A Thin Line
It’s her. Even from this distance — through the reflecting glass of the café’s windows, across the busy street, through the throng of pedestrians and people waiting for their morning buses — I recognize her.
I stare hard, wanting confirmation even though I don’t need any. I’d know her anywhere.
Truth is, I haven’t thought about her in ages. I try not to think about her in general. Live in the moment like a Buddhist monk. Hi-yaa! In this moment, my toes are soaking. Freezing, too, because I spent forever slopping through the slushy rain to be here for the morning shift, needing some coin, so I can buy what Laz and I like to call, “a fisherman’s breakfast.” Whatever we can catch.
Jesus. It is her.
Her hair’s a little greyer, probably thanks to me. Ha!
I shake my cup and work the morning rush, real gracious and trying to hit that perfect note between dignified and pitiful. Working the crowd, trying not to look her way. The whoosh of the train overhead wipes out the sound. It’s hard to ask for money when no one can hear you, so I stop for a beat, glancing over.
She’s still there.
My mind is so clear it’s painful. I notice everything. My freezing toes, going numb in my boots. My tingling head, itchy under my hat. My humming body, twitchy, coming down from last night. Usually, I have a little something in the morning to take the edge off. If I had been able to start the day right, I bet I wouldn’t have even noticed her. My eyes tripped on her before my mind registered what was happening. There was some magical, crazy-ass pattern of movements and poses, strung up like laundry flapping on a line, together in familial sequence.
Even now, as I watch her, everything she does feels ridiculously familiar. Her brow scrunched in concentration, a pencil (chewed, I bet) tucked behind her ear; dainty hands lifting a cup (not paper, no drinking and walking); the simultaneous shrug of rounded shoulders and the satisfied frown after she sips. Muscle memory? No, that’s not right. Organ memory? Are eyes an organ?
Even through all the static I picked her out of the crowd. Even though I wasn’t looking. It’s like I heard her beating heart. Cue the Jaws music. Bu-bump. Bu-bump. Bu-bump.
Haven’t thought of her in ages, I really haven’t.
She hasn’t spotted me. Even if she bothered to look up, she might not recognize me. It’s been a long winter; I’ve gotten a bit lazy with my looks. She once described me as “dedicated to style.” Called me, “authentic.” My biggest fucking fan.
She’s doing the crossword, I can tell by the way she’s concentrating, head down, pencil hovering for a moment then, when she’s ready, plunging down like she’s spearing a fish. Why is she here? This is my turf, not hers.
I rattle my cup and an old guy in a business suite whistles me over from his shiny car. I dart over before anyone tries to snake me, wobbling on my frozen toes. I don’t lean on his car, they don’t like that. He’s stopped at the light. “Here,” he says, eyes avoiding mine. He holds the cash out to me, bills, his eyes on the traffic lights, waiting for green. Score. A full fifty. He’s probably a banker. He’s probably got a daughter who looks like me.
“Thank you, sir, so much. God bless.” Ha! God bless. Wish she could have heard that. I glance over. Yep, there she is.
My toes are frickin’ freezing. That feeling, like each toe is a swollen stub, too big in the boot. Sam is set up across the street this morning. Hoodie and a puffy vest, white high tops, like he’s a gangsta. I head over. I’m like everyone else, needing their morning coffee or Red Bull. I give him my prescription. He gives me what I need and a high five to boot.
“Looks like you could use it,” he says, pointing at my hair. Last night I burnt it, leaning over the propane stove. The heater in the camper is broken so Laz turned on the stove, all four burners cranked up. It’s supposed to be spring, last week the tulips were up for fuck’s sake.
I hover at the corner with my cup, seeing if I might get lucky twice. Then I notice her, pushing out the door, clutching her umbrella and a canvas shopping bag. She’s organizing herself: buttoning her coat, pulling on her gloves. I straighten, waiting for her to find me, holding for her reaction. What would she say? “Oh, Theresa … ” Her voice, reedy and concerned, cloying. Would she be surprised? It’s not like I do this often, I want to tell her. Only when I really need to. This is a choice. Not that life isn’t hard, no thanks to you. Truth: I don’t need to justify my lifestyle. She doesn’t know me anymore. That’s fine. That’s the way I want it.
Weird though, seeing her. She still hasn’t noticed me; I don’t want her to.
Maybe I do.
For a minute she turns my way, her eyes slicing past me, and then she turns again, walking away from me, towards the water. Abandoning my cup, I follow her. I yank my hood up and trail from behind.
She still has that way of walking, her toes pointed out. At the crosswalk, she waits for someone else to push the button. She always did worry about germs. I hang back, closer to the stairs that lead up to the station, watching. I’m not going to follow her, like a lost puppy. I’m not.
It’s been years. So many, I’ve lost count.
I don’t cross. I let the distance between us lengthen. My toes aren’t cold anymore, so that’s something. I imagine a long ribbon attached to her at one end and me at the other. It stretches, thinner and thinner between us, a thin line.
Her coat is poppy red and I watch her until she is a small red dot against the grey city. The ribbon stretches, thin as a filament now, or a fishing wire. The kind of thing people are strangled with, the kind that slices through flesh. It’s getting ready to snap and I’m going to let it.
The crosswalk birds chirp and I dash across. I jog towards the red dot. The red dot. Like those bouncing balls in karaoke. Follow the bouncing ball.
She walks the curving path along the inlet but after a while the wind coming off the water gets to her. She pats at her hair, which is whipping around her shoulders where it pokes out of her hat. It’s longer than usual. Cut nicely, razored layers that make it settle in a stylish angle.
A few times, when I first got my certificate, she let me cut her hair. Her hair is like mine. Well, if I left mine alone, didn’t dye it, didn’t mess with it so much: purple ombre, textured ‘hawk, platinum with streaks of blue. Our hair is dark brown, wavy, thick. I gave her a bob. She kept saying all the way through, “Not too much, nothing too crazy now, Theresa. Remember, I have to go to work like this.”
“I know what I’m doing, trust me,” I had said. Her scalp was so pale white against the brown. It was strange to see her that way. I got to thinking that might be the way I looked from above, that it was like I was looking down on that tender part of myself, that she had spent so many years looking down on my fragile white scalp, arranging my hair into braids or pony tails and now we had switched places. Perspective.
So, we have that in common, our hair. Both of us can get a little obsessed with it: straightening, curling, highlights, product. I finger my brittle hair. When I bend a few strands, they crack off like dry branches between my fingers.
She crosses again at the next corner, turning her back on the biting wind, heading into the belly of the city, slipping into the comfort of buffering buildings and cement fortifications. I lose sight of her. She’s a fairly fast walker, always has been. I hold my direction.
Eventually she comes into sight. I’m curious. Where is she going? It’s almost as though she’s avoiding the trendy parts of town: the boutiques and cafés and floral shops. She doesn’t go near Yaletown and its gortexed yuppies. Instead she swings east. Chinatown?
When I was a kid, she took me there, to those narrow shops that smelled of incense and salty leather, crammed with cheap treasure. She’d let me buy a folding fan or Chinese slippers. She liked the metal scissors with the looping handles and the sandalwood soap. And when we lived close enough, she insisted on buying her tea there, sometimes a bag of fruit and vegetables. It was safer then: there were fewer drunks and panhandlers, who always made her so nervous.
Things have changed, apparently. She stops in front of a slumped body tucked into the corner of a building. She bends, pulling something from her shopping bag. A limp hand reaches up and an exchange is made.
Well. This is interesting. This, from the woman who didn’t believe in handouts, the woman who said it would only encourage the panhandlers to follow. The woman who crossed the street to avoid swaying strangers or loitering punks. “Don’t make eye contact. You don’t want to attract attention.” Those punks in the park fascinated me, I was never afraid of them the way she was. They looked free.
My mother, who was scared of everything, doling out handouts, cruising the east side. I startle myself with a snort.
She’s up the hill now. Ah! I was right. Chinatown, a grocery store on the corner. She heads in and I catch up, hovering on the other side of the street, pulling my hood down lower over my eyes. I can’t see through the glass, so I float there, a tethered balloon, waiting.
Soon enough I see the red of her coat. As she emerges, she pulls a phone out of her pocket, studies it, then sets off straight and fast towards First Ave and Terminal, closing the loop and heading back to where I found her. She must be late; she’s really picked up the pace.
I almost have to run to keep up.
I’m breathing hard, out of shape.
She’s flying though, walking with easy strides, as though it’s nothing. Not bad for a fifty — wait, fifty-three? fifty-four? — year old woman. Did she keep up the running with Gregory? I used to tease them for that, making fun of their matching spandex. One of our fights. I called Greg Cellophane Nuts. True story.
They could never take a joke. It was almost like entrapment: they were so ridiculous and I had a smart mouth. I mean, I was what? Thirteen. He’s prancing around in his tighty shorts. I admit, I said other things too. I was a teenager watching my mom act like a teenager and she was always so … syrupy, sanctimonious. All spineless until big man Greg waltzed in.
And then they had to get serious. “Theresa is acting out. Theresa is lying.” So, yes, I stole his fucking money. I borrowed the car, the accident wasn’t my fault. Invited the wrong kids to the party. Drugs? Every kid experiments. I mean, those two, in their running shorts, you’d never guess they grew up in the seventies. Greg! With a moustache no less, trying to ask me what was wrong. “We know you’re struggling, Theresa.” Trying to be a daddy. Caterpillar under his nose. Fuck.
I can barely keep up and I want to yell at her. Slow down! Hold up! See now? It’s always her rules, her pace. When it was just the two of us there were barely any rules. Back when I needed them. Maybe if she had hemmed me in back then, I wouldn’t have made the same choices. Maybe things would have been easier.
Rules came later, when it was too late. When I needed her, she drove me away. “You can’t come around at this hour, Theresa. You can’t bring your friend, he’s not welcome in the house. We don’t approve of the metal in your face. How much did that tattoo cost, the one down your arm? We’ll pay the rent for you but nooooo, we can’t just hand over money. No, you can’t live here.” Rules and rejection. Such alchemy. So potent. So much for unconditional love. Always, always with strings attached.
The last time I saw her she was trying to manipulate me. “If you agree to this program, we’ll pay for your room and board. We’ll pay for school too, if that’s what you want — ” And then the tears. The swollen, martyred expression. I was so fucking sick of it by then.
I slapped her. I did. I wanted that stupid look off her face. I might have been high. I don’t know. I have a temper and she’s always known how to push my buttons.
“I’ve never once slapped her,” my mother whispered to Greg, cupping her cheek. “Never once,” she said again. I didn’t care. I would have slapped her again if I could have. I would slap her now, if I could. Tell her to slow the fuck down.
She crosses the street, weaving through the bodies and traffic that always gathers here, like blown debris, under the bridge. Where the fuck is she going? She turns at the corner, past the steps where I lingered earlier, back to the same intersection where she had crossed to walk along the water. But she’s not doing another loop, no, she marches straight ahead and into Science World.
I am a block behind, on the other side of the road.
I can’t follow her into Science World. That invisible ribbon is severed by the powerful swish of an automatic door. I feel the cold in my boots again. I scratch at my scalp under my hat. My hair makes a dry crackling sound.
I wander back towards the steps, out of breath and suddenly adrift. I sit on the steps. I should go back to the camper, find Laz, but I’m tired. I need a breather.
When she was younger, my mother had long, long hair. She trimmed it every three months. No blow drier. She wanted it to stay strong and healthy and shiny, like one of those folk singers. Most of the time she wore it up in a twist, held together at the top by bobby pins. At the end of the day she’d let it tumble down in soft curtains on either side of her face. Sometimes, when she read to me, she would take a long strand and pull it under her nose and pretend she was a Frenchman with a moustache. “Vat ees zis?” She would ask, touching my nose. “Vat are zees?” Touching my toes, making me squeal.
She’s not all bad.
I am about to stand when I hear her voice from behind me. She recognizes me even though I’m sitting, angled away from her.
I turn. She’s coming toward me. Behind her is a girl, in moon boots and a pink pea coat. And a man. Greg? No moustache. Not much hair at all in fact. Yes, it’s him. He puts his hand on the girl’s shoulder, as if holding her back. The girl has long wavy brown hair and she stares stonily at me.
“Your hair … ” She says. Her face is all melted, the same but different, sad and concerned, older. I don’t want to slap it. Not at all. My stomach hurts.
“Oh honey. Is there anything you need? Are you hungry?” I glance down the block. I can see Sam, still conducting business.
“Could use some money,” I say. There was a time my mother could never say no to me. I’m standing now. I step down to the sidewalk so we’re on the same level. “My boots are leaking. I burnt my hair.”
“I can’t give you money, hon. You know that. But there’s a little salon right over there. Should I take you?”
I nod, swallowing lumpy tears. She gestures for me to wait, walks to old Greg and the girl. She touches the girl’s shoulder, straightening her collar. A gesture so familiar it makes me ache. The two head off, back toward Science World and my mother and I walk toward the salon. We don’t talk but I feel her stealing glances at me. I feel all the questions she wants to ask. I keep my eyes focused ahead. At one point she reaches into her bag, holds out a muffin and a juice box. I take it even though I’m not hungry.
When we finally reach the salon, I sit on the chair at the window, while my mother talks to the woman at the counter. She books me and pays the lady in advance. The lady is Chinese. She says, “Fifteen minutes, okay, okay, you wait?” My mother: now that she is closer, I can see how she’s changed. Her shoulders seem smaller, her hands bonier. When she turns to me, I see all the lines on her face.
“I have to go, Theresa, okay?”
She leaves and my eyes are on her red back as she moves down the street. A receding ball. Blood red. Bouncing away from me. Maybe the line is still there, invisible, indelible. A thin, thin, line.
Jennifer McAuley is what people in the biz call an ’emerging’ writer. Sometimes the word ’emerging’ feels a bit disingenuous: she is not freshly-hatched, after all, but rather a full-fledged adult woman who spent over a decade working as a visual artist, living near the city of Vancouver on the wet west coast of BC, Canada. After a series of life changes which included a move to the small scenic mountain town of Nelson, BC, she started to earnestly pursue the craft of writing. McAuley is currently working on her second novel and crafting short stories when the mood hits. More: thepricklingpen.blogspot.com