What he liked about her was her laughter.
What she liked about him was his silence.
Her laughter was quiet, rich and reflective. It was doled out sparingly. When forthcoming, you knew it had been earned. It carried neither price tag, nor was gained at another’s expense.
Sometimes she giggled. Those were special occasions, when they explored each other in some new emotional or physical way and surprise or shyness sought verbal expression.
Mostly her laughter was throaty, the sound an old soul makes when struck precisely-so by a perfectly-wielded gong.
His silence was the opposite of awkward. It was warm, enveloping and often humorous.
Come dance with me, his eyes suggested. In a white bright room of our own imaginings, where we’re safe from outside terrors and the waltz can last as long as we like.
Banishing the fragility of existence was the chief extract from their bonding.
She’d arrived in Canada while in her teens. That was 50-plus years ago.
She’d never forget the one excellent piece of advice her parents had given her when they said their good-byes in Beijing. “When you get to Canada, buy the warmest coat you can find.”
She’d come to this country to study at university and never looked back. Sure there were a few regrets and lonely times, but she managed to make friends and the years flew by.
She never did marry. There were heavy-duty romances over the years, both among her “kind” and among members of the mysterious foreign brew in which she was immersed.
Those were the spiciest concoctions though not so different as she’d imagined they would be.
Live and learn wasn’t just a saying, she often thought.
In time, more of her family joined her from overseas. Her considerably younger sister followed her to Toronto. Her sibling was “lucky” in love and a wonderful son ensued.
The years continued to speed by.
It was her nephew, Irwin, who became her eventual joy. He spent a great deal of time at her place.
Her single-minded dedication to her career meant she was able to help out financially in ways her sister’s family could never hope to match.
That was her obligation and she was proud of her ability to meet the challenge. Even into retirement.
Her nephew was a scholar, sharp as a whip.
While excelling in school overall, his ambitions remained unfocused until shaped and directed by one particular professor at York University.
Irwin became the teaching assistant for the most distinguished lecturer in the astro-physics department.
Irwin would regale her with stories about some “bon mot” or academic stunt his teacher, later to be his boss, said or did.
She learned early on the professor was Jewish. It had something to do with the different schedule he kept to celebrate holidays.
She wasn’t sure what that meant in terms of his total Canadian experience, but she did realize he was from a culture that might lie outside the mainstream she’d been swimming in so long.
They eventually met at Irwin’s graduation and her attention was more focused on him, thanks to his role as her nephew’s mentor, than his was on her.
Of course, there were the calls to her house to try to locate Irwin when a visiting colleague might be coming to town and it would be desirable to arrange an introduction.
One such meeting proved costly on a personal level for both of them.
The emerging power of modern China was morphing into many ambitions.
Chinese leaders cast a net among the nation’s Diaspora to draw on board the best scientists for another manifestation of their progress and pride, a foray into space.
Irwin returned to the birthplace of his ancestors to further his career.
The local park was where she often found solace from her virtual bereavement.
It was there, while sitting on a bench one day, she told her story to a nice young man who filled the role of temporary surrogate.
He said his name was Lester and he listened with all the attention at his command.
She deeply felt the loss of Irwin but was nevertheless pleased with the way his life was turning out and of her role in that success. She felt she also owed something to the professor who had been such a help along the way.
Her lack of action had been nagging at her for more than a year. But what could she do?
It was Lester who suggested she go to the university and thank the professor personally for the guidance and friendship he’d provided her nephew.
Lester planted the seed, but the harvest was delayed indefinitely.
Finally, a year later, she carried through on the nascent plan.
That was their second coming together.
Their ten-minute conversation in the Professor’s office on campus was suffused by a shared sense of a higher purpose having been achieved through the maturing of a fine young man.
Unfortunately, the professor had to leave to teach a class. He expressed his apologies.
She had no thoughts of hearing from him again. He put all consideration of her quickly aside.
He had personal demons he was wrestling with. His wife had died a year and ten months earlier.
He’d met his sweetheart in high school and they were married in their early twenties.
As modern marriages go, theirs had been a good one with two offspring, first a boy and then a girl.
The children grew up to be lawyers and upon graduation from Ivy League colleges in the good old U.S. of A., entered practices in New York and Washington respectively.
Not that he begrudged his fate, but the professor was largely on his own.
There were posters everywhere on campus. A cultural exchange troupe from Hong Kong would be performing in the university’s music theatre.
To ensure good attendance and smooth over some labor strife that had disrupted the campus in the fall, faculty members were being offered two free tickets each.
The professor wasn’t interested, except there was a situation he might want to rectify.
He remembered the visit of Irwin’s aunt and how it had been all too brief.
This might be a nice way to repay her for the kindness she’d shown in approaching him.
He had her phone number. He’d give her a ring.
She was surprised by his call, alarmed even.
Why not attend the show?
It would be a tenuous connection with Irwin, but she’d take it.
Besides, it wasn’t like it was a date.
It would be a companionable evening spent watching performances of interest to the two of them.
Only later would they both realize it was their third time of meeting.
Jugglers, mimes, dancers and acrobats were whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
In the midst of the mayhem on stage, tenderness alighted in the amphitheatre.
Within a cone of personal connection, separated only by an arm-rest, their shoulders touched.
Neither could believe the jolt.
Twenty minutes later they were forearm to forearm.
That night, he stayed over at her house in the Annex.
He had no idea what he was up to. He could only shake his head in wonder, then count his blessings for the pleasure the night was serving up.
She was equally at a loss. Life was a jack-in-the-box. Open the lid and there was no telling what delights might spring out.
They’d been together ever since.
What were the best times? There were too many to count.
The simple moments stood out most.
Maybe it was going for a meal or a snack to the fast food court at the Eaton Centre.
They’d buy a coffee and tea, backed by something light to eat.
They had favorite tables. She’d sit on one side and read her Chinese newspaper.
He’d become lost in a journal article or some hot new novel everyone else was reading.
Maybe it was when she addressed him in the normal course of the day with some exotic term of endearment. Or he returned the favor.
When he stroked her back as she sat at the computer?
When she hugged him as he set off for classes?
Or maybe it was when they were walking along a downtown city street, brushing up against each other, her hand lightly holding his arm.
The party at a member’s three-story row house had been in full tear for about three hours. The participants by this time were well lubricated.
A scene occurred on a couch in the living room that was observed by some, but passed unnoticed by most.
The few who did witness it turned away in embarrassment, relieved it hadn’t involved them.
Their bystander roles still left them vulnerable. The awkward look-them-in-the-eye stage would need to be addressed eventually.
It was a male-female sort of thing that takes place at many a social gathering. This one just happened to be among a swinging singles crowd that styled itself as a ski club.
The gathering away from the slopes was mostly about mixing and mingling in a convivial way, with only the barest hint of desperation beneath the surface.
“Is this where I’ll meet Mr. or Ms. Right?” was the unspoken question.
Except there were those already engaged in early-onset hook-ups.
Others more fully committed were cruising with no evidence of a spouse in sight.
Their fondest hope was to be the solution to someone else’s settle-for-the-night issue.
Lester stepped out onto the back porch where he found Judy standing alone, looking over a yard shrouded in darkness.
There needed to be a good reason for her to be outside at this time of year as midnight approached.
Snow lay a foot deep on the deck’s wooden floor and the air turned breath into icy halos.
“I saw you speaking with Wes,” said Lester. “It looked like you were angry. Then you got up and left. Want to talk about it?”
“Oh, I’m embarrassed,” Judy said. “I feel badly. No, I can’t think about it right now.
“Okay, I’ll leave you alone. But don’t stay out too long in this cold.”
Lester’s concern uncorked her verbal inhibitions.
“Wait! Sorry, I could use someone to talk to.” She barely knew Lester but he seemed like a decent guy. Why not offload some of her baggage?
“It’s my fault. I know it. I said the worst things to him.”
“I’m more than a little drunk and I spewed my guts. I told him how at every one of these functions, I end up having to spend time with him. I only ever talk to him to be polite. I’m a cool chick. I should be spending my night with the neat guys.”
This all came out in a rush.
Lester, speaking more slowly, queried, “How’d Wes take it?”
“He looked shocked and hurt. That’s understandable. But he has to realize, from my point of view, there’s no chemistry between us.”
“Ouch! That’s always painful to hear. You just want to be friends, right?”
“See! You know what I mean.”
“I agree there has to be some chemistry in a relationship. But too often it’s cited as an excuse to continue an addiction.”
“An addiction to what?” she wondered.
“To chasing a fantasy. The perfect guy. A girl to place on a pedestal. A supposed ideal match.”
“I don’t do that,” Judy said.
“Really? Are you sure. It’s been my observation that, until we reach a certain level of maturity, what we most want in a partner is somebody to impress our friends.”
“I’m close to my BFFs. I want to be socially acceptable. I don’t think I’m wrong about that.”
“But it’s not a criterion to promote great judgement. More likely it will lead to choosing someone who, if we live with them on a long-term basis, will turn out to be totally inappropriate.”
“You sound like my parents.”
“How long have they been married?”
“A long time. Approaching 40 years, I guess.”
“And do they have chemistry?”
“Not that I’ve noticed.”
“I bet they do, but it’s probably smoldering under a blanket of commonplace cares.”
“Maybe. Sometimes mom looks at dad like he’s a chocolate. And I’ve seen the odd truffle-twinkle in his eyes too.” Judy’s look changed from sorrowful to wistful.
“So what would work for you? Chemistry-wise, I mean.”
Judy must have felt the need to demonstrate emotional range. “I want a boyfriend with curly hair, like my brother.”
“Huh? You’re still dabbling at the surface. Do you ever listen to yourself?”
“Not consciously. I don’t have the time. I’m too busy trying not to step into crap.”
“Maybe you should have a camera crew follow you around all day, recording your actions and conversations.”
“Like a reality star on TV?”
Yes, then you could play it back before going to bed and see where you may have miss-stepped.”
A few quiet moments were allowed to pass.
“Was that all you said to Wes?” Lester broke the silence.
“No, I also told him how boring he is and that it’s a struggle to keep on speaking with him.”
“Have you considered that you may not be giving him much feedback to play with?”
“Now that you mention it…” she trailed off.
“Look around at this party tonight. Who do you think is most likely to go on and really make something of themselves?”
“You’re going to tell me it’s Wes, aren’t you?”
“He does seem the likeliest candidate. He’s a “dude” of serious intent.”
They both smiled at the contradiction.
“He’s the most highly educated person in the place. Okay, his degree is in computer sciences, but I have a feeling there’s going to be a demand for his services.”
“Should I go and apologize to Wes?”
“No, I don’t think so. That would let both of you off the hook too easily.”
Reluctantly, she admitted there was truth in the assertion.
Lester continued. “Regret will teach you to behave better in the future. It might even steer you towards a more compatible, dare I say sensible, better-half in the long run.”
“And what about poor Wes?” she asked. “I’d like to set things right with him.”
“Sorry, but I think he needs to look elsewhere than this ski club to find the cure for what ails him.”
“Okay,” she nodded. “I suppose that’s true.
An afterthought kicked its way past her mind-lock.
“So what’s your story?” Judy asked. “You’re apparently brighter than most.”
“Don’t take me too seriously.” Lester assured her. “I’m only here as an observer.”
He motioned towards the door. “Come on. Let’s warm up inside.”
To all appearances, Wes was browsing in a bookstore located at the Eaton Centre.
Behind the façade, his mind was still racing. It was a day and a half after the events of Friday evening.
His embarrassment and self-doubt were continuing to gnaw at him.
Was he really such a lost cause when it came to affairs of the heart?
Was it going to be his lot to always be alone?
He lived by himself in a condo on Belisle Street.
Sure he had family and friends outside the ski club. No doubt, they cared about him, but they also had their own concerns.
Some of those closest to him were starting their own families. Stated or not, he knew he was moving down in their rankings of regard, although the notches were of uncertain measurement.
Perhaps he had a flawed idea of the form affection took when one individual considered another.
Maybe love was a helium-filled balloon of constant proportions and most people would simply add another string to the collection they were holding when someone new came along.
That would be in nice counterpoint to his perception of affection as a pail of pure water with finite volume that required draining at the bottom when freshly filled at the top.
It did mean a reduction in the amount of attention that some of those nearest and dearest to him could apportion in his direction.
He did a lot of traveling for business. At his age, it was a convenient point of distraction.
There was nothing quite like the adventure of visiting a new city and seeing fresh sights.
But back in his hotel room, after a busy day of work, the disassociation on a personal level with all other living and breathing people in the world was scary.
The sense of being plucked from the ground and rendered cordless was magnified alarmingly with the addition of distance.
His latest club membership notwithstanding, he wasn’t really a partier. He had little desire to partake in some local night-spot scene.
The few times he’d tried, the experience made him uncomfortable.
He’d only become active with the ski group in Toronto to try to alter his luck when it came to meeting people.
The sport factor provided fun camouflage.
He was desperately looking for something, nay someone, to cling onto.
Wearing his naked need, however, was clearly not the way to gain passage to his desired station.
Judy made that clear.
Of all the people in all of the urban cores to run into, there was Lester approaching him up the bookstore’s side aisle.
Wes knew Lester had been witness to the scene at the party.
A desire to run in the opposite direction almost overwhelmed him. He quickly concluded that cluttered inventory spread everywhere would defeat his purpose.
Much to his relief, Lester was playing it straight. Just an introductory “Hi there!” and “Do you come here often?” and the demands of politeness were satisfied.
Cursory greetings dispensed with, Wes announced he’d spent the day downtown and was now heading home.
Lester asked Wes where he lived. When he learned it was near Davisville, he followed up with, “Would you mind if I got a lift to St. Clair? My car’s in the shop.”
Leaving the store, Wes informed Lester his Civic was parked in a lot at Queen and Victoria Streets.
Lester insisted they stride up Yonge Street and along Shuter. It was a shorter route.
Walking east along Shuter, the bitter breeze tore at their faces. Lester spun around and walked with his back to the wind.
Coming towards them along the sidewalk was an elderly nondescript couple of consistent appearance.
They were both short, of almost exactly the same height, and their footsteps were evenly spaced. Bundled up in winter gear, they presented the aspect of two roly-poly presences.
Wes noticed a great deal more as the distance between them shortened. She was Oriental and he was Caucasian with a frozen goatee and moustache.
Her arm was linked in his and, despite wincing from the deep-freeze, they appeared comfortably relaxed in each other’s company.
In seconds, the non-encounter was over and each pairing continued in opposite directions.
Wes remained fascinated. “How in the world did those two ever come together?” he wondered.
Maybe she was a caregiver with a patient, he considered. But based on the briefest of observations, that didn’t seem to be the case.
Perhaps he was a transvestite who performed on stage for a living. One of his many fans may have been accompanying him on a mid-winter stroll.
Whatever put that strange thought into his head? It, too, was a ridiculous conclusion.
He knew his skewed perceptions were the result of swallowing Friday night’s bitter pill.
No, they were the cutest damn couple he’d ever seen.
By this time, Lester was facing forward again and the two of them walked briskly to the parked vehicle.
Once inside, the better mood Wes was experiencing set free his mind to consider someone outside himself for the first time in nearly two days.
“So Lester, what do you do for a living?” he asked his traveling companion while cranking the ignition.
“Think of me as a sort of physician,” was the surprising response.
True romance is always going awry, as in the case of The Melancholy Fog Harvester. To his credit, our mystery man carries his heartbreak with style.