Chapter One

AQUEOUS HUMOUR

Joanna paused. Robin looked up.

“You don’t seem depressed,” Joanna said. Robin looked down again. Deadheading all of her peonies was not extreme. The article said ‘snap behind the retired flower’. In Robin’s case that meant the entire plant. All were now dead and completely retired.

“They were supposed to live one hundred years. That’s what the woman at the greenhouse said. I believed her. I shouldn’t have. I did exactly what she told me to.”

“Exactly?” Joanna asked.

“Yes. I even made the special soil. And I followed the directions on the fertilizer bag.”

“Exactly?” Joanna asked again. “Exactly,” Robin replied.

“Every year?”

Robin paused. “Mostly.”

“Mostly?” Joanna said.

“Well. More or less. At least for the first year.”

“When was that?” Joanna said.

“Oh—I don’t know—Eight? Yes. Eight years ago. I bought them the year after Mom died. They were going to be like my grandma’s house and go all along the walkways and around the house.”

“You don’t have walkways,” Joanna said.

“Yes I do.” Robin said. “It’s not a long walk. But it’s long enough. I bought sixty-eight plants. You’re not always right. I do have walkways.”

“You need to fertilize every year,” Joanna said.

“I fertilized most years. That’s close enough. Large handfuls.Here and there.”

“I think there was more here than there, and not enough of either,” Joanna said. Robin pressed her lips together.

“I’m glad they’re gone. One hundred years is a lot of pressure.” Robin’s eye’s tightened. The aqueous humour resisted. She felt old. Not fifty-two years old like she was but more like how she imagined old was going to feel. Wilted. Wasted. Drained.

“I think you are,” Joanna said.

“What?” Robin replied.
“Depressed.”

“I’m not depressed. I’m—” Robin looked at the menu in her hand. She fiddled with the corners and picked the plastic laminate further apart. Robin wondered when Gertee would get new ones. Robin had been picking plastic corners at Gertee’s Café for ten years. She sat in the same orange almost-Eames plastic chairs pulled around the same white tables that dotted the interior of the café like button mushrooms. And yet the sameness was also Gertee’s charm. Lampshades suspended awkwardly blocked the view of any patron over six feet. Accounting—in part—for why almost everyone inside was a woman. Stressful weeks spilled out of conversations, sporadic yoga mats spiking the air like surrender flags. Everyone stored legs and purses under the generous table overhangs. Most of them wore jeans that were too short or too tight. And favourite t-shirts with logos from marathons, half-marathons or nearby farmer’s markets and far-away places. Joanna’s wash of ink-black hair fell across her face. She tried to look at Robin, under the table, and into her purse at the same time while quickly bobbing up. Joanna’s hair snapped back into a thin line. She pushed on her glasses so she could read the menu. She pulled off the rectangular black frames to look at Robin.

“You’re depressed.”

“No. I’m—” Robin tucked a tawny golden-red piece of hair behind her ear. It almost reached and then fell out again.

“I’m angry, but I’m not depressed.” Robin stopped. “And if I wasn’t angry then I’d be depressed.” Joanna tried to speak. Robin stopped her. “Don’t judge me. You don’t know what it’s like. Look. Look here.” Robin’s fingers thwacked the back of the menu, “It says right here. I’m hard-boiled. Scrambled. Poached. Char-broiled. But I’m not depressed. Justin Bieber is depressed. I’m not depressed.”

“What?” Joanna said. “Justin Bieber? How do you know about Justin Bieber?”

“From his blog.”

“Justin Bieber is blogging about his depression?”

“Well, someone is,” Robin replied.

“What were you doing reading about Justin Bieber?” Joanna asked.

“I wasn’t. At first. I was reading about the potato blight in Ireland.”

“What?”

“It was a link,” Robin said.

“From where?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere. I was looking for a movie.”

“You don’t watch movies,” Joanna said.

“I do now,” Robin said. Joanna looked surprised. “People change,” Robin offered. She pushed the loose golden-red strands behind her ear. They still didn’t reach. Robin’s hair was a rodeo.

“You’re depressed,” Joanna concluded. Robin ran her tongue over her teeth and then pushed from behind into the space put there by nature and protected by Robin’s stubbornness. She didn’t want braces. Perfect teeth were bourgeois. Robin learned the word early. She liked it. And, she liked her mouth the way it was.

“Maybe,” Robin replied. “Maybe. But that doesn’t make you right. Just observant.”

“What I am or am not isnt the issue at the moment. You are,” Joanna said.

“I’m empty,” Robin tasted gall. She was betrayed by circumstance. It wasn’t Joanna’s fault she could expose Robin. Four decades of friendship was to blame. Not Joanna. Not Robin. “It’s ridiculous, really,” Robin said.

“What?” Joanna said.

“Bloom. She was only a dog. And not exactly my first dog. I should be over it by now. It’s been three months.”

Saliva gathered in the corners of Robin’s mouth. She was bothered by this display of excess and erased it with fingers long but not elegant. Robin remembered how she’d looked up at the clock on the wall in the vet’s office. The big hand had touched the tip of the golden ear flopped over on the retriever. Robin had thought about how Dr. Davenport was ready to retire like the clock on his wall. But, if the clock still functioned according to the rules of known physics and planetary motion, Robin could see that Bloom was now dead for two minutes. Bloom hadn’t looked dead, but what did death look like? Skulls and crossbones were the child’s play of pirates. Or they were copied monotonously on empty plastic bottles fading in the landfill. Cadavers were more sculptural than anything living or dead, and neither resembled the absence of Bloom’s Samoyed white fur moving, but Dr. Davenport’s trembling yet capable hand setting the now empty needle on the table did.

The efficiency of its jab and how quickly the contents were emptied and the speed of its effect had penetrated not only Bloom but also the skin around Robin’s forehead. It pulled tight and emptied her like the deadly needle. Robin had been dismissed by both time and death to watch the large hand on the clock finger the ear like nothing had happened, like there was nothing different, like Bloom still existed—but he didn’t. And yet the piece of her soul and psyche that was also Bloom couldn’t die. Or yield tangible remains to be gathered, held, and handed off to Dr. Davenport for closure and cremation. This peculiar cocktail of absence and presence was a new torture. Robin had looked down. Stabbed by the glare of the silver gurney table, she’d stared at the door she was expected to walk through, into a life without Bloom. There was nothing to say, nothing to do.

“Robin.”

She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t do it. Be good or civilized or appropriate and answer Dr. Davenport.

“What?” she’d managed.

“Do you want me to stay?” he asked.

That would be best, Robin had managed to think. But still Robin wouldn’t commit to words. Words would tie her to the future. They’d force her to decide other things. They’d make her walk out the door. They’d put her in the empty car and drive her home to an empty house.

“No. No. I’ll go.”

Dr. Davenport had looked at Robin and held her with his seventy-year-old eyes while he ran his hand over the dead dog. Robin didn’t think she could do that. She wanted to because, if nothing else, it would be the last time she could. But she’d just spent a week doing last time things. The last time she and Bloom would wake up together was two hours ago. The last time she’d chase the renegade dog kibble that missed the bowl as it dropped the wrong way out of the bag was the night before.

Robin had not been sure if she could move, even if she had just told Dr. Davenport she would go. Her arms felt laced to her sides and to each other, holding her together. Her heart was the only signal that it might be possible to move. Flesh threw itself against her left breast like an abandoned child in a crib. Touching Bloom was Robin’s comfort.

Instincts belonging to grief had finally released Robin’s arms, her hands cresting the white wave of Bloom’s body, coming to rest at her side. Something in her had been satisfied. Perhaps it was Bloom. Robin’s head swivelled back to look at Dr. Davenport. He’d unknit his brow from the deed he’d told her had never gotten easier. He managed a smile that assured Robin her suffering did not in any way compare to Bloom’s. The dog’s dying time had come. Short of letting nature take its course they had not robbed him of his life. All they had taken away was his option to be alone.

“I’m fine,” Robin said to Joanna. Definitively. “Really. It’s Bieber I’m worried about.”

“It’s you I’m worried about,” Joanna said.

Robin sighed. She set down her pretence like it was the vacuum cleaner. Heavy. Unnecessary. She didn’t want to pull it any further.

“Worrying about me won’t fix anything. Trust me. I’ve tried everything. Being good. Being mad. Being sad. Cleaning all my light fixtures. Nothing changes.”

“Maybe you need a change?” Joanna said.

“Like what? A cruise? Bobbing around like a cork for ten days with bacteria on the salad. No, thanks. I have that lettuce at home.”

“No. Not a cruise. Something longer. Bigger. I don’t know. Take a sabbatical. Go away for six months.”

“Dentists don’t get sabbaticals. We go to work every day and take three weeks of holidays like the rest of the world. The rest of the world works, Joanna. You get way too much time off.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do,” Robin said.

“OK. I do. But I earn it,” Joanna replied.

“No, you don’t. Teaching isn’t that hard,” Robin said.

“Yes it is.”

“They’re college kids, not middle school,” Robin said.

“They’re middle-school minds in college-kid bodies. Plus, economics is hard. They think the class will be about money. Theirs. They don’t want to find out that money is about injustice.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s true. If teaching is so easy, why don’t you do it?”

“I could never teach,” Robin replied.

“Well, you could take six months off,” Joanna said.

“How?”

“I don’t know. But you could,” Joanna replied.

“That’s not helpful. In fact, it’s mean. Don’t tell me about six months off and not tell me how to do it. What kind of friend are you?”

“The only one you have.”

“That’s not true. I have lots of friends,” Robin said.

“You know lots of people. That doesn’t mean you have a lot of  friends.”

Robin couldn’t erase the truth in Joanna’s words by pretending she didn’t hear them. Or pull her hair. Or push. Or shove. Or bite. No biting. Robin missed biting Joanna.

“Well, it’s a ridiculous idea. I don’t think friends or enemies can tell me how to close my practice, my house, leave my elderly father and fly off to the moon.”

“Not the moon,” Joanna said. “But somewhere. And don’t close your practice. Get a substitute. Sublet your house, and I’ll check on your father.”

“You’d visit my father?” Robin said. Her father always liked Joanna. She was organized. Efficient. And frustrating. Like he was.

“Yes. I could. Not every day. But if he needed things, I’d stop by. Does he need things? He probably doesn’t. I doubt if he needs very much.”

Robin imagined Joanna making the new category in the Reminder’s folder on her phone. Otto. Take him things.

“Liability,” Robin said.

“For your father? Don’t you trust me?” Joanna said.

“No. Not my father. My practice.”

“Mark will write a contract for you,” Joanna said.

“He’s too busy,” Robin countered, thinking of Joanna’s husband. “He has time.”

“No, he doesn’t. Besides, clients,” Robin said, “they won’t stand for it.”

“I’m an economist. People are lazy. Why look for a new dentist when the one you are used to is coming back? It sounds like a good reason to skip a cleaning.”

“And who is going to pay for this?” Robin said.

“You have plenty of money. You’ve got lots in the bank,” Joanna said.

“Not that much,” Robin said.

“Oh, c’mon. You’ll never spend it all.”

“But I might need it,” Robin said.

“You aren’t going to need it if you’re dead,” Joanna replied.
“I’m not that depressed.”

“You’re not clinically depressed but you’re not happy.”

“Not being happy doesn’t qualify me for six months off work. This isn’t the movies. Who’s happy?” Robin said.

“I’m happy.” Joanna said. Robin believed her. Forgave her. Still

loved her. “All I know is you need to do something. Reading blogs about Justin Bieber is not a solution.”

“Yes it is,” Robin said.

“No, it isn’t.” Joanna’s bangs were like a ruler. Straight and dependable.

“OK. I’ll think about it,” Robin said.

Robin tasted Joanna’s victory over her resistance. Bitterness dissolved into sweet. She took her tongue and touched the end of her nose.

Joanna laughed. “That’s so gross. Why do you still do that?” “Because you still think it’s funny.”


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