A Novel Called “Love Traffic”

Love Traffic
The first edition of my self-publish novel, Love Traffic

I probably wouldn’t have guessed the year right without looking at the inside cover, but in 2006 I finished a novel and released it to the world on lulu.com, a print-on-demand website. I had one copy printed for myself. Soon after I was holding my “first book” in my hands. It didn’t look as professional as a Penguin paperback or even as good as your average local small press trade paperback, but it was close. I mean, it was a book and my words were in it. People could hold it in their hands and read the story I’d written, if they bought the book.

But why would they buy it? It was hard to imagine someone browsing through lulu.com for a book to buy. If people had $10 and wanted to buy a book, they would be on Amazon, or at their local bookstore, not on the website full of self-published novels.

Indeed, after a while–six months, a year, I can’t remember–no copies of the book had been sold. I occasionally took a look at the copy I had received and I wasn’t happy with the layout. The main issue was that the type was quite small. The indentations were also too large.  I must have also thought the cover was a little cheesy (now I like it), because I redesigned it. I also wanted to make a few changes to the text. Just a few. I wasn’t thinking at the time of rewriting it. I’d already worked on it for two or three years while teaching full-time.

When I was finished with the new look, I uploaded the documents to Lulu and “demanded” a copy of the new version, which was larger: 8 1/2″ x 5 3/8″,  whereas the first “edition” was 6 7/8″4 1/4″ x The new version looked a little better than the first. Mainly, though, it was just different. Both felt pretty good to hold in my hand.

Back cover of first edition of Love Traffic
Back cover of first edition of Love Traffic. The second paragraph is quite frank about the theme of shyness, which the novel itself evades.

After admiring it for a couple of weeks, I gave the second “edition” to a writer buddy. He congratulated me on finishing a novel. He said that it might not be my best work, but that there was a section that he loved. I think he said that it was “like something out of Dostoevsky”.

The part he liked was actually a flashback to a couple of years prior to the main timeline of the novel, when the main character, Warren, goes to stay with his parents for a few days at the end of his university semester. He hasn’t seen them in half a year. During that time he started to become very self-conscious in social situations. When he gets home, he’s embarrassed to discover that he can’t look his parents or younger sister in the eye without blushing. He doesn’t know why he is like this and he’s too embarrassed to mention it to anyone. His family has noticed a change in him, but they don’t discuss it either. He returns to school. Very gradually, over the next couple of years, his self-consciousness lessens.

The novel begins a few years after the worst of his “self-consciouness attacks”, as he discovers online dating sites. He’s is understandably drawn to this safe method of “meeting” people. Although he doesn’t get to know many women in his real life, he ends up being able to have a few intense relationships virtually. The question that I wanted to hover over most of the novel was whether online dating would draw him further from or closer to the real world.

Inside Title Page of Love Traffic
I was reading Lawrence as I was finishing the novel. I thought this quote showed the timelessness of the themes in my story, which is firmly set in the early 2000s.

Every year or so I pick it up and read a few pages. Often, I find a typo, in which case I dog-ear the page for future reference, just in case I decide to do something else with it. Sometimes I think that I should throw it away; other times I wonder if I should try again to get it published. I had sent it to a few publishers and agents before resorting to self-publishing, but I received only form rejections, except for one agent, who, in response to the synopsis in my cover letter, wrote something like, “It sounds like quite an inventive tale”, before adding that he wasn’t interested in reading it. He was actually the agent of a friend of mine, a woman who wrote a well-received novel at about that time. I didn’t mention that I knew her. For various reasons I’m glad to have resisted that temptation.

I have been thinking about the novel more over the past year. I must admit that I haven’t sat down and re-read it from start to finish, but when I dip into it here and there, I’m not embarrassed by the writing–although there have been moments in the past when I’ve been tempted to throw away my copy and delete the files. Honestly, my destructive impulse probably came out of my frustration at not getting the novel published, rather than dissatisfaction with the novel. Now, older and a little less fiery than I used to be I have different feelings about it. The novel was started before my daughter was born and finished, I reckon, near the birth of my son. Even then, it was dealing with the types of experiences that were in my past–finishing university, finding your first job, getting into your first adult relationship. Now, the period in which I worked on the novel is also well behind me. It almost feels like the work of a different person, definitely a younger one. Perhaps this is why I finally feel slightly generous toward it.

I am trying to decide the best way to republish the novel. I could put it back on Lulu; I could put it up here, chapter by chapter; I could send it out again to publishers (just to see what would happen). I’m not sure yet how I will do it, but my gut feeling at the moment, even literally at this moment, is that sharing the novel in some way is the right decision. The story is bleak and out of necessity open-ended, but it’s a pretty honest piece of art that I worked hard at. To keep it hidden–and I know this sounds a little dramatic–feels like keeping a part of myself hidden.

It’s not entirely a coincidence that the scene that my friend liked was, loosely speaking, a flashback. The novel came out of my own experience. At the time of writing, I was uneasy about this. Given how uneasy, it is funny how feebly I attempted to hide the autobiographical elements–by using masks and transformations and splitting up personalities. Mainly, though, my method for hiding the personal stuff was to avoid the most painful truths–one of which was excruciating shyness. That is why the most autobiographical part of this book, the Dostoyevskian part, was stuffed into the backstory.

It is played down, but, interestingly, it is there. It isn’t integral to the plot, but I suppose I needed to put it into words. I suspect my friend, who is older and gentler than I, sensed my need for cathartic purging, which is why he mentioned that part of the book, to show that he had read and felt it.

I didn’t sit down today knowing that I would get into this theme (isn’t that a handy euphemism for “the dark shadow of my childhood”), but I find it interesting that I’ve ended up here. Maybe that is why I have a soft spot for a novel that on the surface seems to be about a girl crazy guy who among other life mistakes falls for a porn star (that part’s not autobiographical, honestly). Shyness was the great monster in my life when I was younger. Morrissey turned shyness into a catchy tune, but I think it’s hard to make a gripping novel out of it. Still, I would like to write about it more. I think I’m almost beyond the stage of being embarrassed about being shy, which I always found to be as debilitating as shyness itself, half of the vicious circle. I think it has been tackled, but usually using subterfuge, metaphor, switcheroo. I’ve wondered if shyness isn’t largely what Kafka is writing about, if its not the thing about Hamlet that we struggle to put our finger on, the same for Holden Caufield. Something to ponder further another day.

 Love Traffic wasn’t the first novel I finished–that was A Jar of Minnows, my MA thesis–but I held it in my hand in the from of a book, something meant to be read, by others. I’ve said “held it in my hand” three times now. It must be important. It did–it does–feel good in my hand. And the pages I re-read hold my interest. I can’t help but wonder if they would hold anyone else’s.

A Random Page of Love Traffic
A randomly opened page of Love Traffic. Not bad (but two little typos).
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A Novel Called “Love Traffic”

A Sex Scene I’ll Probably Cut

I wrote a sex scene today for the novel I’m working on. I’ve never written a sex scene that didn’t make me cringe. I’ve always edited them out of the final draft. This one probably won’t make the cut either, but I’ll leave it here as an example of something you write with the niggling fear (every sentence of the way) that it is going to be embarrassingly bad.

Cue the jazz …

####

Now the girl, age of his students, addresses him nervously in French in front of everyone. “Are you a student? Which university?”

This is not just friendly conversation. She crossed the room straight to him, thought of something to say. Sweet girl. Young. So young she can’t tell ages. The Steadicam guru and the stylist are watching, not quite holding back incredulous looks. Edward is conflicted. If only the moral chorus were not watching. If only the boss, the boss were not right there, looking the most incredulous of all, frowning. And Edward wondering if it was his fault. Had his desire travelled through his lens and done something to the girl? Touched her, spoke to her?

He said, “Oh I’m not a student,” smiling.

“But which university?” asked the girl, the model, standing before him, still wearing nothing but expensive underwear.

“McGill,” he said, noticing the boss’s eyes darting, lips about to break open. “But it’s been a long time since I was a student.” The boss nodded at this, deeply, and Ed turned to see if the model had seen.

But the girl was just looking through him, confused. “Oh,” she said.

The moment was gone. He couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed, even if nothing would have ever “happened”. Ever since he had started teaching he had stopped flirting with young women.

He wondered if the producer, Lana, wasn’t a bit of a hypocrite. She’d nodded her head with such condemnation when she’d noticed the connection between Ed and the model—because, presumably, of their age difference—and yet, Lana was the one who had recruited the girl and was now going to put pictures and video of her, underwear clad, on the internet. Where was the protective impulse when she’d had that idea? Was having a conversation with 38 year-old Ed really a greater risk to the apparently impressionable young woman than being viewable for life in her underwear on the world wide web? Perhaps, perhaps not. Perhaps neither was a such a horrible happening. Perhaps both were.

Nonetheless, he drove back to the office feeling chastised and a little ashamed. It somewhat paralyzed his thought processes.

Kate was there when he arrived and asked him about the shoot. He grumbled about working for free. And the girl was pretty young, he said. Not that young, but young, a university student, he assumed. “But, yeah, it felt a little weird. I’m not sure I would do it again. I’m not sure.” He sounded sort of tired as he said it. He pretended to be distracted by his gear.

“Do you have the footage still?” she asked.

“We transferred it there,” he said.

He wasn’t quite answering the question. She waited for him to add something. Finally, he met her gaze, but just for a second. He opened his camera bag and started to pull out all the batteries and the charger.

“It was just one girl?” Kate asked.

“Yeah. It was for a lingerie store. She was sort of walking around looking at stuff and trying it on. That was the concept.”

“That’s cool.”

“Yeah, it should look pretty good.”

“I’d like to see the footage,” she said.

He put a battery back in the camera and cued up one of first shots. Kate took the camera from him, not quite grabbing it but almost. When the first clip was finished, she clicked to the next.

“She’s pretty,” she said.

She looked through the rest of the files, watching the best ones, skipping past others. Ed watched over her shoulder.

“That’s a good shot.”

“Yeah.”

“Nice light.”

“Yeah.”

“I want that bra.”

“Put it on your birthday list.”

She held the camera out so he could take it. “You must be horny,” she said.

“Ha,” he said, removing the battery and dropping the camera into the cushioned bag.

“What? Don’t be embarrassed.”

“I’m not embarrassed.”

She left the room without looking at him. “I’m not even looking at you and I can feel you blushing,” she said in a raised voice. She went back to her office, as if there was something she had to do there. There was a clump of grapes on a plate on her desk. She twisted one from the vine and popped it into her mouth. He was horny. She could tell. That restless embarrassment that hung over him. Of course, the girl had stirred it up in him but so what. She knew he found her sexy. She knew, she felt it. She went back down to his office. He was standing in the middle of the room, frowning at the screen on the back of the camera. The battery had been out a minute ago, now it was back in.

“I’m formatting the cards,” he said. “I forgot to.”

She went up and stood in front of him, facing him, really close, and when he looked at her he saw her eyes gazing into his as if they were connected by an invisible stream that flowed out of his right pupil into her left and out of her right into his left, or something like that.

A kiss occurred, a first, exploratory touch. As their lips came apart he put his hand on her breast and she pushed her hips against him. They kissed again, longer. He moved his hand and lightly touched her temple and then ran his fingers through her hair. She pulled back and tugged at his buckle.

They went over to her sofa and undressed. She sat down and put his penis in her mouth and ran her lips along it once. She licked the end of it and then looked up at him and pulled downward on his hips. He kissed her lips, her breasts and, kneeling on the floor, ran his tongue along the fold of her vulva and slid his tongue in deeper in search of her clitoris.

They had been attracted to one another for so long that neither of them wanted to take their time–not now. She cupped her hands under his jaw and gently pulled him upward. Soon he was crouched over her, sliding into her. They both smiled with relief. Kate even chuckled as her eyelids closed and she turned her head to the side.

The first wave of pleasure passed. Edward lifted his head and took a breath. He moved slowly inside of Kate. “That’s too good,” he said. The words had just come out of his throat when he realized that his penis was bare and that an orgasm might sneak up on him any second. Preemptively he pulled his penis from her vagina. She looked at him, confused.

“I’m so used to not wearing a condom,” he said. “I completely forgot.”

“I’m on the pill,” she told him, as if it were a fact for him to do with as he pleased.

Lowering his hips, he slid the wet tip of his penis through her labium to the edge of her opening. Pleasure flowed up his erection, through his testicles, into his stomach, his flesh, his thoughts. “Is it okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said, inhaling. And then he entered her fully and they started to bring their hips together in unison like vigorous dancers.

He cried out when he came. It was the first time he’d ever done that. They embraced, limply and he rolled to the side, as far as he could on the narrow couch, so that he was half atop her, half beside. He rested his head on her heart and held her right breast with his left hand. He was not crying, but he almost felt as if he was and she felt it too. She stroked his hair and he fell asleep.

After that she loved him, or she could have, if she’d let herself, but she didn’t want to harm his family. She had a feeling that the complications were insurmountable. She did not want to have to deal with the guilt, not that much. She had yet to weigh the guilt she had already earned. And she could only guess how much guilt he would feel and how he would cope with it.

##and then, the next day, the follow-up##

If they had used a condom, he might not have confessed–that’s what he told himself–but under the circumstances he had to. There would be no good time until that night, but he could still start to behave responsibly and fix the situation immediately.

He went to the clinic. While in the waiting room, he hardly moved. He was focused on his meeting with the doctor. If there was anything in the world the he should do right now it was get tested. As embarrassing as it might be, he had to do it.

His number appeared and he walked down the hall to Salle 3 and took a seat on the “bed”. What seemed like five minutes later, but was only two, a woman came in and introduced herself. For two seconds he hoped that she was the nurse and that he would not have to tell her anything, but she said her name was Dr. Charboneau. She was about his age, rather attractive and rather stern. She spoke to him in French and asked him what the problem was. How would he say this, breaking it down into manageable sentences with intermediate vocabulary?

“I have a wife?”

The doctor squinted at him.

“But I had sexual relations with another woman.”

The doctor’s gaze remained fixed. Her lips were as still as stone.

“We did not use a ‘condom’.” He did not know the word in French.

“‘Préservatif’.”

“Oui, préservatif.”

Without comment, or explicit judgment, she sent him off with a form for a blood test. He asked if she would only contact him if one of the tests was positive. “No,” she had said. “I imagine you would like to know either way.” He said, “Yes,” in a way that was supposed to be humorously self-deprecating. She smiled ever, ever, ever so slightly, and wished him a good day.

He went upstairs to the lab, where the waiting room was the worst part. The nurses were quick once he was in their hands. After, he had to hurry on his bicycle to the daycare. It did not close for a couple of hours, but he usually picked the girls up at four and he didn’t want to keep them waiting. Even more than usual, he was worried about falling short on the performance of his fatherly duties. Indeed, Katherine noticed that he was later than usual.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” she said, as he helped her on with her coat. “You’re always here before Marianne leaves.” And Marianne had already left.

He took them to the park and tried to play with them more lovingly and pedagogically than usual. And then they went to the grocery store, and then they walked slowly home, and the girls played in front of the TV as he made supper, chopping and stirring, and waiting for the sound of the front door.

A Sex Scene I’ll Probably Cut

Café du Poète (a short story)

Every few years, I find myself Googling my old friend James. I discover four or five people with the same name, but I’ve yet to uncover any sign of the man I am looking for. This is very strange: a bright young man who wanted to be a writer, a graduate of McGill university’s Honours English programme eluding the search engines. If he is not dead, I suspect, his life must have taken some dramatic turns to bring him to a state of “virtual” oblivion. Or perhaps he has simply found a very clever way to stay out of the clutches of the worldwide web.

In my third year at McGill I took the literary criticism course that was required of all honours students. It was the most stimulating course I had taken, partly because of the material and the teacher, but largely because of my classmates. My impression that they were, many of them, bright and talented has been confirmed by my Googling. I find their names in the by-lines of major newspapers (I should get used to saying “sites” because the “papers” are dying), or listed as “Professor” or “Dr.” on the web pages of university English departments. One of them, whom I admit I did not know that well, has become famous as a writer of literary thrillers that I cannot quite bring myself to read. Someone else, a Chinese girl who was always witty and well-spoken, can now be heard regularly on CBC. There are others I knew less well but nonetheless remember like characters in a novel read long ago. They also elude my late night searches. In their cases, though, I suspect it is because I have misspelled their family names.

My best buddies in the Lit Crit course were Chris, Tom and James. They knew the city better than I, or so it seemed. They were regulars at all of the bars along St. Laurent, including a quiet place that I had never been inside, called the Café du Poète. It had a pretentious name, but it was the least pretentious bar on the Main. The decor was outdated, not in a self-conscious “retro” style, but in the way of cheap things that do not age well. Top-forty and novelty songs could be played on the jukebox. There were no pints or pitchers, just bottles served by the owner, a Croatian man of mystery named Willy.

The Poète wasn’t overrun with students. In fact, the Poète wasn’t overrun at all. It was often empty. If there were five people present at once, it was, relatively speaking, busy. Going to the Poète, with its real people—hairdressers, policemen, socially assisted retirees, off-duty waitresses and chain-smoking Hassidic Jews–living real lives, brought us out of the university bubble and offered a mild taste of adventure and travel, for which, after two and half years at university, we were starting to yearn. At least, that is today’s explanation for what drew us to what was, to be honest, a rather depressing and dingy room. Of course, we had each other, and the Poète was, if not much else, conducive to conversation.

Willy, the owner, was another reason we went to the Poète. He was a poor Croatian immigrant, with a half-broken spirit and a self-destructive will. James wasn’t quite as chummy with Willy as the rest of us, who after ordering a round of beers would huddle at the bar making jokes about contemporary events or swapping what you might call life philosophies. James thought Willy’s friendliness was an empty habit. I never would have known this, except he told me one day after class when we somehow launched into an impromptu shopping adventure in the fripperies that used to be on St. Denis and Mont-Royal. I tried on clothes and he shyly but frankly told me what he thought, and then I talked him into buying a beaten-up leather jacket. It didn’t suit his personality at all, but he looked good in it.

Some people found James to be too serious. But if you paid attention, you could catch him reluctantly sharing an observation that might be wickedly hilarious. He also had a great thirst for knowledge of all kinds, was painstakingly considerate and was the only person I knew at the time who actually made art. He seemed almost embarrassed about this last point, but if you pressed him about what he had been doing before showing up at a party or bar, he would reluctantly say, “Writing.” I can hear him now. “Uh … writing.” I never saw a word of it, but I did see a box of double-spaced papers on his desk that he said was a novel-in-progress. I would love to read that novel or anything he has written since. Of course, maybe it’s better I never saw his writing. It might break the little spell that James has always had over me.

About a month after I had been introduced to the Poète, Willy mentioned that he was looking for some help behind the bar. He had an engagement soon–a poker game, as it turned out–and didn’t want to have to close for the night. I had been a waitress the summer before going to McGill and I loved the idea of being behind the bar. I told Willy I was interested. “As you can see there’s not much tips,” he said.

Most nights Chris, Tom and James came to keep me company. Often, they were my only customers. Usually, it was all three of them, or maybe two. James was the only one who would come alone. I felt bad when I had to leave him sitting by himself to go socialize with one of the older regulars at the other end of the bar. There was Klara, a Czech woman who was probably close to seventy who I think liked me and came in specifically to visit. I felt obliged to stand near her at the bar, listening to her stories. I told myself that I liked them. Perhaps I did. They were filled with suffering and unhappiness, and I took to the role of sympathetic listener.

One night when James had to share me with Klara, I handed him my copy of A Hundred Years of Solitude to keep him entertained. He told me that he ‘d never gotten around to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, so I offered to let him take the book home. I swore, untruthfully, that I was too busy then to read it anyway. I looked forward to talking to him about it–I had read the first hundred pages or so–but when he gave it back to me about a week later, I was surprised to hear his opinion. He praised it diplomatically but went on to declare that magic realism was not his thing.  Everyone was admiring magic realism at that time, so I was strangely impressed that James was an exception. I didn’t suspect him of posing. He didn’t strike me as a poseur, but maybe in his own perfectly sincere way he was, not to impress other people, but to impress himself. I am pretty sure I did not think this at the time, though. Even now I must be honest: I am thinking on the spot and as I do so I am changing my mind. No, he was probably not trying to impress himself. He wanted to make up his own mind about everything. He did not like things just because everyone else did. It’s interesting: he was insecure in many ways and certainly did not come off as a confident person, but he did have extreme confidence in his own taste. I was almost the opposite: I was a confident person in social situations but never sure if the art I liked was actually great. But I digress. When I think about the past my mind goes astray.

One night when my school friends weren’t at the Poète, a good-looking guy who was about thirty sat down at the bar and ordered a beer. He was quiet but easy to talk to. By strange coincidence, his name was James. He was a carpenter. He said he lived nearby and sometimes came in for a beer after work. He said he’d seen me there, before I became a bartender, but I didn’t remember him. We chatted for about an hour and then he asked what I was doing after work.

My final two years of high school I had a steady boyfriend. If I had met him a little later in life, or if I had been born a couple of decades sooner, I suspect I would have married him. We both applied to McGill. When we were accepted, we got an apartment together. We got along fine, but I think we both envied our single friends. No one else we knew in undergrad was living a “married” life like us. After second year, I broke up with him. I don’t think he was entirely unhappy about it.

I mention my boyfriend to explain some of my behaviour in third year. Quite simply and predictably, I was making up for lost time. I felt like I had to get in some kicks before we graduated. It wasn’t just about sleeping with other guys; it was my whole lifestyle, being freer, meeting new people, going places and doing things that I never would have done when I still had my boyfriend. But, yes, part of it was sex. I went home with James the carpenter. He was a decent guy and as I said good-looking. I guess you could say I became his lover. I hid it from Willy because I didn’t want him to feel like a pimp. I didn’t advertise it to my friends because it was too personal and I suppose I was a little afraid of their reaction. Soon enough, of course, student-James came in with Tom and they saw me leaning close to carpenter-James. It was awkward. Student-James wasn’t himself. He started chatting with the other James in a way he normally wouldn’t have. I detected hostility, or maybe it was undetectable but I just knew it was there. Carpenter-James didn’t ask me what I was up to after work. After two beers, he nudged his bottle forward half an inch and slid off his stool. It felt like he’d been chased off by my younger friends.

I went to the back room and took turns playing pool with James and Tom, while keeping one eye out for a wave from the murmuring Polish couple sitting near the VLT, a signal for another round of sherry.

Chris showed up a little later, with a tale about his epic evening of essay writing. He was finished the paper we’d all been struggling with and he was in his glory. Then in came Willy in his ratty fur coat. He’d won some money at poker. He let me off duty and bought us all a round. He got out his personal cue stick from the back and whipped all our asses at pool. He made a few jokes at our expense and then went to count the bottles in the beer fridge.

The rest of us felt like making a night of it, but, except for gloating-Chris, we had essays to write. We were honours students, and whatever fun we might have, we all kept one eye on our GPAs with an ever-present awareness of graduate school requirements.

The boys offered to walk me home. I tried to decline, but they weren’t to be dissuaded. Finally, I told them I wasn’t going home. I saw panic in James’s eyes. Maybe panic is too strong. Chris was more jocular:

“Fair Liza has a tryst,” he said.

“Fair Liza is going to get laid,” I announced.

James looked away.

“Do you care to elaborate?” Chris asked.

I was blushing by then, I think, and had lost my momentary bravado. I am blushing a little now writing this, embarrassed for my miscalculation shall we say.The three of them smiled shyly, apologetically wished me good night and shuffled toward the door. James lingered behind the other two. “Good night,” he said with a forced smile. He was trying to show me that we were still friends.

Instead of going to carpenter-James’s as I had planned, I went home.

At twenty-two I was not one to let public opinion influence my behaviour (or so I thought). I was as headstrong then as I am now, but even more reckless, and less constrained by self-doubt. Nonetheless, I spent the next twenty-four hours in a state of mild shame about my visits to carpenter-James’s apartment. It baffled me, but it was unshakable. In a penitential mood, I worked on my essay all day and then called some neglected friends and invited them over for supper. These were people I’d hung out with in first year when I lived with my boyfriend, not the guys from the English department, not James.

Despite my public acts of generosity, I could not shake a shame-like feeling, not for what I had said or done exactly, but for something more, for not being myself perhaps. That feeling had not lessened a couple of days later. One evening, unable to bear it any longer, I called the younger James and asked if he wanted to meet me at the Bifteck, a popular student bar a few blocks from the Poète. We shared a pitcher and smoked contraband Camel cigarettes. We argued and laughed and made eyes at one another. (We did not talk about the other James.) When the pitcher was gone, I asked him if he wanted to come back to my place.

When we got to my apartment–the one I used to share with my boyfriend–I kissed him. As I opened a bottle of wine, he kissed my chin and neck. I asked if he wanted to spend the night.

I had slept with a few guys that year, but never in my apartment. James was the first I had shared my bed with since my boyfriend had moved out. I’m not sure if I thought about that at the time, but it seems to me now that it is worth mentioning.

The streetlight outside my window was our candlelight. It was quite nice for a while–to make an understatement–but something wasn’t right. I gradually realized that I did not want to have intercourse with him, even though we had already done things that most people would consider equally intimate, and I had a supply of condoms and was on the pill. I didn’t know why I felt that way, but I did. Perhaps it is to James’s credit that I didn’t feel any pressure, other than the pressure I had put on myself by inviting him into my bed.

I stalled for time by twirling his hair with my fingers and trying to make pillow talk. He could tell something was wrong, though. I saw it in his eyes. Not to prolong the avoidance strategies, I asked him if we could just go to sleep. He didn’t ask me why. He just said, “Sure.” Needless to say, things weren’t quite the same after that. The next morning he left after swallowing a cup of coffee, rather obviously hiding his hurt feelings.

I quit my job at the Poète. I told Willy that I was getting too busy with school. He was fine with it. I think I had lasted about exactly as long as most of his employees.

I went out one night with a bunch of people, including Chris, Tom and James. Apart from asking James how he was, I avoided him. I left early, suddenly, before anyone could propose to walk me home. But a couple of days later I ran into James on the corner of Milton and Parc. He was on his way home. I had skipped class, but I must have been going to the library. I had been up late the night before breaking up with carpenter-James, and then having sex with him one last time. I had not been home. I had dirty clothes in my backpack. I was in a foul mood. It would have been nice to happen upon James at that moment if I had never spent the night with him. His smile would have distracted me from my foolish problems. But under the circumstances, he was cross. By avoiding him for a week, I had turned his disappointment to anger. The anger that emanated from him provoked defensiveness in me. “I’m really in a rush, James,” I said.

He snorted. “You can be an ice queen,” he stammered. We glared at one another and marched off our separate ways.

Later I ran into Chris. I told him that James had called me an “ice queen”.

He hadn’t heard about our night together. James hadn’t told anyone. I felt bad being the one who couldn’t keep it private. Chris was a nice guy, but he was very talkative. I knew everyone in our class would soon be laughing at James for calling me an “ice queen”. I felt a small pang of guilt for starting the rumour, but I was also glad to be exacting a bit of revenge.

Dare I suggest that the drama of my personal life had temporarily satisfied some part of me. It wasn’t a permanent change. It was more like the drama was fuel that I was able to burn for a few weeks before I had to go out searching for more. It came at the right time: I caught up on my work just as the semester was winding down.

I remember a scene at a bank machine. I had called James or he had called me and we were getting some money for the evening. He no longer seemed angry or hurt. To deal quickly with recent events, I told him that I didn’t know what was wrong with me, that I had some perverse desire to be with guys who were jerks. This was not really true. It was a very simplified and skewed version of the truth at best. James had no comment. Perhaps he thought it didn’t merit a response. It was the final word on our very brief affair.

For the next six months that I knew him, we never spoke of our night together. He went to Paris that summer, ostensibly to take French courses at the Sorbonne, but he was mostly just hanging out as far as I could tell. My parents were also in Paris. My father had just been transferred, temporarily. I went to stay with them for two weeks. James had been there for a couple of months by then. He had settled into the city. He had a girlfriend. She and I got along well. I think her name was Hélène. Paris, summer, freedom from the demands of university–all suited James. Yes, I had a pang of what-if, but only a pang. It felt right just being friends.

I had to go back to Montreal in September to complete two more courses. I had dropped some classes after my boyfriend and I had broken up and I didn’t have enough credits to graduate with my class. I could not afford to live in the apartment we had shared. It was not easy to find a six-month lease. I ended up in crappy one-and-a-half in a basement. I reminded myself daily that it was “only until Christmas”.

James was back in Montreal, too. He was starting an MA, but he was not enjoying it. Perhaps Paris had spoiled him, or awakened him. When I asked him how school was going, he’d grumble and say he’d rather “just write”.

I don’t know if he finished his MA or not. In December I packed my suitcase while taking breaks from writing my last paper. I had a plane ticket to Paris, where my father had gotten me a job translating internal documents for his company. There was one problem. My parents had given me a cheque in September and instructed me to “budget myself”. I had cut it too close. I was down to eating rice and canned vegetables. I didn’t even have enough money for a taxi to the airport. I called James.

The last time I saw him was on the porch of his apartment in Little Italy. He handed over a twenty dollar bill with a rueful smirk.

“Write down your address,” I told him. “I’ll send you a cheque as soon as I get paid.” I stuffed the paper he gave me into my purse and ran home to call a taxi.

Recently, I’ve reached out to a few old acquaintances with whom I had lost touch. One ignored me entirely. Two “friended” me on Facebook, but didn’t bother to reply when I sent them messages. With one I traded emails, first short, then long, then shorter again, and finally, “Keep in touch. If you’re ever in ___________, look us up.” Not all that satisfying to be honest. I won’t be in ____________ any time soon, not as long as the kids are in school and my husband is on call during the summers. Yes, I’m married, with kids, employed, healthy (as far as I know), and wiser, of course, so much wiser.

That’s a joke.

No, I don’t pine for the past, or long to turn back the clock, but, James (if you happen to see this somewhere and recognize yourself), I miss you, and I owe you twenty dollars plus interest … quite a lot of interest.

Café du Poète (a short story)

Good Work

Go to bed now,

a dozen lines tossed

to the near infinity?

 

Laughter is only arriving

into the night of the city,

while you are shutting down

 

everything.

You put so little in the glass

and gulp it down, like medicine,

 

and dream of selling your books

for a toolbox.

There is no answer

 

at the end

of the line

or …

 

You, you, you,

I want to be angry

because no one else is:

 

stay up

until the light is tired

and the blood

 

has been sucked

from your bones.

I said

 

sucked from your bones.

 

 

 

Good Work

I Recall a Look

The look of a great aunt, or a retired neighbour

as I sat with them at a table when I was young:

I felt it but ignored–the look of loss, of the awareness

of loss, of the faculties, the life-force, the appetites,

madness, creativity, strong sensations, violent emotions,

violence, bringing a quiet, strange peace,

looking at me then, unwrinkled, green, golden.

I understand it now. The young speak,

and you hardly listen. You look at them, politely smiling,

like a victim to a thief.

I Recall a Look

The Problem of Marking Student Writing ( part 1)

All of my English teacher colleagues would agree that the hardest part of our job is marking. It takes up a lot of time and concentration. It’s also frustrating, in that I always feel as if there is more I could do to improve each essay if I had more time, and so putting a mark in the top corner and placing an essay on the “marked” pile is a compromise. Given the unsatisfying effort that goes into marking, I find myself often questioning the standard approach to teaching and evaluating student writing.

Marking feels like a lot of work, but it is not easy to quantify. At my college most of us assign three essays to each of the three classes of 40 students that we teach. This means that we mark about 360 essays per semester. If we spend ten minutes with each essay, the total time spent marking essays each semester is 60 hours. This doesn’t include recording marks, staring into space, brewing coffee, tracking down the sources of suspected plagiarism, etc. Ten minutes per essay works out to 6 essays per hour, which is possible at times, in the perfect environment, with a well-rested brain. Often, though, 4 per hour is a more realistic. At this pace, it would take 90 hours to do all of our marking.

Let’s settle on 75 hours as an average. How do we work with this average, though? It implies that we could mark a semester-worth of essays in two weeks. During the semester, though, we don’t have two empty weeks to devote to marking. We have classes to prepare and teach, as well as administrative tasks. Even if we did have two weeks in which to do nothing but mark. I don’t think anyone is capable of marking for 8 hours per day for 5 days straight. My guess is that after four hours of focussed marking most people’s brains are mush. Let’s assume we do some marking on weekends (we do), twenty-five hours of marking a week strikes me as the maximum that most people would be able to maintain, semester after semester, year after year. Given a 75-hour per semester total, that works out to three weeks of intensive marking.

 

As with any repetitive task, minor changes to methodology will have a significant overall effect. Saving one minute on each essay adds up to 360 minutes saved in total. With so much time at stake, it is worth thinking about efficiency.

Obviously, we don’t just want to save time. We want to teach. Therefore, we need to think about what students can learn from marked essays and what else they might be able to learn if teachers were to use the time they currently spend marking on other educational activities, like preparing classes, or working with students during the writing process. I’ll attempt to tackle these issues in part 2.

The Problem of Marking Student Writing ( part 1)

Excerpts from a Black Notebook

Sometimes he woke up in the morning with bruises on his face. Or dried blood beneath his nose.

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His father was an actor. Once he went to see him in a play. During an emotional scene, his father looked into the audience, straight at him, into his eyes, in character, without any sign of recognizing him (his son). He found it troubling–being regarded by his “father” without any sign of recognition–and never forgot that moment for the rest of his life.

Excerpts from a Black Notebook