Insects and Arbour
by BRYAN BOODHOO
CAROLINE STARTS TALKING about the disappearance of the bees again, like she has been on and off for the last six months. “Maybe the bees aren’t having enough sex,” I retort. She isn’t amused. Her mouth stops moving. I knew better than to say that. We spend the next five minutes in silence, thinking that everyone else at the Starbucks knows we’re having a fight.
Things are complicated between us. “Complicated” is not the right word to describe our relationship, but it’s the word I use whenever anyone asks me how it’s going with her. “Complicated,” as in please-don't-ask-me-anymore-because-I-don't-want-your-advice complicated. No one has asked about our relationship in at least a year. “This is nice,” she says. Her statement bewilders me.
“Just sitting here and watching the autumn colors,” she says. I feel old. There are a handful of students around us, listening to their iPods and pretending to study.
Outside the window, a tree is starting to turn. It’s a black oak with a few russet leaves in front of a stone church on an overcast day. It’s the kind of picture that is supposed to have a subtext of impending death. Somehow, I find it soothing. In years past, Carol and I would have gone for a hike in this weather. The cold and the harsh wind made us feel more connected to the earth, more alive.
I remember sneaking out of lectures with her and making love in the forest. We were young. We would do it anywhere. Now it seems like a fond memory and a stupid idea. I would never mention it to her now.
It starts to rain. The force of the falling pellets tears a few leaves from their branches. A smirk crosses my face as I realize autumnal beauty is inextricably linked to fragility. Maybe I’m incapable of appreciating a perfectly healthy, green leaf.
She pulls the lid off her steel travel mug, and steam travels up her face. I’m surprised she hasn’t commented on the number of people drinking out of paper cups.
“I should have been a scientist, Jeffrey,” she says.
“Why’s that?” I ask. I know the answer because she’s made the statement many times before, but I ask the question, because she wants to explain more. She doesn’t use “Jeffrey” lightly.
“It seems like there is a lot more to the planet than people are really willing to explore.”
“Like the bees.”
She scowls at me because she thinks I’m making fun of her. I’m not. I’m trying to demonstrate that I’m paying attention.
“Or the rain,” I continue. I’m thinking about laying her body down on the wet grass outside, naked, and licking off every drop of water as it falls from the sky.
“Or the rain,” she repeats without enthusiasm. She's staring out the window. It feels like the lack of sunlight is pushing down on her psyche.
As more people enter the Starbucks, they pull moisture through the door and our little shelter starts to feel uncomfortable. Body odor is captured in that humidity. She wrinkles her nose, but that’s the only acknowledgment of the people around us.
“Rain is the only way oak trees grow. It’s nature’s way,” she states.
“Sometimes we forget. We need to sometimes—how could we go on living if we always remembered everything we know?”
For a moment, I see the two of us as if we were in an Edward Hopper painting. We both have expressionless faces and the window beside our table is open air. In my imagination, I see the two of us from the vantage of the steeple of the church across the street, but there are too many people around us for me to maintain that image. I’m reminded that any sense of privacy we have is illusory.
AN HOUR BEFORE, we were at the hospital, sitting quietly in the waiting room. There were no other patients that day, but we felt constrained, like any comments we made would echo down the halls and into the eardrums of the medical staff. Instead of talking, I listened to the receptionist’s occasional clatter on her keyboard. Eventually we were called, and we waited some more. In the doctor’s office, we maintained our austere silence. I listened to the air being forced through my nostrils. Everything in the room was monochrome white, except for a photo of the Andalusian mountains in Spain that Doctor Z had printed on two pieces of computer paper. It was the only thing that belied that other people had previously been in that room.
The photo only captured a fraction of the joy that Doctor Z must have felt on the day he snapped that photo. He wouldn’t let himself speak about it for more than a few minutes, but I imagined him in that rare moment allowing himself to be severed from the goal-achieving chronology of his life. Only the early morning could produce that angle of the sunlight. Despite being summer, the mountain air was cold. That moment must have been a respite from the days of excursion it took to get there and the physical labor that was required for the remainder of the journey. I’m sure he displayed that photo, instead of one of his family, because it reminded him of being in the middle of something great. He had climbed those mountains. It wasn’t there as a boast. (His image didn’t even appear in the photo.) It was a reminder.
Doctor Z eventually walked in and stopped my meditation. He looked older to me, and tired. Seeing a man in his fifties every other month is disheartening. I didn’t see him often enough to become familiar with his face, but I made out every new wrinkle and white hair. The skin around his eyes and jaws reminded me of the existence of gravity, like it was a before-and-after photo in a science fair. The entire image of the doctor before me was verification of the passage of time, and I knew I was aging at that moment.
It was bad news. Doctor Z furrowed his brow with a particular intensity. He didn’t open his file. I think he felt guilty about the facts of our dilemma, so he memorized them. It allowed him to concentrate on the least painful way to impart the unhappiness. He didn’t need to say anything. I knew it was me. We had been letting things happen for six months before we admitted that we wanted to start a family. Then we started monitoring Carol’s cycle and planning our intimacies. It took us almost a year to admit we needed medical assistance, and then six more months of monitoring. I knew it was me, because there’s something inside me that doesn’t connect to people the way it’s supposed to. Before Doctor Z started to speak, Carol held my hand. Her palm was warm and soft, and her fingers were slightly red from the hospital’s artificial heat. My hand was limp. I didn’t hear a word that Doctor Z said.
Conception is a natural symmetry of a seed into a fluid followed by a euphoric muscle contraction, a reciprocal muscle contraction, fluid, and another seed. It’s a divine synthesis when two come together to become one and leave a distinct third. I tried to think of impotency as a failure of the mechanics of my body, but it felt more like a spiritual failing. I wrote this on my face in a language Carol easily deciphered. Maybe that’s why she suggested Starbucks. Coffee is caffeine and non-confrontational banter, and maybe that was the best prescription for me at the moment.
AS WE WALKED to the Starbucks, I remembered our lives two years ago. We were lying in bed on a Sunday at two in the afternoon. It was an indulgence. We had spent months unpacking my boxes, and the night before we had finally finished, early in the morning. All our belongings were inextricably comingled. A warm breeze floated into the room. It was the pinnacle of the year—early summer. No air conditioning was needed.
“Everything is perfect right now,” I said.
“I’m glad you think that.”
I’d never shared a bedroom with anyone before. I was an only child, and I hadn’t realized how solitary I had been before.
“Even with my snoring?” I asked.
“And my rolling onto you in the middle of the night?” she responded.
“Especially with your rolling onto me.” I liked being woken up and reminded that I wasn’t alone. She rolled onto me again.
“Are we going to get married?” she asked, pushing her finger onto my nose, as if she were asking me if I wanted to go to the movies.
“Don’t you trust me without a ring around your finger?”
“Don’t you want to?”
“I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
She rolled off me. “We don’t have to right away. I was just asking.”
“I’m just not sure where we’d get the money right now. We just finished moving. Shouldn’t we be drinking champagne?”
“It was just a question. It’s not that important these days anyway.”
“But it’s what you want . . .”
I think about that moment as decision point in our lives. We never got married. We talked about it, but the thought just seemed to fade. We haven’t decided against marriage, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m afraid to bring it back up, because it will make whatever Carol and I have seem inadequate. If we had gotten married, would we be crippled by the debt of a wedding? Was there really much of a difference between calling someone a “life partner” instead of a “wife” anyway? I’m not sure it’s important anymore.
She held the door to the Starbucks open for me. It was a small gesture, but it stopped me thinking about the past—all the past. I wanted to be in the present, and I wanted to be in a place that feels like home, yet could be anywhere in the world.
IT ALWAYS SURPRISES ME that Caroline has the foresight to bring a travel mug with her. There’s always a little bump at the top of her purse where she stores it. She’s ready for all those little interstices in life. She lives for them.
All our coffee is finished. She tells me she’s going to the bathroom, probably to rinse her mug, but she doesn’t leave. She must see something on my face. She turns around to look at what I’m staring at. There’s a late autumn bud from a flower. I don’t know what kind of flower it is, or if it’s just a weed, but it’s a miracle in this weather.
“They think they found a cause,” she says, “to the disappearance of the bees. They started following the flight pattern of the workers. After they left the hive, they got lost. They flew around for days with no sense of direction and no way home. It just seems like a cruel way to go, buzzing around in a strange place that in some ways must look exactly the same as home. They think it has something to do with the fertilizer. As soon as the bees pollinate their first flower, they lose all sense of direction, but you know what’s really interesting? It doesn’t happen to all bees. They can’t explain it, but a special breed of bees somehow defies death.”
I’ve never cared so much about an insect before, which must make my expression more sallow.
“We’ll keep trying,” she continues, as she takes my hand. Her palms are always warm. The feel of them connects me to all the other times I’ve held her. It reminds me of early summer. “We will,” she asseverates. Sometimes I have to listen to things over and over again in my head to truly understand them.
Bryan Boodhoo's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Descant, Hart House Review, Joypuke, The Prairie Journal, and other places. He was longlisted for Exile Magazine’s Carter V. Cooper Fiction prize in 2013. His plays have been produced in Toronto, Edmonton, and other cities in Canada.