June arrived with two bulging grocery bags and four orange daisies wrapped in cellophane. She dropped the bags on the kitchen table then held the daisies out to Illy with a slight grimace. “I know that four scrawny daisies seem like a pathetic offering, but you know how florist shops always send me into an ethical crisis. All that money and plane exhaust to ship in gorgeous roses from Holland or Peru or wherever they come from, to sit shivering behind a frosty window and pretend they’re a natural phenomenon.”
Illy was grinning. June had convinced her long ago to never waste money or integrity at a florist, and the fact that she’d even entered that den of ecological iniquity on Illy’s behalf was a sure sign of love.
“But I wanted to get you something because I know this is a big night for you, even though I still don’t really know why.” June glanced around the kitchen. “I’m a little worried you’re unveiling a secret husband from Bali or something, in which case orange daisies seem totally inadequate—”
Illy took the flowers from June. “Thank you, June. These are perfect for the occasion and I’m hugely flattered that you would sacrifice your principles on my behalf.” She reached under the sink for an empty wine bottle, unwrapped the cellophane, and jammed the daisy stems into the bottle. “Now come meet Raju.”
June laughed. “First let’s put some water in that bottle. Wouldn’t want the poor things to die on their first night after all they’ve been through.”
There was a knock at the door. Illy left June to tend to the daisies and went to open the door. Margaret was standing in the hallway holding a black instrument case and a bag of taco chips.
“So, here we are.”
Illy glanced down the hall.
“I mean me and my mandolin. I think this is the first time I’ve taken it out of my house since I bought it. It feels like I’m introducing my imaginary friend to kids at school.” Margaret looked down at the black case.
Illy was afraid Margaret was regretting the decision to come and would turn and leave, hiding away with her mandolin forever. “Well, I, for one, can’t wait to meet your imaginary friend. I’ll introduce her to my imaginary husband.” She took the chip bag from Margaret and gave her a hug. “Come on in. June’s in the kitchen tending to her moral dilemma.”
Margaret opened her mouth to ask something, then just smiled and walked towards the kitchen. Illy started to close the door, then saw Simon and Sally coming down the hall, carrying gift bags and bottles of wine.
“Seriously, you two, you already gave me bananas. You did not need to bring all this.”
Simon laughed and kissed Illy on the cheek. “Humour us. My cell phone salespeople rarely launch books in their spare time.”
“Well, I’m not exactly launching—” Simon ignored her and went into the apartment.
Sally widened her eyes at Illy. “So, this is it! How many people are you expecting?”
“I don’t really know. I invited everyone in the building plus some other friends, but I think most of the people here think I’m a wacko and are afraid I’ll lecture them on litter or something, so maybe no one will show up.”
“Perfect. More wine for us.” Sally disappeared into the apartment.
Illy paused in the empty hallway, breathing in the familiar marijuana-radiator smell. She waited for the first signs of hyperventilation or at least her token heart palpitations, but they didn’t come. She smiled at the empty stairwell, then went to the kitchen to join her favourite people in the world.
By 7:30 the living room was packed. Illy leaned against the door frame and watched all the continents of her life collide. Her mom, looking withered but brave, was sitting beside Sally on the couch, talking about muffin recipes. Pam was leaning back in the rocking chair, telling June and Steve and Zoe, the Urban Mermaid, a story that had them laughing aloud and spraying bits of taco chips into their serviettes. Jay was sitting on the floor beside his new girlfirend, a quiet girl with espresso skin and glasses who Illy thought looked like a nerdy supermodel. She liked her already. Dave, Simon, Margaret, Illy’s Dad, even Leonard—whose name Illy had discovered was really Armando, and who was as gentle and tragic as she’d imagined—they were all there in the same room, like the best and weirdest sort of club. Illy was disappointed that the Tuesday Lady hadn’t come. She’d been so optimistic as she’d slipped the invitation under the door, sure that a friendship was still in store for them, but Tuesday lady was clearly unconvinced.
Illy walked over to Margaret, who was listening to Dave tell a group of people about Nancy’s new relationship with a Siamese Cat.
“Are you ready to start?”
Margaret clenched her eyes shut, then nodded. “I guess so. Can I just start without any introduction? Like just play quietly while everyone keeps talking?” Her eyes were still shut.
“Sure. And Margaret?” Margaret opened her eyes. “Thank you.” Illy gave her a quick hug then nudged her in the direction of her mandolin, propped up beside a chair in the corner of the room.
Margaret sat down in the chair, picked up her mandolin and pick, and without even taking a breath, began to play. Her hopes of blending into the hum of conversation were dashed by the second measure. The voices hushed as though on cue and everyone turned to watch Margaret’s long fingers ripple over the mandolin strings. Illy held her breath. The music somehow managed to be playful and sorrowful at the same time. Illy didn’t know if she wanted to dance or cry. After a few minutes she forced herself to look away from Margaret and studied the other faces in the room. No one was moving. Illy exhaled. Margaret was doing it. She was playing her mandolin in public and it was gorgeous. The evening, the writing, the chapbook, it was all worth it just for this moment.
When Margaret plucked her last note, it hovered in the stillness without embarrassment. Margaret looked around the room with a small smile, not avoiding anyone’s eyes, not trying to disappear into the corner. Illy’s mom was the one who started clapping and soon the room was filled with applause and shouts of “Bravo!” and “Encore!” Margaret’s smile grew bigger, but she didn’t move, just soaked in all that wild affirmation of who she was.
When the clapping finally stopped, she cleared her throat. “Thanks everyone. Thanks a lot. That was way more fun than I ever expected. But now it’s Illy’s turn.” Margaret set her mandolin in its case and mouthed “Good luck” to Illy.
“Margaret, that was amazing. Please play for us again later.” Illy paused. She realized she hadn’t put any thought into what exactly she was going to say to all these people gathered here for the unveiling of her Great Mystery. She took a deep breath and tried not to chew her upper lip. “So, a year ago, I was pretending to write a novel.” Illy avoided her mother’s eyes as she said this. “I wanted to write a big, brilliant Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about life in a funky downtown apartment. And I kept waiting for the characters to show up in my real life. I knew exactly who they should be.” She smiled at Sally, who looked like she was watching her daughter at her first violin recital, proud and nervous. “But they never showed up. Instead all of you showed up. And you were way better than the characters I was waiting for—” There was a knock at the door. “Hang on, I’ll be right back.” Illy hurried to open the door, hoping it might be the Tuesday Lady. Instead, it was a middle-aged balding man in a grey windbreaker.
“Hi. Are you Ilia? I’m Edward. I think you invited me to an event here this evening?” It was only when Illy smelled a whiff of cigar smoke that she realized this was the Gardening Lawyer from across the street. She hadn’t recognized him without his bright visor.
“Yes, yes! So glad you made it. Please come in.” She reached out to shake his hand. “I’m Ilia. So happy to meet you.”
Edward seemed surprised but pleased at her enthusiasm.
“I’m just in the middle of an awkward speech, so feel free to grab a drink from the kitchen and then come squeeze into the living room.” Illy watched Edward move toward the kitchen, baffled at the fact that this man, whom she’d spent years despising from a distance, was pouring himself a glass of wine in her apartment. She walked back to the living room, feeling immense gratitude. Simon was in the middle of a story about a disgruntled customer, but he stopped as she walked in. “You were saying?”
Illy laughed. “I don’t know exactly what I was saying, but what I meant to say was thank you. Thank you for being better than my cheesy imaginary characters. Thank you for being brilliant neighbours and friends and family. And thank you for showing me—though you didn’t even realize it—who I am. I’m not a novelist, at least not yet. I’m just this really lucky person living in the middle of this really spectacular web of people. So this is for you.” Illy reached for a chapbook that she’d hidden on the bookshelf behind her and held it up.
“What is it, dear?” Illy’s mom looked worried.
“Well, it’s not a cookbook. Sorry, Mom.” Illy’s dad chuckled. “It’s…well, it’s hard to explain, so I think I’ll just read a bit of it, if that’s okay.” She opened the book to the first page and started to read. She knew if she looked anyone in the eye she’d slip into Shaky Teary Voice, so she stared at the paper as though it was going to save her, and she read. She read the piece about Pam and the flower petals, the story of Leonard, the letter to the Lawyer. She read her poem about her mother, though it felt like her ribcage might crack as she read it, and she read the paragraph she’d written about Jay when she still thought he was Mocha Man, which was embarrassing, but made everyone laugh.
Illy didn’t mean to read the entire book. She’d thought that she would read a few short excerpts and then spend the rest of the evening chatting with her friends, letting them read the book on their own. But she couldn’t stop. It felt like she was introducing her best childhood friends to her new favourite adult friends, these words that she’d spent so much time with, saturated with so many of her secrets and deepest truths. The room was silent. No one stood up to get more wine or leaned over to whisper when she paused for breath. Instead they leaned in and nodded and smiled grateful smiles, as though they were having a late dinner with a really great date. So Illy kept reading. About Tuesday Lady and the Urban Mermaid and a short skit about meeting Simon and Sally on the front steps.
When she got to the last page, she paused for a while. “This one is for June and Margaret. It’s called The River. It’s totally inadequate, but it’s an attempt at saying thank you.”
She read the poem, the one that had been so difficult to write, the one that left her aching for words that hadn’t been invented. When the poem was over, she looked up for the first time since she’d opened the book. Her mom and June both had tears on their faces. Pam had her eyes closed. It was Jay’s girlfriend who whispered, “Wow.” Then Dave started clapping and the others joined him. They clapped and clapped while Illy grinned and took deep happy breaths.
Continue Reading: Chapter Forty-Four