When Camyar Tejani, Venture Capitalist, embarks on a journey of self-discovery by moving in with the Nineteen Year-Old Ballet Dancer, his wife Joan begins redecorating the house on Chestnut Crescent. She hires a small army of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, tinsmiths and stonemasons. She installs radiant tile in the bathroom and track lighting in the kitchen and French windows overlooking the flowerbeds that back onto the ravine. On weekends, Joan bundles her daughter into the back of the Land Rover and drives out to the Richmond showrooms. She holds up paint sample cards to one year old Mariel -The Abandoned Infant – asking her whether she prefers Desert Rose or Tuscany Clay, Virgin Swan or Elephant Graveyard: semi-gloss paints in what the cans guarantee are Life Resistant Finishes.
Along with redecorating the home, Joan does some hasty revising of the family drama, transforming it from Epic Romance into Historical Tragedie. Camyar, who had variously played, gamely but woodenly, such leading roles as Mysterious Eastern Lover and Successful and Devoted Husband, now finds himself recast as Sinister Foreign Infidel. Gesturing to the balconies, Joan the Tragical Heroine walks about in velvet and furs, carries around a silver case filled with sleeping pills, coughs blood into a silken handkerchief. She auditions family and friends in a variety of supporting roles. Over the years, Mariel finds herself playing – to critical success – the parts of Spy, Waif, Saboteur.
At age eleven, Mariel is diagnosed and labelled with chronic depression, and eventually settles down nicely into her typecasting as Troubled Teenage Daughter. For a while, this new development adds much needed piquancy to the family drama. But the narrative is too drawn out, begins to grow stale and predictable. The critics grow restless and find new darlings. Attendance begins to fall off. The curtains become frayed and grubby, the velvet gowns moth-eaten and dingy. Eventually the production grounds to a halt, and all that is left of the once lauded script is one shabby little joke, oft-repeated by Joan, that Mariel’s father “had learned to run in the same week that she had learned to walk.”
In grade ten, on the day that she comes home after school and finds that Joan has overdosed on anti-depressants, Mariel spends the morning learning about the vanishing point and dissecting a frog on a wax tray. Unfamiliar with some forms of poison, she accidentally drops a thermometer in the chemistry lab sink, and pushes the glittering blobs around and around with her finger. At lunch, she eats french fries from a cardboard carton with Megan Moloney in the breezeway, then they sneak in Mr. Allister’s class, unscrew the bulb from the projector, deface the portrait of Galileo.
In social studies Mr. Allister, deprived of audiovisual support, organizes a group discussion about the Gulf War (which would one day be called the First Gulf War – but nobody could know that yet). They talk about how the Arabs invented algebra and about scud missiles and CNN and the way that news footage of luminous U.S. rockets looks like home video of UFO sightings. They talk about Saddam Hussein and George Bush (who would one day be known by the world as George Bush, Sr., but not yet, not yet). They talk about right and wrong, good and evil. Mariel wonders if anyone remembers whether she is half-Iranian.
In English class, Mr. Wei explains about fairy tales, how they fulfill the human desire for unity and order. Always three tasks to be completed, three wishes to be granted. The wicked stepmother, the brave youngest daughter. She thinks of the story that her father’s mother once told her, the old Persian legend of the hyenas that sing like mermaids and turn themselves into beautiful women in order to entice men from the villages. Once the men come to them, they transform back into hyenas and rip the flesh from their bones.
Joan had once bought a book of Grimm’s fairy tales from an antique bookshop in Venice. She’d gone there on a business trip with Camyar before Mariel had been born – before the ballet dancer, in proper evil-fairy fashion, had enchanted her father and stolen him away. It had a soft red-leather cover, gilt-edged pages and cream-coloured paper. It was written in Italian, a language that Joan spoke only very slightly, and nobody else in the family at all, so it remained on the living room bookshelf for many years, unread and in excellent condition.
Dizzy with her first cigarette, in the long grass and bulrushes behind the portable, she kisses Saul Bennett and feels his hand slip inside her sweater. He’s in grade twelve and has muscular arms and a tattoo of a dragon on his pelvic bone. He rides a motorcycle and carries around a copy of Dubliners. His tongue tastes of chewing gum and ashes. “You are so fucking beautiful”, he tells her as his finger circles her nipple. “My Arabian princess.”
After school, she enters her house through the basement door and works on her project for English. It’s about what paradise means to different people. They’re supposed to make a poster out of images of desirable things. Glossy pictures of cars, stereo equipment, houses plaster gnomes in the front yard. Photographs of family pets, airbrushed advertisements for designer clothes, perfume, jewellery, credit cards. Gothic cathedrals, walled gardens with rare birds sitting in fruit trees, shopping malls, movie stars, exotic cities, dessert buffets. Mariel has a Dairyland milk crate hidden behind the furnace filled with old Blueboy magazines that Dolores has stolen from the stash that her brother has hidden in the crawl space above his bedroom closet. She’s using a pair of scissors and carefully cutting out glossy pictures of penises and testicles. A glorious chaos of cocks and balls the colour of saffron, cinnamon, walnut, mustard, burnished copper. She’s pasting them onto a sheet of blue bristol board so that they form the image of a dome. She calls the piece Welcome to the Pleasure Dome, after a favourite pop album by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. From a distance it looks like the cupola of a cathedral or an observatory silhouetted against a twilight sky, reflecting the last rays of the setting sun. Six months later, this project will figure prominently in her discussions with Miss Newcome, the school counsellor.
When Mariel eventually comes upstairs, there’s an album of sentimental Italian love songs playing on the turntable, and several more stacked above it. There are two empty wine bottles and a heaping ashtray on the living room table. As she walks down the hallway, she notices the smell of candle wax, the sound of trickling water. There’s a puddle of warm soapy water spreading out from the bottom of the bathroom door and soaking through her slippers.
At the hospital Camyar buys her a hot chocolate and a cheese sandwich from the vending machine. They sit on stackable orange plastic chairs and watch through the open doors as men and women dressed in different styles and shades of white and green uniforms push trolleys of food, patients and medical equipment down the bright halls. Later that night, while she’s pretending to sleep on one of the waiting room benches, she feels her father put a blanket over her and brush back the hair from her forehead. Two hours later the doctor with the beautiful, gentle voice takes them into another room to give them the news.
True to the strange, messy fashion in which memories are made, it is the orange chairs and the feeling of fingertips brushing against her skin that she most vividly recalls years and years later. It’s right after the outbreak of the Second Gulf War. Her husband, Ethan, is stroking her forehead while confessing his affair with the associate professor in the physics department. Apparently they had become infatuated with each other while discussing Niels Bohr and chaos theory over take-out Chinese food the weekend Mariel had been at the Montreal gallery opening. “I don’t know how it happened. We’d had too much to drink. It was just a physical thing. Christ, I’m such an asshole. I respect you so much.”
Twenty minutes later, he watches her pack her things into a leather suitcase. A couple pairs of jeans, a sweater or two, some underwear, her red dress just in case, she tells him, she casually gets a notion to fuck someone. No need to wake Joel and Gavin now, she’ll be back in a few days after he’s all packed and ready to move out. And he needn’t tell them anything yet if he doesn’t feel up to it. She’ll take care of all the messy stuff. In the meantime, she’s sure he can make up some appropriate lie for them about where mommy is, something plausible and suitably antiseptic – he’s good at that.
At eleven o’clock on a Saturday night, the only hotel room she can find is at the Lakewood Pines Motel. Lying in the bathtub with her clothes still on, she balances the small, smoky bottle filled with jewel-like pills on the back of her hand. She watches the reflection in the mirror of a television newscast. She listens to the latest American president talking about the great battle between good and evil, right and wrong. She finds she can operate the television screen by bouncing the remote control signal off the surface of the mirror. Muting the sound, she listens to the hum of the ice machine outside her door and the sound of the couple in the adjacent room humping, the headboard of their bed thudding against the wall with the rhythm of an unbalanced washing machine.
Images of missiles crashing noiselessly into factories and schools. Click. Some penguins stranded on an ice floe. Click. A satellite dish rotating against a night sky. Click. A large breasted woman enthusiastically sucking on a penis. Click. A man putting icing on a layer cake. Click. News footage of a body being pulled from a river. Click. Buster Keaton hanging from the hands of an enormous clock. Click. Darkness.
The couple next door are silent now. The wind outside is howling through the branches of a tree. She watches shadow pictures of skeletons and great ragged birds sliding across the ceiling, across the white towels and the framed print of the Van Gogh sunflowers. The ordinary and the awful side by side into eternity.
In her dream, she’s in the middle of a great desert. There are strange constellations in the sky, icy comets tracking through the darkness. She has matches in her left hand, so she builds a small fire out of bleached sticks that she finds lying at her feet. Drawn by the heat and light of the campfire, three creatures move out of the shadows. They have the heads of terrible, beautiful dogs, the bodies of naked women. They feed her figs and bowls of dark, strong coffee. They tell her stories in a tongue that she feels she should really understand. They nibble on her toes and sing to her a song that begins like the love song that was playing the night she found her mother, then turns into something that sounds like cellos playing deep underwater. She thinks she understands now why those men, and surely the women too, keep wandering out into that desert to hear their song. Of course they’re not stupid. They’ve heard the tales, they know about the great jaws yawning wide, the rows and rows of shining teeth. But it’s the beauty, you see. The goddamn awful beauty and mystery of the song. Worth any amount of risk.
When she wakes up the sunlight is pouring in warm through the window. She packs up her things in the suitcase, slips a five dollar note under the pillow for the maid. Then she closes the door behind her, and walks out into the world, with no costume at all, to see what’ll happen next.