Tony Wong smiled back at the waitress in the doughnut shop, took one final drag of his cigarette, then mashed the butt into the ash tray. He picked up his mug of coffee and gulped down the last mouthful before nodding goodbye to the still smiling waitress. The previous six months of his life had been smoke-free, but now that he was about to start teaching again he had surrendered, lighting up one, just this one to calm my nerves, he had told himself. But one became another and another. He might as well have never stopped. The resumption of his old habit was a mixed blessing. Along with the pleasure, every flick of the lighter pricked a layer of self-loathing that lurked underneath his smooth exterior, this capitulation another sign of weakness. So he reminded himself that once his nerves settled, once he got a handle on things, he would stop for good, this being only a temporary setback. There was nothing to worry about, he told himself. Damn it, he was a seasoned teacher with more than ten years’ experience. It was just that he hadn’t been inside a school since three years ago in Calgary. Did he still have it? The confidence that came with a capital “C”? The kind that allowed a person to control a class full of unruly kids, without resorting to being a bully. It was uncanny how they were able to sniff out insecurity and hound a teacher out of a classroom, like a herd of animals lured by the scent of blood, circling in for the kill.
Their marriage was the stuff of fairy tales; they were smart, stylish, good-looking, a sensitive balance of togetherness and independence.
Most shops on the street were still closed, the green grocers only starting to set up their outdoor displays of harvest vegetables. The pavement was already exuding heat—it was going to be a September scorcher, not the best way to start the school year. Tony stood on the sidewalk and looked up and down the near-empty street. He had been in Toronto for only three months and already he had landed a job teaching in an elementary school. Before that he had been in Vancouver for two years with Angela, neither one of them with a serious job—waiting on tables, working at a bookstore. And before that—Calgary, where life had been perfection: successful teaching careers, a home nestled in the woods of Bragg Creek. Everything was Angela’s fault. What was the matter with her? Why did she have to ruin everything? His parents had been shocked by their decision to give up their jobs and leave for Vancouver. In the face of their protests Tony had muttered something about need for a change, that he and Angela wanted a new challenge in their lives. Of course they wouldn’t have understood the real reason, a secret submerged deep inside Tony’s very being, a secret that, if exposed, would threaten the very life he had so carefully constructed. But the news of his recent separation had scandalized his parents. And in his head he could hear his mother’s voice, squawking like a parrot’s, blaming Angela for everything, telling him over and over that if only he had married a Chinese girl, none of this would be happening; instead he would still be teaching in Calgary, probably the principal of a school and most definitely a father with at least one son. On one level they were right. Maybe a good Chinese girl would have stuck it out with him. Throughout his mother’s hectoring, he had remained silent, unable to look her in the eye, never uttering a single word in Angela’s defence. Tony knew that his parents had interpreted his behaviour as tacit agreement, perhaps even filial piety; but underneath his calm exterior he felt only self-contempt, unable to staunch the ooze of cowardice that seeped into the marrow of his bones.
As a teenager Tony had always been shy around girls. He liked to tell people about once being asked to a Sadie Hawkins dance in high school by a girl in his class. “I was caught so off guard. You see, I’d never been out with a girl before. I hadn’t given the whole dating thing much thought. It was only later that I realized what nerve she must have worked up to ask me. I felt bad about it for days. I could never look her in the eye again, and yet before that we had been friendly. We had lockers next to each other and we used to joke and laugh. I was so stupid . . . I had no idea that she might have a crush on me. I was socially quite slow and awkward, you know. It took me a long time to get initiated. I was nineteen before I even had sex. A fear of intimacy, I suppose,” he would say with a wry smile, his tone self-deprecating, yet light-hearted.
But Angela was different, Tony told people. She had caught him off balance and had smiled her way into his life. Their marriage was the stuff of fairy tales; they were smart, stylish, good-looking, a sensitive balance of togetherness and independence. They went to concerts, art galleries and fine restaurants and travelled to Europe for summer holidays. At the same time they understood each other’s desire to be alone, the need for separate vacations. He was a romantic; he never forgot Angela’s birthday; he made a point of surprising her with flowers when there was no occasion. Without ever voicing it, though, Tony had known deep in his heart, right from the very beginning, that it was inevitable Angela would one day leave him, that in the end he would not be able to deliver what she really wanted and that his particular brand of love and charm would not be enough to make her stay. In the past whenever this truth struck him, he felt a rush of fear, wanted to put his arms around his wife and make her promise that they, the perfect couple, would always be together.
Men found Angela irresistible, at least according to Tony. He loved to tell people about a particular incident early in their marriage when they were sharing an apartment above a store in downtown Calgary. Angela had stepped outside to wait for him. It was a hot summer day and the second floor was sweltering. She was wearing a sundress with spaghetti straps, her dark, unruly hair clumped in a loose knot on her head. When he came out of the apartment he found Angela chatting and laughing with a fellow who had pulled up in a sports car convertible with the top down, leaning toward the passenger door, obviously trying to pick up his wife. He still remembered the look on the guy’s face as he watched Tony take Angela by the elbow, gently steering her away, calling her darling. That wasn’t the first time; there would be others. But for some reason that moment—the shrug of her shoulders and the open-mouth smile on her face, the thin lime-green straps against her smooth, tanned skin—that particular triumph remained clear in his memory.
Angela was not classically good-looking. Her mouth was too wide, and her nose too large, Tony had always felt. What she had though was flair, something even rarer than beauty itself. It was her uncanny ability to arrange things, whether they be clothes, furniture or flowers, always arriving at a style that was unique yet timeless and that made people (and women who were better looking) notice and feel envious.
It gave Tony special pleasure to refer to Angela as “my wife,” that word wife gently blowing through the circle formed by his lips. He had begged Angela to stay, to not destroy this carefully crafted life they had created as a couple. Earlier in the week there had been a letter from her, telling him that she was now living with another man. She wanted to tell him all about it, she wrote in her spidery script, how wonderful life was as a couple, that he should try it again. By the time he finished reading the letter he was so angry that he tore it into shreds. How dare she write to him in that gushy language, so damn condescending, as if he had no understanding of what it was to share a life, as if their time together somehow didn’t count, that it was less than what she was now experiencing. As if he had chosen to live alone. For a moment longer he stood outside the doughnut shop, his jaw clenched, thoughts of Angela racing around in his brain. He took a deep breath of hot, humid air and stepped onto the road, dodging cars, then turned a corner and walked down the street to Dunedin Public School where he would begin his new teaching job.
Lucy Peran was thirty-four years old, not quite middle-aged, but no longer considered young. She was one of those women often described as plain, a rather harsh assessment when it would be more accurate to say that she was almost pretty. Her features were even, her teeth straight and skin clear, but there was something missing, and without that whatever, the overall impression was mousy, pinched and uptight. When she smiled her lips often remained closed, a tight line stretching across her face.
Lucy lived alone and, since leaving her parents’ home, had always lived alone. She wasn’t without friends. She went to movies and concerts with a couple of women from work and a few years ago she had dated a man, a rather nice man who had wanted more from her, wanted something she knew that she would never be able to give. Her hand never felt quite right in his, and after he kissed her, put his tongue in her mouth, she pushed the nice man away, not aggressively, but gently, with an almost apologetic smile on her face, and rushed into the bathroom where she bent over the sink and cupped handfuls of water to her mouth, rinsing away his saliva.
She now resided in predictable solitude in a leafy residential neighbourhood of Toronto, in a two-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a yellow-brick, fifties-style, low-rise condominium. It had taken her a long time to find the right place. She didn’t want to buy into a complex that was too large, where she would be separated from strangers (whose intent might be questionable) by only a door and flimsy plaster walls. At the same time she didn’t want to be in a building that was too small, one of only eight or ten units where you might become intimately aware of each other’s comings and goings. This find was perfect: six stories with forty-eight units.
When the real estate agent first showed Lucy the building, she knew right away that she wanted to live there. The unit that had then been for sale was at the back with windows and a balcony overlooking a tree-filled ravine. The moment she stepped onto the balcony her mouth fell open with astonishment at the lush, green tree tops so close that she could almost touch them. She had no idea that you could live in the middle of the city and feel enveloped by such peace and seclusion. But when she stared down into the steep ravine a sudden tightness gripped her chest and the sense of wonder that she felt for this secret paradise turned to fear. She would not be able to live here. Nothing would convince her. It did not matter that the slope was near impossible to climb or that the surrounding grounds were secured by a high fence; nothing was a match for her imagination. Already she could feel the effects of sleepless nights, her body tensing at the slightest noise, hearing someone scaling the heights and climbing over her balcony, and then god knows what. Just thinking about it made her shudder and her mouth go dry. She stiffened her shoulders and, with a wry smile, told the agent that she couldn’t afford “paradise.” But she refused to look at another building and waited for over a year before a less expensive apartment on the third floor, facing the street, became available. The location was perfect: only two blocks from the subway station meant she would never have to sit in a taxi and be at the mercy of a stranger behind a wheel who might have hidden intentions. Being on the third floor was just right—enough distance from the ground to deter an intruder from climbing, yet not so high that she had to take the elevator and share that small enclosed space with someone she didn’t know, breathing the same air, feeling queasy from the smell of a stranger’s body emissions. Everything was now as it should be. Lucy had made sure of that.
Lucy stepped out of the shower, threw on her pale blue terry robe and walked onto her apartment balcony in her bare feet. Already the warmth of the sun had penetrated the concrete floor. She looked at her hanging basket of mauve petunias and picked off the dead blossoms before reaching for the watering can. After Lucy emptied the can she set it on the balcony floor and reminded herself to fill it before leaving for work. The other day she had read in a magazine that plants should never be watered directly from a tap, that the water should sit for at least three hours in order for chlorine to dissipate. Lucy leaned over her railing and looked down at the street below. She ran her fingers through her wet, matted hair and sighed. She was bone-tired and wanted to crawl back into bed, wrap the rumpled sheet around her body and bury her face in the pillow. Since mid August she had been feeling twinges of dread. It always seemed to start with a vague stiffness in her shoulders that she managed to control by swimming several lengths in the condo’s pool and by walking, staying ahead of the dark cloud that would devour her should she let her guard down, if only for a moment. All she had to do, she reminded herself, was survive this first day of school; then everything would be fine.
The air was heavy with moisture and thick with the stench from the animal-rendering plants northwest of her neighbourhood—a burning acrid smell that clogged your nostrils and caught at the back of your throat. Now that school was about to start, the heat that had been absent all summer had burst all over southern Ontario. Lucy took a deep breath and went back inside her apartment. She would have to hurry if she wanted to get to school by eight o’clock. Inside her little galley kitchen she made herself a cup of clear tea and ate a slice of toast and jam, then quickly washed her dishes and put everything away before getting dressed.
By the time she left the streetcar stop and arrived at the three-storey red brick building, the skin around her neck felt sticky and her nose was shiny with perspiration. During the streetcar ride she had nodded off, but fortunately the car came to a screeching halt and startled her awake. The night before she had sipped a cup of camomile tea while she ironed her skirt and blouse, then relaxed in a soothing bath, yet she had still been plagued by fitful sleep. Every time she had felt herself descend into a dark gentle slumber, something seemed to reach down like a giant hook and jolt her back into consciousness, her body rigid and exhausted. There was no reason for her to be anxious. She had spent every day last week in her classroom preparing. Her bulletin boards were bordered with autumn scenes and cards showing examples of printing and cursive script. The desks were arranged in tidy groups of four, with three stand-alones close to her work station. Every surface in the room had been wiped clean and every plastic basin washed. She had enough work for her students to last a week. It was her eleventh year of teaching. I am a seasoned teacher, she told herself. Yet this first day of school, like all the other first days of school, started with fatigue and an uneasy stomach that even dry toast and plain tea would not quell.
Lucy stood in front of the open door to her classroom, her fingers fidgeting with a button on her blouse. It was that moment of silent anticipation, just before the teacher on outside duty gave the signal to allow the students, who had lined up at the entrance, to enter. Already she could hear feet charging up the stairs and teacher admonitions. Walking. Walking. Hands on the railing. Hands on the railing.
She stood with her back straight, willing herself to stay awake. The sleep that had eluded her all night now beckoned like the arms of a lover. Yet the moment the students started to file past her, she summoned herself and shrugged off the mantle of sleep that threatened to seduce her. She greeted her grade three students with a friendly, but not eager, smile. It was important to be not too effusive. Better to start off a little distant and warm up later if the situation permitted.
She told the students to sit at whichever desk they chose. A couple of them glanced at each other, confused. Lucy smiled at herself and wondered what they might do if they knew the real reason for her flexibility. Her little gift of freedom revealed to her things about them that might otherwise take weeks to discover. The best friends, the established cliques, the leaders, the outsiders. Even eight-year-olds understood the meaning of power and position.
Dunedin Avenue was a mixed bag of a school with its population of immigrants, poor whites, middle and upper-middle class kids whose parents were gentrifying certain pockets of the neighbourhood. The only child who caught her attention that first morning was Jonas Harvor, confident and handsome with his thick dark hair and intense blue eyes. One of the things that Lucy had learned early in her teaching career was that most children under the age of ten wanted to like their teacher, were in fact eager to please. But Jonas had refused to reciprocate her smile and had glanced at her as if he saw through her: as far as he was concerned he was her equal. He wasn’t openly rude and did the morning work that was assigned. But there was something about the perfunctory way in which he worked, the way he treated her authority with a certain dismissiveness that made her watchful. While he stood in line for recess, she overheard him telling other students that his father drove a Mercedes. My dad’s the boss of the computer department at the university and he knows Bill Gates. You never heard of Bill Gates!? You’re such a loser. Bill Gates’s the richest man in the world and you’ve never heard of him. He invented the computer. I hope you know what a computer is. Here was a child who understood status and pedigree. There was such confidence in his sneer. What other child in the class would be able to stand up to that? By mid morning he had picked his satellite of friends. From that brief encounter with Jonas, Lucy, in spite of being the teacher, felt wary of this child. She could feel him looking down from his high perch at a teacher who was his social inferior.
Lucy locked the door to her classroom and made her way to the staffroom, still preoccupied with Jonas Harvor, so much so that were it not for Tony Wong’s quick and fluid reaction, she would have walked straight into him and his cup of hot coffee. Tony’s hand shot up and grabbed her shoulder, stopping her in her tracks. Lucy didn’t like it when people touched her, especially unexpectedly. She liked it even less as she felt a sudden flush of heat in her face while Tony held her at arm’s length and smiled. She found herself embarrassed by her unexpected attraction to this very handsome man, and quickly lowered her eyes. Lucy was afraid to look up. She muttered something that sounded like sorry, then quickly walked away.
For the rest of the morning her students seemed far away. There was a vague memory of them returning from recess and being assigned work. When Lucy glanced at the wall clock she realized that in another ten minutes the lunch bell would ring. She told her students to clear their desks and to line up at the door, all the while wondering if the stranger with the cup of coffee would be in the staff room. Who was he? A teacher? A parent? She could still feel the slight pressure of his hand, its residual warmth on her shoulder.