mac and cheese and peas

It was Thursday afternoon in late October. The hour hadn’t yet rewound but daylight was increasingly precious; only 6:20 and already it was deep dusk as Bill limped home, east along the 401, in his silver Subaru. The traffic was predictably glacial, and slower still when he off-ramped north up Leslie. He could have been forgiven for wondering whether — paradoxically, asymptotically — despite drawing steadily, fractionally closer, he might never reach home at all: just half the distance, then half the distance of that. And so on. In fact, tonight home was a destination he wasn’t keen to reach. Instead of jealously guarding the space between his car and the one in front, tonight he was magnanimous towards cutters-in. Please sir, go ahead; after you madam, I insist. Maybe if things slowed to a dead halt the kid would be in bed by the time he arrived and it would be too late for the chat. He prayed for an accident up ahead: nothing serious, no injuries, but enough of a mess to tie things up for an hour or two. How many fender-benders were just men delaying the inevitable, preferring the hassle and the deductible to whatever awaited them at the kitchen table?

Can’t we do this next weekend, he’d pleaded with Tara that morning, as they danced around each other in the rush out the door. But she said we were supposed to do it last weekend and fine, your work, I get it, and the weekend before, ok, she was sick, and this weekend I’m at my mom’s like we discussed but we can’t keep putting it off. We have to tell her. Dr. Shapiro said so. She said it’s not fair to her otherwise. Bill hated Dr. Shapiro. Or not Dr. Shapiro so much as the words, “Dr. Shapiro”, which Tara wielded like a gavel to foreclose discussion. From her midtown office, the good doctor coolly prescribed palliative treatments for a marriage in its final stages. Less a marriage counsellor at this point than its coroner. Tara hung on her every word. Bill knew that Shapiro was meant to be the last word on all things Ellie, so he kept his mouth shut — he didn’t have a degree in child psychology, as Tara saw fit to remind him, he didn’t have twelve years of clinical practice. But what’s one more weekend, he wondered. To have a conversation like this — to have this conversation? — on a Thursday night, with work and school the next day? Mommy and Daddy are getting a divorcy, now into PJs and off to bed?

He pulled into the driveway. Harvey was raking the leaves on their joint patch of lawn. Harvey was good like that, a perfect neighbour. Harvey and his wife Jan both. Friendly but not in your business. Bill cut the engine, grabbed his coat off the passenger seat, stepped out and shut the door.

“Hey,” said Bill, amicably, and then, indicating the pile of leaves, “Thanks.” Harvey said no problem and Bill said I’ll get the next one. And then he thought by the time of the next one he’d be out, moved into the two-bedroom apartment he’d secured near Sheppard and Bayview. A one-year lease during which they’d finalize the settlement terms and after which he’d figure out his next move, real estate-wise. Maybe I’ll still come round to rake the leaves, he thought.

Harvey said so what’s Ellie going to be for Halloween.

Harvey and Jan had been trying to get pregnant for a while now. Since before Ellie was born.

Bill said she wants to be Pocahontas but that’s racist so I don’t know. Tara tried explaining it to her, but she doesn’t understand. I mean, she’s five what do you expect. Harvey said I don’t really get it either, to tell you the truth and Bill said who knows.

Harvey said Halloween’s getting harder on Jan. Each year we don’t get pregnant it’s like another reminder, another year lost. Before it used to just make her anxious to get going but now — she won’t say it but I can see — now it makes her wonder if it’ll ever even happen.

Bill said that’s rough.

Harvey said I told her let’s go away. Montreal or Ottawa or something. But she thinks doing that is giving up somehow, admitting defeat. She’ll be handing out treats at the door and trying not to ball. It kills me.

Then Harvey brightened or pretended to and said hey tell Ellie to save our house for last. I don’t want to miss her. Plus I think Jan got her some extra goodies.

Bill said ok will do. It hit him that he was going to have to break the news to Harvey. Or not. Tara would tell Jan soon enough. Harvey would be crushed. Even though they weren’t the best of friends, still, between the four of them they’d developed a real mutual admiration society. Bill thought maybe I should tell him now and went quiet as he stumbled over words in his mind. But Harvey must’ve sensed he was impeding his neighbour because he gestured to Bill’s front door and said anyway don’t let me hold you up, I’m sure the girls are waiting.

Bill said yeah talk to you later, thanks again for the leaves, and he climbed the steps to the front porch, sifting through the keys on his ring, digging out the one for the door. At the top step he stopped, turned around. Saw Harvey with the rake. Surveyed the street, modestly populated with poplars and maples, and small unremarkable homes, here on the outer fringes of the city limits, the north-easternmost quadrant of north-eastern North York. The sheer ordinariness of it moved him deeply. He felt a bit like an actor in a show’s final performance, taking a moment on-stage to appreciate that as beautiful as all of this is, tomorrow the sets will be struck.

He put the key in the lock and he turned it, slow as he could, like a safecracker. He heard the soft click of the latch. He gripped the round brass knob but didn’t turn it. He leaned his head against the door. He heard music coming from inside. Voices. He must’ve stood there for a full minute before something alerted his peripheral and he turned. Harvey was looking at him. You ok? said Harvey and Bill said yeah I’m good and he opened the door.

“Dada!” shrieked Ellie who ran towards him from the kitchen, where Tara was filling a pot with water.

“Hello girls,” he said, sweeping the kid up in a hug. Ellie made him put her down then insisted on clinging to his leg as he walked in.

The scene was so normal he had half a mind to come up to Tara and kiss her hello. As he put down his things and hung up his coat and took off his shoes Ellie told him about how she was a pilot at recess and she flew across the whole world, I even flew past your office, she told him. You know, he said, I thought I heard a plane buzzing past my window. That was me! she said. I waved but you didn’t see me. They agreed that next time she would do a bunch of loop-de-loops until he notices so he can wave back.

Setting the table, watching Tara dance with Ellie balanced on her feet, Bill asked himself, what are we doing? Tara had said he was remote and worked too much and he said she was right on both counts but he was trying on both counts too. She told him something was missing but she couldn’t say what. Maybe she imagined a more glamorous life for herself, a different postal code. A better man. After Ellie they’d talked about trying for another. He was game but she kept saying we have to work this out first, meaning their issues; with each passing year he felt the slow and steady shift from someday to never.

They had Ellie’s favourite, mac and cheese and peas, and then they got quiet and said, honey, and broke her world.