And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
—T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
You knew it was a big deal to be invited up to our family reunion. You knew because on the drive up, I told you that one Christmas, when your girlfriend, my half-sister, was too young to remember, my father and step-mother were hosting an annual party for close family friends and my girlfriend had come back from university a day early and was emphatically not invited to the party. You probably guessed, could probably feel my resentment in my tone. I know because my wife hit me in the leg then and you turned to watch Muskoka speed past. You did not know that later, after the bonfire, behind the thin door of our room, in the cabin you and my half-sister and my wife and I were sharing, that what we were whispering about was that story, and why did I have to be so mean to you and was I trying to ruin this weekend?
You did not know the way to the old land and you did not know how to drive stick, though I swear I didn’t know the latter when I asked you that morning if you wanted to drive, though of course it was suggested, later, that I’d been trying to emasculate you. I honestly didn’t know that you’d mentioned it in the car. Maybe you said it when I was waiting in line at Weber’s to buy us all burgers, maybe I never listen to anyone else, as I was told when I got it for that one. The point is, I drove, which you probably remember because I apparently nearly hit that cyclist just outside of Port Carling. I don’t know.
When I saw what the place was like, I needed you to know that the four buildings that were here when Dad’s family owned it were cottages, real cottages, buildings more like sheds or shacks. I mean, just one of them had a flush toilet. They were not: a boathouse with three slips and more square footage of living space than your apartment and mine combined; an eight-bedroom guest cottage with a basement rec. room boasting pool, ping pong and shuffleboard tables; and a brand-new main cottage that had recently been featured in a magazine that my wife happened to see, a “cottage” that had its own boathouse with three slips for maybe three more boats, an upstairs for who knows what, and deck furniture that cost more than the car we drove here in. When Dad’s cousin, Grace, overheard me she reminded me how kind these people were for letting us use this important place for our family reunion, and she was right, they were being kind and it was going to cost them, financially, because of course they would get their house-keeper or cleaning lady or servants—whatever they had or whatever they called who they had—to give this place a thorough going over to get rid of our smell, our average manners, our Costco cheese on the marble counters, our obesity and our desperate and ostentatious fitness, our need to work, the dirt of our children, our piss around the base of the toilet.
When you bumped into me in front of the framed image of Ian Miller and Big Ben, you didn’t know that I was upstairs snooping in the bedrooms for a place to take and proposition my wife. You told me you were upstairs looking for someone’s soother, that one of the babies had napped up here and their pacifier was still in their collapsible crib. I didn’t know which bedroom that was. “Found it,” you said when you passed. By then I’d moved on to the framed picture of a blonde woman hunched down over some horse’s neck as he carried her over a red and white obstacle. The photo was too well done to be called a snapshot, but I knew, maybe even just from the quality of gloss on the photograph’s surface, that this was a print of a picture of one of the members of the family who’d oh so generously allowed us back onto this land so important to my family.
Earlier, I had seen the baseball gloves in a wrinkled reusable shopping bag by the door, but I didn’t know who’d brought them. It was the snap of the leather that drew me to the gravel road where you and my dad were playing catch. It had been years since I’d had the pleasure and it’s true that since I was sixteen and your girlfriend was just a baby and Dad had blown a disc, I had been told No so many times that I stopped asking, so, you know, I guess it’s partly my fault. And how could you know that I cry every time I watch Field of Dreams and Kevin Costner starts playing catch with the young man who is his father come back, who is the “he” of the whispered, “If you build it he will come.” You didn’t know my dad well enough to know that when you offered me your glove so I could play catch, offered it to me because I was standing there, silent but obviously radiating some deep need, that Dad would insist that I take his glove, insist that, “No, I’m happy to watch.” He was happy to watch, for a few minutes, and playing catch with you was nice actually, but when Dad excused himself saying that he really should be visiting, I had that same thought and actually knew that when I went back my wife would be like, “Where did you go?” because she was stuck down on the dock talking to my relatives, all of whom I was happy to ignore.
And that’s what it was like. My wife was lying on a chaise in a bikini and Dad’s cousin Teresa was casting a shadow over my wife’s face and toroso like she didn’t notice that my wife was trying to catch some colour. Teresa was telling her about which stars were aligned with which planets or some such thing and there was this old Indian man who used to come to around the lake in a canoe selling moccasins who said Teresa had something special about her, that she was in tune and wasn’t the sun beautiful today, I mean it just felt so warm, like a beautiful, heavy quilt someone’s grandmother made, you know? I got Teresa talking about my grandfather, her Uncle Stephen, and while she told me, “You really look like him, I mean, its almost weird, oh my God,” my wife stood up and ran a finger around both sides of the crotch hem of her bikini bottoms before she pulled the chaise out of the shade Teresa was casting.
Maybe you do know what a relief it was when you showed up and Teresa asked you your sign and offered to do a reading and I asked my wife, “Can I talk to you, please,” and she vacated her chaise and that was it, it was gone for good. Up the stairs from the dock, my wife kept asking what it was I wanted to talk to her about, and I kept saying, “Not here, not here.” At the bottom of the stairs to the bedrooms we paused and my wife again asked, whispering, what I wanted to talk to her about and I whispered, “We’re almost there,” and your girlfriend’s mother, my step-mother, looked up from cutting eggplants for cousin Becky’s Thai boyfriend’s Thai eggplant dish. She looked up from cutting the eggplant and right into my eyes as if she could see there what I intended to do.
Of course my wife was just annoyed with me because as you might guess she wouldn’t do it with me under a picture of a man riding a horse, in the bedroom of a guest house that wasn’t even ours or our friends’ and that was the site of a reunion for all of my father’s siblings and paternal cousins and all of their children and grand children. She wasn’t interested in how good she looked in that bikini. She wasn’t interested in breaking the rules. Neither was I, really, not after that look from my step-mother, but I didn’t want to let that look, that image deter me because I figured that once things got going I could put it out of my mind or if I failed at that, then I could call it up and use it to prolong things. Moot point, though.
I went to the kitchen and asked the Thai boyfriend, whose name was Alex, if he needed any more help with the meal. He said, No, but my step-mother said, “Oh,” and said my name before adding, “you know, you could help me put out the veggies and dip.” I didn’t even know you were there but you offered to help too and it took us five minutes to take handfuls of the already cut vegetables and arrange them on the plate in an attractive way while my step-mom smoothed the top of the dip. When I took the tray down, maybe you didn’t notice, or didn’t understand the full significance, but Teresa was lying on the chaise and my wife was on a towel on the dock. My wife asked me to make her a dark and stormy and Teresa asked what that was and asked if I’d make her one, too. You said you’d like one, but of course neither Teresa nor you could have known, or maybe you could have, that we had just a limited supply of ginger beer and rum, but there’s no way you could have known how worried my wife was that we weren’t going to have enough and you wouldn’t have understood what it meant it even if you had seen her curl her toes and make quick fists of each hand.
The eggplant dish was great and even my giant cousin Benjamin, who chose not to go you U of T because of all the ‘slanty-eyes’—his fucking words—all the Asians, all the people of Asian descent there, even the giant racist Ben loved the eggplant dish, loved it so much that he was back for seconds before everyone had had firsts and I got nostalgic for when we were kids and I learned to eat fast at family gatherings because Ben was like that and no matter how much my parents complained about it in the car on the way home from our family gatherings it never ever got better and his parents never seemed to care, even seemed a little proud of Ben like as if his greed, his hunger was some evolutionary advantage. I guess you can tell that I never liked Ben.
We had custard for dessert. My dad’s Cousin Maeve made it. I didn’t know to expect some speech about it, so I had already violated the thing with my fork when you tapped my upper-arm and jerked your chin in this very specific way that said, Look up, and I did and there was my family staring at me like I was some ignorant ass hole, that the fact I thought we were just eating dessert had fully confirmed what they already knew alright, oh boy oh boy. Maeve had written a speech about her mother and her mother’s mother, who was my great grandmother, and how this was her custard recipe and how she—Maeve, I think—would never make it as good as she—my great-grandmother, maybe—had made it. And Maeve was crying and everyone was waiting to eat the custard and Maeve’s husband—this great warm guy who believed, unfortunately, that he’d been saved and had a Bible on top of the F-150 owner’s manual in his glove box—he gave her a hug and said, “Your custard is wonderful,” and everyone started eating and I just sat there watching everyone for a while, and then I set my custard down and went for a walk because all of this shit was making me angry.
You found me in the woods and you said, “We’re ready to go if you want.”
“Maybe that’s a good idea.”
We gathered our partners and we grabbed our cooler, which still had enough beer and cider and, most importantly, rum and ginger beer and we drove back to the cabins where we were staying. Dad and my step-mother were close behind us and we got drunk in their cabin and laughed about our weird family—42 members strong that day, and that was just the people who could make it—and you and my wife kindly assured us that ours wasn’t the only weird family around, nor the only family that made fun of their weird family. Dad told stories about his childhood up at that land and talked about how different things had been in Muskoka then and at their land then. You know, it was the most I’ve heard him talk about his childhood and there were loads of things I learned. You know the way soil and rock are stratified, like the ground keeps a record of things that have happened right there? I guess people’s brains are like that. Or maybe place has past human events stratified like that, folded up somewhere under or behind the fabric of now.
Anyway, that evening was this big old happy ending which I had not expected.
And when we went to bed and my wife asked, “Are you okay, now?” I didn’t even get mad like you might think I would, but I did mistake it for an opportunity to try and have sex. Oh well. It was still a nice night, you know?
Toronto, September 2015
Emoji sequence: Sarah Sheppard
Story: Lee Sheppard