Sally McCaul: A Love Story
- 1 -
Sally McCaul phoned me last night; exactly 28 days after our first meeting. I was having supper, and almost didn't answer the phone.
But I did. "Sally!" I hadn't expected to hear from her that night. "How's it going?"
"Oh, okay." She sounded like she'd been crying. "Is there a problem?" I asked, though I already knew I didn't want to find out what it was.
"Kind of," she said. "What are you doing tonight?"
"I don't have any plans."
"Do you want to meet?"
"Uh, sure," I said. "I guess so. When and where?"
We bounced the when and the where around a bit and agreed, finally, to meet under the canopy of the Future Bakery and Cafe on Queen Street West at seven o'clock. "Wait," I said, "I have a bit of a problem ... I'm, uh, flat broke."
"Then I'll buy you a coffee," she said. "Or a beer."
"All right," I said. "I'll see you then." It's gonna have to be beer.
I went back to the table; to a cold supper and a book I couldn't even pretend to read. "She's gonna dump me," I said. "She's gonna dump me."
After finishing my meal, I puttered around a bit, picking newspapers off the floor, washing dishes, trying to believe there was a chance she might come home with me. But all the while I was repeating the mantra: "She's gonna dump me, she's gonna dump me."
- 2 -
It was a beautiful evening; cloudy, windy, cool. A hint of fall in the air. It could have been a lovely night for a date.
I locked my bike across the street from the Future Bakery and Cafe. I took my time crossing the street. Sally waited at the same table we had shared on our first date - but she didn't look like she was in the mood for celebrating.
Sally McCaul. You might not call her beautiful, I guess, but I think she's stunning. She has a wide head and dark, intelligent eyes. Her short, thick black hair sticks out, almost like a hat. Her nose is long and narrow and not especially straight. Her mouth is wide and her front teeth are prominent.
She has wide shoulders and a long neck; small breasts and a smooth, round belly; narrow hips and a high bum. She swings her arms when she walks, confident and comfortable with herself.
Sally McCaul is a visual artist. Sally McCaul is well-educated, thoughtful and imaginative. She grasps concepts like few people I've had the pleasure of knowing. She speaks softly and seriously most of the time, and smiles only when she has a reason to. She can explain Deconstructionism clearly and concisely and then gossip about the relationship she has with her landlords without batting an eye. She understands the difference between an emotional, and a political or aesthetic, reaction and understands that different people value and understand each of those in very different ways.
She seldom looked me in the eye, even when we were making love (or fucking; whatever it was we did that felt so good). Maybe I should have worried about that; but I seldom look people in the eye, either.
On our second date, she told me that she wanted to keep seeing me, wanted to keep having sex; she also told me she was not ready for a commitment, for something serious. I said I was all for the sex and was willing to allow the other things to take their course. I was willing to wait and see.
Now, it seemed, the waiting and seeing was over.
- 3 -
I tried to saunter to the table. I think I waved. I tried to grin.
I didn't touch her. Not her shoulder, not her hand. I didn't kiss her. "Hey," I said. "How's it going?"
She smiled a sickly sort of smile, then looked down at the table. "Not so good."
I sat across from her, my back to the street. "Maybe I should wait till I get a beer?"
She nodded. She looked very sad and maybe a little bit afraid. Not of me, I don't think, but for me.
But we didn't wait for my beer to arrive. I had a sip or three of hers and asked what was going on.
She said, "I think you've already guessed."
I looked at the table; at my hands; at the cigarette I was lighting or smoking or whatever I was doing with it. Anywhere but at her. "I probably have," I said.
And presently the pretty and pleasant waitress brought my beer and I drank like some desperate Bedouin offered a glass of water. I think my hand was shaking; I know Sally's was, a little.
"You want to tell me what's wrong?"
She still wouldn't look at me. "Not really."
I thought, You're dumping me, aren't you? But I couldn't say it.
- 4 -
So I waited for her to. My stomach was in knots, my heart beating like I'd run a race; but I wasn't breathing hard at all. I was just scared, waiting for her pronouncement. Later I would tell her how it impressed me that she'd had the nerve to do it face-to-face. But, in a way, that only made the pain sharper, harder to bear.
"I can't see you anymore." She looked past me; at the street, at buildings, at the sky - anywhere but at me.
"Can I ask why?"
"It's nothing you've done. Nothing to do with you at all, really." She lit a cigarette or stubbed one out, or took a drink; something. "You're going to think this is really stupid," she said.
"Why don't you let me be the judge of that?" I was trying to be funny. I might have grinned. I definitely lit a cigarette, or pulled on one already lit. Or took a drink. Or maybe all three.
She nodded. "I can't keep seeing you." Her voice was flat, as though she was pushing a boulder up a hill and had no energy to spare for such niceties as intonation. She still didn't really look at me, but her eyes would sometime stop on me for a second or so, like she was almost willing to see me now.
"I thought that's why you called," I said. "Can I ask why?" My hands were shaking again; part of me wanted to cry, another to stand up and shake this woman I already cared for so much.
I thought of a morning a couple of weeks before. I'd made us breakfast and we were sharing the paper over coffee. Sally checked out the Globe's horoscope - for laughs - and made me guess which one was hers, finally admitting it was the one that said, "You will meet someone who will be very important to you."
But Sally didn't look happy now. I thought she might cry, but she didn't. Not yet. She said, "It's hard to explain ... But I just can't handle what's going on between us right now. Maybe I'm still on the rebound from my last relationship; that hurt a lot, and I don't think I can handle another one right now.
"Orson." She looked right at me. "If you want to yell at me, now's probably a good time for it."
"Why should I yell at you? You haven't done anything wrong." I don't want to yell at you, you damned fool! I want to kiss you and hug you and never let you go!
Sally laughed and shook her head. "I've led you on."
"You haven't led me on. You told me from the start you didn't know what you were ready for, or how far you wanted to go."
"Do you know you've never said anything mean to me?" She made it sound like an accusation.
I forced a grin, and actually felt it a little. "Should I have?"
She looked away. "Maybe. It might make me feel better."
I shook my head. "I can't be mean to you; you haven't done anything wrong. I just feel sad. And confused. I still don't know why you don't want to see me any more."
"You're going to think I'm crazy."
Orson, remember - what? Our first date - no, our second."
"At the Bistro 422."
"Yeah. I told you I wanted to keep seeing you, but that I wanted our relationship to be primarily sexual."
"Well - you are going to think it's crazy ..."
"Try me." I finished my beer, wondered if I'd get another. Sally may have noticed, but she didn't react. She said, "Maybe it's too soon for me; maybe it's just another classic case of rebound."
"From your relationship with the guy who told you all those lies?" Sally had known he was screwing around on her and he had denied it to her face, over and over again.
She nodded. "I don't think I'm ready for a serious relationship, Orson. And I don't think I can handle a relationship that's just based on sex, either.
"I'm different when I'm with you, Orson. But I have a lot of things in my life that I have to figure out before I can be with anyone." She looked down, picked up her beer and finished it.
"So, what you're saying is that I make you too happy." She nodded weakly. "Shit." I put my face in my hands. I didn't even light a cigarette.
"How are you guys doing?" The happy, friendly waitress was hovering by our table. I lookep up and glanced at Sally, who sort of grinned, sort of shrugged, at the happy waitress. "Two more, please."
I muttered "Thanks," and wondered, Why is she buying me more beer?!
- 5 -
We waited for re-supply in silence. I wanted to shake her, to scream in her face, This is crazy! What the hell are you doing? We've got a good thing going here! But whatever was wrong wasn't something I could fix by yelling at her.
"Shit." I didn't even raise my voice. I lit a cigarette, scraped my throat with the smoke.
Sally said nothing at all.
The happy waitress returned with our beers. I sucked down a fifth of mine right away. "So," I said, almost afraid of the silence that hung between us like a shroud. "How 'bout them Blue Jays, eh?"
Sally smiled weakly, but said nothing. And we sat there for half a beer, thinking our thoughts, smoking our cigarettes and very seldom looking at each other.
I was helpless, an observer, watching someone named Orson lose a woman he didn't want to lose; a woman who couldn't wait to be an old woman - Old Sal, she wanted to be called - rocking her days away on her front porch.
And I remembered kissing this woman; holding her hand; watching her enjoy my cooking.
Remembered when she brought me flowers and I hadn't dared even touch her, though I'd thought about how I would greet her a lot before she arrived. Later, after Annie had left and we sat on my couch, naked and sweating in the late night, she told me she'd had the same thoughts, the same fears, when she'd first stepped into my parlour.
Silly fears, I'd thought.
We'd been talking about "us", about what was going on between us. Sally still wasn't sure what she wanted, but she knew she liked me a lot. Me too, I said, or something like it. And before long, as it seemed we always did, we started to kiss, hard and deep and passionately, as if we were doing it for the first time.
Back at the Future Bakery and Cafe, where mine was disappearing like a mirage, the sad silence was getting to me. "Sally?"
She looked at me. Waiting.
"Fuck, I don't know. I just don't know what to say to you. Part of me..."
"Part of you what?"
I shook my head, laughed an ironic laugh. "Part of me wishes I was a little more manipulative. This all seems crazy to me, Sal ... If I didn't have this fucking respect for other peoples' right to make stupid mistakes, I'd just say whatever I thought might make you change your mind. Or try, anyway. I don't want to just watch you walk away from me."
Sally dropped a tear or two and lit another cigarette. "It's very possible that I'm going to regret this, later; that I'll look back on what I'm doing and kick myself, really hard, but ... But it's what I have to do now."
I drank half my remaining beer, briefly contemplated how soon it would be gone and how I had no money to buy more; even more briefly contemplated the irony of my dependence for what beer I had, tonight, on the woman who was dumping me.
I said: "Does this mean you don't want to see me at all anymore?"
"I've always found it really insulting when people have said 'we can still be friends,' to me. But ... Can we -" Sally stopped, looking sad and scared and lost.
"Shit. I don't know, man. I don't know if I can do that." I drew a deep breath. "It's like - well, it's not like we were friends before we ... I mean, we slept together on our first date!
- 6 -
"I thought - before you called tonight - that we were building a friendship; maybe a lot more than that. But we don't have a past yet; we have no structure, no history, to us. I have been 'just friends' with people before. It can work out fine. Hell, I'm even friends with Maggie - the one who abused me so much?" She nodded; I'd told her about that particularly ugly 'relationship.' "But we had already been friends. We already had something that didn't include sex. We had something to go back to."
"And we don't," she said.
"And we don't. And, frankly, I'm having a hard enough time keeping my hands off you now, you know?"
"Me too," she almost whispered, and I wanted to scream my frustration up and down the length of oh! so fucking cool Queen Street West.
"I don't know if I can do it," I said. "I just don't know. If we'd had more time; if we had a more solid base ..."
Sally nodded. She was crying now; silent tears streaking her cheeks. I wanted to cry myself, but nothing came, and I realized again how cold I have become. How is it, I wondered, that I can care about someone and yet know that I can replace them, if it comes to that?
Presently Sally wiped her eyes and lit another cigarette. "Maybe it's a good thing," she said as I lit one of my own. "If we keep seeing each we'll both have lung cancer inside of a month."
"I don't know," I replied. "I don't think we smoke that much; we spend a lot time doing other things, you know." She smiled, but I'm not sure she knew what I meant - one of the few times I wasn't sure she understood, just like that.
But I wasn't long in worrying about it; I watched her face, her long throat, and remembered her moans the first time we kissed. Remembered her tongue, surprising me, in my mouth. Remembered holding her in the damp grass of Trinity Bellwoods Park, before we decided we'd best go somewhere we would not be arrested.
I wanted to feel bitter. This woman, this Sally - who in four weeks had taught me more about sex and love than I had learned in the previous ten years; with whom I could talk about anything, as comfortably as I could with people I'd known for years; who had introduced me to so much I had previously only heard about - was cutting me off before I'd had a chance to read more than the first page of the book of love.
"Shit." I finished the beer in my glass. Sally was lost in her own thoughts, I guess. My mind being what it is, I picked up my glass and tried to drink what wasn't there.
And Sally said, "I should have had something to eat before I came here; I'm getting drunk."
"Maybe we should have another, then."
Sally laughed, she really laughed. And the happy waitress happened by. "How are you guys doing?"
"Don't look at me," I said. "She's the boss."
Sally glanced at me, then at the waitress. "Two more pints," she said. The waitress nodded, still smiling, and went away.
"Thanks," I muttered.
"This doesn't make much sense, does it?"
"No, but it's a good example of why you're making me so crazy doing what you're doing."
"I know." She wasn't smiling any more.
"Shit ..." I rubbed my temples.
I snorted a sort of laugh. "Don't ask; now I do feel like being mean."
"Then do it. I deserve it anyway."
- 7 -
"Fuck," I snorted again. "What a weird god damn life it is." I lit another cigarette. "You know what I did last night?" Sally shook her head and lit a cigarette while the waitress - still fucking smiling - set down fresh beer.
"What?" Sally asked when the bundle of joy had departed with our empty mugs.
"I went to a poetry open stage with my friend Paul. I've told you about Paul, haven't I? And Annie?" She nodded cautiously, maybe wondering what vicious point I was coming to.
Annie and Paul. My two best friends.
Annie had briefly sucked my drunken cock about two weeks before Sally and I met - about a week after I contracted a venereal disease from the young woman with whom another friend of mine would soon throw away what was left of his Relationship with the mother of his child.
I suddenly realized I had almost completely derailed my train of thought - easier now that I was halfway through my third beer. I closed my eyes and tried to remember what I had told Sally about the soap opera playing around my life and loves.
I said: "Well, I had a bit of a drunk with Annie last - what? - Saturday, I guess. Yeah, 'cause Paul and I got together on Friday. Started out with me and Annie and my friends John and Sam; we were all going to go to see some zydeco band down at Harbourfront." I laughed and sipped (I was running out!) at my beer. "Anyway. Suffice it to say that we didn't make it. And eventually, John and Sammy left and Annie and I ended up just sitting around, pretty soused."
I breathed the way I do when my laughter is more ironic than visceral. "She asked me things; about Paul. And I ended up more or less telling her what I thought: that she should dump him; that she was wasting her time in that relationship, 'cause Paul is never going to be what she wants him to be."
"Be careful; you should just tell them you don't want to get involved in their problems."
"I think it's too late for that."
"You're risking both those friendships, you know."
"Well, I don't think either of them will hold my big mouth against me. Not too much, at any rate. And I can't lie to them. To either of them."
"You're still playing with fire," she said, "getting in the middle like that."
"Maybe. But I don't know how I can get out of it. I mean: I am in the middle."
Sally smiled at me, and shrugged.
And somehow, we were talking again, as if we were just out for a beer.
Sally mentioned a bicycle accident one of her roommates had seen the other day. Sally had been at work when her friend called, in tears and begging Sally to come home. "I can't," Sally said, "I'm alone here." But she managed to stay on the phone long enough to find out that there'd been a terrible accident, involving a bike and a car. Her room-mate didn't know anyone involved, but she was horribly upset.
I shook my head. "I guess that sort of explains why I'm not more upset - over this" - I made a circular gesture with my right hand, taking in the two of us - "than I am."
"What do you mean?"
My mug was empty, but I tried for a final drop. It still smelled of beer. I said, "I used to worry about my sanity - about whether I might not be borderline psychotic or something." Sally waited. "I mean, your friend: I can't relate to her reaction at all. I just don't care about that fucking cyclist, you know? I never even met him. I simply don't empathize. At all."
Sally nodded, her own nearly-empty mug in her hand; I had a hard time keeping my eyes off it. "I know what you mean," she said. "Crying over someone you don't even know ..."
"Yeah." I lit another smoke. "But it goes deeper than that. A friend of mine - I was in love with her once - jumped off a bridge a few years ago. The Bloor Street Viaduct" -
"Everybody jumps off the Bloor Street Viaduct," said Sally McCaul.
"Anyway. Paul called me - I was in Ottawa then - and ... I had no emotional reaction at all, just curiosity. 'How did she do it?' I asked him, after I made what I thought was a reasonably appropriate noise." I paused for a moment, distracted by the sight of Sally finishing her beer. "I used to be a little worried about it," I continued, "but I finally decided that I seemed to be a reasonably good person, so what the hell, you know?" I laughed. "Paul says I'm just more honest than most people."
"Maybe you are." Sally leaned towards me and grinned for perhaps the first time that evening. "Should we get one more?"
- 8 -
"Sure! I mean, if you're willing, I sure am! But it's up to you."
Sally decided to compromise: a half-pint each. My memory, of course, goes from weakness to weakness; there's no denying I was getting drunk. What remains are only feelings: pleasure in Sally's company, pleasure of beer, sadness at her decision, hope I might yet change her mind.
We were having such a good time!
But presently, we grew melancholy again.
I spoke of trying to change her mind. And now, she gave me some hope. "Let's at least exchange mailing addresses," she said.
"We could write each other. Maybe build that friendship you talked about earlier."
I shook my head, but I was not strong enough to say no. I watched with lust and sadness as she went to find a waiter and a pen. When she came back she wrote her address down on a napkin. I still have it on file.
And then, somehow, the beer almost gone, Sally reached across the table and took my hand.
Late in our first date at the Future Bakery and Cafe, she had asked me why I had phoned her - I had placed a personal ad and she had answered it, but left only the first six digits of her phone number; I'd tried four or five of the possible combinations before hitting on her number. I told her I wasn't sure; that I didn't even know what I was looking for. "But," I said, "I am sure that I like you. And I think you're very attractive."
"Me too," she said, or something like it.
And, shortly after, I had said, "Can I hold your hand?" And slowly, we reached across table -the same table at which we sat, holding hands, once again - and touched.
Her skin was a little rough. Sally's hands are busy, living, vital hands; her fingers strong and strong-minded.
Again, we held each other, thumbs passing over thumbs, fingers touching fingers. But this time, instead of the excitement of newfound like and lust, was the frustration of sadness and regret.
I almost rejected her touch then, but I was not strong enough. My cock stiffened against my leg, and I remembered Sally's lips against mine; her ass beneath my hand; her breath in my mouth. I remembered feeling her moving against me, hearing sounds that gave me a pleasure I'd never felt before. I remembered once pointing out her navel, become a small lake of grey sweat, hers and mine together.
I couldn't reject her touch. I would take what I could get - what she was willing or able to share with me - I would take a farewell touch of her hand.
- 9 -
We barely spoke during those few minutes; our hands passed from clasp to clasp, to whispering brush of palm on palm, and back again.
"Maybe," she said softly, "you should call me. In a month. Let me think." And she was crying again.
"Oh Christ," I said, "Oh Sally, Sally, Sally ..." I squeezed her hand tight. "You really look like you could use a big hug."
Cheeks wet, she tried to throw me a smile. She gripped my hand even harder. "I'd better go," she sniffed. "It's late; I'm hungry; I'm drunk." Her beer wasn't quite gone. With her free hand she poured half of hers into my empty mug, then turned, caught the waitress' eye.
I said, "Shit." Said it again after the waitress had returned with our change and Sally let go of my hand.
Tears crawled down her cheeks as I followed her to the sidewalk. She asked where I'd parked my bike. I pointed across the street, then said, "Well."
We looked at each other. It seemed like a long time.
And then she stepped towards me, opened her arms. "Give me a hug?" And I fell against her.
Her lips brushed my cheek, her fingers scythed my hair. I held her just as tight. I nuzzled her neck and wanted so much to touch my lips to hers, to touch her everywhere. And she cried almost freely against me and I could not help but wonder what sort of madness possessed her.
"Come on," I said, and I turned and slipped my arm around her waist, and propelled her across the street. "Let's go for a walk. I think you need a friend now."
She hesitated a little, but did not really resist. We ignored my bicycle and walked west along Queen, towards Trinity Bellwoods Park, where we had first lain together.
I think she cried as we walked. Neither of us spoke, until she asked me where we were going, where I was taking her. I don't know what I said, but I was thinking of the Park.
She stopped me at the next corner. "I have to go home." She shook her head near my ear. "And you have to work in the morning."
And she let me go and stepped away from me.
Need I say she was beautiful?
Sally sniffed and tried to smile. "Are you going to be okay?"
I nodded. What else could I do? "Are you?"
"I'll be fine."
"Okay." For a moment I thought it might be my turn for tears, but none came. None would, in fact, until I was alone; and they did not last long. The sadness itself lasted a little longer.
We hugged one last time, then turned and began to walk away from each other.
I stopped and turned. "I will call you!" I shouted. "In four weeks: I'll call you."
And I did, too; got her machine and left a message. And shortly after that received a curt note in the mail, asking me not to call her again.