“God and I have a great relationship, but we both see other people.” Dolly Parton
My old girlfriend was calling from Kitchener. We hadn’t talked since she went back to her old high school sweetheart. Sheila started telling me how lousy things were. There was no work, no house, no Brad most of the time. They were living at her mother’s place because Brad’s ex showed up. Nikki—the ex—threatened to have him arrested for clearing out their joint account. He had to give her all his money. Next thing they know, they’re living in Cora’s basement.
“That’s what Nikki did to us,” Sheila was saying.
I could hear Cora talking in the background.
“I am asking him,” Sheila said to her.
She keeps going on about being broke, never seeing Brad, and that’s just the tip of their problems. Going downstairs last week, she broke both her wrists. She tripped over some strapping on the stairs. “Brad’s been renovating,” she said. Both her arms are in casts, but she can still move her fingers. “The thing is, Michael,” she said, “there’s this company in Cambridge. They’re offering transcription work. If I had a computer, I could make some money.”
I already knew what she wanted. She wanted my old computer, the one she was using when we lived together. “Are you buying or borrowing?” I asked, knowing full well she couldn’t afford anything.
“It’s only for a month or so, Michael,” she said. “Once we get some money together, we’re out of here. Gone. That’s the plan, anyway. Brad’s still got friends in Calgary. We can stay with them until we’re back on our feet.”
So it’s back to Calgary, in other words, where Brad was living before things went south with Nikki. Nikki drove across the country to get her money back. “Do you really want to run into Nikki again?” I asked Sheila and she said, “I’ll have plenty to say to Nikki.”
Sheila and Nikki had already had words. This was out in front of Brad’s mother’s house. Sheila said she was the real injured party. She’d waited six months for Brad to send for her in Calgary. “He marries you instead,” Sheila said. “You don’t think that’s the worst kind of betrayal?”
Nikki obviously didn’t. She got in her car and drove back to Calgary with ten thousand dollars in her pocket. “That’s all she cared about,” Sheila said on the phone to me. Cora was whispering in her ear again. “Michael,” Sheila said, “Cora’s waiting for a call. Can I borrow the computer? I can pick it up tomorrow.”
“It’ll be morning. I’ll call before we leave.”
After I hung up, I got the computer from the second bedroom, put it in a box, then put the box by the front door. It was like when Sheila left me. Cora was waiting in the car. Most of Sheila’s stuff was already in the trunk. “Sorry, Michael,” she’d said, “he was my first. Our mothers are best friends.”
Cora and Brad’s mother had had high hopes for Brad and Sheila. Who didn’t want their son or daughter to marry their high school sweetheart? After graduation, Sheila and Brad were going out west, finding work. Then Brad gets this idea that he should go out first, get settled, and send for Sheila. Only he doesn’t send for her. He marries Nikki instead.
Brad coming back to Kitchener was a second chance, in other words. Maybe Cora and Brad’s mother were going to be grandmothers-in-law after all. The only problem was me. Sheila and I were living together. Not that things were great. They weren’t and Cora knew it.
So Cora makes the call, saying, “Guess who’s back?” and Sheila drove out there the next day. A month later, she was leaving me. “He was my first,” she kept saying, like it explained everything. She was carrying her last box out to Cora’s car. “Sorry,” she said to me.
Anyway, Sheila called this morning, saying they’d be late. Brad took Cora’s car to get coffee. His van’s in the shop with a broken tie rod. When ten o’clock rolled around, Brad still wasn’t back. Then ten thirty arrived and my phone rang. “He just came through the door,” Sheila said. “We’re leaving now.”
An hour later, Cora’s car pulls up in front of the house. Sheila gets out, hair short, casts sticking out of her sleeves. Cora’s putting on her horn-rimmed glasses, chewing gum. “Hello, Michael,” she says, “we finally made it.”
Something moves in the back seat of the car.
“Brad’s with us,” Sheila says. “He’s sleeping.”
They come inside, leaving Brad in the back seat. Sheila checks the computer, then asks if she can look around upstairs. “I might’ve forgotten something,” she said, taking off her coat. It wasn’t easy with those casts.
“Go ahead,” I say. “Do you want want coffee?”
Sheila looks at Cora.
“I don’t mind,” Cora says. “Should I see if Brad wants any?”
“No, Mom, let him sleep. Go help Michael.”
Cora and I go out to the kitchen. I start to put milk and sugar in the coffee cups and Cora says, “I’ll do it.” That’s when I hear the front door open. Cora tilts her head around the corner and says, “We’re in here, Brad. Sheila’s upstairs.” He goes straight up the stairs, talks to Sheila, raises his voice, then heads out the front door again.
Sheila comes downstairs.
“We’d better go,” she says. “Brad’s pissed.”
“Why?” Cora asks.
“He woke up and didn’t know which house it was.”
“I’m surprised he woke up at all.”
“Do you need the washroom before we go?”
I help Sheila take the boxes to the car. Brad’s in the back seat, toque over his eyes, arms crossed. Cora comes out a few minutes later.
“Nice to see you again, Michael,” she says. “We’d better get a move on, Sheila. I don’t want to get caught in traffic.”
“Thanks,” Sheila says to me. “I’ll let you know what’s happening. We’re still hoping to get out west before the snow flies.”
They get in Cora’s car and drive away.
A few months later, I get an email from Sheila. They’re in Calgary, Brad’s working construction. “Mom’s taken over my transcription work,” she writes. “She’s using your computer. Hope you don’t mind.”
A month after that, I get another email. Sheila’s left Brad. As they were getting settled, a woman called. Sheila thought it was Nikki. Only this woman said her name was Anita. She’d followed Brad out to Calgary. They’d been seeing each other the whole time in Kitchener. Sheila left the same night. She got her own place, found a job in a lawyer’s office, then started dating Rick.
Well, Brad and Anita didn’t work out, of course. She went back to Kitchener. He hooked up with Denise, a rodeo rider. Denise isn’t just a rodeo rider. In the off season, she’s a balloonist, same as Rick. They know each other. “Can you believe it?” Sheila says in the email. “We’re barbecuing every Sunday with those two. And guess what? We might all come back to Kitchener this Christmas.”
They’ve been thinking of driving, something Denise wants to do. She hasn’t been east of Manitoba. They’re hoping to loop around to Toronto. “Denise wants to see the CN Tower,” she writes. “Maybe we’ll see you while we’re there.”
It’s raining now, not so much rain as drizzle. The postman arrives outside, whistling away. There’s a postcard from my father. He’s down in St. Augustine with his new girlfriend, Miriam. They’re driving back the first of December. Miriam has three sons. She wants us all to spend Christmas together.
“Miriam’s a peach,” my father writes. “You’ll like her.”
I show the postcard to Susan, my new girlfriend. We’ve been dating for a few months now. She thinks it’s great my father found someone. Her father passed away last year. She wishes someone would call her mother a peach.
Susan’s got a wide-eyed belief in people, something that seems to go with her red hair. She’s a chef and she makes her own wine. Most nights, we eat at home, watching movies afterwards.
One night we’re talking over dinner. We get on the subject of mothers and high school sweethearts. I tell her about Brad and Sheila, them moving to Calgary. It’s mostly about Brad, though, him stringing Sheila along.
Susan seems to understand better than me.
“He was her first,” she says. “You always hope.”
“They’re all coming back for Christmas.”
“Good for them,” she says. “They’re happy.”
I keep thinking of my father down in St. Augustine with this Miriam. They haven’t been together very long. Now they’re making Christmas plans. I haven’t asked Susan what she’s doing for Christmas yet. I expect she’ll want to be with her mother. While she’s putting the dishes away, I ask if she had a high school sweetheart. “I married him,” she said. “Ten years next month.”
“Who’s he with now?” I ask.
“No idea. When I call, she answers the phone.”
“Haven’t you asked him?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
She puts the dishes in the dishwasher, wipes the sink, then pours more wine. She takes a long sip and looks out the kitchen window. “So when do I meet this peach?” she asks, looking at Dad’s postcard again. It shows a hotel entrance with a seahorse on either side of the door.
“Soon,” I say, “we’ll do it soon.”