Nothing Will Suffice
by Andre Narbonne
The Facebook notice follows the funeral in short order. Joan has just lost her husband, Bryce, and now the children she grew up with in a Northern Ontario mining town in the days before computers are back and posting pictures.
Is this my Joannie Crebb? My name is Marie Benoit. If you’re the right Joannie you’ll remember me as Marie Boutin. I’ve married into a new B. LOL. The kids from Balmerville have formed a group and we’d like you to join – if this is the right Joannie. Can you be the first hit on Google? We’re all so hard to find except Geoffrey. LOL. Always in jail.
She accepts the invitation: clicks “Join Group” and scrolls through their lives.
The pictures are curiously similar. The girls she ran with the last time she ran for the sheer pleasure of it have grown into chubbier versions of themselves. In the seventies they came across as daring but the daring didn’t take. They housewife – or trailer-wife, depending on the northerness of the mining town into which they’ve gravitated. They proud parent twenty-year-old children or they adoringly grandparent toddlers. Their Facebook walls are the record of a generation enamoured of fantasy to the point of being prosaic. They have little interest in current events but post daily on the afterlife. Aphorisms substitute for self-evaluation, conspiracies for politics.
Joan enjoys their language. It’s moral and colourful. But she doesn’t want it. It’s not her. What she wants is to let them talk. She wants to be immersed in nonsense. Or she wants to see what’s become of Geoffrey.
Geoffrey, or Big Geoff as he was called thirty-five years ago was the leader of the pack. He’s grown grey, grown a beard he doesn’t groom, has a comical paunch. Once he was a powerful boy, who ruled the playground. He’d had the unfair advantage over the other grade eights of having failed twice, which meant he was bigger than everyone else and was inclined towards more dangerous interests. His model seemed to be John Wayne if John Wayne were a tout. Where John Wayne might have told her she was “a might purdy,” Geoff’s expression was “I’d ball you.”
In his posts he’s underwhelming, his language, the language of a high school dropout. Divorced, he’s a mine manager, a bigwig in a small way. The pictures he posts are usually of things he’s killed. The milieu of the shots is strikingly similar, as though he were plagiarizing himself endlessly. In almost all of them, he’s sitting in the stern of a motor boat holding a pickerel or a northern pike: something sleek and struggling. Usually there’s an Export A in his mouth.
The pack of cigarettes on Joan’s desk is unopened, although it was bought two days ago. She taps it as she stares into the screen, trying, in a way, to absorb news of herself – to locate herself.
Marie wouldn’t have found her at all were it not for Bryce finding her first. He was the confident boy in her grade nine classes, who fell in love with her and stayed in love even after she warned him of her disgrace. He shrugged and said, “That’s the past. In the present you and I love each other.” He held her and said, “I’m keeping you.” And he did, until his death last week.
To the group she must look so, so put together. There are no posts about loss; she’s not the sort of person to open her grief to others. There are the occasional accounts of her work for battered women, the cases she took on gratis against men so powerful their conduct became national news. Baby pictures of their daughter Judith in the 80s are followed by pictures of Bryce pretending to be a housefly – or Bilbo, it’s hard to know which – underneath the giant spider outside of the Ottawa National Art Gallery, while a seven-year-old Judith doubles in laughter, her expression hysterical. Pictures from this century show Judith smiling with a high school diploma, a B.A.
How must this look to the man who raped her when she was thirteen?
Geoffrey’s eyes are the same. Even in his triumph over something slender, the show-and-tell fishing pictures, a glint of low cunning swims in his irises.
No. That’s her, she’s projecting things.
Back when he was the boy with the Beginners who drove his parents’ Pinto on weekends, he promised to take her driving if she promised not to tell.
“Give me a cigarette,” she told him. Even if she couldn’t drive, she could still be cool. Bonnie Tyler smoked, or sounded like she did.
“You’re too young.”
“So are you.”
“My parents buy my sticks. Yours don’t even smoke. They’re too prissy. You’ll just have to wait.”
It was true. Her father, the grade four teacher, was a model of benevolent Puritanism. Her mother did the usual mother things of 70s sitcoms. Geoff was a logical rebellion, representing, as he did, a passionate, animal indifference.
“I don’t want to wait. I can get a cigarette from someone else.”
“I’ll give you one. But you’ll have to wait until after.”
She knows she’ll find it in the pictures if she keeps clicking and at last she does. Geoff stands over a moose. That he has murdered something worth boasting about is confirmed by the “likes” underneath the picture. She imagines herself as the subject of “likes” in a Facebook picture, imagines Geoff standing over her.
And now she knows she’s doing this to torture herself, knows that’s why she joined the group. She wants to hurt herself, wants to hurt herself into feeling human again.
The June after grade eight, Geoff gave Joan her first cigarette at a riverside parking lot where men idled in parked cars. The men around them probably didn’t notice. No one rapped on the window. Later she sat on the hood of the Pinto and blew smoke at the river. By the end of the summer, she was hooked.
She taps the pack. Freedom is a cigarette. The first puff will unlock her from the earth, torque her loose. She knows the sensation from all the times she quit before only to restart. She knows how it is. Nothing will suffice.
Bryce didn’t smoke. He jogged and ate his vegetables. Until the cancer laid him low. Until his death last week from second-hand smoke.
She tried to save him by smoking outside of the house and then, four months ago, by quitting outright. It was too late. He didn’t blame her. Even in his last days of delirium he held her hand and tried to give her strength. But Judith, their daughter, is of another mind. Judith would not hold her hand at the funeral. In the week since, there has been no word, no communication whatsoever: certainly no answers to Joan’s twice-daily “How are you?” texts.
She wants to hate Geoff, wants to blame him for her addiction and for her disaster that summer thirty-five years ago. She should have known he would boast about their rides…
Her parents heard. Her parents followed.
Their sending her to a private boarding school at the beginning of grade nine had been a kindness, not a punishment. What Geoff had done didn’t pass for rape then. The only label that applied was slut.
Her life is so stupidly interlocking. What can she do with this past?
She knows she has reached the age where her experiences are cut loose from the dream of teleology. Like an exhausted continent, there is nowhere inside for her experiences to arrive and, in arriving, create. There is no future her. Trials are simply trials, and on a good day they are non-existent. So where is wisdom?
Wisdom is in looking into Geoff’s eyes and recognizing in their brashness fear. He didn’t ask to be the child so much was expected of from children. He didn’t ask to be the big boy with the small expectations. And if wisdom is in forgiving him then it must be in forgiving herself, too.
She has to be okay with the man in the pictures. That will have to do. All the same, she “unfriends” and closes the screen.