His warm touch shedding kindness and oh irrigating her thirsty heart with love oh generous love flowing so deep love flooding all below and oh surrender to his goodness oh to goodness beyond words beyond…
A sudden jolt and she bumped her head. Awake now. Bus window patterned with raindrops; beyond it grey dawn sky, seagull wheeling in the rain. She yawned. The overnight bus bounced over the curb and into the station, and her head bumped the glass again. A shiver coursed through her body. Cold and stiff, she rubbed her hands together and squeezed them into her armpits, beneath her coat.
Her father’s presence lingered in the half-light, gradually took form, coalesced into an image hovering — thick iron-grey hair, brush moustache, dark noble eyes — hovering now, heroic yet beleaguered, a gilt-framed image, a blessed icon floating over her thoughts.
A few days ago, rummaging through a box, she had discovered a stack of her old poli sci essays and had begun reading at random. Yes, unfashionable to now invoke words like good and kind and fair, joining the ranks of other discredited words, words to sneer at. Like tradition and civilization. Yes, a world unmoored…
But her father — yes, unschooled as he was, unformed and rough — her father had the capacity to feel the rightness of things. To feel compassion and pity for the common man. He understood the value of things….
God, exhausting to even think this early in the morning.
Angela got her bag from the overhead shelf and descended into the damp morning. An icy rain lashed her face and drove her into the station. She had taken the bus instead of the Subaru to avoid the long drive alone; maybe it had been a mistake. Standing by a hot roaring vent, she studied the waiting cabs through the glass. A solitary woman approaching middle age, unrecognized and with a canvas bag, also stood waiting in the glass, an apparition floating over the wet street, ghostly cars passing through the bundled form.
More than anything she ached for a warm bed, a darkened room, oblivion.
A Tim Horton’s aglow with a promise of regeneration. She bought a large coffee and a box of donuts and, trailing her canvas carryon, headed for the Berri metro station. She’d have a donut on the ride to Park Ex and save the rest for her father.
* * *
When he answered the door, his knees buckled and she had to drop the box of donuts to keep her father from collapsing. She caught and briefly held a bundle of frail bones, slippery under their loose skin, wreathed in the scent of urine and unwashed limbs, and all this nearly undid her.
Dirty pants hitched to his chest, unravelling grey sweater, cataract-clouded eyes beneath lunatic tufts of hair. How could this be? He was unrecognizable. Upright again, he folded her in his arms, placed his bristly hollowed cheek on her shoulder, sobbed like a baby.
“My angel, my angel,” he murmured into her shoulder. “You came, finally you came home. To me.”
Angela shut her eyes tightly until tears started and she vowed, first thing, she’d get him a haircut, do his laundry, buy groceries, cook all day, fill his freezer with restorative meals. All of her time for him, every minute of this visit devoted to his rescue, to pulling him back from this destroying precipice.
Mrs. Kalliope, the landlord, was supposed to look in on him and do some light cleaning. But the apartment smelled of rotting bananas and something else, a mephitic sour emanation. Dust furred every surface and there was an overturned plate, unbroken, under the kitchen table. She pushed it with her toe to reveal a second circle of grime, and then a third; the plate must have sat there for weeks. Beside the plate, a scatter of yellow pills on the grime-streaked tile. She glanced over at her father on the couch, jaws processing a second donut, box gaping on the coffee table. She opened the fridge: nearly empty except for a drying chicken carcass on a scrap of foil. Beside it, a bowl with three grapes and a formation of grape stems picked clean, like a second carcass. A pair of yogourt containers, better left uninspected. She tossed these into a plastic bag hanging on a hook and hemorrhaging garbage through a gash on its side.
All this had been easier ten months ago, the last time Angela visited; the time before Brian, her husband, left home. Abandoned would be the better word. Abandoned wife and daughter, pushing them out on a leaky raft, casting them adrift on the dark water. What kind of man leaves his family? She had not seen it coming, of course; had never imagined how selfish Brian could be, or how long he must have planned it, storing up resentments until it was time. Time. The weeks before he left had been an agony. Terrible accusations he must have been constructing for years, emerging from his mouth like a magician’s string of knotted silk kerchiefs. Tricks with the truth. Truth was, she had sacrificed her future in a backwater town so he could build his miserable failing business.
And Zosime, her beautiful Zosie, all the while in the next room burying herself in her schoolbooks. Not once did they speak of it, mother and daughter, of the father’s abandonment. And she knew this was strange, this silence.
No one understood Angela’s flashing temper and passionate nature. She didn’t always have tact, but she had something superior, better: her father’s instinct for what is right and decent. This comes from family, from an upbringing rooted in ancient tradition. Brian, on the other hand, was descended from a hodgepodge; a rickety set of mismatched kitchen chairs snagged on the family tree. Quite literally a descent. He used to joke about it; called himself a mutt, Heinz 57, bit of this and a bit of that: Scotch-Irish, Swedish, Mohawk…whatever. As if the broken furniture were a point of pride. Brag about it, why don’t you. Divorced parents: one an alcoholic the other a nutcase, so what could you expect.
The fury crested, and she took several deep breaths before wandering back into the living room. Her father was nibbling a chocolate donut with pensive delicacy, meanwhile studying another donut, still in its box, freckled with pink, blue and yellow sprinkles. He looked up, astonished, chocolate smearing one cheek.
In the long run, maybe Brian’s selfishness was a good thing. As a single parent, a designation she was still trying on, like an unfamiliar pair of shoes, she would have a free hand to raise Zosime properly, starting with Greek lessons.
She couldn’t stay very long on this trip. Zosime was home alone. Fifteen and mature for her age, but still; you could never be sure, with addicts and maniacs roaming the streets. The foundations cracked, clash of civilizations. Angela had come up with that phrase years before it was the title of a book, written it into an essay at McGill. This alone marked her out with a certain prescience. Yes, Zosime would have to find her own way. But maybe now, with Brian gone, she could return to first principles, build a proper home for Zosime.
Angela sat across from her father and picked up the phone.
“Papou is fine. He asks about you, honey, he says he loves you. He’s so proud that you’re doing well in school. Can you say something to him in Greek, like we practiced? It would make him so happy.” She paused, listening. “Well, that’s fine, Zosie. We’ll do it tomorrow.”
“She sends her love,” said Angela, hanging up.
“Ah. Why you come alone? Where is Brian?”
“At home, with Zosime. She can’t leave school.”
“She is beautiful girl. Why you give her this name? A xéno name.”
“That again. It’s ancient Greek, Babá, and don’t start. I need to get some sleep. It was a long bus ride.”
“No one in our family is name Zosime. I never hear this name. Your mother name it was Helen. What is wrong with Helen? Also ancient Greek name, like you say. Bee-yootiful Helen, wife of Agamemnon…”
She glared at him.
“Oh, sorry. You are tired, my angel. Yes, go sleep. I close the door.”
The sheets, of an ambiguous yellow, more than likely unwashed for months, smelled musty. Why were they paying a fortune to that bitch upstairs if she couldn’t even manage a bit of laundry? But her father no longer slept in the bed anyway, this much was clear from the undisturbed dust. He preferred the living room couch: closer to the TV and front door.
In the dresser mirror across the room, a woman slumped on the bed, arms slack by her side, a look of depletion. At this distance the woman’s smudged mascara gave her a pair of black eyes. A raccoon hoisted on the bed, staring back.
The next moment her father burst through the door, wringing his hands, brows bristling with alarm.
“I forget to tell you, my angel. The gangster upstairs, she take all my socks. Every one. You need socks? Now you know where to find them. Upstairs, all the socks. She keeping them to open a store. Inventory for…”
“I don’t need socks. Not right now. I just need to sleep, Babá.”
“Phone police. They know what to do.” He crossed his wrists, signifying manacles. “Fix her good, once and finish, she and her gang of thieves.”
Angela got up, gently guided him back to the living room, turned on the TV, shut the bedroom door.
* * *
A wan dirty light filtering through a dusty curtain and the distant sound of kids playing in the street. Stretching, Angela yawned and felt refreshed. Propping herself up on an elbow, she watched a bearded man in a djellaba and silver-grey ski jacket across the street. He had a 2002 Nissan Sentra up on blocks and was pushing a pink plastic pail to another man under the car. In the cold, a pair of bare feet in plastic sandals extended from beneath the front bumper. Silver jacket yelled at a couple of shrieking kids playing street hockey with cricket bats. He spat on the sidewalk with fierce expertise.
What’s happened to Park Ex? she thought.
She found her father asleep on the couch, TV still on. Angela dressed quietly and went to the grocery store on Ogilvy — one of the last Greek ones — for some pork chops, dandelions and lemons. She also picked up a loaf of Greek bread, a dozen eggs and a bottle of wine.
By the time she returned her father was awake. As he watched from the counter, she fixed him a big meal and he chattered about the refugees, the Germans and Americans, tiny beleaguered Greece. The wine was not very good but at the end of the meal the bottle stood empty, and her father rose from his chair and kissed the top of her head, the way he used to, and this simple act filled her with joy. Things weren’t so bad, really. The nap had helped, and so had the wine. What with her fatigue and the winter rain and already missing Zosie, everything had seemed so bleak this morning. She could safely put off some of her plans until tomorrow. It’s not like a haircut and a restaurant meal would change much if they were a day later, and besides, she had to now think of Zosie and herself. With Brian gone, possibly for good, she had to plan for their future.
“I have to go out tonight,” she announced. “There’s some business I need to take care of, Babá. But tomorrow we have a full day. Bright and early, we’ll go shopping for some new clothes. Have you been depositing your pension cheques?”
“Ah, before you go,” he said, eyebrows cresting, “look at this.” He rummaged for a moment in a drawer. “In here, so the gangster upstairs no find. Look this here legal paper, de-po-zee-sion,” he pronounced carefully. “I have lawyer make last week.”
He handed her a folded paper. It was a pizza delivery menu. Angela suddenly felt tired again, longed to return to bed. She pretended to study the menu, which featured a cartoon chef making a circle with thumb and forefinger. She turned it over to scan the column of extra toppings. At the end of a minute she told her father that the deposition seemed in order. They should proceed with the case.
“Since I’m here anyway,” she added, “let’s see if I can get an appointment with the doctor for this afternoon. Have you been getting enough sleep, Babá? What about your pills?”
“I have not slept since your mother died,” he said, switching to Greek. “Eight years, not a wink. At night my eyes are like moons, pregnant with sorrow. I think of your mother, God forgive her, and how you two fought.” His features clouded. “An appointment? Now? You should have done this already, before coming. You cannot get an appointment at the last minute. Even a hairdresser…”
“Be quiet,” she ordered, suddenly furious. “Sit still and be quiet. Let me try anyway. Doesn’t hurt to try.”
He drifted over to the couch and Angela felt a stab of remorse. What had become of her father? She phoned the doctor’s office and got a busy signal. Not even voice mail. She tried again and got the same provoking electronic bray.
“Stupid,” she whispered, tears suddenly streaming down her face. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
Her father came over and sat beside her at the kitchen table and slowly stroked her back. “It’s fine,” he said soothingly. “It’s fine, my love. I’m so sorry for what I’m putting you through. A crazy old man like me.” She gazed at him, and wondered at the sudden moment of clarity; the eyes unclouded, as if a breeze had blown away the cataracts. “We don’t need a doctor,” he said. “Look at me, look at me my little dove — bursting with health. We’ll go to the doctor next time you come.”
“Next time. I don’t know when next time will be.” This was the moment to tell him about Brian, but she didn’t know where to begin. Her father would probably blame her. Everything was so different on this trip. It’s not enough that Brian had been so needy; but now her father, too, now meekly dependent, on the brink of madness, hanging on her every word and expecting some impossible rescue.
Her late mother, dolled up and sealed in a brass frame, regarded Angela from a lamp table.
Her mother’s head, on a Sunday afternoon twenty years ago, studded with ranks of pink and blue curlers. Her mother sitting at the kitchen table, ecru lace tablecloth beneath transparent plastic, round makeup mirror propped up against a yellow can of Fitini cooking fat, tweezing hairs on her upper lip. The lip monstrous in the magnifying mirror, quivering like a wounded animal. Her mother would be wearing a pale pink satin slip over girdle and bra; foundation garments, they called them. Below the slip, fat thighs and a tangle of varicose veins, like secondary roads on a map to nowhere. Angela remembered thinking at the time, kill me, just kill me if I ever look like that.
“I have been watching how you are with that boy, Brian,” her mother had said in Greek, plucking another hair. “You think I am a foolish woman, but I know a thing or two.” Angela’s mother surveyed her upper lip one last time and turned to face her daughter. “I know the most important thing about men. Answer me this. What is the difference between a man and a woman? Well, little girl?”
Angela hated it when her mother adopted that superior tone. “Well, if you don’t know the difference by now…”
“No, you silly monkey,” said her mother, with an indulgent smile. “It’s not about the thing between their legs…”
“Or about who’s wearing the moustache, right?” Angela said, pointedly looking at her mother’s inflamed lip.
“Listen to me carefully,” said her mother, ignoring the insult. “The difference is this: women can endure far more suffering than men.” She raised one eyebrow and narrowed the opposite eye to let the lesson sink in. “God made woman stronger than man. Why? To take on the bigger burden, to endure their own and the man’s pain. This is why we give birth, why we work harder than men do, in the kitchen and in the factory.” Angela’s mother rose from her chair, picked up a dress draped across the ironing board and began to put it on.
“Men…” She stopped when the dress snagged on a curler. Angela’s mother struggled for a moment, a headless torso convulsing in their tiny kitchen. Angela didn’t move to help. But with a final shimmy the pink and blue-studded head burst through the open collar and she coaxed the dress over her wide hips. She resumed: “Men, on the other hand, are frail creatures. Every one of them. They bruise so easily, my love. They bruise because of their beautiful pride. They cannot bear life’s setbacks like we can. Look at your father and his politics and his sermons about the working man and earthly paradise just around the corner. Games and fantasies, my love. Distractions from the hard work of living. Everything you’ve heard about women being the weaker sex? Untrue. Absolutely wrong. And why am I telling you this, little girl? Because someday you’ll need to understand these facts to become a wife. Even to a xéno, like Brian. A strong marriage is the responsibility of the woman. Forget all that nonsense about equality. Who ever heard such ignorance!”
“I’m leaving,” Angela announced, in English. “I’ve heard just about enough shit from you. If you want to be your husband’s whore and nurse and mommy all rolled into one, that’s your affair. Anyway, I have better things to do.”
“Where are you going? To Brian, I suppose. When are you coming back?”
“None of your business.” Angela got up and her chair clattered to the floor. She marched to the front hall, her mother’s scolding hysterical voice following.
“I’ll tell your father! I’ll tell him how you’re dressed!”
“So tell him.”
“You girls…you know everything. With your education and modern ways. Your feminism. But mark my words — if you don’t treat a man the way God intended, he’ll leave you. Mark my words, you’ll die alone!”
Angela slammed the door as hard as she could.
* * *
She stopped at a store window on Sherbrooke Street to study her reflection. The hairdresser had been right after all: the shade was pretty close to her own — well, her own about twenty years ago. But still… And although she avoided makeup on principle, except for eyeliner and mascara, she had bought some lipstick and foundation before leaving for Montreal. Angela drew closer to the window. Legs weren’t too bad either, at least from the knee down, which meant she’d always have to watch skirt length. Of course, from this high angle her legs appeared heavier than they really were — foreshortening does that — so you have to make allowances. The shoes, though; the shoes were the real deal. Red Louboutins, and the only reason Angela was wearing a skirt at all. Who would have given away these beauties? Granted, a little tight, and inches higher than anything she’d ever worn, but a real find at the Value Village. Back home, only prostitutes wore four-inch heels, but this was Montreal.
Angela had spent weeks tracking down Steve Koronakos. Ages and ages ago, he had asked her to the high school grad and, to her own surprise, she had immediately said yes. Under normal circumstances, the Steve package would hardly have been to Angela’s taste. The handsome face and ready smile, the good grades and easy, unopposed run for student president. But Angela could still hear the brazen moaning in the girls’ bathroom, her classmates Myriam and Sophia perched on a couple of sinks, legs spread wide and pretending to climax, gasping Steve’s name and dissolving into howls of laughter.
So there was this satisfying fact: that he was desired.
Angela couldn’t remember much from grad night. Dance at a hotel ballroom, fruity drinks at a series of bars, then a rented hotel suite where a dozen couples slow-danced to Prince and passed around bottles of Southern Comfort. Finally, a sleepy cab ride to the lookout on Mount Royal to watch the sunrise. Steve had tried something back at the hotel suite, in the bedroom, to the sound of someone retching in the toilet. She wasn’t sure how far he’d gotten. God knows, she was drunk as a skunk. That’s what they said then, drunk as a skunk. So was he, probably. But he couldn’t have gotten very far.
Over that last summer, before their graduating class scattered to separate schools and jobs, Steve Koronakos had phoned a few times, cheerfully persistent. Angela’s mother usually answered and Steve, with his gift of the gab, would keep her talking for twenty minutes or more, his Greek confident and idiomatic, asking after the family’s health, praising God for any fine weather, deploring the separatists and taxes. He remembered name days and performed, on cue, a wicked imitation of Father Nicholas at the tiny Panaïtsa church on Saint-Roch and de l’Épée. Well, once you got her mother wound up, there was no giving up the phone.
After she ran into Steve a few too many times on the street, Angela realized he had staked out their apartment building, made her a project, the object of a campaign. Nowadays they’d call it stalking, but back then she thought it was funny and a bit flattering, too. She was already dating Brian by this time, but Brian was on a summer road trip to California with his parents. No harm in just one date.
Over pizzas at Miss. Park Extension on Jean Talon Street, followed by a long walk through Jarry Park, Steve sketched out his career path. He was already calling himself an entrepreneur, and had a bit of money banked from working at his uncle’s vending machine business. There was no stopping him. A parallel path was reserved for building a house and starting a family. He had even picked out the suburb: a new development he’d been studying, in Ville-St-Laurent; an up-and-coming community offering a full menu of prestige amenities and services. The homes under development were significantly undervalued. He used that phrase, significantly undervalued.
Steve Koronakos was exactly the young man her parents wanted to see on their living room couch: ambitious, hardworking, respectful, from a good Greek family. Steve had every recommendation.
Angela couldn’t wait for Brian’s return.
The next time she saw Steve was at their ten-year high school reunion. With a slim Armenian girl: dark, beaky, elegant. Brian couldn’t take his eyes off the Armenian. In those early years she and Brian were still living in a basement apartment in Verdun, trying to figure things out. But Steve and his wife already had two young kids. Angela overheard him mention a consulting business, something in financial services. Right on schedule, Angela remarked to herself. Probably already living in Ville-St-Laurent, van in the driveway, kids swimming laps.
As a group of them stood around and chatted in the gym, Steve circulated like a host, friendly and charming to the point of opacity. He had acquired a surface polish that, Angela observed, contrasted with Brian’s nervous laughter and sagging corduroy jacket. She wondered if anyone else noticed. Steve’s wife — erect, sphinx-like — gave nothing away. But as Steve orbited the still axis of his wife, Angela thought she intercepted a glance directed her way. Then a flickering smile held a fraction too long when he arrived at her station in the circle, his eyes on her and an amused set to his mouth, as if to say: Just look at us, Angela, just look. How did things ever wind up this way?
That was years ago, but those enigmatic glances had stayed with Angela for years. Anything is possible, they seemed to say. You never know where life takes you. And these indeed were the words of guidance she spoke to Zosime, her daughter, without explaining the provenance of phrases that, lacking vivid examples drawn from life, emerged as shopworn and tired clichés.
Apparently Steve and the Armenian were now divorced, with shared custody of three kids, at least two of them by now at university. It had taken some digging to find this out. Angela had emailed old friends out of the blue; they’d emailed back, surprised, delighted. She joined Facebook, friended everybody she could think of, mentioned her homecoming. Hey, wouldn’t it be great to run into some of the old gang…
* * *
Standing outside Opus 9, Angela experienced a shiver of doubt. With its sheets of tinted glass and massive, pneumatically assisted door, the restaurant was fancier than she had expected. After a moment’s hesitation she stepped inside. White tablecloths, flames leaping from an open grill, uniformed staff gliding in every direction as if on wheels, a bossa nova warming the room and smudging the sharp edges of sound. The place was vast, a spectacle beyond her imagining. A Ferrari, parked in the middle of the dining room, was fenced off with looping velvet rope. Along the wall stretched a long zinc and oak bar, a picturesque relic, apparently reclaimed from some grand hotel. Angela spotted Steve at once, in a dark suit and with gelled hair, speaking to a large table. Older and heavier, but possibly more elegant than she remembered. Steve said something and a gust of laughter rose from the table like a flock of startled birds. He shook hands with an older man at the head of the table, deftly placing his left hand alongside the older man’s bicep. The next moment Steve was striding to the front.
Angela lost her nerve. Ignoring the hostess taking names on an iPad, she ducked downstairs to the bathroom.
Like a private club, she thought, settling on a white leather banquette. Before her, travertine counters and walls washed with light, and acres of mirror stretching to the ceiling, and round magnifying mirrors pivoting on heavy steel tripods. Pyramids of rolled hand towels nestled in steel baskets on the counter, alongside stacks of scented French soaps and bottles of moisturizer. Angela had never experienced anything like it. No, once — a mother from Zosie’s school had picked her up in a whispery SUV, a white Lexus.
She gazed at the woman in the mirror.
“I should leave,” she said.
In fact this is what she’d do. It had been a stupid idea from the start. Humiliating. And this restaurant! She had imagined something modest, like the restaurants she remembered from growing up in Park Ex — restaurants her friends and extended family owned in neighbourhoods across the city. Not that she expected Steve to be snatching hot dogs out of a steamer, or standing over an oily cloud at the fryer, barking orders at the French-Canadian waitresses. No, he would be running a solid family restaurant. Framed twenty-dollar bill behind the counter, Black Forest cake under glass. Close-shaven, cheerful Steve in a shirt and tie, maybe a cardigan. Standing behind the cash register, knowing every customer by name. But this moneymaking palace, with its Ferrari and wall of wine bottles — this was beyond comprehension, beyond imagining. What would her father say?
A remote click sounded and a bossa nova started up. Pulsing and sinuous, it drifted from the ceiling like soothing tropical rain. A man’s voice, conversational, barely above a whisper, invited her inside, into the chambers of his heart. She didn’t understand the words, but she unfolded in answer to his melancholy plea. He could only be singing about love, about aching surrender. Angela had been telling herself she didn’t miss Brian, only missed his body in bed; the habit of animal warmth. But she missed a great deal more — the smell of the garage that came off his hands and clothes, his outsize presence at breakfast. Brian talked a lot, filled the house with his loud nonsense and big limbs. One of those people who can’t tolerate a moment’s silence; as if silence were an opening for disapproval. Needy, like her father was now. She had never realized what a chatterbox Brian was; hadn’t realized how much she’d miss even that, the empty talk.
Brian would go on about the guys in the shop. Too lazy, too fond of beer or getting high — all of them unmanageable. And the customers! This one didn’t pay his bill, and that one skipped town, stranding him with a heap of junk. Hard to compete with the dealers, too, and their computers and fancy sales pitches. He’d often under-charge, take a beating to keep the customer from going to the competition. Customers wanted original parts but didn’t want to pay for them. And right off the bat they assumed you were robbing them. That the game was rigged no matter what you said or did.
No matter what you said or did… If he had left Angela for someone younger, more attractive, it would have made sense, would have been easier to understand. But that he left for no reason at all — packing his things in utter silence on a Sunday afternoon, after the big blowout. Zosie in her room, door closed. Then spending the night at the garage, then moving into some motel, alone. Then disappearing altogether. As if to say, enough.
“Enough of what?” Angela said to her reflection.
A uniformed woman came in and began wiping surfaces. As she emptied the waste bin, the woman smiled at Angela in the mirror. Angela thought she was smiling back, but caught sight of a stricken expression. No, this lunatic expedition and these heels were beyond ridiculous. She’d return to her father immediately. Too late to take him out for souvlaki, but maybe there’s a hockey game on TV. What day of the week is it, has hockey season begun? They’d phone for pizza; his deposition would finally come in handy. She had just five days — well, three, actually. She didn’t know if she’d be able to make it to Friday, like she’d promised him. The sudden calamity, the foolishness of leaving her daughter alone, came crashing down on her head.
“Have a nice dinner,” said the uniformed woman on her way out.
“You too,” replied Angela, then realized what a stupid thing she’d said.
She climbed the stairs and was about to slip out when the hostess ambushed her.
“Can I help you, madam? Do you have a reservation or…?”
“No, thanks,” Angela said, airily. “I was going to meet some friends but I’ve changed my mind.”
“Is that who I think it is?” said a voice. Angela turned and Steve Koronakos was standing five feet away, beaming. Charcoal grey suit, white shirt, blue paisley tie, orange pocket square, gleaming teeth. “I heard a rumour Angela might be in town,” he announced. The hostess with the iPad lost interest and turned away. “Next thing you know, here she is. My God, my God, my God…” He took Angela’s hands and leaned over to kiss both cheeks, and she smelled cigar smoke and something citrusy. He embraced and released her, took a step back and, holding her at arm’s length, studied her with bright and appraising eyes. “Fantastic to see you at last! It’s been years. My God, my God, my God, how many?”
Angela grinned and felt herself reddening.
“I heard you say you’re meeting friends. Are they here already?” He picked up the iPad. “What’s the name of the reservation? I’ll look it up.”
“Oh, not here,” she said. “No, I mean, I’m meeting friends somewhere else. I just came in here because…” She didn’t know what to say. “I didn’t know you worked here. Whoa, quite the place.”
He seized her hands again. “My dear Angela, you can’t go. I won’t let you. Call your friends. Tell them you’re tied up, or you’ve come down with something…scurvy!” he said, laughing. “Angela, we really have to catch up, please. Have pity on me.” He was as persuasive and confident as ever. His steady laughing gaze bore into Angela’s eyes, and he would not let go of her hands. Angela fought to suppress an involuntary squirm.
She heard herself say, “Well, I’m not sure I’ll be meeting them after all. My friends, I mean. I’m kind of exhausted, to tell you the truth. I flew in yesterday and I’m still a bit jet lagged.” She positively had to get out of here. It had been a terrible mistake. Some of her anxiety communicated itself and Steve Koronakos instantly released her hands.
“Ah, then you have time,” he said soothingly. “Sit with me, Angela. Let’s catch up. It’s busy tonight, packed, thank God. But if you don’t mind my jumping up every other minute to put out a fire…” At that moment an enormous flame leaped up from the grill and half the delighted restaurant cheered and applauded. They both laughed, and this seemed to release some of the tension.
“A glass of wine, Angela? Some nibbles?”
“I’ve already eaten…with family. But it’s never polite to turn down hospitality,” she added in Greek.
“Akrivós,” he countered, pronouncing the Greek word with precision. “Like your late mother used to say, refusing hospitality is the worst of all sins.”
The unexpected allusion pulled her up short. “So sweet of you to remember her, Steve.”
“How could I forget? A magnificent lady, and so elegant. I seem to recall that you had your little skirmishes, though.”
Angela didn’t feel the need to reply, as Steve had taken her hand and was now leading her to a small booth beside a pair of swinging doors and was explaining that it might get a little noisy but this booth was the best they could do. He made a pistol with his hand. “Red or white?”
“Red, please. But just one glass.”
Steve went to the bar and returned with a bottle and two glasses. As he poured, a waiter set down a basket of flatbreads and a platter of appetizers. Grilled squid, giant green olives and sautéed scallops, along with toy-size bowls of white, pink and black spreads. There were other grilled things she couldn’t identify.
They touched glasses. She had never tasted wine this good.
“You’re looking handsome,” she said, and immediately wondered if it was appropriate. Did women compliment men on their looks? They definitely did not back home, in her little town, but she had been so long out of the game, she wasn’t sure. “I mean, everything looks great, not just you. Well, this place, you, the business. Are you the owner?”
“Managing partner, Angela. Operations. The guy who actually runs things. We’ve been open six months, so I’m still getting some of the kinks out.”
“Staff needs whipping into shape. Honestly, Angela, they’ll be the death of me. I hired the best I could find, raided the competition. Some of them have twenty years’ experience at high-end restaurants and hotels, but you’d be surprised at the lack of commitment. I can’t take my eyes off them for a second. This business is all about service, Angela. If the customer doesn’t enjoy the experience, he won’t come back. You don’t get a second chance, Angela. Like life, unfortunately.”
She took another warming sip. “No second chances, Steve? I’m surprised at you. You’ve become so severe.” Emboldened by the wine, this was the first time she had said his name.
Steve leaned back and regarded her. “You’re right, Angela. Too much negativity. Thanks for pointing it out. You always had a good critical eye, much to my dismay,” he laughed, and she reddened and stared at her wine glass. Then he seemed to shift gears, and the words came out in Greek. “You don’t know how glad I am to see you, Angela. The old gang is gone. Poof! This one to Toronto, that one to Miami, the other one to Greece.” As he spoke his eyes flitted from her face to the room, checking the tables, the bar, the grill. “So tell me, Angela, how has life been treating you?”
The wine was very tasty and her glass stood nearly drained, his almost full. She’d like to finish what was left, but then her glass would be conspicuously empty next to his. That would make things awkward. But at that moment a waiter came to the rescue. Standing at attention, left arm across the small of his back, the waiter refilled her glass with an elegant flourish. Steve barely glanced at the waiter. As if taking this opportunity to gather her thoughts, Angela took a long swallow and allowed herself to smile at Steve.
“Well, since you asked, let me tell you,” she said.
* * *
“As for my husband, he’s in the automotive business. We have a wonderful daughter, Zosime.” She paused for a long moment, swirling the wine in her glass. “Well, to be perfectly honest, Steve, he’s not around anymore. Brian, I mean. We’ve kind of split up, or in the process. Or…I don’t know, actually. Some sort of holding pattern, I suppose.”
“Sorry to hear that,” said Steve, regarding her carefully. “You’ve been together a long time, haven’t you? Longer than we were. Brian was at the reunion, if I’m not mistaken, years ago.” He reached across the table to top up her wine. “Same with me, by the way. It’s been four years since the divorce. Annie and I…well, I don’t have to tell you. It’s terrible for the kids. Mine are older than your daughter, but still…”
“Yes, kids don’t understand — how could they? But I am determined to make a fresh start.” She paused for a long while and they both watched the wine in her glass, as she swirled it. “That thing you said earlier, Steve, about no second chances. Do you really believe that?”
She peered at him across the top of her glass as she took an elaborately small, ladylike sip. He was about to answer but at that moment a waitress signalled from across the room and, with a quick apology, he dashed off.
* * *
Well, who knew she’d be in such a fancy place. The mound of black stuff, she realized, must be some type of caviar. No wonder she was so thirsty. And these little brown bundles knotted with chives were a type of grilled fish, possibly stained with soy sauce. She’d seen something like it in a magazine at the dentist’s. The Greek word, réga, came into her head. Everything was delicious and the evening was actually turning out better than expected. Steve, handsome as ever, but with an undercurrent of bitterness, a hint of defeat.
With Steve well across the room taking care of business, she didn’t see anything wrong with refilling her glass from the bottle.
* * *
“I’ve been thinking of moving back to Montreal with Zosie,” she said. “Picking up where I left off, know what I mean?”
“Akrivós. I know exactly what you mean. Nothing is holding you back, Angela, especially now…”
“Now that my marriage is on the rocks, eh?,” she heard herself say. “No, Steve, go ahead and say it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Seems like it happens to every marriage these days. Things fall apart. Society cannot hold. Most of my daughter’s classmates have divorced parents. What do you think of that?”
Steve was watching a hostess distribute menus to a table of black-suited men. Without looking at Angela, he said, “Didn’t happen to our parents, though. Divorce, I mean. Unthinkable for our parents. Ever wonder why?”
“Simple,” she said, following his gaze to the next table. “It’s all about values. Greek values. Our women know how to look after their men, Steve — something xéni women don’t know how to do. Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, as their eyes met across the table. “I didn’t mean what that sounded like. Was your wife Greek, by any chance? I don’t think I remember, but she looked Greek.”
“My ex is Armenian.”
“Ah, well…” she said, taking the smallest possible sip. “I have no idea what she’s like, of course. But my mother — my magnificent mother, Steve — once gave me some advice. I mean, about the difference between men and women. The trouble with her advice, as I’ve discovered, is that it only applies to Greek marriages. Maybe that’s where I went wrong — hitching myself to a xéno, I mean.”
Steve looked at her with new interest. “And your mother’s advice was…?”
Angela squared her shoulders: “In a nutshell, it’s not the women who are frail creatures and in need of protection — it’s the men. Got that, Steve? It’s the woman who supports and protects. Why? Because men are the dreamers and the entrepreneurs. They have so much more responsibility,” she continued, waving her hand at the vast buzzing room. “So they bruise…”
“My ex-wife is a doctor,” he said. “Thoracic surgeon.”
Without taking his eyes off her, Steve refilled her glass.
“Oh, yes?” she said.
“I am not fit to wash her feet.”
A waiter arrived and took away the empty bottle.
* * *
“The automotive business, Steve, is not like the restaurant business. Well, but what are you supposed to do with some of those old cars? You can’t very well turn back the clock, can you? You put her on the lift to drain the oil — a thirty, forty-dollar job at best. Next thing you know you’re staring at a corroded exhaust. Muffler, tailpipe, manifold — the whole assembly ready to collapse into a heap of rust. Or worse, Steve, much worse. The brake lines are corroded. That’s dangerous, Steve, dangerous. You find yourself in a situation, a child crossing the road, you can’t stop. So you have no choice with the customer, do you? You bring him over, show him the entire situation. Full disclosure, Steve, total transparency. Sir, we have a problem, you say. But right away the customer is suspicious. She was running fine this morning, the customer says. Maybe you fiddled with something, made it look worse than it is. Pulling a fast one — know what I mean? It’s like when you go to the doctor, right, Steve? You go in for a sprained ankle, Steve, and the next thing you know they’re sawing your chest open. Major cardiac infraction. Know what I mean?”
She spied their waiter bearing a fresh bottle on a small tray. Steve spotted him too, and some kind of sign must have passed between them, maybe only a look, because the waiter wheeled around and returned to the bar.
Angela, suddenly erect, assumed a look of indignation. She picked up her purse and peered inside, giving herself a moment.
“You’re smooth, Steve. Real smooth,” her attention seemingly riveted to the contents of her purse. “I bet you drive a Lexus. Am I right, Steve, a Lexus? But you always were a smooth guy. Remember, at the hotel, grad night? How far did we get? Honestly.”
“Actually I drive an Acura, my dear Angela. So you’re close. If you’ll excuse me, I have to greet this party. Bankers, entertaining potential clients from New York.” He leaned over and whispered, “Wall Street.”
The platter was empty, so was her glass. Looking around to make sure no one was looking — Steve was still glad-handing the bankers — she took the teensiest sip from his glass.
Oh, what the hell. She waved for the waiter, still parked at the bar, and the waiter sprang to attention. She was a guest, by God.
* * *
In the bathroom again, she sat in front of the great, cunningly lit sheets of mirror and stared unsteadily at the woman approaching middle age. She knew the woman was drunk, or at least had drunk more than strictly necessary.
“Just an oil change, please,” she said. “And check the brakes.” She tittered.
Another woman, possibly sitting next to her, who may have been there all along, pretended to dry her hands and quickly left.
Let’s really get this party started, Angela said, holding onto the wall as she climbed the stairs.
Steve was waiting at the top, beside the hostess with the iPad. “It was great seeing you again,” he said, as he followed her back to the booth. “Let me call a cab for you. On the house. I’m sure you’re still jetlagged, Angela. Maybe we can get together again the next time you’re in town. I stay in touch with a few people from the Park Ex gang. Stavro and Bill were here a couple of nights ago. They’d love to join us, maybe with their wives. You remember Chrissie and Sophia?”
She regarded him with disdain and drew herself up to full height on her Louboutins.
“Taxi, Steve? I didn’t think you could be so crude. Sorry if we overstayed our welcome.” She giggled. As from a great distance, she observed a set of circumstances that would not cohere. A number of options presented themselves, among them getting into the Ferrari and driving away. Or delivering a few choice words to the assembled banking community from Wall Street. Angela understood, as from a distance, that she should be mortified, but couldn’t quite manage the leap to future consequences from present behaviour.
At that moment a waiter emerged from the kitchen and he was on fire. No, his hands were on fire. Refocus. The waiter was holding a cake with lit sparklers. He set the cake down in front of an ancient woman and joined the large table in singing Happy Birthday.
Angela allowed the applause to die. She summoned her words with what felt like exquisite care: “If you don’t mind, Steve, we must be on our way.” Yes, that is precisely the right tone. Akrivós. Don’t make a scene. Stride through the door with head high and dignity intact. She drained the last of her glass and re-ascended unsteadily on her Louboutins. An unaccustomed altitude, which might explain the giddiness.
“You were a boring guy, Steve,” she said. Angela was back at the booth, on all fours, reaching for her handbag in the corner. “Dull, dull, dull. That’s why I wouldn’t marry you. Spend my life, do the thing, then the other thing. Know what I mean, Steve? Boring. Ville St. Laurent…gimmee a fucking break. Maybe that’s why the Armenian doctor left you. So long and have a nice life.”
Outside, the cool air was bracing and the streets dry again. She took off her shoes and began walking barefoot toward Bleury Street, where she’d catch the number 80 bus, heading north, back to Park Ex. She stopped outside a bank and studied its crawling sign displaying the day’s currency exchange. A dark shape in the window stared back.
* * *
The TV was still on at her father’s. A blonde woman in a black dress was selling diamond ear studs, as a toll-free number at the bottom of the screen throbbed like a beating heart. On the sofa, propped up on a pillow, her father snored. The dried chicken carcass stood in a cut-glass ashtray. Every light on, blazing. He’d been waiting up for her. Let him sleep.
She picked up the phone and called home. Zosime’s voice, sleepy.
“Honey, how are you? I just wanted to tell you how much I love you.”
“Mom, you scared me. Why are you calling now?”
“Is it late? Of course it is, Zosie. Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie. My watch…”
“Why are you talking funny?”
“Mummy didn’t realize. I guess she just wanted to tell you how much she loves you and how she misses you so so much. Everything okay there, Zosie? Did you lock the door?”
“Yes and yes. I’m going back to sleep. Call tomorrow.”
By this time Angela’s father was awake and looking at her suspiciously. He glared for a long moment. Fierce, commanding, the way she always pictured him. Then he remembered who she was, and his face softened with a sort of pity.