asked.

We walked to an old-style diner that was a couple of blocks from the Historic Properties and served breakfast all day. On the way, we crossed paths with downtown office workers shuffling to the ferry terminal to get home to Dartmouth across the harbour. Summer tourists wandered the sidewalks, pausing to check the prices on the menus outside upscale seafood restaurants. Your mother was content to carry the conversation as we marched along, telling me about some of the more colourful characters who had come into the pub that day. That was fine by me. I was still feeling tongue-tied around her.

We sat in a window booth. She ordered the Fisherman’s Breakfast, and I ordered a slice of the pie they kept on display on a pedestal plate by the cash register.

“What do you do when you’re not tending bar?” I asked her as we sipped bad coffee from sturdy white mugs.

“I’m a welder,” she said.

“Really,” I said, not sure whether she was just trying to sound outrageous.

“Not in the shipyard,” she said with a smirk. “I make metal sculptures. I’ve got a workshop a few blocks from here.”


She smiled patiently. Unlike most women I’d encountered, she wasn’t put off by my less-than-sparkling conversational skills. She was quietly encouraging, but just unpredictable enough to keep things interesting instead of awkward.

I understood that there was a price for her patience, however. When she asked me again about my scars as she mopped up the runny egg yolk from her plate with a piece of toast, I was expected to dish the dirt this time. So I told her a little about my father. Then I told her about stealing my brother’s penknife. The story sounded made-up, even though I stuck to the facts. I checked her reaction every few seconds, which probably made me appear shifty-eyed. I was convinced that she’d realize I wasn’t worth her curiosity. She’d brand me as a loser. But the moment never came. After I was done, she rested her chin on her hand and contemplated my case. “You probably wanted to take on your father’s suffering,” she said. “Maybe cutting yourself made you feel like you were doing that.”

I didn’t know what to say. True, she was making me sound more heroic than pathetic, but she was also implying that I had a martyr complex. However I chose to take it, she had me pegged. I felt stupid that she’d uncovered more about me over a single plate of fried eggs and sausage than I’d ever figured out myself.

I’ve since discovered that your mother isn’t the only woman with a knack for understanding what I’m thinking or feeling before I know it myself. At the time, though, I thought she had special powers. I know different now. I’ve heard it said that women are more aware of emotions than men. But that doesn’t mean that they always know what to do with them. That was especially true of your mother, even though it took me a while to realize it. You might say she lived in a state of perpetual awareness hell.

At that moment in the diner, however, I was still in awe of her and feeling very fortunate to be basking in the spotlight of her attention. So when she started to tell me about her own mixed-up past, I felt giddy. Some nasty shit had happened to her when she was a girl, she admitted. One of her uncles had gotten a little too friendly with her. “It may sound warped,” she said, wrapping her skinny, bare arms around herself, “but I still have a hard time convincing myself that I wasn’t to blame, that I didn’t deserve it somehow.”

It felt like an unbreakable bond had formed between us. We’d shared our secrets. We’d opened ourselves up to each other and survived. I wanted to protect her, to prove that I wasn’t anything like her uncle. Her look of vulnerability soon faded, though, and she asked me whether I’d like to see her workshop. I said I’d like that very much. From that moment on, I was hers — hook, line, and sinker.

Her workshop was a rundown garage on a back street. When she rolled up the rickety door, I smelled singed metal. Scavenged pieces of metal — including discarded rebar, old pipes, twisted eavestrough, dented filing cabinets, and rusted wheel rims — filled most of the space. Three huge metal sunflowers, sculpted from these scraps, occupied a clearing in the middle of the workshop. A welder’s torch and helmet lay abandoned beside them on the crumbling, oil-stained floor.

“I make a lot of garden sculptures,” she explained. “Not because they’re my favourite, but because they sell.”

“Impressive,” I said, circling her work. She had an eye for detail. Not only did the flower petals look lifelike, but the stems had the same rough texture you’d find on real sunflowers.

“I’m just about to start a new project,” she said. “Something with more gravitas. You want to help?”

“Sure,” I said, thrilled to be asked.

“You done any modelling?” she asked.

My enthusiasm hit a speed bump. “Modelling?”

“You’ll be great. Come on. Help me set things up.”

She directed me to help her build a ramp in the middle of the workshop out of a length of metal grating that had probably served as a gangway at some point. We hoisted one end into the open trunk of an old car that looked like it had been sitting in the garage since the sixties. After securing the gangway to the lip of the trunk, your mother climbed up onto the jury-rigged ramp and bounced on it to make sure it wasn’t going anywhere. The car’s mangled chrome bumper sagged, but otherwise everything stayed in place. Next, she retrieved a small, makeshift, flatbed trailer with chipboard sides and two balding tires from the corner of the workshop, and pulled it towards the base of the ramp. Then, she clamped a swivel-wheeled jack to the trailer tongue  .

“What’s all this for?” I asked.

“I’m calling my next sculpture ‘Sisyphus,’” she said, wiping her hands with a greasy rag. “You know the legend of Sisyphus, don’t you, Jeopardy Boy?”

“Sure.” I remembered from Dad’s encyclopedia that he was a deceitful king from Greek mythology who’d been forced by the gods to repeatedly push a huge boulder up a steep hill, only to watch it roll back down every time he got to the top. A definition of futility if I’d ever heard one.

“Well, this trailer is going to stand in for a boulder,” she said. “And you are going to be Sisyphus.”

We loaded various pieces of junk into the trailer to give it added weight. Then she pulled an overhead winch along a ceiling track until it was positioned above the ramp. It took her only a minute to secure the chains from the winch to the trailer. After that, it was just a matter of lining up the trailer with the ramp so it didn’t roll off the side as she hoisted.

“All right then,” she said, turning to me. “What I want you to do is get behind the trailer and try to push it the rest of the way up the ramp. The winch will keep it from rolling back on top of you. I’m going to make a few quick sketches. Studies for the sculpture.”

I tried to sound game. “Okay, if you say so.”

“I hope you don’t mind taking off your shirt and pants,” she said. “Clothes get in the way of me seeing the lines properly.”

I balked.

“Don’t worry,” she said with a wink. “You can keep on your underwear. This is only our first date, after all.”

She pulled down the garage door so that passers-by wouldn’t see me in my skivvies. I knew I shouldn’t be prudish, but I worried that she’d be disappointed by my scrawniness once it was fully revealed. Somehow, I managed to swallow my modesty and strip down. I started leaning into the spare tire mounted on the back of the trailer. If your mother was turned off by my body, she didn’t show it. She sketched away for the better part of an hour, asking me to adjust my position every so often and encouraging me to put my back into it whenever she wanted added muscle definition. The trailer was a beast to move. I was drenched in sweat by the time she was done drawing. She complimented me on getting right into the part. I wanted to get my pants back on — which she’d folded up and put on the workbench on the other side of the room — but she insisted on showing me the sketches she’d made first. As I stood half-naked beside her, I could smell the orange blossom scent of the shampoo she’d used that morning. Her bare arm brushed mine as she flipped pages. I felt light-headed and realized it was because I was holding my breath.

She glanced down at my briefs and giggled. “Someone’s a little excited,” she said.

I was mortified. I tried to squeeze past her to collect my pants and hide the bulge in my underwear, but she held me back.

“Hey,” she said with an understanding smile. “Nothing to be ashamed of.” She reached over, pulled open my waistband and peeked inside. “Oh my,” she said appreciatively. “Is that for me?” I desperately wanted to apologize, but before I could, she took me by the hand and led me towards the back seat of the old car. “Seems a pity to waste it,” she said.

I can’t tell you for sure whether you were conceived in the back seat of that old wreck, but I can tell you that things got pretty spirited back there, so much so that all the bouncing dislodged the trailer from the winch and sent it crashing down the ramp. I’ll spare you any more details.

Making love to your mother was a bit like having one too many ice cream sundaes. After we’d gorged ourselves on each other, I think we were both left with a sweet but regrettable aftertaste in our mouths and an unsettled feeling in our bellies. Not that we both hadn’t risen to the occasion — it was just that our desperation had been so over-the-top that we couldn’t help but feel self-conscious once we were done.

She climbed out of the car without a word and put the rest of her clothes back on, leaving me on my own. I was left with the feeling that we’d made a mistake getting naked with each other and I was somehow to blame. I suddenly became aware of the dank smell of the car’s floor mats and the suspicious stains on the upholstery left by previous passengers. By the time I had hoisted myself out of the back seat and found my underwear, she was already back to work on her sunflowers with her welder’s torch. She paid no attention to me as I collected my remaining clothes from the workbench and put them back on.

I waved to get her attention. After a while, she flipped up her welder’s mask and scowled at me as if I were a bar patron trying to order a drink after last call. She hardly seemed like the same person.

“I guess I should be going,” I said, sensing that I was no longer welcome.

“So you got what you came for, did you?” she said cynically.

“Look,” I said. “I didn’t expect any of this.”

“Right …”

I turned to go, then stopped. “What just happened here?” I asked. “I thought you and I were getting along really well. And then we got a little carried away, and now you’re acting strange.”

“Am I?” she said, like I was the one acting strange.

“Can we start over? I don’t feel right walking out like this. I like you. I’d like to see you again. Just to talk. ”

There must have been just the right hint of regret in my voice because her expression softened. She seemed willing to consider at last that maybe she was giving me a harder time than I deserved. “Just to talk?” she said.

“Absolutely,” I said. “I’ll even buy you supper again, if you like.”

She considered this for a moment. “I might want to order something fancier than the Fisherman’s Breakfast next time.”

“You can order whatever you want.”

She wrote her phone number on a strip of paper torn from her sketchpad and handed it to me.

“Great,” I said, tucking it in my trouser pocket and patting it with satisfaction. “So, I guess I’ll give you a call later this week then.”

When I phoned a few days later, I half-expected her to make some excuse about why she couldn’t see me again, but much to my surprise, she accepted my invitation to supper without hesitating. And when we met — at a slightly more upscale restaurant — it was almost as if things were back to normal. She was my willing confidante again, eager to learn more about me and offer her two cents’ worth where she could. That being said, I started to realize that her interest in me wasn’t a simple expression of warmth and kindness. I got the nagging suspicion that she was studying me just like when I’d posed for her as Sisyphus. The difference this time was that she was busy making an emotional likeness of me rather than a physical one. Her advice began to take on the tone of an amateur therapist more than a friend. She told me that until I dealt with my unresolved feelings about my father, I likely wouldn’t fully become an adult. I didn’t like how condescending that sounded and told her so. That didn’t faze her, though.

“Life is about completing a circle,” she told me while finishing off her baked potato. “You might only be able to forgive your father once you become a father yourself.”

“My father had dementia,” I reminded her. “At least that’s what I realize now. He wasn’t responsible for the things he did. There’s nothing for me to forgive.”

“If you say so.”

It didn’t feel like she understood me anymore. If anything, she was starting to get on my nerves. She must have sensed that because she slid her hand across the table and rested it on mine.

“Hey,” she said apologetically. “Never mind. It’s none of my business.”

I worried I was being childish. I tried to relax. “You want dessert?” I asked, squeezing her hand.

“Why don’t we go back to my place instead?” she suggested. “Listen to some tunes. Kill a bottle of wine.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” I asked, remembering what had happened the last time we’d been alone together and let things get out of hand.

“You said we’d just talk,” she said. “Are you planning on breaking your promise?”

“No …”

“Well then …” she said, as if that decided it.

I should have known better. Within half an hour of arriving at her apartment we were going at it on her living room couch. And just like the first time, after the heavy breathing was done, she went all strange on me again, like I’d imposed my will on her. Our parting wasn’t so friendly this time. I refused to apologize and got out while the getting was good.

I didn’t try to call her again after that. I told myself she was way too messed up for me. I felt like a creep thinking that way, though. After all, who was I to judge? Hadn’t she been the first person to get me to open up, the first person to accept me for who I was? Why was I so quick to reject her once she showed a dark side of her own? Maybe I wasn’t so innocent as I made myself out to be. Had I bothered to show her even a tenth of the patience and understanding she’d shown me?

I was so full of self-loathing after dumping her that I began cutting myself again. I got this crazy notion that it would vent the unhappiness building inside me, the way medieval blood-letters I’d read about in Dad’s encyclopedia used to purge their patients of bad humours. I can’t begin to explain the feeling of relief that washed over me when I felt the blood start to flow. It was sick, I know. I’m only telling you this because I want you to understand just how sick it was. I hope you never become so confused that you feel you have to do something like that to yourself. Maybe now you realize why I reacted the way I did when you started getting tattoos and piercings without my permission — the tattoos maybe more so, because they reminded me of your mother.

I was back to wearing long-sleeved shirts again when I saw her next. Long sleeves and a parka, actually. It was a bitterly cold day in January, six months after I’d hightailed it out of her apartment. I was making a delivery to a gallery operated by the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. I’d walked in the front door and was looking for someone to sign off on the package I had tucked under my arm when I saw him in the middle of one of the exhibition spaces: Sisyphus, towering above me in all his twisted metal glory. I recognized the pose from your mother’s sketchbook.

I felt like my messed-up inner life had been put on public display. Not that the figure was recognizable as me. After all, his head was a motorcycle gas tank and his chest was a car radiator with a tachometer welded on it to represent his heart. Just the same, he was an in-your-face reminder of how your mother had seen me as the perfect model of futility. That’s what made the sculpture so striking. You could tell by the curve of his exhaust pipe spine that no matter how hard this guy struggled to make headway, he knew that it would all come crashing down on him in the end, just as it had so many times before. And he had no one to blame but himself.

“It’s a wonderful piece, isn’t it?”

I turned to face a thin man with silvering hair who looked like a curator. He seemed amused that a lowly deliveryman like me was so enthralled with a piece of contemporary art. Maybe he thought I was intrigued by the use of automobile parts.

“I can sign for that,” he said when I still hadn’t made a move to hand him the parcel.

Beside him stood your mother. She looked at me much as she had that day when she’d caught me parked across from the pub, as if she were waiting for me to explain myself. But unlike that occasion, there was no wily grin on her face. Her hair was longer, and she was wearing a bulky ski jacket.

I handed the curator the parcel. Your mother said nothing. It seemed that she was waiting for me to speak first. I sensed the curator getting inpatient with me for not moving along now that I’d made my delivery. This time, I let the chance to redeem myself in your mother’s eyes pass. I gave a goodbye dip of my head to them both and headed for the exit.

I was just a few steps short of my minivan when your mother called out to me from the front steps of the gallery. “You’re not even going to say hello?”

An icy wind was blasting off the harbour, driving ice crystals against my face and flapping my pant cuffs. I was in no mood for a reunion. “I wasn’t sure you wanted that guy in there to realize you knew me.”

She could see that I was in a surly mood. She waited. I wondered whether she expected some sort of apology from me.

“Anyway,” I said, yelling to make myself heard through the howling wind. “It’s freezing out here. I gotta go.”

“Wait!” she shouted.

She scurried along the icy path towards me, nearly wiping out when a vicious gust took hold of her.

“What?” I said when she reached me.

“Let me in your goddamn minivan,” she said, her forehead red from the cold. “I want to talk.”

We both climbed inside, our teeth on the verge of chattering. I started the engine and cranked up the heat. She buried her chin in the folds of her scarf and tucked her arms tight to her body to get warm.

“It’s my first major piece to go on display here,” she said, wiping her runny nose with a balled-up tissue. I sensed that she was working up the nerve to tell me something. Something awkward.

“Congratulations,” I said dully.

“You should be proud too,” she said. “After all, it’s a product of the time we spent together.”

“Hey,” I said. “I didn’t do much. The credit goes to you.”

She allowed herself a self-conscious smile. “Did you like it? The sculpture?”

“It’s big,” I said.

“That’s it?” she said, disappointed. “Just big?”

“Look, I’m no art critic. What do you want me to say?”

She turned away for a moment, stung by my faint praise.

“So,” I said, trying to be a little more civil. “How’re you making out these days? Still working at the pub?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, still working at the pub.” She laughed at some private, sad joke. “Got a big new job coming up in a few months, though.”

“You looking forward to it?”

She gave a little shrug. “Some days. Other days it scares the hell out of me.”

“Oh yeah?” I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about and wasn’t certain I really wanted to know. “I’m sure you’ll do fine, whatever it is.”

Of course, she was referring to your pending arrival. It’s what she was trying to screw up the courage to tell me about, although I didn’t know it at the time. You might wonder why I wasn’t quicker off the mark figuring that out. I didn’t have any visual evidence to help me out. If she was showing at that point in her pregnancy, her puffy winter jacket completely hid the fact. Besides, I just wasn’t expecting it. We’d only had sex twice, and I’d made the foolish, irresponsible assumption that she’d taken precautions.

So when she searched my face one last time for traces of kindness or compromise as we sat in that miserable minivan, I didn’t realize that she was deciding whether I even deserved to know about you. If I had known, I might not have been so determined to show her — through my indifferent expression — that there was no point in us getting back together. As it was, she read my meaning perfectly. She told me it was good seeing me again, abruptly got out of the van, and walked off into the winter wasteland looking like she had resolved to part ways with me for good.

My funk only got deeper after that. Even though I knew I should be proud of refusing to let her sucker me into giving her one more chance, I couldn’t help but feel like a failure. I wondered which was a worse reflection on my character: that the only woman interested in me was a nutcase, or that I missed her more than I wanted to admit. From that day forward, I considered myself undatable. I hung around my apartment most evenings, reluctant to invite over the few friends I had because I was worried what they’d think if they saw the bloodstains on the armrests of my favourite chair.

After a year and a half had passed, I’d had it up to here with being a delivery boy. There was nothing to keep me in Halifax. I decided to move on, hoping that a change of scenery might set my head straight. I ignored the fact that this strategy had never worked for me before.

Most of what I owned had been packed in boxes that I’d scrounged from the liquor store when, late one Sunday morning, there was a knock on my apartment door. I expected it to be my landlady, wanting to show yet another prospective tenant the place without phoning me first. But when I opened the door, there was your mother. She looked more worn down than I remembered, although she wore a characteristically wry smile.

“Going somewhere?” she asked, peering past me at the boxes.

My attention was fixed on the toddler sitting in the stroller at her side. It’s the very first time I ever saw you.

“Aren’t you going to invite us in?” she prompted. “Aidan needs a change.”

I couldn’t very well turn her away when she had you in tow, so I let the two of you in and directed you to the bedroom. Of course, I didn’t know that you were my son at that point, but I was afraid you might be. I think it’s the secret fear of most men to be presented with irrefutable, living, breathing proof of their sexual blunders. I’d like to tell you that I took an immediate shine to you, but I was far too intimidated by what you might represent: the end of my life as a free man, such as it was. I broke out in a cold sweat, waiting for your mother to tell me whether my fears were justified, but she simply set about unpacking her diaper bag on my half-made bed.

“So,” I said, watching from the doorway as she wiped your bum. “This is a surprise. Just happened to be in the neighbourhood and thought you’d drop by?”

“Something like that,” she said. The room was ripe with the smell of your poop. “What’s the matter? Haven’t you ever seen a dirty diaper before? You look like you’re going to be sick.”

“I think I’ll open a window,” I said, holding my breath.

I felt overrun. Until that morning, my plan had been simple. I would leave Halifax, make a clean break, and start fresh somewhere else. You and your mother were threatening to blow that plan all to hell.

“Where you headed?” she asked.

“Ontario,” I said, not wanting to be too specific.

She looked at the garbage bags filled with my clothes sitting in the corner, waiting for moving day. “Looks like we might have missed you if we’d decided to come next weekend instead.”

“But here you are,” I said.

“Here we are,” she agreed, sitting you up in your fresh diaper.

“I didn’t know …” I said. “That you were …”

“I was six months’ pregnant when you last saw me.”

“I don’t remember you mentioning that.”

“You didn’t seem all that interested at the time.”

“Six months,” I said.

“He has your eyes, don’t you think?”

Right then you looked up at me. A little frown crossed your face when you saw me staring at you. Something about the uneasy innocence in your blue eyes immediately reminded me of my dad. Inside my head, I heard a line of cosmic tumblers clunk irreversibly into place.

“And you only decided to tell me now,” I said, shell-shocked. “He’s, what, a year old?”

“Fifteen months,” she said, not batting an eyelash. “Can we trouble you for some lunch? He’s getting hungry.”

I just stood there, my head reeling. The thought that a piece of myself had been reproduced without my knowledge and was living on in you was strangely unsettling. It was true what your mother said. You did have the eyes I’d inherited from my father.

She cleared a space for you on the living room floor to play with your blocks. Then she told me the two of you needed somewhere to stay the night. I couldn’t very well put you out on the street — I got the impression you didn’t have anywhere else to go — so I helped her bring in the bags she’d left in the hallway and started to fix some lunch from the few things I had left in the fridge.

“What is it you expect from me?” I asked her. No use beating about the bush anymore.

“To get to know your son,” she said.

“You can’t stay here long,” I said. “I’m moving, remember.”

She looked annoyed. “Your hospitality is overwhelming.”

“Why are you here?” I asked. “Why now? After all this time?”

“You have responsibilities. Time to face up to them.”

“How’s that supposed to work?” I asked. “I’ll be living in a different part of the country.”

“How convenient for you.”

“Look,” I said. “If you’ve come here to get me to apologize for knocking you up, then okay, I’m sorry. But if you’re trying to make me feel guilty for not pitching in during the past fifteen months, that’s a little much, don’t you think? Especially when you didn’t even tell me about him.”

She had been bouncing you on her hip to settle you down as we talked. Without a word, she handed you to me. I hesitated.

“Hold him,” she insisted. When I held you at arm’s length as if you had some contagious disease, she rolled her eyes. “Not like that. Haven’t you ever done this before?”

“I was the baby in my family,” I said.

“I think you still are,” she said, showing me how to hold you properly.

Over the course of the afternoon, I got a tutorial on how to handle you. I might have gotten a free pass for the first fifteen months of your life, but your mother wasn’t about to let me get off scot-free, even if I was going to be leaving the two of you behind in a couple of days. I felt like a complete klutz. I had zero parenting skills, and I could feel her getting exasperated with me. She persevered nonetheless. Looking after you on her own all this time had taken its toll. She was ready for help, even if it was from someone as woefully inexperienced as me. She looked like she hadn’t slept in a couple of days. Judging from the jumble of clothes, toys, dishes, and cutlery in her bags, I wasn’t even sure the two of you had a place to call home.

Fortunately, you were surprisingly well-tempered whenever I held you, even though I knew you were still wondering who the hell I was. Other kids your age would have been shy around strangers. Not you. I got the impression that your mother had handed you around a lot in your short life. Although she paid close attention to your needs, I could see that mothering didn’t come naturally to her.

“You still making sculptures?” I asked her, making small talk to draw attention away from how inept I was with you.

“Can’t afford to,” she said, trying not to sound resentful. “Aidan takes all my time and most of my money. Had to give up my studio when he was born.”

I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but a part of me wondered why she’d seen the pregnancy through. She must have known that being a single mother wasn’t going to be a picnic. Maybe she had only come to truly understand the sacrifices she’d have to make once you were born. If that was the case, I’m glad she lacked the foresight that might have stopped her from having you. Maybe not so glad at the time, but certainly after I got to know you better.

She proceeded to school me on your routines. During lunch, she explained that she’d stopped breastfeeding you last month, and listed off your favourite foods. Later, when she laid you down on my bed, she told me that you always took a nap around that time in the afternoon. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with this information; I assumed that I was simply supposed to show an interest as your father.

I suddenly recalled what she had said on our second date about me learning to forgive my father once I became a father myself. I found myself getting paranoid ideas. I briefly wondered whether she hadn’t somehow engineered it all. Perhaps she’d wanted me to get her pregnant. This was her way of helping me complete the circle. But I knew I was being delusional.

I was relieved that I wasn’t going to have any real responsibility for you. I wasn’t ready to be a father, not sure I ever would be. I still hadn’t pried an explanation from your mother about what she had hoped to get out of me by appearing on my doorstep. I just prayed she wasn’t going to try to convince me to take the two of you to Ontario.

I gave both of you my bedroom for the night and installed myself on the living room couch with an old blanket. I had a hard time falling asleep, what with the lumpiness of the couch and the shock of meeting you. I must have drifted off at some point, though, because the next thing I remembered was waking up in the middle of the night. The living room was dark except for a sliver of light coming from the bathroom. I lay there for a while, straining to hear what sounded strangely like muffled sobs. Before long, I got up to investigate, nearly tripping on one of your toys in the dark. The bathroom door was open a crack. Through it, I saw your mother, sitting on the toilet, her panties down around her ankles. She was hunched over, her face buried in her hands, her shoulders heaving with each little sob. I stood there staring for a good long while, not knowing whether to say anything. I’d never seen her like this. The whole feel of the scene was eerily familiar to me, though. It was just like one of the times I’d found my mother crying when I wasn’t supposed to.

“Hey,” was all I said, softly, just so she wouldn’t be startled when she looked up and saw me standing there like some voyeur.

She shrunk back, uncharacteristically embarrassed. She wiped her eyes with her forearms and pulled her T-shirt down over her bare lap. She looked dissipated, as if a life’s worth of demons had caught up with her all at once.

“You okay?” I asked inanely, knowing full well she was anything but.

I could see her trying to summon back her composure, but it was no good. “Do me a favour and close the door,” she said in a hoarse whisper.

I probably should have ignored her and insisted she tell me what was going on, but quite frankly I wasn’t sure I wanted to go down that particular rabbit hole. So I did what she asked and closed the door, leaving her to wallow in whatever private misery had ambushed her.

The next morning, she cleared out while I was still asleep, leaving you behind.

Thus began my life as your father.


Missing Steps Copyright © 2015 by Paul Cavanagh. All Rights Reserved.


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