canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Lake Baby 

by Kathleen Mullin

The dinner party was at Gregory's, who is a friend of Elizabeth's, and my friendship with Elizabeth is what led me to be invited to these parties. I've been once before, when there was a different set of people. 

Tonight there were three old university friends of Gregory's from Toronto: a girl he used to date and two men, Jesse and Justin, who were a couple. There was Giselle, a normally silent girl with short pale hair who'd gotten devastatingly drunk at the last party (she had emerged from the bathroom on all fours, jeans around her ankles. "Gregory! There's no more toilet paper so I used your baaath maaat!"). There was Najima, whom I'd met before and whom I liked because she was cynical and Kenyan-Indian; and her husband Tony, whom I liked because he had a minor speech impediment. There was Bob - I hadn't seen him since I left for South America eight months ago - and his sister Sandra. There was Eric, another friend of Elizabeth's who half-lived in Costa Rica and who had come home to Montreal for his mother's funeral. There was Elizabeth, and me, and maybe one or two more.

At first the conversation consisted of people who had been to the Landmark Forum desperately trying to convince those of us who haven't been to go.

"It's a weekend, it's five-hundred bucks - it's nothing! But it will change your life."

I looked around at those whose lives had undergone such massive change. You couldn't say they weren't successful, professionally speaking. Perhaps the Landmark Forum had indeed given them direction and drive. Perhaps it had altered their thinking patterns so that clutter was removed to make more room for clear-sighted ambition. But I looked for evidence of people who had changed, who had really changed. Someone with a tolerant, far-away expression. Someone who had given up a job at Merck-Frosst to take up woodworking; who had turned in a company SUV and now went everywhere by bike, or worse, by public transport.

I was wearing a lilac silk top I had just bought, probably the first time in my life I've ever worn something scant and sleeveless in winter. There were other women there in sleeveless tops, but I didn't think they looked as good as I did.

As usual people asked me about my husband, who never accompanies me to these things. To be honest I just can't picture him there, talking the way we do, flippant and half-witty and distracted. The only reason I can picture myself in these situations is because I've been in them so often that I'm used to it. I tell them he isn't interested in being part of my social life, which is true; and that I'm fine with it, which is also true. They nod their heads, their eyes sparkling with gleeful judgement.

The subject of husbands naturally led into a round-table of what we most appreciate in a partner. I said, "What impresses me most is someone who is honest to his detriment." Everyone agreed. But then someone else said - I believe it was Elizabeth's friend Eric - that a truly deceitful person would also be honest to his detriment.

"They'll tell you something they know will piss you off or hurt you," he said, "like they shagged someone they met in a club. It may or may not be true. But he's telling you so you'll think that's the worst of it, and you'll never find out he's a slave-owning pedophile who pays handicapped people to shit on his face."

(Actually, it isn't true that someone said that. I though of it myself later, on my way home.)

Then there was Bob. I was glad to see him again, though not a fraction as glad as I would have been eight months ago before I left, or even five months ago when I got back. What I saw now was a pleasant-looking guy, with a nice muscular build, who was insecure and therefore abominably phony. His attention to any subject or any person was as fleeting as it was forced, in spite of the almost frantic interest he affected to show. He wasn't malicious - just lost. I felt disenchanted and relieved, the mix of which allowed me to be civil to him.

The food arrived, and we all sat down to heap our plates with Chinese. I sat at the very middle of the long table, and consequently belonged to no conversational group at all. I leaned in momentarily to Elizabeth who sat on my left, with Bob sitting left of her.

"I'm so happy you decided to come," she was saying to him. "I missed you!" I had no doubt she meant what she said. I had no doubt she meant it a few months ago when she said she didn't care if she never saw him again, "to be honest". Minds change.

Giselle sat directly in front of me, with Justin at her side. Together they made an icy picture, blond and thin and secretive. Justin was talking - I thought he was talking to me, since he was looking right into my eyes, and I leaned forward saying, "Pardon?" But he'd only been talking to Giselle.

"Oh, it's just too long a story to repeat," he said to me wearily.

After dinner we retired again to the living room where Gregory was expected to entertain us on the piano. We were all a little drunk by this time, but not too much, and there was a lot of changing of seats as people got up to fetch more wine, go to the washroom, kneel at the coffee table for cheese and olives. I had a wad of gum in my mouth. I took someone's used paper napkin, tore off a corner, and wrapped my gum in it. This I left on the coffee table. I forgot about it immediately, and only later wondered if it was a filthy thing to do.

Gregory turned to the keyboard and launched into a rolling rendition of "Piano Man". The rest of us joined in, rocking our wine glasses from side to side as though we were in a tavern or a ship - or a tavern on a ship; except Giselle, who sat next to me on the sofa. "Why aren't you singing?" I squealed with alcoholic intimacy.

She shrugged, her pale eyes looking directly ahead of her. "I don't much like this song."

I looked across the room at Kelly, the woman from Toronto who had been Gregory's girlfriend in university. I had spoken to her at the start of the evening, and she seemed nice and possibly an original kind of person. But now she had the most unmistakable look on her face, an expression of wincing embarrassment and distaste. She wasn't singing either, or talking to anyone. I could only assume it was the music: here was her ex-boyfriend making a fool of himself, stumbling over notes to the thirty-something generation's depressing soundtrack. Her eyes met mine and I flashed her a grimace of sympathy; but then her head snapped back as though I'd just slapped her, and she looked ready to spit in my face.

The evening deteriorated quickly but noisily, like tin cans falling off the back of a wedding car. Bursts of conversation erupted between people who were sitting near each other, and I couldn't join any of them without feeling like the new kid at Cool School.

I settled back into the sofa with my wine, and thought about something that had happened earlier in the day. I was on the metro, flipping through the Montreal Mirror trying to find a positive review of Memoirs of a Geisha. There was an elderly woman who had been sitting next to me for about five stops; she had golden coiffed hair and violet eye-shadow, and smelled of a rich, comforting perfume.

She turned to me suddenly, and smiled. "Pardon - vous parlez français?"

I said yes.

She seemed thankful, leaning gently toward me. "Did you hear about the baby found in a lake?"

I hadn't. I would remember something like that. "Was it on the news?" I asked.

"I'm not sure—oh, well it must have been. But there were two men, ice-fishing at night. They thought they'd caught a fish, but when they pulled the line up out of the ice, there was a baby at the end of it. They didn't know it was a baby at first because it was in some kind of bag; but then they opened it."

There was nothing about the woman that screamed CRAZY.

I glanced down at her shoes - one of the first indicators of lunacy - but they were new, polished beige leather with tasteful heels. Her violet makeup had been applied with a steady hand.

I said, "That's terrible."

"Yes," her face clouded, then brightened instantly.

"Oh, but the baby was still alive! It was waving its arms! They were able to save it."

We had reached Peel metro, and I had to get out for my spinning class at the Y. I smiled at the woman, and reached out to take her hand. Not in a handshake way - I simply pressed the ends of her fingers against my palm. This wasn't at all like me; I'm not a touchy person by nature. But she was like someone who had died before I'd ever found a way to love properly.

I said something about a happy ending, and wished her a nice day.


"So what do you do?" someone to my left was asking me; it was Justin. "I'm sorry," he said, "I forgot to ask you earlier."

I told him he didn't need to be sorry. "I'm a teacher. I teach English."

"Oh!" he exclaimed, as though I were a delightful and refreshing surprise - a passion-fruit sorbet, perhaps. He pressed for details and I made him wistful, at least on the surface and very temporarily, by bragging that teaching was what allowed my husband and I to travel to exotic places every summer. It always leaves an impression on the two-week holiday crowd, though privately they believe they would starve on my salary.

"Hey -" I said. "Did you hear about the Lake Baby?"

Even before it came out of my mouth I knew it was cheap. But I was seized by an urge, half angry and half apologetic, to make myself complicated; it occurred to me that the lake baby story might do the trick. If anything, Justin would be amused at the fact that I rode the metro.

"The what baby?"

"The baby found in a lake by two guys ice-fishing. It was in a bag - maybe it was a bowling bag? It was night-time. But the baby was waving its arms, it wasn't dead!"

Justin stared just to the side of my head with his mouth slightly open. I could see his tongue tensing and relaxing, his attention rotating toward the centre of the room. Gregory had abandoned his piano for a guitar and was belting out "Hotel California". A couple of ragged voices sang along, but you couldn't tell who it was. Bob was laughing desperately at an anecdote being told by Eric, and Elizabeth and Sandra were cackling their way through a yearbook pulled off Gregory's shelves.

"I heard it from a lady on the metro," I said when Justin's eyes swam back to me.

"On the metro? That's horrible."


I had to take a taxi home because it was late, and I didn't feel like sleeping over at Elizabeth's. My husband would be annoyed that I spent the money; he didn't understand why I went to these parties in the first place, much less why I couldn't tear myself away before the metro closed down for the night. 

I liked being drunk and saying, "Call me a cab."

The car hissed along lamp-lit streets in the fog. Damp, glowing streets, skirting the dark bulk of Mount Royal like the rings of Saturn. The mountain being rained on, all the snow melting. The back of the silent driver's head.


Kathleen Mullin is freelance writer living in Montreal. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, as well as a non-fiction book based on bike trips through Asia, Africa, and South America.







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