Rough Fescue

The honourable member for Edmonton-Centre pictures his coffee table covered in Post-Its. And then the rhythm seizes him.

By Anna Lund

Steve LeBlanc, the honourable member for Edmonton-Centre, still has the note his wife left behind. It is atypically practical and written in the overly formal dialect of those for whom English is a second language. He reads it over from time to time. Instructions on how to run the high-efficiency washing machine. A list of the bills to be paid each month. A recipe for French onion soup, his favourite. And her new contact information in Montreal.

To clarify, as Steve often feels it is necessary to do, his wife did not break up with him in a note. Their very adult natures mandated an unnecessarily long meditation on their relationship’s shortcomings. With a singular passion, his wife had explained, “Ma famille me manque. Mes amis me manquent. La belle province me manque.”

Later, in a concession to Steve’s imperfect bilingualism, she had switched to heavily accented English, “I just want to go home.”

And she went.

Manon.

Steve forces himself up from his soft suede couch and wanders through the empty rooms of his bungalow. Outside, the Edmonton winter is bearing down. Snow. Wind. Bleak evenings that arrive before the workday is done. Inside, Steve is restless. He wanders into the bathroom and opens the medicine cabinet. Gone are the tampons, the nail polish, the shapely vials of mysterious beauty potions. His razor sits forgotten in a pool of dried shaving cream. Closing the door, he catches his reflection in the mirror.

Calice,” he says. “You look like shit.”

Steve swears in French. It used to make Manon laugh. A way for them to poke fun at the giant white elephant in the middle of their marriage. The language barrier hadn’t been their only problem, but then again the difference between the English and the French in Canada is not merely linguistic.

They had lots of problems.

Problems in the bedroom.

Problems in the ballroom.

A well-meaning friend had given them dance lessons as a wedding present. For the next seven weeks—no class on Thanksgiving Monday—he and Manon had waltzed to a familiar refrain. “Stop counting. Feel the music.” Manon’s criticism always interrupted Steve’s train of thought.

“One-two-three. One-two-three.”

“You’re stiff like a board.”

Et tu—” Steve once said in a moment when frustration clouded his better judgment and his bilingualism, “—and you are a bad stereotype of Latin passion.”

“I’m not Latin, I’m Québécoise.”

Steve wanders by the answering machine. No new messages.

He’d bought the answering machine at Manon’s urging. He needed, she said, more clear barriers between his work life and his personal life. So the land line and answering machine were for personal calls, which meant calls from Manon and his mother, since no one else bothered to call him, or those that did rejected the artificial separation of two phone numbers. For a while, after she left, the answering machine had become a time capsule of a happier era. Calls from Manon, saved in reverse chronological order. He rarely listened to any of them, but it comforted him to know they were there. Then he had accidentally unplugged the answering machine, deleting all the messages—new and old alike.

Not that there were any new messages by that point, at least not from Manon. A couple of weeks after leaving, she’d told him, “We both need some space.” It was a gentle way of saying that she needed space. He already had space. Beaucoup de space. Trop de space.

Steve reaches the kitchen and fumbles through the cabinet for the bottle of Bombay Sapphire. Methodically, he mixes himself a gin and tonic. He pulls a stool up to the kitchen island and sets his drink down a little hastily. It spills onto the cool, granite countertop.

Calice.” He uses his shirt sleeve to wipe up the spillage. “Calice.”

Across from where he sits, lounging in a nest of oak cabinetry, is Manon’s television. She liked to watch it while preparing meals. Steve turns the set on. Radio-Canada.

The 11:00 newscast has already started. The top story, a guilty verdict in a high-profile murder case, is covered. The fate of the Edmonton Oilers is discussed in depth, highlights of the game-winning goal shown in slow motion. And then the national news.

Steve has been lulled into complacency by the soft clinking of ice cubes in his masterfully poured highball, but now he perks up. Montreal has had the biggest separatism rally since the referendum in 1995. Steve watches the angry protesters fill the streets, chanting in unison and waving their placards. Je me souviens. 

Steve isn’t reading the placards. He is fixated on the blurry image of one particularly animated protester. Impossible.

“She was wearing a nightie made out of the Charter. I’ve never been so aroused.”

Manon.

“You’re a mess.” Steve’s colleague, the honourable member for Edmonton-West, better known as Brian, has invited Steve out for waffles with a side of sausage and machismo. “You need to look on the bright side. When my wife left me, I felt like shit for about two weeks, but then I was knee-deep in fresh pussy and could hardly remember the ex’s name.”

Steve remembers her name, Justine. She seemed like the perfect politician’s wife: well-dressed, well-groomed, well-mannered. Perky breasts. Great ass. He and Manon had attended a series of sessions with Brian and Justine. The sessions, arranged by the party, had addressed common marital problems experienced by newly elected politicians and their spouses. At the time, they’d all viewed the sessions as a bit of a joke. And now? A joke of a different kind.

“She’s seeing someone new. Did I tell you that already? Some hotshot oil and gas guy in Calgary. He’s loaded: condo in Canmore, timeshare in Mexico. I never would’ve pegged Justine as a gold digger, but good on her, I guess.”

Brian pauses and administers another dose of maple syrup to his waffles. “Have you been talking to Manon?”

“No.” Steve stares glumly at his plate. He knows that he should offer an explanation, if only to be less of a conversational black hole. But he can’t bring himself to tell Brian about how thoroughly Manon has cut him out of her life.

“Well, let me know if I can help. Maybe an evening out at the gentleman’s club.” Steve gives a non-committal answer as he clumsily stabs at his waffles. The cook skimped on the strawberry sauce. Calice.

Brian takes the conversation in another direction. “So they’re going to go through with the new bill.”

“Really?” Steve wonders if he succeeds in looking interested.

Brian presses on. “Yeah. And let me tell you, we’re going to get hammered by the opposition. My constituents love it, but it’s sure going to make re-electing candidates out east hard.”

“Yeah.”

“Hell. If this were the government of Alberta, we’d waste away the session debating something totally pointless like a new provincial grass, and then at the last minute push the bill through. No time for anyone to make a fuss.”

“Rough fescue.”

“What’s that?”

“Rough fescue. The provincial grass of Alberta.”

Steve’s first introduction to the political process had constituted canvassing the Saturday morning farmers market with his mother, the Sunday naturalist. She had a petition, all that was missing were the signatures. Whereas rough fescue is a humble but nourishing grass…

“Why rough fescue?” Her face would light up when asked. And gently, humorously, knowledgeably she would educate the questioner. More often, though, the market crowd would sail by on a wave of elk sausage and organic tomatoes. She would resort to educating her mortified, preteen son: “You know, honey, you should never underestimate the power of symbols.”

“Provincial grass. What a load

of shit.” Brian laughs to himself and shamelessly checks out the waitress.

After breakfast, Steve wanders into a bookstore and peruses the shelf for a book on landscaping. His mother’s birthday is coming up and she is making noises about redoing her yard to be more water-efficient. Naturalizing it. Letting indigenous grasses reclaim the manicured green space. Steve will be back in Ottawa and most likely miss the celebration, but he wants to make sure to get her something really special.

“Well, go ahead and say it, mom.”

“Say what?”

“I told you so. I warned you. I never liked her.”

“Sometimes these things just don’t work out.”

“And?”

“And anglophones and francophones only live happily ever after in Hugh MacLennan novels.”

Barometer Rising?”

“No. That other one.”

By 4:30 p.m., Steve has run every errand he can come up with and ends up back at the bungalow. It is already dark out. Winter in Alberta.

As he passes, he takes note of the answering machine. No new messages.

Steve collapses into his couch and reaches for the remote. Nothing good on yet. CTV Newsworld is covering the separatist march in Montreal, but the footage is different and try as he might he can’t pick Manon out in the angry crowd. His stomach grumbles. He realizes he hasn’t eaten since breakfast.

Manon did all the cooking. She took good care of him. She also did all the shopping. Steve rummages through his pantry and finds a can of creamed corn and a box of cereal. He’s saved from eating the cereal with water when he finds a can of evaporated milk in the back corner behind some sprouting onions. He microwaves the creamed corn and eats it first. Then he rinses out the bowl, adds water to the evaporated milk and pours the cereal in. He reclines on the sofa and spoons cereal into his mouth. Délicieuse.

On TV, the broadcaster is on to a new segment. Coverage of a figure-skating competition in Nagano, or is it the Netherlands? Steve is having a hard time concentrating. He feels painfully sleepy. He’s been so tired recently. Maybe I should eat more protein? I’ll just put my head down for a moment. And he drifts off to sleep. Beside him on the coffee table, his cereal is breaking down in the milk. It snaps. It crackles. It pops.

Steve has a dream. He is in the Dinwoodie Lounge on the University of Alberta campus—an odd, haphazard kind of space in the Students Union Building. On the weekends, the Dinwoodie hosts intimate concerts with fashionably unknown bands. On weeknights, it is home to the U of A ballroom dancing club and Steve’s ill-fated dance classes.

He and Manon are back at Dinwoodie, together, learning how to waltz. There is something wrong with his legs; they feel heavy and he can’t get the steps right. Manon is trying to help by counting out loud but her numbers are garbled and in the wrong order.

And then the dream shifts. Manon is replaced with a blonde woman with sharp, hawkish features. She smiles at Steve. The music stops.

The stranger takes him by the hand and leads him in a dance that’s like nothing he has ever danced before. His legs lose their leaden touch and he floats around the room. Nimble. Graceful. Following in the stranger’s footsteps. The dance gets faster and faster, and he is leaping, twisting and twirling in time to music that he can only feel. The silence crescendoes. Steve gyrates euphorically.

When Steve wakes up, the first thing he notices is a dry stickiness in the crotch of his pants. For a moment he ignores the mess. He rummages in the drawer of his coffee table until he finds a red pen and a stack of yellow sticky notes. Swiftly, yet with deliberation, Steve sketches out the dance from his dream. He has no trouble remembering it. As he draws, his feet tap out the rhythm. They know the steps.

When he is done, he sits back and admires his work. His coffee table is covered in Post-Its, each setting out part of the new dance. Steve smiles to himself.

My dance.

Later that week. One new message. “Steve, it’s Mom. Call me.”

Steve convinces Brian not to go to the strippers. What if someone sees us? Twelve beers later, no longer able to stand on his own feet, Brian acquiesces to Steve’s reluctance. More beers are consumed. Both men begin to struggle with verbiage. Brian gets an uncharacteristically faraway look in his eyes and admits to Steve that he misses Justine. Steve is inebriated, but he manages to feign surprise.

Steve doesn’t talk about Manon or his dream—at least not until after Brian has recounted his latest Margaret Thatcher sex dream.

“And she was wearing this nightie made out of the Charter. I’ve never been so aroused.”

Steve can’t stay quiet any longer. He knows he shouldn’t say anything, but the beer has lubricated his tongue. “You’ll never believe the dream I had.”

“No?”

And he recounts the story. Dinwoodie lounge. The stranger. The dance. The happy ending. Brian encourages him. Steve stands up and tentatively takes a first few steps. Brian laughs, but not cruelly. Steve gains confidence and begins to pound out the steps in time to Brian’s banter. Left. Right. Left. Slow. Slow. Quick. Steve’s feet move faster. His arms fly in every direction. Brian stops laughing and watches intently. The crescendo. The climax. The finale.

“Wow. You came up with that yourself?”

“I told you. It came to me in a dream.”

The next afternoon, Steve is in bed. His head is pounding. He’s vomited twice already. He’s self-medicating: Vitamin B12 for the hangover; ibuprofen for the headache; ginger for the nausea; Gatorade to rehydrate.

The phone rings, not his private line but his cell phone.

“It’s me.” Brian, impossibly perky. “I’ve been thinking.” Uh-oh. “And I ran it by the house leader.” Calice. “That dance of yours.” Calice. Calice. “We want to make it the new national dance of Canada.”

“I’m going to vomit.”

Steve vomits beer foam. He sleeps soundly. Later he wonders if the call from Brian was a dream too. He crosses his fingers and longs for a rabbit’s foot.

Brian’s phone call wasn’t a dream. The next day his cell phone rings. He should be in Ottawa early to present his dance to cabinet. They’re excited. He’s really helping the party out. Nobody is going to forget this.

Steve scratches his back and puts the phone down for a moment. Something stirs in his belly. Not resignation. Not indigestion. Something powerful. He thinks about his mother. The petition. Rough fescue. He calls his assistant and asks her to arrange for a plane ticket.

“First thing tomorrow morning. To Ottawa.”

He visits his mother to drop off her birthday present. She’s upset that he didn’t call first. She would have baked muffins; banana sesame, his favourite.

“Its okay, Mom.”

She forces him to eat a ham and butter sandwich. She seems a little too frantic, a little too overbearing. Steve feels bad for her.

“I’m okay, Mom.”

“…little more than a dance fit to be performed by rig pigs.” That’s it. One straw too many.

“Steve, you need to see something.” She herds him into the family room and he sinks into the brown tweed chesterfield of his youth. His mom fumbles with the VCR. The TV lights up bright blue and then, not quite instantly, is replaced by a frozen frame. The separatist march in Quebec. At the front of the screen, a familiar blurry figure is paused mid-chant.

“That’s not her, Mom.”

Steve packs a small bag. He doesn’t need much. He rents a condo in Gatineau and keeps a full complement of suits, sweatpants and other necessities there. As he leaves, he eyes the answering machine, then closes the door.

The cabinet loves the dance. He doesn’t perform it for them, but he provides them all with an outline of the steps. The Minister of Agriculture from northern Manitoba is pretty sure it’s a Métis jig.

“No,” says the Minister of Indian & Northern Affairs. “It’s quite obviously a hoop dance, just without the hoops. Cree.”

The Minister of Fisheries from St. John’s can make out the distinctive rhythm of a bodhrán in the pounding steps.

“Ridicule,” says the Minister for Bilingualism & Multiculturalism. He wants to talk about the surge of separatist popularity in his home province. But when pushed he admits that he likes the dance. There’s something vaguely French about it, not fully Québécois, but maybe Franco-Albertain.

Steve doesn’t have a personal line in Gatineau because he doesn’t have much of a personal life in Gatineau, just party functions. And Brian. One night he and Brian get together for dinner.

“So here’s the star of the party. Does being famous suit you?” By “fame,” Brian is referring to an article written in the Hill Times and another one on him and the dance in The Fulcrum, the University of Ottawa’s student newspaper.

“Was the Fulcrum reporter hot?” One-track-mind Brian.

“She was 19.”

“So she was hot.” Brian segues into his latest fling, an executive assistant for one of the opposition members. “I’m quite literally screwing the other side.”

Steve laughs and he thinks about the reporter, not the mousy girl who actually interviewed him, but the busty blonde women who filled all of his undergrad fantasies. Only now he imagines that these women are interested in him, deliberately probing him for political insights, exchanging playful banter, asking hard questions, getting down on their knees, unzipping his fly and…

Manon.

He hasn’t had sex since she left. And before that? He thinks back but he can’t remember their last conjugal escapade. Une triste histoire.

“Oh,” says Brian, “and the screwing is great.”

After the beers are drunk and Brian has gone home, Steve sits in his condo on the cheap IKEA couch and watches an aging, wood-panelled TV. He didn’t feel he could justify spending a lot on a second set of furniture and Manon didn’t want the Gatineau condo to be more comfortable than their home in Edmonton, in case he decided not to come back.

Ha! Steve’s pretty sure that counts as irony.

The protests in Quebec are still news. The commentators think the numbers have peaked and are now in decline. Two political scientists of little repute debate what effect the announcement of a national dance has had on separatist sentiment. They show a clip of the Minister for Bilingualism & Multiculturalism assuring his fellow francophones that the dance adequately recognizes their nation’s contributions to Confederation.

Steve doesn’t see Manon in any of the footage. He looks hard, but he can’t make her out. Still, he knows she is there. He can imagine it. Her blue eyes. Her white skin. Her luscious, fat lips forming ugly, hurtful words: “La belle province me manque.” 

No. Not those words.

The lead-up to the national dance discussion is brutal. Steve is a backbencher in the House of Commons. He’s not called on very often, and the questions put to his fellow government members make him angry.

“Mr. Speaker, could the member from Manitoba-Churchill please explain why Saskatchewan isn’t better represented in the dance?”

“Mr. Speaker, I’m not sure that the member from Montreal-Outremont has really assured us that having a national dance isn’t a form of discrimination against mobility-challenged Canadians.”

“Mr. Speaker, I worry that the dance has Christian overtones that threaten the constitutionally recognized separation between church and state.”

Steve seethes with unventable rage. He’s knows that his dance, the dance from his dreams, has the power to make things better, maybe even just a little. He peels off a Post-It and angrily scrawls himself a quick note, capitalized, underlined: “This not the time for partisan pettiness or political point-scoring.” Then he impotently stuffs it into his pocket and grinds his teeth.

A few days before the vote is set to take place, Steve is one of an unfortunate group of MPs expected to stay late for the evening sitting of the House. The opposition member from Ajax, Ontario, is taking the opportunity to rail against the impending vote on the national dance. He suggests that it isn’t really representative of Canada, that it is a product of Alberta alone.

“Little more than a line dance, fit to be performed by redneck rig pigs in cowboy boots.”

And that’s it. One straw too many.

“Honourable Mr. Speaker.” Steve stands up. He bows down low. An anticipatory hush falls over the usually dozy crowd. Steve walks down between the desks, out into the middle, in front of Mr. Speaker. The clerks frantically flip through the rules of procedure, looking to identify the many ways in which they have been violated. But Steve pays them no heed.

In his head, Steve pictures his coffee table covered in Post-Its. He pictures his nocturnal dance partner. He takes a first, tentative step. And then the rhythm seizes him. He is helpless in its grasp. He dances the dance as it has never been danced before. Around and around he goes. Bringing the silent music to life. Straining closer to distinction. Leaping. Twisting. Twirling. The sweat begins to pool at his temples and his calves ache but he dances on. He dances for his party. He dances for his country. He dances because he still believes that he can make a difference.

In the silence of the House of Commons, the bedraggled mix of MPs and bureaucrats look on until at last Steve reaches the climax, finishes and then collapses into a low bow in front of Mr. Speaker. The applause starts with the honourable member from Ajax, Ontario, and spreads through the room.

“Aye!” They all yell, though no vote has been called.

Next morning, the emails start to arrive. “It reminds me,” begins one, “of when the ocean used to teem with olivine cod.”

Another compares Steve’s dance to early autumn in Muskoka. The campfires. The maple leaves taking on hues of red and orange. The loon calls at night.

A third writer sees wheat fields, heavy with grain. “But just so we’re clear, I’d rather eat glass than vote for you.”

“I’m so proud of you,” starts the fourth. “Love, Mom.”

The bill to create a national dance for Canada passes third reading and Steve can go home for a while. The flight is uneventful. The drive from the airport is calming, familiar. He unlocks the front door and walks into his silent, empty house. There, in the darkness, his answering machine is flashing. A beacon.

One new message.

Steve pauses for a moment, takes a deep breath, and unplugs the machine from the wall.

Anna Lund (almost always) wears a suit to work. She lives in Edmonton with her partner, Henry Campbell, and puppy, Oscar.

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