Monday, April 22, 2013

Now I Lay My Heart to Sleep: An Excerpt

Sean Mendonça, holed up in his office in his cozy Stockdale home in Morgan Heights where he settled in to write about an hour ago, was anxious. Quite nervous, actually. Listening to the soft hum of his laptop, the scraping of the leaves of the oak tree against his office window, the unnameable cracks and creaks of the old house — soon it would all be disturbed, hushed by a presence that seemed to possess the house — and everything in it. What do I do? was the question he had been meditating on for the last week or so, as if waiting for Christ to come into his life, but he was no closer to an answer than he was to God.
Sean’s grip on his black Bill Blass ball-point pen loosened, which he then laid down gently on top of his coil-bound notebook. He let out an exasperated sigh as he fell backwards in his chair and then immediately brought himself forward, and studied the clever sentence scrawled across the page: Perhaps salvation, despite how we have come to conceive of it, is the gift of the believer struggling with his faith to the non-believer. He wasn’t trying to be witty, and nor was he certain that he had been. Reaching for his newly purchased edition of the Gage Canadian Dictionary, he remembered how his mother repeated, like a mantra, “Christ is my salvation, let Him be your salvation,” and confident of that life-saving power. He had always been more distrusting of religion, unwilling to give himself over to a force he could not see or feel. At thirteen he had said to his mother, “Show me the proof, empirical proof, that God is real and not just another one of those great myths,” and almost instantly his cheek burned with pain. His mother had never hit him before, and she immediately felt remorse as her son glared at her with contempt, his eyes moist, but able to check his tears. In any case, what did he really need saving from? So now he was looking up the word salvation, not because he didn’t know its meaning, but because there was something caustic about it that set him on edge — like a participle dangling at the end of a sentence.
He squinted at the small television perched on an angle on one of the oak bookshelves that straddled the wall to his right, in the upper-right corner a picture of the Queen Mother in one of her feather hats. He reached for the remote control and pointed it at the television, turning up the volume to hear the news anchor say, “And back to our top story this hour,” with regret, and the suggestion of a deep personal loss, “the Queen Mother is dead.” Sean set the remote control down on the desk, and as he leaned back in his chair he felt himself surprisingly caught up in the wave of grief that seemed to sweep across the world in a blaze of almost languid disbelief. He held his attention to the television, taking in the images of Britons congregating in front of Buckingham Palace and placing flowers against the iron fence in memoriam and tribute to their beloved Queen Mum. Or, were they perhaps hoping to sneak a glimpse of the Queen in mourning? Suddenly their loss became his loss, a black weight of hopelessness and uncertainty now before them. And in that moment it came to him, that if he did need saving from something, perhaps it was from the feeling, firmly implanted in him, of a cool, hastening insecurity for a world plagued with chaos, and for the part he was to play.
He picked up the remote control and turned off the television, and made his way downstairs to the dining room. He stood for a moment in front of the hutch made of a dark cherry wood, and pushed together the three soapstone cats, tucked away in a corner of the hutch, that Debbie, his housekeeper, had spread out earlier during her weekly Friday morning visit. Debbie liked to rearrange things, instate her own sense of order, and this irritated Sean, who would roam the house after she left and put things back as they were. He took one of the crystal tumblers from the hutch, and then moved around to the other side of the dining room to the buffet that was from the same set as the hutch. He opened the middle door and removed the bottle of Lagavulin, and smirked as he poured a generous amount into his glass. It was funny to him how he had insisted that the alcohol be kept out of sight, locked away — another imprint of his past, his mother’s stalwart objection to the presence of alcohol in her house. He weighed this up, his mother’s unsuspecting mark on his life, the undetected, until recently, imposition of a morality he considered suspect.
Alcohol wasn’t the only thing he was trying to keep at bay, out of view. He had spent the last few days trying to, and unsuccessfully at that, tame his feelings of rage. He wanted to kill. Perhaps not kill, just maim, make his victim suffer, and take pleasure in the suffering. These were new feelings for him, ones that shocked. Maybe he wasn’t the pacifist that he thought he was. He downed his scotch in two large gulps as if that would neutralize him, dull the pain. It didn’t seem to help. He did after all believe that good was inherent in man, and that was again the impress of his mother’s faith that encouraged the romance of goodness. The tragedy, when he considered it a bit more, was that just because good was in man did not necessarily make man capable of good. That was “the mythos of morality,” which was how he had titled his essay that had appeared last month in Miss the Mark Literary Journal. “But ... but ... goodness is our fodder,” Nathan Parks had protested after he had read the essay, which Sean had not shown him until after it had been accepted for publication. When Nathan handed the pages back to Sean, he asked cautiously, “Do you really believe that we’re not all capable of good?” Sean had shrugged, took the papers from Nathan and withdrew to his office.
Sean poured himself another drink and put the bottle of scotch away, and moved about the house with a sense of releasing the nostalgia of a golden era to a bold new vista. He dragged his fingers along the wall, stopping at doorways to ruminate on the contents of the room, and the events that had played out in them. It had been four years since Sean and Nathan had moved into the large renovated house with the promise of love, and an idealism of happiness that was supposed to endure. Sean was now standing in the living room that was long and narrow with its three rectangular floor-to-ceiling windows that looked on to the street. The blue damask curtains were partially drawn. The hazy orange sky folded into the robin’s egg blue high above the earth. A wide bar of sunlight streaked into the room across the long and narrow low-rising occasional table that was positioned in front of the windows, pictures of Nathan’s family proudly on display. A large green and red and gold rug covered most of the hardwood floor. Two matching, worn, brown leather sofas sat opposite each other and were separated by a dark cherry wood square coffee table complementary in style to the occasional table. It was a tight squeeze but all the furniture seemed to fit without making the room appear cluttered.
Sean returned to his office and sat down at his desk. He gulped his scotch and, setting his glass down on top of the dictionary, stared blankly at his notebook. The house was quiet. Too quiet. Almost eerie. It was as if the walls knew there was something he had to do, and were waiting on him to act. He knew what he had to do but lately, as if subscribing to the procrastinator’s creed, he was putting off life. In actual fact he was putting off Nathan, and that situation wasn’t going to change. It was all simply no good. Sean reached for his pen and pressed its tip to the page of his notebook, waiting for the words to once again take charge and navigate his pen across the page, fill the notebook with a few more clever sentences. But he just sat there and glared at the page, the idea of salvation detracting him from what mattered. Was it so inconceivable that somehow humanity could be saved by a god Sean could not see or say for certain was real? What had happened to make him so cynical? Is the presence of God necessary to the salvation of humanity? Sean wondered, and quickly scribbled that down.
He glanced at his watch. It was a few minutes past five, and he was still feeling anxious, approaching a crisis-state. Sean held a prominent position in the civil service but on weekends, when Nathan was out running errands, he would write. Sean had intended on polishing a short story he was hoping to resubmit to PRISM international after some encouragement, and constructive feedback, on an earlier version. But when Sean had the house to himself, when he could hear himself think, he liked to play the piano, or watch TSN or reruns of old sitcoms he had on DVD — or simply do nothing. Like today. He spent the morning parked on the sofa in front of the television until he felt he should be doing something, and drove to Chapters where he purchased copies of Time, Men’s Health and the Enquirer. He returned home and leafed through the magazines for a bit before finally installing himself in his office. When Sean heard the barely audible thud of a car door closing, he glanced at his watch again and took a deep breath, and at the sound of the front door banging shut he stiffened. Nathan was home.
When Nathan was in the house the walls carried his moods — derision, desolation, desire, pharisaism. And then the music rang out through the house from Nathan’s downstairs office, which had caused Sean to gasp. AC/DC and Sting were intimates in their lives, and Nathan, who had no talent for singing, sang along like some second-rate opening act. Nathan was singing now. Sean used to ask Nathan to turn down the volume, a request that was often met with the noisy sucking of teeth. There were times when the music was so loud that Sean thought he was at Manhattan’s, one of the local night clubs, as the walls vibrated. It was impossible for Sean to concentrate on his writing with all the noise, but Nathan didn’t seem to care. They argued more about Sean’s writing, which was for Nathan an unwelcome intrusion that made him feel third-rate. And in the last couple of weeks, when their love, which was already in doubt, had been completely shattered, they came to inhabit separate parts of the house. Sean stowed away in his second floor office writing, and Nathan took refuge in his office roaming in and out of online gay chat rooms, which were almost like a handbook for his life. And Nathan did not try to conceal his online “romances” from Sean, who never pretended to care.
How long ago it seemed when Nathan would, upon coming home after work, rush about the house, in a panicked urgency, searching for Sean. And Nathan would take Sean into his arms, scurry to kiss Sean, and lead Sean to the bedroom to satisfy his insatiable need, to which Sean surrendered with the quaking eagerness of a first-time lover. Those days had disappeared a lifetime ago. Perhaps not a lifetime, but long enough for them to forget what it felt like to be with each other. Now Nathan would sometimes call out, “I’m home,” in a sarcastic tone that proved their lives were cemented in a necessary separateness.
The music stopped abruptly, and Sean, sighing, let his pen slip from his fingers and onto his notebook. He reached for the dictionary and stood, once again studying the word salvation, trying to commit it to memory, as he made his way towards the bookshelves. Sean had just slid the dictionary onto the bookshelf when Nathan appeared in the doorway to Sean’s office. Sean glanced at Nathan, shooting Nathan a cold look of distrust before immediately looking away. Sean fingered the books on the shelf that were eye-level to him and pulled out André Gide’s L’Immoraliste. First Sean read the short synopsis on the back cover, and then flipped to the first chapter. Nathan, who had come into the room and who was standing a short distance away, made a strange grunting sound, hoping to get Sean’s attention. Sean didn’t flinch. Nathan resented Sean’s coldness, Sean’s constant aversion for him, Sean’s unwillingness to look him in the eye. They had yet to acknowledge why this was so, but they both knew why. How could they not? Sean had been sleeping in the guest bedroom for more than a week.
The silence hung in the air, thick and expanse, the kind of silence that intimidates, makes one recoil. But in this battle of wills Sean and Nathan were both determined to stand their ground. Nathan watched as Sean closed the book and slid it back into its place on the shelf. Sean, just over six-foot and with his round cappuccino-coloured face that was often harsh in repose, still had power over Nathan. They were both keenly aware of this, but now that irritated Nathan, even though he liked to be dominated. The silence had to end. They had to talk and not simply move about the house pretending like the other didn’t exist.
Nathan lifted his right hand to Sean’s shoulder and said, cautiously, “What do you propose we do?”
Sean twisted out of Nathan’s grasp, and said, “You should leave,” with the suggestion that the answer should have been obvious.
“You mean, give you some space,” Nathan said, his round blue eyes widening with angst.
Sean said, “No,” holding his penetrating brown eyes to Nathan. “I mean you should leave, move out.” He moved to behind his desk, and standing with his hands shoved in his pockets, “This is no good, you and me. We’re damaged, broken. It’s all been smashed to —”
“Smashed?” Nathan folded his arms. “That’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think?”
“No.” Sean slid his hands out of his pockets and sat down. Sean contemplated Nathan and how, tall and well-toned from his workouts at the gym a few times a week, Nathan looked lanky and comical. Perhaps it was Nathan’s fair complexion that made him now seem old.
Nathan ran his hand down over his long decisive nose and round mouth with full pink lips. “Do you really want me to leave?”
Sean, shifting through the papers on his desk, said, “Yes,” without lifting his gaze.
With his left hand, Nathan clutched at his short brown hair with blond highlights. “What about the house?”
“I’ll keep the house.”
Nathan said, “You, keep the house?” almost laughing. Nathan looked on as Sean continued to move papers about his desk, as if there were a wall between them that blocked the other from view. Suddenly Nathan felt remorse or was it love? Nathan wasn’t sure anymore. He desperately wanted to believe that he was still in love with the twenty-nine-year-old in front of him. Or maybe Nathan’s friend Yannick Autel was right, and Sean wasn’t really Nathan’s type. But Sean hadn’t really changed since they had first met with his short short black hair, short sturdy nose and full reddish-brown lips. The old feelings of panicked urgency swelled within Nathan, the lusting images that used to fill his mind in days gone by as he made his way home and took into his arms the man he thought would love him forever. Nathan pursed his lips, his eyebrows scrunched, and then his face relaxed, a sign of defeat, an involuntary surrendering of his will to Sean’s. Nathan said, his voice filled with emotion, “Is this really what you want?”
“It is,” Sean said sternly. In a gentler tone, he added, “I’d like to do this amicably.”
“Of course.”
“Expeditiously.” Sean finally looked at Nathan, whose eyes were now filled with adolescent curiosity. Then, in a steely voice, “Surely you have some place you can go.”
“You mean, leave tonight?”
Sean hunched his shoulders and looked away. Nathan retreated. Here it was, the end integrated within them. But it had always been there, sequestered, veiled by a silent hope of renewal, of salvaging something alive while play-acting home. Possessive, like religion, and demanding compliance with a higher moral code. It eclipsed what was beyond — hope and all things good — happiness in time with the rhythm of the heart. Sean drew in a deep breath, held onto it momentarily, and blew it out slowly, a hint of a smile on his face, and curious as to how much of his own will had been broken.

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