I’m all about the fun. And for me, writing is mostly fun. I have been struggling with the chronology of my novel – what happens when, as well as where I want to put it in the story. In the first flush of writing, there were flashbacks within flashbacks, which I thought was complex and clever, whereas it turned out to be just plain confusing. Not to mention that I had major flashbacks inserted into a love scene. He stroked her silky thigh and thought about the time when he was five and… well, maybe not quite that extreme, but it did knock the reader out, and caused a bit of a shock three pages later to find them back in bed doing the deed.
The chronology and the issue of how to make my character sympathetic, when to the reader giving up his daughter rendered him instantly stupid and self-serving, were the aspects of this book that kept me staring at the ceiling. When these problems made me wonder about my own naivety I would invariably meet yet another man to whom this sort of situation was happening. Last April, I went to Amsterdam to visit an old sweetheart and encountered three men who were unable to take part in their children’s lives. One of these men had made a documentary, wherein several more such men were profiled. Yes, some of these men had surely messed up, made mistakes, but essentially, they were good guys whose children were being punished for the sins of their fathers. It made me wonder about the disempowerment of women that withholding their children was the best form of retribution, and it made me question my own constant struggle to make my son’s father part of his life. It made me consider many things, but most of all, it fuelled the urgency to get this book written.
I have let these issues swirl in my brain since I finished the first draft in July, knowing that I couldn’t begin to write the second first draft until I had these turning point scenes clearly in focus. I start messy, “popcorn style” writing what is juicy and fun, and now I’m finding that I can’t continue like that. I needed to make a clear map. It happened, much more simply than I imagined. Once I set aside a few hours to sort, organize, and plot, it was easy. Now I have a draft I can work with. And all the fun is back.
Here’s one turning point scene, from early in the story:
With my red jacket swinging from my hand, I walked up Walmer Road toward Beth’s house. That red down jacket amused, comforted and enraged me. Danny’s gift when Beth threw me out, the snow still knee deep on the streets of Toronto.
Beth let me in. “She’s still napping,” she said, backing into the living room to stand beside my chair. There were really only three things that I needed from this place: Sophia, that chair and my coat.
I stood in the doorway, my hand on the doorknob. “I can come back in an hour.”
“Why don’t you sit down for a minute?” Her voice was soft, her dark hair loose, her boot heels sharp.
I hesitated. “Sit down?”
She laughed. “Yes, sit down. I’d like to talk to you about something.” Sweeping her hand in an arc toward the couch, she took another step back, so that her calf was resting against the front of the chair.
She laughed again. “Yes, Simon, talk.” Her tone like the cello’s open A string, a sound you could lay your head on.
I crossed my arms and leaned against the doorframe. “About what? Any chance it’s about giving me back my leather jacket?”
“Oh! Of course. Just a minute.” She spun on the toe of her boot and disappeared down the hall into the bedroom, returning a moment later with my jacket. I wrapped it over one arm and rested my other hand on it, my fingers rubbing divots in its sleeve.
“Thanks. I missed it.” I said this in a straight line.
“I’ve missed my little girl,” she began. “I’ve been thinking that I’d like to have her more often.” Her lips didn’t appear to twist
“Yes, seriously. I think it’s time, don’t you?”
Beth rolled her eyes, spreading her hands, palms up. “Time for her to be with her mother.”
“What are you thinking? Another afternoon?”
“Didn’t you tell me that you’d like to get some weather degree?” Some pride in her voice.
“Certificate. It’s a one-year course with an Honours Bachelor. I’ve wanted it for a long time, ever since…”
A sharp white spark lit in her dark eyes. “I know, before Sophia was born. So you see, it’s perfect.” She took one precise step in my direction. “You can go back to school, go back to work, pay down your debts, and still be there for Sophia.”
“I don’t know, Beth. You still haven’t said what you want.” What I wanted was for Sophie to have her mother be a mother, so that I could set things in motion to make a real life for my little girl. One that wasn’t in a basement apartment.
“Weekends are busy, but my week days are flexible … So why don’t I keep her during the week and you have her on weekends?”
That was exactly what I wanted. “I don’t know, Beth.”
“Think of it, time to follow your dreams – weekends with Sophia, your days free to study, and evenings to work. Isn’t that perfect?” In the muted May light through mesh curtains, her skin looked warm, not its usual cool white.
I concentrated on my breathing, its even release and intake, my fingers digging into the flesh of my jacket. One word followed the next on the way out of mouth. “She needs to come home at least one night a week. It would be too much of a shock for her…”
She stepped closer so that I caught the spicy smell of her that always reminded me of Christmas icicles, frost and cinnamon. Her long white hand reached out to land on my clenched one. Its heat surprised me. “It’s going to work, don’t worry. You’ve done such a good job so far, Simon. It’s time to let me do my job.”
My organs felt like wet tissue paper. Let her? “I’ll talk to Renee at the Soho and see what shifts she can give me.”
“Oh Simon, that’s good. This is going to work perfectly. There’s an excellent daycare in the neighbourhood, and they have space available. I’ll make the arrangements tomorrow.” Pulling my arms down and away from my body, she moved in to hug me, her breasts hard against my ribs.
I didn’t like the way my cock responded to her. I looked up at the lighting set into the ceiling, its row of quiet lights, with my back pressed into the doorframe, and recalled those same lights blurring in my vision when she’d punched me in the back of the head. Pressing out my elbows to break her grip on me, I squeezed out from between her and the doorway. “It’s nearly six. I think I should wake Sophie.”
“I think you should just leave her here.”
“Now? Leave her now?”
“Why not? She’s settled in. We’ve had a good day. Why disrupt things and make her go to your place?” A slight hesitation just before the word, place.
“It’s her home.” I smoothed the front of my jeans as if I had just stood up, aware of her eyes on me. “Not now. Not yet. I have to talk to her about it. I can’t just disappear. She needs to know what’s happening before it happens. Even if she doesn’t fully understand it.”
“Children are more adaptable than you imagine, Simon. I know. She’ll be fine. Trust me.”
On the back of my neck were four rivers of toughened skin, reminders that trusting Beth was not always the wisest choice. My fingers rubbed at these thin scars as I spoke. “I know she’ll be fine. But let’s take this slow.” I took one more step toward Sophia’s bedroom. “I’ll take her home tonight, and I’ll call you when I figure things out.”
Her eyes were wide, catching sunlight from the window. “Make it soon. She needs me.”
“She needs both of us.”
“And that’s what she’ll have. The best of both worlds.”
At home, after a quick pasta supper, Sophia and I lay on the kitchen floor with a wooden puzzle of shapes and colours. I guided her little hand as it struggled to fit the triangle into its red confines. The linoleum was cold through layers of tee shirt and sweater, so I went to my room and brought out the comforter for Sophie to lie on. As soon as it was laid out, she rolled the width of it, her arms above her head and bumped up against me.
“Roll me up!” she demanded.
I obliged her, loosely heaping the folds of the comforter around her body as she rolled. “More tight!” she called.
“Tell you what… let’s get your jammies on and your teeth brushed and then we’ll bundle you all nice and tight for sleep, okay?”
Once Sophia was settled into her cocoon, her eyelids closed. I kissed each of them, flicked on the starry nightlight, and crept out of her room, leaving the door slightly ajar.
Sophia was two and a half. I needed to go back to work, and I wanted that certificate. I was thirty-six years old. A volunteer radio gig at the university and slinging designer hash was not what I wanted for the rest of my life. And that’s all I had – a half hour environmental spot once a week and two shifts at the bistro while Rosa watched Sophia. People were graduating, coats were being shed like tight skin, and birds were singing loud and clear. I took two fingers of scotch in one gulp. It burned like sand all the way down. From my bedroom window, I watched the dark still sky between the houses on Crawford Street, and knew that I would let her go.