Looking for Love
Mary J. Breen
Being at a dance is a lot like hitchhiking: first a whole bunch of people pass you by with not so much as a nod, and then when someone does take an interest, you know it’s only going to last until you open the door and get out, or until you discover the door is now locked and you’re trapped for life. Which is why, feeling as I do, I was trying to explain to Harriet that I wouldn’t go with her to a dance. I told her I’d had my fill of being a wallflower back in high school, only now it would be worse as a chubby, wilting, fifty-four-year-old with hot flashes. But she kept on, joking that she needed me for “immoral support.” Finally I relented. Yes, I’d go with her to a Valentine’s Singles Dance, of all things, at the Masonic Hall, of all places. Aunt Cornelia would have taken me to task for going near anything so proudly Protestant, but that kind of prejudice is out of fashion. Now I can advertise my unwanted status wherever I like.
Harriet, as I’ve always told her, is terminally naïve when it comes to men. She calls it optimism. I call it stupidity, but then I guess you have to be an optimist to appreciate an optimist. Like most orphans, optimism is not one of my strengths. I told Harriet that I didn’t think she or I would find Mr. Right or Mr. Anything in the Queen Street Masonic Hall, but she kept saying, “You never know.” I thought I did know. I thought a Singles Dance was the kind of place that would attract pathetic lonely people looking for other pathetic lonely people, people who believe their two lonelinesses will cancel each other out, instead of making them each doubly miserable.
Not that I’m a lonely woman. I’m fine. I really am. Sure, once in a while I feel a bit alone, but when that happens, all I have to do is remind myself of the married women I work with at the bank, the ones who work all day, and then work all night looking after their kids and their useless husbands. I think about them, and I know I’m better off. Sometimes, I miss having someone to talk to in the evenings, but I’m used to it. Like my father always said, “You can get used to anything but hanging.”
So, it was settled: Harriet and I were going. I told her I was staying thirty minutes max unless a miracle happened, and I doubted miracles were thick on the ground among those Freemasons. As for what to wear, after considerable thought, I chose my little black dress—very Audrey Hepburn, only Size 18—and my cultured pearls. Harriet decided to wear a navy blue pantsuit and a white blouse that made her look like a prison matron, not—I tried to tell her—someone the ex-cons who flock to these events would be drawn to, although on second thought, maybe it was a good idea to keep those particular candidates at arm’s length.
The Masonic Hall was decorated in pink and red streamers to give it a love theme, I suppose, but it didn’t make up for the dim lights, the buckling brown wall panels, the stained carpet, and the overpowering smell of burnt coffee, egg salad, and old drains. Tinny music was blasting from a CD player in the corner, and about twenty people were hunched together in sad little clusters, each holding a paper cup with a pink heart glued to the side. They all looked relentlessly single. The men, except for one guy in a repellent green tracksuit, were in shades of brown and grey, and the women were in bright glittery colors, the rules of attraction in the animal kingdom gone awry.
Every few minutes a cold draught would blow in from the open door, and we’d all turn to watch the next bedraggled arrivals. Soon our numbers had doubled, and I’d lost track of Harriet in the gloom. After a bit of a lull, the door opened again, and two red-faced women rushed in, smiling up at a man holding the door for them. I noticed his soft black leather jacket and his white movie star scarf, and I watched as he hung them up before turning to the crowd. And there at the Queen Street Freemasons’ Hall Valentine’s Singles Dance stood the twin of Omar Sharif, if anyone remembers him. Even if he hadn’t been gorgeous, and even if he hadn’t been wearing a cashmere sweater and nice black slacks, he would have stood out from the others; he was the only man there who didn’t look afraid. I glanced around to see who he was here to meet. No one was waving, but I did notice that all the women were tucking stray hairs behind their ears and lifting their chests a little higher.
The Shirelles finished wondering if he’d still love them tomorrow—probably not the best song for an occasion like this—and then something sweet and sappy began. After a few bars I realized it was a corny string version of Stayin’ Alive! Several couples turned in unison to put down their cups before stepping out onto the floor, arms outstretched, like they were at an Arthur Murray class or perhaps back in Grade Nine. All that was missing was Sister Benedict wielding her ruler, making sure couples were leaving room between them for the Holy Ghost.
That does it, I thought. I started scanning the crowd in search of Harriet. Omar Sharif must have been looking about too as just as I turned in his direction he turned in mine and our eyes met—across a crowded room, no less. He lifted his head, straightened his shoulders, and began walking, right towards me. As he got closer, he locked his eyes on mine, and slowly raised his right arm, palm up and out as if his hand were simply yearning for mine. For a second, I felt like I’d stepped onto a movie set, a kind of Dr Zhivago meets Swan Lake, and maybe this was my cue to leap towards him like a woodland sprite, but of course I did nothing but stand there staring straight ahead, trying to look approachable but not needy, friendly but not desperate.
When he got within a few feet, he spoke, and I first heard his deep voice and his lovely English accent. I used to be a real sucker for English accents. He asked if he could have this dance—that is, a plain old feet-on-the-ground dance—and I agreed without a thought. We managed a little two-step, then came Chubby Checker, then Do You Believe in Magic? and then Ray Charles’ Georgia. That song always melts my heart, and mine was already melting. Between dances, I learned that his name was Bertrand Woodleigh—W-o-o-d-l-e-i-g-h—and he had just arrived in Toronto a few weeks earlier from Cambridge, the one in England! I’m sure there’s an Arabian prince somewhere in his background—deep set black eyes, thick black hair with a touch of grey at the temples, perfect moustache. And this god-like man wanted to dance with fat old me.
By ten-thirty, Bertrand said he was “awfully sorry” but he had to leave as he had an “awfully early rise” and he was “absolutely knackered.” My brain had already flown out the window, so of course I offered to drive my Cinderella home on that nasty cold night. Bertrand, ever the gentleman, insisted that a ride to the subway was all he needed. I found Harriet and told her I was leaving, though I doubt she remembers. She was smiling rather too blissfully in the arms of a man in dark glasses with a white cane hanging from a loop on his wrist.
When we got to the subway station, I wrote my home number on the back of a business card from work, and told him to call either number if he needed anything, anything at all. He thanked me with one of his devastating smiles, did up his jacket, and headed off. I was a bit disappointed when he didn’t turn and wave one last time.
It was almost a month before I heard from him, and I’d pretty well given up. That’s the way it is with me and men: they like me and then they don’t. Part of the problem is—I know, I know—I talk too much. I know. My father used to say that someday I’d talk someone’s ear right off their head, but the problem is I seem to get started and one thing reminds me of another and another, and before I know it, half an hour has gone by and the other person is looking around for someone to shoot them. Like the time my sister and I . . . oh, never mind. You don’t need to know about that just now.
So, as I was saying, Bertrand finally did call. The first thing he said was that he couldn’t get me out of his mind. That got my attention. I tried very hard not to rattle on, and soon he accepted a date for supper at my place. I got dressed up in my new red top and black pants, and I made a curry since I figured his background was Indian or Middle Eastern. When he arrived and I told him what I’d made, he said, “Brilliant! My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut!” I burst out laughing, and then suddenly my eyes began to burn with tears. My mother used to say that, but I’d forgotten all about it.
He ate every bite, and he was full of praise for my cooking. After dinner all he wanted to do was watch soccer on TV—that is, “football” for him. Since I was so determined not to talk too much, I suppose TV was the more interesting option. A little after nine, he announced he was leaving as he had to be at work at 6 a.m. for his new job cleaning offices. That’s when he asked me if I knew how long he’d have to wait for a paycheque in Canada. I told him it could take weeks. He looked so crestfallen that I got out my wallet. Loaning him a hundred dollars was not a hardship for me, and, frankly, it was nice to feel needed.
Bertrand came for dinner three times after that. When he was leaving on the last night, he turned and looked at me for quite a long time before he gave me a quick little kiss. He cupped the side of my face in his gloved hand and said he thought he might be falling in love, and that he’d never met anyone quite like me—beautiful, funny, and so clever. He also said he respected me very much so he didn’t want to rush into things. I didn’t think men still said things like that. I’m grateful he didn’t want to jump into bed before he even had his coat off, but on the other hand, I was happy to have at least this small sign that he’d noticed I was a woman. Then he told me his family was arriving that weekend, and he’d be busy over the next “fortnight” showing them the sights. I told him I’d love to meet them, but he said they already had a lot of plans and there was always next time. I loaned him another hundred dollars so he wouldn’t have to scrimp.
Funny to think that my parents also met at a dance. My poor mother. Now there was someone looking for love in all the wrong places. Eva McGrath she was before she married my father, and what little I know about her came from Aunt Cornelia who’d spit out short answers to my questions as if they were poisonous crumbs she couldn’t get out of her mouth fast enough. One thing my aunt enjoyed telling me was that Eva was already a widow when she met my father because her first husband had been a layabout who got killed at Dunkirk. She made it sound as if Eva had been responsible. I gather the following year, Eva met my father at a dance, probably mistaking this handsome, laughing boy for a knight sent to rescue her from the scullery of a country house with no running water. I’m sure she had no idea she was signing on for another country house with no running water, only this time in the middle of the frozen prairie. Before long, she had one and then two babies to look after. Then, when I was four and Becky only three, our mother left with the feed salesman leaving us behind with our stunned father who then left us with his maiden sister down in Moose Jaw. Aunt Cornelia ran a boarding house, and our father seemed to think—if he thought at all—that children just needed room and board. We never saw our mother again, and if she did try to contact us—and I’m absolutely certain she tried—we were never told about it. Aunt Cornelia spoke of her with barely controlled fury, and my father refused to speak of her at all. I remember sitting by the front window, one afternoon after another, hoping that that would be the day I’d see my mother coming down the street, running towards us in her sky blue coat. Whenever my aunt caught me, she’d tell me to stop lollygagging about and go dust the rungs of the dining room chairs.
I have to say I was looking forward to the time when Bertrand and I could go out for a nice dinner. I wanted us to have A Date. He promised me that after he got a proper job, we’d have plenty of opportunities. I was also starting to dream of taking a trip to England with him, but I didn’t tell him that. I thought maybe I could meet his relatives and look up some of mine. He even started bringing me little gifts—once, a bag of toffees and, another time, a tube of lovely English lavender hand cream. I knew he didn’t have much money, so I told him he should hold the gift-buying until he had a better job. It’s not that I don’t love gifts. I remember one Christmas when I was young—ah, never mind. Where was I?
There was just one odd thing. I don’t think anybody talks about a “Mary and Joseph marriage” these days—the just-friends kind—but I was starting to think that perhaps that’s what Bertrand wanted. I’ve heard on TV about how some people are what they call “undersexed,” so I thought I’d test him a little. I wanted to know what I was dealing with. The last time he was here, I turned the lights down, and snuggled up to him on the couch. Right away he looked at his watch and stood up saying he had to leave, something about needing his sleep. That’s when it occurred to me that perhaps he was too good to be true, but I squashed that thought right away telling myself an undemanding boyfriend might not be a bad thing.
As I said, I have this too-much-talking problem, but I finally met a man who really doesn’t mind my nattering on: a policeman. I guess big talkers are godsends to the police since we’re more inclined to spill the beans. Anyway, early the next week, my doorbell rang not long after I got home, and standing there on my porch was a short, overweight guy in a grey down jacket. He showed me his badge and identity card—Detective Hugh Greenan—and said he needed a few minutes of my time. He reminded me of Mr. Plod, the polite policeman in a book my English Grannie sent us when we were little. I was just having a cup of tea and some nice oatmeal cookies that I made from a recipe I got from—oh, sorry, never mind—where was I? Right, I poured him a cup too, and we sat down in the living room.
Detective Greenan wanted to talk about a man named Albert Wood. Albert, commonly known as Bert. I told him I didn’t know any Bert Wood, but he said they’d found my name and number on Albert Wood’s cell phone. Then he showed me a passport photo, and I knew exactly who he was talking about: Bertrand, Bertrand Woodleigh whose real name apparently was Albert Wood. Then Detective Greenan told me that Albert Wood was dead.
I don’t remember actually starting to cry, but suddenly I was, gulping and gasping for breath. “Ma’am,” he said as he reached over and put his hand on my arm, “I think it would help to hear the whole story.” I nodded and he went on. It seems that the police in Detective Greenan’s Division were dealing with the death of an Englishman, a man who had apparently looked the wrong way off a curb and stepped right into the path of a taxi. His passport said he was Albert Wood. They would have written it off as another unfortunate tourist accident except that at the same time, the robbery department in Rosedale had sent around a description of some stolen jewelry that matched the rings and necklaces they’d found in Albert Wood’s knapsack. The woman who reported the theft confirmed that Albert Wood was the man she’d been seeing for several months, the one who’d taken her things. She knew him as Bertrand Woodleigh. Detective Greenan kept shaking his head. It was clear he didn’t want to distress me further, but he also wasn’t going to beat around the bush. He thought I needed to hear the whole story. I appreciated that. Lies have never helped me one little bit.
Detective Greenan asked me if there was someone he could call, a relative or maybe a friend, so I told him my parents were long gone, and my only sister lives out in Moose Jaw and spends her days making fudge. (She claims it’s a business but I think the poor dear eats most of it.) Then, before I knew it, I’d told him how it was that my mother had up and left us, and how my father, eleven years later, had announced that not only was he going on holiday to Mexico, he was going with a woman from the parish, one of the gangly Carruthers sisters from out on the Muenster Road, and not only were they going to Mexico, he and Millie Carruthers were going to get married as soon as he managed to get unmarried from our mother down there in Mexico. All I remember about Millie Carruthers was that her long red neck reminded me of those turkeys my father had bought one summer, the ones that had got some kind of moulting disease and ended up frozen to death while still on their feet. Anyway, off my father and Millie went, and as soon as they got there, he couldn’t resist running into the sea. Boys from the prairies seldom know about undertows, and in minutes he’d disappeared while Millie ran up and down the beach wondering if she dared ask for help in a foreign country even if the priest had said it was a Catholic one.
It seemed that Detective Greenan was listening intently, but I did manage to stop talking before I’d told him that at eighteen, I married my aunt’s boarder, Klas Magnusson. Klas was old—the same age my father would have been—but my aunt was very encouraging because he was Catholic and marrying him would get me out of her house. I was too young to understand that you can’t replace a parent, especially this way. Klas, it turned out, had other plans. A few weeks later, he didn’t return from work on a Friday night. The station master reported seeing Klas getting on the westbound milk train early that morning. He’d been carrying a suitcase. Before long, my aunt discovered that all her silver was missing, and I discovered most of the money I got from Father was gone too. The police, if they even bothered to look for him, came up empty. That was the end of that.
The detective got me back on track with the Bertrand story when he told me that, with the help of Bertrand’s passport, they had contacted his wife.
“What? Pardon?” I said, sitting up straighter. “He had a wife?”
“Well, yes,” he said, “and she was so upset by the news that she admitted that she knew her husband had made friends with several women so he could borrow money from them—just until he got himself a job here in Toronto. She insisted she knew nothing about him stealing jewelry, and it must have been given to him by one of his women friends.” Detective Greenan gave me his I-wasn’t-born-yesterday look. Then he told me that the wife also said Bertrand had been trying to find a way to tell me—she knew my name—that he couldn’t see me anymore.
“Well he did that,” I said. “Find a way, I mean.” I stopped crying, but for the first time in my life I didn’t feel like talking. I did, however, feel like screaming and stamping my feet, but I made myself sit there my teeth clamped together. I really didn’t want this kind policeman to know how mortified I was. Not only did I let this louse trick me out of some money; I was stupid enough to let myself believe that he cared, and stupid enough to care in return. My only consolation was that I hadn’t had a chance to tell Harriet about Bertrand because she is flitting around the Caribbean with her new, filthy rich, blind boyfriend.
I took a deep breath and asked the detective exactly how many women there were—how many like me. He flipped open his notebook and counted down the page. “Eight. Eight in all. You’re the last we’re checking on, because of the thefts. And, sorry, Ma’am, but you all look quite alike.”
I guess the only true thing Bertrand ever said was that he didn’t like thin women.
Detective Greenan went on to ask if I’d noticed any missing valuables or if I’d loaned Bertrand money, as all the other women had. I told him Bertrand didn’t steal any jewelry from me because I don’t have any to speak of, and I denied giving him any money. Then he looked down, and cleared his throat. It took him a couple tries before he managed to ask me if Bert—um—that is, Mr. Wood—expected sex as part of the bargain, because if so, mumble, mumble, I might think about being tested for—I told him no, absolutely not. Apparently the other women had said the same thing, claiming he was a real gentleman, never pressing them on that score. A gentleman! If you can call someone a gentleman who takes and takes, and never gives anything in return.
I was feeling a terrible urge to move around, so I suggested I make us more tea. I brought back a fresh pot and some lemon loaf—nice everyday things. I was starting to feel less upset. It was as if this whole thing had happened to someone else, and I was merely watching from high up near the ceiling where my useless guardian angel had been asleep at the switch.
Before long, Hugh—he insisted I stop calling him Detective Greenan, and I told him to call me Della—had put away his notebook, and settled back in the armchair. We started talking about all kinds of things—the nuns who’d taught us at Catholic schools, winters when we were kids, city politics—and I started to feel a bit better. He also told me about his poor wife who died two years ago from breast cancer. The strange thing was I don’t think I talked too much. Or, perhaps I did, and he didn’t mind. I could tell he was in no hurry to go. I always have enough food on hand for a small army, so I could have made him supper, and I think he’d also have spent the night if I’d asked, but I didn’t. I had to be alone to think. And not to think.
Hugh was very persistent over the next weeks. I finally agreed to go out with him, but first I made myself ask him the big question: Did he not think I was dumb as a sack of potatoes for being tricked by Bertrand/Bert? He smiled. “Dumb? You? Of course not. Not at all! You were just lonely, Della. Lots of people are lonely. That’s why there are so many cases of this, what we call ‘romantic fraud’.”
“But I wasn’t lonely—” I said. “It was just that—”
“Loneliness is a terrible thing,” he went on. “I know all about it. Empty houses and empty beds.” He’d never actually said he was lonely before, but I didn’t need it pointed out. I’m good at spotting lonely people. I grew up surrounded by them.
On our first date we went to his favorite pizza place in Little Italy where we drank a whole bottle of wine, and he told me funny policeman stories and I told him funny bank stories. We could always make each other laugh. And he didn’t seem to mind my talking one bit. As we walked back to his car, hand in hand, it felt as if I’d known him forever.
Since then I’ve seen him every few days, and when he has to work late, we talk on the phone. Sometimes I cook us something nice, and sometimes we go out. And the gifts he brings! Always something—small things, bigger things, like last week it was a bouquet of daffodils and irises. Time before it was a huge array of bedding plants for my garden, and another time a box of hand-rolled chocolates with thirty-five different centers. Hugh is keen on genealogy, and he’s decided that when he retires next year, we should go to Ireland so he can walk on the “old sod” his grandfather left behind. Maybe I could track down someone from my mother’s family too.
Then last week as we were dashing off to work, I mentioned that I have to get a new roof on the condo this summer, and Hugh said, “Roofs are expensive, Della. I had to get one last year. You know,” he said, as he reached for my hand, “you have to admit it’s pretty foolish for us to have separate houses. Mine’s nice and roomy, and—” he smiled, “—the roof is good.” A shiver went through me. I hopped into my car, and told him we’d talk later. I didn’t want him to see the panic on my face. I thought I’d be thrilled if Hugh said he wanted to spend months and years with me, but all I felt was panic and fear. Like someone was dancing on my grave.
The panic hasn’t gone away. I’ve tried telling myself things-will-be-fine, things-will-be-fine, but it hasn’t worked. I’m going to have to tell him. Dear God, I don’t want to hurt him, at least not more than necessary, so it’ll have to be soon, probably this weekend. I’ll tell him that I need my space or maybe that I’m too set in my ways to live with anyone. Something silly like that. I don’t have the courage to tell him my real reason. I can’t tell him that I can’t risk it, that I know without a doubt that the people I love don’t tend to stick around, and I couldn’t bear losing another one, especially not someone as good as Hugh. I can’t help but think that when it comes right down to it, I’m not a keeper. I’m like a cheap dress—good for a dance or two, and then the hem goes after the first wash.