CAROLYN FISHER

Treading

He was only an ex. It was only three years.

By Rosemary Nixon

You’re lying on the couch watching Dr. Phil, the cat kneading your chest, paws slow and sensual; you’re being made love to by a fancy-footwork feline. Your melted-down balsamic-smelling candle is stuck in a congealed puddle on the TV top. Beneath it Dr. Phil is triumphantly spilling the debris of people’s lives onto his studio floor, ironed pants creased dangerously, his cologne-sprinkled chin jutting at the snivelling husband, the audience—90 per cent women—yodelling each time an off-camera stagehand holds up a CLAP VIGOROUSLY sign. In the time it takes to slap a family of late autumn fruit flies and scratch the scab off a zit, Dr. Phil has stomped all over the perpetrator while riding metaphorically high in his shiny leather saddle, the woman with the philandering husband sniffling along like she’s doing an ad for nasal drip.

Outside, four neighbourhood Barbies and their six dogs speed-walk by, a borzoi, a whippet, a Boston terrier, a Saluki with feathered ears and an embarrassed Australian ridgeback, while the demented springer spaniel escapes and catapults across your lawn chasing a squirrel, the women dolled up in lululemon, the dogs a confusing hue of knitted sweaters and mismatched bows. Brossie, your fickle feline, abandons you to tail-switch at the window, watching the crowd cruise by. He tongues his cavity, cranks his neck to stare at you, complains. You put your foot down at walking a cat. You could pay $400 to have Brossie put under to fix his tooth, but this cat’s prone to fainting spells, likely to put himself out for the operation at no extra cost. 

His parents are from rural Saskatchewan. Run-to-the-barn-and-kill-a-hog.

Commercial. Toasted cereal and online dating. You look down at your sprawled body. Admire all those dips and hollows that your ex-boyfriend will never again massage. You doodle a veined replica of Spain’s Rio Duero on a paper napkin stained with peach juice, for old times’ sake: you and your ex were set to backpack there, tickets already bought, before he and Charlene “ground gears” (the quotation marks belong to him; he loves his ten-speed.) You sketch the animal-pelt-pinned-to-a-wall-outline of the country of Spain so hard your pencil impales the napkin, while on the flickering screen three guys in sweatpants hearten the Boston Pizza delivery man with their warm cries. Brossie greedily swallows most of a piece of dental floss. Gags up a hairball. You wrest the phlegmy string away, and Dr. Phil’s back on. 

You pretend that you’re a pleasant person. Your boyfriend called you “nice” before he dumped you for Charlene. But the first thing you can’t stand about the psychologist who has swooped onto the screen across from Dr. Phil are her gums. Can’t stand the way she opens her mouth wide and holds that gummy pose, as if oral speech equalled ancient transcendental muscle exercise. The way she wraps and wraps her hair around her ears. Can’t stand her braggadocio. Can’t stand how she tells the wife it’s her job to let the husband know how she’s feeling (Hon, I’m cranky because you’re fucking Irene). Tell us about your courses on self-esteem, Dr. Phil says, crossing and uncrossing his knife-pleated knees, the camera panning to the wife looking like she might burst into song there at the screen’s edge, nodding, nodding from the audience, as if the question has been lobbed at her, as if with a neck-kinked whack she will volley the answer back on stage. 

Goat-grin: ”My classes are in demand!” the psychologist bleats. “Uh HUH!” A vigorous head-wag. Posh-Spice-mouth-purse. Aha! You spot lip lines! “Clients demand an improved self-esteem, and I produce!” I’m-just-so-friggin’-popular-and-am-I-not-attractive-in-a-frozen-forehead-kind-of-way? “Word passes> on,” that hair-flip voice; eyes dart, she shifts and swings her knees; oh Lord, the camera caught her bad side. “My course will change your life!” Teeth wrapping around to the back of her head. Isn’t she precious! Isn’t she the cat’s me-owww? Wouldn’t you know it, she’s writing a book. She reads an earnest excerpt about poverty-stricken children playing on a pocked street in El Salvador. I’m-special-because-I’m-ultra-aware-of-orphans-across-the world.

You decide on eggs. Eggs make you sad. And if you fucking feel like being sad, you will be. Your ex’s family invented a recipe called Pan at their last family reunion (unless they’ve had another to which they invited Charlene). His parents are from rural Saskatchewan. Run-to-the-barn-and-kill-a-hog. Your ex grew up on stewed pigs’ feet. Bread pudding. Blood pudding. Rice pudding. Emerald Jell-O studded with raisins and shredded carrots. Marshmallow and walnut coleslaw. A meat-and-potatoes boy with a penchant for the exotic. He likes Ethiopian swordfish, sex on the edge of sloughs, fast-walking, Sunday’s crossword and public washrooms with those paper towels that descend on their own. 

What he doesn’t like is you. 

You roll off the couch, loosen the hook and eye on your form-fitting bra. It’s brand new, seamless, underwire. You bought it to go to Spain. True, the bra looked more luxurious on the shelf than with you in it; it’s the stiff, pop-up variety, the kind an eager librarian might wear. Since your ex took up with Charlene, you’ve taken up gorging yourself on boysenberry sorbet. You have the time: what with your three-week booked vacation for your un-trip to Spain. 

Yes, you fancy Pan. Your ex’s rum-soaked sister and his four ammonia-scented brothers (they run a cleaning company, they’re wild about disinfectant) were horsing around the Loon Lake campsite, “Taking Care of Business” pounding on the car stereo, the grandma grasping the picnic table’s edge, protesting, “What home? Stanley? Don’t I live with you?” Staring around the campsite at the scattered dented rusty trucks with their gargantuan tires and drumming reverberations, wind chimes wheedling outside the trailer parked across, while your ex’s father pried Granny’s fingers loose and drove her to Turtleford (down Highway 26, the brothers agreeing: Granny’s gone off the rails) and dropped her at Lakeland Lodge in a town which boasts the largest turtle in North America (eight feet tall) named Ernie and is also home to the breeding grounds of a small, vulnerable bird called Sprague’s pipit. Your ex’s father stopped in St. Walburg on the way back (home to the Blueberry Festival and his sister Eileen and named for a nun who was canonized for her missionary work) and never did return with the lettuce from Eileen’s garden for your lettuce, green pea, cheddar cheese and mayo salad until after midnight, when everyone was full, the father and Eileen heading instead for the Four Leaf Inn to play schmier and the VLTs. 

You threw the peas out in the morning, gleaming green pearls against the sand.

That evening your ex’s sister from Moose Jaw showed off her juggling skills, faced backwards like a bride letting the bouquet fly, and flipped a piece of bread into the frying pan held by your ex. The brother in bowling shoes, not to be outdone, did the same with an egg. It somersaulted, spun and broke in the frying pan, spreading itself over the bread. Your ex, a vegetarian, pulled out the broken shell. Co-ol, everybody said. And Pan was born.

Turn on the heat. Fry. Smear. Flip. Salt and pepper. An egg-laced work of art. 

You slip your Pan onto a plate swiped from the dishes teetering in your sink. Brossie pads the counter top, investigating. His tail upends your jar of bird of paradise you bought for yourself when your ex’s exit signalled hasta luego to the myth of Spain. You look at the orange-petal beaks stabbing the pooled floor. Brossie straddles the prostrate flowers and laps up the green and stagnant water. You heave the drooping beaks into the garbage, along with your love life. 

Suicide by trash. On the couch you chew the rubbery concoction while considering all the exotic flowers of Spain you will never see, and what splendid swears they make: Espina santa! Holy Thorn! Hierba de la cruz! Herb of the Cross! Tomate del infierno! Hell’s Tomato! You consider the trip you and your ex took to the north of France a mere year ago. Last minute the four brothers clocked time off and tagged along. The heart of Paris, it turns out, is in its sewers. No, really. Sewers or the Eiffel Tower? Sewers or Moulin Rouge? You descended, all six of you in one hearty Canadian clump. An hour and 47 minute wait while the security guard had lunch. Thirty-eight degrees and humid, no public washroom in sight. You formed a queue in that baseball-bat-whack heat along with a milling group of surly British in plaid trousers and hats as loud as they were, fed up with foie gras, fed up with the bloody frogs who ignored them when they yelled questions in English. Bloody hell! 

The sewers stank. You held your breath, Pictured Jean Valijean, buttocks clenched.

The sewers stank. You held your breath. You held your bladder, sucking in like a vacuum cleaner. You pictured Jean Valjean, buttocks clenched, moist back pressed against a dripping wall; Inspector Javert, rat-like whiskers, tripping by, hunting him down for the heel of a loaf of bread. While the sewer ceilings creaked and groaned under passing bus tours, the brothers exchanged ideas about Scrub Free vs. Vim. That night, all six of you sweltering in one hotel room, the brothers got the swell idea to drag the bedclothes off the bed. Fill the tub with icy water, dunk the sheets in, and play a version of snap-the-tea-towel with the wet sheets until asses were shiny red; eventually you all lay in a row on the worn rug, rug-burned buttocks, a tangle of sweaty limbs, pulled the cold wet sheet over you and dripped together under stained cotton while the traffic of Paris roared by. 

The doorbell chimes. You smack down your plate and sprint, shedding cat hair as you go. Charlene’s dumped the rotter. He’ll need Green Tea laced with gin. You sweep the door open with a welcome swing. 

“Sigh,” the man on the front steps says. 

You exhale. Brossie darts. The man in the light blue silk pants and gold metal shirt (TV Mafia?) catches Brossie’s head in the door with a dull clunk. His shirt is open at the neck, sprouted chest hairs, thick gold chain. Dark greased-back hair. Cream-coloured loafers. 

Someone’s volatile boyfriend, and he isn’t even yours. 

Brossie sways off down the hall, listing sideways. 

“Cy,” the man sticks out a square-nailed hand. Sunlight bebops off his neck chain. Parked at the curb waits a baby-blue convertible. “Here to test your treadmill.” 

Hmmm. True, your basement flooded. Same week your ex walked out on you. Your ex was a dry man. He embraced dandruff. Left sloughed-off skin cells on the couch. Ate cereal without milk. Refused Lipsil. He grew up in a drought. What could he do? His favourite aspect of Paris was the low-flush toilets where your shit smears down the side, but not a drop of water wasted. True, you called insurance (you suspect Charlene). But repairmen don’t step off The Sopranos, do they? Repairmen wear coveralls and LA Lakers caps, they sport tape measures and dull, flattened pencils. 

Don’t ever marry someone 30 IQ points lower than your own.

You hope the machine is ruined so you can get insurance money and buy fuchsia leotards, a crocodile-skin dress, subscriptions to Aerobic and Twenty-Nine and Holding. When your ex was in the picture, you sweated 40 minutes daily in his boxers and your tank top on your trendy treadmill, grimly climbing hills, while he sat in the wingback chair cheering you on, breathing dryly through his mouth, watching the parliamentary channel. Ever since he left, you have ostracized the machine, lain in strips of sunlight examining your thighs for cellulite.

“Boyfriend couldn’t test it for you?” Cy leans against your bookshelf, butt coyly arched. “You have a boyfriend, right?” 

You consider kicking Cy’s feet right out of their cream loafers. You consider zapato assault. You say, “I do. A ballerina. He’s on tour.” You stride through your house, down the creaky stairs, turn the corner before Cy and snatch the magneted emergency button, stick it down your pop-up bra. The machine can’t run without it. 

Cy stands over your treadmill, hands lifted as if to conquer or pronounce a blessing. You brace yourself for a Dr. Phil-evangelist voice-over. But Cy just draws himself up, takes a tomato-y breath and steps onto the treadmill. He stabs a button. “Let’s power ’er up,” he says. “Stepping in this week for my friend Joey. Won a trip to Vegas. My job? Fixing fire extinguishers.” The machine blinks on and SI SI SI slides across the screen. Cy cries, “Awesome! That’s my name!” His bubble butt strains as he forces the tire-tread walkway into motion. He goes, it goes. He stops, it stops. 

Cy pokes at every orifice on the machine. “Weird. That’s really weird.” Cy’s voice bumps in and out as he struts handsomely on the spot. “Cuz the motor’s up here.” He taps the machine’s arms. He turns the power off, fires it up. SI SI SI.

“Most strange!” you say with sharp surprise; the emergency button angular and cool against your skin. “It worked before the flood!” 

Cy slaps the panel. “Well, she’s defunct,” he says. Wow. The two of you trip upstairs, Cy heeling, smoothing his Brylcreemed hair. 

You walk him through to the front door but Cy rocks on his heels and asks you for a glass of water. You fetch. He drinks. His Adam’s apple bobs. He only dates agent women, Cy announces, staring at your chest. His fingers brush yours as he hands back the glass. He must use Lipsil. The glass edge is waxy, smeared. 

“Agent women? You mean in the CIA?”

“Agean!” Cy says, voice strident with annunciation. “Filipinos are the best.” 

He’s looking down your blouse. Does the treadmill button show?

“Asian?” 

“Well, ye-ah. Wax in your ears?” Cy grins. His first wife was white and dumber than a post. Physically attractive? Yea-ah! He leans in. Paprika laced with herbs. Don’t ever marry someone 30 IQ points lower than your own. Cy smooths his shirt by sticking out his chest. The woman must fall right off the charts. 

Cy’s heel bumps the door and Brossie pokes his head out behind the fern and hisses. No offence, Cy says, but dating Agean girls’s the way to go. Want an example? Cy glances at your couch. You glance at your watch. But Cy’s already launched: End of a day—Cy’s moist hand slides over yours—you just wanna sit down and soak your feet? You know? Basin of hot water? Epsom salts? Fifteen minutes or so? Well, answer him this: Will a white woman scrape dry and flaking skin off his cracked heels? Cut out his corns?

“Ewwwww!” whooshes out of you.

Thank you! You’ve proved Cy’s point. 

He asks for another glass of water, unless you have Mountain Dew. All that sweating on the machine. Did he tell you he’s planning on turning Mormon? Well, because of the priesthood! What other church has the priesthood? No, Catholics don’t count. Any Mormon can become a priest. And still get married! Do Lutherans, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists have the priesthood? Triumphant pause. In The Church of Latter Day Saints, you can climb your way into heaven. You picture rows of Step Machines. It’s the one true church. No, you just haven’t had it explained clearly—he’ll send some literature. He’ll send the missionaries. No, women can’t join the priesthood. Well, good deeds are their own reward. Agean women. Apparently they’re joining the church in droves. Cy sighs with relief—good thing, they’re never fat. Cy couldn’t bear eternity with someone fat. Revived by a second glass of water, Cy sweats at the thought. “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from the musical Oklahoma jangles. Cy shouts “Yo!” into his cell phone. You seize the moment, wrestle open the front door with a promise to read Revelations, Brossie lurking cross-eyed under the credenza. 

You swim in sorrow. Imagine being canonized. Work on your conversion to singledom. Condensation shimmers the walls. You read up on Ezekiel’s dry bones. Drink water incessantly. Watch reruns of The Golden Girls. Play Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? on your computer, humming its watery soundtrack. Who painted Spain’s Guernica? Pablo Picasso! Congratulations! You have selected the right answer! What coastal city in Spain has the largest influx of Madridians every summer. Santa Pola! That’s absolutely correct! Which of the following is an offensive weapon? A knuckleduster. Congratulations! You are on your way to becoming a million-dollar winner! 

You make lists of adverbs that don’t end in -ly. Seldom. Soon. Always. You read how-to books: How to set up a sprinkler system, How to waterproof a tent, How to build a canoe. You sign up for paintball. Come home grim and satisfied, splattered in orange paint and sky-blue welts. You begin walking Brossie, who becomes long and lean. You both drink green tea, which aids stomach disorders and prevents cavities. You pull Brossie’s tooth yourself. Switch to the Country FM station. Make a list of songs featuring kick-ass boots. These boots are made for walkin’. Whose bed have your boots been under? Jesus, take my boots. Put yourself in my boots, honey. Boots of Spanish leather. Maybe your ex hung onto the tickets and whisked Charlene to Bel España. You buy a nail gun. Redo your hardwood floor. Late. Very. You envision your ex as a walking cyst, blisters proliferating under the clammy Spanish sun. Brossie moves into the dark hall closet, sleeps 16 hours a day. You buy a waterbed. Devour cartons of blueberry Häagen Dazs out of the container, wedged in so hard it bends the spoon. 

He was only an ex. It was only three years. What you really want is a guest appearance on Dr. Phil with your own mob-like maenad women. Fast. Now. Already. You will dye your hair indigo. Let your toenails grow to fins. Glide through your house as if through tears and ocean water.  

Calgary’s Rosemary Nixon is author of Mostly Country (1993), The Cock’s Egg (1994) and Kalila (2011).

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