TOOLS FOR THE FUTURE
A. has a notion that he might like to go to the “live-model drawing class” that they host at The Gladstone Hotel on Wednesday nights so he starts looking for the pencil set that Bill got Sarah. The pencil set has already been found once, by me, five years ago, in a garbage can on the sidewalk near the Art Gallery of Ontario.
It was the year before A. and I moved to Toronto, when we were in the city for a production of one of his plays. It was summer, which meant that all the garbage was extra-stinky. We were one crosswalk away from the gallery when I saw a peripheral flash of baby blue tissue paper. The light changed in our favour and I tried to ignore what I’d seen, taking a few steps into the crosswalk. Then, bested by curiosity, I said “just a sec” and turned back.
I held my breath and scooted over to the garbage can and saw that indeed, atop the heap there was a tissue-lined gift bag in pristine condition and stuffed with who-knows-what goodies.
A. waited by the curb, already pretending he didn’t know me in case I was about to do something embarrassing. He is a man of rather British sensibilities, meaning that, paradoxically, while he is fond of arse jokes, he also has a well-developed sense of propriety. He would never root around in the rubbish. Normally, I wouldn’t either because I have a sensitive sniffer and an overactive imagination, which leads quickly to dry-retching. I couldn’t help myself though. I’ve always identified with the phrase “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought her back.”
I looked both ways to see if anyone was watching (or if there was a hidden camera) then cautiously plucked the gift bag out, relieved that it had been resting on a folded up newspaper (though the paper should’ve been in the recycling). The Hallmark-quality gift bag was chocolate brown and baby blue. I was wearing a brown dress and blue bead necklace so the present and I were hyper-coordinated. Carrying it made me feel like I was the bohemian co-worker of a woman who'd met the man of her dreams at Milestones and was being thrown a bridal shower at which I'd present her with a gift wrapped to suit her personality, not mine (even if the colours matched my outfit).
I also quickly began to feel like I’d stolen the present, even though I’d merely found it, so I made A. stop for a moment so I could, with something resembling both guilt and pride, shove the present into his backpack. It was a tight fit—a substantial mystery.
We then went into the gallery, paid our admission and learned that the backpack had to be checked. I gave A. a worried what-if-there’s-a-bomb-in-there? look, which he returned with a now-you-get-that-there-may-be-consequences-to-garbage-picking look. I unzipped the backpack, peeked into the tissue nest and saw a crisp, new sketchbook and fired a smug, what-consequences? look back.
Having stopped at the pub after the gallery, it was late when we got back to our sublet and pried the gift bag out of A.’s backpack. We sat on the bed and I unpacked it while A. watched. As I’d been taught as a kid, I opened the card first. The silver envelope was embossed with a rose—Carlton, not Hallmark. The front of the envelope had the name “Sarah” printed on it in blue ballpoint and had already been gently opened. The card inside was also baby blue and had a tiny sparkly flower on the front. The Carlton inscription said: “A little note to say thank you… and thank you again.” The hand-written inscription, which looked, if not shaky, than a little unsure, said:
These are the tools for your future.
In addition to the spiral-bound sketchbook, Bill had got Sarah a thick, hard cover one too. There was also a slim tin of Staedtler drawing pencils and a shiny three-pack of erasers. “You can use all these things, can’t you?” I said to A., who sometimes talked about starting to draw again.
“And here’s something for me,” I said, pulling out a pleather-bound day planner that started, like the school year, in September.
When I pulled the last item out of the bag, our mouths dropped and we both said, “Whoa.”
It was an economy-sized box of ultra-thin Trojans.
“What kind of artist is Sarah, exactly?” said A.
John le Carré once said, “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not the beginning of a story, but ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is.” That’s how it was with the condoms. Now we had a story. But what was it?
Did Sarah throw the present out because Bill was a total creep implying that she was going to need to sleep her way to the top?
Or was he trying to protect her? Was he saying, have a life, not a baby? Or, trust no one?
Who was he to take either stance? He’d signed the card with just “Bill”, not “Love, Bill” or “Warm Wishes, Bill” or “Your Drunk Uncle Bill”. Was he a mere acquaintance—someone, say, who frequented the café where Sarah worked, appreciated her barista skills (thus the thank you card), and knew she was going off to art school in the fall? A stalker even?
When I told my friend K. about it later, she wrote that perhaps Sarah was having a “career ladder affair” with Bill, who was a “still important Canadian artist” and judge for an art competition. She described Bill as, “inexperienced in love, keen on wild birds, and a fan of the Group of Seven” who was “naively delighted by Sarah’s attentions and even imagined they might have a future together (she claimed she was an avid birder), until she dumped him when her piece was rejected.”
It was as plausible as any version I could come up with.
Everyone always wants to know what happened to the condoms. We threw them back in the trash instead of handing them out at the end of parties like we might've done if we thought we could trust Bill. I forgot about the day planner and bought another one, but, when rediscovered, it was used as a prop in a short film. The art supplies, however, have travelled back and forth across the country with us.
A. found the pencils again in the third drawer down in his storage unit. Bill was right: tools for the future, just not Sarah’s.
THERE, THERE // When They’ve Left the Building
Is it weird that the memory of my grandmother’s dead body is somehow comforting? When I saw her at the nursing home, muscles slack and mouth open, she looked like an empty jail cell with the door ajar. She had escaped, finally. Feelings are weird little monsters from another world...
~ Grateful Granddaughter
Dear Grateful Granddaughter,
I’m so glad that the memory of your grandmother’s dead body is comforting to you. I don’t think it’s weird at all. I think it’s weird that we live in such a death-sanitized culture that we might have anxiety around finding comfort in the bodies of the dead.
Of course, it wasn’t always like that. People used to have wakes with their dead grandmothers propped up in the middle of the parlour. Katherine Ashenburg writes in her book, The Mourner’s Dance, about “merry wakes” in which, in the 1800s, Newfoundland Catholics (following Irish precedents) did things as outrageous as “tying fishing line to various parts of the corpse to make it nod, wave, or rise in its coffin.” She mentions that parlours were used so consistently for waking the dead that they were also known as “wake-rooms”. At the beginning of the 20th Century when funeral parlours starting offering wake services, home parlours, no longer needed for the dead, were re-named “living rooms”.
I myself grew up in a death-repressed household. My brother and I weren’t allowed to go into the church for our grandmother’s funeral because the service was open casket. We still had to dress up though, and wait in the car, like dogs.
After the funeral when we got home, my mother quietly took down the photo of my grandmother (my dad’s mother) that had sat on top of the piano and hid it. Then we pretended Grandma never existed.
Once, I read about the Pygmies and how they appear to be sort of uncomfortable with death:
When a Pygmy dies, other Pygmies pull down his hut on top of him, and move their camp while relatives cry. Then the dead person is never mentioned again.
In other words, my family acted pretty much like the Pygmies.
I didn’t get to see the body of the man who I had loved when he died. This was more than eight years ago now. It bothered me endlessly. I asked his sister if she’d seen his body before it was cremated. She said she’d asked at the funeral home and they said something along the lines of, “Certainly, it’ll be $200 for the first hour and $50 for every hour after that.”
Her response (at least to me, but maybe to the funeral director too) was, “For that I could get a hot, live guy.”
It was the first time someone I really loved had died. With the few details I had, I imagined his body in death over and over again. I became so good at creating this image that it was like a chiaroscuro painting in my mind—both dark and holy—but still unreal.
A couple of years later I had to have my beloved kitty put down. She’d been with me for seventeen years, which, at that point, was almost my entire adult life. The vet told me it was the kindest option, and then suggested we have a last twenty-four hours together and come back the next day. I took my kitty home and held her the whole time, even when I had to go to the bathroom. I called her by all her pet-pet names, told her how much I loved her, and how grateful I was that she’d been in my life. And I fed her ice cream, which she loved, but I wouldn’t usually let her have because it gave her the worst gas.
She died, wrapped in a towel and in my arms at the vet’s office. Under the circumstance, it was the best kind of death she could’ve had—both for her and for me. I learned that death is actually an action—I watched it happen. Suddenly, she, like Elvis, had left the building.
That expression—that “Elvis has left the building”—was what announcers would say at Elvis’ shows when the encore was over so that fans would disperse. I think that’s what I wanted when Jesse—that was his name—died. I wanted to know that he really had left the building and it was okay to disperse. In short, I wanted closure. With Fisby—that was my kitty’s name—I learned the lesson I knew intellectually all along, but needed to experience for myself—that the body truly is just a container—as ephemeral, really, as a paper ticket to an Elvis show.
GG, you got to see your grandmother’s body as a cell she’d sprung from. Of course you find that comforting. Death was her final freedom.
I’m thinking of you as you remember your grandmother. I know you will remember her well.
To submit a question, confession, or concern to There, There all you have to do is visit this link. Go on, spill your lovely guts.
THREE THINGS // Feastable Content
There was an article published by re/code going around a few days ago on “The Death of Snackable Content”. Basically, it argues that we now crave content that’s more than bite-sized on the Internet. I think it might be an and not an or issue—we want to snack and feast.
I love long form narrative journalism and essays. So, in the feasting spirit, here are three fantastic pieces—both vintage and contemporary—that you can access on the ever-miraculous word wide web right now. You’ll be full when you’re done. And then you can go back to reading terrifying listicles like this.
1 / "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" by Gale Talese, Esquire, April 1966
Esquire rightly calls this piece a “pioneering example of what came to be called New Journalism—a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction.” When the writer arrived in Los Angeles to do a story on Sinatra, the Sultan of Swoon was “under the weather, out of sorts and unwilling to be interviewed” so things unfolded differently than the writer had planned.
2 / "The Mixed Up Brothers of Bogatá", New York Times Magazine, July 2015
This is one of those switched at birth stories, told in a NYT way rather than a Jerry Springer way. It’s doubly intense because it involves two sets of twins. It’s an extraordinary story—and also like any other story in which long lost relatives finally meet and navigate all the weirdness and tenderness involved.
3 / "Mr Lytle: An Essay" by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Paris Review, Fall 2010
I’ve tried pushing John Jeremiah Sullivan on you before and I’m doing it again. This is the story of when Sullivan lived with Southern writer Andrew Nelson Lytle as his housemate/caretaker/companion. Lytle was well into his nineties at the time and the story is about him both as a renowned writer and a man who had his faults.