“Oh, Illy, it was terrible. I swear it was the most awkward moment of my life,” June moaned and stuffed another donut hole into her mouth. She and Illy were sitting on their favourite bench at a park near the community college, a cardboard box of donut holes wedged between them. The bench itself was grimy and uncomfortable, but it faced an old-fashioned lamp post that looked like it had emigrated from the streets of Paris and was now deeply regretting the decision, so they sat on it as often as possible. During less emotionally desperate bench meetings, they tried to speak French.
“More awkward than last week’s pap smear with the sexy doctor from your bus stop?” Illy always felt guilty for how much she enjoyed hearing about June’s life disasters. Not only did it make her feel better about her own embarrassing encounters, it also always meant another box of honey-dipped donut holes, one of life’s most effective emotional supports.
“Yes, a million times more, seriously. We walk in the door and there are Steve’s parents, standing like they’re about to salute us or something, and Steve introduces us so of course I try to hug his mom. ” Illy winced. She had tried to warn June. “So I’m leaning towards her, arms out in a warm, friendly, hugging position, and she actually takes a step back and grimaces. Like she’s being smothered by some grotesque Blobman or something. Oh my word, I can’t even think about it.” June flopped her head into her hands and rocked back and forth. Illy was almost worried. This was a bad one.
“So then,” June looked up and reached for another donut hole, “there I am, frozen, the hugging Blobman from hell, and I don’t know what to do with my arms, so I-”
“Oh no, you didn’t…”
June looked at Illy, clenched her eyes shut, and nodded.
“You hugged his dad?” There weren’t enough donut holes in the world.
“I hugged his dad. What else could I do? At least he didn’t back away. He just sort of stood there, statue-like and patted my arm. What are these people- druids or something?”
“I think you mean droids.”
“Whatever, they’re not human. And Steve, bless his soul, didn’t know what to do, so he thought he’d make me feel less awkward by hugging his mom, so there we all were, hugging and awkward and druid-like. I swear I’ll never be able to face them again. I’m hoping Steve and I can elope and live in Morocco for the rest of our lives.”
Illy nodded. “I’ll visit.”
“Let’s talk about something else please. How’s your novel coming? Have you met any cool hippies to use for character inspiration?” She said inspiration with a French accent. June found immense satisfaction in words that were the same in French and English. They provided the critical mass of her French vocabulary.
“Well, one. And I didn’t actually meet him. And I don’t think he’s a hippy. But he was perfect, I promise, and has totally given the story the boost it needed.” Illy told June about Mocha Man Dylan and the great scene she’d written about him. June munched on donut holes and hmm-hmmed at all the right moments. Illy made a mental note to include June in her acknowledgments.
“Sounds great, Illy. I’m so proud of you and can’t wait to read it some time. But now I’ve gotta run. Class starts in twenty minutes. Junior Instructors aren’t given the privilege of breezing in late with the air of genius.” June leaned over and gave Illy a quick hug, then grabbed one last donut hole as she walked away. “Thanks for listening.”
“You too,” Illy called after her, “Keep me posted on the elopement.” She smiled. June made life so enjoyable.
As Illy walked back to her apartment, she tried to shift back into writer mode. A grey-haired man was walking ahead of her in a sports jacket and jeans. He had headphones in his ears and seemed to be walking to the beat of his private soundtrack, looking to the side every few steps as though posing for some invisible camera. Illy tried to describe him. The word strutting came to mind, but seemed contrived. Sauntering? No, the connotations were too rebellious. There really wasn’t much you could do with middle-aged men in sports jackets. She looked for someone else.
A teenage girl, in bold defiance of the snow still clinging to the curb, rode by on an old bike with an orange plastic basket attached to the handlebars. Now there was a perfect character for a novel. Willow pedaled by, the wind blowing gently through her long blond hair like the streamers flowing from her antique bike. She was a child of yesterday, riding into tomorrow. Wow. That description seemed to arrive straight from the literary heavens. Maybe Willow was meant to be a character in her novel. Illy waited a moment to see if the girl’s bike would slip on the slush and leave her injured on the pavement, in need of Illy’s help and, eventually, friendship- a sure sign of their shared destiny. But the girl disappeared around the corner, and Illy decided the effortless description was simply another affirmation of her development as a writer. Torturous descriptions were a thing of her past.
A couple walking across the street caught her attention. Illy was pretty sure they were the people who had just moved in to the suite next door to her. She’d only seen them twice before, and they were the weirdest people she’d ever seen. Both of them had blue-black hair and thick black-rimmed classes and looked like they were part of some underground Goth society from the late nineties. Or a theatre troupe involving lots of nudity and black lights. Illy was always scared she might run into them in the hallway. What do you say to people with matching black hair? It seemed so creepy to her. She slowed down a bit so that she could observe them without being noticed.
They seemed relatively normal when they were out on the street- holding hands,
laughing, carrying a Safeway bag. Illy knew there weren’t groceries in the bag, though. It was probably filled with drugs or spiky dog collars and their whole happy couple act was a cover. She considered calling the landlord as soon as she got home, just to give him a heads up on their strange activities.
The couple turned down the sidewalk to Illy’s building. She walked as slowly as possible to avoid any awkward interaction, but the guy seemed to be having trouble with the lock and was taking an unusually long time at the front door. They were still standing on the front step when Illy reached the front of the building, so she had to keep walking. The girl turned to look at her and almost caught Illy watching them, but Illy pretended to be admiring the ivy on the side of the building, yawned and kept walking. The key was to look completely relaxed and avoid any potentially agitating movements. Illy continued to saunter- it really was the only word, she realized, even without the rebellion- down the street, forcing herself to go all the way to the end of the block before turning around.
When Illy finally reached the end of the block, she turned back and was annoyed to see that they were still standing outside the apartment building. Now what was she supposed to do? She couldn’t wander the neighbourhood all day- she had writing to do. But if she walked back and they were still outside, they’d become suspicious.
Illy reached down to pick up a gum wrapper that was blowing by and stuffed it into her pocket. Ever since her encounter with Crazy Killer Man she’d felt a moral obligation to pick up litter. Somehow it redeemed her embarrassing actions.
After a few minutes of scanning the street corner for imaginary pieces of garbage, Illy decided she was being ridiculous. She was an adult woman and could enter her own building with confidence. It wasn’t Goth Couple’s business if she wanted to stroll down the block first to check on the neighbourhood’s litter status. If they tried to harass her about it, she could just dash into her apartment- she had done it in less than eight seconds when that psychotic Girl Scout had tried to sell her suspicious-looking cookies. Illy picked up one last cigarette butt from the grass and tossed it onto the street where at least it wasn’t defiling green space, and stood up straight, proud of her decision to act with dignity.
The woman strode down the sidewalk, exuding confidence and an impressive aura of honour. Maybe she could use this type of experience as the turning point in her main character’s life- the moment when she decides to transform fearful situations into auspicious opportunities for courage and growth. Although the antagonists would have to be more interesting than two postmodern actors. Maybe they could be bank robbers who had been on the run for months, hiding out in the unassuming apartment block. And although they were always loitering in front of the building smoking- no, shooting up heroin- and cracking their knuckles, her character would decide enough was enough and would stride right up them, her hands in fists, and-
“Hi. Is everything alright?”
Illy was face to face with Goth Boy, her hands clenched at her chest like a frightened boxer. He stared at her through his thick black frames with a mixture of concern and amusement.
Illy stared back.
Continue Reading: Chapter Nine