Carol Balawyder copyright 2013. unpublished.
Kind of Blue/ So What?
It was at the Metropolis Blue annual writers’ conference that Missi ran into Winston. She had dated him in her early twenties, before she’d met Max.
“You look like a kid,” she said. “You haven’t changed one bit. How long has it been? Twenty years.” There was a moment of silence when she wondered if he was thinking how much she’d changed.
“You look great,” he said.
What was that suppose to mean: He thinks I’m hot? He’s being polite? That I look great for a woman my age?
“So what are you doing here?”
“I was on a panel,” he said. “You should have come to it.”
“I would have had I known. I didn’t see your name on the program.”
“It was a last minute thing,” he said.
“What panel was that?”
“The Russian literature one.”
Russian literature? “I didn’t know you were interested in that?” He started to tell her about this book he’d written on Russian spies.
“Interesting,” she said. She wasn’t much of a spy reader and what she really wanted to know about was his private life. Had he married? Did he have children? Was he – hopefully, divorced?
She was thinking about this even though she was the one who had left him. Left him because he hadn’t wanted to commit but now things were different and how could she forget how sex was with him. Besides commitment wasn’t something she was concerned with now.
“So what have you been up to?” he asked.
“Divorced. Have a son. Substitute teach.”
“And what brings you to a writers’ conference?”
“Well,” she said. “I’m working on a novel.” She didn’t want to tell him about her writing for a romance magazine. She was afraid he would sneer at that. When they were going out he would read Nathaniel West. Susan Sontag and how he had a crush on her. Colette. And other writers that she pretended she understood and liked.
“Really,” he said all surprised. He said it in a tone that suggested YOU?
“Yes,” she said standing on her toes and pulling her shoulders back. He was the tallest man she’d ever been with. Six feet three inches and he wore dark rimmed glasses just like the ones Leonard wore in The Big Bang Theory television show. He was also very thin. Once he got terribly angry at her for calling him Mr. Stick Figure. It was meant as a compliment. Better than Mr. Potato Head.
“What’s it about?” he asked.
The truth was she didn’t know exactly what it was about. She was still hoping for the characters to reveal themselves to her and take over. Then all she’d have to do was act as secretary and write what they dictated to her. So far none of that had happened. None of her characters had miraculously emerged out of her alter ego and presented themselves as temporary guests. What shape would these guests take? Would she see them as invisible spirits? Would they lodge in her mind as yet another voice? And how would she know which ones to listen to? Writers who claimed that their characters took over their writing kept this secret to themselves. Perhaps because she didn’t know what to expect she got nothing.
“I really don’t like to discuss my work while it’s in progress,” she told Winston. “It takes away its energy.”
If Missi had any qualms about discussing her work Winston was the complete opposite. He bragged about how he wrote for a motorcycle magazine and that he’d written a book about stars and their motorcycles.
“I didn’t know you were into bikes,” she said.
“Motorbikes,” he corrected. “Harleys. I’ve always been an adventurer. Even as a small boy I took my tricycle with the four year old girl standing on the back and my mother found me downtown Ottawa.”
Missi wanted to be that girl riding in back of his tricycle.
“So are you still living in Toronto?” she asked.
He went into this long drawn out explanation about how he’d been living all over the world. “I was living in Los Angeles but came back to live with my parents. In twenty-five years I’ve moved at least twelve times in different cities, different countries, and different continents. I spent so many years away from my parents that now I feel the need to be with them, especially since my father’s health is so weak. I go buy their groceries and take care of their lawn.”
Had any other man told her this she would have regarded it as a blood red flag. What? Forty-eight and still living with his parents? But this was Winston. “You lived in Europe?” All of a sudden she regretted having left him and thought how she’d thrown away a chance at a cosmopolitan life style. Paris. New York. Russia. Hong Kong.
He then looked at his watch and said, “I have to go. I have a train to catch back home in half an hour.”
“We should keep in touch,” she said, desperately she thought.
“Sure,” he said and handed her his business card.
A day or two went by and all Missi thought about was e-mailing Winston. Then of calling him. Then of e-mailing him. It was like that all day long. Then she got an e-mail from him. He was coming back to Montreal for a meeting and was wondering if she had an extra couch he could sleep on.
“Of course,” she wrote back. “When are you thinking of coming?”
Next Tuesday, he wrote.
Her mind went into overdrive. What if all he wanted was a place to stay? What if he didn’t care for her and she still cared for him? What if her heart got broken all over again? She wrote him an e-mail telling him how wonderful it would be to spend some time together again. She inserted like the good old days although she could think of a lot about those days that weren’t so good, like her constant need for attention. This time though it would be different. She was older. Hopefully wiser.
His return e-mail had a too politeness tone to it, too impersonal. He talked about his favorite authors these days and his research on his Russian spy novel. She didn’t care to hear about any of that. What she wanted to hear from him was how much he missed her. How much he wanted to be with her. She was a needy twenty year all over again.
His meeting was in the morning and would be over by noon so she planned to have him for lunch and worried about what she would serve. She didn’t want it to seem overboard. She wanted it casual. Beer? Wine? Juice? Fancy water?
As the days grew closer to Winston’s visit Missi became increasingly disorganized. She called up Campbell, “I don’t know why I’m making such a fuss about his coming to visit me.”
“Go inside and see if your neediness is a longing for yourself.”
What was a longing for herself supposed to look like? She didn’t even know how to go inside. Every time she tried she was bombarded with thoughts about what she was going to wear, whether to wash her hair the morning he was to arrive or the day before because it always looked better not freshly washed. These were the kinds of thoughts that went through her mind when she went inside. Hardly helpful, she thought.
At twelve-thirty she picked Winston up at the subway station and drove him to her place for a lunch which she had prepared: Jabon blanc, Swiss cheese and tomatoes on thick slices of fresh baguette. Lime green baby lettuce with slices of strawberries. And a large bowl of cherries. They ate on her small balcony in back of her house. He told her that he’d been married twice.
“My second wife was obsessed with plastic surgery. She had this dog. He had one eye that was drooping and an ear that was a bit crooked. One day I came home and found the dog wrapped in tape. She had plastic surgery done on him.”
His other wife was Hungarian. “Born in Communist Romania. She was an electronic engineer but was conscripted into the army where she trained as a sniper.”
“Weren’t you frightened living with such a person?”
“No. We didn’t see each other much. I was too busy working on a spy novel. She was jealous of all the time I was spending. She once said, ‘You are in love with your character. Not me.’” He said it with an Eastern European accent which made Missi laugh.
“What did you answer?”
“She was right. I was more in love with my character than I was with her. Our marriage was a bad decision by both parties, and a marriage which had no hope of succeeding. Two good people wrong for each other. It was also a very expensive relationship. So I paid through the nose and other openings. I have this need to be with women who are no good for me. It’s a challenge for me.”
It had started to rain and they went back inside into her living room. Missi filled their glasses with more wine.
“That’s some orange couch,” Winston said.
“It looked fabulous in the penthouse in Old Montreal but here in the small living room it is overwhelming.”
“I’m broke,” he said. “The women in my life wiped me out. They used me. My second wife she said to me, ‘Why don’t you quit your job in advertising and concentrate on your writing. So I did that. She had a good job and so we could still live pretty well then she started to complain. Said I wasn’t giving her enough attention.”
Missi smiled and remembered how it was when she lived with Winston. He would be up late at night writing, listening to music or working on his portfolio while she waited for him to come to bed. That was the problem between them. She always needed his attention.
“I have work to do, I kept telling her. But I soon realized that she didn’t care about that. She had no interest in my writing. What she wanted was to have a writer by her side to show off to her friends at the places she hung out at.”
It dawned on her that he had been the one doing all the talking so far. He hadn’t asked about her at all. Then again Missi hadn’t volunteered information.
When the rain stopped they drove down to the Museum of Fine Arts to take in the Miles Davis Exhibit. It was wonderful walking through the museum with Winston for he’d loved Miles since he was sixteen. As they went through the rooms and listened to the jazz being played Winston told her about a Miles Davis concert he’d gone to. He knew each piece of music as well as the names of the musicians he played with. Kenny Garrett, Key Akagi, Richard Petterson, Marcus Miller, George Duke. He commented on Miles paintings. “They are exciting paintings,” he said. That was exactly one of the reasons she had been so attracted to Winston in the first place. He was exciting to be with. He had an enthusiasm for life. One of the few men she had known who had a wide range of cultural knowledge. He was well read. And perhaps too intelligent for his own good.
Then out of the blue Winston said, “It’s really difficult for me living back with my parents. But they’re getting old and I’ve committed to taking care of them. After all, they took care of me when I was young it’s only fair I do the same for them.”
“You’re the kind of guy who needs adventure to feed your soul.”
“I’m empty. I have no more energy. I have job offers in Milan. China and Dubai but I can’t move because of my parents. I don’t know how long this will last. I’m also afraid that my mother is getting Alzheimer’s. I did a documentary on the disease and so know what awaits her.”
“You’re too clever for your own good,” Missi told him.
Back home she opened a bottle of Fume Blanc. One of the last of Max’s wines. They drank it along with finger food, she’d prepared. Slices of cheeses and pear. A small pasta plate. Black olives.
It was getting late and so finally she said, “Winston lets talk logistics. Where do you plan to sleep?”
“On the couch. I don’t want intimacy. I can’t have that. I am numb in that area. “
“So what? I just would like you to sleep next to me. To be next to you. No intimacy.” she said as she gently rubbed her fingers against the inside of her arm.
“I’m empty,” he said. But how could she believe him? Should a woman with the exquisite beauty of Olga Kuylenko, the latest bond girl, ask him to sleep next to her, would he be so empty?
The next morning on the way to drive him to Central Station he said, “When we were together I wasn’t ready to marry you. I was too young and was just starting on my career. I needed to put all my energy there.”
Outside Central Station they gave each other tight hugs. “Stay in touch,” she told him not sure at all if he would.
“Of course,” he said with strong enthusiasm.
She watched him walk away. He turned and said, “By next week I want you to have your own radio show.”
Winston started to e-mail her regularly. Missi didn’t know what to think of all this. She was afraid of being hurt again and yet even after twenty years she still hadn’t got over Winston. It was as if she suddenly realized how much in love she was. Not so much in love with Winston but in love with being in love. His coming back into her life reminded her of this.
“What’s confusing,” she told the women in her group, “Winston sometimes calls me three times a day. His calls are never about anything personal. Once he called me while he was jogging and described a mother duck with a family of sixteen ducklings and then told me he was on his way to the grocery and hung up.”
He then started to talk about his novel. “To understand what I’m writing you have to read the first part.”
“There’s a first part?”
“I’ll send it to you.”
It was a long and laborious five hundred pages; certainly not the kind of reading Missi was interested in. She picked out a few sentences she liked and wrote Winston an e-mail saying “I really like this part.” They were sentences which had nothing to do with politics, spying or violence.
He sent her back an e-mail that said, “Making decisions about what to put in and what to leave out, when to give details and when to paint broad strokes is excruciating…the pacing of 250-odd page work is a gargantuan task. Sometimes one just has to make a decision and live with it. Other times one is stymied by something impossible to identify. And there always small things that threaten to derail the whole project. Writing is like pulling one’s own teeth without anesthetic. Being a dentist is probably easier, and more fun…and it sure pays better.”
Another time he wrote that, “bad novels remind me of my first wife. She had our kids going to private schools before we’d even tried having any (she ended up getting a dog instead). Of course, she also had trouble balancing her chequebook. But then, I should have known when we got married in Las Vegas on April Fool’s Day for $49.95 and we weren’t sure her credit card was good as the minister swiped it.”
When Missi sent him parts of her writing he would respond with phrases such as: “Words are a commodity of course, and can be obtained at Word Depot or Reno-Phrase by the bushel. And the most valuable tool and one not used frequently enough, is the bright red crayon, to draw slashes through a manuscript with ruthlessness. The only thing more satisfying than writing your very own dramatic work, is cutting it to ribbons and seeing if you have enough left over to make a bow tie.”
As the weeks went by his work was getting more violent and disturbing. Missi began to realize what Winston wanted from her was an unconditional fan. If she offered critique he counterattacked. She didn’t want to have to be praising him falsely. But this is what he wanted. Although he told Missi that he respected her opinion he tossed aside any critique she offered. He became more and more aggressive towards her comments and so she finally wrote him a note and told him that because he was not receptive to her comments she felt no desire to continue putting effort into his manuscript.
Sometimes she thought of Winston and wondered if he’d published his spy novel. She no longer yearned for his presence like she used to although she was still yearning for a man that would have some of his qualities. His intelligence. His charisma. His imagination. She wondered if he was still living in Toronto. Had he gone to Hong Kong? Or China? What about his mother’s Alzheimer? Did he sometimes think of her? Did he make up stories about her to tell to his new girlfriends?