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What’s Happened to Politics? CHAPTER ONE WHAT’S HAPPENED TO POLITICS?
What exactly has gone wrong with politics? We need to be precise about the diagnosis before we can identify the remedies. That there is a widespread disillusionment with politics is undoubtedly true. There is a universal tendency to hearken back to a golden age of politics and public policy, to see through a gauzy lens to some time when men and women deliberated solemnly on the issues of the day, unsullied by the lure of lobbyists or the odour of self-interest. Such a time never existed. Politics has never been that way. No time has been free from the golden age of bullshit and the inevitable push and pull of who gets what, when, where, and how. But something has happened in our current time to create an aura of phony salesmanship that is even more pungent than the whiff of other times. What is it exactly?
I am not a social scientist, a philosopher, or a seer, but rather a mere mortal who has spent most of his life in politics, public service, the law, and education. I see no contradiction between a life of action and one of reflection, and I have tried to remain curious about the human condition. I do not see politics as inherently corrupt or evil—in fact, quite the opposite. I see it as a necessary endeavour, the deterioration of which troubles me not just because I do not like to see an important part of my life reviled, but because an improvement in the quality of public discourse is a good thing in itself. We are all somehow cheapened when politics and public life go sour.
The challenges we face are not just political. They involve broader issues in our society. Nor are the challenges confined to Canada. In fact, we can’t understand them unless we realize that they have a lot to do with how the world is changing. The solutions do not lie just in our own country, then, nor are they entirely in our own hands. And that’s where frustration, a sense of powerlessness, sets in.
It has much to do with what is happening to Canada and many other countries both economically and culturally. The most positive underlying force in any society is trust, something that is born of common understandings about how things will work out and how people will behave and treat one another. But as one of my colleagues observed during a cabinet meeting in Ontario two decades ago, “The water buffalo look at each other very differently when there’s no water.” When the bonds of trust among citizens are weakened, anything can happen, and this is part of what is at work today in societies both rich and poor. If inequalities are created that have no basis in values or understandings that are widely and deeply shared, resentment replaces trust as the operating force. That resentment grows and feeds on itself. Our politicians and political establishment must uphold and protect the people and institutions so integral to this trust, or they risk losing it permanently.
Before exploring the role of widening economic inequalities in eroding trust, let’s start by putting some things in perspective. Canadians are lucky people—our collective standard of living is high, the country is beautiful, life is not terrible for most of us. We are a peaceable kingdom, people feel generally secure, and when questioned about how they’re feeling, most Canadians express satisfaction with their lives and their prospects. We are not in the middle of a deep economic depression, though there are problems in some parts of the country. And yet something is missing; something nags at us saying things could be better.
At the end of the Second World War seventy years ago, Canadians were finally experiencing full employment, and with the return of peace came a period of sustained growth that was marked by a steady increase in the standard of living of average families. The provinces came into their own as education surpassed transportation as the key area of social investment. Quebec had its Quiet Revolution, and this had its parallels in every part of the country, with the evolution of social programs like the Canada Pension Plan, the introduction of universal health care, and the extension of the role of provinces and cities. It was a hopeful time for Canadians. They saw a great future for their children. They had faith in their leaders.
In 1967, Canada celebrated its centennial year by welcoming the world to Montreal at an exposition that showed what an innovative and remarkable country we were. Few of us who remember that experience will forget it—the sense of pride and excitement we felt was tangible.
Ironically, what we didn’t realize at the time was that this was in fact a turning point. It all came down to money. Though our federal government had a balanced budget in 1969, it would not see another one until 1998. Both government spending and taxes increased, but unemployment edged up higher through the 1970s and 1980s. By 1990, with the rise in interest rates and the adjustments brought about by the free trade agreement with the United States, Canada’s largest province, Ontario, faced its most severe economic crunch since the Great Depression.
The challenges of those years really forced Canadians across the political spectrum to come to terms with what had been a national problem twenty-five years in the making. From the early 1970s onwards, all governments, of all stripes, had increased taxes and by and large got away with it because steady inflation concealed the increases. Simply put, when you got a wage increase on January 1, it would hide the underlying tax increase. This changed when high interest rates and a collapsed economy drove inflation out.
When tax increases resulted in lower paycheques, the understandable reaction soon followed. I can well remember a meeting in an auto workers hall in 1991 when I was told, “I voted to tax the rich, but I didn’t think you meant me.” As a skilled worker in an auto plant, the speaker would have been making a good income, but that didn’t produce a strong desire to share it with the government.
The healthier growth that re-emerged in the mid-1990s was good news, as was the decision to use that growth and higher revenues to get budgets back into balance and even pay off some debt with the surpluses that followed. Things were going so well that some commentators even gloated that the business cycle and economic crises were a thing of the past. But several mini jolts (like the collapse of the dot-com bubble in 2000) and one big mess (the implosion of Wall Street and the financial crisis of 2008 and onwards) should surely have disabused anyone of this idea. Since then, the world economy has returned to a semblance of order, but the underlying unease Canadians still feel should remind us all of two things—the fragility of recoveries and the interconnectedness of the world economy. Look at how Alberta’s economy suddenly shifted from one that outperformed much of the world to one that is struggling with the impact of drastically lower resource prices. The people in Canada’s most oil-rich province now have to adapt to the realities of a global economy that is affected by a number of forces outside of their control. And the political changes we have seen in the last few months are a reflection of those underlying challenges.
The moral origin of the financial crisis of 2008 was, undoubtedly, a greed that knew no limits. Dodgy mortgages bled their way into the world financial system and blew any sense of stability to smithereens. There was no secure ground anywhere, and the crisis flew from the financial sector to all others and from one country to the next. Those countries with more stable banking systems and healthier public account balances held on better than others, but no one was exempt from the impact, and no one would be immune from another outbreak. Following the financial crisis, personal, corporate, and government debts shot back up after declining for fifteen years, and they are now at a point where another blow similar to the one we experienced in 2008–09 would be, quite simply, devastating.
Underpinning all of this upheaval is the age-old question, “How do these changes affect the condition of the people?” The turmoil of the last two decades has revealed the extent to which the forces we sum up in the easy word “globalization” have in fact benefitted those who already control the wealth, the now infamous 1 percent, just as the kleptocracy in Russia and the elite in China have skimmed the cream off the extraordinary riches to be had when a state-owned and -controlled economy suddenly does a 180-degree turn and sells off assets to the bidders with the best connections. Even when some economists tell us that things are going well, with lower unemployment and taxes under control, the general population is not comforted. There is a new label for those whose lives go from paycheque to paycheque—“precarious workers.” The answers and explanations that supposed experts and leaders provide are inconsistent and insufficient. No wonder Canadians feel distrustful and alarmed. No wonder they feel powerless.
Given this unstable economic landscape and the need to reaffirm our social bonds, one would think that there is both an opportunity and a need for politicians to more readily engage a citizenry that is better informed and more accessible than ever before. There is a chance to move past the slogans and the election speeches to engage in meaningful and lasting discourse, dialogue, and debate. But instead, we are greeted with just the opposite. Anyone watching politics in North America and around the world knows that today, parties are instead focused on running permanent campaigns. Politics has become a full-time business in which incessant campaigning trumps real governance.
The speed at which politics takes place is only multiplied by the impact of digital communication and social media. This is widely recognized, and it is not entirely novel—even going back to the French Revolution, one finds popular songs, cartoons, and flyers that proclaimed Marie Antoinette’s alleged excesses both sexual and personal. But in today’s world, with the Twittersphere and the Internet dispensing information more broadly, the lid of respectability is off. Gossip and rumour are grist to the mill, patience is a vice, and while the laws of libel are there for a few hardy (and well-off) souls, they hardly act as much prevention. As a result, the level of public discourse has fallen off badly.
A recent book by Sasha Issenberg, The Victory Lab, brilliantly describes how big data has been mobilized in an attempt to ensure political success, accurately making the point that a good part of what is going on in these permanent campaigns is an exercise in “creating the electorate.” The question of who votes is as important as how they vote. President Obama’s success in 2008 was all about creating a bigger, younger electorate, because Democrats knew that if they could succeed in doing this, they would be far more likely to win. The Obama campaign successfully employed a combination of volunteer recruitment and enthusiasm, and it paid enormous attention to analytics and systems. It was also an effort bankrolled by unprecedented fund-raising. The 2010 midterm election, however, was a setback for Obama, largely because a discouraged and disheartened electorate stayed away from the polls. In the campaign for the second term, the Obama team realized that unless they grew the electorate back, they would lose the election. Sasha Issenberg describes in detail the analytical effort, and the money, involved in helping to achieve that goal. Savour the language of the new politics from this revealing book:
A July EIP [experiment-informed program] designed to test Obama’s messages aimed particularly at women found that those between 20 and 40 support scores showed the greatest response to his arguments about women’s health and equal-pay measures. Their low support index meant that other indicators of their partisanship pointed strongly to likely Republican attitudes: here was one thing (probably the only thing) that could pull them to Obama. As a result, when Obama unveiled a track of his direct-mail program addressing only women’s issues, it wasn’t to shore up interest among core parts of the Democratic coalition, but to reach over for conservatives who were uniquely cross-pressured on gender concerns.
Today, the electorate is sliced, diced, dissected, and divided to an extent unimaginable even fifteen years ago. All parties are segmenting the electorate and are adopting the tactics of companies selling a packaged product. Consultants share the same enthusiasm for branding a leader or a party as they do for a bar of soap. Occasionally a leader or issue will mobilize the public, but when confronted with the challenge of governing (as President Obama certainly was by the financial crisis he had to meet head-on), often his actions are not able to match the eloquence of his words. Obama had to make difficult choices, and the right-wing media onslaught did not let up for a single minute. Voters started to see him as indecisive. The trouble with pursuing politics as a business is that it has helped to create a cynical, fractured electorate that doesn’t know whom to trust or what to do.
Compounding this is the way in which messaging has become narrow and repetitive, with every activity of the candidate a rote repeat of prepackaged, whitewashed slogans. Defining the opposition in as vicious and dogmatic a way as possible is now more than half the game. The other half is repeat, repeat, repeat the message that has been crafted as your brand. In Parliament, Question Period is now a cycle of sound bites that have usually been written by someone else. Televised debates are rarely real exchanges but rather ships firing volleys at one another amid efforts to get the message out. Meaningful questions are replaced with cynical lectures and prescribed messaging. And until the right questions are posed, satisfactory answers will be in short supply. No wonder Canadians are disenchanted with what they perceive as manufactured debate and stage-managed performances in the House.
The full title of Sasha Issenberg’s book is The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, and therein lies a premise that is problematic. What is missing is that leadership and political engagement are as much an art as a science. They have to do with good organization as much as inspiring serious efforts that bring about change. Pollsters and campaign advisors are in the business of making money, and part of the way they sell their wares is by telling us that they are wizards, that they have access to a secret science. There is no magic, no black box, and no secret science, but the more we think there is, the more we give up our rights and responsibilities to demand more from the political process.
Young voters, in particular, should be the ones shouting loudest for political institutions and representatives that genuinely reflect what they want and need. The steep decline in election participation among younger voters points to a gnawing distrust and disaffection, which will tend to spread more widely as the habits learned at an early age persist through time. If there is no positive memory of the first time voting or becoming politically active in some way, the apathy can only spread.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that driving turnout down, “depressing the vote,” is just what conservative parties want. An older, richer demographic votes; a poorer, younger electorate does not. A couple of solutions have been bandied about: compulsory voting and easier voting. Compulsory voting would have a hard time taking hold in any country with a rights-based written constitution. It’s hard to see how the freely made decision not to vote could be made subject to a penalty. The Australian example is not really relevant—that decision to levy fines on people for staying home was made some time ago, and in a very different political culture.
A combination of lowering the voting age and making it much easier to vote might have more impact on turnout. Part of the answer might be to lower the voting age to sixteen and start basic civic education in primary school. Allowing people to vote at home digitally would make sense as well. It is hard to see how a population that can do its banking on a cell phone should be told that it is too complicated and insecure to vote in the same way.
There is a deeper reason for the disengagement of younger voters, and that is the overhang of the baby boom generation and the issues that preoccupy this very powerful group of voters. If hospital waiting lists and pensions, to give just two examples, are issues dominating the landscape, and problems affecting younger people, such as education costs, housing, and help to families, are given short shrift, it should come as no surprise that these same under-thirties ask themselves, “What’s in it for me?” In turn, the dismal turnout rates of precarious voters in marginal jobs makes parties feel even more strongly that there’s little point in appealing to those who have turned off.
As more and more voters turn away from the election process, it is worth considering how politicians reach out to this increasingly distant electorate, namely through polls. Pollsters today speak with nostalgia about a time when the response rate to their questions was well above 80 percent. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Gallup organization did door-to-door surveys, and in time, as landline phones became universal, moved to phone surveys that were more or less reliable. Those days are gone, and as a result the polling business itself is in something of a crisis.
It would be an exaggeration to say that polling today is in completely speculative territory. But the inability to get reliable answers to questions should surely make us pause. Not that the pollsters themselves will admit that anything is really wrong. The political parties, who poll regularly and who thereby claim more vocally that they know where they stand in relation to popular opinion, are in constant contact with the public and with their supporters, raising money and waging propaganda campaigns in yet another aspect of the permanent campaign.
But the published polls are often all over the map, and pollsters rarely say what their response rate is, let alone clearly indicate their techniques in response to the disappearing voices at the end of the line. Some use the Internet as a way of connecting, others establish panels in an effort to achieve a representative sample, and still others insist that by adding cell phones and a larger sample they are able to assess opinion very well, thank you. It is a business as notorious as politics itself for backbiting and running down the opposition, as new entries into an already crowded field are derided for their techniques, their samples, their questions, and, above all, their reliability.
And just as the process of polling has changed, the political parties themselves have transformed the way they do business as they seek to mobilize their base and achieve success in response to what the polls tell them.
In the early 1960s, the New Democratic Party pioneered the door-to-door canvass, returning to the same home three or four times in order to identify a reliable pool of voters to be pulled on Election Day. For the NDP, identifying and pulling was essential, because as a third party it was harder for them to rely on a wave of general support to get people elected. Other parties with larger volunteer bases soon borrowed this technique.
Today, we live in a different world. Canadian pollsters are reluctant to admit that response rates on the phone are way down, that the landline is no longer universal, that people aren’t at home, and that finding a reliable statistical base is in fact notoriously difficult and hard to measure. Experienced political canvassers in all parties will also tell you that volunteers are not as numerous, that people are either not at home or don’t answer the door, and that it is more difficult to get the IDs that are the key to a successful Election Day organization. Parties no longer have the same direct response from or interaction with the voters they seek to reach. The result is a more impersonal approach that emphasizes the breadth of a party’s reach over the depth of its conversation. The Conservatives’ machine under the leadership of Stephen Harper relies heavily on robocalling and building a base of reliably identifiable supporters, and their strategy has now been imitated by the other parties.
A growing group of citizens—and a majority of those under thirty—don’t vote, almost as a matter of principle. The number of “don’t know, don’t care” subscribers is on the rise, and the length of time that many are taking to come to judgment is growing as well. Political parties are trying to figure out how to mobilize and tap into these sentiments à la Obama and realizing how tough a challenge it really is given the lack of dependable information at their disposal.
At the same time that they try to connect with the broadest base of voters possible, political parties seek to refine their message into a digestible form that can be efficiently delivered and easily consumed. Like other governments before him, Mr. Harper’s has made use of such government advertising to promote programs and ideas closely associated with his leadership. There has been a systematic effort to make the Conservative brand the Canada brand. Soon after being elected in 2006, the Conservatives insisted that all government announcements should refer not to the “government of Canada” but to “the Harper government.” Wordsmithing and advertising have become centralized, closely linking parties’ announcements to a reinforcement of their ideology. Ministerial speeches, answers in Question Period, running commentary on the political shows—the list goes on: every contact point with the public has been usurped as an opportunity to deliver the message of the day, week, month, or year. Nothing is left to chance, or indeed to spontaneity. The permanent campaign means repetitive and relentless bombardment. And if truth is the first casualty in war it certainly is in politics as well.
One writer in the last century more than any other understood the universe we are now living in. We even use his name to describe this universe—“Orwellian.” This is a world where things are not as they appear to be, where words are used to hide, twist, and pervert but never to describe, where propaganda triumphs and truth is left on the slaughterhouse floor. Orwell loved language, and he understood more clearly than almost any of his contemporaries that the control of language, and of collective memory, is the key weapon of the totalitarian state.
In a talk at Carleton University given in 2013, the noted pollster, broadcaster, and writer Allan Gregg, much of whose professional life has been spent advising Conservative governments both federally and provincially, connected the dots between the universe Orwell was describing in 1984 and the state of current politics. The late Christopher Hitchens, coming from a different political perspective, wrote one of his last books on Orwell’s legacy, pointing out with his usual panache that on the great issues of his time—and ours—Orwell was not only right but painfully accurate.
Orwell’s word for the ruling method of analysis of Big Brother’s regime was “doublethink”—“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies.” As both Gregg and Hitchens point out, there’s a lot of doublethink going on out there, and it’s more ideologically driven than we might realize.
Take something like the decision to end the long-form census in 2010. There was a time when the question of how to handle the census would have been a concern removed from politics. All parties and governments accepted the objectives of reliable data, minimizing intrusiveness and coercion, and ensuring privacy. Public servants rightly pride themselves on their objectivity. And so they should—they serve the people.
The issue at hand is not just about the long-form census. It’s about the assault on Canada’s best political traditions and an assault on reason itself. Once, in a debate on the criminal justice system and the growing evidence that putting more people behind bars was not going to be effective in deterring crime, a minister of justice famously said, “We don’t need evidence, we know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
There are two erroneous assumptions here: The first is the belief that the truth has nothing to do with science and reason but instead is simply a matter of faith. The second is that the way to get things done is to centralize power and then use that power to control the message, destroy the opposition, and achieve the desired legislative result.
This is an attack on common sense, but it is also more than that. It leads to a dangerous transformation in democratic and constitutional institutions themselves. It is important to rise above demonology and understand how we have reached this point and how deeply ingrained this dismissal of reason is in modern politics, elections, and the management of government. It will take a remarkably determined effort to change course, for the transformation is far more systemic than most Canadians now realize. A simple change in government will not be enough, because the parties that succeed will have learned to mimic at least some of their predecessor’s style.
Lack of reliable engagement with the electorate and the flight of good judgment are of consequence not just for incumbents, challengers, and their handlers, but for voters as well. If the facts, opinions, and data to which politicians respond are spotty or unrepresentative, what can be done to ensure that voters’ voices are heard and politicians’ platforms are honest and clear? With an increased availability of information comes the responsibility to use it properly. Political parties must employ the right tools—targeted digital communication, efficient volunteer bodies, reliable data sourcing—to renew and refresh their engagement with people of all ages. Politicians must make a shift away from speaking to Canadians and instead look to once again speak with them.
The content of the exchange between citizens and their elected representatives is important in and of itself, but so too is the quality of that exchange. The methods we use to convince people can either cheapen or ennoble public life. In her remarkable novel on the exercise of power in the world of Henry VIII’s court, Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel writes, “What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”
A study of propaganda in the First World War was aptly called The First Casualty, referring to the idea that truth is the first thing discarded by all sides as they attempt to move opinion in the name of a cause.
Just as that war unleashed an unprecedented level of death and violence, so too it involved the almost total mobilization of the public and the wholesale manipulation of the popular press to create negative stereotypes of the enemy and to drive public opinion into a frenzy of support for the war effort.
Each medium of communication in every era—newspapers, movies, radio, television, and now social media—has its own particular method of persuasion. And at every point, political propaganda has borrowed heavily from commercial techniques. Mass advertising dates back a couple of hundred years, but political campaigns and management have never been strangers to the world of money. They have always understood the power of an image.
The famous Sir John A. Macdonald telegram to the Canadian Pacific Railway—“Send another ten thousand”—was hardly the first act of corruption in the history of modern Canada, and it won’t be the last. Macdonald was the inventor of the political picnic in Canada, massive events attended by thousands of people. He made unabashed use of his image as the Grand Old Man of the country to tug on the heartstrings of Canadians as he headed into his final campaign.
His approach resonated with his contemporaries. Like Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier was his own image maker. They were both actors, but their acting did not conceal their substance, it magnified it. They kept themselves aloof, a bit apart, but they were not sheltered by handlers to the point where they could not be reached by ordinary people. Their authenticity and the truth in their messages resonated all the more for that.
How different political life seems today. Political leaders are coiffed, dressed, managed, scripted, controlled, and presented to the public not so much as real people but as packaged products. The character and courage of the past is desperately needed today. We should not merely gaze wistfully at the best of our political ancestors, seeing them as anachronistic models of a lost era. Rather, we must hold them up as an example of the power to be found in genuine connection between citizen and public servant.
The media presenting the politicians are every bit as synthetic and packaged as the people and causes they are trying to analyze. Whether through newspapers, television, radio, blogs, Twitter, or Facebook, there is no room for accident or spontaneity, for market share is as fiercely contested as political support. And at the root of it is money—the money to be made by advertising, consulting, advising, and persuading. In Canada, we have managed to keep our politics a multimillion-dollar business, but in the United States it is a multibillion-dollar affair. The American Supreme Court has opined that political advertising is an extension of free speech, and so any efforts to limit spending and contributions have been largely unsuccessful. This American model of modern democracy is being spread by armies of consultants and advisors who now turn up on the doorsteps of countries throughout the world. The Selling of the President by Joe McGinniss, which described the American presidential campaign of 1968, now has its parallels in the selling of whatever leader or party comes to mind. Money, as much as principle, dictates whether you can run for high office.
Money talks most, of course, in election time. When he was president of the National Citizens Coalition, Stephen Harper did his level best to challenge Canada’s electoral laws, with their limits on party spending and advertising, and he did succeed in one respect. In the view of the Supreme Court of Canada, so-called third party spending could not be completely restricted because of the Charter’s strictures on freedom of speech. But the central foundation of Canadian election law—that spending by parties both nationally and in each constituency should be limited—has stayed intact.
However, Canada’s laws are silent about spending between elections, and so permanent fund-raising by Conservatives has led to devastatingly effective and ongoing negative advertising. They understood long before either the Liberals or the NDP the need to expand membership, connect members to the party by repeated requests for money and support related to particular issues, and use that money effectively every day, year in and year out. Gentlemanly knocks on the doors of the largest banks, companies, and unions just before election time are a thing of the past. Today, we have to live with a steady diet of attack ads day and night, long before an election campaign is officially launched.
Mr. Harper’s second move was to turn off the support tap from the government for all political parties. When Jean Chrétien made his own changes to election funding laws just before his retirement, he limited the amounts individuals and others could give but allowed for public support of parties through subsidies based on vote totals for each party. Realizing his competitive advantage with a broader membership base and a new culture of fund-raising and giving, Mr. Harper tapered off the government subsidy, forcing the other parties to enter the brave new world of the permanent campaign.
All of this has distorted our perspective of the political process. Though much focus is given to the spending and running of campaigns, we should not be fooled by what has been aptly called “electoral symbolism” to conclude that voting and elections is all that democracy is about.
Politics is not just about who wins what election. The mobilization that occurs in elections for one party or candidate or another is only a small piece of the puzzle of understanding how the current political process impacts the individual citizen. What happens after and between elections tells us far more about democracy than voting, pure and simple.
Frequently, pundits will talk about “an emerging consensus” on a range of issues, which is then presented as an established fact. But this fails to explain how what was once a prevailing opinion can dramatically change and how the pushing and prodding of interest groups and powerful leadership that persists over time can in fact alter the framework of respectability. Ideas do not appear out of thin air, nor do the choices that are made about which agendas to put in front of a parliament or a city council. An analysis of power relations would tell us more than which lobbyists and interest groups seem to have the most influence on decision makers. It would go further and explain how some proposals never even get discussed, let alone modified, while others become the focus of controversy. On a televised debate, what is left unsaid can be just as important—sometimes more so—than what is discussed. Who sets the agenda, and on whose behalf, is as important an issue in politics as who votes and who stays home. That this reality is studied less than endless polling or the personalities of leaders is itself a commentary on where we are today.
When we ask ourselves what’s happened to politics, it is important to remember how some issues come to the fore while others never make it to the table. In a time of economic, political, and social uncertainty, Canadians must ask themselves if the messages being marketed to them reflect what they need to know or just what their elected representatives are willing to tell them. Politics is not simply a game for politicians in which citizens observe from the sidelines. The waging of permanent campaigns, with their rote messaging and endless spending, means that we are all more impacted by and tied into the political process than ever before. But how do we observe and engage with what is an increasingly opaque institution? By looking past the packaging of their politicians to examine the content of the product, Canadians can stake a renewed claim in this changing political landscape and spur those who are supposed to work on their behalf from simply acting into something approaching authenticity.
On December 26, 2005, guys with guns drew on each other on one of the busiest streets in Canada on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The guys who drew the guns were almost all men of colour. The shots shook Toronto and the whole nation to its core as it took the life of a sweet, fifteen-year-old girl who was merely crossing the street in the midst of what all accounts would call a case of rival gangs taking their rivalries to the streets.
In the city that was known as “Toronto, the good,” we had shit to deal with.
Jane Creba. Homicide #78/2005.
Just like that. A number.
She had a gentle smile. She was a grade 10 honours student and star athlete at Riverdale Collegiate. She lived a comfortably upscale life with her remarkably supportive family in Toronto’s primarily Greek neighbourhood. Her home was just a stone’s throw away from some of the major projects in Toronto, where guns were put on in much the same fashion most people would put on underwear. She was from a neighbourhood. They were from a hood.
Jane stole our hearts.
She was a beautiful child.
She was a beautiful child who shouldn’t have died.
Like so many children.
Jane’s shooting created terror, followed by demands that someone step up to prevent another such death. The Green Apple Project, named after Jane’s favourite food, brought massive police raids to fourteen various low-income areas in Toronto resulting in hundreds of detentions — primarily of young, black men.
The media had a heyday. Because selling news is sometimes about telling us to be afraid, we heard about gangs with guns gone mad. The media and police christened it “The Year of the Gun.”1 Those reports were somewhat true. That year, nineteen people aged twenty-two or younger died at the hands of guns.1 Those people wouldn’t really make the news though.
Joan Howard lost her son to gun violence in 2003. She cried out against the contraband weapons coming up from the United States. She cried out against the shooting of her son, whose death elicited very little media coverage.
The Toronto Star reported at the time, “Howard says Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is missing in action in making gun violence and its aftermath a national priority. ‘I would never want to wish this kind of pain on anybody but maybe if it came to Harper’s doorstep they would do something.’”2
Joan Hampton is a black woman. Her son was a man of colour — a youth worker, a basketball coach — shot in the head at his apartment building while on his bicycle.
Two years later, in 2005, the coverage changed. Gun violence became the news.
Jane Creba’s death forced us to pay attention. That attention was focused on the incident itself, as opposed to the underlying causes … but that’s what most of us who open a newspaper, turn on the news, view our tweets, or check out the latest on our computers. We want digestible pieces. Instead of being encouraged to dig deeper, we want to be “in the know.” The media would deliver what we wanted. That message was easy: be scared of every young, black guy living in projects in Toronto because they were all part of gangs. Crips or Bloods. They fell short of using the N-word, because that would be politically incorrect. So we just heard this: rival gangs.
On the tenth anniversary of Jane’s death in 2015, the Toronto Star published an article about how right the police got it.3 The article cited police as being content that they set a precedent — four men in total were convicted for her death (two for murder and two for manslaughter), but only one bullet hit Jane, and only one of the men fired a gun. The Toronto Star called it “The Jane Creba Effect” — four convictions for one bullet. And one of the men charged never even fired a gun. They were all black. We were told they were all “thugs.”
They were allegedly all part of gangs.
You got time for a story?
The media did.
The N-word is a highly politicized term that some people have said ought never be pronounced. Political correctness doesn’t change perspectives, it only changes the ways people can express prejudice. People always find new ways to say it. It might not be boy and it might not be the N-word.
It might be a far more clandestine and infinitely more dangerous disguise. Just like the cover of this book.
What colour did you assume that person’s skin was?
It’s only natural. We’ve been taught these assumptions.
Thug is a word usually applied only to bullies and they are presented in typical ways — in hoodies and in high-tops with a bit of bling around the neck and usually with some variation of brown skin.
But there are thugs who are icons in corporate culture. Like Steve Jobs. A celebrated entrepreneurial thug. Thugs are academics who claim that their version of bullying is “academic freedom.” Like Phillipe Rushton, who sought to maintain a stereotype that penis sizes, race, and intelligence were all related. Thugs are police who claim that their bullying is “keeping people safe” even while they break the law. Thugs are members of our governments who claim that their bullying is “in the public interest according to their election mandate” as they monger fear and create new legislation to deal with the fear they’ve mongered. Thugs can be the media reporters who sometimes hound people to get stories. Inside their own realms, the bullies don’t get called thugs. Sometimes they don’t even get called bullies. They get called successful.
Bullies are everywhere; they hide behind their own rhetoric to justify their behaviour.
Most bullies don’t unpack their own behavior. They take their baggage and sell it to their corporate boards, to the pulpits, to the classrooms, to Parliament, to the public. What we think is a thug isn’t white and well off. We think that the street is the only place you can find thugs.
We’d like to believe we don’t have racism in Canada. We were, after all, the final destination of the Underground Railroad not that long ago. We represented the North Star and the road to freedom.
We don’t have twenty-one-year-old white-supremacist Dylann Roof walking into a Charleston Church bible study and slaying nine people of colour. And then going to prison where he was raped and tortured. We don’t have cops shooting down black guys like they do down in the U.S. We don’t have the fifty-year-old man shot eight times in the back after running away from police for fear that he would be jailed for failing to pay child support. He’d been pulled over for a burned out tail light. What was his name, again? Walter Scott. His family will remember, but we likely won’t. The blame was laid on that one cop who set Walter up, planting a taser beside Scott as he was dying — all that captured by someone walking by who happened to have a cellphone. We don’t have the hundreds of other incidents that don’t get captured on a cellphone.
We don’t have Freddie Gray, who had his spine fractured as he was being brought into custody, and we don’t have the protests of Baltimore. Even if the cops who caused his fatal spinal injuries have been indicted and that bit of unrest settled, we aren’t done with unrest. For every moment captured by a camera, scores more go unseen. Unrest goes quiet. But it’s there. It’s here.
It’s far easier to lay blame on individuals rather than systems. Blame those cops who abuse their power. Blame the thugs who commit crimes. Maybe make the prison deal with all this blame. Make it out all black and white, or all light and dark. Black is wrong. White is right. Light is joyful. Dark is scary. Let’s forget about anything remotely in-between.
In Canada, we don’t have Freddie or Walter. We didn’t have Rodney King. We didn’t have Malcolm X. We didn’t have Martin Luther King. Because we don’t have riots and blatant issues of racial profiling and police brutality, we’d like to think we don’t have those issues. Of course, we did have racism when the Underground Railroad brought too many ex-slaves to the East Coast and they all got put in a place called Africville, an area the city of Halifax neglected to the point of squallor. And, of course, we did have racism when the Japanese were interned during the Second World War and had all of their belongings taken from them. And, of course, we did have racism in the residential schools and our treatment of First Nations people. And we still have racism now in the hushed sentiments of “those muslims,” and the attacks on mosques and spiteful acts carried out against women wearing hijabs.
But no. We like to think we don’t have racism like in the U.S. We don’t have potential presidents saying that we should ban all people of a particular faith from coming to our country.
What we have is systemic … something we disguise.
On December 15, 2014, some nine years after the Creba killing, the Toronto Star broke a story that the Toronto Police Service had finally brought in a psychologist from the U.S. to investigate racial profiling by members of the police force. So now we have proof that there are problems. They range from police racial biases to the carding of individuals based on race to the detention of young, African-Canadian men even when they are not being investigated in a criminal case. These practices lead to feelings, perceptions, and behaviours that run deep and cause insecurity and even hatred. It’s been there a long time, but at least we are finally talking about it.
The first call had come at ten that morning, while Finn was sitting outside with her coffee on the back steps of her townhouse, watching Max the golden retriever run around in the yard.
“Ms. Parker?” a husky female voice asked. “I’m glad I caught you at home.”
Finn sighed. One of the perils of working from home is that you’re always at home. “Who is this?” she asked.
“My name is Cassandra Coelho. I’m a reporter with Thunder Bay News. I was wondering if I could ask you some questions about your mother.”
Finn felt something like an electric shock spark in her brain. “My mother? Why?”
There was the sound of paper rustling. “You are Serafina Parker, right? From Thunder Bay?” Cassandra Coelho paused. “Your mother is Katherine Parker? The Conqueror of Kakabeka?”
“My . . . The what?”
“How is she doing? Is there any word on her condition? We’d love to talk to her when she comes out of the coma.”
Panic crashed over Finn as she tried to process what she was hearing. Her mother, in a coma. This much Finn could understand, the words lining up with their proper meaning, an entire library of reference points tumbling out of her mental archive. Coma, noun: A state of deep unconsciousness that lasts for an indefinite period, from the Greek koma, meaning “deep sleep.” The rest, she had no idea. She hadn’t been home to Thunder Bay in over three years, hadn’t spoken to her mother in probably six months, with the exception of a few brief emails, which meant months and months of blanks she couldn’t fill in. It had been working for her. As long as she filled her days with the present, then the past didn’t exist – she could pretend she just sprang fully formed from the earth, or just willed herself into being all on her own. But now it was cracking open, this entire potential world of things Finn didn’t know. On the other side of the yard, Max chased his tail, and Finn watched him, mesmerized, as he turned around and around, her own brain spinning along with him.
“No comment,” Finn mumbled and hung up. There were choices to make now, courses of action to decide on – it was almost as though she could see them all, playing out in front of her like movies overlapping on a screen. She picked the only one she could handle.
Her brother, Shawn, answered on the seventh ring, out of breath and annoyed.
“What the hell is going on?” she asked.
“Oh. Finn.” Shawn said her name as though he’d just remembered her existence. When was the last time she’d talked to him? Two weeks ago? Eight? “Can I call you back? It’s not a good time.”
Finn made a fist and jammed it into her thigh to keep from screaming. “Not a good time? I just found out my mother is in a coma from a fucking reporter.”
“I was going to call you.”
“Of course you were,” said Finn. “I’m sure I was at the very top of your list of priorities.”
Shawn sighed. “I just got to the hospital. I have to find someone to cover for me at the restaurant. And I still have to figure out who’s going to pick up the kids.” Shawn’s boys were named Tommy and Petey. That way, Shawn always said, when they were grown-ups they could be Thomas and Peter. And then when they were old men, they could be Tom and Pete. Their names could be modified to fit any stage of life. Finn imagines Shawn likes this because Shawn was just Shawn, you couldn’t even make a nickname out of it except for maybe Shawny, which sounded less like a person and more like a town or a piece of farm equipment.
Shawn’s wife’s name was Katriina. No one ever called her anything but Katriina.
“First you need to tell me what’s going on,” Finn said. She started pacing the yard, the too-long grass prickling her bare feet. “The reporter said something about Kakabeka Falls?”
“Yeah.” In the background, she could hear a tinny voice droning over a loudspeaker, an unintelligible din that Shawn practically had to yell over. “She went over.”
“She . . . went over?”
“The falls, Finn. She went over the fucking falls.”
“Oh my god. When?” asked Finn, hoping to hell it wasn’t two days ago, two weeks ago, two months ago.
The droning stopped. In the resulting quiet, Finn could hear her own heart firing off in her chest. “She got caught in the current?” she asked hopefully. But somewhere inside her, she knew what the answer was.
“No.” Finn heard the sound of a door closing. “Kate went over the falls on purpose,” Shawn said, his voice low.
And there it was. “How do you know?”
There was a long pause. “She was in a barrel,” Shawn said. “One of Hamish’s,” he added, as if it made any difference whose barrel it was.
Finn sat back down on the step. She had a sudden, sharp memory of her mother, years ago, standing in her kitchen on Victor Street, talking about something she had seen on television. Annie Edson Taylor, that was it, a sixty-three-year-old woman who was the first person to go over Niagara Falls and survive. Finn remembered Kate sighing, gazing out the window at a far-off place in history that seemed so much prettier from a distance, saying, “I don’t know. Doesn’t it just seem like there’s nothing left to be first at these days?”
“Finn?” said Shawn. “Are you still there?”
How would a normal person react to this news? What would someone else’s daughter say? Finn took a sip of coffee and swallowed it before she realized it had gone cold. On the other side of the yard, Max was having a stand-off with a squirrel in a pine tree. She couldn’t see the squirrel but she could hear it chattering away, taunting him. “Well, is she going to be okay?” Finn asked finally.
“No, she’s not going to be okay, Finn. She’s in a coma.” Shawn paused. “You need to come back to Thunder Bay. You need to come home.”
Finn closed her eyes. “I don’t think I can.”
“You know why.”
Shawn sighed. “Come on, Finn, it’s been three years. Grow up.”
She wished she was on a cell phone and not the cordless, so she could pretend that the call had been dropped. Shawn still talked to her as if she were a teenager, even though he was only four years older. He wasn’t even her real brother. He was just some street kid who hopped trains and sold drugs and lived in a tent in the woods behind the house where she grew up – until the day he stopped the family car from crushing Kate after she forgot to put on the emergency brake and it started rolling down the driveway towards her. After that, he started sleeping in their basement. “We could use a man around the house while your father’s away,” Kate had said to Finn and her twin sister, Nicki, winking at the scrawny kid with a forehead full of pimples and the ratty beginnings of a moustache, as though he could actually be mistaken for a man. “You know, someone to look after us girls.” Her mother’s idea of irony, Finn supposed. None of them had ever needed looking after. Not then.
“You need to look after us girls,” Finn said under her breath.
“What?” Shawn said.
“Nothing.” Years later, she found out that the only reason Shawn had been there to save Kate is because he was trying to steal propane from their barbecue so he could do hot knives with a blowtorch. “How’s Dad taking it?” she asked.
“Walter’s out on the lake with a research team. He won’t be back for a couple of days.” Shawn paused again. “Nicki’s pretty upset, though, in case you wanted to know.”
“Right,” said Finn, rolling her eyes. “She still in rehab for that toe?”
“Oh my god, get over yourself, Finnie.”
In the background, Finn suddenly heard Katriina, clear as her own thoughts, say, “Who’s Finnie?” Katriina was from Finland – which Finn used to think of as her land until she met Katriina and realized it would never be anything but Katriina’s land, even though Katriina has lived in Canada for most of her life. Sometimes Finn suspects Katriina just pretends to not understand what people are saying in order to seem more exotic.
“Serafina,” said Shawn, muffling the phone to keep Finn from hearing Katriina’s response.
Finn tucked the phone between her ear and her shoulder and walked across the yard to clip the leash to Max’s collar. The backyard was fenced, but Max, while in a particularly focused state, had been known to fly right over it. “I can’t just drop everything and come back,” she said to the muffled phone. “I have stuff going on.”
“What stuff?” Shawn asked.
“Stuff.” She had no stuff, of course. She worked from home. She didn’t have a boyfriend, a sex life, or even a social life. Max wasn’t even her dog – she just took care of him for her neighbour, Dave, a divorced plumber with every-second-weekend kids and a Charger up on blocks in his backyard. She didn’t even have any plants to water.
“You are coming home, Finn,” Shawn said. She could hear the Shawn-ness in his voice. He might as well have called her “young lady.” “Kate will wake up, and she will need you. She’s not doing good, Finnie.”
Finn shaded her eyes, searching the tree’s branches for the squirrel. She finally spotted it, halfway up, nibbling delicately on a pine cone, which it promptly hurled in Max’s general direction. “Superman does good,” Finn said. It was one of her favourite expressions, which also might explain why she had no friends.
Max took off towards the squirrel like a sprinter at the starting gun, so fast that he ripped the leash from her hands. The phone tumbled to the ground. The squirrel tore farther up the tree and bounded lightly to a power line, and then was gone. When Finn picked up the phone again, Shawn was gone, too. Max trotted over to her, tongue hanging out, unfazed by his defeat, and licked her hand.
“Mom does well,” Finn said to him. Although even Max knew it wasn’t true.
She led Max into her townhouse instead of taking him back over to Dave’s, and because she didn’t know what else to do, she decided to try to get some work done. Finn was a technical writer, writing warning labels for small appliances made by a division of some multinational conglomerate called UniTech. They sent her the raw data and she translated them into plain English, something that people like her neighbour Dave or her sister, Nicki, would be able to understand. Well, Dave, anyway. The people at UniTech barely knew her name – most of the time they just referred to her as “the warning girl” – something she is sure her family has been calling her behind her back for years. But before she could even open a document, the phone rang again.
“Ms. Parker,” a man said. “This is Lance Goodman from Citytv. Would you be interested in talking to someone on camera about the Conqueror of Kakabeka?” Finn hung up and then unplugged her phone. After three more voicemails were left on her cell, she turned that off, too.
She stared blankly at her computer screen for half an hour before realizing she was not going to get any work done. And so she opened her email. The only message in her inbox was from a co-worker whose emails were almost exclusively forwards of stupid jokes, “inspirational” quotes, chain letters, and panicked warnings about lottery scams and chloroform-wielding rapists in parking garages. Finn was about to delete the email when she noticed that the subject line, buried beside a long line of fw:fw:fw:, read “The Conqueror of Kakabeka: must watch!”
Oh god, she thought. No. I can’t. And yet her finger travelled over the touchpad, scrolled past the lines of addresses to find a small blue link buried at the bottom. Don’t do this. You don’t want to do this. Slowly, she brought the cursor over the link and clicked.
She immediately recognized Kakabeka Falls, the “Niagara of the North” and one of northwestern Ontario’s most recognizable landmarks. The video was shot from the first viewing platform, where she had stood countless times, posing for family photos with the water crashing over the precipice behind them. The video panned across the top of the falls, and in the background she could hear the oohs and aahs of tourists. Suddenly the camera jerked back towards the centre. “What’s that?” a voice asked.
The camera zoomed in, and Finn could clearly see a barrel hurtling down the river towards the edge of the falls. She could also see a face peering over the rim. Her mother’s face. Then the barrel dropped off the edge, crashed with a loud bang against something jutting out from the centre of the falls, flipped in midair, and disappeared into the frothy pool below.
“Holy shit,” the voice said. “That was a lady in a motherfucking barrel!”
When Finn and Nicki were young, their mother used to tell them the story of Green Mantle, an Ojibwe princess who saved her father’s tribe from certain destruction by leading their Sioux attackers down the Kaministiquia River and over Kakabeka Falls to their deaths, including her own. If you look closely enough, Kate would say, you can see the image of Green Mantle in the mist at the bottom of the falls. From then on, every time they visited the falls, the girls would climb down to the lowest platform built into the escarpment and stare hard into the mist, waiting for Green Mantle to appear. It never happened, but they waited anyway, until their father started complaining their parking pass was about to expire, or Kate’s camera ran out of film. Why couldn’t they see her? Finn wondered. What were they being punished for? Did they not believe hard enough? Were they not true-hearted enough? The failure of magic can be tough on little girls.
Now, watching her mother’s own epic plunge, Finn couldn’t help but think of Green Mantle. Thankfully Kate, unlike Green Mantle, did not die. According to the news reports, her barrel – white oak with a steel rim, which Finn knew was used by her brother-in-law, Hamish, to make bootleg whisky in the back shed – was carried on the Kaministiquia River to the precipice of the falls, then plunged forty catastrophic metres over the edge. The barrel hit the shale cliff face halfway down the falls with a sound like a gunshot, then flipped into the air before disappearing into the mist gathered in the gorge, carved twenty thousand years ago into the Precambrian Shield by meltwater from the last glacial maximum. The barrel stayed submerged for another twenty metres before bobbing to the surface of the Kam and beaching itself on the western bank.
The rescue team called the coroner. Radio stations cut into Rush and Nickleback to report the death of a woman at Kakabeka Falls. No one was making a joke of it yet, but they would – it’s natural selection, they said, modern-day Darwinism, where the stupid will fail to survive. But in the end it was Kate who had the last laugh – Kate with her two broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, two chipped front teeth, a ripped-off pinky nail, and a severe concussion. The barrel, the reports said, was actually what saved her life – hitting the rock face directly on one of the steel rings, which kept it from shattering, then trapping her in an air bubble when it flipped over, which saved her from drowning. No one could figure out how she didn’t get pulled down into the whirlpool. A one-in-a-million chance. Survival of the blind-luckiest. The giant pain in Darwin’s ass, smiling meekly on the homepage of the local news site, waving a trembling hand to the camera from the back of an ambulance before slipping into a coma on her way to the hospital.
“I’m not going home,” Finn said to Max, who just stared at her. “I’m not.”
Max spun around once and thumped down on the floor with a sigh, resting his chin on his paws.
She knew Max was right. If she didn’t go home now, she would never be able to go home again.
Excerpted from We're All in This Together by Amy Jones. Copyright © 2016 by Amy Jones. Excerpted by permission of McClelland and Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Mating for Life
Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)
Unlike other turtles, the common snapping turtle cannot hide in its shell because its body is too big. These turtles snap as a defense mechanism, but aren’t actually vicious. However, perhaps because of the misconception of aggression, snapping turtles are often targeted, and are endangered in North America. When mating, snapping turtles sometimes engage in an elaborate dancelike ritual in the water that involves eye contact but no touching. Snapping turtles have no defined mating season: they court and mate only when conditions are exactly right.
When Liane swam into the snapping turtle, she screamed. He didn’t bite her, but clearly he wanted to. Then he was gone, dipping first his head and then his shell underwater. (She didn’t know he was a he, but she assumed; there was something placidly male in his glare.)
She sensed the turtle was still there, somewhere below. She turned to float on her back, hearing her mother’s voice in her memory as she did. “If you ever feel scared, don’t panic. You’ll drown,” Helen had instructed from the edge of the floating dock while Liane paddled below. Liane’s eldest sister, Fiona, had already been front-crawling to the middle of the lake, where Helen had placed a DIVER DOWN sign. Ilsa had been lying on the floating dock, too, but then she rolled off and swam, dolphinlike, toward Liane, grabbing her sister’s ankle from beneath the waves. Liane had shouted and flailed. “Exactly! Thank you, Ilsa. That’s a perfect example of what you don’t do. Back float instead.” Liane remembered her mother’s red suit, brown skin, blond hair, and the way she talked to them as though they were already grown-ups. The swimming lessons were the one thing Helen insisted on during summers that spiraled out slowly, like the pucks of Bubble Tape gum they would buy at the marina for $1.25. The girls didn’t even have to unpack their bags if they didn’t want to. They were never asked to make their beds.
Now Liane looked up at the clouds and tried to fill her belly with air. But her breath was too shallow and she had to kick. Panic soon forced her to flip to her front and start to swim, fast, for the floating dock.
She wanted to go home, and it had only been one day.
Her plan: to swim and eat salads (mostly because she hated to cook, or couldn’t cook; it was a chicken/egg situation she didn’t care to analyze) and work on the final pages of her thesis. By the end of the week, when Liane’s mother and sisters arrived for their annual early summer cottage weekend, she would have finished it. Then Adam would stop asking her when she was going to finish it and she would stop feeling guilty for not responding in a more appropriately proactive way to his father’s offer of a job on the faculty at the university, as a teaching assistant, pending her thesis defense.
The other part of her plan, and one she hadn’t told anyone about, involved the hope that by coming here alone, by treating this as a regular cottage and normal lake—and not the site of one of her life’s greatest tragedies—she could erase the past and turn herself into a normal person. The kind of person Adam wanted her to be. The kind of person she didn’t think she could be but knew she should at least try to be.
Liane ducked her head underwater—eyes closed, testing herself—and resurfaced with a gasp. In addition to the big fears, her week-alone-at-the-cottage plan hadn’t accounted for her many small fears. (Turtles. Seaweed. Algae. Other things too embarrassing to mention. Like ants. Beetles. Walking into cobwebs.) All of these things seemed more frightening without company. (Currently: she could still sense the turtle near, perhaps now waiting at the base of the ladder to bite one of her toes.)
She went down again, and this time kept her eyes open. Then she surfaced, blinked the water from her eyes, and saw movement to her left. The turn of a page. There was a man sitting at the end of the dock at the cottage next door—it had been the Castersen place, but the Castersens had sold it, or were renting it out, or something. Liane couldn’t remember but knew Helen had explained it last year when the new dock had appeared and, next, a pair of kayaks had replaced the motorized pontoon boat Mr. Castersen had once called his “Party Boat.”
The unfamiliar man sitting on the dock reading looked up and Liane looked down, focusing again on her path through the water. But she should have waved. She was in cottage country. In cottage country, you were supposed to wave (even if you were swimming) and mouth, Hello, to people (regardless of whether you knew them). But she was too embarrassed. He had probably heard her screaming about the turtle. He had probably seen the awkward way she’d jumped off the dock, plugging her nose and splaying her legs. And either way, it was now too late because the man—who had copper-blond hair and a matching shadow of a beard—was reading his book again. She kept swimming and looked away from him, but looking away meant she had to look at the shed, so she closed her eyes and ducked under again.
“Why do you keep it?” she had asked Helen, years before, referring to the kayak that hulked in the shed just up from the water. “What am I going to do with it, throw it away?” Helen had asked. “I couldn’t live with the idea of it in a garbage dump somewhere until the end of time. And it seems wrong to sell it. So we’ll keep it. Maybe one day you’ll take it out.” “Never,” said Liane. What a macabre idea. Horrible. Sometimes she wondered if Helen meant to be so insensitive. She tried to love her mother as she was, did love her as she was, but she also wished Helen was more like other mothers. Other mothers would never have left that particular kayak in the shed or suggested Liane go out on the lake in it, for example.
Liane climbed the ladder of the floating dock, wincing and curling her toes against the algae on the steps. Then she sat, hugging her knees to her chest and wishing for a towel. She squinted. The spine of the man’s book was orange. A paperback. His head was bent and his shoulders were hunched and he was leaning forward a little. As though he wants to actually get onto the page, or into it. As though he isn’t just reading it but inhabiting it. Or maybe he was just nearsighted. Still, Liane found herself thinking about a book she had read as a child, about a boy (or was it a girl?) who found a tree with a door in the trunk and when he (she?) opened it, there was another world that had always been there. Liane still asked Helen about it. “Maybe you imagined it,” Helen said once. “You were very creative.” But Liane still believed this book existed somewhere. She was certain her father had given it to her and had written an inscription on the inside cover she could no longer remember the words of but longed to read again.
She straightened her legs, shimmied forward, and slid into the water. The new dock, the one at the Castersens’/Possibly Someone Else’s Place Now, was closer than the other Castersen dock had been, and bigger. Its blond wood planks stretched out, around, and out again.
Closer now. A few more strokes and she would have a clear view. At the perfect moment, the man leaned back to stretch, tilting the book. She saw white, yellow, black writing.
Junkie by William Burroughs. Disappointing. And slightly alarming. Liane gulped air and dove, thinking about how Burroughs had shot his wife in the head. Accidentally. Who could possibly shoot someone in the head accidentally? A dozen worst-case scenarios surfaced. She was alone on an island with a man who appeared to want to inhabit a book written about rampant drug use by an “accidental” wife murderer.
Except, Liane reminded herself, they weren’t actually alone on the island. It just felt like it because it was still late June and the lake was fairly quiet. The island had plenty of other cottages, most of them tucked behind trees above the granite. When the long weekend came, it would signal the true beginning of summer and the place would feel less isolated. The sound of motorized boats would cause Helen to shake her head and cluck like an irritated hen. She would start talking again about sending around a petition, but she wouldn’t. Helen could now identify a lost cause when she saw one.
Liane had reached the ladder of the main dock. She put a foot on the first slimy ledge and pulled up, then took her towel from the closest Muskoka chair, stepped off the dock, and headed for the cottage without looking back at the man. When she was in the shade, she stood on the steps made of stones that had apparently been dragged out of the lake years before by Helen’s father. This grandfather Liane had never met had purchased the property in the 1940s and bequeathed it to Helen—and not Helen’s brother—when he died. Helen rarely said anything more about this, except that the brother (none of the girls had ever met him, either) had tried to fight Helen for it in court, saying it wasn’t fair that she get such a valuable property when she already made such a good living from her music.
Water dripped down Liane’s back. She flipped her head and wrapped the towel like a turban, then kept walking. At the door of the screened-in wraparound porch she dipped her feet into the bucket of lake water she had set outside for the purpose of not tracking sand (and bugs, and Lyme-disease-carrying ticks) around the cottage and dried them on the towel folded beside it. When Ilsa arrived at the end of the week, Liane knew, she would good-naturedly shun her younger sister’s custom, saying she wasn’t sticking her feet in dirty water everyone else had been sticking feet in, and that she definitely wasn’t then wiping her feet off on a musty towel. (“You want Lyme disease? Take this towel to a lab and have it analyzed.”) The sand underfoot would bother Liane, but not as much as it would bother Fiona. Liane would sweep but it would be Fiona who would eventually drag the old vacuum out of the closet and pull it around the main floor. Helen, of course, would have no part of any of it. “I vacuum when I’m about to leave,” she would say. “You’re wasting a valuable portion of your life by doing so now.” “I’m wasting something,” Fiona would say. “Probably the long-term health of my back. Tell me again why you don’t get a new vacuum?” “Because that one still works!” And then somehow, Helen and Fiona would be arguing over an old vacuum versus a new one, landfill versus convenience, and Liane would either glance at Ilsa and roll her eyes or leave the room feeling guilty about causing the fight with her silly bucket of water.
Liane pushed open the screen door and let it bang shut behind her, the sound jarring in the quiet of the morning. From behind the screen she had a view of the dock and she saw the man look up from his book.
• • •
Liane napped. She made soup. She did the Globe and Mail crossword as a warm-up and then failed, as usual, at completing any of the crosswords in the New York Times. She stared at Sudoku boxes, but could make no sense of them. “Your brain just doesn’t work that way,” Adam had once said, meaning it to be an affectionate remark—but there was the superior undertone. He was one of those people whose brains worked every way. She had said this to him and heard the unintended resentment. This must be what old married couples feel like. And we’ve only been together three years.
She painted her nails with polish she found in Ilsa’s room. (Dark red.) She found cream in a drawer in Helen’s room and rubbed it all over her face, then broke out in red bumps from the essential oils. (This always happened, yet she always tried Helen’s creams.) She iced the bumps. She removed the polish. Then she went up to the closet her father once used and opened it. But there was nothing in it but old jackets, none of them his. She stared into the closet until her breathing became slow and even. She wished that if she pulled aside the jackets, she would be standing before a whole new world, like Narnia. She pulled aside the jackets. This didn’t happen. She felt childish and foolish, but also wistful.
What Liane did not do was work on her thesis. When she wasn’t inside, she was on the dock. She and the neighbor—the Reading Man, as she now called him in her head—were now on cottage waving terms. He had finished Junkie and started on The Sound and the Fury. She had started bringing her textbooks and reference materials down to the dock. Lying parallel to him, also reading, felt strangely intimate.
Then, on Tuesday afternoon, it rained and she was forced inside, where the blinking light on her still-plugged-in laptop seemed to pulse with neglect. She forced herself to write two paragraphs. Then she reread the words on the screen. They no longer made any sense. She held her breath, and heard the clinking of dishes from the cottage next door.
Liane’s thesis was called “The Evil Eye: Envy’s Hidden Threat.” Apparently it had the potential to be something of a sensation, even publishable, although Liane didn’t understand how any of her findings could be a surprise to anyone. Perhaps it was because she had lived with them for so long that she was now like a woman shocked to find her husband of thirty-some years the center of attention at a dinner party due to the intrigue of his conversational paths.
“It’s the way you present it,” Tansy Miller, a brown-trouser-and-black-oxford-wearing academic, had explained to her when Adam’s father, the dean, had arranged for Liane and Tansy to meet for coffee. It was Tansy whose teaching Liane would assist, if she ever finished her thesis. “It’s your frankness. It’s the fact that reading your work isn’t boring and the students are bound to see it as such. You mention celebrities. They love celebrities.” Tansy talked like she had once been a theater major, enunciating her words and using her hands. Liane liked her and wanted to work for her. This had done nothing to spur her into thesis-finishing action.
The problem was that Liane’s work had become boring, at least to her. Adam had once said, “Well, of course it is, that’s what happens, but you’ve found your niche and you need to stick with it now. You’ll get out of the slump.” Except she was afraid she wouldn’t. Once, the folklore-related work of Alan Dundes, discovered by Liane during her undergrad years, had seemed to hold secrets. She had believed these secrets might even reveal an important point about humanity as a whole.
If she could just get back that fervor, maybe everything would be okay.
Now Liane took out a pen and started to make notes by hand, snapping the screen of her laptop shut. Her pen scratched against paper: Envious gazes, Dundes has written, are driven by envious thoughts and have the potential to do actual physical damage. The evil eye is not a black-magic-related curse, as most people believe, but rather the embodiment of an envious glare—an instant curse that anyone is capable of, even without intent. It is the lack of intent that is the point: Can we control something we do not intend to do? She paused and thought suddenly of William Burroughs. It is as though everyone is in possession of a loaded gun he or she could accidentally set off at any moment, she wrote.
Liane was not an envious person herself and did not believe she possessed anything in particular for others to be envious of (she considered herself average-looking, hated her reddish hair, was possibly of higher-than-average intelligence but not a genius, and wasn’t rich). But envy, and its power to damage, was part of the myth of her childhood. Helen had been a popular folksinger who was now often featured in nostalgic documentaries; recently one of her songs had even been covered by a well-known alternative band. Liane had noticed as a child that Helen would never leave the house without first securing a necklace with an evil eye charm dangling from its chain around her neck. When Liane asked, Helen told her it was because, right around the time her first gold record was delivered (1969; Helen had only been twenty), her throat started to ache constantly. She went to see a shaman about it—“Why a shaman?” Fiona, who had been in the room at the time, had asked. “Why not a doctor?” But Helen had ignored her—and the shaman had told her that someone was doing black magic on her, possibly inadvertently and definitely due to envy. (“I was so young. It was unheard-of. Joni Mitchell didn’t have her first gold record until the next year, and she was already twenty-seven.”) If she didn’t protect herself, the shaman told Helen, she could lose her voice forever.
Liane had pictured the shaman as a frightening character with a headdress made of dead animal skulls and felt foolish when, years later, it turned out he was an old friend of Helen’s named Bob. Liane became afraid that her mother really would lose her voice. She had a recurring nightmare about walking in the forest on the island with Helen and a large black bird attacking her mother’s throat. And as she grew older, she began to feel anxious every time she felt envious of anyone. She developed a fear of the damage she might unwittingly do to others if she ever allowed it to take hold—and so she tried to care as little as possible about what others had that she did not. (Once, as an awkward preteen, she had looked at Ilsa and thought, Why can’t I be that beautiful? and then had run from the room and refused to make eye contact with her sister for the rest of the day.)
She put down her pen. Fear. This was part of her problem. She was afraid that if she completed the thesis and got the job helping Tansy teach classes about superstition and folklore, she’d eventually get a post teaching classes on superstition and folklore herself. (Wasn’t that the entire point? Her niche, as Adam put it.) She was afraid she would then end up teaching the same thing over and over until one day she would look out at a class full of young people with futures ahead of them that were undetermined, all of these young bodies still possessing the freedom to walk out of the lecture hall and never come back if they didn’t want to—
And she’d smite them all with an envious glare.
The fact that her childish fears still loomed large in her life was not the kind of thing she could discuss with Adam. Or anyone, really. She looked down at her wrist and fiddled with the red string that was there (she didn’t practice kabbalah; the red string guarded against the evil eye and was less obvious than a necklace, so Liane wore it on the off chance that anyone ever became envious of her), then abandoned her work, even going so far as to shut down her laptop in an act that felt final, defiant. It’s only for now. I just need a break.
She went outside and sat on the end of the dock. There was a slight chill in the air. Summer had not yet taken hold. The dock next door was empty, and no sounds were carried to her across the small expanse of water. She thought about what she might say, if she could work up the courage to talk to the Reading Man. Hi, would be a start. But, historically, she had never been able to do this.
• • •
Liane had been in grade six when she had her first irrational crush on a boy she didn’t know. Boys she did know didn’t interest her at all, but sometimes she’d see a boy walking down the street or working at a store and suddenly think, That could be him, he could be The One. She’d gift him with all sorts of characteristics he probably didn’t have and lie in her bed at night dreaming up ideal meeting scenarios and perfect conversations. She would eventually feel like she knew the boy, even if she had just created an ideal version of him in her mind.
This was back when she still believed in The One, of course. Now she wasn’t sure. But she was probably going to marry Adam anyway. “We should probably get married,” he had said to her a few weeks before while they were out for dinner, eating at their regular table in the corner of a picket-fenced patio they liked to frequent. Liane had wished not to feel so disappointed. A different type of woman, the woman Adam perhaps thought she was, would have been thrilled. So practical, yes, why didn’t they? They had made some rudimentary plans—nothing traditional, obviously, and not a destination wedding because it was overdone and presumptuous; how about cocktails? Adam even suggested screening their favorite movie for their friends. (It was a French noir film called Breathless, and it was his favorite, not hers. She didn’t point this out.) Popcorn. Spiked Cokes. But wasn’t that missing the point? The night was supposed to be about them. He had raised an eyebrow when she said this. About us? he had repeated. Liane hadn’t told anyone yet that they were engaged, if they really were. But she knew that marrying Adam would mark some sort of shift into a life she had to stick with. It had never occurred to her that she might not want to. She had always been the type of person to stick with everything.
Back in grade six, Liane’s routine was to cut through the parking lot of the plaza across from her school every afternoon, although it wasn’t necessary for her to do so. Sometimes she would be with Ilsa, who was in eighth grade, but almost never with Fiona, who was in university by that point.
When she passed the window of the pet food store, Liane would strain to catch a glimpse of the boy who worked there, while trying not to look like she was looking. He was much older than she, probably sixteen. She was only eleven. This, combined with the fact that he worked at a pet food store and she didn’t have any pets, meant meeting him was unlikely. But it didn’t matter. Liane didn’t know his name or anything about him other than the fact that he almost always wore a purple Barenaked Ladies hat.
She listened to the album Gordon over and over. When school let out for the summer, she walked by the pet food store at least twice a day. She made Ilsa go with her to three Barenaked Ladies concerts in the hopes that she’d see the boy. She never did.
“Why don’t you go in and buy a can of dog food or something?” Ilsa had asked after finally refusing to attend another concert, or listen to the song “Brian Wilson,” ever again. “He’ll never know you don’t have a dog.” They were standing outside the store. “Do it! I’ll wait here.” But Liane shook her head, embarrassed. To Ilsa it would have been nothing to saunter in, grab a can of dog food, and ask dozens of questions about it with her hand on the boy’s forearm. He probably would have asked Ilsa out, too. It didn’t matter that Ilsa was thirteen. She looked sixteen and acted even older. But Ilsa would have said no. She would have been angry with the boy, even though he couldn’t possibly have known that it was Liane, standing outside with red splotches on her pale, freckled cheeks, who had a crush on him.
“I can’t,” Liane had said. “I just can’t. I can’t talk to him. I’ll die.”
“No one has ever died from saying hello to their crush.”
“I might be the first.”
Eventually he had stopped working at the pet food store. It was a while before Liane stopped thinking of him every time she heard that song. Ring a bell and I’ll salivate. How’d you like that? You can call me Pavlov’s dog.
Now Liane looked down at her empty hands. She was an engaged woman. Her days of girlish crushes were officially behind her. Whether she could bring herself to say hi to the Reading Man was of no consequence to anything.
She stood and walked back up to the cottage, entering the living room and standing before the built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. Many of the books on it were hers, some were Helen’s, a few were Ilsa’s or Fiona’s or Liane’s father, Wesley’s, and others had been left by cottage guests. Mysteries and romances and crossword puzzle volumes shared space with Vonnegut (Wesley’s) and Plath (Helen’s), a biography of Violet Trefusis (Ilsa’s; she’d brought it to read the year before, sighed a lot, and left it on the shelf with a bookmark in the middle), Tolstoy (Liane and Ilsa shared the Tolstoy). The crosswords and Sudoku books were Fiona’s. Liane remembered Fiona saying something about how doing these guarded against Alzheimer’s disease. Everything Fiona did had a point.
Liane continued scanning the shelf, then picked up a book called The Monsters of Templeton. It was unfamiliar to her, probably left by one of Helen’s friends. She took the book with her when she went upstairs to put on a bathing suit and a pair of denim shorts. With the book in her hands—it wasn’t a textbook, not even a classic; there was no reason she needed to read it, but she had been drawn to it by the black-and-white leaves and shadowy figures on the cover, and this was something she had not allowed herself for a long, long time—she went back to the dock.
She stretched out her legs and started to read—pointlessly, simply for the pleasure of it, alone at the end of the dock, escaping from her own thoughts and memories into someone else’s plotline. She read the first line of the book twice: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” She looked out at the water and thought of the snapping turtle.
At the end of the first chapter she heard the sound of footsteps on the dock next door. Instead of looking sideways, she looked up and around her, at trees and sky, then stretched and started reading again, feeling warm and indulgent. This is what you’re supposed to do at a cottage alone for a week.
I looked up and began to spin. The stars streaked circular above me, my body was wrapped in the warm black, my hands had disappeared, my stomach was no longer, I was only a head, a pair of eyes. As I touched the beast I remembered how, even on that long-ago night, I could feel a tremendous thing moving in the depths below me, something vast and white and singing.
She looked over at the man just as he looked up, his gaze moving away from his book and connecting with hers. And she wanted to say, I just read something I thought was beautiful, and it made me feel less afraid. Do you want to hear it? because she was sure at that moment that he would understand the joy of finding a book you’ve never read on your own shelf, falling into it quickly, and deciding to do nothing all day but read it. But instead she smiled at him (which was something, she told herself), trying not to squint too much in the sunlight. He smiled back, and they held on for an extra beat. Then they both looked out at the water and back down at their books.
• • •
By the end of the day, Liane had accomplished the following: she had read the entire novel, infused iced tea with the perfect amount of mint leaves and strawberry, given herself a pedicure using Himalayan sea salt as a scrub and kefir as a foot masque (the former was ingenious, the latter quite gross), and smiled at the Reading Man twice, both times because she had looked up from her book to find him watching her, his own book broken-spined in his lap, the pages blowing in the wind. Eventually he cleared his throat and said, “Hi,” in a voice that sounded like it hadn’t been used for a while, and she said, “Hi,” in a voice that sounded the same.
She didn’t die.
• • •
The next morning, Liane slid her laptop back into the bag she had brought it in. She took the cottage guest book out to the side porch with her coffee instead. She opened it and flipped backward in the book.
Thank you Helen for a wonderful week. We made the most of the weather and still enjoyed many long walks, warm fires and great food. We appreciate you being so generous in offering it to us for the week. Sincerely, The Smiths (Terri and Dave).
Liane yawned and turned the page. She had no clue who Terri and Dave were, but they sounded boring. Perhaps they were friends from the village Helen now lived in. Helen had once said that most of the people who lived there were boring, but that she loved them for that because it made her feel more interesting.
On the next page she saw a familiar scrawl.
Your children are gorgeous, your cottage is magical and you, of course, are a queen of all things. Love, Edie.
Liane experienced a moment of surprise, because seeing Edie’s writing made her realize how many years had passed since any of them had seen her.
Edie had not been boring. Liane had loved Edie. They all had—even Fiona, who had never liked any of Helen’s friends but had spent more time with Edie as a young child than any of the girls, since Helen had toured more back then. There had been some sort of falling-out between Helen and Edie, though, and she had disappeared from their lives around the time Fiona graduated from high school. Liane remembered this because Edie had come to the graduation and Helen had refused to speak to her. Liane had never asked Helen what had happened, and now she wondered why not. They had called her “aunt”; she had been Helen’s best friend.
Liane looked down at the writing and remembered the time Edie had taken her, Ilsa, and Fiona on an “expedition” to catch caterpillars, which she had somehow known would make cocoons in the jars, which would then turn into butterflies, which the girls would then release at dusk. “Why at dusk?” Liane had asked Edie. “You must always release butterflies at dusk,” Edie had said, her voice full of the mysteries only a woman like her could fathom. She had long hair she braided around her head like a crown and she always wore swishy skirts and an anklet that tinkled when she walked.
Liane closed her eyes. She remembered more: Ilsa’s jar hadn’t produced a cocoon. Her caterpillar had died. Later, Ilsa had told her she’d switched hers because she’d known something was wrong with Fiona’s—and that Fiona would hate to fail at producing a butterfly. “But didn’t you want one?” Liane had asked Ilsa. Ilsa had shrugged. “Not really. It felt wrong. And anyway, not as much as Fiona probably did.” Liane felt like she was the only person who knew that Ilsa really did love Fiona. She thought perhaps she should tell Fiona about the butterfly, but also that it was too late. My sisters don’t like each other. She realized this, also, as she continued to follow the loops of Edie’s cursive script with her eyes, and thought about how strange it was that there were truths that could exist in families that everyone ignored, even though they were devastating.
Liane closed the book, stood, and went into the kitchen. She opened the cupboard closest to the stove and grabbed a box of spelt flakes and raisins. She scooped kefir onto the cereal. Then she saw her mobile phone sitting on the counter and brought it with her to the side porch. She thought about not calling Adam, but instead she did. She should have before now. It had been days. There were no missed calls, no texts from him, nothing.
“What are you doing?” he asked, as though they had talked a few moments ago.
“Ah, and you didn’t want to dine alone.”
“Well, no, not really. I just realized I hadn’t called to tell you I arrived safely and thought you might . . .” She was about to say, be worried, but stopped, because it wouldn’t have been true, and what Adam said next confirmed this.
“I figured I would have seen something on the news,” he, ever the pragmatist, said. “I thought you were probably wrapped up in your work and I didn’t want to bother you.” Pause. “Getting a lot done?”
“Yes,” Liane lied. “A ton.”
“Good. As am I.” There was another pause. Then: “I miss you,” Adam said. “The bed feels even bigger without you.” They’d just bought a king bed together, which seemed to have been or was supposed to have been symbolic of something, but in the end all it felt to Liane was vast. She couldn’t imagine it feeling any bigger than it already did. In the night she was so far away from Adam she felt alone. When he moved, she couldn’t feel anything. “I went out to that new restaurant on the corner with Jeff and Brynn,” he said. “It was awful. You would have laughed. The waiter didn’t even know what burrata was when we asked him.”
“Well, why did you ask him if you already know what it is?”
He didn’t say anything.
“I should probably get back to work,” she said. “I miss you, too. See you next week.”
She put down her phone and looked at her cereal. Outside, she could hear crickets and bullfrogs and a distant boat. The sound came closer and she found herself channeling Helen, clucking her tongue against her teeth.
She realized she wasn’t hungry anymore. She left her cereal and went to the bookshelf, intent on finding another book to read because she already knew she was going to be taking another day off from her thesis. It would need to be the right book, one that would say something about her, just in case the Reading Man was checking out her book spines the way she was checking out his. (Halfway through the day before he had moved on to Tropic of Cancer, but then replaced it with The Sound and the Fury again. She wondered why.)
Tropic of Cancer was there, on the bottom shelf. Her father’s, Liane remembered, picking it up and opening the cover, to where he had written his name: Wesley Robert. She remembered he had suggested she read it when she was only eight, the same year he had died. He had seemed strangely urgent about it, and now she supposed she knew why. “This is my favorite book,” he had said. “I always wanted to share it with you.” Liane was a good reader from a young age, and so she had tried because she adored her father. But eventually she had to concede defeat. “I’m sorry, Dad, but I have no idea what this book is supposed to be about.” “That’s okay, Li. It’s probably a guy thing, anyway.”
She flipped through the pages of the book. A passage was underlined. “There are no more books to be written, thank God,” she read aloud. Wesley had wanted to be a writer, to pen something similar to his favorite book, and there were times when he would not sleep, seemingly for weeks on end, emerging from the study only to ecstatically declare it was going well and pour more coffee or brandy. Then the crash would come and he would shred the pages while Helen begged him not to.
He seemed to give up in his final year, and Liane often wondered if that was why he had ended his life, or if the giving up had just been a symptom. But she would never know exactly why he had taken the kayak out onto the lake in late December, why he had weighted himself with rocks, why he had slid into the water to sink down, down, down into the icy depths. He hadn’t left a note and it had taken her years to accept this. She had searched the cottage every summer. And she wasn’t sure, as much as she loved and missed him, that she would ever be able to forgive him for not saying goodbye to her, for not leaving her fatherly instructions in some form. Instead, there was a boat in the shed and the feeling she got when she thought of him, one she had never been able to properly define: some combination of nostalgia, sadness, inadequacy, and disappointment. And the fear, of course. The Big Fear, that one day the darkness (more specifically, manic depression) would catch up with her, too. My life right now doesn’t feel happy enough to be able to avoid it.
She picked up another book: Martha Gellhorn’s memoir, Travels with Myself and Another, about her marriage to Hemingway. It was Helen’s, dog-eared and old. When Liane opened it, there were many passages underlined. One of them: I knew enough to know that no woman should ever marry a man that hated his mother. She went to replace the book on the shelf, and that was when she saw the ring. An engagement ring, unmistakably so. A solitaire on a white gold antique scroll band, just languishing on the shelf. It must belong to one of Helen’s friends. Liane held it between her thumb and index finger and watched the stone catch the light prettily. She needed to text Helen and let her know it had been found so whoever had lost it could stop worrying.
But first Liane slid the ring onto her finger, forcing it slightly. Then she stared at it and tried to decide if it looked right or not.
It did not.
She pulled the ring but it stuck at her knuckle. She pulled again. Nothing.
And then there was a knock at the door.
Another knock; another futile pull at the ring.
At the door stood a man of about Helen’s age. He had a gray beard, brown eyes. He held a burlap bag with handles and there were various forms of roughage poking out the top. “I’m Iain, the neighbor,” he said, as though there were no other neighbors he could possibly have been.
“Hi, Iain, I’m Liane,” she said, trying not to sound disappointed.
“Your mother told me.” He seemed oddly nervous. “Anyway, I have a cottage up the road, and a big garden full of spring greens I can’t possibly eat, so I let your mother know I’d drop some by for you and she thought it was a good idea.”
“Thank you very much; I’ll put them to good use. I love salads.” He handed her the bag and they stood looking at each other.
“Would you like to come in for a coffee or tea?” Liane asked, because she felt certain he was waiting for some sort of offer, or at least that he didn’t want to go. He seemed to be studying her carefully, taking in her face.
“Tea would be perfect.”
She led him inside. In the kitchen, she poured water from the cooler into the rusty-topped kettle, making a mental note to get Helen a new one, even though she knew Helen would say that despite the rust it was a good kettle and there was no sense in throwing it away. She found herself sharing this with Iain, her observation about Helen and the kettle, and he said, “Absolutely, that’s Helen to a tee, and then she’ll either start using your new kettle as a planter or a watering can, or give it to someone else. Anything to save the old one from the landfill—because she doesn’t believe they actually recycle anything, you know.”
“Oh, yes, I know. Would you like to sit on the side porch?”
“Sure. You should wrap those greens in a towel and put them in the fridge, though. They’re very delicate.”
She examined him again. Well-groomed, face weathered in an appealing way, eyes crinkled at the sides. He was looking at her, too, with that same surprising intensity, as though he had met her somewhere before and was trying to place her. She felt self-conscious and lifted a hand to scratch a nonexistent itch on her face.
“Oh,” he said.
“You’re wearing . . . an engagement ring.”
“Oh. Right. Yes. It’s . . .” The true explanation was too ridiculous, so she said the thing that made the most sense and was technically true. “I’m engaged. To my boyfriend, Adam. My fiancé. My fiancé, Adam.” Fiancé. My fiancé, Adam. Did it or did it not fit?
No. It does not.
“Wow. Well. That’s . . .” He cleared his throat. He was still looking at the ring. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” The kettle had started to screech. She opened the cupboard above the stove that held the spices and teas. “Green, mint, rooibos, chai, Earl Grey, English Breakfast, or something called Youthful Detox?” she asked.
“Oh, the detox, please. Perfect.”
She put two bags in the chipped green pot, grabbed two mugs, and headed toward the porch.
“So,” she said when they were seated across from each other on the black iron bistro set with the faded red and gold cushions. “Have you had a cottage here long?” Then she sipped the tea and grimaced. “Geez. This stuff is terrible.”
“You get used to it. And I’ve been here since last summer. Two places down from here. I’m in the Bachmans’ old place. They retired and moved to Mallorca.”
Liane nodded as though she knew this. Then she leaned in, tried to be subtle. “What about the cottage on the other side of us? The one next door. The Castersen place. Did they sell, too?”
Iain shook his head. “They just started renting the place out. For this June and July, to the same people. The man there now is named Laurence Something-or-other. He’s a writer. He’s working on something. Although he told me he’s a bit blocked, so he’s been doing a lot of reading, trying to spur himself into action, I suppose. I brought him some greens last week and he told me a little about it. Apparently it’s his third novel and he’s afraid of having a midcareer slump.”
“Oh. A writer?”
“I haven’t heard of his books. He says he doesn’t write sci-fi, but it sounds like it to me. His first book was short stories and his last book was . . . let me try to remember . . . something about the end of the world being in a hundred years and everyone knowing about it, the exact date of it and everything.”
She looked down at the ring on her finger. “Well, I guess that doesn’t have to be sci-fi. Maybe more just a study of human nature. It is pretty interesting. What would you do if you knew the world was going to end in a hundred years? Would that change anything for you?”
Iain looked thoughtful. “I really don’t know. Selfishly, probably it would change nothing for me. But then again, for my daughters and sons it would. Not much point in having kids, right? Or more of them, in my one daughter’s case. Maybe that would be liberating.”
As he spoke, she wished for a moment that Iain was Helen’s type. It would be nice to have someone like him around. “Liane’s mother is a free spirit,” Adam had once said to his own parents, employing his usual tact. “You know how it is in show business.” “She’s not in show business, she used to be a folksinger,” Liane had said to him later. She wasn’t sure why Adam’s words had made her feel so angry. Maybe because he’d said what he’d said in the same way a person might say Liane’s mother is a mental patient. But he was right, of course: the reality of this free-spiritedness was that Ilsa’s father was an ex-lover of Helen’s who lived in Paris and whom she had met while on tour; Wesley had stumbled into her life during a visit to an ashram in India (Fiona and Ilsa had stayed with Edie, and Helen had been away for weeks because she was experiencing some sort of career/existential crisis); and Fiona’s father—well, no one was exactly certain who he was, least of all Helen.
She realized Iain appeared to be waiting for her to say something.
“Which could be good for people who didn’t want to have kids at all,” Liane said. “Then they could stop having to explain themselves. Liberating, I think that’s exactly it. Because you feel this sense of obligation to procreate.” She thought maybe she was now talking about herself, and hadn’t meant to be. Do I not want kids? Or do I just not want them with Adam?
“True,” Iain said. “It would be as good a reason as any. Better than the reasons most people come up with these days: ‘I’m too selfish. I need more me time.’ What else do you think might happen? A hundred years . . . would people riot, do everything and everyone in before the hundred-year mark hit, do you think?”
“Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe nothing would change at all. Maybe we all think the world could end at any second anyway, so what would change in the knowing? Maybe it would be nice to know.”
“Sounds like we’re going to have to read this book,” said Iain. Then he sipped his tea and said, “I’m afraid I don’t have a creative bone in my body, and I don’t understand the life of a writer. I wouldn’t like to be alone as much as he is, I don’t think. Although his wife and two girls join him on weekends.”
Wife and two girls.
You’re engaged, she told herself. You’re even wearing a ring. She looked down at it again and a nervous giggle escaped from her lips. She covered her mouth. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m feeling a bit weird. It turns out I’m not used to being alone, so I guess I wouldn’t make a very good writer, either. I’m supposed to be working on my thesis, but I haven’t gotten much done at all and I think I just . . . I’m feeling a little odd.” She covered the ring with her other hand and looked up at Iain.
He had a concerned expression on his face. She felt guilty then for behaving so strangely in front of a person she didn’t know. So she said, “Would you like to stay for lunch?” and then felt needy and embarrassed.
But he said, “Why don’t I take you to the marina for fish and chips? I bet all you need is to reconnect with civilization for a bit and you’ll be right as rain.”
Right as rain. She found his presence comforting. She said, “I think you’re on to something. I need to leave the island, just for a few hours. Do you have a boat?”
He nodded. “A small one, but yes,” he said, as though ashamed of this fact.
• • •
Later that day, when she returned to the cottage, she didn’t feel as alone. Lunch off the island and in Iain’s company, their conversations about books, about the fact that he’d been a museum curator before retiring, his interest in her thesis, had officially broken the spell. (Wife, girls. That had helped, too. Although not in a good way.) She put away all the books she didn’t need for research, ate all the greens in several giant salads, and finished the last page of her thesis by Friday morning.
Also: she went to the shed. She hesitated, then dragged the kayak out to the dock and spent a morning washing it carefully with lake water. She did not cottage-wave to the Reading Man during this time. She put on a life jacket. She wore it until the sun was about to set. Finally she got in the kayak and paddled away. The lake was like a garage-sale mirror, smooth but mottled. She stopped paddling, closed her eyes, and pictured the inside cover of that book she believed her father had given her. She remembered the orange of the endpapers, the vaguely musty scent trapped between the pages; he always shopped at secondhand bookstores. She saw the words,
To Liane, don’t ever stop believing in the possibility of secret magical worlds. Love, Dad
She said aloud, “I’ll try. Goodbye, Dad. I love you.”
It didn’t change anything, but it was something rather than nothing. A start, maybe.
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