BRIGHT ORANGE SCARF

Dread my predominant emotion, I accepted the package from Beth’s hand. She smiled nervously as I set the parcel in my lap and stared down at the shimmering red wrapping. “Go ahead,” she urged, “Open it, Pru sent it special delivery.”

Feeling the eyes of my family watching, I unwillingly pulled at the ribbon and the paper broke beneath my stiff fingers. The box concealed beneath the paper Beth pried open as I could do no more. She drew out the contents and there it was. A bright, orange scarf. “Isn’t it lovely?!”, my eldest sister cooed, unravelling the length of it and holding it up for all to admire before placing it in my hands. A bright, orange scarf. Very long, very thick, very bright. For a time, I sat staring down at it until I looked up, and realized everyone was studying my response. As my eyes swung around the room, they met the eyes of various members of my family until, one by one, their gaze fell away. 

“Yeah,” I said, my voice deadpan. “It’s bloody gorgeous.” I peered in the box again, just to check. But no, Nothing. No note. Not a word. 

I was sick that day, had been sick for two weeks with a ghastly flu. Never been so sick in my life and Paulo too. The next day it developed into laryngitis. Why, it was the perfect moment to be given a gorgeous, compellingly massive orange scarf! I wrapped it round and round and round my sore throat that could not speak, donned my heavy tweed coat, and Paulo and I went out for the evening. To see the Mouse Trap, in which Paulo’s brother played the husband. In a drafty, old theatre in North Toronto, I sat and shivered that night, the orange scarf around my neck tightening, tightening, tightening, slowly suffocating me. I pressed my hands to my belly and caressed the precious life growing there, while in my head the questions circled – why? why? why did she bother? What did it mean? Why did she never call, never write, never apologize

The comedy ended, as comedies do, and the people rose to leave. I stepped into the minus 20 air, sighing. Paulo, a step behind me, looked down and took my mittened hand when he saw my wet face. We made our way across the ice to my Volvo. Starting the motor, we sat for a long time, the windows frosted over. 

Grief is what I remember from that year, a grief that buckles your knees and your spirit. I ought to have been writing all of the time – for all that I felt that I did accomplish. I lived across from the repertory cinema on Roncesvalles above a tailor shop owned by a Polish couple in their waning years. From my wide, front window, I could look down at the café bookshop beside the theatre, a lively, homespun space frequented by the young and politically inclined. I sat through many evenings after class in that café, reading, writing, thinking. Through the darkened and cold Toronto streets I walked, breathing in the sharp air, past the chaotic Chinese markets on Spadina to my bus stop on Dundas West, where the street car would sweep me homeward to Howard Park. 

It was there on the corner one early morning that a young man shouted out, “you are all on a path towards destruction; your worship of the dollar will be your eternal downfall.” His hair to his shoulders, his thin frame bound by a short cloth coat, he shouted with a vitality I watched with a mixture of amusement and curiosity. Everyone pushed past him with scarcely a glance in his direction, but this did not deter his torrent of admonishments. When he turned and noticed my gaze upon him, he looked straight into my eyes, grinned, and winked. To me, he somehow seemed more alive than those climbing onto the street car. Was he or was he not a fool, I wondered.  

Returning home one evening I was confronted, as I commonly was, by a beggar woman, her face upturned to my face. “A quarter, lady, please, just to make a phone call, anything?” I was furious, furious, furious with everything: all. I reached into my pocket and thrust a twenty into her eager fingers. Jubilantly, she called to me as I nodded to her and strode on by, “Thanks lady, you’re an angel.” Growling, I unlocked our door and mounted the steep stairwell to our flat. There I would make tea and run my bath, lowering my thickening body into the steam, the forgotten verses of lady poets long dead rolling over my tongue. The cockroaches listened from their homes in the cracked walls. 

At work, I would proofread the manuscript, a study of Blake, reading aloud to catch the errors. Tedious, but in some ways a poetry of its own. The woman who listened to catch the errors was a forgettable person, just a face among many that year. I cannot recall her name; doubtless she does not remember mine. This job to her was the measure of her days; to me as a graduate student it was merely soup in my cup. And I thanked Blake for making it all worthwhile. 

My room had no window. I preferred it, though, to the other bedroom as at least it opened onto the large living room with the broad picture window. In the archway, I hung an intensely blue curtain, and in the daytime tied it back to let in the light. When the sun shone, the afternoon light cascaded into that front room. It faced west towards the sun, and my young son. The two images of Toronto, winter daytime hours, are firm in my memory: one of blinding cold sunlight, wet, salty streets, and brisk movements; the other of foggy mornings, gray afternoons – of a bleak, flat, uninspiring environment littered with the incurious. I grew big and bigger. 

The scarf I never wore again. I carefully wrapped it and placed it in a cardboard box. In orange ink, I wrote neatly on a white sheet of paper – 

It will require speech acts, not gifts, to heal this rift between us. – love, Maud.

I think I mailed my sister off that day. Perhaps she imagines that she is still, after all this time, a gorgeous, compellingly massive, orange scarf. Very long, very thick. Very bright.