Karen Smythe’s Self-Dissection

An excerpt from This Side of Sad (copyright (c) 2017, used by permission of Goose Lane Editions), Karen Smythe's hotly anticipated first novel. Smythe was a fiction editor of the Pottersfield Portfolio and has published short stories with some of Canada's best literary journals.

Sometimes, when James and I still shared a bed, I’d lie on my back, eyes closed, and listen to my husband breathing. James had never snored; his respiration had always been regular, slow and subdued — so much so that I’d turn, periodically throughout the night, to watch for the rising and falling of his chest, for the movement of the sheet that covered us, to make sure he was still with me. Later, when he began to have nightmares, he’d wake up panting, out of breath, as if he’d been trying to run away or run after something, or someone.

In the beginning I would not have believed we’d come to be so physically separate, James and I, that one day we’d lie side by side not touching, not entwined like a caduceus as we fell asleep.

Our story was simple. James and I met in February, a few months after Ted ended our engagement and moved out of the city. I was taking a ceramics class at the Y where James and his best friend Tony worked out with weights. I’d become sick of myself after spending a stir-crazy holiday alone, my first without Ted in five years. My sister, Gina, had given me a Continuing Ed. course coupon for Christmas, to get me out of my apartment. “You spend too much time in your head,” she liked to say about me.

I wanted to take the Art History course, so I could sit in the dark looking at slides of masterpieces without having to talk to anyone, but it was full. I already knew How to Use Computers and How to Write for Business, so that left Pottery for Beginners. It was held in an airless studio with a clear-glass viewing pane in the interior wall, facing the hallway.

As I kneaded some clay during the first class, I sensed a gaze on my face, so I glanced up and saw a man smiling at me. I smiled back, shrugged, and looked down again. The next week he hung about in the hallway like a teenager. I finished washing up and approached him as I walked toward the exit. “Hello,” I said in a tone that could have let either of us walk away without losing face, but he wasn’t going anywhere. “The name’s ‘James,’ actually,” he said, his Sean Connery dead on. “As in ‘Bond, James Bond.’” That broke me up and I laughed more than James had expected me to. “She was a pushover,” he joked whenever he told the story. “I wooed her with a silly impression.”

Every time one of us recounted how we met, our relationship seemed to gain ground. By telling it over and over in our first few weeks together, we gave our union a gravitas that had seemed absent, I thought, at first.

It’s quiet, too quiet, in here. The snowfall has hushed the houses on our street this morning. My street, not ours. It’s just my street now.

When we met, James had his own condo uptown, though he all but moved into my tiny apartment soon after. We bought this place a couple of years later, just before we married, and it suited us. A two-bedroom bungalow seemed to be all the space we’d ever need. We didn’t fill it with a lot of furniture, but the house did start to feel confining to James, once he retired and spent seven days a week here. I guess it felt constraining to me, too, when James stopped engaging with the world, and the atmosphere at home became laden with tension I didn’t know how to break. Sleep came as relief to both of us at night.

***

I’d attracted James with aloofness, I suppose. Some men are drawn to that quality in women, consider it a test, even. James admitted later that getting me to go out with him had been an irresistible challenge. I looked so intent on triumphing over that lump of clay, he said, and yet when I looked up and smiled at him, my face radiated a potential for joy he wouldn’t have guessed was there, behind the screen of seriousness. “I knew you would be interesting when I saw you in a lab coat instead of an apron, like the other women wore. I had to find out what was going through that mind of yours.”

James mentioned that scene again when he proposed to me. “When I saw you smile the first time, I wanted to make you feel that happy all the time. I wanted to be the one who could do that.” When I said yes, he looked as if he’d won a contest. I knew James had been telling Tony everything about our

relationship from the get-go, and I wondered if he’d made a bet with his friend about how long it might take to win me over.

I won, too, finding James. But in the early days I was highly swayable, and seeing James was a pleasant distraction while I waited for Ted to come to his senses and back to me, to what I thought of as my real life, our life together. The two men crossed paths just once, disturbing my sense of time and place and what I was doing, with whom. James had let himself into my apartment after work, as he often did — he was a teacher, so his day ended earlier than mine — and when I got home he was browning onions for a tomato sauce in my ill-equipped kitchen. He said the phone had been ringing every few minutes, but no one had left a message. This irritated me. The next time it rang, I was brusque and abrupt with my “Hello?” Blood-bubbling anxiety rippled through me at the sound of Ted’s voice asking,

“Maslen, is that you?”

This Side of Sad
Karen Smythe
Goose Lane Editions

Written By

Karen Smythe is the author of This Side of Sad, a novel, and Stubborn Bones, a collection of short stories.

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Karen Smythe’s Self-Dissection

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