Two hours later the living room was still full, voices and bodies blending into the late night softness that wine and laughter and music spread over a room like watercolours. Margaret had played so many songs that after the fourth call for an encore she insisted her fingers would bleed if she played another note. In an uncharacteristic moment of public attention, Illy’s dad had made a speech about Illy and how her sixth grade teacher had noticed her way with words and how proud he was of her tonight. Edward told stories about his travels in the Arctic, and Illy knew she’d been wrong about nearly everything about him as she heard the tenderness in his description of sickly seals and children in fishing villages. Conversations and laughter and comfortable silence wound through the room like river currents.
Illy was quieter than usual. She had shared enough words this evening and enjoyed the relief of watching and listening, feeling no pressure to guide or carry the conversation. She wondered about the contentment that had settled deep in her abdomen. It didn’t make sense really. As she looked around the room, she had to admit once again that nothing had changed. Her mom was still sick. Dave still had no job and no real home. Pam would wake up tomorrow to watch someone die. Margaret was still underappreciated and doing menial work. Everyone in the room was still carrying too many sad and difficult things. And yet Illy didn’t feel frantic about fixing all the problems. Maybe it was the wine she’d had, but at this moment it seemed like maybe this laughing and crying and pouring each other drinks was even better than fixing each other’s problems. Maybe just the assurance that someone else knows you and is willing to listen to your words and silences is enough to carry you through another scary day. Illy closed her eyes and listened to the sound of Margaret’s laughter across the room.
“So what’s next for Harrison’s writer in residence? Maybe a novel about aliens moving into the basement apartment?” Dave sat down beside Illy and offered her a bowl of chips.
“Well, I’m debating between aliens and suburbanites. They both have great dramatic potential.”
“Maybe the suburbanites could turn out to be the aliens.” Dave looked solemn, trying to work out the plot as he reached for more chips.
Illy laughed and raised her wine glass. “To the great downtown alien novel. You’re invited to the book launch one year from tonight.”
Dave raised his glass. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Louise didn’t even let him past the waiting room.” Margaret swiped a fry through the tzatziki drips on her plate. “He was sitting there with this monstrous pile of pages on his lap that he must have been writing since he was thirteen, and she just walked up and said, ‘Do you always show up at meetings chewing like a cow?’ Then she turned and walked back into her office.” Margaret popped the fry in her mouth, then mumbled around it, “The poor guy just sat there, stunned, wondering if his little piece of Dentyne really just cost him his future.”
“Yikes. I guess I should count myself lucky I made it through introductions.” Illy peered at Margaret over the foil wrapper of her gyro. “Did you comfort him at all? Hand him your Louise Recovery pamphlet?”
“I tried. We chatted a while. He was actually not as shaken as most. Turns out his novel is about nomadic musicians in northern Africa. It’s pretty interesting. “
“You read it?” June was trying hard to work on lecture notes while she ate her salad, but was having a difficult time ignoring the conversation.
“Well, I started it.” Margaret paused and ate a few more fries.
“Wait—are you blushing?” Illy put her gyro down with wide eyes. “Margaret! You’ve fallen for Dentyne Guy.”
Margaret pursed her lips and tried not to smile. “I have not. I’m just helping him out.” Then she grinned. “Over dinner tomorrow.”
June squealed and put the cap on her pen. “A date with a writer musician? If this works out, you may have to forgive Louise for all her awfulness. If she’d been any kinder, you’d have missed your destiny.”
“Destiny might be a little optimistic at this point, but yes, I’m looking forward to the evening.” Margaret leaned back against the red vinyl booth and smiled at her friends. “I promise to give you a full report.”
“I can’t wait. Speaking of reports, any thoughts on your next writing project, Illy?”
June and Margaret had both loved Illy’s chapbook. June had insisted that the writing was some of the best she’d ever read and that the whole thing was bursting with ideas for novels. Illy wasn’t sure she wanted to use any of those pieces for a different book. It felt like taking back her gift, or using her friends for her own gain.
“Well, Edward—the lawyer guy across the street—was telling me about some terrible stuff going on with logging companies and fishing villages up North. I can’t get it out of my mind, so I’ve been thinking maybe I could write about that.” Illy poked her straw at the ice in her Coke. “Not a novel, but maybe an article for the paper or our neighbourhood association or something. It seems like more people should know about what’s going on, and Edward really is an expert on it all, so he’d be a great resource.” Illy watched the bubbles stuck to the inside of the brown plastic cup. They kept sliding into each other and joining into bigger bubbles. “And I know it sounds ridiculous, but I really might try to write a little cookbook. With my mom. I was thinking it might be fun to write down all the recipes floating around in her head that she’s been using all these years. If nothing else, it would be a good excuse to hang out with her.” Illy heard her voice start to shake, so she sipped her Coke.
June and Margaret watched her with tenderness. They knew all about shaky voices and being scared for the people you loved. And they knew that the only true and helpful response, the one great act of courage required of them, was to keep showing up to eat olives and onions, and to pass the silver serviette box when the tears slipped through.
Thanks for reading.