Slivers of paper decorated the floor around the coffee table like low-budget confetti. Illy was trimming the edges around a magazine cut-out with a concentration that made her skull hurt. No matter how carefully she cut, the corners were never straight, which she was sure indicated some subconscious imbalance, or at least an inherent lack of artistic ability. It was the reason her quilting aspirations hadn’t survived a week in university. Straight cutters didn’t know how easy they had it. The fact that she was assembling her chapbook with scissors and purple glue sticks was ridiculous in this age of publishing programs and graphic design geniuses, but Sally assured her that they could scan in her handmade creation, giving it an unpolished folksy feel. Illy wasn’t quite as confident as Sally, but really had no other option, so she kept cutting. The truth was that when she stopped berating her lack of computer skills and kindergarten style of operating, she really enjoyed these hours of cutting and gluing. The physicality of it was therapeutic and felt like creating in the truest sense of the word. She cut the word ‘papyrus’ out of a magazine article and added it to the pile of possibility scraps on the coffee table. Illy jumped when the door buzzed, causing her scissors to slip and cut right into a great picture of an old lamp post. She set the scissors down and hurried to the intercom.
“It’s us. And it’s cold.” June sounded like she was jogging. Starting in early September, the cold was June’s main preoccupation.
Illy laughed and pushed the button. It had been weeks since she’d seen Margaret and June, and although she was hesitant to give up productive work time, she knew that being with her friends would be good for her soul. She sank into the couch and watched the door, eager to witness the swirling energy that followed June into a room. She heard Margaret’s voice before the door even opened, then in rushed June, rubbing her hands together and hopping from one foot to the other.
“But June, this is a lovely fall day. How in the world do you survive winter?” Margaret entered the apartment in that understated way she moved that almost escaped detection, especially when in the same sphere as June’s bustling activity. Margaret hadn’t known June through a winter yet, and although Illy had never considered before how much the seasons affected relationships, there was no doubt that you got to know June in a whole new way once the weather dipped below freezing.
“I don’t know how I survive. This year I may not, if it’s already this cold in September.” June kicked off her boots but left her hat and scarf in place, then sat on the couch and leaned into Illy, tucking her legs under her. “How are you, stranger? Living the hermetic writer’s life?” She noticed the piles of paper scraps on the coffee table. “Or composing ransom notes?”
“Nothing that thrilling. Just working on my Great Mystery.” Illy really wanted to keep her chapbook a secret for now, and had only given her friends vague hints as to the project she was working on.
“Ahh, the Great Mystery. When will it be revealed to the masses?” Margaret sat on the floor and wrapped her arms around her knees. Illy wished Margaret didn’t try so hard to disappear.
“Soon, I promise. But first I want to hear about you. What’s been going on? And do you need coffee?”
June stood up. “Yes, please. Lots of coffee. And Oreos, if possible. I’ll get it while you catch up with Margaret.” She disappeared into the kitchen.
Illy looked at Margaret. She’d learned that Margaret was best approached with a bit of silent space. Most people didn’t have the patience to sit through any silence at all, which was why they missed much of who Margaret was. Illy winced a little as she realized she had spent most of her life filling up space with unnecessary words, terrified at the awkwardness of pauses. She listened to her breath and remembered a teacher she’d had in junior high who said his favourite pastime was breathing. He probably wasn’t nearly as crazy as she’d thought he was at the time.
“I have nothing to report, just so you know. No grand promotions, no personal breakthroughs with Louise, no handsome new waiters at the falafel place.” Margaret wrinkled the corners of her eyes as though she was trying to smile, but her mouth remained unconvinced. “I have, however, been spending lots of time with my mandolin, whom I find infinitely more enjoyable than Louise or waiters, so life isn’t too gloomy.”
“I’ve never heard you play the mandolin.” Illy paused. “Actually I don’t even know exactly what a mandolin is.” Illy grimaced with embarrassment at this admission, though she was also relieved, since she’d been nodding and murmuring at Margaret like a mandolin expert for months. It had felt like an insult to Margaret’s passion to ask for a description of the instrument that she loved so dearly, but she realized it was probably more insulting to pretend.
Margaret laughed, a loud and bubbling laugh that took Illy by surprise. “Really? You don’t know what a mandolin is? Oh Illy, every day with you is an adventure in the unexpected. And the great thing about you is that you admit it. How many people live their lives pretending to be experts on subjects they know nothing about?”
Illy thought it was gracious of Margaret not to mention that Illy had been doing exactly that ever since they met. Margaret unwrapped her arms from around her knees and held them in the air as though holding an instrument. “This, my darling, is a mandolin. This long part here is the neck. As you can see it’s a bit thicker than, say, a banjo because the mandolin has eight strings. That’s what gives it its full sound.” Her fingers glided back and forth along the imaginary wood with such conviction that Illy almost believed it was there. “Here are the frets, of course, so you know where to put your fingers, and down here is the beautiful curved back of the body. This one is made of maple.” Her fingers moved like water. “And this is how the mandolin sounds.” She held up an invisible pick and then began to play the imaginary instrument with tender concentration. Illy was mesmerized. It felt like magic to be watching the silent music being created, a glimpse into a fairy tale. She noticed June leaning against the living room door frame, holding a coffee mug, staring at Margaret’s fingers.
When Margaret plucked one last imaginary string, nodded, and slowly set the invisible instrument on the floor, Illy remained still. After a moment she smiled and said, “Now I know what a mandolin is.”
June walked into the room and sat down on the couch. “I loved that, Margaret. I hope someday I get to hear the music too, but for now, just watching you hear the music was wonderful enough.”
Margaret didn’t say anything, but she smiled at June and didn’t pull at her eyelashes or check for hangnails. Illy had never seen her so peaceful.
“I think I actually might have an opportunity for you to do a real performance soon, but I just can’t tell you about it yet. Would you maybe consider it?” Illy held her breath and waited for Margaret’s refusal.
“Another Great Mystery? Now you’re an undercover concert planner or something? Oh, Illy, what in the world are you up to?” Margaret’s eyes were wide and sparkling. Illy exhaled. That wasn’t a refusal.
“I promise, promise, promise I”ll tell you soon. Please just let me keep it a secret a little longer. I’ve never actually orchestrated a surprise that worked. This may be my only chance.”
June laughed. “It’s true. Illy tried to throw a surprise birthday party for her mom every year in high school and it flopped every time. Her dad would let the secret slip—”
Illy interrupted. “My dad is morally opposed to secrets.” More bubbling laughter from Margaret.
“—or her mom’s friends would email her to ask when the party started, or something. It was disastrous.” June looked at Illy with sympathy and amusement.
“Finally by grade twelve my mom went through the whole charade out of pity for me, complete with feigned obliviousness and shocked squeals at the door. A month later the guilt overtook her and she admitted she’d known all along. I haven’t attempted a big surprise since.” Illy paused. She wondered if she should abandon the Great Mystery. What if it turned into another of Illy’s Giant Flops?
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” June and Margaret both saw the shift in Illy’s posture. June grabbed Illy’s hands. “You may not abandon the Great Mystery. This is not your mother’s birthday. This is not going to flop.” June was in stern lecture mode. “I’m sorry I brought up the parties, but you cannot give up now. This is something you have to do.”
Illy raised her eyes to look at June, but maintained a slight pout. She didn’t love being lectured. “You don’t even know what the Great Mystery is. Maybe it’s a really terrible idea.”
Margaret spoke up. “Maybe it is. But probably it isn’t. I’ve never seen you as excited about anything since I met you. And I know that if you gave it up, you’d regret it forever.”
It was true. Illy didn’t want to give it up, even if her insecurities were staging an internal mutiny. She relaxed her mouth. “You’re right. Sorry for pouting. I wish you two could move into my brain and oust the reigning commentators. I could use a better fan club in there.”
“What’s the fun of a fan club if you can’t have snacks?” June opened a crumpled bag of Oreos. I think I’d prefer to stay out here and just lecture you more often. “
Margaret reached for an Oreo. “Speaking of lectures, how’s work going, June? What are the joys and sorrows of the academic life?”
June rolled her eyes and began to describe a student who sat in the front row and Skyped his girlfriend during one of her lectures. Illy watched June and Margaret laughing and dropping cookie crumbs on the floor. She knew there was one more piece she had to write. But what language had words to describe all of this?
Continue Reading: Chapter Forty-Two