Shepps obeyed Gwen when she told him to go away. He roared away in his Westfalia and spent his nights warming the Crystal Pool’s parking lot with his exhaust; his mornings warming its public toilets with his feces. Every part of him ached for Gwen. Every synapse in his brain was a GWEN receptor, every blood cell was not white or red but gwen, every sperm was programmed to swim to Gwen. Days he worked at the Esso, he spelled her name in M&Ms on the counter and nibbled her away, or he inhaled diesel fumes and imagined her vapourizing out of gas tanks in technicolour mist. At night, he lay in his Westie’s loft bed with one hand around the neck of his bass guitar, the other hand slathered in petroleum jelly, his mind on Gwen. She wore different heads. At times her own, at times Shepps’s kindergarten teacher’s and at times she wore Damian Costello’s—Gwen’s estranged husband and the lead singer of Shepps’s now-defunct punk band. Her body was as Shepps recalled. Back arched, her nipples like red rolling pin handles pointed to the sky and her mouth gaped—a cavernous, fiery entrance to hell.
After a couple of months, Gwen’s back began to hunch, her nipples shrunken and dangling like burnt-out Christmas lights. Her face became a swirl of features, none of them hers. His kindergarten teacher’s muddy St. Bernard eyes, Damian’s thin-lipped smirk. One evening after leaving the Esso, Shepps drove up to Gwen’s building and parked under her bedroom window. He hoped for a glimpse of her undressing to rebuild his mental inventory. A recollection of a shadow of underarm hair, the curve and heft of a bum cheek, the nub of a baby toe, even. His stomach clenched for fear she’d see him. His stomach clenched tighter for fear he’d see her with another man—some wiry punk with sunken features, long graceful fingers and a sleek penis—someone nothing like Shepps, with his broad shoulders desirous of more muscle than he had to give, his pepperoni stick fingers that fumbled for her clit, the pendulum cock whose girth he apologized for every time she screamed.
Gwen appeared on her balcony within seconds, as though she had spent the days since his departure creeping about, shushing her young daughters, listening for his put-put-put. She rested an elbow on the rail and said, I thought I told you to go away.
Shepps leaned out of his passenger side window. You didn’t tell me to stay away.
Ten minutes later, framed by the open sliding door of his van, a tuft of cardboard-brown hair, tail-light nipples under a shredded T and a hint of saggy, greying panty crotch.
You were fading, Shepps said. He squatted on the van floor in front of her.
Gwen raised her fingers to Shepps’s cheeks and tucked them, through his stubble, into the line of his jaw. Don’t you want to forget me, she asked. She leaned into him and sucked on his bottom lip.
Shepps shook his head, no.
Gwen kissed him. She licked his teeth, tickled the roof of his mouth with her tongue. But I’m so awful, she said.
Shepps shook his head. You’re so lovely.
He grabbed Gwen under her armpits, lifted her into the van and up to the loft. He held her ribs and pressed the side of his face into her. Her erratic heart a lazy woodpecker at his ear. This was how new parents must feel, this fanatic love for the unknown.
Close the fucking door, she said. I’m in my panties.
Shepps slid the door closed. Gwen relaxed into his hands and he squeezed and pulled and sucked at her, supple and salty as play clay. Gwen came as Shepps had hoped. She arched her back, hands to her heels and cawed like a seagull on garbage day. Then she uncorked Shepps’s cock and turned to face the windshield. My kids are upstairs, she said. She dangled her legs off the loft and dusted sand from between her toes. You ever vacuum this thing?
How would I?
Can you stay a little longer?
The girls are alone. It’s illegal, I think.
I could come up.
I don’t want to confuse them. They’ve already said goodbye.
What if I stay? For good.
We tried that.
Shepps lifted himself to his elbows. We could try again, he said. Really try.
I did really try, Gwen said.
She hopped down from the bed and picked her panties like a blackberry from a nook of Shepps’s van. See you next time you’re lonely, she said. She stepped out of the van and wiggled her fingers at him.
I’m always lonely.
Gwen didn’t turn around. She cackled and scuffed her bare feet along the sidewalk and into her apartment building.
Every night the following weeks, Shepps found himself under Gwen’s bedroom window, under the spell of her Bat-signal nightlight, under her. The nights began with her soft in his hands and ended with her rigid-backed cry to the roof, her trundle back inside. As the weeks wore on, it became easier to watch Gwen walk away. When she returned, there was a little less of her. She became less pliable, her scream a muted squawk. She would not let him into her home, her life. They had nothing to talk about, no knowledge of the other’s days. Shepps wallpapered his heart with thinning layers of Gwen.
One night, as Gwen shuffled back to her building, Shepps yelled after her, You didn’t even say hello.
Gwen turned. Hello, she said. Goodbye.
Is that it?
See you tomorrow, she said.
I don’t think you will. Shepps stepped out of his van, toward Gwen.
No, he said. I don’t—
Stop. Gwen held her two middle fingers up and backed into her building. Go away, she said. Stay away.
Shepps knew he would regret leaving Gwen—forever this time. She was a cancer, a tsunami, a nuclear disaster. A force so powerful she had divided his life into before and after. He squeezed his eyes shut to stamp into his memory this brand of emptiness. Not after-Gwen emptiness, full of longing, but during-Gwen emptiness, in which she stole his longing and replaced it with nothing but a familiar body.
November trees stretched flaming arms against a charcoal sky. The time of year Victoria-based van-dwellers regretted their housing decisions. Shepps enacted life coated in a moist film. At the Esso, with nobody’s name to diligently spell out, he poured bags of M&Ms down his throat. He inhaled diesel fumes and imagined nothing save for the odd large-breasted dragon. At night, he gave up masturbation altogether. This was non-Gwen emptiness. Truly empty emptiness.
Until Shepps played his bass. He hadn’t touched it—musically—since his band’s last gig almost a year earlier, December 13, 1990. They opened D.O.A.’s farewell show at the Commodore in Vancouver. D.O.A. got back together soon after. It was Shepps’s band that said farewell for good. Damian walked away from everyone after that show—the band, Gwen, his daughters. No one had seen him since. There were rumours he was playing a weekly gig at a country bar in Banff, or that he’d joined the crew of a pirate ship. Last Shepps heard, Donny moved to Olympia to play with Fitz of Depression. Ricky stuck around Victoria, tending to his pot plants and working construction. He’d kept a good beat but his heart was never in it. Shepps was the only member left.
He spent those damp, Gwen-less nights composing songs to the quick slapping of his D-string. Wretched love songs, songs about M&Ms, songs about coins between van cushions. He took the stage once a week at an open mic in a divey tea house in James Bay decorated with jars of pickled eggs and doilies. He developed a fan base. Mostly retired lawyers having a second crack at their teenaged Neil Young fantasies. But there was a girl, Magda. She played acoustic guitar and sang about Degrassi High plotlines, Jesus and swing sets. A warm, bubble gum pink cloud surrounded her. She smiled and clapped her hands (off-time and inappropriately, given the morose content) while Shepps played. She wore push-up bras and dressed in pastels. Her socks matched the colour of her shirts. Her hair was so shiny he wondered if it was synthetic, like that of the My Little Ponies he’d spent hours brushing for Gwen’s daughters.
One night, she sang of heartache. A boy had left, left, left her at the movies with her tick, tick, ticket in hand. She drank tears, tears, tears and soda and cough, cough, coughed on her popcorn. When she curtsied and sat back down, Shepps sidled up to her table.
True story, he asked.
Magda turned the shade of a plum blossom. She nodded.
Choke might work better.
Choke, choke, choked on my popcorn?
You’re good at that.
Shepps ran a stilted hand through his shaggy dark curls. You wanna check out my van?
Magda was pretty and simple and easy. Her belly button was a taut mini Timbit, not a sleepy hungover eyelid, like Gwen’s. She was a virgin and only dallied above the belt but she nodded encouragingly, fluffy towel at the ready, while Shepps masturbated with her legs wrapped around his waist. On hot nights, she let Shepps suck at her nipples and dropped her hand on top of his hand. She petted his twitching fist and called him Baby which, what with the nipple sucking, was disconcerting, but sweet. A pleasant, hand-held stroll toward an orgasm, not an unrestrained black bear’s growl of a release.
Magda had twenty years to Shepps’s thirty and lived in a bungalow near Hillside Mall with her devoutly Christian parents. They did not believe in pre-marital dating and spent much of their time sifting through a selection of appropriately God-fearing and employed suitors their daughter would reject, insisting she’d rather care for her parents than a stranger. Meanwhile, Shepps, with his Jewish, somewhat Middle-Eastern complexion, was granted residency on their driveway as a Palestinian refugee Magda met while street proselytizing. He was not allowed access to their home, but Magda snuck into his van most nights with leftovers and clean laundry. When Magda and her parents left for prayer group, Shepps slithered through an open kitchen window and partook of their hot water and antibacterial products.
Shepps and Magda formed a duo. Shepps aimed for a Thurston and Kim vibe but they landed closer to Ian and Sylvia. They called themselves Jesus’s Beard, which Shepps found funny and Magda found reverent. They combined their repertoires and played discordant tunes about Jesus finding quarters in swing sets made of M&Ms and pregnant, suicidal teenagers holding hands in the back seats of vans. They were the stars of the tea house stage. It gave the regulars hope to see something productive come of the open mic.
Magda was perfect. Textbook perfect. Romantic comedy perfect. If only Shepps could live and die by her moods, the smell of her funk or the heat of her breath against his skin. But Magda was even-tempered, smelled like magazine perfume inserts, and her body temperature never exceeded warm. When Shepps asked her for song writing topics, she said, I don’t know. When he changed a chord, she said, Sure. Shepps was suffocating in Magda’s pink cloud of compliance. He was a giver, a follower. He absorbed the personalities of others and reflected them back in the most pleasing light. He was the tofu. When Magda would look to him, wide-eyed, for direction, he tightened. Shepps was not tight. Shepps was a flailing wind sock in a hurricane, twisting wildly toward anyone who would take him in. Shepps was used to rejection, indifference, mockery.
He attempted to scrape through Magda’s mist to her truth. Her opinions, passions, her anger. He wanted to scorch his hands on her magmatic core. He made empty promises to bring home Hershey’s Kisses from the Esso. He changed their duo’s name to The Shepps Project. He spilled ketchup and black tea on her mother’s favourite church blouse. He forgot Valentine’s day. Magda only said, To err is human and Ok.
And then Shepps saw Gwen. His van had been monogamously parked in Magda’s driveway for months. He’d barely thought of Gwen. Two or three times a day at most. Gwen was leaning against the glass of a dollar store downtown, her eldest tugging her toward the bags of marbles inside, her youngest wrapped around her bare leg. Gwen was dressed for winter on top—flannel lumberjack shirt, toque, mitts—but jean cut offs and flip flops on bottom. Her thighs were heroin thin. When Shepps called her name, she startled, and held a protective arm out in front of her girls.
Oh, she said. You.
Hey Gwen. Hi girls.
The girls looked at Shepps, then back to the marbles behind the glass.
Your van here, Gwen asked. I need to get home.
Sure, yeah. Shepps pointed up the street.
Gwen shuffled into the van, catatonic, weighted by a clinking backpack.
Where you parking these days, she asked as they climbed up Fort.
You haven’t been around.
We have a band.
I met someone in a band too. He’s—Steve. He’s away now’s why I need a ride.
Sounds nice. I’m glad.
You should be.
Shepps stopped at Gwen’s building and rummaged through his cupboards to find a few apples, half a loaf of bread, a brick of cheese. He displayed these to her and filled the empty spaces in her backpack, those not occupied by vodka bottles, while she crawled into the back to unbuckle her girls. In case Steve’s gone a while, he said.
I don’t need your charity, she said. She zipped up her bag, though, and took it, tumbling out of the van after her girls. She paused in the frame of Shepps’s sliding door, girls aligned close, like ducklings. She leaned into the door frame, her lips quivering. Is she better than me?
Yes, he said.
Gwen nodded, waited for more. But Shepps said goodbye. He slid the door closed on Gwen. Her single-mom American Gothic—backpack for a pitchfork, egg-eyed girls for a wife. And he drove away.
What did Gwen expect? Is Magda better than you? Yes. Anyone is. If you strip Magda of her layers all you’ll find is light. If you push her, you know which way she’ll fall. She eats doughnuts with a spoon. Her body is perfectly hairless. Yes, she’s better. But she’s not you, she’s not you, she’s not you.
That night, Magda entered Shepps’s van with a half-empty pan of mac ‘n’ cheese resting on her forearms and a bag of chocolate chip cookies tucked under an armpit. But Shepps had lost his appetite. All he could think about was Steve. Steve, who was ninety-nine percent certainly made up. Though he could exist. He could fill Gwen’s cupboards with Kraft Dinner and vodka, he could ensure her daughters brushed their teeth before bed and left the house in pants, he could rip clumps of Gwen’s hair when she demanded it then hold her ear to the soft place under his collarbone all night. And if he did, where would that leave Shepps? Shepps wanted to be the put-upon martyr, the abused. He wanted to stew without Magda’s unclouded eyes on him. The invisibility of the lesser.
Should we practice tonight, Magda asked.
Shepps perforated the muculent heap of noodles with his fork.
Open mic is tomorrow, she said.
Maybe you should go solo.
Magda closed her lips around one slimy macaroni noodle, chewed ten times without separating her lips, swallowed. Did she ever drool? Slurp, burp, fart? Did her body even produce saliva?
If that’s what you want, she said.
What do you want?
I want you to be happy.
You’re so goddamned nice to me.
I love you.
That’s not love, Shepps said.
Magda’s jaw unhinged.
Shepps stopped himself from going further, from telling Magda she was parasitically thriving on filling his needs. He’d done this before, but now he was the Gwen. You were better solo, he said. That movie song was really good.
Magda squeezed her fingers around her fork. I don’t understand.
I have to go.
Single tears dropped from Magda’s cheeks, as though choreographed to induce pity. Who are you, she said.
Gwen appeared like a poltergeist—finger-in-a-light-socket hair, wisp of a white nightdress, spread palms to his van window. She looked more radiant than when she brushed her hair, washed her face, accessorized. She crawled into Shepps’s van and crouched against the sliding door.
I don’t know why I came here, Shepps said.
Am I so awful?
I keep thinking I’ve reached my limit.
I don’t deserve you. Gwen shed tears. Real, raccoon-eye tears. She twirled the strap of her nightie around an index finger. I can barely leave the house. I need vodka to breathe. I need you.
Gwen rarely humanized Shepps with a name. He sat cross-legged on the floor in front of her and held her hand.
I’m so afraid of everything outside my door. She propelled her face into his shoulder, streaked it with strokes of black mascara.
Let me come up, Shepps said. Take care of you.
Gwen climbed onto Shepps’s lap. She put a fistful of nightie into his palm and licked his ear. Don’t talk about us, she said. Let me stay here tonight.
And they repeated their sequence. Kiss, kiss, tongue, bite, kiss, earlobe, sweater, neck, neck, throat, bite, T-shirt, kiss, tongue, tongue, belt, kiss, kiss, bite, pants, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, come. Gwen lay naked beside him and sucked drops of sweat from his ribs. Life seemed pointless without her body next to his. He could either die then or lie there forever. He knew she would leave him. She might come back, repeat. The only thing he felt certain of was her eventual departure.
Is this what we are now, Shepps asked.
Gwen rubbed her forehead into his armpit. What is this?
Come, go. Hot, cold.
Can we fit in-between?
What’s in-between? Stay. Warm. Stay warm.
Sounds like being stuck in the bath.
Will you ever let me up?
Gwen raised herself to her elbows. She looked into Shepps’s eyes and slowly shook her head. You hate me more than you love me, she said.
Shepps left the city that morning with one last look at Gwen, curled behind her bedroom window, most likely searching for a pair of unsoiled underwear on the floor, tiny rolls of wrinkled stomach supporting IV-bag breasts. Her obliviousness to the peeping eyes of the outside world so endearing. It’s fine, she would say, nobody looks up. Shepps drove up island until he was almost out of gas, to Buckley Bay, the ferry to Denman and then Hornby Island. It was almost June. Soon, the ice cream truck would pull up outside the Hornby Co-Op, local girls would wander in flip flops and string bikinis, tonguing toppling worlds of ice cream, their brown bums like fresh rolls steaming under cropped surf Ts. Little Tribune Bay would be populated with naked middle-aged women, proudly or obliviously bushed, strolling through clear waters along the tide line, exuding a beauty richer than that of the spray-tanned big-city weekend imports who ducked underwater and resurfaced nude, then squealed back to driftwood huts, breasts covered by forearms, their eyes full of the judgement borne from uncertainty.
Shepps parked his van at the Co-Op campground all summer, which led to fall, and then to winter. Gwen existed in the swampy underlayer of his mind until forced to the surface by a woman at the Co-Op with an unkempt nest of nearly dreaded sandstone brown hair, or by a set of large-nippled pancakes kissing the waves in Little Tribune. With these sightings came the if-onlys. If only she hadn’t, if only she wasn’t. If only her raw honesty, her morbidity, her confidence, those lips were superimposed onto somebody kind, compassionate, respectful. We could be so. He imagined conversations in which she listened, saw, agreed. Perhaps repented, begged. At times, she swirled downward into a cauldron of cartoonish green venom gushing from her dead, black heart.
He rode out the winter on Hornby performing odd jobs for widows—patching holes in water reservoirs, building chicken coops, pulling ivy, fennel and broom—and spent the summer fixing his van and singing to his bass lines at the Saturday market. He planted a garden beside the Co-Op office. Carrots, tomatoes, kale, cannabis. He tended to his plants and they nourished him. This was the healthiest relationship Shepps had ever maintained. Lonely nights, he stroked the curves of his kale leaves. Tickled their serrated edges with the tips of his fingers. He kneeled in the wet loam and licked from stem to leaf tip, bit at and chewed their bitter tang.
The summer of ’94, Shepps’s third summer on Hornby, topics of discussion among tourists that year revolved around Kurt Cobain’s suicide, planned trips to Seattle, Courtney Love murder conspiracy theories and coffee. The ice cream truck began to serve espresso. The girls at the beach dressed like their grandfathers—pleated tan pants slung low to their pubic bones, brown cardigans over bikini tops and knitted fingerless gloves. They all simmered in angst and pre-emptive grunge nostalgia. They mistrusted anyone who smiled.
Shepps’s odes to kale didn’t inspire the Saturday market crowd to part with their coins. He adopted a melancholic slouch, an anguished squint, directed his afrotic curls to hang despondently like Eddie Vedder’s and added “Something in the Way” to his repertoire. His between-songs banter included references to the van he lived in, under a willow tree which was Hornby Island’s answer to a bridge.
After his set one end-of-August Saturday, a pair of thin legs, bare save for a stripe of dark stubble the razor had missed, stood uncomfortably close. Gwen. Just when he’d stopped scanning crowds for her scuffy, pigeon-toed walk, when a female figure with two little girls in tow no longer took his breath. Gwen.
You bought into that Seattle bullshit.
I’m a people pleaser.
I wondered where you took off to. I’m here with some guy. He has a cabin.
He’s over by the mangos with the girls. I noticed you and—I heard your voice, actually.
Good to see you, Gwen.
I’ve missed you.
Shepps collected the change from his guitar case and put it in his pocket. Enough to take Gwen and the girls for an ice cream and a coffee. Convince her to ditch Mango Guy. To turn passion and muted hatred into love, whatever that was. But having a taste of real Gwen would feed his fantasy, spike him from contentment to elation and plummet to misery when she walked away. He tidied his bass, folded up his chair, hoped Gwen would leave him numb and alone. Content.
Busy now, she asked.
You like it here?
It’s a good life.
Winter, a bit.
You don’t get tired of chasing girls?
Shepps snapped his guitar case closed. No girls, Gwen. Gardening, mostly.
So you’re lonely.
Plants are reliable.
Gwen grabbed his hips and pressed her chest into his ribs. I’m lonely too, Shepps.
He kissed her hairline. It’s lonely either way.
Yeah, he said. And her incomprehension made him feel lonelier still.
Shepps tucked his hands into his pockets. Shuffled the quarters and loonies around. He felt Gwen’s hands on his sides, her curled fingers could either dig farther in or flick him away.
Gwen dropped her hands. You think Courtney killed him?
Not at all.
Gwen nodded and spent some time kicking a hole in the dry dirt beside Shepps’s guitar case. She reached out to him, touched his arm, but when Mango Guy beckoned from the quilt raffle stand, Gwen said, I guess I should go, then.
Shepps did not see Gwen again for twenty-five years. He stayed on Hornby and became a splash of colour on the island’s palette. He picked up six-string guitar and learned some classic folk tunes. He was the soundtrack for country dances, golden anniversary parties, tourist weddings. He led a celibate existence save for the odd fresh widow or recurring tourist. He did not fall in love again. His apathetic heart belonged to his plants and to Gwen. He packaged her into his mind-murk as one irreplicable memory. The first day they met. Twenty-one years old, a waitress at Pluto’s Diner, sticking a flyer for his band’s show to the wall with her gum. She knew what came out of his mouth was a load of testosterone-pumped horse shit and she told him so. And when he left the diner that day having licked the sweat from her thighs, he felt addictively victorious. He’d spent every day since then willing anything but Gwen to exist.
Shepps left Hornby Island after his fifty-fifth birthday, when he felt it wise to live on a bigger island, one with a hospital, one that might not be swallowed by the Pacific when the big earthquake hit. He ferried to Vancouver Island, parked his van back at the Crystal Pool in Victoria. He found a job at the public library shelving books—a job a teenager could do, a job teenagers did do. After a few years, he achieved Yoda status with his peers. They came to him for help with math homework, dispensary recommendations. He had veto power in squabbles over who had to tidy the children’s area, where parents divined meaning from iPhones while their children flung books and smashed keyboards.
Shepps was lured into a scandalous affair by Olivia, the children’s librarian. Scandalous not due to its extra-marital nature on her part, but to the hierarchical canyon between them—she being a step below the CEO and he being a step above janitorial. There was no courting period, no pursuit. One sunny lunch hour found them alone in the staff room, Shepps admiring the presentation of her salad. A bed of dark greens layered with julienned peppers, emaciated tomato circles, radish roses. My husband, she said, cares very much how things look. Shepps nodded and returned to his tuna casserole. I hate him, Olivia said. They ate in silence, Olivia’s vitriol hanging between them and Shepps unable to think of what might properly diffuse it. Olivia destroyed the last of the radish roses with her molars. She cleaned between her teeth with a fingernail, then said, You here ’til five?
You drive a Westie, right?
Shall I join you after work?
Shepps nodded a final time. Not out of desire for her, but a desire to please, and to avoid the awkwardness of a rejection.
Olivia kept strict rules for Shepps. He was not to speak to her or even look at her at work. If he could glance like a normal person it would be fine, Olivia told him, but he could not help but ogle covetously. She left him notes between books in various sections depending on her mood. On good days, she’d leave him naughty drawings and instructions to meet in the back corner of the local history room at noon inside the Lesbian Sex Bible, 306.7663 CAG. Guilty days, she’d leave him a graphite-slathered torn sheet a few books down, inside Collateral Damage: Guiding and Protecting your Child through the Minefield of Divorce, 306.89 CHI. Most days, he’d find an apology and a goodbye housed between the pages of The Breakup Bible, 155.643 SUS. Those days, he’d lock himself in the single-stall bathroom and spend his lunch hour sobbing into salami on rye and projecting the details of his irritable bowel syndrome to the barrage of patrons who banged at the door. Olivia would catch up to him as he fumbled with his van keys at the end of the day and press her lips into the back of his neck. Forget the note, she’d say. I need you. He did not understand how this had happened, how he had come to care. Was he nothing but a dog who responded to pleasure and pain? Weren’t we all? He knew this wasn’t love—love was what he felt for Gwen. He had been drawn to Olivia by the masochism that first drew him to Gwen. But Gwen did more than spit at him as he knelt before her. She was history, tenderness made sweeter with doses of cruelty, she was need—not as a cog in her machine of retribution, but true need. To serve Gwen made him feel worthwhile, absolved of all the awful things he’d ever done and would ever do to any others.
While feeling through the 300s for a note one day, Shepps came across a young girl in the body of a woman. An unbrushed, unwashed bun of curls hovered over a stack of books topped with Perfect Daughters: Adult Daughters of Alcoholics, 362.2923 ACK. She still smelled faintly of apricot jam and glue sticks. Meg, he said. She looked up and narrowed her eyes. I’m Shepps, he said. You probably don’t remember me.
I’ve heard your name. She stood up, rested her book stack on her hip.
I used to—I lived with you and your mom and your sister for a bit.
I remember having some sort of dad for a while.
How is your mom?
Not well, Meg said, and pointed to her book stack.
I haven’t seen her in years. She living in the same place?
Meg nodded, but slowly, with narrow, wary eyes.
You don’t want me to?
Tough love, Meg said.
Shepps desperately wanted to see Gwen, to throw a rock at her window, even, and see what would happen. But tough love was not the kind of love Shepps gave. If Gwen opened her door to him, Shepps would wash her crusty, yellowed bedsheets. He would draw baths. He would spoon-feed her celebrity culinary couples: bacon and eggs, tea and honey, peanut butter and jam. All she’d have to do is hold his bottom lip between hers and ask if he wouldn’t bring home a bottle of vodka, to take the edge off, and he’d give in. He had to ignore now-Gwen in service of forever-Gwen.
After seeing Meg, Shepps wiped Olivia from his mind. There wasn’t much difference during work hours, what with her Rules. But one evening, at his van, Shepps felt the spine of a book hurled at the back of his neck. He turned to find Olivia, shaking Lolita, NAB at him in one hand and a note in the other. I left this for you a week ago, she said. She smacked the note into his cheek and walked away. I saw you, it said, in the thick, dark lettering of an intensely fisted pencil. And lower down, thick enough to rip through the paper, Pedophile.
She’s my girlfriend’s daughter, he yelled after Olivia.
Olivia stopped. Whipped round. Marched back toward Shepps. Girlfriend?
You’re cheating, Shepps said.
Not on you.
Who do you go home to?
Olivia stared at Shepps, then threw her fists to the sky like a foiled villain. You’re not who I thought you were, she screamed.
That’s true. I’m not your spineless loser.
That night, Shepps walked to Gwen’s building with his six-string strapped to his back. He sat under her window, close to the wall under her balcony so she couldn’t see him, and he played for her. Lullabies, campfire songs, a lot of Joni Mitchell. He wanted her to know he was there, but unconsciously, in her dreams.
Shepps didn’t knock on Gwen’s door until two years later, on November 26, 2021. In his hand he clutched a newspaper article: “Local Punk Pioneer Leaves Podiatric Puzzle.”
Gwen stood in her doorway cradling a mug of tea in her palms. At fifty-nine, she looked almost the same as she did the last time he saw her. Her cheeks succumbed to a tired sag, her eyes floated the same purple tide. But she was fully dressed now, inconspicuous in jeans and a T-shirt. Pants zipped, armhole stitching intact, and was that a bra strap? He’d expected to find her naked in a fetal heap, clinging to a vodka bottle as though she’d grown around it like moss. He’d half-expected to have to break down the door.
The last person I thought I’d see, she said.
I came because. Shepps held up the article.
Damian Costello, Gwen said airily. I thought he was invincible.
You think he’s really dead?
They only found his foot.
I always thought I might see him again.
Gwen dropped her head and nodded. She closed her eyes and palmed her cheeks. Shepps was her real love, but Damian was her mad love, the inaccessible one. I don’t know why I’m crying, she said. He’s been dead to me for years. Ages.
Because it’s Dams.
Shepps wiped the hair from her eyes. Gwen slapped Shepps’s shoulder. I’m finally divorced. She fell into his chest, scratched her head into his throat, held the back of his neck.
They stayed that way a while, slow dancing to the sound of their silent, unrhythmic sobs. When Shepps finally unbowed his head, Gwen lowered her hands from his body and walked to the kitchen to make them tea. She placed a wooden tray, which held a clay pot and matching vessels for cream and sugar, on the carpet at Shepps’s feet and they sat on either side, cross-legged.
Cream in tea, Gwen said. My only vice.
There are worse things.
They filled the gaps in one another’s histories, periodically interrupting with, Little Meggie has a son? Or, In the local archives? Totally naked? There was no jealousy, no yearning to have been there. Acceptance of the other’s life, as it had been lived. Appreciation of the other, here, now.
When they both confessed they hadn’t fallen in love again, Gwen said, Are our worlds too small?
Not at all, Shepps said. He reached across the tepid pot and held her hand in his palm, his fingers around her small wrist. He felt her pulse—not a beat frenetic with infatuation, but the ebb and flow of blood from her persistent heart.
Susan Sanford Blades lives in Victoria, BC, Canada, where she completed an MFA in fiction at the University of Victoria. Her short stories have recently been published in Cosmonauts Avenue, EVENT, the moth: arts and literature, Southwest Review, and have been anthologized in Coming Attractions 16. “After Gwen” is part of a manuscript of linked short stories.