I could hear the Gipsy Kings blasting from the house as I rounded the curve of Hayward Avenue. I guessed Brad was cooking Mexican, and the sultry cumin fumes confirmed it when I walked through the front door. The living room stereo was turned up high enough to let him hear the music over the kitchen fan. He was singing along, random syllables that made him sound like he knew the words. Bamboleo, bambolea, pour kay me vida yoda pray fairy veer I see…
He might not have all this time on his hands to cook if he were actually earning a living. What was he, anyway? Friend in need? Deadbeat boarder? In our circle of friends, we were called roommates, but I didn’t tell my friends everything. Whatever, that shrewish voice in my head faded whenever I saw him. He called out from the kitchen.
“Hey Mel! Is that you?”
“He-ey,” I affected a sing-song voice. He stood in the doorway to my kitchen.
“Don’t come in yet! I got a surprise for ya!”
“A surprise! I hope it’s edible!”
“Just close your eyes.”
He came into the hallway and stood behind my back and put his hands over my eyes. My feet skated slowly on the hardwood, and I allowed myself to relax into the shell created by his arms. His body moved closer into mine as he guided me into the kitchen.
“Look what I found.”
“What you found?” My eyes opened and, as his hands slid down my back to my waist, I saw a pile of rubble in the middle of my kitchen. Where once a wall had separated the cooking area from the breakfast nook, now a cloud of dust swirled in orange rays.
“What is this?” I surveyed the mess of plaster and stone.
“This is gold! The original brick. It’s like someone started to knock down the wall before and didn’t finish.” What he had found was a remnant of a red brick wall. At its highest point, it stood just below waist height and petered out step-like to the floor. “You don’t want to knock this out. It’s part of the original structure. It’s like antique or something!”
I thought I should be angry, but he was still leaning into my back, his hands on my hips. “You did all this yourself?”
I had been talking about opening up the kitchen space. My plan was to hire a contractor in a year or so to knock down the wall that divided the breakfast nook from the galley kitchen. It caught me by surprise that day, both the mess and how much effort he’d put into making it. But anyway, the way it is now has a certain character about it. I’ve put little cacti on the pieces of brick that stick out.
I first met Brad upstairs at Christian’s on George Street, back when Sue and I were both living in that house with all the girls. I came downtown straight from work and had no time to change out of my red turtleneck and my Royal Stewart tartan kilt. My fuzzy beige winter boots over black tights were completely wrong. Brad kept calling me “Lassie” in this fake Scottish accent and calling everything crrrrrap. I laughed hard, trying to show him that I could take a joke, whatever kind it was.
I began to believe he accepted me as a friend when he started asking for “Mel or Sue” when he’d call the house. I guess that’s when I started falling for him. There was one phone conversation in particular. He had called to see if we had anything on the go that night, and we ended up just kind of chatting for an hour or so. It was starting to feel like we were flirting, which left me a little bit lost for words. Then, he said something like “Don’t trust me, Mel, I’m really an asshole at heart.” That’s when I started to trust him. He was humble and honest.
Brad was an Arts student, but I’m not sure what major he eventually decided on. We used to joke that he was three courses away from any degree he wanted. I guess he was never really thinking about getting a stable job, because his real interest was his music. And I can’t say much against it now, because he’s probably doing as well financially as I am. Well, except I have health insurance and a pension plan.
I didn’t give him much credit back then. He seemed like one of those guys with lots of talent and no ambition. He usually did covers of radio songs, and some of his own material. But there was one night that he surprised me. We were at this little jazz-n-blues place called Mojos and they were having some kind of open-mike thing. We coaxed him to get up, and then he borrowed the guitar from the host and sang a quiet little piece that sounded like an old jazz song. The one line I remember was:
I was aiming for the edges of your chilly little heart,
Guess I must have overshot the mark.
He said he had written it himself and I thought he was messing around. Sometimes he made me feel like I was the centre of some big joke that everyone got but me.
Brad called me at work one Friday morning to see what I was doing that night.
“Going home for the weekend,” I said, adding recklessly, “Wanna come?”
“Road trip, eh? I could be up for that.”
I think about that trip whenever I hear the song “Closing Time” by Semisonic, because it must have come on the radio at least ten times while we were in the car. We’d join in on the part I know who I want to take me home, wailing it out the open windows. Also, whenever I eat bakeapples, because he made me stop on the highway to buy some from the bonnet of somebody’s car. “I can’t meet your family empty-handed, now, can I?” he said when we got back in the car.
When we got home, my little sister Jill was in a panic. She was leaving for holiday camp on Sunday, and she was afraid that she might be forgetting to pack something important. Brad teased her about it. “All you need is a whole duffel bag of sweet milk. You can stack them to build a lean-to. Use an empty can to boil water. Or if you can’t find anything to eat, you can eat that stuff straight-up. Or if a bear comes, you can throw cans at it.” Jill looked at him like he was nuts. “Oh, and take this jar of bakeapples too. They’re great with sweet milk.” Later, while getting the spare room ready for him, I could hear them laughing and joking down in the living room.
On Saturday morning, while we were eating breakfast, we could hear Mom in the sewing room. The radio was tuned to VOWR and they were playing old wartime love songs. But the signal wasn’t very strong, so every time she pressed on the foot pedal of the sewing machine, it sent a shot of static through the radio. At one point, Mom was crooning along to “We’ll Meet Again” and Brad yelled out “What’re you doing? Electrocuting Rosemary Clooney?” Mom laughed, “You foolish thing.”
This weekend, I was more at ease with my family. A typical visit home felt like a gauntlet of variations on the question, “So, got a man yet?” I hated that their expectations were so low and at the same time so unattainable. But this weekend, Brad made me feel established. I introduced him as my “friend”. This was one of the few times I liked the thought that people were drawing their own conclusions about me. We weren’t pretending to be a couple, but he played the part perfectly.
We dropped Jill off at camp on our way back to Town on Sunday.
“I guess you’re in Senior Girls’ Cabin this year, are ya?” I said, opening the trunk.
“No, I’m only with the First-Years yet.”
“First-Years? But you’ve been going for ages.”
“Yeah, but there’s not enough age difference yet for me to be Senior-Girls Counselor.”
“Yeah, I’m on faculty now.”
“My gawd, they grows up some fast, don’t they,” Brad said, as he hauled out a suitcase.
Jen shot him a screwy look, saucy, as if she’d known him all her life.
I felt a flush of weirdness, as if I were forgotting something. I must have gotten quiet for a while, because Brad asked me if the cat had my tongue. I was digging through my mind for the piece of a thought. If I could find that remnant, I could finish it and put it away. Meanwhile, Brad and Jill went on kidding around, hating each other’s favourite bands or something.
Somewhere between Camp and Town, Brad told me he was going to Vancouver. Next week.
“Cool! How long are you going for?”
“It’s time I made something happen with the music. Shit or get off the pot, right?”
“Wow! I just never realized you were thinking about going away.”
“Vancouver is where it’s at if you’re going to make a real living in music in this country.”
“So, you have a place to stay and all that?”
He grunted an affirmative, but he didn’t elaborate.
“Well, congratulations. This is a really positive step for you.”
“Can’t wait to get out there now, get my life really going, you know. I mean everyone else seems to be on some kind of track. You’re living on your own and settled and everything, and here I am still living out of my guitar case.”
“Well, just because I have my own home doesn’t mean I’m here forever. But I can see what you mean. No, this is really good for you. I hope it works out for you, I really do.”
Things got quiet in the car after that. I turned up the radio and there was “Closing Time” playing again, but we didn’t sing along this time. I just looked out the side window when it got to every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
I didn’t see Brad anymore before he left for Vancouver. I called him a few times, but he was never home. I guess he got busy with packing and saying good-bye to everyone.
What was it, about a year later when I heard from him next?
“Mel? You’re still at this number! Thank God!”
“Who is this? Is this Brad?”
“She remembers me! How are ya, honey?”
“I’m okay. Surprised to hear from you! What are you doing?”
“Funny you should ask. I’m at the airport. Just getting back in Town. Kinda stuck for a place to go.”
“I’ll come get you. Give me twenty minutes.”
He slept in my bed that night. I slept on the futon in the spare room. It worked out best that way, because my computer was there and I had work to finish for the next day. We weren’t thinking long-term or anything.
It wasn’t exactly a sexual relationship, except occasionally when things got out of hand. Usually, when we were sitting around on the couch, watching tv. We’d just get kind of comfortable and absentminded. And I never loved him more than those times when he was so sorry for having lost control.
Now that I think of it, it was on a day after one of those nights that he knocked out the wall.
Our friends kept making cracks about losing the damage deposit. I hadn’t gotten around to telling them I’d bought the house myself. I guess I didn’t really think I deserved it yet. I was always waiting for destitution to set in, or terminal illness, or something that would compel me to sell it. I didn’t want to be the first in our crowd to own property. I also didn’t let them know I was letting him stay here rent-free.
I sometimes wonder if we might still be together if I hadn’t overreacted about the pizza and the gingersnaps. It’s embarrassing now to think of it.
I got home from work kind of late, tired. Walking down the hall, I could hear them, a bunch of our friends in the kitchen. A guitar was picking clumsily through “Dust in the Wind.” The empty pizza box was on the counter, and they were all sitting around the table, pouring coffee out of my Bodum and taking ginger snaps out of my cookie jar. I knew all the people in my kitchen, but tonight they felt like strangers. There was a suspended energy in the room, like the feeling you got in high school when the teacher walks in unexpectedly.
Jenn was blowing smoke out the open window, and Brad was sitting next to her. He was stretched out sideways on the kitchen chair, feet crossed on the exposed brick quarter-wall. “Hey man, who took all the pizza and didn’t save any for Mel! Shit man! What a bunch of assholes!” His arm was extended so his hand rested on the back of her neck.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m too tired to eat now anyway. You guys take it easy; I’ll hang out with you another time.” And then I went up the stairs thinking that I had just bought the gingersnaps last night and now the jar was almost empty.
I dozed for a while. It may have been the stillness that woke me after the crowd left, but when I his feet creak the stairs I got up and opened the bedroom door.
“Hey, did I wake you?” He had my coffee mug in one hand and in the other two ginger snaps. “You want this?”
“You have to move out.” I closed my door and went back to bed.
He didn’t come in to ask what was wrong. Next morning, as usual, he stayed in bed until after I went to work, and by the time I got home from work the next day, he was gone.
I guess the reason I’m remembering this now is because of the song I heard on the radio this afternoon, one of those pop crooners who sound kind of old-timey. It caught my ear when I heard the phrase overshot the mark. I didn’t catch the name of the singer.
Exposed Brick Wall was first published in Paragon in 2008.
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