‘Starry Night’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
The week before Dad dies, we discuss aesthetics in Philosophy class. We contemplate Shakespeare and Saint Augustine, and Miss Engels says all art is about sex and death. We’re all 16 and I think mostly preoccupied with only the first of the two, except for me and the goths who sit in the smokers’ pit even though only the Grundo twins and some non-goths smoke. The goths look like death without the sex. Miss Engels stands at the front of the class with a wobbly picture of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night on the whirring projector.
She says, Not all of you have had sex, and none of you are dead, but probably all of you will have sex—and here she pauses with a sly grin, twists a curl of hair around her fingers—and I’m pretty sure all of you will die.
We are dumbstruck and terrified of both of these things. I look over at Arlo, who I’ve been kissing lately. He doesn’t look back.
What would be an absolute travesty, she says, is if you were to go through your entire life without meditating on these things. She is pacing the aisles, picking up people’s things, considering them and returning them to their desks. She lifts Sadie’s textbook now, flips through the pages. With it, she returns to the front of the class and sits on her desk, swings her legs and clunks together the toes of her red boots.
A-ha—here’s a poem, she says, that says the bunny gives us a lesson in eternity. She slides her glasses up her nose and holds the book close to her face, reads from it: We like to watch the rabbits screwing in the graveyard.
She shuts the book and jumps off the desk. She writes with chalk on the board, which is now underneath the luminous Van Gogh night because she hasn’t pulled down the projector screen. Her writing is all swirls and loops and hard to read, but she’s written Mary Ruefle. The name is in the clouds, and beneath it she writes eternity. She twists to look at us, scrunches her nose, hesitates. Below eternity she writes bunnies = sex + death, and below that she writes = human (!).
Then the bell rings, and none of us quite understand what has happened, but Sadie whispers to me and Arlo that her brother’s got some weed, and we should go to the field. She forgets that Miss Engels still has her book, and Miss Engels is clutching it and nodding along to the German exchange student, Dolph, who is trying not to look at her breasts, so I figure Sadie will just get the book later.
When we smoke the weed, I think about Dad and death and sex and bunnies and poems. I wonder what this all has to do with philosophy, and if it’ll come up in Saint Augustine next week. We stand together in the scraggly patch of forest back behind the baseball field. Sadie’s brother graduates this year and is the high school drug dealer—he’s got connections from their cousin, who has a grow-op in the basement. He gave us a joint that we’re puffing and passing between just the three of us—her brother’s with a group of grade 9s who are 14 and coughing and not quite inhaling. We’re under the pine tree where we always smoke, beside the cedar with the loopy branches—where the grade 12s go. No one else from our grade smokes weed, only cigarettes with the goths.
Arlo asks if Miss Engels knows about my dad.
Sadie says, What about him?
I laugh, from the weed, and tell her not to worry about it. She laughs too, but Arlo gets anxious and is looking at the soft patch of moss we’re standing around.
Miss Engels is so hot, Sadie says. She’s the only girl to come out as a lesbian at our school so far. She’s dating a girl from Happy Valley, half an hour away by Sadie’s rickety bicycle.
Weird about the bunnies though, right? I say.
But strangely inspirational. Sadie spreads out her arms. She’s wearing a denim jacket with tassels along the sleeves and across the back. I want to be an artist, she says.
Kirk in Grade 12 likes her and doesn’t quite understand the concept of lesbianism, so sings out Sadie Sadie Sadie from the cedar, and because she’s a tease and he’ll have more weed, she winks at us and says she’ll be right back.
Arlo’s eyes are red and almost shut.
I’m worried about you, he says.
Kirk’s rubbing the small of Sadie’s back and she’s laughing; her brother gives him a light shove, only light because he knows that Kirk will never touch her more than that.
I pass Arlo the last of the joint. He takes the final drag and drops the end in the dirt, rubs it out with his sneakered toe. Okay, he says, and he puts his cool hands on my waist and pulls me in.
The next morning it’s 6am and I’m making peppermint tea when Mum thumps down the stairs and says she’s going to the hospital. She’s in her tweed coat, her curls matted, her eyes dark and unmade. Kebab, our blithe Bengal cat, is too tightly wrapped around her arms. Kebab’s been sleeping in Mum’s room since Dad went to the hospital.
She says, He’s not looking good. She exhales clunkily, and I can tell she doesn’t want to cry.
I have a math test, I say, and sip the tea. I’m sitting at the kitchen table with a cold piece of toast smeared with lumps of butter and Gran’s blackberry jam. The tea is tepid and too strong. A book of Mary Ruefle’s poetry is open in front of me, but I can’t focus on the words—I am trying to find sex and death and bunnies, humans (!) and eternity, but the words blur, and I accidentally smudge a bit of jam on the pages.
Char, you can miss a test, she says, and as if remembering her power as a parent: I’ll write you a note.
She rubs Kebab’s ears and drops him on the floor. He kneads his claws into the carpet, scrunches up his back and rubs his neck on Mum’s guitar. He’s twisting in circles, dragging his sides on the guitar and Dad’s mandolin. It hums out shrill and out of tune.
Have you told anyone at school?
I shake my head because somehow it feels less like lying.
It might be time for them to know, she says, her voice wobbly, but in a moment she’s breathing in and out, slow and unsteady, but at least it’s breathing. When I was little and if I was angry or sad or scared or nervous, she would say, Just breathe, count to three, breathe again. I can tell she’s counting now—one inhale and three missus-sippees, an exhale and the same. She stands at the foot of the stairwell and looks so small.
I miss the math test and am late for Miss Engels’s class. When I arrive, she’s sitting on her desk, dangling her legs, and on the board it still says human (!) and eternity, but the rest has been sloppily wiped away with smudges of chalk.
She’s quoting Shakespeare when she sees me, interrupts herself and says, Charlotte love, have a seat, which is of course what I’m about to do, and I wonder why she’s called me love.
Sadie has an extra chair at her desk, and she pats it.
We’re splitting into groups, Miss Engels says. Get a partner or two and talk about eternity, then we’ll have a class discussion.
I sit with Sadie, and the class is all giggles and misquoting Othello. In her notebook she’s drawn a mandala of ocean and sunshine with red and blue pens. She says, Have you and Arlo fucked yet? I shush her and blush.
You will soon.
As if you know.
Oh, I know. She sweeps her hair behind her ear, and her cheeks sparkle with cheap glitter. It’s destiny, she says.
I ask what I’ve missed today, and she asks about my dad.
What do you mean?
Arlo told me.
Told you what.
That’s why I know you’ll bang soon, she says. You told him and you didn’t even tell me. She nudges my shoulder with her thumb and smiles. Her eyes are tender, and I can tell joking about sex is her way of showing comfort, that she doesn’t know what she could say about my dad.
Miss Engels asks the class what we’ve come up with, and Sadie rips out the page from her notebook. It’s entirely covered in a mandala of blue waves melting into red sunshine, and Miss Engels tapes it on the board. Sadie says, This is eternity and destiny, and Miss Engels likes that, nods a lot. Sadie leans over and whispers, She’s so into me, and squeezes my hand.
That night Mum comes home smelling of beer, and I’ve been smoking weed in the shower. I’m in the kitchen spooning thick bolognese over a bowl of overcooked spaghetti when she enters through the front door. It bangs shut behind her, and she leans back, slides to the floor with her legs open in a jagged V. Kebab saunters over to her and weaves back and forth as she pets him.
Charlotte, she says, slurred and sing-song. She picks up Kebab so he’s stretched out like a slinky. She rubs her nose on his and says, Oh honey, dope makes ya lazy; dope makes ya dumb.
Are you hungry? I say.
She hasn’t looked at me yet. Kebab’s leopard-like calico fur blends into the brown and orange tweed of her coat. She wears a loose toque that almost covers her eyes. Kebab fumbles out of her grip and nestles himself in the crook of her elbow, his back legs stretched out across her belly.
I bring her the bowl and hand it to her with a fork. I’m wearing moccasin-style slippers, which she giggles at.
You should never wear socks without shoes, she says. It’ll make your feet stink.
You mean shoes without socks, I say. And these are slippers.
She giggles again, and I get some food for myself. I can hear the pasta crunch on her teeth as she chews.
I don’t know if you’re okay, she says.
I sit at the table and I’m not sure if this is a question or if maybe she’s talking about Kebab, but she’s looking up at me now, sad and hopeful and quiet. I’m about to take a bite of mine when I remember parmesan. I stand to get the parmesan which is grated in messy chunks in a teacup beside the pot of bolognese.
She shakes her head and throws the fork on the floor. This lumpy puddle of red tomato and ground beef and islands of spinach spreads out on the faded daisy-print linoleum.
Do you want cheese? I say.
I bring her the teacup and another fork and stoop to sprinkle the parmesan on her bowl, place the fork in it.
I will never be happy, she says, and leaves the room, leaves the pasta on the floor. She goes upstairs, and I can hear her shut the door of Dad’s office, rather than their bedroom. I spill the rest of her food into my bowl because I’ve got a mad case of the munchies, and Dad never lets us throw food away. I eat most of it on the sofa, then fall asleep.
I wake up after an hour and it’s nighttime, and I can’t get back to sleep. I lie on the sofa, still a bit high, with Kebab on my belly. He purrs, and I want to be in that same place he is—unbothered and utterly at peace.
I call Arlo and he mumbles a hello.
Are you asleep, I say.
Yes, he says.
Do you want to meet my dad?
He doesn’t say anything, but I imagine him nodding, forgetting he’s on the phone.
Will you pick me up?
He says yes and gets to my house in 12 minutes because we live in a small town.
We drive in the dark and listen to the rain thud against the roof, and the windshield wipers squeal as they push the water away. He drives fast. The road is unlit and one of his headlights is out, and I briefly wonder if this is how and where we’ll die, but we’ve both driven this road so many times and in so much rain that I’m not bothered.
In the hospital I realize I am still in my slippers. We walk to Dad’s room, my slippers padding on the glistening white floor, Arlo’s work boots clunking with each step. Dad’s asleep and I don’t want to wake him. He’s never met Arlo, and I can’t imagine them talking even if he was healthy. Dad would be at home, playing bluegrass on his mandolin, a loaf of bread rising in the kitchen and pot roast in the oven, his office door shut for the day, the whir of his computer muted by the music. Arlo would be nervous; I’d introduce them. Dad would joke, Is this your boyfriend? And Arlo would be stunned, stuttering. I’d say, This is Arlo. Arlo would extend a wobbly hand, and Dad would shake it. Dad would chuckle, and we wouldn’t think about it, but I guess he’d be remembering himself as Arlo, introducing himself to Granddad or other girls’ dads.
But tonight he is asleep, as he has been for two weeks straight. He’s in his hospital smocks with the covers up to his armpits, his arms crooked at his sides and plugged into the IV, his palms face up. I walk to him and Arlo stands a bit behind me.
Hi, Dad, I say, and I try not to cry because Arlo’s never seen me cry before. I hover over the bed. I don’t really want to touch Dad because we never did—we didn’t hug, we didn’t hold hands, we didn’t rub each other’s backs. Last year I went to Gran’s in Haida Gwaii for the summer, and at the airport we hugged, and it was one of the strangest sensations. But here, now, with Arlo and my dying dad, I reach for Dad’s hand and feel it heavy in mine. It is full of freckles I’ve never noticed before. His fingers are thin and spotted with prickly grey hair. I hold it up so his elbow’s bent and say to Arlo, This is my dad.
Hi, Arlo says. He takes a step forward but is still behind me, and I cry but he can’t see it. It is strange, the three of us in this room, all breathing and all alive and all quiet. I want to hear Dad’s mandolin, and I want us all to be laughing.
When we leave the hospital, Arlo asks if I’m alright. The rain has cleared and the stars are out, reflected onto Fairy Lake. I ask if he’ll pull over. He does, and we sit there for a while, quiet. I lean over to kiss him, but he says, with my lips just there an inch away from his, before we kiss, We don’t have to do this, you know.
I hover. I know, I say.
We kiss for a moment in a way that makes me feel like an old woman, gently and tenderly and a little without passion. I pull back and look out the windshield, out at the lake, all the looming pines that surround it and the specks of stars shimmering in the water. I can feel him looking at me, and then his gaze drifts out onto the lake as well. I get out of the car.
Where are you going?
I leave the door open and slide out of my coat, out of my thick cotton tights and long wool sweater. I’m only in my underwear, and I look back at him. He stands beside the truck in his jeans and plaid flannel jacket, his beige work boots and black toque. He’s hesitating, seemingly considering taking it all off. In a moment he does, and he’s only in his boxers when I ease out of my bra and underwear and leave them in the heap of my clothes on the dock, with my slippers. He takes off his boxers and walks to me and I hold his hand. I start to run and he does too; he runs with me and we have goosebumps, and at the edge of the dock we jump.
The next day, after Philosophy, Miss Engels pulls me aside. We spent the morning listening to old jazz and talking about the drugs the musicians did—heroin, mostly.
Hi Charlotte, she says. Her nails are painted red, and she has her fingers entwined in a knot in front of her. We’re standing opposite each other in front of the door; Arlo and Sadie wait for me, but I tell them to go ahead, that I’ll meet them at the field. Miss Engels fumbles with her hair and pulls it into a bun at the top of her head. She wears a pair of thick, faded, high-waisted jeans with a tan belt and a dusty pink sweater.
I just wanted to check in with you.
Because I heard about your dad, she says. I was worried about you and talked to your mum.
I’m quiet and she waits.
You know that bunny poem? She says, With the line about watching the bunnies screw in the graveyard?
I fidget with the hem of my dress, its thin black and red floral cotton. I nod again.
Well, I didn’t want that to come off as insensitive. It’s a beautiful thing, really, she says. The bunnies.
Right, I say.
It’s really hard. She pats my shoulder a couple times, then withdraws her hand, and I figure she’s talking about Dad but wonder if she knows more or if she’s just talking about life in general. She asks if I’m enjoying it, and I think she means the class but then wonder again if she’s talking about life.
I like the poems, I say. And I like The Starry Night and the jazz.
She smiles, tucks a stray curl back in the bun. What do you like about them? She walks back over to her desk, and I consider the door and going through it, but I stay. She sits on her chair at her desk this time, and I return to a desk in the second row and sort of perch on it.
She’s quiet, anticipating my response.
I’m quiet, too, waiting for a clever thing to pop into my head. But I wait too long and should have something clever by now, but all I can think about is the eternity and the human (!) on the board, now naked without Starry Night, the projector turned off. All I can think of is Dad’s still body and slow breaths at the hospital, Mum’s clunky crying and how all I can do is stand there, thinking about their love for each other and the possibility or impossibility of understanding it. All I can think of is that bunny poem and kissing Arlo at lunch and getting a little high.
And maybe she can sense this, but still she doesn’t say anything. She sits there with her elegant posture, legs crossed, and twists a diamond ring around her middle finger. Her desk is covered with books—a French translation of Plato’s collected works, textbooks of stories and poetry and plays, Schopenhauer and Rimbaud, Rumi and Kant. On top of a copy of Kierkegaard’s diary is a pink framed photo of a yellow lab. She has three handmade mugs, one half full of coffee on a stack of our essays covered in her loopy handwriting, purple ink.
I guess, I say—finally, to say something—I guess Van Gogh’s something of a god, because he’s so beautiful. Or his paintings are. I think Starry Night is beautiful. And I guess I like the sound of the jazz and the fact that they did so many drugs and how sad that is.
She’s nodding, slowly, thoughtfully. She’s crossed her arms in what I hope is a sort of intellectual respect.
And the poems, I say, I guess I like that we’re a lot like bunnies.
I wonder if this is the most I’ve ever spoken to her, if it’s the most I’ve spoken in months.
She looks at me as if through ice, as if unable to see through it or crack it open but wanting to. We stay quiet for what feels like long enough for the conversation to now have ended, and I shift my weight off the desk and walk to the door and she says, Char?
I turn back. She’s still sitting at the desk, her small fingers still crisscrossed. Should I be worried about you?
I can’t imagine what the appropriate response could be so I say, I’ve got to go. I say, I’m sorry.
Dad dies while Mum and I are driving to the hospital. We’re late because Kebab was sick on the carpet, and we don’t want to leave him there, like that. Mum takes him outside and walks with him along the road. I’m scrubbing out the stain with a towel and a cleaning spray that’s supposed to smell like garden roses but smells synthetic and makes it difficult to breathe. It feels like it’s clogging my lungs, poisoning me, these microscopic flecks of it, but I figure I must be overreacting. Sadie takes tablets of ginger because they’re supposed to be anti-inflammatory and says she can feel their effects immediately because she is so in touch with her body. I wonder about my body, if I’m in touch with it, if Dad’s in touch with his, and Mum comes back inside with Kebab. I keep dabbing the stain, but it doesn’t give.
Just leave it, she says. We have to go.
I drive and she sits in the passenger seat with Kebab on her lap. He sits up straight, eyeing the streetlights and the high beams of oncoming traffic. It’s half past six on a cold April morning, and people are on their way to work. We drive past a yellow house, and a man in front is pushing away leaves with a broom. The clouds are leavening, and the sky is just beginning to go blue.
Mum suddenly bursts into tears, and Kebab twists to look up at her, nestles himself in under the lapels of her coat. Shit, she says. Later she’ll call this a woman’s intuition.
It’s happening, she says. She clutches the door handle with one hand and buries her face in the other. Shit shit shit shit.
Mum, I say, desperate, and my voice wobbles, and I choke down tears because she hasn’t seen me cry since I was 12, when Granddad died. You don’t know that, I say. How do you know?
The road is blurry, and a car honks because I’m in its lane because the road is blurry, and I swerve back onto our side.
We get to the hospital and run up to his room, through the corridors where nurses look up and shake their heads and yell to us, Slow down! but we can’t. Mum’s holding Kebab and he’s bouncing on her chest as she runs. I’m behind her and can see his little head poke up over her shoulder, his ears laid back. When we get to Dad’s room the nurse tells us we’ve just missed him, he’s just passed away. I think of how strange that sounds, passed away, like he’s a baseball and we’re playing catch but we miss.
Did he say anything? Mum asks, but he hasn’t said anything in weeks.
Kebab vomits on Mum’s coat, and parts of it fall to the floor. I realize it’s the bolognese.
That thing can’t be in here, the nurse says. He yanks tissues out of a cardboard box on Dad’s bedside table and wipes the vomit off the floor. No animals allowed, he says.
An alarm goes off on the nurse’s wrist, and he says he has to go but he’ll bring in another nurse—and to please get rid of the cat, as he’s allergic.
I say, Of course, and get tissues too to dab on Mum’s coat and Kebab’s mouth. When the nurse leaves, we go to stand by Dad, his body. I take Kebab from Mum, and she lies on the bed with Dad, curled into his side. His eyes are shut and his mouth is slightly open, his dark hair thinned and his pale face freckled with grey stubble. Mum and I are crying and I’m bouncing Kebab. I stand behind Mum, patting her back.
The night of Dad’s funeral we are alone on the beach at Small Bay with strawberry daiquiris on our breaths. It is in this moment, when we are entwined in blankets and the sun is gone and I can hear Mum singing with her guitar at the house, when we are out of our clothes and I am thinking again of bunnies, when he’s seen all of the parts of me I keep covered and has stuttered through a silence, not knowing what to say—it is then that I say I love him, and it’s immediately after I regret it. I have never told anyone I love them before, and he thinks I am heartbroken and that I love my mum and my dad and the warmth of his body but not him, not tonight.
At the house Mum has just given her speech, about how they met at a punk club in Vancouver in 1989, how they were in a band together and toured around the coast and settled here on the island the year I was born. Sadie stood with me and Arlo during the speech, each with an arm wrapped around my waist and shoulders. A hundred of Dad’s friends and relatives were in the house and two or three times as many people at the reception. They took turns reciting poetry and singing songs and telling stories. Miss Engels came. She sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and everyone joined in. By the time most everyone had left, Arlo and I had drunk a fair bit. It was all strawberry daiquiris and good whisky, Dad’s two favourite drinks. At 3am, Mum was still in the living room with my aunts and uncles, and Arlo and I slipped out to the beach.
We’ve been at the beach for hours and soon the sun will rise; I’ve just said I love him and it lingers like smoke, then dissipates. He’s rubbing the rivets of a pinkish birthmark on my thigh, and I almost can’t remember saying it; it feels more like something I only thought I’d say.
We toss stones into the water and imagine we can see bioluminescence, but it’s probably just the fizz of saltwater bubbles reflected in the starry night. He says, It looks like a jellyfish, and I say Thank you. He sprinkles sand on the birthmark and it tickles so I laugh.
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