Songs from a suitcase, p.2
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       Songs from a Suitcase, p.2

           Leslie Smith Dow
 
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  DHARAMSALA

  On a train that stretched like India

  I found you

 

  through shops and towns

  food stalls

  and bank robbers.

  they said you smuggled heroin

  you said you had loved me.

  I’ve never seen you before

  I said

  but I’ve loved you all my life

  you were old

  but reborn young

  that’s why I know you

  from the other side

  of these mountains

  your face was sad

  not your heart

  but soon I lost you

  our trains changed

  THE LAKE

  There was not much he liked about rivers. It was a lake he loved, deep and fathomless as a heart. People went from one place to another on rivers, never stopping long. But a lake you got to know: each cove, each inlet, every dock and cottage, and, if you stayed long enough, all the people in them, like the back of your hand. Now it was the memory of a lake he liked, the memory of the lake he had loved. He realized he had become solitary as he had gotten older, and it was as much the symmetry of the lake’s outline (he’d seen it from the air once, flying as a passenger in a friend’s Cessna) - its absence of unnecessary bays and elongated arms flying out illogically in all directions - as the unity that had once bound the inhabitants of its shores that he savoured now. It seemed to him that everything sprawled these days - cities and towns all had strip malls and big box stores; people were always running here and there looking for the best deal. And, having grown up in an era of cheap air travel, and the luxury of their own cars even as teenagers, people, it seemed to him (though he knew he was old-fashioned), had become obsessed with travel. No one took the time to just do nothing. To just be. For this reason, or so he thought, few people bothered making the weekend pilgrimage to the lake anymore. It wasn’t like when he was a boy. Then, he’d lived for weekends at the lake. They all had.

  Every summer on Thursday nights the whole family would come together in a rare show of single-minded accomplishment. The goal was to get ready to go to the cottage the following evening. Clothing, books, toys, food and the dog were all assembled and accounted for by him, his sister and their parents, and placed in the garage. That way, the instant their parents arrived home from work, the car could be loaded up and they would be off and out of the city, going down the road toward a well-earned weekend of freedom. (The dog was inevitably given a reprieve from waiting with the rest of the belongings, on the understanding that she would reappear at the appropriate hour). All Friday he would wait, almost spoiling the day for himself in his relentless anticipation of the great event to come. His stomach knotted up, and sometimes his mother examined him anxiously, wondering aloud to her husband whether they ought not to go. At these words, he would have to stifle the urge to vomit. To not go was unthinkable. So go they did, in weather fair or foul, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse.

  It wasn’t just his family’s obsession. Every Friday evening, as he sat in the back seat with the dog and his sister, eating a baloney sandwich for supper (to save time), he would watch other families in other cars navigating their way to their own private nirvanas. As the cars left the city, of the occupants were tense, almost angry, as though something - an accident? - might soon spoil their much-anticipated fun. After an hour or so, he’d noticed the faces starting to relax; and at the two-hour mark, a certain blissful reverie had taken hold, as though each of them had by now chanted their mantras - “the lake, the lake” - enough to have cleared their minds entirely of all thoughts of their old city lives.

  It was that way with him now. He’d long ago gone from the lake, but he held it within him like a song. He could play all its aspects - in any weather and in any season - to himself like a music video, but it was the sinuous, blackly submarine view of the lake - a lake people untrained in scuba diving had never seen - that held his thoughts now. It was a clear memory and yet it had the hazy, surreal quality of a dream. It was the day after she’d said what she’d said at the ski jump. He was scuba diving, down about 30 feet. She was swimming alone on the surface, smooth graceful strokes, straight out from the dock and back again. He’d circled under her, like a shark, resenting her intrusion at first into his domain, for now it was his and his alone. He’d watched from his refuge as she dived in, again and again, first from the diving board, then from the high platform, slicing deeper and deeper toward the perilous, rocky bottom, but always expertly angling her hands to curve herself upward and away from danger at the last moment. He’d seen her legs opening and closing as she treaded water at the surface, as though signaling him in some underwater language - it had, after all, been a language they’d shared - to join her.

  When he could stand it no longer he swam to her, running his hands along the insides of her thighs. He could feel her body tremble in the old way, but when he broke the surface, she seemed unsurprised. As if men from the deeps did that to her all the time. “The bubbles,” she said, laughing at him. “I knew you were there, stupid. I could see the bubbles. I was teasing you.”

  She hadn’t been teasing yesterday, as she dangled her legs over the top edge of the ski jump. Then her eyes, the colour of burnished oak, had been two pools of regret; looking into them then had been like taking his last view of the lake before they left it for the winter. Bits of cattail fluff clung to the rocks around its edges, and the water itself was obscured by the early-rising mist. No, she’d said. No. And turned away. She’d never turned away before. Never said no - not to anything. Not to any harebrained summer scheme they’d hatched. Not to any dare or double-dare. Not to his lips or his hands or his tongue or his heart. Not to anything he’d wanted, or said, or did. Never to his summer-brown legs wrapped around hers, equally brown, to his hardness pushing deep inside her velvety softness. Some nights he’d hold himself inside her hours before coming, stroking her hair, trying to be still. If he moved, or touched her clitoris, they’d both come, simultaneously and explosively. He’d thought then that this happened with everyone.

  But yesterday, she’d said no, and he knew it was final.

  He stopped caressing her, and flipped over onto his stomach, looking away abruptly before he fell any further into her eyes. He was now looking down at the water from the very top of the jump. It was black and almost still, rippling only slightly where the thick anchor cables holding the jump in place broke the surface. As though the water itself were trying not to move, equally tantric in its devotion to the shores that enclosed it, and the unnatural objects piercing its silky skin.

  Usually, the lake beat with lively cottage life, but not today. It was Monday, not a holiday, and everyone else had gone back to the city. On a rare day like this, alone and together, they would normally have seized any opportunity to make love, especially out in the open; the ski jump had become one of their favourite places. They often came together in the shallow, warm water at the low edge of the jump, mating athletically in the water like porpoises, or sea otters, or sometimes like the lazy black bass they so often watched in spring, the male spraying his seed, the female grunting out her eggs for him. But this day she’d said no, for no reason that he could see, and she hadn’t cried.

  He continued to look down at the water, waiting for her to say something else. Waiting for anything to happen, but nothing did. The day continued clear and calm, without a breeze; the water’s surface remained unbroken. Not even a fish jumped. Everything was quiet, except for his heart, which he realized was pounding madly inside of him, as though it were trying to escape. The silence, the stillness, became unbearable. He had to break it, smash it to bits; anything to protest the indifference of this day, and so he jumped.

  It was one of his best dives; a high snapping jackknife - best off a springboard, but he adapted well to most any type of platform. He kicked hard against the waxy, splintered edge of the ski jump, propelling himself
at least another ten feet up and out, beyond its 20-foot-tall angle. Snapped down to touch his toes with both hands, then straightened, and sliced deep into the water. Down he went, and down, deliberately keeping his hands pointed straight at the bottom. It had been thirty feet up, and, therefore, nearly sixty feet down, until his ears popped and crackled like a badly-tuned transistor radio, and his body had sucked his lungs dry of air. Only then did he angle his hands upwards, and kick mightily for the surface. He hadn’t really meant to do it, but he knew his act of defiance hadn’t been lost on her. When he broke, she was standing at the top of the jump, peering uneasily down. He looked up at her, and saw her nipples were erect. He treaded water at the base of the jump, waiting for her to dive down to him, but she turned away, sitting down again with her back to him, covering her breasts with her crossed arms.

  He swam back alone to shore. It was a long swim, even for him. He flung himself on the dock and lay there for what seemed like forever. Only later, when she didn’t come, did he realize that he had been sobbing. But that had been a long time ago.

  No one went to the lake much anymore, not when there were so many other things to do, so many other demands on people’s lives. He’d seen her a few times; she’d even dropped into the store once. He’d seen her coming, and had to resist the impulse to hide behind a pile of dusty, broken lamps. Imagine her in a junk shop! But she’d smiled, passed the time of day, asked questions about this or that piece of furniture, and made wry jokes about his moustache. They’d embraced as she left, like old friends, but he’d let his face linger a moment too long in her hair, and she’d felt it. She pulled away, held him back at arms’ length, far enough away that he had to strain to keep her Givenchy smell in his nose. He never wanted to forget that. She was going to India to live, she said. That’s why she’d come. She was marrying someone over there. He owned an island. At least that’s what he thought she’d said. All he remembered for sure was that her eyes had been that burnished oak colour again, like the colour of fall sunlight glinting off the lake, while his eyes, he knew, were black, as black as the back of the hungry bass they’d caught one day when they were young. The fish had snapped again and again at their delicately-tied flies, too impatient in his excitement to even seize them wholly in his mouth. At last, though, he’d taken the hook fully into his mouth, and together they’d reeled in the magnificent ten-pounder. They had both admired him as he lay gasping his last in the bottom of the aluminum boat. She’d run her hand along his gleaming, spotted belly, and he lay still.

  “Poor thing,” she’d said. “So beautiful.”

  BLESS THE VIRGINS

  She loves me, I know she does.

  I watched as she bent down and took the elevator key out of her shoe, her green and grey school kilt sliding up and over her thighs. She presented it to me with all the formality befitting such a great gift. It was her last day. She was going away forever, and wouldn’t need it anymore. We stared at each other, and I could see tears starting to form in her eyes. Then she dumped her binder into my arms and fled.

  The elevator key was a great gift. It would enhance my status enormously next year, not to mention the ease of accessing the upper floors. Students were absolutely forbidden to use the elevator, unless they were disabled or a teacher’s pet. Trinity was one of the latter, but she wasn’t above deception for a good cause. Me.

  Summoning the elevator, I fitted the key in the lock and turned it. Trinity was gone; there was no point in following her. The gift was unexpected, but already I was considering getting copies made and selling them for an outrageous price to anyone who would pay, but that, of course, entailed risk. If anyone got caught and snitched, it would mean the end of Bless the Virgins for me. When you have been suspended as many times as I have, expulsion is always just around the corner. And, because of my age, it meant I would be sent to the dreaded adult high school all the way across town. That school was filled with losers, geeks and druggies, and I would likely feel too comfortably at home to make any sort of effort at all.

  I loved Bless the Virgins. Despite my initially tempestuous relationship with Mother Teresa, we had now come to an understanding, and even a sort of mutually wary respect. She let me do what I wanted, so long as I wasn’t obviously flaunting the rules in front of other students. Besides, the school received its funding based on the number of students. Every body, even one as disruptive of mine, was a source of badly-needed income. Those with “special needs” like myself commanded extra funds, so…ça ira.

  For me, Bless the Virgins was a sanctuary. There were marvellously silly rules governing every aspect of daily life. As they were antithetical to my actual existence, I delighted in breaking every commandment I could. So, when the nuns heard fits of hysterical laughter on the playing field, they assumed I must be at the centre of it all. This was not necessarily true.

  Just watching any of our school teams warming was enough to cause an entire visiting sports team to fall down laughing. All we had to do was prance onto the playing field wearing our standard-issue school t-shirts, which read, simply, “Virgins.” Donning our playing uniforms, which proclaimed us “Blessed Virgins” only compounded the mirth. We got the last laugh though, demanding loudly, in a ritual cheer that we had developed, that we be allowed to bless any of our competitors who were virgins. Our offer was never accepted.

  None of us even considered confessing the real name of the school: Assumption of Our Blessed Virgin Mary of the Snows Secondary School Collegiate. It would never have fit on a team jersey anyway.

  Down in the music room, I was able to examine the binder Trinity had shoved into my arms. It had been raining heavily and the whole basement level was once again closed due to flooding. Which was fine by me. Instead, music class was being held in the gym for the time being, and Sister Claude, after some sort of Miraculous Inspiration, had turned our orchestra into the Bless the Virgins Marching Band. No way I was participating in that.

  Trinity’s binder contained six complete grade 12 academic level high school courses. In it she had filed every test, recorded every lab result, logged every assignment and noted every peccadillo of every teacher. Best of all, the course content never changed from year to year. The binder was worth its weight in gold to an aspiring jackass like myself. Its contents, properly applied, could open the doors to almost any higher education of my choice. And—bless all the virgins—she had given it to me.

  Inserted inside the clear plastic outer cover were wall-to-wall photos of Trin: Trin with her girlfriends. Trin concertedly engaged in various school activities. Trin doing good works. Trin as Head Girl. Trin in her officially-posed graduation photo, taken wearing the hideous lavender robes and mortarboard all graduates had to don. Not me though. I would be at Bless the Virgins for another year, doing my victory lap. And when the time came, there was no way I’d be putting on those garments. Mother Theresa could perform fifty miracles but she wouldn’t be getting me to put on a lavender dress in public .

  As a rule, I don’t mind wearing unconventional clothing. Especially in public. I am famous for showing up at school in pink pyjama bottoms, tube tops or even on one memorable but bleary morning, arriving for morning prayers wearing nothing but a bathrobe (not my own). It amused me beyond anything you can imagine to be sent to Mother Theresa’s office for yet another gross uniform violation and watch her eyes widen at my latest travesty. Once, when I clomped in wearing fluffy doggy slippers, I thought I glimpsed the slightest trace of a smile playing around the steely frames of her spectacles, but it could equally have been a nervous tic.

  That was the day we had come to our agreement. No more heinous dress code violations on my part. No disruption of classes. No showing off. No abusing authority. In return, she would look the other way at my odd comings and goings, at the many days when I had obviously not returned to my own home. She would allow me to wash and dress in the boys’ locker room on those mornings, no questions asked. I could go to class if I
felt like it, and sign myself in and out. Then she dropped her bombshell: I wouldn’t be graduating with the rest of my classmates.

  I sat there in shock, one fluffy slipper dangling insouciantly from my big toe. I barely heard her drone on about my lost potential, about the disruption I caused, about the time I was wasting—hers and mine.

  I mentally calculated how many more basement couches I would be able to surf on weekends, holidays and vacations, how many more times I could avoid the week-long benders, the no-holds-barred get-togethers with the gang, and how much longer I could protect Trin. A year seemed a long time. But what choice did I have? I was determined not to go into the family business. And to avoid this hideous prospect, I had to stay in school. I had to graduate. It was my only hope. Unfortunately, I’d come to this realization far too late. That’s where The Trinity Binder came in. It was the key to my whole future.

  I agreed to Mother Theresa’s terms.

  From then on, things went swimmingly, more or less. I missed Trin, more than I ever thought I would, but in a strange way, she became my inspiration. She came back once, during Break, and told me in her careful, ordered way, about life Outside. She didn’t lecture me, but she made it clear that until I was finished fucking around at Bless the Virgins, she was unavailable.

  Funny thing is, I was never much good at fathoming the unknown. Dance with the devil you know, my old man always joked, as he threw me a pack of cigarettes. It was his credo, and the only thing of his that ever became mine.

 
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