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Andrew Pyper is the author of the novels Lost Girls (which was a New York Times and Globe and Mail Notable Book of the Year), The Killing Circle, and The Trade Mission: A Novel of Psychological Terror, as well as Kiss Me, a collection of stories. He lives in Toronto, and his Web site is www.andrewpyper.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Killing Circle
PART ONEThe Kensington Circle1VALENTINE’S DAY, 2003“Love cards!”This is Sam, my four-year-old son. Running into my room to jump on the bed and rain crayoned Valentines over my face.“It’s Love Day,” I confirm. Lift his T-shirt to deliver fart kisses to his belly.“Who’s your Valentine, Daddy?”“I suppose that would have to be Mommy.”“But she’s not here.”“That doesn’t matter. You can choose anyone you like.”“Really?”“Absolutely.”Sam thinks on this. His fingers folding and unfolding a card. The sparkles stirred around in the still wet glue.“So is Emmie your Valentine?” I ask him. Emmie being our regular nanny. “Maybe someone at daycare?”And then he surprises me. He often does.“No,” he says, offering me his paper heart. “It’s you.”
Days like these, the unavoidable calendar celebrations – Christmas, New Year’s, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day – are worse than others. They remind me how lonely I am. And how, over time, this loneliness has burrowed deeper, down into tissue and bone. A disease lurking in remission.But lately, something has changed. An emerging emptiness. The full, vacant weight of loss. I thought that I’d been grieving over the past three and a half years. But maybe I’m only just now coming out of the shock. Maybe the real grief has yet to arrive.Sam is everything.This one rule still helps. But in the months immediately following Tamara’s death, it was more than just a focus. It allowed me to survive. No one-way wants, no me. Not permitting myself to dream had got me halfway to not feeling – easier conditions to manage than feeling and dreaming too much.But maybe this has been a mistake. Maybe I was wrong to believe you could get along without something of your own. Eventually, if living requires being nothing, then you’re not even living any more.
Tamara’s last days is something I’m not going to get into. I will confess to all manner of poor behaviour and bad judgment and broken laws. And I am prepared to explore the nature of memory (as the cover bumpf on those precious, gazing-out-to-sea sort of novels puts it) even when it causes the brightest flashes of regret. But I’m not going to tell you what it was like to watch my wife’s pain. To watch her die.I will say this, however: losing her opened my eyes. To the thousands of hours spent gnawing on soured ambitions, petty office grievances, the seemingly outrageous everyday injustices. To all the wasted opportunities to not think, but do. Chances to change. To see that I could change.I had just turned thirty-one when Tamara died. Not even half a life. But when she left, a cruel light was cast on how complete this life could have been. How complete it was, had I only seen it that way.
We bought the house on Euclid just off Queen as newlyweds, before the arrival of the yoga outfitters, the hundred-dollarhaircut salons, the erotic boutiques. Then, the only yoga being practiced was by the drunks folded up in store doorways, and the only erotica was a half-hour with one of the ladies pacing in heels at the corner. I could barely manage the downpayment then, and can’t afford to sell now. Not if I want to live anywhere near downtown.Which I do. If for no other reason than I like to walk to work. Despite the comforts offered by all the new money washing in, Queen Street West still offers plenty of drama for the pedestrian. Punks cheering on a pair of snarling mastiffs outside the Big Bop. A chorus of self-talkers off their meds. The guy who follows me for a block every morning, asking me to buy him a prosciutto sandwich (he’s very specific about this) and inexplicably calling me Steve-o. Not to mention the ambulances hauling off whoever missed the last bed in the shelter the night before.It is a time in the city’s history when everyone is pointing out the ways that Toronto is changing. More construction, more new arrivals, more ways to make it and spend it. And more to fear. The stories of random violence, home invasions, drive-bys, motiveless attacks. But it’s not just that. It’s not the threat that has always come from the them of our imaginations, but from potentially anyone, even ourselves.There’s a tension in the streets now, the aggression that comes with insatiable desires. Because there is more on offer than there was before, there is more to want. This kind of change, happening as it’s happening here, fast and unmanageable, makes people see others in ways they hadn’t before. As a market. A demographic. Points of access.What all of us share is our wishing for more. But wishing has a dark side. It can turn those who were once merely strangers into the competition.
I follow Queen all the way to Spadina, then lakeward to the offices of the National Star — “The New York Times of Toronto” as one especially ill-conceived ad campaign called it. This is where I started out. An angry young man with no real grounds to be angry, quickly ascending from copy editor to the paper’s youngest ever in-house book critic. My unforgiving standards buttressed by the conviction that one day all those tall poppies I had scythed to earth would see I had a right to my declarations. One day, I would produce a book of my own.From as far back as I can remember I felt I had something within me that would find its way out. This was likely the result of a solitary, only-child childhood, throughout which books were often my only friends. Weekends spent avoiding the out-of-doors, curled up like a cat on the rug’s sunny squares, ripping into Greene, Leonard, Christie, mulling over the out-of-reach James, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky. Wondering how they did it. The making of worlds.What was never in doubt was that I would be among them when I grew up. Not their equal necessarily, but participating in the same noble activity. I accepted that I might not be good at it. At first. But I could sense the hard work that had gone into my favourite works, and was prepared to devote myself to slow improvement.Looking back on it, I must have seen writing as a sort of religious practice. A total commitment to craft and honest disclosure no less holy for its godlessness. There was the promise of salvation, after all. The possibility of creating a story that spoke for me, would be better than me. More compelling, more mysterious, more wise. I suppose, when they were still alive, I believed that writing a book would somehow keep my parents with me. And after they were gone, I simply changed my articles of faith: If I wrote a good enough book, it might bring them back.But no book came.Instead, after university, I started typing my way up the ladder of small-town weeklies and specialty magazine freelancing (“The New Dog, The New You” for Puppy Love! and “Carrots vs Beets?: The Root of the Problem” for Sustenance Gardening being two prizewinners in their fields). After I got married and was hired at the National Star, I thought about my book less, and about a flesh-and-blood future more. Children. Travel. But the niggling idea that I was thwarting my destiny with domestic comforts couldn’t be wholly escaped. In some private corner of my soul, I was still waiting. For the opening line. For a way in.But no line came.Two things happened next, oddly related, and at the same time: Tamara became pregnant, and I cancelled my Sundayonly subscription to The New York Times. The articulated reason for the latter decision was that I barely found the time to peel apart its many sections and supplements, never mind read any of them. And now, with a baby on the way – it was a waste.The truth had nothing to do with saving time or trees, however. It had to do with my coming to the point where I could no longer open the Book Review of the Sunday Times without causing physical pain to myself. The publishers. The authors’ names. The titles. All belonging to books that weren’t mine.It hurt. Not emotionally, not a mere spanking of the ego. It hurt in the same way kidney stones or a soccer cleat to the balls hurts – instantly, indescribably, critically. The reviews themselves rarely mattered. In fact, I usually couldn’t finish reading the remotely positive ones. As for the negative ones, they too often proved to be insufficient salves to my suffering. Even the snarkiest vandalism, the baldest runs at career enders, only acted as reminders that their victims had produced something worth pissing on. Oh, to awaken on a rainy Sunday and refuse to get out of bed on account of being savaged in the Times! What a sweet agony that would be, compared to the slow haemorrhaging in No Man’s Land it was to merely imagine creating words worthy of Newspaper of Record contempt.Then Sam arrived, and the bad wanting went away.I was in love – with Tamara, with my son, even with the world, which I hadn’t really liked all that much before. I stopped trying to write. I was too busy being happy.Eight months later Tamara was gone.Sam was a baby. Too young to remember his mother, which left me to do all the remembering for the both of us....
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