Summer, 2012 / No. 28
Art by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

Julian had a nose that resembled a piece of sausage cooked until it burst. Because of this, and the barrel chest he inherited from a coal-mining grandfather, he intimidated those who didn’t know him. He did not look like the person he actually was; he looked like the person who, in high school, beat up the person he actually was. It had taken him years—by then he was well into his adult life and finishing law school—to feel even slightly at ease in his bulky, uncoordinated body.

At law school, Julian met Anna. He first noticed her across a lecture hall, twirling her tangled, split-ended hair in conversation with another student, who blamed her own inability to take notes on her sister’s ongoing addiction problems. The other students had learned to sidestep her. Watching Anna, he noticed she lacked any self-awareness about her own charms. In fact, her allure lay partially in that inattentiveness. Julian later learned that she chewed gum while drinking coffee. She wore sweaters inside out. She set teakettles on the stove then went on long walks. Even in that first glance, Julian knew Anna was too preoccupied with the concerns of others to look after herself.

Observing her over the term, Julian knew that Anna was quick to laugh and far from unapproachable. A friend of Julian’s forced him to speak to her at a school Christmas function. That was all he needed: once Julian started talking, he couldn’t stop. And in Anna’s case, the bemusement she felt watching this chatty bratwurst-nosed man turned to curiosity. They went on study dates in the library and ate together. Julian would cook their meals, pick the movies they watched; he even once sewed a button back onto her favourite jacket. She, in exchange, could see his true self; the laconic intent behind the loquacious result. In their last year at school, after two years together, he proposed over a bowl of soup. She accepted before he could finish asking.

Shortly after their engagement was announced, his future in-laws invited them to their mountainside condo. This was his first extended stay with them. Anna’s father was a theatre professor who specialized in the politicized satire of Bertolt Brecht and Dario Fo. Her mother, who was the beneficiary of a family fortune derived from installing plumbing fixtures during the Second World War, painted images of hungry African children over landscapes she would find at flea markets. Her brother played professional handball in Belgium, but his real passion was preserving dying indigenous languages through open-source language software. Everyone in the family was small and lithe and spoke using their delicate hands. And they were all expert skiers.

The first night, Julian and Anna arrived late. As they prepared for bed, Julian lied and said he’d brought work with him for the next day. His alibi wasn’t hard to accept; he was at a firm that was notoriously hard on its articling students. The next morning he slept in and walked the short distance from the condo to the resort village. He skimmed a rack of paperbacks in a magazine shop and bought a Harlan Coben thriller. He read ten pages before losing interest. He soon found himself in the hotel bar drinking Irish whiskey and talking to the bartender. The buzz he nursed into the evening allowed him to endure dinner with Anna’s family, who, with their faces lit from the mountain air, talked through the night about books and movies he’d neither read nor seen, the “ghastly, odious” Conservative government, and the necessity of the Oxford comma. Their noses—so perfect they seemed carved from fondant, taunting him—rose in laughter.

They seemed wary when the topic turned to Anna and Julian’s future careers in law. Julian remembered a lawyer joke he’d heard at work.

“Have you heard this one? ” he asked. “What happens when you give Viagra to a lawyer? He gets taller!”

Their noses dropped. Anna placed her hand on Julian; he wasn’t sure whether it was to comfort him or signal him to stop. Finally, Anna’s brother nodded at Julian’s fish entree and made a remark about the depletion of stock in wild arctic char in Norway and Sweden.

Julian’s resentment lingered and left him feeling tense the next morning.

“Are you going to work again? ” Anna asked, watching him getting up from bed. “We’re on a holiday.”

“I’m only working because I can’t ski,” Julian said, cracking open his laptop. “I wouldn’t keep up with you guys.”

Anna sat up in bed and brought her knees to her chin.

“You need to start somewhere.”

Julian put his laptop away and borrowed a pair of snow pants and gloves from Anna’s father. He walked down to the resort rentals area, the crowded basement of the hotel, where he received a pair of skis and boots from across a counter. The poles were in a bin by the lockers. He signed up for a private lesson and was told to wait outside. With his skis bundled together, and wearing his clunky boots, he stepped up the grated steps that led from the rentals area. He sat on a park bench and in the screen of falling snow watched the skiers glide down the hill and swoop toward the chairlift.

His instructor’s name was Molly, an Australian in her early twenties. Her skin was peeling and freckled. She wore a lip ring, the sides of her head were shaved, and peroxide-blond dreadlocks sat tied in a ponytail under her toque.

They approached the tow, where they stood in line with kids carrying snowboards and inner tubes. They latched onto the rope tow until halfway up the hill, when they let go and began their lesson. Molly taught with a laconic precision, pausing at appropriate moments and making the necessary encouragements and corrections with a gesture or a word. She asked Julian to arrange his skis in a pie-wedge shape. They practised turning, which Julian needed to complete three times before Molly was satisfied.

Then they took the chair lift up the mountain. He was surprised he hadn’t injured himself yet. He chatted excitedly with Molly.

“I want you to know,” Julian began telling her, “I’ve never skied before. I’m not athletic, not in the least. You might tell by looking at me. It’s never been a dream of mine to ski, it hasn’t even crossed my mind, not even once, that people would get a kick out of skidding down an icy mountain. That said, it’s been a lot of fun. I feel it needed to be said, having been so grumpy this morning.”

Molly’s reaction was so slight that Julian wasn’t sure she had heard him. There was silence, then she asked, “Are you a lawyer? ”

Julian laughed, trying to conceal his embarrassment. “How did you know? I mean, I am, I am. What gave it away? ”

She pursed her lips, refusing to display any satisfaction in guessing correctly.

“I have a knack for these things. I’ve taught quite a few lawyers.”

Because Julian talked so much, people thought he worked with computers or did something else that deprived him of human contact. The idea he sounded like a lawyer scared him.

“I studied French and Italian in university,” he started explaining to her. “I got good grades. I could have easily entered a master’s program. I wanted to take the United Nations exam for translators, but my parents, you know how parents can be, made loud, angry speeches. They couldn’t see a son of theirs as anything but a lawyer.” He added, “I get why lawyers are seen as sleazy. Even I think so sometimes.”

Molly settled her shoulders. It seemed liked she’d been put off by his bouquet of self-revelation. “People do worse things for money,” she said quietly. “I count myself lucky with this job.”

“You’re very good at what you do,” Julian told her. “I’ve had a lot of fun so far. Things could change, of course.” He laughed. “I’m just kidding.”

“Thank you, Julian.”

“Anyway, you’ve made me feel comfortable.”

There was another pause in the conversation that Julian was compelled, by habit, to fill.

“Like I said, skiing is such a bizarre activity. Risking broken legs, broken necks, your life—just to ski? Is it worth it? ”

Past experience had made Julian aware of his physical limitations. Over one mid-teenage year, Julian had grown six inches and added sixty pounds. He suddenly towered over most of his friends. When what little co-ordination he had had vanished, physical activity not only lost its appeal, it became a hazard. Twice that year he broke his nose. The first time, playing flag football, it was the bare elbow of a friend he had been chasing down the field. The second time, the trunk door of his father’s new Mercedes sprang open and blindsided him.

Molly glared at him, just for a moment.

“What brings you here? ”

He couldn’t resist telling her.

“Haven’t you ever done something unpleasant just to please someone else? ”

Her face shrunk in scrutiny, before resetting itself without an answer.

It was dry and cold that afternoon, and by nightfall the snow on the ground was hard and icy. Around dinner time, Julian, Anna, and her family drove down the hill from their condo to a nearby strip mall. There, in a former pasta bar decorated like a Tuscan farmhouse, they ate izakaya—Japanese pub—dishes. No one, it struck Julian, tipping back another pint, seemed bothered by the dissonance. After his third Sapporo, Anna put her hand on his elbow and told him, “You’re too large to carry home.”

As they finished their dessert—a crème brülé made with frozen matcha ice cream—Julian and Anna’s brother fell into a disagreement. Julian, who’d read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, insisted that Patagonia was a part of Argentina. Anna’s brother corrected him that it was in Chile.

“The region is part of both countries,” Julian said, pulling out his iPhone.

“That is not true,” Anna’s brother said. “I know many Chileans.”

The Wikipedia entry on Patagonia revealed it was part of both countries.

“We were both right,” Julian said, handing the phone to his future brother-in-law.

Anna’s brother waved the phone away from him.

“Do you have any idea how many transplanted rural Chinese have been exploited for your status object? Do you even know about the political conditions in the Congo? ”

“Right. I heard about those suicides.”

Anna’s father raised an eyebrow.

“And you still bought that phone? ”

“If you had a heart, you would be using one of these.” Anna’s brother produced a device from his own pocket. It was a nondescript grey smartphone with a touchscreen. “They’re called FairSmarts. They’re made in Denmark from recycled materials by an industrial design collective with the help of at-risk youth and sex workers leaving the trade who are paid a living wage.”

The FairSmart had the approximate dimensions of an old VHS cassette tape.

“Isn’t it heavy? ”

Anna’s mother, who had saucer-shaped eyes and wore amethyst earrings, spat out her latté.

“Convenience comes at a price, Julian,” she told him. “Apple reports record quarterly profits, even as they let their suppliers ignore the working conditions. But when there’s enough money involved they”—here she implied lawyers—“find loopholes.”

The waiter arrived with the bill, which Julian had paid with a credit card. While calculating the tip, Julian recalled an article he’d read on sweatshops.

“Sweatshops,” he said, fully aware of the potential unhappy consequences of this argument, “are often the least worst alternative for poor people. That’s what someone in the Economist suggested. I’m no expert here, but isn’t it true how, throughout history, cheap labour has been necessary for countries to industrialize their economies? ”

Anna’s father, a jowly, olive-skinned man, would start each thought with a vacant pause, his lips forming words a moment before any sound came through them.

“Actually. Julian. That’s only because people in Third World countries—”

Developing world countries,” Anna’s mother corrected.

Anna’s father closed his eyes and nodded in agreement.

“People there are too busy toiling away in sweatshops, those boys and girls making Gucci suits and Nike high-tops. They don’t have the time to educate themselves. There’s not enough social capital to create opposition. Which is how these multinationals prefer it.”

Julian shook his head.

“Would you rather those people work in sweatshops, or as prostitutes or pickpockets? ”

Anna’s brother glared.

“We’d rather they be doctors or writers.”

“You’re ignoring reality.”

“Reality? Jesus.” Anna’s brother laughed contemptuously. “Why don’t you use your imagination? ”

Julian snorted. “Imagination couldn’t help one sweatshop worker,” he told him. “Reality is what I see with my own eyes.”

“Well, you certainly picked the right profession.” Anna’s brother stood up and announced that he’d be waiting outside. “Thanks for dinner.”

Anna’s father took out his FairSmart and followed his son outside to answer a phone call from a graduate student. When her mother wandered to the washroom, Anna crossed her eyes at Julian. She preferred to start her arguments through agreement.

“O.K., so my brother can be a little self-satisfied. I admit that,” she said. “But that’s no excuse to bait him.”

“I can’t believe you’re taking his side.”

“You don’t even care about sweatshops.” When Anna was angry she could be insufferably whiney. A brat. She hated conflict, even if the alternative was half-baked apologies and false consensus. “Or capitalism.”

“He had it coming.”

Julian stepped outside first and held the door for Anna. From the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of the snowball that Anna’s brother, the professional handball player, had hurled at his face. He had enough time to move his head, but the snowball winged the side of his face above the eye. He blinked, and for an instant, all he could see were spots of purple.

“Is that reality enough for you? ” Anna’s brother asked.

When Julian could finally recognize shapes and objects, the first image he could make out was Anna’s father, struggling to keep a straight face.

Julian trudged cautiously down the hill—his shoes were not suited for the snow—into the village and the same hotel as yesterday. He looked over the scratch above his eye in the men’s room and judged it to be harmless. He decided to get another drink. What else was there to do? From the hotel lobby he could hear the crowd inside the bar, their voices tired from exercise. The room was filled with candlelight and the liquid baritone voice of the piano player in one corner rang through the muted chatter. He stood at the crowded bar and waited. The bartender—with whom he had such a pleasant conversation the day before—only got around to him after fifteen minutes, and made no apologies.

The people in the lounge were older, many of them tourists wearing jackets or caps with the resort logo on them. He paid for his double Jameson and looked for a place to sit. When a group of German businesswomen left, he took their table. He decided to wait a couple of hours. By then, he’d be sober enough to find his way home, but drunk enough to pass out in bed. He was sitting at the table, fuming, when his ski instructor appeared at the lounge entrance. Molly was with another woman, a tall brunette wearing a baggy sweater and carrying a knapsack.

She looked around the crowded room and noticed Julian.

“Hey—you mind if we share the table? ”

“Of course not,” he said. He offered his hand. “I’m Julian.”

Molly looked at him with a stiff, unfriendly face.

“I remember your name.”

A waiter approached from the crowd, carrying two gimlets on a tray. He knew these two women and refused their money.

While Molly took a sip from her drink, the brunette offered her hand.

“My name’s Sheila.”

Her hair was dark and glossy and fell past her shoulders. She wore big hoop earrings.

Julian asked her whether she was a ski instructor, too.

“No,” Molly answered for her. “Sheila works nights. We’re waiting for the guy she works with to show up. I’m here to keep her company.”

Sheila checked her watch.

“He’s running late.”

“He’s always late,” Molly said. She looked at Julian. “So why are you here by yourself? ”

He shrugged.

She cocked an eyebrow at him, and Julian knew her dazzling skills of deduction were at work once again.

“Does it have anything to do with that scratch on your face? ”

“No,” he told them. “I just needed some alone time.”

Sheila seemed alarmed. She was the smiling, ingratiating good cop to Molly’s sullen bad cop.

“Should we leave? ”

“That’s all right.” Julian tried to explain his situation without going into detail. “I’m not the type of person who needs company twenty-four hours day. Anna understands, call her crazy. I love her. She thinks I’m strange, but she lets me have my space. Besides, it’s good for some mystery to remain in a relationship, don’t you think? ”

When Sheila leant toward him to speak, he smelled cinnamon chewing gum, spray tan, and baby powder.

“I know what you mean,” she said.

Molly looked at her with surprise.

“That reminds me of a movie we saw. It was about some guy who lives next to an analyst with a home office. One day he discovers an air vent that lets him eavesdrop on the shrink’s sessions with a beautiful woman. She tells the analyst about her ideal mate. The analyst asks her what the perfect guy’s like, and she says someone who’s interested in Renaissance art, who drives a truck and owns a dog.” She trailed off. “Et cetera.”

For some reason, Sheila wouldn’t look him in the face when she talked. This, Julian decided, was somehow beguiling.

“The point of the movie was, I guess, that all our secrets are rather boring, so it’s important they stay secrets.”

“The movie’s protagonist,” Molly explained, “arranges to meet the beautiful woman and sweeps her off her feet. The beautiful woman dumps him because he’s so predictable. It wasn’t a very good movie.”

Sheila’s iPhone rang.

“He says he can’t make it,” she said after she put away the phone. “Maybe I can work without him.”

Molly shook her head. “It’s just not safe, even if I come along.”

Julian watched them with interest, waiting to be let into their conversation. They seemed oblivious to him.

“Well, I can’t not go. I’ll lose my job. Plus, we really need the money. It’s not like they do anything. They just sit there.”

“I won’t let you get raped,” Molly said. She stared at Sheila, then turned to Julian. She looked helpless. “I have my limits, too.”

From the window of the two-room suite, Julian could see a fan-shaped area of the mountain, lit for night skiing. In the suite were a dozen men his age. They sat in front of a TV, plucking beer from the mini-bar and eating cheese doodles. Someone, the man in charge, offered him a beverage. In an effort to appear professional, he broadened his chest and shook his head brusquely.

The tension and anticipation seemed to overwhelm the men in the room. They moved a step away from Molly and Sheila. Many of them wore wedding rings and the type of casualwear that, Julian knew firsthand, had been selected for them on gruelling trips to the mall.

The men moved a coffee table and pushed a couch back. They put a chair at the centre of this space, set off from the others, for the man of the hour. He was broad-jawed with a thinning head of hair. He tried to laugh off his nervousness as he took his seat, but seemed too filled with shame even to acknowledge Sheila and Molly, who carried a tape deck and Polaroid camera. As Sheila went to the washroom to change, Molly spoke to them in the same blunt tone she used to teach skiing. She explained that she was here to take Polaroids and that only her camera was allowed. “There’s absolutely no touching,” she barked at them. “If anyone crosses the line, the show’s over and there’s no refund.”

Molly led Julian, by his elbow, to the other room.

I hate her job—I hate it, I hate it,” she told him.

He was to wait there unless he was called. The bed was still made and the television set played soft-core porn with the sound turned off. Sheila emerged from the washroom in a slutty librarian outfit. Although she was in high heels and a tight skirt, her hair was in a bun and she wore large owl-shaped glasses, a cardigan, and a string of pearls. In one hand, she held a leather-bound edition of Bleak House; in the other was a due-date stamp.

“Special request,” Shelia said about the outfit. She met eyes with Julian for an instant. “Are you sure you don’t want to watch? ”

In that instant, he thought about the first time he’d seen Anna naked. He’d been with only two women before, both older waitresses he met while working at restaurants. They had compared notes about him and each of them directed him through their coupling like they were instructing a dog. With Anna, they had disrobed shortly after their first kiss; they both began taking their own clothes off as if on cue. He remembered babbling nervously, afraid of how his body—his bulging belly and cuppable breasts—might look with the fluorescent ceiling light of his room adding a greyish pallor to his untanned torso, but when she was completely naked he went silent. Sheila repeated her question. He shook his head.

“Usually,” Molly said before closing the door, “Sheila uses a safe word. But since you’re new we’ll just scream your name if we need you, O.K.? ”

Julian sat in a chair next to the door. The music started in the other room. He heard Sheila ask the men to make noise. Her request was followed by self-conscious laughter, then a few tepid catcalls, their hoots growing steadily with gusto. What would he do if he was called into the room? He’d step in there and deal with whomever was getting out of hand—would he merely ask him to leave? Or would he have to wrestle him to the ground? If the offender took a swing at him, would he have the presence of mind to punch back? He thought about this, and other things. And then, over all the noise, he waited for his call.

Kevin Chong lives in Vancouver. His latest books are the novel Beauty Plus Pity (Arsenal, 2011) and the memoir My Year of the Racehorse (Greystone, 2012). Last updated summer, 2012.