Saturday, January 6, 2018

35. Time in a Bottle

Alan’s spies were correct: Becky Pang lived on Empress Avenue in North York.  They were also correct about her marital status: she had divorced Tony Lo two years earlier.  One crucial detail of her life that was overlooked, however, was that although no longer married, she also was not single.  She was engaged to a man she had known for several years, a former co-worker in the pharmacy of North York General Hospital.  He was a kind, good-humoured fellow with the white-as-can-be name of Geoff Taylor.  A Caucasian boy!  The rules had changed.

So her phone call to his apartment in Vancouver the morning after Alan disappeared, the last day of August, was to say the least a letdown to William— to have her suddenly back in his ear, but otherwise forever out of his life.  William was reminded again that the world he had left behind continued to change in his absence, which made it all the easier never to return.

Becky could tell he was disappointed and tried to cheer him up.  “I’ve dreamt about you so many times over the years, and always wondered where you were, and what you were doing.  Then, this summer, I kept seeing you on the news, leading an exciting life out in BC.  I was happy for you, doing all that outdoors stuff you love.”  

William had considered his livelihood in BC an embarrassment.  From afar, through the TV, it appeared glamorous.  It was a matter of perspective.

“It’s like hearing you’re marrying Tony Lo all over again.”

She replied, “Except this time I want to marry the guy.”

That took his breath away.  Oh, right. 

Never mind, he told himself.  You’re not the same person anymore and you couldn’t have made her happy.  You’re an incurable grump, a lightning-struck loser.  Accept that and move on.

He almost didn’t go back to Toronto.  He told Becky he didn’t have much reason to go there.  She said, “No-no, Will-Will, you can’t only half-reappear after all this time.”

He told her he didn’t want to meet her fiancé.

“You don’t have to,” she said.  “You have to come and see me.  You never even hugged me good bye. ” 

He thought, True, but I ate the piece of grass you were chewing on.

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-September he went to her house.  It was a small, brick, post-WWII house with an A-frame upper floor.  There was a car-port with a minivan inside.  He was carrying flowers.  He didn’t know what else to bring.  What do you bring to a final meeting with someone you haven’t seen in seventeen years?  He rang the bell, but there was no answer.  He could see himself in the glass of the storm door.  He didn’t look eighteen anymore, and didn’t look happy.  He saw her first in reflection, carrying a green plastic watering can.  He turned around.

“Here you are,” she said, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, the hug he had been aching for forever, but compromised by the empty watering can bouncing against his shoulder blades and the flowers clutched to his chest.  She didn’t look eighteen anymore either.  Her long, long hair was now shoulder length, and her willowy body was not quite as willowy, but her voice, her movements, her smile, were the same magic.  

They went inside to the kitchen, where she found a vase.  The television was on in the living room.  Becky stuck her head in and said, “Melissa, come here, I want you to meet somebody.”  She then called, “Ben! Come down here!”  Melissa, aged four, her hair in pigtails, peeked into the kitchen.  Roly-poly and bespectacled Ben, aged ten, came bouncing down the stairs.  He eyed William suspiciously.  “This is my old friend,” Becky said.  “Say hello to Uncle William.”

“Just ‘William,’” he said. 

“Hello,” said Ben, who then was drawn into the living room by the television.

Melissa had already gone back to her cartoons without saying a word.

Becky led him outside.  They sat on a wooden bench beneath an ancient, twisted crab apple tree and tried to summarize for each other the years spent apart.

She went first.  She told him about being married, about being married to an uninteresting man, an inconsiderate man, a cheating man, about an unsympathetic family, except for sister Cindy.  About raising children alone on a single income, about meeting a sweet man who made her happy again.

His turn.  He told her about not being married, about living alone, or living with someone he wanted and tried to love but somehow couldn’t.  About travelling to beautiful places, but alone.  About being struck by lightning.  About being struck by lightning again, and again.  About Alan Lennox and Hannah, about Dan and his film, about maybe becoming Education Director of the Kazuo Fujiwara Biological Centre.  About not being sure if that was what he wanted.  He took a deep breath and said, “There were so many times when I was lost, either lost out in the wilderness, literally, or simply feeling deeply lost at where my life had taken me since knowing you, and I would sit and hold my head, and whisper your name, hoping that your voice would answer, and it would talk to me, help me figure out what to do.”

“Did it help?”

“No.  You were pretty quiet.  Maybe you weren’t paying attention.”

She laughed, and nudged him.  “You shouldn’t have whispered.  You should have yelled—or even phoned.  I wanted you to call me.”

“I couldn’t, not after I learned you were married, and then you had your children.”

“You still could have called.  Being a mother doesn’t change you in that way.”

She moved her left hand from her lap to the space on the bench between them.  She saw him looking at it.  “It’s the same hand,” she said.

Before he could touch it, Melissa burst out the door and wriggled in between them.  He marvelled at the top of the little girl’s head, the straightness and sheen of her hair.  He felt he didn’t belong, and told Becky he should get going.

In the kitchen he stopped and turned to her.  He said, “Please stop marrying other people.  It’s killing me.”

She said, “Stop living so far away and maybe next time will be your turn.”

“When’s the wedding?” he asked.

She looked him straight in the eye.  “A week today.”

He wished he hadn’t asked.  The hurt kept on hurting.

Then the front door creaked open.  That sound was followed by a pair of hollow clops, a woman’s shoes dropping to the floor.  Into the kitchen walked Becky’s youngest sister.  The last William had seen her, she was an undersized fourteen year-old wearing a monstrous scoliosis brace, struggling to hold Becky’s guitar.  She was still short, noticeably shorter than Becky, but straight-backed and pretty. 

“Cindy,” he said. 

“Good timing Cin,’” said Becky.  “I need to buy some eggs.  Please don’t leave yet, William, I’ll be right back.”  She plucked up her keys from a table in the hall, poked through the shoe pile, and blew out the door.           

“You look pretty much the same,” said Cindy, “but not as skinny.”

The time it took Becky to buy eggs suggested an egg shortage in the Greater Toronto Area.  While she was out, William learned that Cindy was a music teacher for the Toronto Board of Education.  She described herself as a wandering minstrel, travelling from school to school, teaching everything from grade three recorder to grade eight band.  He learned that while an undergraduate at U of T, she had eloped with another music student, causing her parents to disown her because, in her words, “He was one of you guys.”  Four years later her husband died and they re-owned her.  She said her marriage had been a mistake, that she had made a bad choice for a husband and that her marriage probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway because his lifestyle had spun out of control.  He was a club musician and got into drugs, which was what killed him.  Nevertheless it was a terrible thing being a widow at twenty-six with zero sympathy from her parents.  She now lived with her friend, Sharon, another teacher.  Cindy was thirty and unmarried.  Her parents were worried she had become a lesbian.

“You’ve had a hard time,” he said.  “I’m sorry.”

She cocked her head to change the subject.  “How are you?  I saw you on the news, about Alan Lennox.”

“All right, I guess,” he said.  “It was a strange end to a strange summer.”  Becky could fill her in later if she really wanted to know.  He asked how her parents felt about Becky marrying “one of us guys.”                                                                                                          

“They’re okay with it.  They’ve got their black-haired grandchildren, two from Becky, two more from Jennie with a third on the way.  My sisters have done their duty.  I’m the big disappointment.”                                                                                                                                           
The natural urge was to ask how anyone could think of her as a disappointment, but she wasn’t fishing for compliments.  William said, “You’re bitter.”

She laughed.  “Yes, I am.”

“Me too,” William said.  “Very bitter, and for way longer than you.”

“You seem proud of that.”

He told her, “Here’s the thing about bitterness.  After a while it becomes a physical part of you.  It gets laid down in your bones — even in the dentine of your teeth.  It becomes as much a part of you as your sense of humour, your blood type or your Social Insurance Number.  Part of the reason I came back here was to deal with the bitterness that caused me to move away, including the issues I have with my parents.”

“How’s that going?”

“It’s a battle.  One voice tells me I should let it go, make the most of the rest of the time we have together.  I’ve been receiving coaching on such an approach.  I haven’t given up yet, but it’s hard.”

“There’s another voice?”

“The angry, familiar one.  Don’t relinquish your bitterness for them.  It would be like paying someone for robbing you.”

“So you’ll stay bitter?”                                                                                                                 

“Probably.  You probably should too.  Never let go of your bitterness.  Bitterness is natural.  It’s empowering, and sustaining.”

“And healthy,” she said.

“Yes, very healthy.”

They stopped laughing when Becky opened the door.  She gave a puzzled smile as she carried her hard-won eggs to the kitchen.

Overhead, Ben shouted, “Melissa, leave my stuff alone!”

Cindy got up.  She said, “I’ll check on them,” and she hurried up the stairs.

When Becky came into the room, William said, “I really should get going now.”  She didn’t ask why, which was good because it meant he didn’t have to tell her that he felt he was the one haunting now, the one watching a living person’s life.

His intention had been to stay in Toronto a week — the maximum tolerable at his parents’ house — and then return to dedicate himself fully to the Fooj Centre.  His plans changed, though, when Dan Imamura called.  His mother answered the phone.  “It’s one of your oriental friends,” she said.

Dan’s documentary had become thematically complicated because of what happened at the dam.   He asked if William could stick around for a while and let him interview him a few times more.  He wanted to include segments about his electrically-induced encounters with his sister.  William said okay.  He would do almost anything for Danny.

During one interview, Dan asked, “Why were you and Alan fighting in the canoe?”

“Something he said.”

“Do you remember what it was?”

“No,” said William.  That was private.

“Was it the lightning?”

“What do you mean?”

“Erased that memory?”

“That would explain it,” said William.

Flush with Alan’s money, he rented an apartment on St. George Street in Toronto, north of Bloor, across from the bank-like Christian Science Church.  Even with long-distance coaching from Stacey he couldn’t be comfortable around his parents.  He would have rotted to death from the inside-out had he stayed one day longer in his old home, in his old room — as though nothing had changed in seventeen years apart from everyone becoming a lot older.

One day when William was at Dan’s workspace, not doing anything in particular, Dan wondered out loud where he could find musicians to record a soundtrack.  He wanted original music.  There was a string quartet he had used before, and he liked the texture of strings, but found their new agent unreasonably demanding, their fee now too high.

“I may know someone,” William said.  He called Becky’s number to leave a message, asking for Cindy’s number.  He was surprised when Becky answered.  “I expected you’d be on your honeymoon,” he said.

“No, I don’t like being away from my kids.  Where are you?” 

“Still here.”  William told her Dan was looking for musicians.  He wondered if Cindy might be interested.   He thought the line had gone dead.  “Hello?” he said.    

“I’m here,” said Becky.  “So, you’re working on that film too, right?”

“I am.”

“It sounds like a good idea.”

“You think she’d be interested?”

“Sure she is,” Becky said.

The following week, for four consecutive days, Cindy came to his apartment after work, toting her guitar.  They went out for dinner, twice to the Swiss Chalet on Bloor Street, and then they took the subway over to the Danforth to a recording studio.

Cindy played background music, piano or acoustic guitar, for the “surveillance scenes,” when Dan had filmed Alan and/or William without their knowledge.  Dan picked music Alan and William had listened to as 18-year-olds, transcribed for single instrument and played at a slower tempo.  He wanted the soundtrack spare and haunting.

There was a lounge at the studio with an old couch against one wall.  William was sitting on it, playing Cindy’s guitar as she was in another room creating a mournful piano version of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.   William was trying to remember the chord sequence for Cat’s in the Cradle, a song he used to play for Becky and Cindy, but kept getting stuck at the descending series on the fifth line of the verse.

She appeared in the doorway and leaned against the frame, watching as William continued fumbling.  Finally she lost patience, came over, clamped her hand on the neck of the guitar and said, “Give me that.”  She sat next to him and played it straight through on the first go.  She then leaned over the body of the guitar and asked, “So, now that we’re almost done with this project, what are your plans?”

William rambled on again about the Fooj Centre, a topic he had covered at length in previous conversations.

She shook her head.  Her hair was parted in the middle and the tips danced on the strings.  She looked up and said, “When you were dating Becky, in the last century, my favourite times were when she went down to the basement to argue with Jennie.”

“Why?” William asked.  He had found those times very unsettling.

Cindy started playing scales without looking at her hands.  G major.  C major.  D major.  She had flawless fingering.  She moved on to chords.   “When our parents were out, I would ask Becky if you were coming over,” she said, strumming a series of majors, “because I loved it when you did.”   She switched to minors.  “I was a scrawny little girl with a bent little body.  I doubted I would ever have a boyfriend, because even if I grew straight everyone who knew me would always think of me as the girl in that brace and that there was something wrong with me.  No one would ever want me.”  More major chords.  “You were patient and funny, and held the guitar for me and showed me chords, some of which you’ve obviously forgotten.”  Back to minors.  “I was almost as heartbroken as Becky when you stopped coming over, because you and Becky together were like my dream come true and when it didn’t come true after all I believed there was no other possibility than that my life would always be crap.”  She deadened the strings.

Then she rocked his world.  She asked, “Remember this?”  She played Time in a Bottle.  Her voice was low and sad, like Becky’s, but with a heart-wrenching timbre William had never heard in Becky. 

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go
Through time with

She ended with an arpeggio and three ringing harmonic notes.  When she raised her eyes, William stuck his cold finger in her warm ear.  Without missing a beat, she stuck hers in his.

Dan walked in, about to say something.  He looked, closed his mouth, and walked back out.

William asked if she would consider living on an island in beautiful British Columbia for a while.

“Nope,” she said.  “Your apartment is nice.  Let’s give it six months there, then either call it quits or buy a house, depending.”  She was even blunter than Becky, whose bluntness had always amused him.  They bought a house after three weeks.

The last night they stayed in Williams’s apartment they talked, side by side in bed.  Cindy said, “Tomorrow I want you to come with me and talk to my parents.”

He reflexively shifted away from her, saying, “I don’t think I want to do that.”

“Well, I want you to.  I need you to.”


She told him a story of her parents that Becky had never told him.  She told him of their arrival in Canada as young newlyweds with next to nothing and of the series of humiliating, low-paying jobs they did—that she knew of—and described the run-down apartment near Chinatown where they lived.  And then, unplanned, came Becky, an added burden, making it harder to get ahead.  She talked of how they worked as hard as they could, sacrificing for their growing family, which included her mother’s parents who had come to live with them, and how they had depended on their closest friends from Hong Kong who had migrated with them for rent money when things were short, Uncle Nelson and Auntie Ha.  They were the parents of Tony Lo.

“And then they finally saved enough and had stable enough jobs to move us out to the suburbs, where there were safe schools where their daughters could get good educations and hopefully, eventually become well-paid professionals, and what happens?”

He waited.  She was quiet.  He asked, “What year was this?”

She poked him.  “The year of you.  You happened.  Yellow-haired, blue-eyed guitar-guy in a denim jacket.  That person was not part of the plan.  What was their eldest daughter doing with him?  What was he doing with her?”

“Mostly we were just walking around the neighbourhood, hiding from them.  We were holding hands.”

“Think what they were imagining.”

“They had nothing to worry about.  We weren’t doing that.  We never did.”

“I know.  Becky told me.”

“So why did they have to ruin everything?  Why didn’t they just talk to me?”

“Simple.  The language barrier.  Their English was weak and you wouldn’t respect them, white man.”

“I would so.  And I was barely a man.  I was a boy.”

“A smart boy.  You were the smart boy at school.  They knew that much about you.  You would talk circles around them.  They were terrified of you.”

“I was terrified of them.  I still am.  They probably still hate me.”

"There was never any hate.  Unless you hated them."

"No, I didn't."

"So come and talk with them.   It’s different now.”


“Time.  They feel safe now.  Things mostly worked out as they had hoped.  They became emotionally invested in Canada.  It became their home.  Dad flies a maple leaf flag on Canada Day.” 

“Do they understand what they did hurt me a lot, Becky too?”

“They weren’t trying to do that.  They were doing what they thought was right.  They were protecting their family.”

“They hurt you and your husband.”

“They were trying to protect me, but it got emotional and ugly.”

He didn't respond for a few seconds.  Then he said, “They were being good parents.”

She also waited several seconds to speak, and then said, “I can’t tell if you’re finishing my thought or if that’s what you mean.”

He rubbed his forehead and asked, “Will Auntie Yvonne be there too?”

She laughed. “God, I hope not.”

“I don’t like her at all.”

“Nobody does.”


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