FathomOnline

 

 Fathom 1994

Cover

 

Inside Cover

 

Poetry

Graham Touchie (3)
Derrick Higginbotham
Tara J. Hoag (3)
Jason Holt (3)
Nadine Herman

Prose

Otto Lambert
Michael Kohn
Peter J. Taylor
Andrew Mitchell
Andrew MacLeod
Kenneth Gordon
Urs Frei

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Otto Lambert

 

 

The Beloved

     It was as the train came into motion that I noticed, two rows ahead of me on the other side, the hair and oblique profile of a woman who reminded me of another woman I had known, many years ago. I watched her, being idle. She had the same black straight thick cropped hair, parted in the middle, the soft and slightly rounded cheek, the same pink, rather childlike hands. I willed her face to turn but after ten minutes had to content myself with a gesture, a motion of the hand across the forehead and down to the cheek, as though in weariness or unhappiness, that could not have been produced by the woman I had known. My eyes drifted from her, and if they drifted back every other minute it was only, I suppose, because idleness turns every man into Tantalus.
     Perhaps you’ve guessed what followed, having the advantage of a reader. She rose to fetch something from her luggage – and it was her, it was the very girl I had been reminded of, fleshed out of reverie. Her name was Jillian Stern. I was faint and short of breath. If she had sat down directly I don’t know what would have happened. I might have gone to another car, at least until I had collected myself; I might have stayed there. But she fetched a book from a pocket of her suitcase, and at precisely the moment that the zipper closed she saw me. She broke into a smile, a joyous smile of recognition – I don’t exaggerate, it was nothing less – and instantly my heart was calm. We shook hands with the slightly mocking formality of friends.
     How much we had to say! It was as if we had been saving pennies for thirteen years and suddenly found ourselves owners of a small fortune, unaccounted for. We changed them into large bills and spent recklessly. She had travelled. There had been France, au pair, and Eastern Europe; she had taught English in an African country, then in Japan. Japan had been a horror, with its sardine-can rooms and subways crammed with gropers; though at least they didn’t try to kiss you on the cheeks, like the French. I laughed out loud, because this was how I remembered her, a little fey, not timid but held-back. I lack the power to convey her gestures adequately in prose. But let me make an inventory, and imagine them as you will: the hands placed flat upon the thighs as she listens, or if she is standing, her arms folded with one forearm on top of the other; the quick motion to the mouth as she tries to recall something, the slightly swinging motion of her walk; the range of intonations with which she will invest the words “yes” and “no,” always a little playful, always conveying, I can’t explain how, that maddening feyness, that held-backness, that shyness and untouchability.
     Then how had she changed? She was dressed like a business woman, in a skirt that reached her calves – I had never seen her in a skirt; but it was like a rented outfit, or something that had belonged to her mother. And who was it for? She was living in Montreal with a friend.
     Jillian has a boyfriend,” I murmured.
     “A friend,” she insisted, with that shy tormenting smile.
     “Jillian has a girlfriend.”
     She was always easily baited, or let herself seem it. “A friend!” she protested. “He happens to be a guy.”
     It was an arrow through the heart, but I did not feel it until later. She had returned to Montreal for more school. Teaching was not for her. She had turned a minor in political science into a full degree and now was applying for law school. In the meantime she worked as a shelving clerk in the McGill library. She yawned.
     The seats before us were unoccupied, and in the lull that followed her yawn we rose and turned them to face us. Then she fetched her luggage and took possession of them, and there we were, established together, with a little trepidation (I speak for myself), face to face for the rest of the trip. Suddenly there was nothing to say. I gazed at forest through the reflection of her face. And now I noticed another gesture I was sure the woman of my memory would not have performed. It was almost nothing, a nervous and rapid drumming of her fingers against her thigh.
     We had no choice now but to break into our store of shared reminiscence. We did so carefully, with the leisure that nostalgia likes, and conscious by now of the long trip ahead. In my earliest memories she is fifteen. (I was, and have alas remained, eight years older.) At twenty-three I was a competitive swimmer within striking distance (four positions in the national rankings, to be exact) of the Olympic team. I was a mediocre coach, but at the time she joined the club I was able to earn half my living from coaching. My early memories are of her silence. In one memory she is sitting a little to the edge of a group, her hands on her pale thighs and her eyes dreamily on the water she is swirling with her feet – a rather cruel memory of her ugliness, her shapeless legs and unformed breast, the bedraggled misery of her hair. In a second memory she is immersed – it’s not one memory but an amalgam – and it lives in the sharpness of its contrast to the first. Of course I knew better swimmers than she, some beautiful and desirable, but their memories have grown pale. In her group at any rate she was the best, graceful and strong and in every movement unforced. A few years later she had begun to win medals at the national meets. She qualified for a world championships one year, but by then I was hearing of her only through others, and soon I lost contact with swimming altogether. Once I telephoned her mother and learned that she was in France; and that was all.
     I work in Toronto as a proofreader and assistant editor. I have an apartment near Queen St. in a section of town inhabited mostly by immigrants. I am unmarried. Train journeys, as everyone knows, create the most unlikely intimacies, and I offer this as a gesture toward explaining why I began recounting for her my love affairs, exaggerating for some reason their unhappiness and their transience, and the various ways my lovers and I were ill-matched - their ludicrous opinions and tastes, our ludicrous quarrels. You’ll say that “for some reason” is coy if not plainly dishonest, since there seems little room to doubt that I had seduction in mind. But then it did not seem that way. I was looking for knowledge. But as always it was her interest alone she was willing to give, not her confidence.
     When night came she fell asleep easily. Every year or two I take this train from Halifax to Montreal. The names of towns like Campbellton and Rivière-du-Loup I’ll associate forever with night and the deathly emptiness of their railway platforms, with Peter Mansbridge or David Letterman haunting the windows of hovels. I’ll associate them with a kind of louring and unrelenting alertness that doesn’t spare from examination a single detail of my past, and with my reflection veiling them, as if they were what a photographer had chosen to represent as the contents of my reverie or dream.
     Tonight I’m watching the face of the woman before me, returned by sleep into the stupidity of childishness. My reveries circle it. They cast back insistently, as though with a meaning I’m too dull to receive, to a nightlong journey by car we once took, in May, when she was sixteen, to a swim meet in Montreal. We lost our way briefly in Maine and were befogged for an hour, and in the hills of northern Maine I can remember the headlights lighting out the underarches of the trees, mile after mile, and the towns that passed like a thought; and glancing to see her head tilted back trustfully and her mouth relaxed. Dawn came in the New Hampshire countryside. A fox crossed our path, and I made a rest on the other side of a short bridge. We walked to the river, took off our shoes and followed it upstream 500 feet to a lake, finding just enough steppingstones to avoid getting our feet wet. We were alone. The lake was as smooth as a mirror and overhung by fog. In the middle of it was an island, and I decided suddenly to swim there, stripped down to my undershorts and dove into the water. I had hoped that she would follow – don’t laugh at me – but when I rose from the water, shivering and to my shins in mud, she was nowhere to be seen. Evidently she had returned to the car; I could see my clothes in a neat pile on the stone I had dived from. But when I reached the stone again she was standing there with a towel and a pair of dry underwear from my pack. She said nothing, but draped the towel matter-of-factly on my shoulders and turned her back to let me change. In the car she fell asleep again. While the train was passing through the outskirts of Montreal I looked unsuccessfully for an excuse to prompt her into recalling this.
     We said goodbye in the Montreal station and exchanged addresses. I was to continue for Toronto, but after fifteen minutes I left the line-up waiting for the train. If I had intended at that moment to call or follow her, I realized when I was standing outside the station that this was impossible. I took a room in the hotel across the street and spent the day and evening there in a kind of insanity with her number and address resting beside the telephone.
     You may have already begun to doubt whether I’ll be able to provide a satisfactory ending to this. I’d offer you choices, and perhaps not all of them would be preposterous. Certainly there would be no sense offering you the full range of endings that passed through my head in that hotel room. I might for example have telephoned her and stammered out the truth. I might have written a letter and delivered it to her door. Would these not have been acceptable and even honourable courses of action? But the truth is that I did not leave that room for fear of meeting her by accident, and the next day I left the city.
     And let me warn you that all you’ll read now is an account of a dream. It occurred late in the morning of an indolent Saturday. I’m lying in a school or dormitory, reading. Jillian is there, seducing someone else. I’m feigning interest in my book and don’t follow the details of the seduction. The fellow is someone I had known in high school. I leave, but somebody throws crabapples toward me, and I go back. They are naked now, she is half sitting, half lying on the bed, her legs over the edge. He is kneeling on the floor abjectly before her. Two of the authorities come and pull them apart. One of them has a stick, and suddenly lashes out at her. It’s over immediately, she has a welt on her thigh and is in agony, he’s circling and pacing in his passion. The man who had come in with him is angry and helps Jillian to her feet. She is leaning on him as they walk away, and the sight of her nakedness is strangely homely and normal. Then I mention to someone that I had missed the build-up to this and he tells me that in that case I could not have understood it at all. It’s become a movie. I look back at the screen but it’s empty.

 

last updated August 17, 2007 | © 2007 Fathom Publishing
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