I know we don't live here anymore
We bought an old house on the Danforth
She loves me and her body keeps me warm
I'm happy here
But this is where we used to live
Broke into the old apartment
Tore the phone out of the wall
Only memories, fading memories
Blending into dull tableaux
I want them back
"So, let me get this straight – he was looking at a Playboy?"
Helen let out a long whine.
"Kevin, I don't think you understand. This is a disaster – I feel like I just witnessed a car wreck, I feel like I'm, like I'm on a lifeboat watching the Titanic go down, and it's just sinking, and I can't do anything."
"Helen, honey, I realize you're upset, but you really need to calm down. Can we just talk about-"
"He was touching himself, Kevin!" Helen shrieked. She paused, closed her eyes, drawing in a deep breath. "I just walked in. I just walked in, and I wanted to ask him if he wanted – if he wanted cookies and milk, and he was, he was holding that filthy magazine in one hand and... and..."
She let out a sharp, exasperated cry and thrust her leg forcefully into her desk chair.
Kevin watched, spellbound, as it toppled and fell to the floor. His wife stood, her chest heaving with laboured breath, next to the fallen chair. He noticed the clutter on her desk, noticed a few empty spaces on her bookshelves, a few volumes lying on the floor, their pages bent haphazardly. He gritted his teeth, steeling his hands into frustrated fists.
"Have you been throwing your books around all day? Emptying our your drawers? Is this your new coping mechanism?"
"Shut up! Just shut up!"
"No! Calm down!"
"No, Kevin, I cannot calm down. Our eldest son was looking at... at smut, for heaven's sake, and touching himself! He should know better!"
"Well, maybe if his mother didn't shut herself in 24 hours a day, 7 days a week-"
"Right, right, this is just the next in my litany of failures as a mother. That should be my next book. It'd write itself, you know," she ranted, stooping down to right the chair she'd knocked over. "I can see it now: 'Helen Ashby Price: 21st-century Screw-Up!'"
"Shoot, Helen, no," Kevin said, stepping cautiously forward, "I'm... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. But don't you think you're overreacting? He's not the first teenage boy to experiment."
She moved away from him. His stomach turned as he noticed her hands falling away from her hair, noticed the blonde strands tangled between her fingers. She seemed to be occupying less and less space somehow, especially now, as she righted her office chair and stood, silent, with her back turned.
"I am not overreacting," she said, quietly. "I don't want to argue with you, Kevin. I can't. I can't do it. I – I love you. I just want to finish this book, and then get it published, and then sleep. I just want to sleep for a thousand years, Kevin. Have you ever been so tired?"
She turned to him, and he swallowed hard. Shadows were pooling, purple, in the dark circles under her eyes. She had the appearance of someone who had been punched in the face. Had she slept at all in the last month? Had she been eating, he wondered? Had she been taking her medication?
Once upon a time, he remembered, Helen Ashby had been a force to be reckoned with. He remembered early mornings and late nights at business school, long lectures. He'd see her out of the corner of his eye, a blonde head bent over a notebook, furiously scribbling multi-coloured, cross-referenced notes on international trade, or throwing her hand into the air to challenge the professor on a salient point. He used to spend whole classes just watching her, bemused and a little awestruck. After midterms first semester, one professor recorded the names of the top five students on the chalkboard at the front of the auditorium. Five students out of five-hundred who had written the exam; "H. Ashby – 100%" topped the list.
"You know," he had whispered to his deskmate "She would make a great Mrs. Price."
"Would you just talk to Matthew?"
"Of course I'll talk to him," he nodded. "You want to, uh, clean up in here and then maybe get dinner started?"
Quickly, quietly, he turned his back and stepped out of Helen's cluttered little home office. She never liked others to see her cry.
"Well, maybe if you'd hold still for two seconds..." Kevin bit his lip, cautiously trying for the millionth time to push the pin through the stem of the flower and into his best friend's lapel.
"Holy moly, I'm so nervous." He twitched suddenly, letting out a loud, anxious laugh. "You poked me again!"
"Stop moving. I think I actually have it this time. One second... there. You're good to go."
Arnold smiled, glancing down at the tiny bouquet on his lapel. Kevin stood back and watched as his friend looked himself over in the rusty mirror propped floor to ceiling in the corner of their room.
"This is it," he breathed. "As of-" Arnold shot a quick glance at his wrist - "one hour and seventeen minutes from now, I will be Mr. Nabulungi Hatimbi!"
Kevin couldn't help but grin. "Nabulungi's a lucky woman."
"Yeah, she is," Arnold answered. "No, no, wait, I mean, I'm lucky... no, but she's... she's the lucky one, I mean..."
"Don't knock yourself out, little buddy. You're both lucky. That's all there is to it."
"I just think – you know, what if we hadn't come to Uganda? What if I'd never met you, or what if we'd been assigned to Australia, or, like, Alderaan-"
"Not a real place, Arn."
"Right, duh, the Death Star blew it to smithereens. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that if I'd never come here, I would never have met her. And of all the millions of countries-"
"Hundreds of countries in the world, we got sent here. Together. And if we hadn't-"
"Things would have worked out a lot differently, that's for sure. At least we're back in with the mission president, huh? That's good."
Arnold let out a deep breath and sat down on the edge of his cot, leaning forward to balance his elbows on his knees. "We were thinking – we want to go to Salt Lake City for our honeymoon, I mean, not because I think it's anything special, but because Nitrogen really wants to go and see everything. And once we get our – what's that passport thing?"
"Right, yeah. We'll move to Salt Lake. Or somewhere near there. And my parents are going to want to meet her..."
"They'll love her."
Arnold shot Kevin a sceptical look.
"Arnold," he sighed. He sat down on his cot, looking his friend straight in the eye. "They will love her, I promise you."
"They don't even love me that much. I don't – man, that sounds so bad. I just, you know, I came all this way to do my mission and it was just such a colossal – well, I don't want to say a waste, because it wasn't, it was awesome –but it definitely wasn't my dad's, you know, his definiton of awesome."
"Well – okay, keep this quiet - when Elder McKinley and I went to Nairobi last week to talk to the mission president, he said he was willing to give some of our funding back. And you know what that means."
"No way. No way."
"Everybody here will get a signed letter saying 'Congratulations, you finished your mission.' All we have to do is get back in the mission president's good books. And we're well on our way, let me tell you."
"Kevin!" Arnold practically leaped across the floorboards, smothering him in an enormous hug. "You're kidding, you're kidding. I get to take Nickelodeon home? My parents won't hate me?"
He continued to ramble with his head buried in Kevin's shoulder, and Kevin just laughed.
"You're going to marry this girl, Arnold. You're going to take her home to Salt Lake City. You're going to have a big, beautiful family, and... oh, boy, here come the waterworks."
His voice caught suddenly, and he found himself struggling to continue talking. He cleared his throat, took in a shaky breath.
"You're going to be so happy," he finally managed to choke out.
"Kevin?" Arnold drew back. "Are you – are you okay?"
"I – I'm just happy for you, that's all."
"No, no," Arnold pulled back, shaking his head. "Something's up. You're not telling me something."
Kevin's eyes darted around the room, and he grabbed Arnold's tie, pulling his friend close to him.
"If I tell you, then you cannot tell anybody," he said, barely above a strangled whisper.
"Tell anybody wh-"
"Shh!" Kevin interrupted. "Nobody, not even Nabulungi."
"Geez, Kevin, did you kill someone? Oh no, you killed someone?"
"What are you talking about? No, it's – it's Leo. Elder McKinley," he stammered.
"You killed Elder McKinley?"
"No! And quiet down!" Kevin let go of Arnold's tie. "Remember what you said when you said when-"
"Murder is a sin, Kevin."
"I didn't kill Elder McKinley, Arnold. No, when you proposed to Nabulungi, you said that you loved her and she just said, 'I know?' That was – that was beautiful, Arnold, and it made me think-"
"Can you stop interrupting me? This is hard enough as it is!"
"Kevin, that's a line from Star Wars."
"Oh, well. Whatever. I'm not big into sci-fi."
Arnold sighed, mashing his palm against his forehead.
"It just made me think, that's all. When you love someone, you just know. Someone comes along and it's like they were meant to be there all along. Like there's a Lionel McKinley-shaped hole in my heart."
"Wait a minute," Arnold said, "You like Elder McKinley? As in, like-like? As in... Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in the ice storm on Hoth like-like?"
"What did I just say about the Star Wars analogies?"
"You're a gay?"
"I don't know. Maybe. I'm not sure."
Arnold tilted his head to one side, squinting at him. Kevin was suddenly acutely aware of himself, quivery, sweaty.
"He likes me too, Arnold," Kevin breathed, "He loves me. And I love everything about him, and I'm terrified. I know I shouldn't feel this way, and I know it's wrong, but..."
Arnold's loud laugh startled Kevin, bubbled around the small room. "Shh!"
"That's so cute! How long have you guys been – you know?" Cunningham trailed off. The fingers of his left hand curled up into a circle, and he started to push his pointer finger in and out.
"Arn! That's vulgar!"
"Answer the question!" he hissed.
"A year and a half," Kevin admitted. "A year and a half, but not really, and we didn't even – couldn't even – do anything until last week."
"Why didn't you ever tell me before?"
"Because - because it can't happen, Arnold. It just can't."
"What can't happen?"
"Us. McKinley and Price, the couple. It cannot happen."
"Why not? Who cares?"
"Too many people care, Arn, that's the problem. There are people who would make things..." Kevin paused, suddenly overwhelmed. "They would make things difficult for us. Like my parents, for instance. They don't know. They don't know about any of this. They think I'm going to go to BYU and marry a nice girl and have seventeen children. Heck, they'd be disappointed if I didn't do all that."
"Well, wouldn't Elder McKinley be disappointed?"
"I... I would lose everything. I mean, I may not be a Latter-day Saint, but I'm talking about my whole family, all my old friends, future jobs, education."
Arnold sighed, sitting down on the cot next to Kevin. He held out his hands, clapsed in two tight fists.
"Right now you're probably feeling like Alice, right? Tumbling down the rabbit hole?"
"Kind of, yeah. That's a good way of putting it."
"It's in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he's expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Kevin Price?"
"Because I, uh, uh, I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life."
Arnold licked his lips. "Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know, you can't explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. That there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there. Like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. Do you know what I'm talking about?"
"Kevin, this is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back." Arnold thrust out his fists again. "In this hand, there's a blue pill – blue for sad – and if you take it, the story ends. You believe whatever your parents tell you. You take the red pill – red for Elder McKinley, because of his hair, right? - and you stay in Wonderland."
The laugh that escaped from Kevin was sad, quiet. "I'm not in Wonderland, Arn. But come on, let's get back to reality."
"Red or blue?"
"You're getting married in an hour, buddy, we don't have time for this."
"Think about it." Arnold relaxed his fists, leaning over to pat his companion's knee. "Just... think about it."
"It's just that – there's not a second, not a single second of my day when I'm not, you know, thinking about it," Matthew stammered, clearly embarrassed. Kevin watched as his eldest son kneaded the fabric of his bedspread nervously. "And I can't control it, like, at all, and I wish it would just stop. Like, Lindsey Parker was wearing this skirt today, in English class, and I – I just..."
"Oh, I know, Matthew," Kevin nodded. "Believe me. I was a fourteen-year-old boy once, too."
"Let me guess: everyone tells you to just stop thinking about it? They tell you to turn it off?"
Kevin chuckled a little. Matthew raised an eyebrow, obviously confused.
"Sorry. Mission joke."
"What I'm trying to say is that I know exactly what it's like. I know how much pressure they put on you guys to be pure and to avoid lust – just look at your mother's books, right?"
"Exactly! I mean, not to knock Mom or anything, but yeah, her books are really, like, anti-anything to do with... doing it. And I get that she's trying to stop people from being overly slutty, but it's just like – okay! I get it! But I can't stop thinking about it no matter what I do!"
"Do you wanna know something, Matthew? I have a feeling that if your mother were the one having this talk with you, she'd be throwing around a lot of hyperbole about how that's all evil and sinful. But that – that's not true."
"What do you mean?"
"It is a good thing. Better than good. It's – how to word this - something incredible. It'll blow your mind. And it's better if you wait, let me tell you, and it's much, much better with someone you love. I'm glad I waited, because, after all that waiting, it was really special."
"You mean like, with Mom?"
"You're glad you waited for Mom?"
"Yeah. Yeah, exactly."
Kevin swallowed hard, trying to banish the thoughts of Nairobi, and tangled sheets, and hot sweat. He tried instead to summon thoughts of Las Vegas, the honeymoon suite overlooking the strip, his knee against Helen's in a gondola drifting lazily through the city.
"Dad?" Kevin blinked, looking back at his son.
"Look, I just don't want you to ever see it as a bad thing, Matthew. It's healthy. It's normal. And if you look at something that's healthy and normal as, well, a 'sin,' then you'll wind up in a whole lot of trouble."
"Okay, so what am I supposed to do? Do I just keep, what did you say, 'turning it off?'"
"Lock the door next time, and be quiet. You'll get the hang of it," he said, and got up to move towards the door. He turned, pointing a finger at his son.
"Don't tell your mother I said that."
It only took Kevin a few second to close the door, turn the lock, and switch on the shower. The running water would cover the sound of his voice, he reasoned, as he scrolled through the long list of names filed neatly under the contacts tab on his Blackberry. He'd synced his phone to the employee database this morning for exactly this purpose; he paused at McKinley, Lionel. He drew in a deep breath.
There was the dial tone.
He felt like the ground was giving out from beneath his feet, like that moment on the Funderland Express when the ride stopped, suspended in the middle of the sky, and just stood still. The long, flat dial tone. Purgatory.
He could hear the water falling against his own struggling breath. That voice. He punched a couple of buttons on his phone, turning up the volume. The breathing on the other end was loud, coming through in bursts of static.
"Hello? May I ask who's calling."
"It's Kevin. Hi. I'm just calling to say hi." The words tumbled out, disjointed.
There was a short silence on the other end. Lionel's breaths were already coming more quickly, frenzied bursts of static.
"Do you – do you want to get together sometime?" Kevin asked.
"For lunch, I was thinking."
"Lunch sounds good."
"I was thinking we could duck out tomorrow around noon. We could go to Christopher's."
Kevin held his breath for a second, then began again.
""I... I, Lionel, I didn't think I would call."
"I hoped you would."
"I was just thinking about Cunningham and... god, and Nabulungi, and... and then that got me thinking about Nairobi, and-"
"I'll see you tomorrow, Kevin."
The long, flat dial tone shattered the silence. There was no sound but the water rushing by.