It is a night in late November. Clo is in her basement suite on the east side of Vancouver, mid-bedtime-routine. In the den the TV is turned to news coverage of the city’s homelessness crisis; she is in the bathroom, listening abstractedly. She hums to herself as she ties her hair back, plucks an eyebrow, removes her earrings. They’re plain hoop earrings she’s been wearing for years—not because she likes them, but because Maggie gave her the original thumb-tack piercings on her tenth birthday and something needs to keep those punctures open.
As she brushes her teeth, she becomes conscious of it: a wrongness. The way the mouth feels when there’s corn between the molars, but the wrongness isn’t in her mouth.
Clo thinks again of her tenth birthday. She, Maggie and their mother had been living in a duplex at the time. It was the kind of neighborhood in which dogs barked at night and drunken voices told them to fuck off. Their mother didn’t work much; she’d been in a car accident. She got migraines. Every week they went to the food bank and took what they could get, and when they ran out they ate macaroni. For their birthdays, though, their mother always went out to a confectionary and bought a cupcake, a careful masterpiece of pink and blue icing. Then she stuffed it full of candles.
Clo remembers everything about that day clearly. She remembers sitting eagerly at the dining table, the rain at the windows; remembers the pain radiating from the two points of her earlobes; and she remembers how, slow as a waltz, the Happy Birthday began.
At first it was only her mother’s full, high voice. Then Maggie joined with her pubescent quavering. And then, finally, there entered that other throat, that deeper, scratchier throat that made Clo shiver.
Standing in her bathroom, Clo freezes with the toothbrush in her mouth. Why is she remembering a deep voice?
The news is still on in the living room; Clo turns it off and concentrates. She sees the memory play out: the song quieting as her mother sets the cupcake in front of her, her blowing out all the candles at once, easily, her looking up and seeing a room full of smoke—and through it, a broad-shouldered figure across the table.
A man wearing a maroon cardigan and holding himself like a spider: motionless, waiting.
Clo almost chokes on her toothpaste.
For the last three years Clo has helped coordinate the volunteers and settlement mentors at the Immigrant Services Society. She’d started as a mentor herself, liking the idea of welcoming anxious foreigners at airports, explaining public transit, learning greetings in Hindi, Mandarin, Filipino. But the required level of affability and social finesse was beyond her; she was no good at making people feel at home.
That Monday, she’s barely touched her seat when she sees Jaspreet winging his way towards her.
Since he started at the office a week ago, he has brought Clo coffee from the machine every morning. Clo doesn’t drink coffee, but she hadn’t refused the first time.
“Good morning, Clothilde.”
Along with coffee, Jaspreet has also been trying to guess her full name. Clora? Clotille? All he knows for sure is that it isn’t Chloe.
“First hoarfrost of the season! Helped a couple from Mumbai other day, wouldn’t want to be them now. Brr.” Jaspreet sets her mug down and gives her a concerned look. “Say, that was rough last week, you doing okay?”
On Friday, Clo lost a pile of case notes and for the first time on the job the boss yelled at her. That Jaspreet has remembered this over the weekend causes her to shift in her seat. Before he can say anything more, her phone rings and she seizes it mid-tone. “Immigrant Services.”
“There are raccoons in the house!” screams a voice on the other end. “Raccoons!”
Clo flashes Jaspreet an apologetic look. “Go on,” she says into the receiver.
“They are in our basement! They have toileted the carpet! They have pulled the—the stuff from the walls!” The woman’s accent is thick, Slavic, Clo thinks, and there is yelling in the background.
“Did you leave a window open?”
“Yes. Maybe. Please, they have messes everywhere!”
“Okay,” says Clo. “This happens in Canada. Sometimes.” She pauses, remembering. “When I was a kid, a raccoon got under our porch and someone from Animal Control had to coax it out; I can give you their number.”
“Shut your basement windows from now on, okay? If you leave them an opening, they will come back inside.”
The woman repeats the phrase back to her. If you leave them an opening they will come inside.
“Hello?” says the woman. “The number? Hello?”
The man hadn’t been from Animal Control. Animal Control sent men in blue vests with nets and trapping kits, not men in wool cardigans.
Clo closes her eyes. In the memory, she can see the man from the shoulders down. He’s in ironed blue jeans and shoes of chestnut leather, stooping, placing a jar of peanut butter on the lawn. His hands are pale; as he stands, they clench and unclench slowly, as though pumping something. He steps back, goes still. An immense patience organizes the scene—a sense of infinite time, infinite waiting. The raccoon pokes its head out from beneath the porch, nose twitching. The man leans forward—
Suddenly Clo becomes aware of her office again. The phone has gone dead in her hand, and someone is standing over her.
“Clo?” he’s saying. “What’s wrong? Can I get you some water? Clo?”
The memories keep coming over the week; the man seems to have been everywhere in the months just after her tenth birthday.
He is behind school yard fences, staring in as she and Maggie fight.
He is in the social worker’s office, watching her with folded hands.
He is at her mother’s funeral, standing over the empty coffin.
At times it makes Clo’s heart race with anticipation. She is discovering a great secret about herself: she knows this man, she must. And yet Clo can’t recall his face. It makes her nervous, makes her excitement feel like some sort of trick. No matter how she concentrates, his face seems to be outside her mind.
By the end of the week, Clo is worried enough to call her sister.
Once, she and Maggie had been close—shared a bed, lollipops, secrets. When Clo got lice and their mother wanted to shave her head, unable to afford medicated shampoo, Maggie shaved her own to show that Clo didn’t need to be scared. But that was before her tenth birthday. Before Maggie began to act out, make dangerous friends, tease Clo’s introversion. Now Clo can’t stand that cigarette-raw voice.
There are twenty minutes left of calling hours at Mission Institute minimum security when Maggie comes on the line.
“Jesus, you’ve got bad timing, Sis. I was bluffing my way with a pair of sevens for a pot of, well—” Maggie snorts and declines to say what they are betting on. “So what’s new? You still seeing that guy with the lip ring?”
“We broke up in May. He was too…” Clo can’t find a way to finish the sentence. “He wanted to move in with me.”
“Listen,” Clo says. “Sorry it’s been so long. I called because… Actually, I need to ask you about that night.”
Maggie’s tone is suddenly wary. “That night.”
“My tenth birthday,” Clo says, though Maggie knows. “I’m trying to remember something.”
Clo hesitates. “It’s dumb, I know, but was somebody else there with us? Visiting I mean. A relative of Mom’s? Maybe you remember… a guy in a maroon cardigan?”
There is a pause.
“Clo, what the hell is this all about?”
“Just answer, Maggie.”
“Mom didn’t have relatives. That’s why we ended up in foster care after that night, dummy.”
“Oh my God,” says Maggie, sucking her breath in. “You aren’t over it. You aren’t fucking over it.”
“That’s not what this is.”
Maggie snorts. “You know why I’m in here, Clo, and you’re out there?”
“Because you assaulted a police offer, for starters.”
“Because I dealt with my shit. Anger, hate—got it all out. You are still holding onto it all; I did what it fucking took.”
“That’s one way of justifying it.”
Maggie gives a deep, put-on sigh. “‘Give ye no foothold to the devil,’ Clo.” It’s what their mother used to say, whenever they stole cookies or lied. Maggie is mocking her.
Clo ends the call.
No, she thinks. No fucking foothold.
A week later, the man in the cardigan is in memories of her early twenties. Clo remembers him at old waitressing jobs, sitting quietly at corner tables; remembers him at parties she’s otherwise forgotten; remembers him beside her in the theatre.
In particular, Clo remembers him at a cafe she had once frequented. He sat by the window, two tables away from her. In this memory, Clo can see his face for the first time.
He looks her age, about twenty-four, twenty-five. His cheeks and brow are pale, the same luminous pearl of his hands, and his skin is so taught that his eyes seem to pop. They look about the cafe, eel-like, as though glancing up from the deep, and Clo gets the sense of a sadness behind them. Framed in the window against the downtown traffic, he looks just the saddest thing in the world. Clo wants to put a hand on his shoulder, to hug him, to look into his eyes.
In the memory, she wants him.
Clo decides to be strategic. She makes a list:
1) research memory/hallucinations
2) find shrink
3) talk to Maggie again
4) check memories against photos/diary
A moment later, Clo is digging out a box from the closet under her stairs. Inside are the only mementos she’s kept—pictures, school drawings, old Christmas cards. There is also a grey, sad-looking book with the title, “Don’t You Dare Read This Maggie.” Her grief journal. One of her first counselors had made her keep it.
She opens it at random.
I had the cupcake there. I had it, it was full of candles. In one go I got them all. Why couldn’t I have wished for mom to stay?
Her ten-year-old script is difficult to read; each letter is stabbed onto the page, as though she had held the pencil in a fist. It’s all rage. There are page-long sentences of her hate of Maggie, her hate of her counselor, her hate of the world. Nothing yet about the man in the cardigan.
People keep saying it will get better. I don’t want it to get better. Even if god makes me the richest person in the world, even if he gives mom back, it’s too late. I want it not to have happened at all. If he’s going to make it right he has to make it right from the beginning.
Clo frowns. This word, “beginning,” is underlined twice. She remembers doing that. She remembers exactly where she was—one of those generic lobbies outside the counselor’s office with chairs lined against a blank wall, voices sounding from behind doors.
At that moment, the irreparability of things had shown itself. Her mother was gone for good, and here she was suffering. More than that: here she would always be. Nothing could change the fact that she was hurting now, and as she grew up, became a woman, became old, far back in the past and getting farther she would still be there, in pain. How she’d wanted to scream.
But she hadn’t. Because, just then, she had felt that arm stretch out from nowhere and rest comfortingly on her shoulder.
A gentle arm, in the sleeve of a wool cardigan the color of russet apples and autumn leaves.
“Hello, Clo,” the man had said.
It was the voice from her birthday party: deep, full of sand. Clo sat with her grief journal closed on her lap.
“I think you are sad, Clo.”
“I think you are angry.”
In her basement suite, Clo shuts her eyes. She needs to remember exactly what he said. It is important.
She hears, “I can…”
Yes, yes, can what? Clo strains.
It’s no good, it was too long ago. Clo shuts the journal and feels the pressure of tears just behind her eyes.
It is late December. Clo smokes two packs a day now. She takes showers that use up all the hot water. And she loses sleep: she wakes up at the edge of the bed, almost falling off, as though her body were making room for somebody. Phone calls from unregistered numbers set her heart beating. Nocturnal scratching at her suite door, which she knows can only be raccoons, makes her think of house-breakers, stalkers, dark things wanting to get inside.
Something is happening, Clo knows it in her gut—but none of this seems to count as evidence.
On Thursday, when Clo arrives at work the office is buzzing. A major donor has passed away, leaving a substantial legacy fund to the Society, and treasury has just broken the news by offering to buy whatever fancy drinks people want. Jaspreet is going around collecting orders.
“And for dear Clover?” He leans against her desk, arms crossed. “A grande latte with caramel drizzle for our office coffee fiend?”
“Coffee?” she says, before she realizes who she’s talking to. “I’ve always been more of a tea drinker.”
Then she glances at him, mortified.
Jaspreet’s eyebrows shoot up.
But he’s grinning. Suddenly she’s grinning too. He starts laughing, great seal-like bleats that turn heads in their desks, and Clo can’t help it, she joins in. They must laugh a whole minute. It’s the best Clo has felt in a long time, all tension is relaxed, and suddenly she’s embarrassed by the release. She looks down at her desk.
“Chai latte it is,” he says.
The next day, Jaspreet adapts his morning courtesy: tea waits for Clo on her desk, and there is a note beside the mug. How about a Rumpelstiltskin wager. If I guess your name by the end of the day, you must let me take you to dinner.
Clo sips her tea and considers it.
It has been over half a year since she’s been on a date. Her last was with Grey Dawkins, all the way back in May. She hadn’t really known what to feel about Grey; she liked him, and yet she found herself shying away from his advances, as a swimmer does from an underwater shape warbling into view. He’d driven her to a “secret” lake an hour outside the city, where the sun was out and they could lie beside each other on the hot sand. They were so near the water that little waves lapped at their toes, and as Grey rolled on top of her Clo remembers the tickling scratch of his wool cardigan on her bare skin.
Clo frowns. Of course, she’d been misremembering—it was the man. It’d been him on top of her, not Grey.
She remembers how his water-darkened hair came off his forehead and sent droplets onto her cheeks. He was so near. She could see the line in his eyes where the irises ended and the pupils began, and the striation gave the effect of the aquamarine blue rushing into the black pit of his pupil. But all at once she was not paying attention to his eyes, because the two of them were…
Clo relaxes her lips, feeling that kiss, then takes another sip of tea. It’s over-steeped now and she gets up to throw the bag away. Halfway to the waste bin, she stops.
“Fuck,” she says aloud.
She’d believed it for a moment.
She knew well she’d been with Grey in May, not the man. But she’d sat there, remembering that beach, believing he’d been there. Believing he was real.
Wanting him to be real.
A minute later, Clo has left a note on Jaspreet’s desk—No help from HR—and her day begins to fill up with the ping of new texts.
It is one long string of wrong guesses, and it gives her the giddy sense of evading fire by standing still. At day’s end, as people put on their coats and wish each other good weekends, Jaspreet isn’t even close. He sends her one last desperate text, and Clo finds herself unable to disappoint him.
“Evening, Clorinda,” Jaspreet says when he picks her up from her suite.
Clo is silent most of the drive. She is wearing a knee length skirt and has done her hair to cover her ears and forehead; she couldn’t find her earrings and she feels naked without them.
Jaspreet takes her to a pizzeria owned by a family friend. At first he seems nervous, apologizing several times for his gear shift, which makes a crunching sound like a back breaking. But at dinner he’s relaxed—so relaxed, Clo finds her own posture changing. She’s laughing genuinely, leaning forward into the conversation. Somehow, they get talking about insomnia; it turns out the both of them share the affliction. “I’m an idiot: twenty-eight years old and I still haven’t figured out how to fall asleep!” says Jaspreet, and Clo finds herself describing the visualization exercises a therapist gave her once to get her mind off worry-loops. Imagine a hand trying to slip out from a glove without help. Imagine a hole trying to swallow another hole. Jaspreet slaps his knees laughing, and Clo notices he does not ask about why she’d been seeing a therapist.
When their plates are cleared, they recline in a put-on languor and Jaspreet looks past her, sheepish. “I have a confession,” he says. “I checked with HR about your name.”
Clo goes red.
“I thought it was really sweet,” he says quickly. “You pretending. To let me take you here.”
She looks down at her napkin.
“I didn’t ask them what it was, only what it wasn’t. I just couldn’t accept you were a Clorinda.”
“No? I’m flattered.”
“I did, however, ask HR about something else. I hope you don’t mind.”
He’s grinning now, looking at something behind her. Clo turns. Three employees stand there, one of them holding a cupcake. Before she can say anything, they’ve begun singing Happy Birthday.
Clo’s eyes grow wide. She checks her phone: December Twenty Nine. She’d forgotten.
Happy birthday to you…
“Jaspreet,” she hisses, snapping her head back to him.
Happy birthday to you…
Happy birthday dear Clorinda…
She stands, and his face falls; before they can finish the last line, he makes a gesture at the singers and they cease. Jaspreet shoos them back to the kitchen, and the customers who joined in or who just turned to watch go back to their meals.
Jaspreet gets up and touches her hand. “I’m very sorry. Isn’t it your birthday?”
When she says nothing more, Jaspreet offers to bring her home.
A hot glow radiates from Clo’s cheeks the whole drive back; she’s sure he can feel it. She’s kept her napkin from the pizzeria and folds it endlessly in random patterns on her lap. When Jaspreet pulls up to the curb outside her suite, he turns off the engine and gives her a quick glance.
“I don’t celebrate my birthday,” she says after a moment.
“It’s… the anniversary of a bad day.”
He looks at her, encouraging her to go on.
The idea sets her heart racing: she could. She could tell Jaspreet about that night; his long face and his patient, equine eyes lean in, and she knows it would be safe.
“Whatever’s wrong, Clo, I want to know.”
“I—” she hesitates. “Thank you for a nice night; I’m sorry I wrecked it.” And she opens the car door.
How many times has Clo spoken a No, wanting to speak a Yes? A friend once said to her, “Your antisocial behavior is actually a longing for relationship. You want social contact to happen in spite of you, as though that were evidence it’s worth something. That’s messed up.”
Maybe so. Maybe she wants a man without all the fuss of having to seduce him, or however it is supposed to work. Maybe the psychologists are right and she has never learned “attachment.” Maybe she isn’t designed for love and connection; is not, in fact, a person, only a moving, thinking gap shaped like a person.
Making tea in her apartment, Clo longs for a warm body, longs until the craving grows specific: she wants the man in the cardigan. She wants to dance with him again.
They’d danced together recently, she recalls. The rain’s soft paws were at the window, and outside the streets were dark. He’d turned the radio on to The Police. He was so at ease, so in his element; the sort of quality you sense in an old tree. He had an arm resting on her waist, and his chest pivoted away from her. They swayed.
wrapped around your finger
wrapped around your finger
“I can make everything right again,” he’d whispered to her. “I can make it all right from the beginning…” Those words—he had said them to her before, a hundred times; she knew them by heart.
Clo frowns suddenly. The memory feels so intimate, so near, a presence just around some corner in time. Where is it they were dancing?
Her breath catches
It was her basement suite.
“You have to let me talk to her!” Clo screams at the prison secretary. “It’s a family emergency!”
Perhaps it’s the desperation in her voice: a minute later, Maggie is on the other end.
“Jesus, Clo. What the hell.”
The way that Clo explains it to her, there is something wrong with her memory. A kind of amnesia: she knew a man and now she forgets who he is. She finds herself unable to say the words: an evil man. She finds herself unable to say: I think I am in love with him. She is too embarrassed by it all, by the way she’s been indulging it, nursing it; by the way it all seems to be, when she spells it out for her sister, so much a fantasy.
“Maggie,” Clo says. “You have to help me remember properly.”
Maggie sighs, and the two of them go over the whole nightmare once more—how, after dessert, their mother had gone out for cigarette filters; how she’d winked at them before she shut the door, and Maggie had gone to turn on the porch light for her, since it was dark out; how an hour later, she still hadn’t come back, and Clo had wanted to call the police and Maggie wouldn’t let her, not until another hour had passed; how Maggie had finally made the call, how she had talked so calmly with the operator on the other end, and how Clo had screamed and screamed.
“You screamed so much. You wouldn’t stop screaming.”
Clo considers. “And then?”
“What more do you want to know? You remember the weeks of searching, the social workers, the counselors, the fake funeral for ‘closure.’ There wasn’t any man, Clo. I remember it all pretty damn clearly.”
“That’s the thing, Maggie. I do too.”
Clo sips her tea; it has gone tepid.
“I reread my grief journal the other day,” she says in a whisper. “I hated you for not being angrier, after it happened. I accused you of being glad to be free of Mom. Now you could steal shit and be a brat and do all the things you’d wanted to do before but couldn’t.”
“You know what I thought? I thought if I stayed mad, stayed hateful, I could make something happen. Make God give her back.”
Clo laughs; it comes out as a choking sound. “It was like Mom’s disappearance punched a hole in me, and I thought if I kept the wound open, she could crawl back through. But what if…”
There is a long silence.
“Listen, Clo. They’re going to cut the line. You need to relax. Take a bath, light a hundred fucking candles, I don’t know. Just relax.”
“Maggie, what if…”
“Bye, Clo. And in case you think I’d forgotten, Happy Birthday.”
The line goes dead.
For a long time Clo stands in her kitchen with the cold tea in one hand, the phone in the other. The lights are off. On the landlord’s porch above is a motion-sensing lamp; it’s finicky, even moths trigger it. Clo’s suite is dark enough that whenever it flicks on, it startles the kitchen with a mean electric yellow.
What if something else crawled through?
Clo pictures the man in the cardigan. She sees his dark hair, his pale skin, his wide cerulean eyes.
If it’s true, though, how would she be able to tell? We are our memories; when those are tampered with, what else do we have to check our identity against? As soon as the monster invades it would be as though he has always been there, and there’d be nothing to signal an intrusion, no way of knowing better.
But she knows better. So it can’t be happening, can it?
That’s when she hears the knock.
Clo has been living alone for so long in her basement suite that a knock itself is unusual, a knock itself could startle her; but this knock is at midnight.
She goes very still.
Another knock: three quick raps. Nothing contains more human intensity than that thin, knuckles-on-wood sound.
Clo holds up her phone. Jaspreet would come if she called him. She brings his number up and hovers her thumb over the call button. Then, very slowly, hardly breathing, she creeps to the peephole and presses an eye against it. Before she can get a good look, she is startled back by a voice on the other side.
A man’s voice, low, stony, familiar.
“Hello?” she says. “Who are you?”
“Clo, it’s me!”
Slowly, Clo presses against the peephole again. The porch-light above her suite is still on and there is light enough to make out a shape. No, not quite a shape; something in the process of taking a shape. Perhaps it is the warp of the peephole itself, but for a moment the shadows cast by the porch light seem to gather and tighten just behind the door like an indrawn cloak. The force of Clo’s grip on the door handle hurts her hand.
Clo blinks and a man stands there, wearing a chestnut cardigan.
Her heart is a coin flipping in the air, undecided between fear and hope. The difference means nothing to the heart, both quicken the pulse; to Clo, the difference is everything.
Who are you?
“Clo?” He sounds hurt, offended. “I can see you moving in the peephole. Why is the door padlocked?”
Answer me! she wants to shout. What do you want? All she can do is stand still, her lips locked and her throat too tight to use, as the man’s question hunts through the cracks in the door for a response.
When he speaks again, his voice is faint. “What are your earrings doing out on the patio table?”
Clo’s mind goes to her ears automatically, sensing the undecorated lobes.
“I’ve never seen you go anywhere without your earrings. Is… Is something going on?” And then he says her name.
Not “Clo.” Her name.
Clo’s heart skips. No one knows her name, only her and Maggie—and this man. This man, with whom she’s lived almost a whole life.
Clo’s phone is in her hand; she could still call Jaspreet. His number is still on her screen. But her thumb, with the rest of her, is stuck.
“Listen,” the man says. “I know that you’re confused. Angry. Maybe even scared.”
Doesn’t she have memories of the two of them, even from last week? Hadn’t they taken a walk together on Kitsilano beach last Saturday?
“And I know that you’re lonely. You’ve been lonely so long, you’ve almost forgotten what anything else feels like. I can make it so I’ve always been there with you.”
Hadn’t they gone for a night drive a few days ago, a drive out of the city and along the coast, as they often did to decompress from the week’s work?
“Let me inside. I can make it right from the beginning.”
She sees them all clearly now, all her memories of him illuminating the deep-water darkness of her life with mesmerizing color. And now here he is, the very one who explains the absence she feels daily, who fits it like a glove.
Why does the heart move so much faster than the mind? Before Clo can help herself, she is opening the door. Her body sweats and trembles and tells her to run the other way; but she wants him. She wants to press her cheek against the familiar curve of his chest, to breathe him in, to be held. And—now there he is. He stands tall at her threshold, back-lit by the neighbo’s porch-light. It’s as though he’s come infinite distances to be here, come darting and drifting through the long spaces of the cosmos. His eyes contain a great predatory patience. They lock on hers.
The light flicks off on the porch above.
Patrick Doerksen is a graduate of the 2017 Clarion Workshop in San Diego and his fiction and poetry has appeared in Aurealis, Abyss and Apex, Pantheon, and the Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku, among others. A story of his was selected for Penguin Canada’s Journey Prize Anthology, 2017.