“It’s all so unfair.” Illy wiped her nose with the back of her hand and chewed a chocolate donut hole. She didn’t bother trying to hide the streak of snot smeared down her arm. This was all part of the teary donut hole session June had been expecting, though it had nothing to do with Jay. “Why does everybody have such miserable lives and why can’t I do a single thing about it?” Tears dribbled off her jaw. June passed her a serviette but Illy just started shredding it into little pieces. “Margaret is so amazing but she has a crappy job and a terrible boss and no hope for anything better. And Dave has no work and nowhere to live and how is he going to take care of Nancy, let alone himself? And the crazy Tuesday Lady is lonely and angry and Pam just watches people die all day and everyone’s going through the motions, but it all sucks.” Illy slammed the serviette pieces onto the table then looked up at June through watery eyes, pushing her lower lip out like she used to do when she was a kid and felt like the whole world was ganging up on her.
June didn’t say anything. She just looked at Illy and nodded a little, proving once again that she was the absolute best person to have around in an emotional crisis. She waited while Illy pressed her palms into her eyes.
“I just want to do something, you know? Fix something for someone. But I’m so helpless and pathetic and self-absorbed.”
June smiled. “No, my dear Ilia, you are not self-absorbed. No self-absorbed person would spend their evening sobbing into a box of donut holes about a neighbour losing a job.” June got up to get the coffee pot and poured Illy another cup.
“Okay, just helpless then. And a little pathetic. Can’t I fix everything? Or at least something?” She dumped three spoonfuls of sugar into her mug then watched the swirling coffee as she stirred. It reminded her of Pam’s blossom patterns on the sidewalk so she kept stirring.
“Maybe life isn’t about fixing.” June was staring into her own coffee. They stayed like that for a while, watching the patterns in their coffee, June’s words floating between them.
Finally Illy sniffed and reached for another donut hole. “Okay. Then how about my pores? Can we at least fix them?”
June looked up and smiled. “Yes, your pores we can fix.” She reached down into the grocery bag at her feet and pulled out two bottles.
“Olive oil? And what’s that one—” Illy reached for the smaller bottle. “Castor oil? Isn’t that what desperate pregnant women take to induce labour?”
June laughed. “Maybe. But you won’t be drinking it. You’ll rub it on your face.”
“On my face? Oh June, I’m pretty sure the last thing I need is more oil on my skin.”
June was already opening the bottles and pouring them into a bowl. “Believe me. This works.”
Illy watched her friend concentrating on her oil concoction, relieved to have a project to focus on. She wished all of life’s solutions were so simple.
Illy grabbed her grey jogging hoodie from the closet in the front hall. A single accusatory spiderweb attached it to the closet wall. It had been a while since she’d gone jogging. She immediately began an internal defense against the laziness charge—there had been the yoga classes after all, and all that stretching— but caught herself and rolled her eyes. Once she’d started noticing her imaginary dialogues, they’d grown tiresome pretty quickly. She’d named them Pre-Think and Re-Think and noticed that almost all of her thoughts fell into these two categories. What in the world did normal people think about if they weren’t constantly preparing for an imaginary conversation or reliving an old one? She wondered if that was the kind of thing she could ask her mother. She’d never considered her mother’s thought patterns before, since she was too busy arming herself for potential attacks on her cleaning or dating habits when they were together.
Illy pushed the front door of the building open and closed her eyes as the cool morning air rushed across her face. She loved that moment. Once she’d been standing there with her eyes closed, basking in all that crisp freshness when a man tried to enter the building. He’d just squeezed by her, pushing her aside with his elbow like she was a low-hanging branch, which of course had knocked her off balance. She’d never had very good balance with her eyes closed. So there she’d sat on the front step, more annoyed at the violation of her fresh air enjoyment than embarrassed, wondering who could have been in that much of a hurry that he’d actually shove someone out of the way. She’d never figured out who it was since her eyes had been closed and he’d rushed by so quickly, although she’d always suspected Crazy Killer Man. But since her newfound affection for him, and his rechristening as Leonard, she’d absolved him of guilt. It was probably a repair man.
The whole experience hadn’t managed to put an end to her exit ritual, especially early on these summer mornings when the air wasn’t yet heavy with heat. She figured those few closed-eyed breaths did more for her well-being than all the jogging that followed. She was just about to step onto the sidewalk when something in the entrance caught her eye. She stopped the door and turned back inside.There by the mailboxes was a a wire rack displaying small softcover books, the size of the old Archie comic collections she used to buy from grocery store aisles as a kid. Illy picked one up. The front cover was a photo collage of old doors with No Entry typed across in block letters. She flipped through the book. It looked like a collections of poems, although none of them had titles, so she wondered if it was maybe one long poem.
Illy couldn’t imagine who would have left a pile of poetry collections by the mailboxes, but it felt like a serendipitous start to her morning. She was trying to decide if she should carry one with her on her jog or wait to take one when she returned, when she saw a yellow sticky note on the side of the rack. For more copies, see Sally. 2B. Illy grabbed the sticky note and jogged down the hall to 2B. It was only after she’d knocked with great enthusiasm that she remembered it was still 7 a.m. She winced and waited, jogging in place so she could count this as exercise time. The door opened a moment later, and there stood a blinking Sally, wearing a vintage yellow Girl Guides t-shirt and flowered pajama pants. Illy couldn’t believe people actually looked that cool when they were sleeping. She needed to rethink her pajama wardrobe.
“Oh Sally, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.” Sally just blinked and Illy wasn’t sure if she even recognized her. “It’s just that I saw the display of these little books and this note—” She held out the sticky note like a hall pass. “And I just had to know, well, what is it?”
“The sticky note?” Sally yawned.
“No. The book. Is it a poetry collection? Did you write it? Are they for sale?” Illy stopped jogging.
Sally laughed, an amused but kind-hearted laugh. “Hey, do you want to come in? I can put on some coffee and tell you all about it.”
A few months ago Illy would have been too embarrassed to accept an impromptu invitation, especially from someone whom she’d just woken up, and would have made up an excuse about her heart rate or something. But she remembered her promise to the Kayaker to not be embarrassed and decided to trust Sally’s kindness. “Sure. Why not? I”m not getting much exercise jogging in the hall anyway.”
Sally smiled and stepped back to let Illy into the apartment. “Simon’s still sleeping. He’ll probably emerge when he smells the coffee. Come on in.”
Illy sat down at the little round table in the kitchen. The tabletop was a collage of black and white photos.
“This is so cool.” Illy ran her fingers over the smooth glossy surface. “Did you buy it like this?”
“No. Decopage. I’m a bit of a decopage addict. Those are all pictures of my and Simon’s parents and grandparents when they were little.” Sally was sounding more awake now. She set two miniature mugs on the table. “Do you mind drinking out of these? Simon has a thing for espresso mugs and we’re sort of used to using them all the time.”
“No problem. I love those mugs.” Illy was still staring at the tabletop, amazed at Sally’s creativity. Amazed that people put time and energy into making old formica tabletops into art.
“So, the chapbook.” Sally set a French press on the table, filled to the top with thick dark liquid. It looked like really strong coffee and Illy hoped Sally would offer cream.
“The chapbook. That you picked up in the entrance?” Sally sat down across from Illy. “You wanted to know about it?”
“Oh yeah. Of course. I just didn’t know that’s what it was called. Did you write it?”
“No, it’s a little dark for me. Lots of poems about suicide and heroin and stuff. It’s just the latest book my brother published and he asked if he could put a pile in our building.” She slowly pushed down on the shiny silver knob at the top of the French press. Dark specks of coffee grinds spun behind the glass like tiny floating seeds. Illy remembered watching seeds float from maple trees like helicopters when she was a kid and wondered if there were any maple trees in this neighbourhood. When had she stopped noticing helicopter seeds?
Sally was still pressing the filter down with gentle concentration. Illy felt like she should bow her head or something, but instead just watched and felt the relief of unapologetic silence. When the grinds had settled, Sally filled the miniature mugs with coffee, right to the rim. No room for cream. Illy decided she didn’t mind.
“So your brother works for a publishing company? Is he going to publish Simon’s book?”
“No, it’s nothing that official. He just does chapbooks, little poetry collections or rants or whatever by some of his friends in university. They’re usually pretty weird. Why are you asking? Do you have a secret collection of anarchist poems you’re planning to distribute to the masses?” Sally raised her eyebrows over the espresso mug. Her eyebrows were full and dark, much too wild by popular magazine standards. Illy thought they looked regal.
“Not exactly. But I’m starting to get an idea. I’m sure it’s ludicrous, but…Can you tell me, well, everything?”
Continue Reading: Chapter Forty