I wrote "Old Friends" many years ago, seated at my great-grandfrather's oaken desk, candles flickering on either side of my Underwood, a venerable typewriter almost as old as the desk itself. The house had neither running water nor electricity and was practically abandoned; I used it in the summer from time to time. And now it was fall and I had just learned my plans for a hermatose winter in the house in which I had spent several years of my childhood were not going to fall out as I had hoped.
I was in my early 20s and felt a need to retreat from the world I had found in the city, to regroup. I wanted to be alone.
And I had just found out my younger brother had decided he needed to get away too.
The process of writing is a strange beast indeed. Sometimes a story requires an almost superhuman exercise of will, a single paragraph taking hours (or days) to emerge; sometimes, it seems as if the titular author isn't really involved in its creation at all.
"Old Friends" was one of the easy ones. "Old Friends" was the king of the easy ones.
I remember inserting the first sheet of paper into the capstan with only a vague idea of what was to come. That is all I remember of that night - that and 1 or 2 others. I don't remember anything of the actual writing. I just typed and, with the coming of the dawn, realized there were 30 sheets of paper stacked next to my typewriter.
I read them as though they had come through someone else's fingers.
I did do a little work on it afterwards. Cut a line here, changed a word there, but little more than that. Somehow the story was before me, complete but for a few spots where the paint needed touching up.
I did write it, of course. I'm no mystic and don't believe I was possessed by my muse or anything like that. But it doesn't feel as if I wrote it and it never did.
Outside, thick wet snow fell from the night; inside, ice melted in my glass.
The vodka sloshed the rim, but I didn't spill a drop.
And after a while, I finished my drink and lifted the phone. Dialled.
And cradled it when I heard a busy signal. I looked out at the storm and decided her train had probably been delayed again anyway.
Oh well," I said, "What the hell." I went to the kitchen and poured myself another drink. And sat at the table and watched the night and the storm through the grimy, curtainless window.
And I didn't mind waiting for her.
The phone rang some time later. I went to the front room and picked it up.
"Ash!" I said. "You made it." And then I was laughing; through it I told her I would pick her up in fifteen minutes. "You don't mind waiting?"
"It's already been two years," she said, and the line went dead.
Outside it was colder than I'd expected and my hands were almost numb by the time I got the old Lada started. I hit the wipers and watched them clear the snow from the windshield, then set the car in gear. And as I drove, I thought of when I'd met Ash for the second time, when she had shocked me by showing up at my high school.
She had come for the writing course it offered, and we had taken it together, sharing our work, and our joys and frustrations with the world around us. That winter, we decided to share an apartment and, before we knew it, we had been joined by four others. The apartment became a house that stayed together for seven months before a posse of unpaid bills chased us out.
But while we lived there we drank and we smoked, and we laughed and we wrote, and we almost never went to school. We were going to be famous, if not rich, and we all knew it. And although we admitted it only when very drunk, we all knew that Ash was going to be the most famous of us all.
For years I wondered if she was capable of writing a bad sentence; her letters sang and her fiction ... I shook my head and wondered what had happened to her. And I thought of her smile, of her laughter and her ever-present cigarette and sometimes cruel wit. And I wondered why we had never expressed how we felt about each other. Our friendship had always been an unspoken assumption, shared warmth neither of us had ever dared to verbalize.
And then I was pulling to the curb in front of Union Station. And she was there, snow-covered, throwing two small bags and a portable typewriter in the back seat. She closed the back door and piled into the front. She grinned at me and we hugged awkwardly over the gear stick, while her hair dripped melting snow.
I put the car in gear and drove carefully through the slush. I glanced at Ash, in her long, frayed woollen coat. I thought of her meagre baggage and felt lucky. I was only twenty-five and, if I wasn't rich yet, or famous, I owned a (used) car and lived in a comfortable apartment in the Annex, where I was writing what I wanted to write without having to worry about where my next meal would come from.
As we drove up Spadina Ash spoke of the cold, of spending five hours in a motionless train growing cold somewhere in Northern Ontario, while I tried to keep away from the treacherous streetcar tracks.
I parked the car and carried Ash's bags inside. I took off my coat and Ash took off hers. And we stood in the vestibule and stared at each other. She looked much the same as she had the last time we'd met: she was still thin, still deathly pale, with dry skin and chapped lips. Her hair was still chopped short. She wore black army boots, a peasant skirt with a pair of long underwear showing beneath it and a long-sleeved white shirt, buttoned low over a black tee-shirt. She looked a little older, but that might have been just the effects of two days on a train.
And then Ash laughed and let her coat fall to the floor. "Jesus it's good to see you!"
"You too," I said.
"I haven't given you a real hug yet," she said, and then proceeded to do just that. She held me tight and I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her, and then we were laughing and, arm in arm, we entered my home.
"Do you want a drink?"
"Sure," she said.
I went to the kitchen and re-opened the bottle I'd already started. "You still take it straight?" I yelled. She didn't answer and then I heard music, so I compromised with an ice-cube.
Ash wandered into the kitchen as I poured a drink for myself. I gave her a glass.
She grinned and sipped. "This is quite a place you've got here."
"You like it?"
"Oh yeah. You've got a bedroom, too?" I nodded. "Jesus, three rooms. And right in the Annex yet. I bet you don't even have any cockroaches." She drank some more. "Yeah, this is a really nice place."
I smiled, feeling pleased. "I like it." The scotch warmed my throat. "You ... want to sit down?"
The front of the apartment doubled as a living room and office. The bay window jutted out behind a large, cigarette-holed couch with a coffee table before it. The far wall had a desk in the corner; bookshelves lined most of the rest of the room.
Ash passed me and settled on the couch. She put the bottle and her glass on the table and grinned had me, with the same smile and the same laughing eyes.
I sat near her. "You're looking good," she said.
I followed her eyes to my belly and smiled at her. "I guess I'm getting a little fat and contented."
Ash touched my arm. "It looks good on you." Her skin was warm through my sleeve.
"It feels good on me!" Ash refilled my glass and I realized I was getting drunk. I grinned at her. "So," I said, "How are you? You didn't say much in your letter."
And she looked away from me, at the skull that sat on my desk. "I remember that," she said softly.
"Remember what?" And then, following her gaze: "Oh. That."
"That was something else, wasn't it?"
I nodded. "That was something else."
My parents had a camp about fifteen miles outside of Sudbury. One summer, Ash visited for a couple of weeks. One day we took our bikes into town to pick up some food and some booze. But Ash noticed an old road and insisted that we explore it. We rode in as far as we could, then dismounted and followed what was now only an overgrown path on foot. And came across an old burial plot of maybe twenty or thirty graves.
We looked it over for a while, examining the old markers. No stone was dated later than the 1930s.
Sometime that night, after more than a few drinks, Ash pulled me to my feet and insisted that we go back to the cemetery. We rode the ten dark miles slowly, loaded down with a spade apiece. And somehow, we managed to find the cemetery again.
Ash shone a beam on one of the stones. "'Sirrka Lahti.' I like that. Let's dig here."
And so we did, one digging while the other drank, until Ash shouted triumphantly that she'd hit something. I jumped into the pit with her, and we worked at the rotting remains of a casket.
The sight of a the skeleton sobered me a little, but Ash just grinned and came away with the skull. "It's perfect!" she said. "It's even got most of its teeth!"
"I remember." I looked away from the desk, from the skull, and back at Ashera. I sipped my drink. And then said, very softly, "Ash?"
She looked at me.
I shook my head. "I never understood why you gave it to me: it was your idea to dig it up, you were the one who really wanted it."
She lit a cigarette. "I don't think I knew, either, then." She finished her drink. "I really wanted the thing, you know?" I nodded. But I think I knew that if I'd kept it, I wouldn't have had it very long. I'd have been broke, and someone would have offered to buy it and then it would have been gone." She took the bottle and refilled her glass. "Giving it you was secure." She smiled and sipped. "Hell, you still have it, don't you? And I can see it whenever I see you. I guess I gave it to myself in a way."
I nodded and Ash took my hand, pulled me to her. "It's really good to see you," she said.
And much later, I opened another bottle, and we talked about old times and old friends, and eventually I asked her why she'd come back.
She smiled unhappily. "Moira threw me out," she said.
"I'm sorry," I said, and then she laughed. She squeezed my hand and leaned over to kiss my cheek. Her chapped lips were warm and moist. "Don't be," she said. "It was past time; I was rotting in Edmonton anyway. I should have left a year ago ..."
I looked away and dragged on my cigarette. Burned my fingers. I butted it and lit another. "So how's your work coming?"
She looked pleased by the change of subject. "Pretty good, I guess. I sold a story to The Sign."
"That's great," I said, though I had never heard of the magazine.
"I guess so. They paid me a hundred and fifty bucks." She laughed. "Moira and I drank it all in one night." I remembered my first few sales and laughed with her.
After we'd nearly killed the second bottle and the cigarettes were gone, we staggered to my room, giggling like children at a sleep-over and crawled under the blankets, wearing everything but our shoes. And we cuddled close until we fell asleep.
I woke suddenly, blinking at the sunlight streaming through the window. Ash lay on her back, a sheet bunched across her stomach, her small breasts pushing against her tee-shirt.
I admired her for a moment and then crawled from the bed, went to pee and returned to shut the curtains. I moved as quietly as possible as I got back into bed.
"No need," she said. "I'm awake."
I stared into her pale eyes. She smiled and reached out and pulled me to her. She kissed me once, lightly, on the lips.
"Good morning," I grinned and moved closer to her and kissed her neck. She smelled of cigarettes and scotch. I liked it a lot.
And then her hands were under my shirt, warm against my skin. "How did you sleep?" she asked.
"Just fine," I said, and I kissed her again. And I wondered what was going on; Ash had been gay as long as I'd known her and, although we had often shared a bed, there had never been any sexual tension between us - well, none on her part, anyway.
I touched her cheek and followed her jaw-line to her throat, until I reached the soft material of her shirt. I undid the first closed button, and then the next.
"I have to pee." She pulled away and rolled off the other side of the bed. I watched her leave, feeling as excited as I did confused.
Her shirt was still undone when she returned. She lay on her back and groped under the blankets for my hand. "It's good to see you," she said.
"It's good to see you."
It was past noon when we got up for good. I made us a couple of omelets while Ash took a shower. And then she went out, to see the old town again, she said, but I suspected she mostly wanted to give me a chance to get
some work done.
But I blocked, and I spent most of the day smoking and flipping through the channels on the teevee, wondering when she'd get back.
I poured my first drink before it was dark.
A couple of hours later, I was drunk; half the bottle was gone and I still hadn't heard from her. I hadn't turned on any lights and the whine and glare of the screen was starting to hurt my eyes. I finally switched it off, then returned to the couch and sat in the dark, staring at nothing, breaking the monotony with an occasional swig from a bottle I could see only as a dark profile.
And I wondered where she was, wondered if she was all right. And I felt silly at my concern. She can take care of herself, I told myself again and again. But still, I worried.
Ash knocked softly a little past midnight. I grunted, only half-awake, and Ash knocked harder. I opened my eyes and searched the darkness. "Ash." I shook my head and got to my feet, staggered across the room. Only when I reached the door did I notice the bottle in my hand.
I opened the door and Ash stumbled in with a blast of cold. "Orson?"
"Ash," I said, and swayed dangerously. "Hi."
"Hi," she said. "Did I wake you?"
"I'll turn on a light." I fumbled past her for the switch. I turned around and saw her staring at me. "I was worried about you," I said. And then I laughed and hoisted the bottle, drank deeply from it. "So I sat around and got myself thoroughly lunched."
"So I see." In her voice was a nervous smile.
"It must be pretty cold out there."
She nodded. "It is."
"Do you want a drink?"
"When I get my coat off."
"Yeah," I said. "Sure." And I staggered to the couch. And soon she was next to me, radiating cold. I passed her the bottle. "How was your day?"
"Okay. I saw Sue ... How was yours?"
"Well," I said, and raised the bottle to my lips. "A lot like that, actually."
She looked at the table and then, shocked, back at me. "Is that your second?"
I looked at the empty bottle on the table and then at the one in my hand. "I guess so."
"Jesus." She took the bottle from me but didn't drink. "You're going to make yourself sick."
I took the bottle back and drank more. "Maybe," I said. Then I looked up at her. "So: how is Sue?"
Ash sighed, took the bottle and, this time, drank from it. "The same, I guess. Only more so." She took a pack of cigarettes from her shirt pocket, lit one and passed me the package. "She's more middle-class every time I see her."
I laughed and gestured at my apartment. "It can happen to the best of us."
"That's not the same. You're writing what you want to write. All she does is draw one shitty ad after another. Sue said she hasn't finished a real painting in almost three years."
"I guess that is different," I said.
"It makes me sad." Ash shook her head. "She's got a ton of talent ..." She took the bottle and drank. "We went to the Quoc Te."
"The Quoc? Jesus, I haven't been there in years."
"It's pretty much the same; the Goofs are still there - in fact, they played tonight; that's why we left - and the can still stinks of sex and piss.
I laughed. "I'll bet it does."
"But Sue ... God, she was so contemptuous of the whole thing, so arrogant ... I don't know ... Shit, I just think it's sad."
We sat for a while, and then went bed. And again we slept close.
In the morning she rolled a joint. "Why not?" I said, and decided I'd been working too hard lately anyway.
The smoke was harsh and unpleasant, as it always was, and it made me cough. Ash laughed as she took the joint back from me, then stifled herself to drag on it.
She returned it to me, exhaled. "You don't mind me staying here for a while, do you?"
I coughed again and handed her the joint. And coughed again. And again. "I need a cigarette." I lit one and looked at her again. "Of course not," I said. "You know that."
She dropped her eyes from me as she butted the joint. "I just wanted to make sure, you know? It's been a long time."
I reached across the table and touched her hand. "Of course it's okay; we're friends."
She nodded and pulled her hand away. "Can I have a cigarette?"
I lit one and passed it to her. And laughed.
I shook my head. "Everything, I guess ..." I gestured around at the kitchen. "Seeing you again - hearing about Sue - I haven't even talked to her in months! - and the Quoc Te, it all reminds me of the way things used to be, you know?"
"I think so."
"It's like -" I laughed as I realized that I was very stoned; I hadn't smoked up for months. "When you asked for a cigarette, and the dope, and we've gotten stinking drunk two nights in a row, and we've been sleeping together ..."
"All we need is a sink full of filthy dishes and eight people sleeping in the living-room."
"Yeah. And a constant supply of coffee ..." I looked at her grinned. "You want coffee?"
The muscles in her face tightened, relaxed, and then she laughed. "Jesus yes!" she yelled. "Make some fucking coffee!"
But I could only sit there, tears leaking through my closed eye-lids, and finally, she got up filled the machine.
And, grinning inanely, we waited for the coffee. I lit a cigarette and Ash lit one. We smoked and watched each other and giggled. And sometimes I would glance at the coffee-maker, and sometimes she would, and eventually
it was ready.
I got up and filled cups, milk and sugar in mine, Ashera's black. She rested her chin in her hands, her elbows on the table. "Why don't we have a party?"
"A party?" My smile was gone.
"Sure. A party. Why not?"
Ash always had made strong coffee. I added a little more milk to my cup and thought about throwing a party, about the resulting mess, breakage and noise. "Why not?" I asked her. "Well ..." And suddenly I felt old, and worried about nothing important. I grinned. "Sure. Why the hell not? How about Friday?" I laughed. "It's been a long time ..."
"A damned long time," said Ashera. We raised our mugs and the porcelain rang like crystal.
Ash spent much of the day on the phone, while I ran around picking up supplies, even though it was only Tuesday. And when I got back, we went out for supper and a drink on Bloor Street and ran into Buck and, later on, Krysta, and we sat and talked in the By The Way Cafe and after that closed there were four pairs of boots drying inside my door.
The next day started quietly. Buck and Krysta were gone and I took the quiet as a chance to get some work done. I sat at my desk and was greeted by a clutter around my typewriter: Ash's stuff. "Shit." I pushed the things aside, switched on the machine, inserted a clean sheet of paper into the roller and began to type. Stopped. Began again. I stared at the words for a while, then tore the sheet from the carriage, ripped it in two and try to hurl them at the wall. All I accomplished was to hurt my arm. I cursed quietly, then stared at my desk for a moment, then stalked to the kitchen, where I made a pot of coffee and smoked cigarette after cigarette.
Ash stumbled in later. She smiled hello and I grunted in return. She left the room. I heard her take a shower and then return to my room. I had opened a fresh pack of smokes when she came back into the kitchen. "I'll stay out of your hair," she said, smiling nervously. "I just came to get my coat."
"Aren't you going to have something to eat?"
"I'll grab something later; I've been spending too much time with you anyway. I'm probably interfering with your work."
And then she was gone and I was angry again, but with myself, not her; I was pretty sure she didn't even have any money.
I growled at my cold coffee, then decided that I wanted a real drink anyway. I took a shower, but the hot water ran out as I finished soaping myself. I slipped and fell walking to the car, and nearly killed an old man when I skidded halfway onto Dupont from Albany.
I was drunk again when she came home. And before long, she was too. We said little, until the bottle was nearly empty, and she looked at me and said, "Was something bothering you this morning?"
"No." Even in my cups, I was able to lie to her. "I was just grumpy; you know how I can be in the morning." I took the bottle from her.
"You're sure?" Her eyes were locked on mine.
I looked at the table. "Yeah. I was just bitchy. Everything's fine."
She nodded, but I could tell she didn't believe me. Or did she? I looked at her again and realized I really couldn't tell; it had been a long time.
"I won't be staying her much longer," she said. "Just until I can find a room. And Sue said she'd lend me the money, so you don't have to worry about that."
Whatever I have is yours, Ash. You know that." And my voice sounded so false that I wanted to hide.
But her hand was gentle as she covered mine. "I love you, Orson," she said, and there was sadness in her voice.
I was still for a moment and then, carefully, I rose. "I'm going to bed," I said, and staggered towards my room.
"Do you want me to sleep on the couch?"
I stopped. Turned, and almost fell. "You can sleep wherever the fuck you want." And I turned again and entered my room where, in the dark, I stumbled over something lying between the door and the bed.
I cursed, once, and then heard Ash at the door. She switched on the light. I looked up at her. "I tripped over your bag."
"Oh Orson, I'm sorry! I shouldn't have left it there."
"You're god damned right you shouldn't have."
"Are you okay?" she asked as she helped me up.
"I'm fine. Here -" I sat heavily and tried to unbutton my shirt; my hands were barely working. I tore one of the buttons off and Ash grabbed my hands. "Let me," she said, and undid my shirt. She undid my shoes and I rolled over. Ash lay a blanket on top of me. "Are you coming to bed soon?" I asked.
"I was thinking of taking the couch."
"I don't mind, Ash." I laughed.
"I was just thinking of what Sandy would say if she walked in on us."
"Jeez, I never did tell you about her, did I? She's a Yank, just moved here from Chicago, going to U of T." I laughed again. "We've been talking about getting married."
"And you haven't even talked to her for three days?"
"You should call her, Orson. First thing tomorrow."
"Yeah," I said. "Are you coming to bed?" I opened my eyes, grinned. "Because if you're not, I'd really appreciate it if you'd shut off the light and get the hell out of here so I can get some sleep."
Ash laughed and hit the switch. "I'll be in in a couple of minutes."
I awoke when she draped an arm over me, her cold hand coming to rest on my chest. I shuffled closer to her and covered her hand with my own. "Do you love her?" she whispered.
"Sandy?" I hesitated. "I don't know. Maybe ... She seems awfully young sometimes; she was terribly sheltered, lived with her parents until she was twenty-two, last summer."
"A real innocent, eh?"
I laughed. "Until I corrupted her." And then I closed my eyes again.
We were still close when I woke up. I rolled over in my sleep and my face was pressed against her collar-bone. Her skin was warm and I felt my penis stiffen against her thigh. And suddenly I was ashamed for touching her without her knowledge. I rolled over and got out of bed, left the room and remembered Sandy, amazed that I really had forgotten her so completely. I picked up the phone. It rang seven times before Sandy's room-mate, sounding
groggy and irritated, answered. Sandy had already gone to school. "Just tell her Orson called," I said, and hung up.
Ash woke up not long after and we shared a leisurely breakfast before she went out to look for a place. I actually got some work done while she was out and Sandy returned my call. We arranged to meet that evening.
Ash returned as I was putting on my coat. "How did things go?" I asked.
She snorted. "I could have had one place, but it smelled. I mean it really stank!"
"You'll find one," I said.
"I know." She began to unbutton her coat. "You're going out?"
"I'm going out for a drink with Sandy. You want to come?"
"Are you sure you want me to?"
"I'd like you to meet her. I think you'll like her."
Ash shrugged. "Sure. But I'm meeting Pat at nine, so I won't be able to stay long."
It was still cold, another night in the week or two of every winter that allows Toronto the pretence that it is truly a Northern city. A little snow was falling, it was blowing hard and did not melt as it hit the ground.
Ash and I walked arm in arm, hunched over to escape the wind. "I probably won't be coming back tonight," she said as we crossed Spadina. "Pat said I could crash on his couch."
I wet my cracked lips. "I've got more room than he does."
Ash squeezed my arm. "I know. And you've been very sweet, but don't want you to get sick of me."
I laughed. "If you start to get on my nerves I'll let you know."
"Of course you will," she said gravely, and then she kissed my cheek and whispered, "Liar."
We turned north at Madison and soon reached a small, noisy pub that served a university crowd. I looked around. "There she is." I started forward, disturbed by my lack of anticipation.
She sat alone at a small table near the back, nursing a mug of beer.
"Sandy!" I shouted and she got to her feet. I hugged her tightly as she kissed me, then I pulled back and introduced Ashera.
Sandy smiled and accepted Ash's outstretched hand. "Hi," she said. "I'm glad to meet you; Orson's told me a lot about you."
Ash and I ordered drinks and I worked hard at involving both women in the conversation, until I realized that I had pretty much been left out. Ash, I remembered, had always been good at making people feel at ease. I closed my eyes and tried to listen through the noise that rattled through the bar.
After her second beer, Ash said that she had to leave. She kissed my cheek and shook hands warmly with Sandy, while I wondered where she had picked up the habit.
Sandy and I finished our beers and then went to my apartment. "I like your friend," she said while I poured a couple of drinks. "When did you meet her?"
I gave Sandy her glass and joined her on the couch. "It's kind of strange, actually. I first met her the year I did that solo canoe trip. She was doing one too, and we bumped into each other." I smiled fondly. "We spent a night in my tent, getting drunk, while the rain beat down on us like the end of the world."
"Did you sleep with her?"
"I told you she was gay."
"I know," Sandy said. "It's just that she seems so normal!"
I looked at her and thought: She's so much younger than I was at her age.
"Anyway," I said, "she left the next morning and I figured I'd never see her again. But the next year she moved to Toronto and ended up at my school."
And later, when we'd finished our drinks, we went to bed and made slow, gentle love that didn't last nearly long enough. And after, I lay frustrated on her side, one hand cupping a breast, the other buried in her long, soft, dark hair. And I wished I was alone; or with someone else.
Outside my room, something clicked. I opened my eyes and listened intently but heard nothing else. Sandy snuggled closer to me. I kissed the top of her head and thought about going into the kitchen for a cigarette.
And then my bedroom door opened. I sat up and Sandy mumbled something but didn't wake up. "Orson? Oh shit." Sandy sat up beside me. At the door, a silhouette in the dark, Ash stepped back. "I'm sorry," she said. "I should have known you wouldn't be alone." And then she was gone, the door was closed.
"Who was that?" Sandy hissed. She was furious, her voice barely under control.
"That was Ash," I said. "She wasn't supposed to be here tonight."
Sandy stared at me through the darkness. "Has she been sleeping with you?"
"Yes," I said slowly, unable to lie and tell her that it had been completely platonic. "We haven't had sex," I said at last.
Sandy pulled away from me and sat up, holding the sheet high across her chest. "So she's just an old friend."
"Yes," I said.
"All right." She lay down again, but we spent the rest oft the night not touching. And in the morning, she didn't kiss me goodbye. I watched her leave my room, listened to her pad softly through the apartment to the front door, resenting even her attempts to be considerate. I cursed in the shower and banged a lot of dishes as I cleaned up the kitchen.
Ash came in as I smoked over a cup of coffee. "I'm really sorry about last night," she said.
I grunted. Sipped coffee. "It's okay," I said at last. "What happened, anyway?"
She laughed and sat down. "His girl-friend came by; Clara something-or-other." She poured herself a cup of coffee. "Things sure have changed," she said.
"He's only got a bachelor."
"Things have changed."
"Yes," I said. "I guess they have."
"It wouldn't have mattered before ... I could have stayed there and it wouldn't have mattered! Orson, he actually threw me out! At two o'clock in the morning!"
"Things have changed," I said.
"I know." She took a cigarette from me and, as I watched her light it, I wished she had asked me for it. She blew smoke and watched it eddy up through a sunbeam. "I'm thinking of going away again."
"Yes," she said, and I had never seen her look so sad. "Do you - Could you lend me some money? For the train?"
"You don't have to go, Ash ... You have friends here, people who love you!"
"I know," she said. I thought she was about to cry. I butted my cigarette. Looked into her face, pale in the bright morning sun. And I did, and I didn't, want her to go.
"It's not the same," she said, her voice a blade dulled beyond sharpening. "I thought it would be easy to come back, but you guys are all growing up, settling down -" She smiled and I thought, Isn't language wonderful? "I've changed too, but not in the same ways. Do you see? I don't fit anymore! Do you see?" And I wanted to cry for her, her pain was so great.
"Maybe," I whispered.
"Do you remember McCaul House?"
"Oh yeah, I remember."
"Remember how there were never less than ten or twelve extra people staying there?"
"Well. Things have changed."
"Things have changed," I agreed.
"Can I have another cigarette?"
"Of course!" I laughed, but I wished that she hadn't asked. "Where are
you going to go?"
"I don't know," Ash said. "Maybe the East coast. Or Newfoundland."
"To look for work, no doubt."
Ash shot me a dirty look. "I've never been to Newfoundland," she said.
Later, I went out. When I returned, her bags were packed and she was sitting on the couch, singing along with a Simon and Garfunkle song, playing low on the ghetto-blaster: "For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her."
I wandered empty streets
Past the shop displays
I heard cathedral bells
Tripping down the alley ways.
As I walked out
She heard me as I entered the room and stopped mid-verse. I dropped the Globe on the coffee table. "Hi," I said.
"I went to the bank." I handed her an envelope and walked to the kitchen. I didn't want her to leave, now that it seemed clear she was going to. I poured myself a drink.
And then she was at my side. "I don't need this much," she said.
"I can afford it."
"I don't need it," she said again, and dropped four hundred dollars on the counter. "I really don't."
"Will it hurt?" I asked, immediately regretting it.
She stared at me for a long time, her mouth pulled tight. "I guess it won't," she said. "Should I thank you?"
"No." I drained my glass in a single gulp. The liquor burned as it went down and I felt I deserved it.
Ash sat down and eyed the bottle. I sat across from her. "You're not even gonna stay for the party?"
"I don't think so." She hesitated. "I made a reservation while you were out. For today."
"I didn't think you were all packed just for show. What time does your train leave?"
She told me and I checked my watch. "Have I got time for a drink?"
"Maybe two," I said, "if you'll let me drive you." I filled her glass.
She took it from me and looked at it for a while. "We've been doing this an awful lot since I've been here, haven't we?"
I looked at my own, empty, glass. And then at her. "Ash," I said slowly, carefully, afraid that I would start to cry. "You don't have to go. You can stay here. If you just give it some time, find a place to live, things will get better.
There was so much pain behind her hard eyes that I wanted nothing more than to go to her and hold her. But I knew that if I did, she would end up comforting me. "I've got to finish my book," she said, as though that was an answer. "Maybe I'll come back when it's done."
She put down her drink. "I should go," she said.
She nodded. I offered to drive her again, but she said she wanted to walk, wanted to see the city one last time, alone and on foot.
I watched her pull on her coat, her boots, while I hovered nearby, desperately trying to think of something to say. But she broke the silence. "Orson?"
"What is it, Ash?"
"The skull." I turned and looked at it, grinning near by typewriter. "Do you think I could take it with me?"
I walked to my desk. Lifted up the skull. Brought it to her. She packed it carefully in her backpack. Then zipped it closed. Looked at me again. "I guess I'd better go," she said. "Thanks."
I nodded and held her for a long time. "You'll write, won't you?" I asked her miserably, trying hard not to look into her eyes. "When you get settled?"
"Of course I will." She tried to laugh but managed only a weak, breathy smile. "I owe you a lot of money."
"You'd better go," I said.
We hugged again and then she hoisted her pack and picked up her bag and typewriter and I closed the door behind her.
I watched her through the window until she was out of sight then looked over my apartment. It seemed empty without her and I couldn't imagine anything that could fill it again. I lit a cigarette to kill the stench of stale smoke, then sat before my desk. And that was barren, too.
The wood beneath the spot the skull had occupied was cleaner than the rest of the surface, a small, virginal island surrounded by an ocean of dust and ash.
I took the cigarette from my mouth. Held it, upside-down, at eye-level. Then slowly crushed it in the centre of the clean spot.
The varnish bubbled a little, and then was still. I brushed the butt to the floor and looked at the violated spot. And I cried as I wondered what had happened.
And after a while, I lit another cigarette, went to the kitchen and uncapped the bottle of scotch. I poured what was left of it down the sink and let the empty bottle crash to the floor.
I dropped my cigarette in the sink and went back to my desk. I sat down and rolled the chair in close. I reached behind the typewriter and inserted a new sheet into the roller. Typed Ashera's name at the top of the page. Stared at the word. Tore the paper from the machine and dropped it on the desk, then rested my chin across my hands and wondered if she would be on time for her train.