Jennifer’s paste ring caught the dawn and recast her bedroom. The folding screen, the hutch, the vacuumed carpet, all covered in red. She clamped her cell phone to her ear to better hear the nurse: “We should confirm your son’s appointment.” “The parents should attend.” “You will need to arrange for chaperones.” In the hallway, Craig slapped the cardboard pages of his children’s book against her door. He ran up to Jennifer holding the book above his head.
“What’s this word?” he said, climbing onto her lap.
“Fire,” she said. He flipped to the end page.
“And this one?”
“Hello?” the nurse said.
“Do you know how much I work?” Jennifer said angrily into the receiver.
Craig went to Jennifer’s desk for a piece of paper and pencil. He drew large unsteady lines. “Is this a word?”
“We need him in as soon as possible,” the nurse said.
Moving maple branches obscured the view from her bedroom window; through those patterns Jennifer watched her cul-de-sac. She lived in a new development made of white clapboard between Somerset and Gladstone. The concentric streets were aged red bricks owned by the Chinese and Italian immigrants. Her window had a view into the house opposite. A Lebanese couple watched television and ate cereal. On weekend afternoons, she saw the husband excavate a pink inflatable whale from their garage. He tucked it under his arm, and took his wife by the hand down the cul-de-sac. Where do they go, Jennifer thought. There’s no beaches, pools, or lakes. Not for miles.
“What about that?” Craig said.
She went to the kitchen and paired Craig’s red plastic bowl with its twin saucer, diced up apples, and measured the Sugar Crisp on a baking scale. Then added milk. The red bowl, on the outside, turned pink.
“You made the pink,” Craig said.
Sandra, the nanny, arrived. She put her bomber jacket on the coat hook. She began on the sink full of dishes. Jennifer leaned on the oven behind her, her arms folded as she held her phone to her ear lobe.
“Sandra,” Jennifer said as if she were busy, “I need you to take Craig to his appointment this afternoon.”
Sandra nodded, affixing a cup onto a tine on the drying rack. She switched off the faucet and flicked drops into the sink. “I have to leave early today. When will you be back?”
“Normal time… unless he likes to drink. Sometimes the interviewees like to get drinks and talk.”
“I have plans tonight.”
“I’ll be back.”
“I’m meeting a man. He’s doing a PhD at Carleton.”
“Oh,” Jennifer said. Her cell phone played the clinic’s hold music. It had been fifteen minutes already. This was strange. There was no way she could have been forgotten. “I’m interviewing Barry’s replacement tonight. It’s a man from Togo.”
Sandra furrowed her brow. “Togo?”
“Yes, Togo. You know. The country.”
“I know Togo.”
“He went to the Sorbonne. And I think it said he worked in Minsk—in the winter.”
“I know. His application just came out of nowhere,” she said. “I mean, Togo.”
Two months earlier, Craig’s pediatrician had found a blood clot in Craig’s eye, which the pediatrician was able to suck out with a syringe through an artery in Craig’s groin. “The clot is not a cause,” the doctor said, “it’s a symptom. We’ll need to take some blood and run some tests.” Jennifer then sat in his office and told him manic stories of Craig clawing the air in his pram. His hands would grope and grope, pause, and grope again.
“It looks like semaphore. I’m… is he hearing voices?”
“It’s most likely phosphenes—”
“But he does it during meals,” she said. “And while he sleeps.”
The doctor watched her clutch her cell phone.
“I have dreams,” Jennifer said. “He’s in front of me, but his face is smooth and there’s no features. I call out but he shakes his head. And then I wake up and there he is, under the covers. His eyes, his nose, his mouth…”
Craig sat on the tile floor playing with a Hasbro doll with orange dreadlocks and the letters ERRON on its chest. As the pediatrician listed the popular learning disabilities, ERRON’s dreadlocks whirled into Craig’s mouth as he slurped them up. Jennifer then watched the podiatrist extract the strands from Craig’s throat, one by one, with forceps.
“You should watch this one,” the doctor said. “I knew this one kid. Swallowed a capsule of kitchen cleaner. It burned through the intestines in minutes.”
Jennifer’s mornings now were two caffeine pills, then two cups of hot water—and throughout the day she’d walk with a hitch, vibrating, unsure of the time.
She wondered why she stayed at Health Canada after Barry left. She remembered, on sparking her Honda Accord’s ignition, an office party. Barry leaning against the counter in the kitchenette, towards Jennifer, quoting Thomas Aquinas. “Thou hast prostituted thyself to many lovers.” They both laughed.
She considered telling Barry about Craig. She’d seen him off to the airport, and when she did, she noticed the smile on his face. His new job sounded interesting. It was a good step for his career. There was no point bothering him about something he wanted no part of and which she could handle herself. There was a moment they were chatting in the terminal where Jennifer feared she might let it slip, but she reminded herself how silly it would all be. She knew doing so would only lead to disappointment.
“I’m wishing you luck,” she said.
The canal was black in the morning… the white globes of the streetlamps cut out, and the sky brightened. She turned on CBC and listened to a storm warning for Carp and Stittsville. A fragment of a larger front was moving east toward a dying point in the Gaspé.
She expected a bustle in her office, but there was only the humming printer, paper sliding across desks. She went to her office, opened her satchel, took out a handful of pens, a pad of yellow legal paper, a USB drive, the folder with twenty three proposals to comb through, a small tub of low-calorie vanilla yogurt, and a half-empty bag of baby carrots. There was Tatiana’s report on her desk, full of mistakes. Jennifer called Sandra’s cell… after the third ring there was no answer. But when she tried again Sandra picked up almost immediately.
“We’re in the waiting room now,” Sandra said.
“Craig did something… I shouldn’t… maybe he should…” There were creaking noises before Craig chirped into the speaker.
To imitate surprise, Jennifer inhaled quickly. He puffed into the receiver, which reproduced a grating sound on her end. She snapped the phone away from her ear.
“I spelled it,” he said.
He paused and rustled paper. “I can’t say it.”
“Say the letters.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Where did you hear that?”
“I didn’t hear it! I spelled it!”
“He really did just spell it,” Sandra said, coming back on the line. “He just picked up a marker and wrote on one of the waiting room’s white boards. Should I tell him it’s wrong?”
“What did you show him?” she said.
“He couldn’t have seen anything like that around me.”
Jennifer hung up, palpated her desk, paced her office. She looked down on the other offices… the shadows on those buildings at a slant… one hemisphere light, the other dark… the windows showing. She hunched in her hard green armchair to begin the proposals. But when she finished she had forgotten everything she’d read.
Contrary to her expectations, when Jennifer told her director that she was pregnant, she was given as much maternity leave as she wanted.
“Well, that’s… thank you.”
“Are you sure?”
He frowned at her. “What do you mean?”
“Because I can come in whenever. If you need me.”
“We’ll manage. It’s not like the place will fall apart when you’re gone.” He meant this as a joke. He laughed after he said it. And Jennifer, to be polite, laughed along with him.
“I love coffee,” he said, smiling. He tipped the dregs from his cup into his mouth.
They met and shook hands. She’d forgotten his name, and he said it was Grégois Bellow. He wore a tweed jacket, white collared shirt, and burgundy Oxfords. On the table was a copper ibrik on a golden tripod. Between the legs was a Bunsen burner with a cartridge of methane. A small shot glass filled with coffee.
“Let me get you a coffee.” He craned his head back. “Another coffee.”
The waiter brought an identical ibrik and tripod. He lit the burner with a sparker and boiled the coffee. Three times. The waiter then poured the coffee into Jennifer’s glass by touching the spout to the glass’s rim, and lifting up.
“I might have an addiction,” the man from Togo said. “Did you know that coffee was responsible for the Enlightenment?”
She leaned forward ironically. “I didn’t know that.”
“It’s said the Turks left hundreds of bags of it behind when the Ottomans ceded Budapest. Instead of beer or gin, Europeans were drinking a stimulant. There was a craze. Everyone wanted the bean.”
The waiter leaned back against the bar and flipped through the bright sports channels. The hour had purged the streets of pedestrians. The hour (two o’clock) meant the vast majority of government workers were back in their offices. A few drops of rain spattered against the window.
“I wanted to discuss your past work,” she said, leaning back in her chair and looking away from him. “It’s a little eclectic.”
“That’s one way to put it,” he said. “I spent most of my time in Japan—the last few years anyway. You can’t be black in Japan and be taken seriously. The racism there is incredible. Everyone thinks you’re some kind of clown. I could only talk to people in karaoke bars. It’s amazing. People loosen up so much after something to drink.”
She looked at his empty glass.
“After that I worked for a lab making polymers in India. You blend in a bit more there, though the Japanese are more polite. Indians, they’ll show you contempt. If you want to integrate you have to become invisible,” he said. “Have the coffee. Cold coffee isn’t worth time in hell.”
She sipped the coffee; it went down thickly but gracefully. “You’ve been around,” Jennifer said.
“That’s an understatement,” he said with some pride. “Before that it was Switzerland, and before that, France.” She listened to him list all the places she’d seen on his resume. “But before that I was in Togo. When anyone talks about Togo, you only hear poverty. I never experienced that. My father was a cabinet minister, I went to a private school. Everywhere, there were men with rifles.
“When I was a kid,” he continued, “I used to dream about floating belly-up in the Atlantic. Then I’d wake up to beetles climbing up my mosquito netting.
“It’s odd sometimes,” he said quietly, “the things you have to endure.”
“Are you married?”
“I ask because… you seem fairly driven. I mean, successful. It’s rare to see a man… what I mean to say is that I don’t see a lot of men at your level of achievement… and at the level of the position you’re applying for.”
“I don’t mean to say it can’t happen,” she said, reaching out and touching his wrist. “Of course, it’s possible. And I want you to know that I’m not judging you. But—and I’m talking from personal experience here—I’ve never seen a man at my level who wasn’t, you know, married. Men without women… they become pleasure-seeking. Unproductive.”
He shifted in his seat, crossing his legs away from her.
“I just want to know you’ll stay.”
Her phone rang. The display said Sandra. She considered letting it go to message, but she answered out of obligation. She was on a roll.
“Sandra, this isn’t a good time. I’m in a meeting.”
“Jennifer? You have to hear this.”
“This isn’t a good—”
“I read it!”
“V.U.L.V.A.” Craig’s voice heightened until it became a shriek. “VULVA! VULVA!”
Jennifer entered her living room. Craig slept on the couch, his head on his open picture book. His hand was under his elastic pyjama bottoms, moving around. She knelt beside him and brushed the bangs from his eyes. Sandra was smoking on the back verandah. A rhomboid of light shone up from her phone.
The possible diagnoses. (ADD, a lazy eye, an audiological thing…. Autism.) She covered her mouth as she thought of doctor appointments, tutors, medications, medications…
The storm came with large drops. From the couch in the living room, Jennifer saw Sandra fidget from the rain’s assault and enter the kitchen from the verandah, wiping the water from her touchscreen. The storm came so heavily that the view outside the window had smoothed to teal. The view outside had been paused.
“What are you dreaming, baby?” she whispered to Craig. “I wish I was there.”
Jennifer, without thinking, took out her phone. And began typing.
Sandra started to prepare dinner. She called Jennifer’s name, since she said she’d be back. Nothing. But as she took out the five-litre pot, pasta, and cheese from the pantry and fridge, she heard a clicking.
Nothing. Then the clicking returned.
She could not tell if the clicking was the rain, the boiling water, or the central air. But this time it did not stop.
She was frightened.
Kit Jenkin graduated from the MA programme in English and Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick. His writing has appeared in Front&Centre, ROPES, The Wrong Quarterly, and on roverarts.com. He currently lives in Manchester, UK, and is working on a short story collection set in Ottawa.
Éphémère is a concept; two visions of the same sphere. Both are multidisciplinary Mauritian artists—designers and illustrators—influenced by nature and culture. They attempt to convey a part of their dream-like, somewhat playful world through their art and products. (Photo credits: Céliliphotographies)