canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Previous Selves

by Bernard Kelly

It is the second day of the new year and already Wilf is looking sombre, drawn backwards along yet another section of the rail that guides his life. Sombre and just sufficiently alert to fold his glasses, pack up his book, and climb the steps from the subway to the waiting bus.

All the single seats are taken; from one of them a woman's face turns -- so sharply he must avert his eyes. You should ask the driver, he thinks to say, feeling again for his glasses and his book. Two or three times on the unvarying journey he will take a peek, distracted by her restless movements, the fineness of her profile. Some inner conversation there is which he cannot hear, is still too calmly plodding his beat when the name assumes form: Françoise. Even then he continues on, not daring (could he?) to wait for her as they leave the bus and cross the boulevard.

Only when he has put on his managerial self do his wits return: now he may safely go to reception and claim her, himself arrange their meeting, as if for the first time.

"Françoise?" he asks, certainly.

"I wondered," she says on the staircase. "All the way up I wondered, you were so much like the Wilf I imagined."

"How's that?"

"The gentle expression."

He thinks of his morning fierceness and laughs.


It is the tenth day of the new year and no longer is Wilf travelling backwards. The sun is in his eyes and beside him, her arm pressing, his arm willingly pressed, Françoise is talking urgently of her fate, the fate she has, she says, happily resigned herself to.

"For years I thought living alone was a kind of doom."


"Now I know it's my fate to live alone. Not to get married. Not to have children."


"And I've accepted it. You must know what that means, you've lived alone."

"Too long I have," he says, with unusual clarity, his eyes, all seeing, fixed on the reversion of evening, that morning's snow. "But I wouldn't call it my fate. Not now. I still believe I can change things. That finding a partner --"

"Oh, that word!"

"Whatever. Finding a partner is simply a question of seizing the right moment. Of always being out there. Presenting yourself differently each time."


"To increase your chances."

"And does it work?"

"Who knows? It might."

Aren't you the profound thinker, he thinks.

"Look," he adds, "at all the couples."

"Couples are death," she replies brightly.


It is the seventeenth day of the new year and the bus is crowded with men in woollen jackets, women in white furs. Françoise is wearing a pale green overcoat, its sleeves cuffed with green leather. Her eyes draw him forward so strongly he must blink to focus, change the angle of his feet to maintain his balance. (Gone, Wilf, you are far gone.) What had he said that she should now be saying, her back to the pole: "I think we've got a bit of a romantic here"?

"I'm still a little boy," he admits. "And a romantic. I have a friend -- we were in our late teens -- who used to believe, or said he believed --"

"Or believed he believed."

"-- that for every man there was a woman intended. By fate. And that they were searching for each --"

"Okay, I get the picture. He lives alone too, right?"

"Yes, but he hasn't given up looking."

"Can't is more like it. That's not fate, it's social conditioning. But your case is different. You don't really live alone, you live with your friends."

"The three-headed couple."

"And couples are death," she reminds him.

"We get along."

"I guess I have too, now and then. But actually living with someone else -- I mean, that's so hard. Sharing your food. Or having only one side of the fridge to store things in. Finding a teacup in the bathroom. Now that's really gross. Don't you think?"

"Especially if it's half full."

"You and I," she says after a moment, "have something in common."

"Which is?"


"I don't believe you."

"I'm serious. You don't trust anyone. And neither do I. That makes it hard to take chances."

She is reflective, appears each second of the minute that follows about to speak; he readies himself to bend his head and listen.

"What we should do, then," she says quickly (and yet only slowly does her meaning reach his mind), "what we should do, then, you and I, is take a chance and be friends."

He is able yet to murmur: "Friends" and immediately after: "All right", as if she had requested he hold her briefcase while she buttoned her coat. Something, however, is working him strongly within, some wiser, less wistful thing is leading him back over the past two weeks and pointing, like a museum docent, at all the hopes and intimations and, especially, the longings that he had allowed himself to have without recognizing them. But hold on, he thinks, attempting to be reasonable, to separate the mess of his mind from the sweep of his glands; this woman is forthrightness itself, not a flirt -- she means ... well, she means friends, and surely I can --.

Wilf and Françoise are getting down from the bus, he following her through the crowd at the station door. How, then, he wants to know, do friends behave?

"They start out," she says over her largely padded shoulder, "by trusting one another."

If that's so, he is tempted to reply, I've already started.


It is the nineteenth day of the new year and Wilf is loathing his desk, the paper in his hands, the office entire: Françoise is absent, and the tension he thought to find relief from has returned to trouble him in a more subtle manner. Only for an instant can he hope to be concealed behind his work; the thought pokes and pokes at him, worries him out: what good is this when she's not here? He struggles for half an hour, manages finally, from weariness, to become almost poke-proof.

The phone is still ringing its first ring when he lifts the receiver, the muscles in his throat still preparing to constrict.

"It's Françoise," she says. "I was wondering if you'd like to go see a film this weekend."

The poke sublime.

"Yes," he says hurriedly, afraid to say more. And then too bravely: "Which one?"


It is the twentieth day of the new year and Wilf is rushing to meet Françoise, is striding now through the cold and the dark toward the subway when travelling underground suddenly seems much too slow to him, slower by far than his pulse. He hails a cab going in the opposite direction, asks for the intersection he's loth to arrive late at. Once there, he stations himself in front of the cinema doors, his hands clasped in their thin kid gloves behind his back, the singular, solitary doorman. He stares down the crowd but so distractedly that he doesn't see her until she says, "Off the bus at last!" and leads him in, her chin over her shoulder. The film? He's forgotten.

He has brought her some cartoons, had expected she would later scatter them along some well-lit restaurant table, but she wants to examine them now. Now? -- She laughs, though. At that very instant, his mind -- oh, how unhelpfully -- swivels round to show him a vista down which all his overlapping previous selves are exchanging ... just such self-mocking images -- for the briefest of admiration from their far too brief heart's desire.

Desire, he thinks, the clumsy instruments of, always ultimately the same offering, as if it were critics of my handiwork I was hoping to appease. (Whose handiwork, Wilf? Did the thoughts within so terribly shape this head?)

"You get any more obscure and they won't have to turn out the lights."


"You stare any harder, I said, and you'll burn a hole in my tights. Just joking. -- Well, I hope you're not going to blame me for this," she says as the lights finally do go down. "Because I have a feeling ... ."

Wilf spreads his hands apart over his folded overcoat. Beside him, Françoise balances the envelope on her knee (he's too timid to take it from her) and slides slowly into her seat.


"See what I mean?" Wilf says, standing as the lights go up and reaching deep into his overcoat. Françoise already has hers on; she doesn't look at him but ushers him out into the aisle.

"I don't know," she says, leading him once more through the lobby. "The ending was abrupt enough."
"Perhaps one of the backers died."

They walk north, Wilf clapping together the palms of his gloves and chattering away the dismal feeling that had come over him while he watched the film.


She has already eaten, she claims, will dare only soup and a glass of white wine; he, despite his excitement, orders the grilled salmon.

"Don't look at me," she says -- and when he lowers his eyes, "This is such a painful process, I hate it, getting acquainted. I wish we could just copy all the necessary files from one another's minds. Like two hard disks cabled together. Don't you?"

"Who's to say what's necessary? -- We could always correspond."

"Maybe. That might work. Or it might not. -- What did you think when I phoned you? Were you surprised?"


She laughs as much as she groans. "Men are so stupid! Didn't you see how interested I was in you? -- You never considered making a move? Say to yourself, 'God, I'd like to know her better'?"

"Sure I did."

"Sure you did. When? Three minutes ago? Okay, here's the real question: when did you realize for the first time something might have been happening between us? The very first time."

"That's easy," he says. "When you told me you thought we should be friends."

"Only then? Not before?"

He looks down at his salmon, newly arrived.

"You got in under my defences."

"You felt invaded?"

"Overwhelmed. I kept telling myself I was mistaken, that it was just your manner ... ."

"And then the bell rang, the light went on." She taps her fingers on the stem of the empty wine glass.

"Oh," he says, "the bell rang, but as for the light ... ."

"It's confusing, isn't it? To be asked out by a woman. Not knowing what she expects from you. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'll find out you're not as interesting as I supposed. Then again, maybe I won't. There's nothing you can do, these things have to follow their own course. So far, we've had no trouble coming up with subjects to talk about ... ."

This moment long to pass, this fear that he might soon be tagged uninteresting.

"Sometimes," she says, "I wish I didn't have a body at all. That we were just these brains in a jar."

"Staring at one another through the ethyl alcohol?"

"That's how I picture myself in my dreams: an intelligence on four wheels."

"Why four?"

"Did I say four? I expect two would be adequate." She is smiling at him, as if he'd just given himself away.

But he is shocked when she next speaks:

"That's why I can't wait to be dead. The dead don't need bodies to communicate."

"But don't they have to fill out all these forms?"


They are once again walking north, the wind colder now, his ears so painfully ringing with it he can scarcely speak. Her hands, he notices, are bare; one of them motions continuously by his side. Selves are her subject, previous selves.

"I remember when I was five years old," she says, "suddenly getting into a panic because I realized I'd soon be six and I wouldn't be able to remember what it was like to be five. I was already forgetting what it had been like to be four. And it hit me then, this little five-year-old kid, that all these selves were going to disappear unless I did something about it, unless I concentrated really hard and committed them to memory. Which is what I did. For a while. Now, of course, when I hear my mother talking about what I was like as a child I have trouble recognizing myself. And yet she can't be totally mistaken, can she? I mean, she was there too."

They pass the scene of a collision: ambulance, taxi, police car; a young man and woman comforting each other on a store's front step.

Wilf is to take a streetcar west, Françoise to keep on walking north.

"My friends all say I'm terrible at goodbyes," she declares, hopping off and on the curb, a good body's length between them.

Ironic (mock-Byronic), he holds out his ungloved hand for her to shake. Her palm, given with a mildly bewildered look in her eyes, is surprisingly both soft and warm. The touch matters -- matters more to him than even he was expecting.

Kiss her, some voice from the cerebral crows-nest urges, kiss her now while you can, but: Watch it, warns another just as close, you make a wrong move here and she'll drop you like that -- try to be something better than merely male, would you?

"I enjoyed this evening," he says lamely as she lets go.

"Your streetcar's coming," she replies. "You'd better run."

She turns then and strides away, her head down, her hands (he imagines) reduced to fists inside her pockets. He lingers on the corner, squinting to see the back of her fading coat. The light changes and he does run, though heavily, for the streetcar. But the driver will not stop, and Wilf is left stranded on the traffic island, free once again to search with his eyes in her direction. He decides to catch up to her, prolong their conversation a mile or two more.
Too late: she has gone, he finds after rushing along for only a block, has either taken another route or easily outrun him. Or become the immaterial she so strangely envied.

Returned to his island, he witnesses a second collision, this one blocking the tracks. Walk he could but will not now, not by himself, not with these suddenly raised hopes ("a beginning" she had called their encounter), these rare old fears. With a lover's arm he beckons his taxi.


Mia cara, he thinks to write, I wish I knew what your feelings were as clearly as I do my own: how many they are and how exposed, it will take so very little to hurt them.

His own tenderness makes him smile -- piteously. In a month, he tells himself, folded like a wedge pointing to sleep, she will have crushed the bones beneath your bones, she will have scraped you clean.


It is the twenty-third day of the new year and at last they are rid of their colleagues, Françoise wavering, pale and still, amid the tall, crowding shoulders on the subway car, Wilf only just restraining his hand from gripping her arm. St Clair looms, the corner they last parted at. Must they now? She can, she says, spare him ten minutes -- where should they go? Anywhere, he replies as they disembark.

"What have you been thinking about?" she asks at the turnstiles.

"Lately, I've been thinking of nothing but you."

"It's a sickness," she says, pushing firmly on the bars. "It won't last."

In Bregman's, however, she says, "We could eat here, couldn't we? We could have a meal. Do you want to?"
He wants to.

He shows her how he draws: on the back of a table card (May we suggest an Espresso or Cappuccino?) his hand loosely revolves the pencil, outlining shapes he says are habitual, unplanned, a man's head, a sexless, seated figure. She takes the card and pencil from him, to demonstrate her own, simpler style, and goes on, as she talks, to enframe the figures he's drawn with flamelike, teethlike, starry lines. ("You think these two stand a chance?" she will ask him when she has finished.)

"See?" she whispers after a short silence. "We're running out of things to say."

"I've written you a letter. Not that that proves anything ... ."

"Let's have it. I won't read it here, don't worry."
Worry? He would gladly watch her read it, have that assurance.

She peers inside the envelope, and then drops it into her bag.

Something else drops, close behind him: a slice of strawberry cheesecake from a large silver platter that the waitress only now palms safely aside.

"Did I get you?"

He holds out a panel of his jacket. Françoise's laugh grows louder. He sits so, waiting for the dishcloth. Françoise's laugh grows quieter.

"Oh, your face!" she pants. "The expression!"

"We could give it a shot, I guess," she says once they're outside. "Maybe do something this weekend. If you're free?"

He is triple-knotting his overcoat belt. He looks down.

"We could ... have dinner at your place. If you're up to it. Are you up to it? You don't look very eager."

"It's just that my bathroom is such a -- but yes, I'm up to it."

"You can give it some thought. And let me know."

She smiles her sharp-eyed smile, shining it like a single powerful beam into his eyes.

"So," she says, "see ... you ... later," and turns away.


Don't pity me, don't coddle me. Don't think of me as someone to be managed. Don't hide what you want of me, of us. Trust me. I'm surprised, enormously surprised that I can once again say such a thing, but I do trust you. God, how I trust you.

And just what, he wonders sleeplessly, sleepily, will she make of that?


It is the twenty-fourth day of the new year and Wilf has returned home late, ponderous with fatigue. The light on his answering machine, he's gratified to see when he leans over it (coat, gloves, and boots unremoved), is beating rapidly, like the heart in his chest. He pushes the playback button.

Françoise's laugh and speech are one: "That's the saddest fucking message I've heard in my life! What are you? Dead? ..."

He laughs with her, slowly pulling the blinds closed. She has phoned altogether three times, each time promising to try again. Her fourth call will find him in. Restored to himself, no longer tired, he stands there, happily waiting for it.


It is the twenty-seventh day of the new year and Wilf is on his knees, sweeping and scrubbing and scouring, hopeless to turn this long unfinished room into anything other than evidence of his dim and neglectful solitude, his rank old celibacy.

The bread, in the oven, is rising well -- it, at least, will sweeten the air.

She arrives, short of breath and complaining of the light, which in this apartment seems always to be cast in the wrong direction.

"No candles?" she asks.

They eat at the table after all. She moves his plate so that they can share a corner. She eats, he talks; she interrupts him with questions.

"You're embarrassed," she says at one point. "Eating together is so intimate, isn't it?"

She encourages him to eat up, praises the bread.
"Some bakers maintain," he dares to say, "that bread made with love will taste of it."

She considers the slice she is chewing on.

"So it does," she says quietly. "Yes, I can taste it. I can taste the love in your bread."

This is so different from her usual tone that he struggles not to assume she's been moved to pity him.


She is on the shorter couch, he in his corduroy-covered chair, with his feet on the corduroy-covered hassock: two analysands but no analyst (unless they are taking turns?).

There are silences here that frighten him.

There are secrets: Her sister. Her father. The compulsion, the pathology of lies. The family thicket, a shred of clothing on every branch.

Her eyes look watery, their edges vague, because of the weak light no doubt -- but also because she is profoundly tired. She presses her head hard into the cushion and closes them.


When she leaves, a little after one (suddenly active again and moving rapidly between kitchen and bathroom, as if to evade him), she takes with her a nearly whole loaf of bread. They walk to the taxi stand.

"What is happening to my little world?" she whispers.


He soon wonders what has happened to his. Returning home, he finds on the side of the bathroom sink a teacup she must have spirited from the dish rack.

Such a very full cup, at that.

Bernard Kelly is the editor of paperplates, an online literary magazine []. His stories have appeared in Pottersfield Portfolio, Antigonish Review, and Another Toronto Quarterly.







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