by Wendy ParkerDarby Clay understood that his world was built on pretence. Even in his most deluded moments, he realized, and accepted, that his whole life was built on pretense.
So that day in the bedroom, when Cathy had asked him for something real, he had pulled away from her. Who wouldn't have? He had been sure that it would never come to anything. It would pass, just like all the other times. He had been so sure.
"Damn!" He spit the bug at the pavement. Next thing you know, they'd be hitting him in the eye. He'd had a friend who had been hit between the eyes by a dragonfly. Knocked him right off his bike and into a ditch. Left him lying on his back staring sightless at the blue heavens and wondering why in hell God had put dragonflies on earth. Why in hell had God chosen to put so many dragonflies on this road for these two weeks every summer? What in hell were they doing here anyway?
He ducked, making the bike sway with his movement. The big fly whizzed by his helmet and zigzagged across the road behind him. They were making kamikaze raids at him now. He bobbed and wove like Muhammed Ali in his prime and the bike followed every move. Lucky the city had paved the road this spring. It used to be a son of a bitch with the potholes and curves and flying objects.
Darby cursed at another small body and rode on in the early morning sunlight. He was the only motorized vehicle on the road; the rest were winged. He wished he was one of them and found his thoughts skittering away from him like streams of blood in a washbasin. Streams of blood in a wash basin. Now where had that come from? He hadn't read it anywhere, had he? Maybe it was original. No. There was nothing original about him. His mother had made that clear. He ducked another dragonfly and thought perhaps, just perhaps, Cathy had mentioned something about the way blood streams from a wound. Before she gave her demonstration.
Cathy. Her name still haunted him. Yet he couldn't see her face anymore. For a while, he had thought it would follow him for the rest of his life, chasing him across the earth like an old Scottish ghost. Her eyes wild and staring, her hair a mess of tangles. It used to get like that when she was in her moods.
Her moods were like nothing else, nothing he had ever seen. Deep, brooding moods, when she would snap at everything he said and take offence at everything he did. It was then he used to wish he were dead. He had felt so guilty about her life and so empty about his own.
But he had never, ever wished her dead. It had never occurred to him then that there might have been something wrong in her head, something that had nothing to do with him at all.
"Damn," he said again, as another dragonfly went zinging off his helmet. Why did they do that? How in the hell did their species survive? He had a vision of a trail of dead dragonflies in his wake, bodies strewn on the road like so many good, brave soldiers. Anyhow, Cathy was dead. He would never have to worry about her moods again. She would never become a ghost and she would never be able to make him real.
Pretence was the word that had come to him one night when he had lain beside her, unable to sleep. It had seemed so right.
He was jobless, living off the taxpayers, without hope of finding anything new. He had hated the country then because he hadn't understood it. He had thought, in his ignorance, that he was being poorly rewarded for all his hard work, all those late nights, all that studying and overtime, all that good soldier stuff.
So he had been lying awake feeling unwanted and unloved. He had been rethinking his entire life, trying to figure out where he had gone so awfully wrong with it. All the time he had been skirting around that unthinkable thought - maybe it was him, maybe he just wasn't good enough for the times or the country.
And yet he had done everything they had asked of him. He had gone to college, got his marks, done the poverty-stricken student routine with Cathy. Eaten macaroni dinners until the thought of them made him puke. He had even wondered, for a moment, if she had developed the same aversion to the processed cheese. She had never complained about it to him. So how could he know? But she must have hated it. Maybe she had started to hate life then. He had taken the right steps. Nobody could fault him for that. After school, he had found a job - after much searching, much disappointment and much reassessment of his worth as a human being.
He had worked hard and done well. He had put in hours at his job, making sure it was just right, moved by some concept of the need for perfection in all things, driven by some hunger for praise. And he had gone up through the ranks. Quickly. He had no complaints about that. He had certainly risen quickly. Maybe too quickly, because he had found the price too high for him. Too much pressure, too much responsibility. So he had chucked it. Thrown it over. Started again.
Cathy had never complained. She had never complained about the late hours when he had been obsessed with his work and she had never complained about his decision to give it up. Never to him, anyway. Never so that he could hear her. Then he had done it again with another job in another city. It had been the same story there. Hard work. Perfect work. Followed by the inevitable promotions and his own unavoidable reaction.
His private explanation was that he couldn't stand the pressure of their office politics. Torn apart between rigid upper management and the people he had wanted to call friends. Why did they always put him in those jobs? Lonely, callous jobs that set him apart from all the rest. When he really wanted to go with his friends for a beer after work. Okay, he could be honest too. There was some greed. He hadn't wanted to work for second-rate district offices all his life. His record was better than that. What was it about those city people? They didn't have the right to treat him like some kind of joke when he went looking for a job. He had earned his chance, dammit, with all those lousy years in lousy little burgs across the country. Toronto was his hometown and now a bunch of hicks and foreigners were treating him as if he wasn't good enough for them.
Christ, he'd been born there. His father had been born there. It was his town. And a bunch of foreigners was laughing at him, turning up their noses as if he stank of cabbage. He felt the blood hot on his face and tried to calm himself.
"You'll put the bike in the ditch all by yourself," he warned himself. "Never mind the bloody dragonflies."
He grabbed at the thread of his thoughts and glared at the damp roadway to assure himself that he really was - yes, God, this time I really am - riding like a responsible adult who could hold his liquor and who hadn't been drinking cheap Italian wine all night. So the road and the dragonflies came back together. He ducked just in time and felt good about it. His reactions weren't aas bad as he had feared. He still had it. All he needed now, he thought, was a clue about his straying thoughts.
Ah, yes. He smiled and breathed deep and righted the motorcycle on its course down the winding road. He had been thinking about pretence.
Pretence. The concept was so simple and yet so satisfying. He wondered why it had eluded him for so long, all those years when he had banged about in a suicidal rage. He had hit so many hard walls and hurt himself so badly for nothing. Cathy must have seen it. She must have known what he was doing. Yet she never complained. She never warned him about the realities. How could he have known?
So he had been lying awake, regurgitating his life in little pieces, when it had suddenly hit him that none of it was real. That was why they were all laughing at him in the city. He was taking the whole thing so seriously, counting so much on this little point his favour here, that little dot in his favour there. Yes, he had taken all those responsibilities and he had spent all those late nights and, yes, he had done everything necessary to make sure the job was done and people had said he had done a fine job. They had praised him, they really had.
That's what the immigrants in the big city - his city - had asked. So what? They hadn't been condescending or rude about it. He wouldn't say rude. Just a simple, So what? And he had had no answer except this: I'm a good soldier; I do all the right things; I work so hard at it; please pat me on the head and giver me the job. They had laughed at him. Maybe they had been right.
It was all pretence, wasn't it? He could see that now. They had told him in high school that college would make him wealthy. So he'd worked his butt off to get to college, then he'd worked even harder to make the grade. They had told him all through his childhood that God honours and rewards hard work. Pay your dues, they had intimated, and all life's good things will be yours. A pretty picture of Sunday barbecues with the neighbours, laughing children in the yard, a shiny car in the driveway.
Of course, it was his fault for buying into the picture and trying to build a whole life on it.
Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts. He tried to shut them out, concentrate instead on the road and the drone of his bike, but the thoughts kept coming. Like everything else, they were out of his control. So, he surrendered to them again. Let them come. Let them wash over him. Let them take over his mind so completely that he would automatically bob and weave around the dragonflies and the ever-increasing potholes.
And the road was getting worse. He could see it about a quarter mile ahead. Bumps and frost heaves. Crumbling pavement and deep gouges. He had passed the point of diminishing voter strength and was entering an area without political clout. These people didn't count. It comforted him to know there were others like himself. Unconnected white trash of no account in the greater scheme. Destined for nothing but good soldiering.
Had Cathy known? She must have. She was connected. She had been there. She knew what was what. He could see that now in those off-hand remarks and those baffling comments. She had known it all. So why had she come with him? She was no soldier. Yet she had made the choice. She had cast her own fate when she had chosen him out of the crowd. Of all people, off all places. Was that, too, part of her sickness, or had she, even than, been so arrogant that she had believed she could beat them?
The road blurred and he could no longer see where he was going. He could no longer see the dragonflies coming at him. He could no longer bob and weave like a Zen Buddhist Mohammed Ali.
And he could not change his character or his life no matter how carefully he had planned his ride or how hard he worked at it. Cathy would have to go on alone now. Wherever she was. Wherever she was going. Darby pulled over to the shoulder of the road and stopped his machine. He leaned over the handlebars and cried.
This was not the way he had planned it. He had wanted to ride fast, too fast, his wits dulled by the wine and his senses inflamed by his anger. He had wanted to hit those damn potholes and bounce so high, then catch his bike in the air, make it run the road, push it to his will until he flew apart with its speed and weight. He didn't have the will to push anymore.
He had wanted to smash the kamikaze dragonflies, yowling through the early morning, hurting, killing, smashing everything - dragonflies, his bike, his body, his memories, her memory, his whole senseless life.
He could not do it. He could only crumple over his handlebars and cry. Cathy be damned. What did she expect? He could only be himself, a tapped-out, confused, middle-aged man. Alone, unemployed, without hope, without the strength to do what he should do for her. A good soldier. An ass to kick. A stooge. A patsy. A failure. He bit his hand until the tears stopped and he could see again.
The birds were singing now in the trees along the sides of the road. There were things to do. He had dishes to wash, the apartment to clean, her clothes to give away, his mother to call, a letter to write.
Maybe he would come again tomorrow. If the wine held out and the weather was good, the chances looked promising.
Darby turned his bike in the soft, damp dirt and went home.
If your family has its roots in Canada, you might want to check out the genealogy resources at The Canadian Tree to see if you can track your ancestors down.
Submitted on 2007-05-06 21:05:01
Other stories by this author.