His appearance on the sun deck was preceded by the tinkling of ice on glass. He had not even spoken, and already Brian was set against him. The man pushed two pink cocktails through the air before him. They were mixed in proper martini glasses and he carried them chest-high up the wooden steps. There was nothing ironic about him.
“Michelle, ma belle,” he declared, having located his wife lounging in an Adirondack chair. “So this is where you’ve run off to.”
The woman’s eyes brightened behind her fashionable glasses. “You’ve brought me a drink!”
He leaned in low to kiss her on the lips. He was dressed in an old white T-shirt and cut-off jeans that seemed forced; she, in a pink string bikini.
Brian’s mother-in-law smiled at the spectacle. He could tell that she was smitten. But then again, Jocelyn was easily impressed. Brian found it more difficult to read his wife’s reaction. Curiosity, perhaps. Amusement. Nicole did not like to be caught in her bathing suit around other men, so he knew that any impression she was having would be tainted by discomfort.
“Everyone,” said Michelle, touching the tightly wound bun at the back of her head, “this is my husband, Foster.”
The man’s head was only inches from the eaves. Physically, he resembled a character out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Brian was compelled to call him Tom.
Instead, he rose to shake his hand. “How was the fishing?”
Foster responded in heavily accented French, “Deux brochets. On ice as we speak.”
He would have been handsome were it not for his chin, which toppled into his neck like a rock slide. He was certainly older than Brian had anticipated. At least ten years Michelle’s senior.
He dragged another chair into their circle so that Foster could sit next to his wife. Immediately, he took her hand in his, and stared into her eyes. “She hasn’t been imposing, has she?”
It took Brian a moment to realize that Foster was addressing them.
“Oh, non!” exclaimed his mother-in-law, quick to dispel any illusion of impropriety. “I ask her to visit this morning on the road.”
Brian winced at the woman’s conjugation.
Foster turned to her for the first time. “Oh, yes. Michelle told me that you’d met. It’s Jocelyn, isn’t it?”
“What is that you are drinking?”
Foster raised his glass. “This?”
“I love the colour.”
“It’s yours.” Foster rose from the depths of his chair, waving away any opportunity for protest. “It’s a cosmopolitan. Here. I haven’t touched it.”
“Oh, merci!” Jocelyn looked first to Nicole and then to Brian, flushed over her guest’s exaggerated attentions.
“Let me get you a beer,” said Brian. He could barely keep from rolling his eyes.
As he moved toward the cottage, Nicole reached out to touch his arm. “Grab my robe while you’re there.”
Brian sighed. The afternoon was taking on an inevitability he was not sure that he could face with the necessary mix of nonchalance and stoicism. He allowed the screen door to clack in his wake. He had been listening to Jocelyn discuss the new neighbours all morning, and since lunch, he had been listening to Michelle discuss herself, her children, Foster’s teenaged son, and her career.
Brian could observe them through the mottled windows, even as he uncapped the two beers. Foster was leaning into his wife for another kiss.
She was a nutritionist, working as a sessional lecturer at Western University. Her hair was a surreal corn-silk blond and her body was predictably—and suitably—tanned and toned. Brian might have added “attractive,” but the space between her nose and her upper lip was too pronounced—her front teeth too large—so that she reminded him vaguely of a rodent. However, it was also possible that he was searching for some small flaw to offset the sexual undercurrent which had arrived with her. He had to be careful about where he stuck his eyes in front of Nicole, and Michelle was clearly proud of the gifts good nutrition and a gym membership had bestowed upon her.
Brian could not remember the last time he and Nicole had slept together, and somehow this contorted Michelle’s overt sexuality into a form of insult or slight—the meaning of which remained vague and unclear, even to himself.
Moreover, she was writing a book about nutrition—a pamphlet, really—which irked Brian more than anything, as he too was an author.
On the deck, Foster was holding court for the women. “That ring cost me every cent I had in the world at the time,” he said, with his voice trailing off theatrically. It reminded Brian immediately of Stuart McLean and the Vinyl Café. However, the man’s moist eyes leant an unmistakable, if melodramatic, sincerity to the declaration.
Michelle’s hand was extended so that Nicole and Jocelyn could view the diamond.
Nicole nodded, “It’s very beautiful.”
The stilted formality of her response provided Brian with his first insight into his wife’s interpretation of the day’s unfolding. Although he could not be sure, it might just be possible that she was as nauseated as he. More than happy to interrupt, Brian distributed his wares, including his wife’s robe.
“Thank you.” Foster studied the label before tasting and then set the beer down on the ground beside his chair. “But she’s been my lucky number since the moment we met. Haven’t you, Michelle?” He had most definitely partaken in a cosmo or two before his arrival.
Brian could feel the sun dig in to the back of his neck like the claws of a hammer. It had to be nearing 5:00. Who fishes in the middle of the afternoon? he thought.
“So, Brian. My wife tells me that you write.”
Jocelyn interjected, “Mais oui, Brian has published two novels.”
“Really? I don’t read fiction, myself.” Foster’s words opened a hole in the deck through which everyone stared, if only for a moment.
“You don’t have the time to read, cheri. But you did. Back in university.”
Brian wondered fleetingly if the woman’s breasts were real, and then decided that it didn’t matter.
“Yes. But never novels. I can’t be bothered if the thing’s not real.” He looked at everyone but Brian for their tacit support. “How is your drink, Jocelyn?”
His mother-in-law flushed. “It was too good. I have finished it all,” she answered in her staccato English.
Foster stood. “I’ll go mix you another.”
The beer Brian gave him grew slowly warm in the sun. A boat motor hummed in the distance.
“Non, non. I should not. Not before supper.”
Foster clapped his hands. “Right. Supper.” Brian would not have been surprised if he began to call out play signals for a hurry-up offence. “I should really clean up those walleye before supper. And the kids should eat. What do you think, Michelle?” The latter was not a question. Not really.
It was quickly becoming clear to Brian that Foster had not come to join the party so much as to retrieve his wife. It made sense, after all. She was younger and prettier than he was. Why wouldn’t the whereabouts of his bikini-clad wife concern him? This dawning realization made Brian feel good in a mean way. It diminished the shame he felt about his own pettiness. The seed of covetousness which had been slowly growing inside him since meeting Michelle. He fondled the other man’s insecurity like a bolt of inferior cloth and smiled genuinely for the first time that day.
Michelle rose in response to her husband and then turned to look at her chair, as though she were searching for the clothing she had not brought.
Still pleased with his discovery, Brian allowed himself to indulge in a furtive glance at the curve of her thigh, the round weight of her ass.
Foster held his wife at arms’ length and regarded her. “Look at you, ma belle. My lucky number.”
Brian tried to catch his wife’s attention then, to draw her into his confidence with a knowing look—the way they used to share as co-conspirators in a plot whose outcome was known only to them. But she would not look at him.
Michelle giggled, “It was so nice to meet you.”
No one spoke after they left. Jocelyn surveyed the deck as though it were the scene of some undefined accident. Eventually she stood and entered the cottage. Nicole stared at the sun over the top of the island and followed her mother less than a minute later. Brian, for his part, finished his beer in silence. A loon cried out from the far side of the lake—a mournful, longing shot that echoed off the mountains and cut to his very heart, where there hid similar base and secret desires.
Far off to the south, he noted the swollen sky, bruised aubergine. It would rain before nightfall.
Upon entering the cottage, he found his wife in the kitchen, washing the leftover dishes from lunch. He wrapped his arms about her waist and kissed her neck. He was feeling a little drunk. She smelled like coconut.
“So,” he sniffed. “What do you think of our new neighbours—the Buchanans.”
Nicole placed a dish in the rack and fished about for others beneath the suds. He thought for an instant that she did not catch the reference.
“Who does that make you?” she said, eventually. “Jay Gatsby?”
Brian let go and stepped away. He felt as though he had missed something important concerning the afternoon’s events, or worse, that his wife had somehow not.
He spoke to the back of her head. “What’s that supposed to mean?” But inside he knew. She too had heard the loon.
Nicole shrugged, and drew a spoon from the sink. Her back was unforgiving. A visible tension seethed in her shoulders.
Brian left her there without another word, and retreated to the deck once again. He looked out over the lawn and the little bay toward their neighbour’s cottage, which was more like a year-round home, really—two storeys, bright white siding and green gables. Its crassness stood out like a scar on the shoreline. A long dock extended into the lake. As he stared, he thought about how quickly things changed. A moment later, Michelle appeared there, padding barefoot along the cedar planks toward the end—a spark of pink. She paused there a moment in her near-nakedness, then raised her arms and in one quick motion dove up and out into the darkening water.
Brian waited and watched for her to surface. A silent voyeur.
His only consolation was the knowledge that Foster too would be watching from behind closed blinds with equal jealousy in his heart. »
from subTerrain #73