Late for Dinner
By Ursula Pflug, illustration by Christiane Pflug
1 January 2001
The apartment was dark, a basement after-hours club. There were a few chairs, a table, two old couches where people snatched an hour or two of sleep. There was a makeshift bar on one side, a bar I was facing now, across the room, as I listened to my quarters fall inside the cash box, as I gave the long distance operator my father's number. His phone rang and rang. The operator cut in, asked, "D'you want me to let it keep ringing?"
"Sure," I said. What else did I have to do, where else to go? I couldn't leave: my little apartment just blocks away was as impossible to walk to just then as my first home, hundreds of miles away in another country, across a snowy border to the north. A skirmish was taking place outside; we could hear gunfire, smell smoke from burning buildings. I wanted my father to answer so I could tell him I'd done what he wanted me to do. It was he who'd first told me about the war, dragging me to a rally when I'd wanted to stay home and watch television: "This country is knee-deep in bones."
I watched the man behind the counter chat with another seated at a stool; he pulled them each a beer. It struck me that they weren't bartender and customer at all, but lieutenants, fighting on the same side and in the same war. Hidden in their party chatter, encoded, even here in their safe house, so that only a careful listener might detect them, were strategy and military logistics. I knew my presence was tolerated only because of the man I slept with; I hung up and left the room, walked into the back, opened a door.
A dark empty room, not even a chair. In the centre like a shrine, one astonishing source of illumination: an enormous, lit tank of what only seemed tropical fish; their swimming colours were, on closer examination, not equatorial but truly otherworldly. I'd heard of them, of course; they were on the rebel flag. Like everyone else from my world I'd thought the image was just a symbol. I watched, entranced, thinking about my lover, who was so late, and my father.
I know he'd have denied it but I felt as if I'd been sent, to live in rebel camps he'd only seen on television, to take the next step. And so when I left the aquarium room and called again, heard at last his anxious hello, hoping it might after all be me, I described the fish. I wanted to explain how their colours were different from ordinary colours, even astonishing ones; only a story would clarify the difference. I chose one about my mother, his wife, dead now for many years. "I remember telling her I dreamt in colour, and she was astounded, told me she, and most everyone she'd known or at least asked, dreamt only in monochrome. If she'd seen these fish I know she'd have begun dreaming in colour, and because of it she might have lived. Colours we have no names for. Beside the everyday colours of this club, it's as if, like in her dreams, everything but the fish are in black and white."
At least that's what I thought I said. And then by his silence I realised a strange thing: I'd lived among the rebels for so long, for so long away from my own people that even without awareness of it happening I'd gradually forgotten my own language and now could speak only theirs.
He didn't understand a word I said, and said only, "I'm having Petra and Lep and Eileen for dinner on Thursday and they'd love to see you, why don't you take the bus up and I'll drive you back across Sunday night?"
They were activists, those three, like him. As a child growing up, I'd observed how my father had an affinity for the rebels, secretly funded them, helped them plan occasional escape routes across the border to the north. And yet not so very secretly: he was so secure, so established that even in taking a radical position there was little danger of him coming to harm, either professionally or personally. It was I who, growing up in this atmosphere, chose to go south.
"I can't leave," I said, "but give them a hug for me." I knew even these words had been spoken in a tongue he couldn't possibly understand.
If he'd known I'd cross over the safety of his threshold and beyond his protection, he might not have been as outspoken and supportive of their cause as he was. He thought I'd do what he did: stay north, lecture and write letters, make donations and telephone calls, walk in largely peaceful demonstrations. Go to law school, perhaps: have both money and a voice to speak for the voiceless.
A sensible choice, yet I knew there was more to the war than that, knew also, for the first time, that in some small way he approved of my choice; in one way or another I'd done it for him. And my mother. After all, a war is not just a petition but a place.
I knew it had begun centuries before, and, while most liked to pretend that it didn't exist, or that it had been over for decades and was a closed piece of history that had no import to their speedy modern world, what I discovered was quite different. There existed people whose families had fought against the state for generations, since they'd first been shipped over as slaves, or first had their land stolen from beneath their feet, their women from their sides.
I said good-bye and hung up, knowing he was falling away from me into a swirling inescapable void of terrifying worry about me, and that I was falling away, pushed away by an equal and opposite force into the other direction, implacably away from him. Only by going home for dinner on time and speaking his now-forgotten tongue could I soothe his fear, and I knew that was as impossible for me by then as flying. I crossed the room to buy a beer from the counterman. I rattled the change in my pocket. "I'll take whatever you've got," I said.
"You don't have to pay," the man said. "I know who you are. You've already paid, and you'll pay more before your tour is over."
"Will I pay too much?"
"Only God knows the answer to that," he said, and raised his glass to mine. "But I hope not."
My lover had gone out again shortly after we'd arrived at the club: business he couldn't take me on. But he'd return, he promised; we'd tell stories and laugh; he'd bring our friends. I knew then he might never return, either to party or to walk me back to my barely heated little railroad flat with its window onto an airshaft.
For the first time I was afraid I might never return to my own country, my old way of life. This is what I'd also wanted to tell my father, instead describing to him the unbelievably beautiful fish. The barman winked as I left again to go back and look at them, carrying my beer. It was as though they swam through panes of glass. I wondered whether they would survive, or whether a stray bullet would one day pierce their tank and they, their water all leaked out, would die, and with them all rebel fire be lost to the world forever.
I wanted then for my father to come and get me instead, forgetting briefly that his money and power, his prestige, meant nothing here. In the war zone he was no safer than me and perhaps less so, for I now had only the one language remaining to me, one he'd never learned; like extraterrestrial fish it was a myth to him and not a spoken reality: the language of the streets, of this generations-long resistance, of the sweet salt smell of my lover as we lay together at four in the morning, talking.
My lover might never come; powerful as he was, it wasn't real protection for either of us. Caught up in business, jailed, or shot down; all were possible. I wasn't sad, knew it only to be the simple truth, felt lucky to have known him at all, however briefly. What did we speak of, the previous night, he and I, as we lay staring at the ceiling fan, turning and turning as our lives did irrevocably towards one another, beyond reason or will, as if totally beyond our power to control?
"What will people think of our society, a hundred years from now?"
"Depends entirely on which way it goes, I guess."
"I guess. What do you think?"
"I think if there are even people left in a hundred years they'll say it was a time of terrible darkness."
"Sometimes it seems the worst time of all."
"I know. I feel that too."
It's of no great consequence which words he spoke and which words I spoke. We had reached that point where borders blur, where one becomes the other.
His two trained attack dogs frightened me and his drugs were purer and more powerful than any I'd yet known. They frightened me too: their disorientation was so complex. I know now he thought it was only under their influence I could quickly learn his language, given what little time we had.
What little time had we?
In the morning, before going out to eat and then coming here, he'd said: "We have so much less time left on this earth than we'd planned."
Or perhaps it was I who said it, as we gingerly sidestepped a corpse on the way to our bacon-and-eggs breakfast special, having been up all night again, planning and making love and talking: I think just as we blurred, so did all these activities.
Of course those words are true for all of us, and at all times. The moment you are born you begin to die.
He turned back. He bent down to the corpse and closed the eyes, saying, "It's terrible to see the dead with open eyes." I was amazed he could touch the dead, said so, and he looked at me and smiled again at my privilege. "You think it's the first time? You live in castles surrounded by moats," he said. "You have no idea how the rest of the world lives, each and every day."
We'd smoked a joint before leaving and once again, as so often happened in his company, I warped: whether backwards in time or sideways into a parallel world I wasn't sure; imagining a funeral pyre, sacred rites, I asked, "What will you do with the body?" We were overlooking the river, in a diner we always frequented, and he was glancing at my coffee in some dismay as always; he insisted java, cigarettes, and alcohol were all poisons sent by the devil to enslave the people, not just his but mine too.
"But our society runs on them," I pointed out, wondering how people would cope if these props were taken away, not knowing we'd invent new, even more powerful chemical props sanctioned by the state in years to come.
"Precisely," he said; all his drugs were illegal and he thought this no accident. "The cops will come," he said, answering my previous question, "take it to the morgue." And, listening, I could hear faraway sirens approaching, although they could have been heading towards any one of a dozen dead.
"But you said we live in castles. I thought we were time-travelling. In this time I've never had a servant."
"No. Just a car and a credit card, a washing machine, a dishwasher, a good school. Those things are more powerful buffers than any moat. Like I said, you have no idea. That's the way it's the same. Remember what Marie said."
"I didn't know you knew anything about the French revolution."
"My middle name's Maria."
"Why do you love me then?"
"You lost your mother to the war."
"How so?" I watched him spear bacon, wondering why he thought murdered pig was okay and not my second cup, figured we were all allowed a few foibles and inconsistencies.
"She killed herself, you told me. But remember when you showed me the catalogue of her paintings and I said, 'Look, there are footsteps. Do you see them?'"
"I didn't know what you meant. I thought you were speaking in a language I didn't know. Remember I had no reply?"
"I was. But you know it now, or most of it, which is more than can be said of most who cross over to learn."
"You don't look down on me then, think I'm a child?"
"Not at all. Your seeking is sincere. And I know the price of loss too well. It can be so much bigger than the original loss itself."
"So what did you mean about the footsteps? She didn't paint footsteps." I had already told him the story: that my mother had been a renowned painter; I'd shown him reproductions of her famous work. And he was able to say something about it that no one else had ever been able to say: not my friends nor the family that remained, not my grief counsellor and none of the best art critics and dealers and curators that my world had to offer.
That's what alien eyes looking through glass from a world as far away as Jupiter will do for you, I guess. For my lover said, astoundingly:
"It was the last painting, the one she never completed. It expressed the darkness that spiralled around her, threatening to extinguish her light. You were the only one in your family who knew how she felt. You didn't know how it would end, but you knew she had gone too far into despair to pull back out. It was as if she was magnetized, could only by then be pulled even further in. And even a few steps further meant out the door, out of her life."
I drank coffee; we ate pig and eggs. Looked out the window at barges crossing under bridges. So many bridges.
"I stood in her painting room, thirteen years old. It was almost as if I could feel it, like a physical force that was smothering her. I tried to reach her, to pull her out, but like you said, it was as if she'd gone too far to turn back; she didn't get it, that I could see what was happening to her, holding out my hand. That cloud around her was so thick."
A swirling curtain, thick and cloudy, black and green shot through with yellow. I could still feel its presence, this time around me, as if it had moved from one to the other of us. As if it had some kind of sentience, planned to take us each in turn. We'd lost another to suicide in the previous generation, my grandmother's sister who had the same name as me.
"You tried to tell people too, the danger you felt she was in, but they didn't hear."
"You said I told you all this before?"
"Yes. You were speaking in tongues, in my language before you actually learned it."
"You mean I was stoned out of my gourd and babbling?"
"Shhhh." He looked around.
"What?" I raised my voice, endangering his life as I had before, or at least his freedom. I bet he would've liked to get rid of me then, shake me off like loose dead skin, flush me away like fingernail parings. But no, he took my side; he spoke from his heart whether I deserved it or not.
"The footsteps she painted, invisible on the canvas surface but there just the same, were the path you would take, following her, trying to save her. You were a kid and didn't have the strength, but you didn't know that. You didn't know once she was gone you would follow her too far, trying to bring her back."
"Wow," I said, knowing then that I'd wanted to learn his language not out of voyeurism or a childish thrill-seeking or even a misguided, if compassionate, altruism, but because only he had ever been able to speak truly to me about my mother's suicide, and only in his own language. What he'd said couldn't be translated, not in all its depth and nuance. I knew then that what my people needed was the thing he'd been born knowing, just as a barren field needs a seed, a transplant from another land, leaching alien nutrients into the soil, never before introduced.
"But you can't bring people back from the other side," he reminded me. "Or even yourself. That's what I'm here for."
"To save me?"
"Could've fooled me. You're so busy with your war."
"Same war. One saves who one can. If the brightest lights of each generation go down, what will we come to? Your mother knew enough to paint the doors and windows to other worlds. Those are the most important doors there are; it's only through them that the terrible darkness of our time can escape, only through them that the fish can swim here. She painted maps for them. If those doors are shut forever, closed to us, we're all lost. And worse than lost."
"And how do you think you'll save me?"
"Like this," he said, and leaned across the table to kiss me.
"Sounds like Eros versus Thanatos all over again."
"Freud was right about some things. You've never been in love like this before, have you?"
"Not exactly," I said, actually meaning: "And I'm afraid to lose it, knowing I'll never have it again; it's only possible once."
"Neither have I and neither will I. We'll part and go on to other lovers. We could never stay together; we're more different than a duck and a goose. It's almost like we're from different planets."
"I've always known you were from Jupiter," I laughed.
"Maybe it's you who's the alien," you said. "I bet you never thought of that. But we'll never forget each other, what we had."
At least the first part is true; I have no way of knowing whether you've forgotten me.
You gave me not a rose but a year. I thought about you with each waking moment and you were right, it's something I've never done since.
Possibly a good thing. Who could stand such a consumptive love more than once?
I remember one night in your year, one of the nights I stayed with you. You woke suddenly to the dark, crept down the ladder to feed those scary dogs; I guess you'd forgotten earlier. I lay in the loft bed staring at the ceiling only inches away, even after having slept for three hours still too stoned to move. You behaved as though it was all normal and I guess for you it was; you put on Sarah Vaughan and came back to me. We lay there side by side, spiralling up and then down again until blue twilight creased the window onto the air shaft and you said, "You have to go back to your crib. You can't be here when they come unless you stay in here, the door locked. It isn't safe for you to see or hear. Choose which you like; if you go I'll walk you back, there's still time."
"I'll walk alone. It's safe enough this time of day."
Someone knocked on the outer door.
"Too late now."
You closed the door and I heard the lock latch shut, low voices. I was locked in. In time they left and you came back and we made love again.
Once you went out for an hour or two before dawn, leaving me terrified with those dogs you said would guard me: I couldn't even get out of bed to go past them to use the washroom, and later, when I told you this, you laughed and chained them, indoors, beside the fridge. I know you did this to soothe my fear but am afraid it had the opposite effect. Their eyes were too blue, looking into this world from another planet, and not liking what they saw, much. They'd tear it apart, piece by piece I thought, if you ever let them off their chains outside. Your dogs of war, I called them and I think you were a little amused although you chided me once again for my lack of seriousness, my lack of understanding. You didn't come back with coffee after your spooky dawn outing, just more killer joints that sent me to Jupiter and further for so long they gave me food for thought for days. For years: I'm still thinking their thoughts, still think I knew you, still think you held the greater power. Know too your Jovian hellhounds would disagree.
Now I know at last what they knew even then: you were as disoriented by our love as I.
I frightened you as much as you frightened me.
In what way?
You'd never known a woman who could climb so high beside you as if on the same stellar ladder, think the same thoughts in unison, see the same things.
A night fire, a circle of men and women, camouflaged, silent on cat feet. Another time, and yet this same time we inhabited together, wearing different clothes.
You were afraid that in my foolish youthful altruism, full of ignorance, I'd come to harm, and I terrified you because you hadn't planned on caring so, and to keep me out of harm's way, to look out for me, put a big dent in your game.
You might misfire, and you'd always been so sure.
I've only just gotten home, just now, at this very moment. Seated across from my father at his antique wooden kitchen table we drink black tea out of my mother's chipped brown stoneware pot, the only one that survived her death; the others jumped off the counter two weeks after she left, unable to live without her, trying to follow her just as I tried, unsuccessfully, to do.
My father lights one of my cigarettes, says, "What did you learn?"
"I learned despair. When Mother died I'd thought I'd known what despair was but I had not."
"So what is despair?" my father asked.
"Despair is this: your daughter sells herself to enemy soldiers so that she might have the money to feed her own child. She got pregnant from an enemy rape, yet she still loves her baby and holds it more dear than her own fragile and defiled life. Despair is that you don't know her name or what she looks like, because her mother and you separated before she was born. It's like you were torn apart by the war."
My father stared at me.
"Despair," I continued brazenly, "is that you walk the street at night, your gun in your pocket, knowing those young girls, their sullen, stupid faces masking their beauty, their intelligence, their own rebel fire, with needle marks in their arms and bruises on their cheeks imperfectly masked with makeup, might be your daughter. And you are powerless to protect her from the sometimes violent and disease-ridden enemy soldiers, because you don't know which of them she is. Impossibly dressed as they are, in the colours of fish which might only be legends: green and pale blue vinyl jackets, shimmering wet red boots, cut to the thigh."
My father sighed and put the kettle on for more tea, afraid where this was leading.
"Despair is this: This has been happening for generations."
You never told me what despair was; I only felt it seeping through your skin, marvelled at what a great comfort I could be, not knowing what you kept hidden within until we walked past that line of girls one night on the way to a film party, and as I made a disparaging remark you dug your fingers into my arm more fiercely than you needed to, said, "You don't know what you're talking about. Any one of them could be my child."
I began, very slowly and in spite of my upbringing, to learn your way of life.
What had attracted me to you in the first place?
Your beauty, your mystery, your power. Your excellent drugs; perhaps even, a little, the glamour of your gun. At least, to me it was a little glamorous; I'll admit that now. To you it was just more. More what?
More despair. Generations-long despair. A blanket of despair thick and all-encompassing as snow.
My father and I talked all afternoon. We sipped scotch from a flask of Johnny Walker Black I'd inadvertently smuggled across the border in my jacket's second waterproof pocket. He made me dinner, ratatouille over rice: my father's first and best dish. We talked all night. At dawn we were out of cigarettes and drove out to breakfast at an all-night greasy spoon and he bought more even though he'd never smoked till I came home.
Despair is this: you must make your lover understand. But she is from the enemy side, although at least ostensibly from a prominent liberal family which yet favours the rebels. You have only one hope: that you are able to make her see what it's really like, what it's been like for your family for hundreds of years. She is your only hope. If she understands, and if she tells, the world will perhaps open an eye to your pain at last, and lend a hand. Not fucking likely though, for she is foolish and very young. Intelligent, she seeks the mystery, and doesn't, cannot, understand the despair.
Unless, perhaps she lives it herself.
And so you do what you don't want to do; you cut the strings of language that tie her to her own community, to make her truly one of yourselves, that she might learn.
You turn her out. Or more properly, you say nothing as she takes to the streets herself, taking her place beside your mother, your sister, your daughter, silently handing you the money later that you might use it for ammunition.
Just as they do.
She learns this: these women love each other, love their mothers and daughters, and in one another's company even laugh a little.
They are afraid that even more of their men will die. Just as some will die themselves, too young, of disease and violence. War casualties like her mother.
You hope she will survive, knowing it's quite possible she won't, but will instead get shot, either accidentally or on purpose, by a rebel or an enemy soldier: stateless and homeless as she now is, it could yet be either.
As it has always been for you.
And yet, far away from you, on her own at three a.m. in an after-hours club she won't be able to leave for days, she walks into an empty back room where there are fish. The rebels' secret: a life of beauty so profound it melts all despair, at least in their presence. Their secret wellspring: magic is real, and if magic is, then so too, and perhaps and probably only then, can a true democracy, and true gender equality, be invoked. She crosses the room, slips her hand into the tank, folds a fish into her hand, pockets it. Her fear is not that it will die in the water-filled pocket of her orange vinyl jacket, but that, when and if she ever gets it home, she will not be able to create the right conditions for it to flourish.
When I described fish on the phone that night, many years ago now, to my father, fish he'd never seen or known in all his waking life, had only heard rumours of: mythical, magical fish so beautiful they could only live among rebels whose culture was as foreign to ours as a Jovian one might possibly be, I think I gave him both hope, and the first notion that I might yet die.
Perhaps rebels have always known the price of hope is death among their numbers, and so with this knowledge I made my father truly one of us and not just a pretender to the throne.
She waits for you and you don't come. She makes her way home slowly, although it takes many years. She crosses the border at dawn, riding with a friend in a stranger's car. Waiting for a ride, they'd walked along a railroad embankment, an orange moon larger than harvest painted in the sky above their heads. And gone down into the coffee shop when it opened at six to beg a lift and drink the devil's coffee. The second girl knew you too and they both wondered if they'd ever see you again.
One did and one didn't.
It doesn't matter much which. There are thousands of girls like them, after all, gone down to rebel fire, their hearts caught in the crosshairs of a gun.
Her father had old friends for dinner. When at last she arrived and they asked her, "What did you learn?" she said, only the faintest stain of needle marks and bruises still visible on her skin: "I brought a fish through the door, across the border," and watched the indescribable looks on Petra, Eileen, and Lep's faces as she removed it from her pocket and unfolded it on the table where it began to swim in slow lazy circles. She knew then that all her training, and all her defilement were to this one end, to be a translator, to propagate miracle fish, fish smuggled across the border from another dimension, another world, in her own community.
Copyright © 2000 by Ursula Pflug
Ursula Pflug is an award-winning, internationally published short story writer. She is also a playwright, screenwriter, editor, arts journalist, illustrator, mother, and gardener. Her magic-realist novel Green Music is forthcoming in 2001 from Tesseract Books. A transplanted urbanite, she has been living in rural Ontario with her family for fourteen years. More information about her can be found on the SF Canada site.
The painting for this piece was done by Christiane Pflug (1936-1972).