3 - No Turning Back
Every left turn, right turn, sign post, cyclist, parked car, lane change, traffic light was a potential lawsuit. A fine. An altercation. Headline: Volvo reno-wagon on Hillside sparks mayhem, panic, mass hysteria! I hate driving in Victoria. Getting to the home center's order desk sure didn't improve my mood.
Poke, poke... click. Poke. Pen tapping on CRT monitor. Beep! "Eh!" The clerk, a skater with a Rogaine starved mullet, grunted: "Laaah-val, pee cue." He puzzled that out then blurted, "Oh yeah! It ain't here, eh. Went to pee cue."
"Like I says. It went to pee cue." He turned the CRT to prove it.
"P. Q." I said. "That means, 'province of Québec'!"
"Yeah, like I said, eh. Laa-vall. Province of kwah-beck."
"It's a suburb of Montreal!"
"Montreal, eh?" He squinted at the screen. "Wicked hockey players!"
"Can you get one from another store?"
"Nooo wayyyy! Special order, eh. Gotta go through customs an shit. Hayyy, maybe that's why it's at pee and cue?"
"No, they called me from the pee and cue store to say it's in and to pick it up." No wonder the caller spoke French. Bollocks! I was hosting an Arts & Crafts meeting, Friday. At my painstakingly restored, Craftsman bungalow. The one with a naked twisty-bulb instead of that light fixture. "This is a disaster!"
"Chill, lady. It's just a light fixture, eh."
"Just a light fixture!? Calling this thing, 'just a light fixture,' is like calling Aida, 'just a tune.' This thing is a reproduction, California, Arts and Crafts, Pasadena, Gamble house chandelier. It's probably in a box the size of a washing machine and almost as heavy." Bloody hell! A naked bulb was the ultimate insult to my cedar shingled walls and perfectly matched moldings. What a sodding cock-up!
* * *
I parked the reno-wagon. Twinkling shards of colored glass littered my hand antiqued, cobble pavers. Typical! Another tranche of smashed christmas lights. "Last merry-freaking-christmas I put up goddamned lights!"
Back when I bought the bungalow, Oak Bay was just starting to get oh-so-trendy. But with subprime lending out of control, and house flipping sending real estate into high Earth orbit it had become a hip location for the upwardly mobile and their angry kids. Bored out of their minds, they found meaning and purpose in life by mimicking their favorite gang, wrecking stuff, binge drinking and beating the crap out of each other.
The Palm snagged my Wi-Fi. "New Message!"
Whoa! Email from Elena.
My heart raced. Forget the christmas lights, I just faked the happy-holidays anyway. In my last email, I suggested we meet in Kyiv. I'd been reveling in the Orange Revolution and frothing at the mouth to go back.
Elena's response: "Kyiv is too far... Parents will never let me go..."
Parents!? Was she nuts... or a child? On the phone she sounded like an adult. In photos she looked like an adult. An adult with a serious, deer-in-the-headlights look. The thing is, she didn't look, sound, or read like someone whose parents could tell her what to do.
Until then, my discourse with Elena had been heartfelt, honest. Truth be told, I found things Elena wrote about rather moving. Her descriptions of life, her commentary on how she saw things, the way she described the people and the lives around her, the photos she took -- literally, a graphic representation of how she saw even the simplest of things, had more than once left me in tears. Elena was an amazing presence, unquestioningly open and emotionally honest. Which is why the email I just got from her didn't feel right. Something lurked between the lines. Something was wrong. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I was genuinely worried about the extraordinary woman reaching to me through the data-stream.
* * *
My joke was meant to lighten the mood. It didn't. It flopped. Typical! When deans and department heads crack jokes, it's uproarious. Doctor William Hacket -- that's PhD, not MD -- sat behind his imposing, Mission style, Craftsman, Arts & Crafts, solid red-oak desk and scowled at me menacingly.
I attempted to deflect his gaze by glancing side to side at the symmetrically placed, period, Arts & Crafts, leather chairs. I swear those chairs were designed to trap the sitter and lower their stature. No joy. I turned to slink out. It felt like the office door was getting further and further away. Like that haunted house at Disneyland.
"Heeeeeeeey, what's with da 'tude, babe?" There's just no polite way to describe a sixty-plus, privileged, white man with a Peter Pan complex and upper-class, Bostonian accent trying to lighten the mood with ghetto-speak.
"You still set on doing that Arts & Crafts society thing at your place this Friday?"
"Ah..." I'd totally forgotten about it! "... I guess... Look sir, I'd rather not. The stupid light went to Montreal."
"Great! I mean, sorry about your lamp." William swung back toward his desk. "Thing is, Sarah would love to host the meeting at our place. We won an original Stickley sofa at auction. Wait until you see it!"
"Bought: highest bid, you see? Actually rather high but it's a nice piece." He chucked his glasses onto the desk and reached for the phone.
I just stood there. I really didn't want to be at that meeting regardless of locale.
William hit speed dial, dismissed me with a wave. Leaving his office, I heard him yell, "And bring something Martian, Venetian, what is that fake food you eat?"
"Vegan." I said.
"Oh yes, that's it. For the grill, you know? Unless you want real food -- bleeding rare."
* * *
Since meeting Elena, my whole interest in the Craftsman revival thing had been on the wane. At first, the whole Arts & Crafts thing was like a secret society: fanatics supporting each other's obsession. But it was losing its appeal. A bunch of really bored, rich people one-upping each other with what they could spend. An exclusive club where the Arts & Crafts ethic of, By Hammer and By Hand, could be purchased for hundreds -- if not millions -- of dollars.
I got to the Hackett's place and found a note taped to the doorbell. "Please gong." An arrow pointed down at one -- a gong, in case you missed it. A mallet dangled on a string from the doorknob.
Cute. I gave it a good whack.
Nothing happened. The sound of crashing waves must have drowned it out. Freezing and feeling more than a little stupid, I re-gonged with gusto. If I didn't think I'd send the thing flying into the sea, I would have kicked it. Nothing. The doorbell's lighted button glowed through the note. Screw it. I banged the doorbell button with the mallet.
The castle-like door opened. William stood there, bleary-eyed, drink in hand. "Why didn't you gong?"
I handed him the mallet. "I did. Your gong is out of order so I had to doorbell." With tofu wieners in hand, I headed for the kitchen. It felt great to leave my idiot boss standing there, door wide open, mallet in one hand, whiskey in the other.
Sarah stood behind the indoor grill. "Oh, hiiiiii! I see you brought the tofu dogs. Be a dear and pop them on the grill. Will's got me running off my feet. He decided that doing this party ourselves, casual and homey, would be a nice change."
The kitchen looked like it had blown up. "No problem." I took over at the indoor grill. I preferred it to the psychological chess game, playing-out in the living room. I put up with William at work. I resented the charade after hours. Besides, I wasn't really teaching for the money. I'd come into a sizable inheritance on top of having a bio-family paying me to stay away and not embarrass them. Years earlier, coming out of the closet turned me into a remittance woman. Better than putting a hit on me, and maybe cheaper I suppose.
Boisterous, forced laughter erupted in the living room.
"That's my William." Sarah sighed. "Laughing at someone's expense to be sure... Probably mine."
Oooh-kay. I looked up. Nothing like sarcasm, snide comments, and domestic drama to make for a nice, relaxing evening.
"Forget it. I'm just tired." She covered. "You can go and join the party. I'll be alright. You better tell him how much you like that -- I guess it's called a sofa. He paid more for that thing than for my car."
I thought of my stupendous light-fixture. Buyer's remorse was setting in. "I saw the sofa on my way through the living room. It looked an awful lot like a futon I had as an undergrad. You're kidding, right?"
"Nope, not at all. If you plan on teaching next term you better gush over that -- I'm not even sure it is furniture -- thing, out there."
"I meant, costing more than your car."
"I know you did." Sarah jammed tongs into the salad. "I am just saying..."
It was all a game. A life destroying, all consuming, self-denigrating, game of sucking-up, and for what? A really huge lamp? A forty thousand dollar futon? Stage time in a lecture hall full of undergrads who'd rather be anywhere else. My head was starting to spin and I hadn't even hit the scotch. "Sarah, I'm sorry. Not feeling great. I have to leave."
"No problem. Be glad that you can."
"Huh? Oh yeah, right. Sure you're okay?" I picked up the tofu-wieners and shouldered into my coat.
"Use the back door, Meg. William won't know you walked out on his torture-rack sofa unveiling. About that, I will tell him you loved it."
The kitchen door faced the ocean. I held it half open against the icy blast and turned to Sarah. "No, please don't. In fact, tell him that I walked out." Then I added, "And tell him that I took my Martian wieners with me."
By the time I had the tofu-wieners sizzling in my own microwave, I knew exactly how to answer Elena's last letter. With an itinerary. It was time for no-turning-back. I booked my flights to Kyiv and wrote: "I'll be there on February sixteenth for at least a month. You are welcome to join me, and I desperately hope you will."
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