by Rosalind Goldsmith
On the menu: Salade Nicoise. And then this: grapefruit and pinenut salad, and: chicken with honey and mustard sauce and potatoes grenadine, whatever that was, no idea, but where was Mart?
It was a sparkly restaurant, Lisa thought, fancy, with dim spot lights, Hollywood posters, dark wooden tables and low music. And it was just perfect for the occasion. All the family together, all celebrating her birthday – silly to celebrate at all at her age – but sweet all the same. What for cake? Chocolate with lemon meringue and raspberry coulis. Maybe.
Now they were just waiting for the last to arrive, her sister. Always late, always apologenetic. There were two kinds of people in the world, Lisa thought, those who were always on time, and those who were never late. She was always on time. Mart, who must have got some other gene, was always late and always by at least fifteen minutes.
To drink – not Campari. No, not that. Not tonight. For some reason, Campari did not appeal.
They had drunk Campari at Lisa’s apartment when the deal was struck. They had to be foolishly drunk to agree to it – but agree to it they did, both Lisa and Mart, in writing and in ink. They both laughed as they signed their names, a sharp edge in their laughter said: there’s truth here, truth on this page. Mart kept the paper. “This is the kind of deal people make in their latter years,” she said.
“You mean later,” said Lisa.
“I mean people our age,” Mart said and looked away. She put the paper in her purse and they spoke no more about it. That was three weeks ago.
The waiter asked: “Drinks?”
Lisa ordered a Campari and soda. She didn’t usually drink, but what the hell, this was her birthday, why not. The waiter went round the table, smiling and asking and tilting his head as he wrote down the orders. They were all there – eight of them all together, her brother-in-law, her nephew and niece, her brother-in-law’s sister, her niece’s husband, and their small girl Ellie, only three, prancing around the table. So young, so few years, forming years, or former years. Reminded her of – something.
The deal had been struck not only for them, but for the sake of everyone, the whole family. Lisa and Mart were sitting in Lisa’s living room on the sofa, drinking Campari and Soda, an old tradition, and having one of those bitterly truthful talks that are one part booze, two parts bravado, and eighteen parts terror.
“You’ll tell me. If necessary.”
“Of course I will.”
“But not straight out.”
“Do you want me to tell you?”
“Of course. If necessary.”
They were quiet as Lisa’s grey cat Shadow strolled into the room and jumped up on to Lisa’s lap.
“I wouldn’t know how to tell you,” said Lisa.
“We need a sign. That way we won’t have to actually say anything; we’ll just know.”
“Right,” said Mart.
They went through several possibilities – cryptic light switch codes, a single word, a Hallmark card with a butterfly or a bird on it. The drunker they were, the sillier their ideas became. Mart suggested hiring a plane to skywrite, “Switzerland” And Lisa suggested a dead squirrel wearing a party hat.
“How on earth am I going to find that?” said Mart, laughing.
“Well how am I going to afford to rent a plane?” Lisa said and glared at her sister.
Finally, they both agreed that the sign would be a wrapped green mint, an after-dinner mint. They would each have one with them always and give it to the other if they thought it was time. Time to go. To Switzerland. Make arrangements. Take appropriate steps. Wrap things up and find a way to step away from life gracefully, leave the planet with silent acceptance so as to pre-empt the burden they would become to the rest of the family, the burden their mother had been to them for twelve long years.
But how would they know if it was time? They talked for hours about this, even researched online, and finally decided it would be more of a gut feeling than a certainty, but there would have to be obvious clues: a kettle in a fridge, getting lost in the mall, brushing teeth with spot remover, an obvious and glaring absence of thought, forgetting an appointment.
Mart was now seventeen minutes late. Was she going to arrive at all? Lisa looked at the menu.
“What’re you having?” her nephew said.
“Chicken Florentine, I was thinking,” said Lisa, “What about you?”
“Oh my God. Not raw. That’s dangerous; you could get Salmonella from raw meat.”
“I thought that was only from fish.” He smiled.
“Ha ha,” she said.
Finally, Mart arrived, flustered, carrying a large white bag with pink tissue flustering at the top of it. “Sorry,” she said, glancing round the table. “Am I late?”
She sat beside Lisa at the end of the table.
The dinner was going so well, Lisa thought. For once, there was no conflict, no tensing in the air, no wearisome references or remarks about past quarrels. She was relieved that everyone was in a pleasant, recepting mood – they even joked about decades-old memories they shared.
“I wish I lived in the 80’s,” her nephew said.
“You would have hated it, Sam,” said Mart, “Tears for Fears, Thompson Twins, Madonna?”
“Yeah, you’re right, I would’ve hated it.”
“I nearly broke my ankle once,” said Lisa, “walking down the street in a strong wind on my six-inch platform shoes!”
They all laughed at that, and she was so pleased she’d made everyone laugh – that hardly ever happened, especially recently, as she was more often liable to talk about the latest disaster, catastrophe or misery in the world.
“That was the 70’s, though, Lise,” said Mart.
“I know that,” said Lisa and smiled at her nephew.
By dessert she’d had another drink and was tipsy. The jolliness around the table was becoming rambunctious, frictious and somehow out of control – everyone was laughing too much. It was too loud. Mart’s husband Don told a story about a party at work, and his sister wouldn’t stop laughing. The story went on for ages, was becoming piebald and brutish. Rude. But then, he was always ruddy, no – rude, wasn’t he, always managed to come up with some colourful, off-colour story.
As they were waiting for dessert, her nephew Sam started in with his one-liners. He’d memorized all the good ones. He was clever and his timing was perfect. She’d even told him that he ought to think about becoming a stand-up comedian. He was pleased then, pleased as a bunch, with that idea. “That would be cool,” he’d said. Now, sitting just across from her, he put down his glass, looked round at everyone in a chance second of silence and said: “It’s really impossible to know if there’s a chameleon in your house or not.”
Everyone roared. The laughter was so loud that the people at the next table turned and looked at them. Lisa, though, did not laugh. “What’s so funny about that?” she said.
There was a silence that lurched in the air above the table then. A monster of a silence. Like a horribly wounded and disfigured creature sitting right on the dinner table that no one would acknowledge or even look at. Like someone standing up in public and showing a large brown stain on the back of their pants as they turned to leave. The silence was like that.
“It’s funny,” said Sam.
“I don’t see why,” said Lisa, “I really don’t.”
Mart’s husband leaned across the table to her. “Chameleon,” he said. “You know, chameleon. Get it?”
“I know what a chameleon is,” said Lisa, her face flushed, “I just don’t think it’s funny.”
Mart leapt in. “It’s not that funny really,” she said, “I know lots of people who wouldn’t find it that funny.”
“Like who?” said Sam.
“Like Lisa,” said Mart’s husband. Mart glared at him, and there was another horrific aftershock of a silence. A dead thud. Lisa picked up her empty glass and pretended to drain the last drop. Thankfully, the waiter brought the desserts.
“I don’t think it’s funny either,” Mart whispered to her sister.
“Well I just don’t get it,” said Lisa, loud, looking round at everyone. “What would anyone be doing with a chameleon in their house in the first place? And why –”
“How’s the crème caramel?” Mart spoke over her.
Lisa fell silent. Stared at the table. Wouldn’t look at anyone. They were all strangers to her. She was alone. What was she doing here with these people? Panic seized her, and she wanted to say that you can’t even buy chameleons in Canada – she knew she was right about that. But then the waiter brought a cake. They all sang an over-enthusiastic “Happy Birthday” to her. Lisa sat quietly, staring at the table as her family placed their gifts in front of her.
She opened an envelope from Sam. Inside a card with a cat on it was a gift card to Indigo. Oh, that was so thoughtful of him, she thought – especially the cat. She looked up and smiled, blew him a kiss. The others gave her two mystery novels, a cup, and a box of her favourite tea. Don’s sister gave her a donation to a children’s charity in her name. Mart’s gift was a beautiful china thing, a thing made of dark wood, probably hand crafted by an indigent artist, Lisa thought. “It’s beautiful, thank-you,” she said, and it was a beautifully sculpted thing, a – a thing that would clang and make beautiful noises in the wind. She could hang it up on her porch. How sweet of Mart to give her such a gift! She hugged her and thought she saw tears in her sister’s eyes.
At the end of the meal, Don paid. They got up and went outside the restaurant, standing in the fading light, saying a long good-bye to each other, hugging each other before they all went to their separate homes. Ellie danced around, threading her way through everybody’s legs. Lisa and Mart stood together.
“Can’t believe you’re sixty-two!” said Mart.
Lisa, so pleased with the beautiful gift her sister had given her, was bright and smiling again. “Crazy, isn’t it?” she said.
“Latter days,” said Mart.
Lisa looked at her. “What?”
Mart hugged her. “Happy Birthday, Lise,” she said. And then, “Would you like a mint?” and hurried to add, “No, just joking. Ha ha.”
“I would. Do you have one?” said Lisa.
Mart frowned, slowly took out a green mint from her purse and offered it to her sister. “Are you sure?” she said.
“Yes, thanks, why not?” said Lisa. She took the mint, unwrapped it and popped it in her mouth. Her sister was looking at her so strangely, she thought. What could be wrong now? They hugged again, Mart turned away from her, and Lisa went to find her car.
On her way home, she wondered what all that hesitation and fuss over the mint was – what was her sister on about now? Was it another joke? Mart was always a strange one, Lisa thought, always somewhat cryptic and mysterious, even over the tiniest thing, even over an after-dinner mint. But she loved her sister, that was certain. After so many years, knew her better than anyone, loved her more than anyone, and was so happy about that beautiful – wooden gift, that she was smiling as she drove home, and was still smiling as she pulled into her driveway.
Rosalind Goldsmith lives in Toronto. She has written radio plays for CBC Radio Drama and a play for
the Blyth Theatre Festival and has also translated and adapted short stories by the Uruguayan writer,
Felisberto Hernández, for CBC Radio. Her short stories have appeared in journals in the USA, the UK,
and Canada, including Orca, Litro, Fairlight Books, Chiron Review, Stand, the Lincoln Review, Fiction
International and the Masters Review.
Very engaging on a subject that barely dares to speak its name in polite company and one which many publishers avoid for unknown reasons. Not really sure we needed all the business with the family for the story to work well but the ending with the suspense of waiting for the penny to drop is perfect.
PS – If ‘apologenetic’ wasn’t a typo, I want to nominate it for Neologism of the Year.
Apologenetic isn’t a typo. No typos here. Thanks, Rosalind.