“A gorgeous depiction of the tender, painful stretching required to love well and expansively, to recast our ideas of romance and family.” — Aimee Wall, author of We, Jane
In the year following her mother’s death, Sophie navigates a complicated love triangle between a new flame and a past partner.
It’s the west end of Toronto, the apartments are small, and everybody is twenty-seven and making some kind of art. In the wake of her mother’s death, Sophie pays rent by making stained glass mosaics for rich people and plays house with her childhood friend and sometimes-lover, the beautiful boy Alex. Both are from Newfoundland but move easily in this world of crowded patios and DIY movie shoots.
When Sophie meets the glamorous poet Maggie, who is the downtown product of a hundred cool queer bars, she falls into a bewildered infatuation, but secrets emerge that threaten to crumble the foundation of her relationship with Alex and Maggie both.
A RARE MACHINES BOOK
About the author
Aley Waterman is a writer and musician from and currently residing in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. She completed her MA in creative writing at University of Toronto under the mentorship of Sheila Heti. Aley’s writing has appeared in Bad Nudes, Hart House Review, Vault Zine, Riddle Fence, and the Trampoline Hall Podcast.
Excerpt: Mudflowers (by (author) Aley Waterman)
I wanted so badly to love in a good way. I was twenty-seven and newly in Toronto and only had a couple of people and only knew a couple of places. At first my loneliness bred a desperation that felt too ugly to share, so I tried to mute it with long walks and hard work cutting glass and simple baking experiments and Pilates. No one wanted to chat on the subway in Toronto, it seemed, and most often if they did, they never wanted to leave it at that. Sometimes at first when I got to the city, it felt like any stranger could produce a halo effect and become amazing. Sometimes I tried to attach to those people and then I hurt them or they hurt me, because it’s hard to avoid hurt if there is too much feeling or expectation from the outset. I was a loser, cute and desperate with a young face and a free afternoon, an orbit gathering energy. I don’t know. I don’t want to give it too much romance. It was just a feeling and I thought it wouldn’t go away, but then older people said that that feeling did go away, and though it was painful to feel all of that restlessness, there seemed to be a different kind of grief that came with its exit, and once it was gone it was apparently impossible to get back. Pure energy, bright as a wet yolk. I wanted to love in a way that didn’t take anything from the people I loved or could love. What I mean is that I didn’t want it to be about how (much) they loved me back. I wanted to know, going in, that if I loved someone, I wouldn’t try and blame them for the pain that love brought with it. And also, I wanted to know going in that the feeling wouldn’t disappear as quickly as it came, and I wanted to stay diligent, and consistent, and kind.
But it all felt sort of impossible because I loved my mom, but she was dead, and I loved Alex, but it was so complicated, loving Alex. And starting off, I had loved my roommate Lionel, or at least I wanted to, because I wanted people, but actually Lionel really bummed me out. And maybe I loved some people back in Newfoundland, too; I mean, of course I did, but it’s easy to love anything far away, and I also wanted to love in the present moment. It’s embarrassing trying to love people in a city where everyone already has a surplus, a surplus of love and activities. It’s even embarrassing to really think about people you barely know, to imagine them and what they’re doing when they don’t tell you. How do people avoid imagining the lives of others? When I met someone who could mean something, my thoughts exploded like a ticker-tape parade, each holey ripped sheet containing something of their past, present, and future raining down, all of which I only had access to in fantasy. At Bambi’s, everyone hooked up, and it was fine and casual and they dealt with themselves. City people were so good at hiding their hearts, as if the goal wasn’t always to reveal it at some point. And in the streets, people went about their business on Roncy buying groceries to bring back home, pleasant and hanging on to composure and life with grace. And there was nothing particular about my difficulty, my trepidation at spilling over, except sometimes I felt desire for something intangible, felt it so acutely that I thought it might split me open, and I was worried about it, the space that it took up inside of me, the way that it had the ability to light upon other people even if it had nothing to do with them, and I didn’t want to freak anyone out.
Why was there such an intensity bordering on ugliness in my desire? It certainly felt that way. One thing is that growing up I was always scared of my mom dying, long before she actually did, long before I had reason to worry. Growing up, I felt a space inside of me that turned itself ugly late at night, or in strange and bereft moments of nothingness. Desire is like fear in that they both take up what hasn’t happened yet and let it consume the present. Maybe, then, my desire and my fear got all tangled up over and over late at night, enough times that they became difficult to separate.
As a kid, I became bent on the tragedy of my mother’s potential death, the no-good outcome, because, really, the only way that I could avoid my mother’s death was through my own death, a possibility that provided me only initial comfort. I never felt suicidal, it wasn’t like that, just the idea that I could cheat the worst potential thing of life appealed to me. At first I felt comfort in this easy out, until I really thought about it. On the unspoken hierarchy of suffering, it is less natural to die after your child; you are supposed to die before your child!
I would never be a mother; I didn’t think so, anyways. To die before my mother would give her a lifetime of suffering, whereas perhaps her death would give me the same, but that was my burden to bear. She had lived through the death of her own mother — in fact, she had lived through many deaths. And she had made a good go of it despite them all. She had gotten out of bed one day and found a way to carry on. She seldom talked about her own mother, and when she did it was in a healthy way, very much unlike the hellish spiral that stole me away when I thought of her death, even when it was just a thought. It seemed to me that once it happened I would lack the tools normal people seemed to have, that I would become a serial killer, or that I would just disappear into a cloud of pink smoke, or that I would never speak a single word again. I never told her any of these things, because they were intense thoughts that would have brought her misery and discomfort. I wanted to play it cool, didn’t want to stress her out in the precious moments, hours, days, months, or years that she had left.
So of course, the fear was also very relevant; one day, I would have to live through it. Not that I envy people who fear their own deaths, but in that case, you don’t have to live through the part where fear becomes reality. The worst possible outcome of my easy existence, and there it was, the thing that was supposed to happen, waiting to reveal itself. In outliving my mother, in living through her death, I would not become a hero and it would not give me beauty; there was no glory in it, it was so heartbreakingly ordinary to do, it was the thing expected of me.
My friend Casey, who is a pop star, always said that she had too much anxiety, so much so that it made her eyelids swell and tiny red splotches bloom all over her stomach. She could barely exist through and around her anxiety, and then one day the doctor put her on a medication that took it all away. Whereas before she would go around chain-smoking and hunching over having panic attacks, looking good but barely hanging on, and afraid of anything and everything she had ever said or done or would say or do, after she started to take the medication, Casey became a chill kitten. When people said things like, Hey Casey! she would slowly look up at them, blink, nod lightly, and then look away. People found Casey appealing in a new way as this iteration of herself, because it seemed like she didn’t need anything. On the medication, she became so relaxed that she barely had a pulse, and all of her worries went away.
After a couple of months, Casey went off the medication. It wasn’t worth it, she said, to lose the most consistent part of herself no matter how painful, the part that let her know who she was. Without it, she felt like a shell. Some people count their lucky stars to rid themselves of their darkest, most difficult parts. But in Casey’s case, she had to come back to it. She had to come back to the most difficult part of herself.
I had been wondering, What are a person’s responsibilities when they move toward or away from the most deeply felt parts of themselves? Did Casey return to her anxiety differently, with a different approach from what she had before, and did this new context improve her life that had so long been eclipsed by one feeling? If you move yourself into a new context, is it possible to be good in the world; is it possible to be truly fair in a way that has to do with other people if you are coming from a place that is new and undiscovered even to you?
These were the types of questions I felt, stumbling out of my own context, when I first met Maggie. Maggie was a poet who I had seen read at a small event in Kensington that I attended with my roommate Lionel my first year in Toronto. Maggie had a beautiful face, beautiful for its ability to convey contradictory emotions like awe and skepticism at once with a simple gesture, and when she read her poetry, which was the nicest stuff I’d ever heard, it sounded like her mouth was full of marbles, all dark and tangled and full, which made me feel quietly vital. She read a poem about a castle and sex and the world lit on fire that first night, moving her hands through the air like it was full of honey, and she let spill the last lines like the honey had gotten into her mouth and she wanted to share it. She wasn’t famous, but everyone thought she should be and that she would be.
That night, when Lionel and I walked home, I was buzzing and trying not to imagine her entire life. That’s Maggie, said Lionel, sounding tired about it, because she was younger and a better writer than him, but I found her on Instagram that night and followed her, and often later saw her in the Annex having brunch, and we never spoke, but seeing her would change my day, making it impossible for me to exist calmly, and I would have to wait and wait until the feeling passed. Like my fear, my desire was both deeply felt and deeply unknown, and I didn’t know what to do with it, didn’t know where it would take me once I scratched its surface. And desire was the only thing that could burrow deep enough into me that it distracted me from the sadness, the sadness of my biggest fear having come to light.
The next year, my anxious friend, Casey, hired Maggie to work the door at a bar next to my house, called Less Bar, where I also worked, and suddenly, as if it was the easiest thing in the world, there Maggie stood each weekend night looking some combination of one of the boys from the movie The Little Rascals and Isabella Rossellini. Maggie wore a long white wool coat with loops of fabric that hung down and swooped back up to link back to themselves in a bow, and her hair was short and partly yellow blond, mostly brown black, cut into a long mullet; she had big pond-life blue eyes. She seemed to have a force field around her, the protective and playful kitsch of a professional drag queen, though she wasn’t one.
Lionel told me that she lived in a house owned by the old man who runs a poetry printing press, and that other than her the house consisted mostly of young gay academic men in their early twenties. I wanted to understand something in her that made me nostalgic for something I hadn’t experienced, homesick for a place I couldn’t remember.
I felt too shy at first to introduce myself, though the bar was small and there were usually only one or two people working, plus Maggie on door. The nights she worked with me I didn’t talk to her, but each movement I made throughout my shift felt intentional, like I was moving my limbs through honey, too, like she was watching, even though she wasn’t. There is something life-giving in moving through the world near someone who you want to be noticed by, even if they don’t.
One night, I gathered courage. I drank several shots of tequila and went outside of Less Bar and stood next to Maggie and smoked a cigarette. She was smoking, too, and sighing audibly, releasing little billows of white air like speech bubbles. I was wearing a blazer and had tightened my side-pony for confidence. She cleared her throat like a man and looked past me. I didn’t know what to say and my silence made me feel coy, but the feeling of coyness could not have translated because she didn’t seem to notice it. I thought of things I could tell Maggie about.
The last thing my mother had given me before she died was a book called The Secret Language of Birthdays, a book that holds detailed information about people born on each day. I asked Maggie if she knew what The Secret Language of Birthdays book was.
What? she said. Oh, hello, she said then, making her mouth into a little O for a long time at the end of the word.
I told her about the book and how it wasn’t astrology, but it was something sort of like that. This one man spent the majority of his life learning about overlapping trends of the personalities of people born on the same day, I told her. He interviewed thousands of people. And then he made this book, his life’s work.
When I finished describing the book Maggie stood there in a quiet intensity. I noticed that she had painted her short nails gold with red tips, the red sloppy like blood. She looked at me, boldly switching from eye to eye, trying to figure something out. She was taller than me. People get called out all the time these days, nonconsensual attention, et cetera. I did not look like a bad man, but a big part of me felt like one on the inside, maybe not a bona fide bad man, but someone whose outing as one would come as no surprise. Moon in Vin Diesel, young Laura Linney rising. It sometimes shocked me to look in the mirror and see not a buff, car-stealing sort of dude but, rather, a tiny nonthreatening woman. It wasn’t transness, just paranoia that maybe I had a bad man somewhere deep inside of me.
That sounds cool about the book, said Maggie, studying my face. A car swooshed loudly past us, breaking the surface of a street-lit puddle in the road like a low-aimed firework.
I could do yours if you wanted me to, I said. Do it like how, she asked.
Like, if you told me your birthday. I could read to you about it. It’s two pages, but the pages are large and the font is small. It would probably take about ten minutes, I said.
She rolled an R like “rrrrrrrr.” I laughed a lot and wondered about the vibe. Then a light of recognition went on in Maggie’s eyes.
Are you trying to flirt with me, she asked.
No, I said.
Aley Waterman is a writer who is awake and attentive to the weathers of the heart. Mudflowers is subtly activated by grief and the ways that losing a parent can build a world anew.
Claire Foster, literary translator and bookseller
Waterman's debut novel has dark moments, but there is levity, too. Sophie’s humor is reminiscent of the protagonist's in Elif Batuman’s The Idiot as is her constant stream of philosophical questions and analysis, her musings on love, big feelings, and death.
Waterman's debut is a really cogent depiction of grief, intimacies of all sorts, and the complexities of human connection. This book is intimate and true and heartfelt and moving. And it's written in sincerely beautiful prose. A wonderful book of learning how to love differently and anew.
Mira, bookseller, A Room of One's Own
An ode to those who have lost and found their way in the big, irresistible, and labyrinthine smoke that is Toronto, Mudflowers weaves together a motley of contradictions, a remarkable patience with the steep learning curves of one’s late twenties, and a surefooted commandeering of a moment foregone. Waterman’s Sophie persuades the stumbling newcomer to keep stumbling in this graceful novel devoted to weirdo zeal and the perennial gifts of family.
Cody Caetano, author of Half-Bads in White Regalia
Mudflowers is a gorgeous depiction of the tender, painful stretching required to love well and expansively, to recast our ideas of romance and family. There is something almost psychedelic in how vividly Waterman renders Sophie’s inner world, her grief and her confusion and her fervent searching. I loved this funny, wise, moving book.
Aimee Wall, author of We, Jane
Pulsing with dazzling and unexpected observations on selfhood, grief, and art-making, Mudflowers is an exhilarating meditation on the boundlessness of desire and the relentless possibility of youth.
Cassidy McFadzean, poet and author of Drolleries
Thought-provoking, expansive, and raw ... Aley Waterman's sensitive first novel, Mudflowers, follows a young woman exploring intimacy, biological and built families, and art.