When Carrie looks up at you, pale green eyes pleading, and asks when daddy is coming home, you have to tell her the truth. But you can soften it. Instead of saying, your daddy blew his brains out in that cabin I didn’t know about until three years into our marriage, you can say: your father had a sickness in his brain, and then he died. That’s what the literature recommends.
When she runs up to you on the beach, at the Mexican resort where you’ve taken her to get away from the looks, of pity yes but also curiosity and something a little like blame, when she shows you a jagged piece of seashell and clutches it to her ear, saying she doesn’t hear anything, tell her to keep listening. She skips toward the water, lithe in her lavender bikini, an impulse purchase. You wonder if she’s too young to wear a bikini, whether that yellow-haired man’s eyes linger a little too long.
When you want to surrender to the crashing violence of green waves, to let them swallow you whole until there’s nothing left but a straggle of dirty-blond seaweed, stop. Let out your trapped breath. Close your eyes, pause, open them and order a mojito from the cute shirtless bartender and pretend you don’t notice that look from the soggy couple with their guidebooks spread open on the bar who are judging you because it’s not yet noon. Laugh as you feel the warm grains beneath your feet, the cleansing drink in your hand, and let the lime and sugar and rum slide down your throat. Chew on a piece of mint.
Avoid asking questions. Especially the biggest, which hangs two inches in front of your lips. Swat the whys away like flies.
Don’t think about Keith. About the time, at a place like this, he bought pink and orange Bermuda shorts, glorious in their ugliness, that rendered a cartoon version of his usual black-clothed self. Carrie wheedling chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream cones and rounds of Pac-man at the beachside arcade. Carrie cartwheeling down the beach into the fog. Carrie beaming at the two of you, taking one of your hands and one of Keith’s and fitting them together.
Keith tanned easily; sunscreen is for wusses. But the sun was stronger than him. The worst burn of his life, he moaned as you applied the aloe vera. You woke in night, the sheets slick with aloe, the sound of his ragged breath, the sweet smell of salt drifting through the open window, Carrie’s slim white form in a pool of moonlight on the cot in the corner.
Carrie’s skin browning even though you’ve only been here three days. She must get that from her father; you’re still as pale as the snow covering your backyard at home. Her growing up looking like him. Will people question you when you go abroad, you with your name and her with his?
How to tell her more of the truth? You want to talk to her on the plane, but she has huge headphones clamped over her sleek little blond head, green eyes transfixed by Bella and Edward. You can’t bear to break that spell.
When you get to the room, don’t cringe when you see the rose petals fluttered into the bathtub, the towel swans necking on the bed, the champagne frosting in the minibar, when you realize this is a hotel meant for couples.
You and Carrie go to dinner. Table for two. Let the breeze lick your bare shoulders, order grilled calamari and garden salad and a glass of white. Notice the perfect teeth of the man sitting alone at the next table. Like Keith’s. Pure white, straight, square, strong enamel, no stains. Just one thing: a small, tiny fracture in his left molar.
You tell Keith you can fix it, the first time you meet, him in your chair looking up at you from behind cheap plastic goggles, brown eyes shining in your light. His teeth are almost too perfect. You wonder what he’s hiding.
You can tell a lot about someone from their teeth. Stains show overconsumption of wine or coffee, discoloured roots indicate use of a particular brand of birth control, and erosion, maybe an eating disorder. You take one look and approximate a personality: stressed caffeine and alcohol-guzzling grinder, or meditative mellow yogi. Inattentive let-things-fly type or meticulous tooth care zealot.
Your teeth are your business card, your professor said in dentistry school. Most people don’t think about that when they keep their floss hidden in the back of the cabinet until the day of their dentist appointment. White, unstained teeth can take five years off a person’s age, increase your attractiveness by 20%. When you and Keith go out the first time, you add five years to the age you think he is while he dips chips into salsa.
You took a shot of rum before leaving your apartment. You haven’t been on a date since college and you’re nervous. Keith keeps your wine glass full of sangria and plies you with questions.
How did you manage to become a dentist by, what, twenty-two?
You aren’t ready to tell him your age. Twenty-six, which doesn’t sound as good as twenty-four or even twenty-five. Some guys want a younger woman on their arm. Plenty of guys in town like that. Guys who buy you a vodka cranberry when you go to Sweetwaters and sway your hips on the dance floor. You accept because it’s a small town and who’s heard of the date rape drug? Small, small talk. Soon as they realize your age, your profession, they bolt. Your teeth mislead them.
Keith, though, he walks you through a surprise June hailstorm and kisses you on the cheek on your front porch as tiny white balls ping off your heads.
Don’t think about his kiss, the smoothness of his never-chapped lips.
When they say the things people say at funeral homes, This too will pass or It’ll get better or I’m so sorry, honey, focus on their teeth. How naked it makes them. The things you can learn. Wait until they open wide to fit a smoked trout canapé so you can get a better look. You have a practice to maintain, after all, more than ever since Dr. Malcolm retired last year. You know he went soft in the end, not always treating things he should have once his pension was within reach. You see the hard edge of resentment in the eyes of the older patients, the pain you’re inflicting. Don’t take those looks personally. You’re their dentist, not their friend. Try not to let it wear on you, like the acid that wears enamel.
By the time he dies, Keith’s teeth are less perfect. Fillings, stains from the wine you drink together. His teeth go downhill as soon as you take them into your care.
You find Keith in the kitchen, a still shadow at the sink. You turn on the light and shriek when you see his hands covered in blood. Don’t worry, he says, it’s just moose.
He drives into the woods on Sundays to meet the government men who’ve traded suits for plaid. He accepts a huge carcass and returns it neatly divided into vacuum-sealed packets. He delivers these men from darkness, shields them from the transition of animal to meat. Up at his cabin, knives and whiskey. The body on a large metal table, Keith carving, a midnight autopsy.
You’ve been married three years when he disappears the first time. No note. You’re not sure who to call. The two of you and the baby these last couple years. When he returns, he rings the doorbell like a visitor. Doesn’t speak when you open the door. He inherited the cabin after his father’s death, he finally says. You tell yourself that everyone needs a room of their own. He needs a whole cabin.
When you get so angry you want to smash all the plates, but this borrowed hotel room has no plates, only unsatisfyingly fragile champagne flutes, stop. Think of a spoonful of peanut butter coating the roof of your mouth. Think of the way a patient’s teeth gleam once they’ve been polished by your prophy cup.
This fatherhood thing, Keith warns, I’m not sure it’s for me. Keith is only ten when his father takes the family van and drives it into the St. John River with a bottle of pills and no intention of coming back. He does come back, though, and maybe that’s worse.
Too easy, to look back and see the signs in retrospect, to reformulate the narrative so it arcs to its conclusion. You want to preserve your own narrative, the one that doesn’t lead to this. You choke on signs in your sleep.
Take Carrie to that cafe along the water with chipped blue paint and yellow-checkered tablecloths. Order bagels with cream cheese and raspberry jam. When she makes a face, spread her bagel yourself and tell her this is what you ate with your mother. She’ll take a bite and her whole face will relax in pleasure. It’s good, she’ll admit, wiping a smear of cream cheese from the corner of her mouth. I know, you’ll say.
A man at the next table. You notice him watching the two of you but pretend you don’t. He’s attractive, older but not much, hair with only a suggestion of grey. He has a book in front of him, a cup of coffee but no food. You strain to see the book’s spine. He catches you looking. You blush and he smiles.
You feel reflexively guilty, then gutted. Gather Carrie and your beach bags and pay in a hurry, race Carrie to the lifeguard stand.
Sit with a thick paperback you never read and watch Carrie swim. You open your eyes in a panic. No one else watching. The weight of this hits you in the stomach and makes you close your eyes again. What was half now full. No one to share the joy, pain, burden. Carrie flips onto her back and floats, oblivious, eyes closed toward the sun. She looks so peaceful.
Watch that young couple on the beach. Early 20s, newly in love. Her tan accentuated by a black bikini, long auburn-dyed hair that falls to her waist, still unmarred by stretch marks or other signs of age. He has a gym-sculpted six-pack. The type who work on their bodies year round, this one-week vacation to show the fruits of their labour. He rubs lotion into her back like he’s scrubbing a floor.
Visit the ruins. Climb one hundred and thirty steps to the top of the ancient pyramid. Carrie is thrilled to discover the geckos who roam the wreckage like old ancient souls. Do they really shed their skin? Yes, you say. I wish I could do that, she says.
When Carrie is sleeping, reach into your suitcase for the bottle of 18-year-old single malt wrapped in a pink cashmere sweater that’s too hot for this weather. You had an argument with yourself before packing the bottle. You won.
The year before Carrie is born, you promise Keith you’ll stop drinking. You don’t really have a problem. But you go to a party, the two of you, at Clara and Olivia’s. A regular party, a Saturday night, people Keith knows from his art school life. Artists make you nervous. You drink to compensate. Keith’s friends stare while asking about your favourite artist (Monet) or where you are from (here). You feel judged for every syllable that comes out of your mouth. They are big on eye contact, on long, pregnant pauses dropped into the conversation the way you add chocolate chips to your carrot muffins.
Olivia is Keith’s ex-girlfriend. Now she’s dating Clara. You can’t stop looking at her perfectly lined eyes, her shimmering black hair, a dramatic flair you’ve never mastered. You wonder how Keith ended up with a pale, blond dentist. You try to avoid mentioning your profession. Oh, that’s so interesting, they say, it must be nice to help people. Then they look around to find someone else, anyone else, to talk to.
Olivia is a filmmaker and she is half-Russian and she can drink vodka like it’s her job. When she offers you a shot, you take it as a challenge. How is it going, with Keith? She asks this a couple of shots later. You look at her eyebrows, a trick you use when you’re too nervous to look into someone’s eyes but don’t want it to look like you’re avoiding eye contact. I mean, he’s not making art anymore, is he? That must bother him. You shrug. He always kept things inside too much, that’s why his art never got great, she says. He wasn’t willing to put enough of himself into it, embrace radical honesty.
You shrug at her again, but. Radical honesty. That phrase will run through your head in the days and weeks and months and years that follow, popping up at the strangest of times. Radical honesty, you’ll think, when you find a crumpled tissue with lipstick on it in Keith’s pants pocket. Radical honesty, you’ll think, when another man with a beauty mark near his lips kisses you in an elevator and tastes like stinky cheese. Radical honesty, you’ll think, when Keith asks whether you think he will make a good father.
The next thing you know, you’re puking into Olivia’s stainless steel kitchen sink. Someone runs to get Keith. He’s with Olivia on the porch. He comes to you, gathers your hair in a ponytail, wipes your face. I’m fine, really. You’re not. He takes you to the bathroom and you hide there. Blond hair offers little camouflage, so you wash the end of your ponytail in the sink. You muster all your dignity and make your way to the car, fall into the passenger seat, pass out. You wake up in bed the next morning, still clothed.
Your marriage will carry on, like a train that’s forgotten it has any passengers. Until it gains a passenger. You can’t say Carrie is an accident, but she isn’t exactly planned, either.
Pregnancy scares you into submission. Keith rids the house of alcohol. You stay clean. You feel as pure as you ever have. Feathery. You can barely keep your feet tethered to the ground. Later, you can barely lift them.
Keith becomes an anxious father even before she’s born. The whole time you are pregnant, he obsesses over what you eat. One night he bounds across the room, colliding full frontal with a passing waiter, because he sees you pluck a piece of sushi off a silver tray. He’s forgotten where you are, the opening of a new vegan cafe.
Open the scotch and pour over four cubes of ice. The first sip burns, but as the ice melts, it becomes rounder, pear and caramel-like. Ease back into your chair, watch the waves, watch Carrie’s breath shudder through her chest.
You think about that brief second, a bullet in suspension. They say jumpers often regret their decision mid-air. Was there time? Did it slow, open a vortex where life passes in a kaleidoscope of slices?
He tells you he has to go to the cabin for the weekend. Lots of moose and money to be made. It’s never easy for him, the money. You always have more. He’ll be back on Monday. On Monday, a knock at the door, not him. You double over in the front hallway like you’ve been shot in the stomach. The police officer presses your head into his chest and you clutch his arm, not noticing when you scrape your hand on his metal badge. You see the thin red line days later. You lose a day or two to the drugs that are supposed to calm you down. Someone else identifies the body. You see him for the first time when he’s scrubbed clean, laid out in a bed of velvet.
Carrie will grow up to curse Keith’s name. She’ll find her anger, that dormant monster inside her. You fear this more than you fear anything.
Put the scotch back after one drink. You can have this. Get into bed beside Carrie and sleep a dreamless sleep.
Take Carrie to the beach one last time. First, go into town for picnic supplies: white bread, cheese whiz, pickles, Skittles. Carrie’s favourites. A basket of already-wilting strawberries from the tray near the cash. They cost more than the rest put together, but buy them anyway.
The sun behind grey clouds, a breeze. Carrie sits patiently on the towel you lay out for her. If she’s indulging you, she doesn’t show it.
Ask if she wants a sandwich. She shakes her head and tears into the Skittles, looks at you with a dare.
Radical honesty, you think.
Her tone, her too-wise green eyes. It was a mistake, not taking her to the funeral. You can’t shield her from this.
Carrie arranges her Skittles to follow the rainbow.
Honey, I want to talk to you.
I know, Mom.
Don’t hide your tears, this time.
Finally, Carrie says.
Carrie curls up against you, feeds you Skittles. They taste unbearably sugary, but you chew them anyway.
Lesley Trites’ debut story collection, A Three-Tiered Pastel Dream, is forthcoming from Véhicule Press (Spring 2017). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Maisonneuve, carte blanche, Tabulit, and the anthology Salut King Kong: New English Writing from Quebec, among others. She lives in Montreal.