Weekends without her son are lonely ones, and Linea fills them up with her have-to list. Today is one of those days, and she finds herself heading downtown to visit a co-worker who’s recently had her second child, a girl. Linea goes early, to avoid the inevitable jostling on the Dundas streetcar. Some days she doesn’t mind the crush of people, almost needing the physical touch of strangers, but today she needs space. She leaves her apartment, remembering to take the pink gift bag, and inhales deeply as she walks toward the streetcar. The leaves are turning red early this year. Linea and her small son, Caleb, live on a tree-lined street near the chocolate factory. She can’t decide which smell is sweeter: the daily intoxicating aroma of chocolate or the fresh burst of today’s September roses. She loves this neighbourhood mixed with Italian and Portuguese families who take pride in growing thick, colourful gardens in their tiny front yards and clusters of small, sour wine grapes in the back. She imagines what sunny gardens these immigrants left behind in their birth countries, and how they have tried to transplant something from their old home into their new. The Toronto grape season passes too quickly each fall and it is such a secret pleasure to sniff deeply when she passes through this neighbourhood. The grape vines and the requisite home winery equipment are mostly hidden from view, as if part of a secret society, but not the flower gardens. Linea never knew there was such a wide variety of roses until she walked through the side streets that weave toward College Street. Deep red chrysanthemums, tiger lilies, irises, sunflowers, zinnias and black-eyed Susans bubble out through freshly painted wrought iron fences. Some gardeners go a step farther and weave flowery vines through the antlers of iron deer or the rungs of stone archways or wooden gazebos. Fibreglass bunnies and gnomes peer out from under masses of green foliage. Solar butterflies line the cement paths that lead to the front doors. Linea feels the competition among neighbours but has a feeling it is not spoken of. Polite pride hangs heavy in the air. She never knew roses could bloom so late in the autumn until she ventured up Beatrice Street one day. It all reminds Linea of Edward Scissorhands, and Johnny Depp’s ghostly face keeps her company as she heads for the Dundas car.
“He fucked me and left me!” she bellows today. Angry as usual.
When Linea can’t be with her own child, who is spending this weekend with his father, she doesn’t want to be reminded of the lucky ones who can. She even envies those mothers who look harried, dragging back stray strands of hair and sighing, whispering threats in a language she doesn’t know to their little ones who can’t sit still any longer on the streetcar’s red seats. It is shopping day for many and people go early to get the freshest produce. The streetcar lurches toward Spadina, and regrettably, she is sitting right in front of the old woman with dirty straw hair and a thick European accent, who always shocks her fellow passengers by suddenly screaming crude obscenities and intimate, sordid stories of her life.
“He fucked me and left me!” she bellows today. Angry as usual. Assorted faces look away in annoyance and embarrassment. Most have heard this monologue before.
“And they caught him and hid him so I couldn’t find him and even when I asked they wouldn’t tell me where he was and my son at my breast wouldn’t change their minds! I wanted to spit in his face for leaving! And when we found him my son spit out my breast and spit at his father and we called him a dog no better than the dogs on the road that bit our heels when we ran past the meat factory!” Each time she says spit she does exactly that.
Then her voice softens and she whispers loud enough for those close by her to hear.
“But then I knew where to find him in the forest and I brought chocolate and red wine and I picked mushrooms and berries and we vomited and we all went to sleep and in the morning I left with my son but I always knew where to find him after that.”
And then she laughs a throaty laugh and stares up at the ceiling of the streetcar. Something there catches her attention and she becomes quiet.
Strangely, Linea hears truth in the woman’s stories and squirms inside for wanting to hear more, even though the woman’s shrill voice doesn’t allow Linea to escape into her own thoughts, as she occasionally likes to do during her time alone. For a little while, Linea loses her own identity as the streetcar careens past cafés, the hospital and on toward the sea of Saturday shoppers.
Soon Linea is pushing the intercom button of her friend’s apartment near Dundas and Spadina. She walks past the graffitied lobby and wonders who had the courage to deface public property. Linea smiles softly to herself as her son pops into mind. At four years of age, he is already well on his way to becoming a graffiti artist. Every week or two, she discovers a new little piece of art on one of their rented walls at home. Last month he moved aside his toy shelf and used the wall space behind as his canvas for his black, indelible marker. It was like a secret room back there, decorated with hearts and flowers and little people and cars. The brilliant part was a perfectly written little sentence: “I love U Mama.” Linea generally forges through motherhood feeling like she is one or two steps behind Caleb. They frequently have serious talks about art etiquette and respecting the fact that the walls are not theirs to draw on.
“Where do you need to do your drawing and writing, Caleb?”
“On paper . . . sorry, Mama.”
“That’s right. And Mama’s given you lots of paper and markers to write with.” “Yep, right there on my desk.”
“So next time, where will you draw?”
“On the paper.”
“Thank you, Caleb.”
And then, more drawings, more reminders, more apologies. And each time Linea knows he knows that she is not angry with him because she cannot hide the fact that she is impressed by his art. Linea half-heartedly attempts to wipe off the drawings but secretly likes them to stay so she can look at them when he is away with his father.
Noura and her son, Ahmed, open the door of their apartment and usher Linea in. “As-salaam alaykum!” They smile. “Hello and welcome!”
Even though the infant is asleep on the sofa, the Koran tucked carefully under her frilly pillow, there is no pretence of quiet. Noura believes that it is better for babies to learn how to sleep through noise. There will be no tiptoeing around this baby. Linea agrees in theory, but gave birth to a baby who could hear a pin drop a mile away. She spent the first two years shushing people just to get a little extra break from the relentless demands of mothering. Everyone stands around admiring the new baby girl, who doesn’t yet have a name. Her father and mother disagree on whether to name her after one of her father’s many aunts who still live in Egypt or to choose a Canadian name. Her father, Abasi, likes the traditional names of his aunts, like Acenath or Quibilah, but Noura wants to name her after a close Canadian friend Claire, who has been like family here in Toronto. It seems to Linea that the couple argue a lot about traditions, about loyalties, about family and where they came from.
“It’s like Abasi is stuck in Cairo still,” Noura whispers to Linea when Ahmed is engrossed in watching TV.
Noura has moved on. Egypt will always be her main identity, but she is Canadian now, her children are Canadian, and she hates that Abasi pretends they are not.
“People must change with the times. We’ve been here ten years already.” She shrugs. “Why does he act like none of this exists?” She sweeps her arm around the dark apartment. “We are here. It’s like living with a ghost sometimes.”
Noura invites Linea into the kitchen for coffee. While she grinds the coffee beans, the freshly painted walls remind Linea of Barney. Linea stares in wonderment not only at the bold choice of colour, but at the fact that the brush strokes reach onto the ceiling. She knew what her landlord would say about that; “Don’t forget, Miss Linea, when you move out you must to paint it back to white or I charge you for to paint myself!” Linea’s father, a house painter by trade, taught her how to paint walls when she was young. He was so precise. There could not be even the tiniest drops of paint where they shouldn’t be, and if there were by accident, he took immediate care to use the white drip cloth to wipe it off. His attention to detail had so worked its way into her own life that she still gets utterly distracted by anything out of place. Noura notices where Linea’s eyes have landed and laughs.
“No one ever looks up there after all. All we need to see is down here!”
Linea laughs too, and makes a mental note to lighten up.
While the coffee brews, Noura suddenly slaps at the wall. Startled, Linea asks her what she is doing.
“Cockroaches,” she replies, and her eyes dart around the room looking for more. They don’t have to wait long. Three more appear suddenly and Linea is amazed at the agility and swiftness with which Noura kills the intruders. Noura laughs again.
“Before we had Quibilah,” she says, “I used to say these cockroaches were Ahmed’s brothers and sisters! They eat with us, they sleep with us . . .”
As they laugh together, Linea wonders if she notices the name she has just called her baby. Noura always says she lets her husband get his way. She says life is too short for fighting. Noura catches Linea’s eye. “Quibilah means peaceful,” Noura tells Linea as they wrap their hands around their coffee cups. Linea admires her friend’s ability to let go of issues, and her mind wanders to Caleb’s father. What might have been if she had let go of more also? Could they have stayed together, had more children? Some days, Linea feels stuck in the muddy past, trapped by details of what might have been.
Noura believes that crying together with someone washes away the sadness, leaving you cleansed and able to move on.
Linea lets Noura’s strong coffee wash over her, and for a quick moment she is back in Cairo. She was there once, the year before she met Noura. It felt like a dream throughout that holiday, and it has become an even sweeter dream over the years. She can still taste the fruit-flavoured hookahs, smoked giddily in the Khan el-Khalili while wedding guests rejoiced in the street near her table. Life there was lived with one another. People celebrated together, grieved together, always knowing there was someone there who would hold you up when you fell from the hardness of life. She admired the way men embraced, locked arms, cared for each other. Things are so different here—things were so different with her own family when she was growing up. When they cried, they cried alone. Noura believes that crying together with someone washes away the sadness, leaving you cleansed and able to move on. Linea’s life in Toronto can be so lonely, even with family and friends close by. Linea still cries alone.
Linea’s thoughts are interrupted by Ahmed, who has come into the kitchen for a coffee of his own. Linea expresses surprise that a child of eight is allowed to drink coffee. Noura assures her it is healthy, in fact, she says, it is better for children than tea. Noura is always so sure of what she says. When Ahmed was a baby, Linea was shocked one day when Noura cracked open an egg and poured it into his bottle of formula. When Linea warned her of salmonella poisoning, she dismissed her with a wave of her hand and said everyone does this, it makes the baby healthy and strong. Noura’s unwavering confidence makes Linea doubt things she has always believed in.
Quibilah is passed around, showered with kisses, and Linea melts into this world that feels more like her own than her real life does.
There is a knock at the door and more of Noura’s friends arrive to admire the baby Quibilah, shower attention upon her mother, drink coffee and discuss life. Linea knows none of these friends, but it doesn’t matter. They are all friends by association and conversation is easy. The talk is mainly in English for Linea’s benefit, but now and then Arabic words are thrown in when someone is very excited or the right word cannot be expressed in English. Quibilah is passed around, showered with kisses, and Linea melts into this world that feels more like her own than her real life does. After a while, though, she is reminded too much of the piece of her that is missing this weekend, and tells Noura she has to leave. Linea passes Quibilah back to her mother’s ready arms and pulls herself away.
Linea hops back on the streetcar heading toward downtown and covers her ears when the wheels squeal too loudly on the tracks. She knows this driver. Now and then he shouts out something he thinks might be of interest to the riders, as if he is a tour guide and they are all foreigners. Some people smile at his exuberance, others have that same embarrassed look as if the old European woman was shouting out her past life. There are more people now, some finished their shopping already and heading home. Linea smiles sadly at a little boy who stares at her while his father talks loudly into his cell phone. There is always a piece of Linea missing when Caleb is not with her, holding her hand, telling her impatiently to look this way or that.
More than ever she minds the crowd of people who lean into her suddenly when the streetcar swerves jerkily around a corner. There is no such thing as personal space here on public transit, and it’s when Linea is without her son that she needs it the most.