Nathan picked the steaks for their water content. Twenty-eight day mature; a pink eye with a thick coating of fat. The cooking program recommended purple steaks hung for thirty or forty days. Such cuts are rare; everywhere, meat is pink. Nathan wondered if a darkened steak would be denser or tougher to bite.
He'd seen documentaries on grocery store meat preparation. The butchers used hacksaws and filet knives to separate the meat from the bone, then passed the meat into a tenderizing machine. He watched a circular metal plate with long needles attached stab the cuts fifty times a minute. The documentary went on to say that inspectors were underfunded. The machines routinely contaminated the meat with E. coli and listeriosis. The filmmakers interviewed patients strapped to IV drips and vomiting into steel pans. Nathan wondered how such neglect was possible. Out of indignation, he refused to shop at his regular Loblaws. He tried to find like-mindedness with a butcher on Carling, a French-Canadian who had a teardrop tattoo under his left eye.
-Isn't that disgusting? Nathan said.
-Hien? the butcher replied.
He had to grill the steaks before Mary returned from her Braille lesson. He anticipated her return, excited to see if this spontaneity, this small extravagance during Beef Thursday, could bring some of her old softness back like how she had been before she went blind. He would have picked her up from the community centre, since he hated the thought of her walking alone, but she asked him not to.
-You need to trust me. The doctor said I should be more independent.
-I do trust you. It's the world I don't trust.
-That's the same thing.
He dragged the barbeque into the shared driveway, ignited the propane, and closed the lid to let it warm. On the far side of the lot, Kam stood behind his fence, hacking at a patch of crumbling concrete with a shovel. Once he reached a certain depth, he stopped and stared down. Then he swept the debris back and stuffed it in with his foot. This happened once or twice a week, without pause, since Nathan and Mary moved in. Complaints from the other neighbours piled up. The police searched his house once and found shit smeared on the walls and a charred mattress in his bedroom. But when they dug up his backyard, they found nothing.
Nathan opened the butcher paper and coated each steak with olive oil, salt and pepper, paprika, and thyme, and laid them on the grill. As they cooked, the fat dripped off and burned in the flames.
-In here, in here.
Mohammed, the youngest son of the Iraqi couple who lived on the other side of the lot, swung through the gate. He scampered over to Nathan and hid between the fence and the barbeque.
-Sorry, Mohammed whispered to Nathan.
-Ahmed can’t find me, Mohammed said. We have to be quiet. Shh!
Nathan chuckled to himself as he remembered his own childhood: smearing dandelion pollen on his face, trekking to the river to hunt for frogs, chucking hunks of quartz at swallows that instantly took off, pasta water boiling on a glowing element. He’d been remembering such things more and more ever since he turned 30. The night before, as she straddled him and massaged oil into his back, Nathan told Mary about these memories.
-Your mind's trying to tell you something. Let them in.
The massages were a new ritual. Nathan's policy job at the Ministry of Natural Resources was stressful, and Mary, powerless at the foot of her blindness, wanted to feel useful. They got the idea after visiting a spa on the edge of Algonquin Park. Their bodies were wrapped in damp cheesecloth and wheeled into a room that simulated the sounds of the Dead Sea. It was so relaxing; why not do it at home? They shopped in Westboro for equipment: cloth ovens, surround-sound speakers, a professional massage table. Nathan set it all up in the spare bedroom. He hung dried rosemary along the window sill and bought a terracotta vase that he filled with artificial willow stalks.
-I’m creating an atmosphere, Nathan said.
-For whom, Mary asked.
Ahmed, Mohammed's older brother, stood on the other side of the fence, with neon-red headphones clamped onto his head. Nathan always found the neatness of Ahmed’s facial hair intimidating; its lines were so crisp and clean that he felt insecure at how much time it must take to do it. He couldn’t imagine spending so much time on one particular thing.
-Where's Mohammed? Ahmed said.
-He's been a bad shit, boss. Real big shit.
-Big shit, Ahmed said. Huge.
Nathan shrugged, glancing down at Mohammed.
-He's in shit a lot these days.
-Best believe it, boss. I wanna find him, but I also wanna keep him away, you know? The second he goes back home, my mom and dad, they'll eat him dead.
-Eat him alive.
-Alive, dead, whatever.
-What was it this time? Another banana in the Blu Ray player?
-Hey, boss. Whose side you on? That was no joke. Blu Ray player cost two hundred dollars.
Ahmed retreated into his unit, slamming the steel door behind him, and started yelling. The backyards were so small that Nathan was only a few feet away from their back door. The voices of his father and mother mingled with his and created a cacophony so dramatic it made Nathan wish he understood Farsi.
-Mohammed, Nathan said. Go home.
-Five hundred thousand years.
-That's how long I stay here, he said, pounding his fist on the asphalt as if he were a Conquistador planting a flag on a Peruvian beach.
-Bad language! Mohammed made a circle by touching the tips of his thumb and forefinger and peered at Nathan through it. Djinni!
-You’re a pain, you know that?
Mohammed cackled, tore a tuft of grass from the ground, and threw it at Nathan.
A nice crust was forming on the meat. He peeled the steaks off the bars with his tongs. He thought about Mohammed and his family. He’d only seen Mohammed's father inside their house, walking to and from the fridge and the den. He didn't seem to work or leave the house. He'd heard that he was a professor at a university in Baghdad, teaching something to do with Sufi mysticism, until the Gulf War. The Baathists suspected connections to a terrorist cell, so they put him in Abu Ghraib, then he claimed asylum in Canada after the Americans invaded. Ahmed once told Nathan about the hole in his father’s chest. During one of his interrogations, the interrogator left the electrode running too long, burning a patch of skin the size of a hand.
Mohammed grabbed a handful of gravel and chucked it over the fence. It rattled against the unit's back window. Then he took cover behind the fence, snickering. Ahmed burst out the back door and whipped his head in every direction.
-Jesus! Nathan whispered to Mohammed.
-Boss. I heard him.
-Ahmed. He's not out here.
-Where is your head, in the clouds? I heard it. Tick tick tick on the window. Listen to me. He's around.
-Maybe you’re just hearing things.
-I hear everything, boss.
Eventually, Ahmed calmed down, unclasping his headphones from his head and hanging them around his neck.
-How's Mary? Ahmed said.
-Oh. Uh, good. I mean, fine. Better. Ever since the pension checks started coming through. I mean, that was a big issue, her income. She's been going to church, too. The pastor—she's from Argentina—asked Mary to lead a leatherworking class. And then there’s the therapy and the doctor’s appointments. She’s...things are getting better.
The blood began to bead on the top of the steaks. Nathan started gruffly, scraping a burnt chunk of matter from the bars. Ahmed nodded thoughtfully, then tightened his mouth and crossed his arms. Nathan could feel the conversation abutting an intimacy he didn't want to share. So, he talked about the practicalities: the difficulties of importing guide dogs from San Diego, the danger of Mary walking alone near the Queensway off-ramp, the pity and condescension from everyone she met.
But Nathan desperately wanted to talk about the one thing he knew he couldn't: himself. Mary's blindness fell like a stone into the still water of his plans. When they met at Queen's University, they shared hard-left politics, a curiosity about Buddhism, a love of folk music and beer. Nathan landed his government job shortly after they married and assumed she would domesticate herself. It wasn't that he wanted a barefoot wife in the kitchen; Mary simply didn't have any ambition other than her painting. So, Nathan thought, why not let her stay home and paint if he could pay both their ways? Her blindness upended everything. They couldn't have children (they both discovered they were barren), and they couldn't adopt because of her condition. She feared travel since it took her away from the familiar. Nathan, dictated by the condition, felt trapped.
But what was worse was that he couldn’t stand how Mary embraced the loss of her sight. She did things she hadn't before, things she wouldn’t have. She went to leatherworking classes and came home with intricately decorated belts or roses soldered into wallets. She volunteered for a local political campaign to elect a socialist from Honduras to city council. The speed with which these changes took place unnerved Nathan. Mary was now an unknown variable throwing up complications that he had to respond to and assimilate, and he was getting tired of it. He wanted to escape this insecurity and to express the dreariness and unfairness his life contained. Yet he knew he had to keep his mouth shut.
-That's rough, boss, Ahmed said, vacantly staring between two slats in the fence.
Ahmed went back into the house, but the house remained silent—so silent that Nathan found the lack of yelling ominous. He peeled the steaks off the bars and sat them in a serving dish. Mohammed, still next to the fence, picked the bark off a twig.
-Looks like it's safe to come out, Nathan said.
-I'm in shit, Mohammed said.
-Yup. Talk to Ahmed about it.
-He'll yell. He always yells.
-Sometimes, you have to soldier on.
-I hate it, Mohammed said. I hate them all.
Nathan stood at the window above the kitchen sink with the steaks, watching Ahmed hug Mohammed. It was a long hug, telling Nathan that whatever Mohammed had done, it was secondary to the reestablishment of a bond they shared, a bond Ahmed was going out of his way to make apparent and understood. Nathan thought he saw Ahmed stroke the back of Mohammed’s head, the tiny clipped hairs bristling. Then he let go and patted Mohammed's cheek before they both went inside.
Even before the sun had set, darkness was in his kitchen. He looked up at Mary's paintings hanging on the wall, the early ones from when they lived in Centretown. He remembered how she constructed her canvas frames, sawing lumber diagonally, so two slopes met to make a corner. Standing behind the diaphragm, she asked Nathan to tap the canvas to test its tightness. She was nineteenth century in her process (she painted on an easel with oils), but her paintings seemed like modern imitations. Long streaks of orange. Diluted cyan cut with violet. Veins of charcoal interlaced through dabs of oxblood. She'd walk around the neighbourhood taking photographs of houses, or trees, or views of the river, and tried to paint what she shot. Nathan thought most of them were unbelievably bad, but every once in a while, she'd make something decent.
He heard Mary come in the front door, her keys jangling and her cane smacking every corner and surface in the hallway. She placed her cloth cap very carefully on the wall hook and broke her cane down to its constituent parts—one hollow red tube fitting into another hollow white tube, both bound by a white elastic cord. She bent down, very carefully, to retrieve a pillbox of vanilla Altoids and her indoor goggles. Nathan loved watching her. There was grace in how she did it.
-Jesus! You scared me!
-I didn't mean to.
-We talked about this. Make some noise.
Nathan set the table, shredded the iceberg lettuce, quartered plum tomatoes, and sliced green peppers to make a salad. Mary groped the wall to the kitchen table and sat down.
-It's steak tonight, he said.
-Steak, she said. Can we afford it?
-It's already bought.
They cut in. The sounds of their knives in the meat forced their gazes into the middle distance. They chewed slowly and deliberately.
-I think the seasoning’s a bit off, he said.
-Eh, it's food.
-Fuck, Nathan said, dropping his fork.
As Nathan slouched over the overdone meat, the paprika seemed to coagulate before his eyes. Mary kept chewing.
-I was talking to Ahmed earlier. It's Mohammed again.
-Hiding? Mary said.
-Have you ever met his father?
-I haven't either. I've never seen him leave the house. Renée said he's an enemy of the state. In Iraq.
Mary coughed after she swallowed a whole piece of tomato. She took out her reading light and began holding it over her plate. The food underneath the florescent blue light looked pallid and artificial.
-Ahmed said his dad was in Abu Ghraib.
-That prison. That famous one, with the American tortures.
Mary nodded quietly, still moving her light over the food.
-Do you remember the photos that came out? The one of a guy standing on a soapbox with nothing but a blanket over his head. There were wires around his wrists, and he was posing with his arms held out.
Mary shifted in her seat.
-Can we change the subject?
-I don't want to talk about death.
-Is everything okay?
-You've been feeling sad again.
She tensed her jaw mid-chew.
-It's really nothing.
-Talk to me.
-I'd rather not. It's just a dip. I can handle it.
-That's not how it seems when you're painting.
-I don't have to talk if I don't want, okay? Is painting time your time, too?
Her new paintings disturbed Nathan. When Mary was diagnosed, Nathan assumed, if she painted at all, her paintings would just lose some definition, become stilted or warped. But none of that happened. Right in the centre of her sightline was a blotch of black in the shape of a bean. Mary sometimes described it as a whirlpool, a description that made Nathan feel sick for reasons he couldn’t identify. Now, she gave up any attempt at representation. She’d pour whole cans of paint into trays, submerge her hands, and sweep and claw at the canvas. One day, Nathan walked into her studio when she was out and caught sight of one of her paintings. Such chaos, such colour, arresting and terrifying.
Nathan cleared the table. He scraped the gristle and tomato seeds into the trash bin under the sink. Then Mary tenderly put her arms around his waist and said,
-I know what will make us feel better.
They climbed to the second floor and entered the spare bedroom, where Mary undressed Nathan. She didn't need eyes. She pulled off his socks by the scrag at the toe, unbuckled his belt with one hand, and unbuttoned his shirt with the other. As she did, Nathan could not look away from the towel oven above the willow stalks. In the gloom, those items seemed obtrusive and silly, and he regretted buying them. He laid down on the padded table, fitting his face into the loop-shaped headrest. He listened to Mary's clothes shush off and her feet compressed the carpet as she walked to the small chest where they kept the oils. She returned with damp hands scented with ylang-ylang and white lotus and climbed on top.
-Your back's in knots, she said.
Her arms lapped at his back like water. She ran her fingers up his spine, then back to the small, smoothed his waist, retreated, slid up to his shoulders and back down. She kneaded his shoulders with her thumbs. Nathan groaned, feeling something inside himself stir. Her fingers crept up his neck and dug in by the base of his skull.
-I feel like your canvas.
She stopped abruptly.
-What do you mean?
-Like when you paint. I feel like you’re painting on me.
-I’m sorry. It’s like the painting, sometimes I just lose myself in it. The oil and perfume...I just release.
-It’s just. It feels like you’re somewhere else.
She rested her hands on his shoulders.
-When I got the diagnosis, I didn't know what to do. But I couldn't be as I was. I'm an artist. So much of my life focused on that. And now...
-I know all that.
-You say that.
-I know it's hard.
-It's bigger than hard.
Her voice went quiet.
-You don’t know what it’s like.
She was right. No calamity of the same magnitude had befallen him. And no matter how much he listened, or read about her condition, or helped her through her difficulties, he knew her experience was something they couldn't share. Maybe she needed that, he thought – maybe she needed him to be deaf and dumb to her reality so that she could more fully own it.
-It's just that your paintings...
Nathan couldn't think of what to say.
-I like the newness, she said.
Nathan gripped the struts under the table. Mary pressed her cheek into the back of his neck. He felt her tongue along the edge of his ear, her small hands in his hair. She climbed off the table, turned him over, and pulled off his boxers, and as she stood there, his underpants hanging in her fingers, his chest sweat drying in the air, he felt himself lose what rigidity he had. But she grabbed his penis and climbed back on without hesitation.
-You're getting harder, she said.
From his angle, he saw faces on her. Teeth, folds, ligaments. She shifted, trembled, and collapsed on top of him.
-Did you finish? she asked.
They tried again in the bedroom, but she left him behind. She'd now orgasmed more that day than he had in a month, and he wasn’t sure what to do about it. The curves and folds in the sheets brightened from the streetlamps outside.
He got out of bed and stood by the window, troubled by another memory. One summer five years ago, he and Mary had driven past an open pit mine while on a trip through Northern Ontario. They drove out of Sudbury and saw it after a bend in one of the highways. It was an enormous crater, terraced along its sides. Through the trees, he saw the edges of tailing ponds shining turquoise, vermillion, and burgundy. Their colours changing with every angle. Soon after, they stopped at a diner, where Nathan clanked sweet tarts out of a candy machine and placed them, one by one, on Mary's tongue. The site of the mine amazed him. So, when he looked down into the blackness of the lot, fueled by his fatigue, his eyes unfocused, his mind conjured up a bleary multitude of colours that projected onto the shadow below.
Is this what she sees? he wondered.
But what he saw was not what was there.
The memory receded, his eyes focused, and he saw Kam exit his unit, scraping some dust from his plot with his foot, and started hacking with his shovel. He retreated to bed, climbed in next to Mary, who was unnaturally quiet, and lay there, letting his eyes dampen until, mercifully, he fell asleep.