When her stepmother tells Iris about the litter, Gibb thinks they should adopt. “I like cats,” he reminds Iris. “Besides, aren’t guide cats a thing?”
Iris doesn’t need the internet to tell her that guide cats are definitely not a thing. But she looks it up anyway and lets the screen reader recite the response. Yes, there are a handful of cats who have succeeded as helpmates to their owners. But these are the outliers. Most cats, it seems, have better things to do.
They’re in the new kitchen, a land whose geography Gibb is still mapping out as he shuffles through the room making lunch. He’s undaunted by the internet. If there are outliers, why can’t they be one of them? “We can be one of those feel-good things that go viral,” he says. “We could be a meme.“
Iris, who has no interest in being a meme, toggles off the screen reader and goes back to Facebook. Their old neighbor from Montreal has posted a picture of her husband. There’s Mr. Amestoy, grinning on a summer day. Next to him, gold and sleek, is the guide dog Arthur. Mr. Amestoy died last month, and Mrs. Amestoy is moving to a facility that doesn’t take pets. Iris taps her fingers on her chin. Even a second-hand guide dog might prove its use. Still, the idea has its drawbacks, chief among which is that Gibb’s hatred of dogs is absolute. It started when that stray crashed their wedding and bit his cousin in the leg. Gibb seems to see the stray’s rabid spirit in every dog he meets. You’re not fooling anyone, Gibb seems to say. I know your kind.
Can you be racist towards dogs? thinks Iris. Is being dogist a thing?
“We could go down, stay the night, and come back with the cat,” Gibb goes on. “You haven’t been home in months.”
Iris pictures her stepmother’s farm with its apple trees and fresh fields and the new mother, a calico who adopted them last spring. It’s been two years since Gibb’s accident and almost five since their last vacation. The move to Toronto sapped their resources. Iris came here to teach – she works with people who are hearing impaired – but Gibb hasn’t found work and money is tight. He’s been slow to adjust, fumbling his way through the new house, a recluse hiding from the world.
“Is this the cheddar?” asks Gibb and Iris knocks the table once.
She opens a new tab on her browser. Aren’t there guide horses? Yes, but they’re rare and not ideal. Their house is a rental; she doubts the landlord will agree to a paddock for a miniature horse. She does more searching. Nope. Most of the animal kingdom couldn’t care less if Gibb walks into traffic. Dogs really do have a monopoly as humanity’s best friend.
Gibb slathers mayo on some rye. “Let’s start arguing about names. It’ll be fun to have a pet.”
Iris takes out her phone. Conversing with the screen reader is faster because it reads as she writes, but it gets flummoxed when she hits ninety-three words a minute. Speechy, her text-to-voice app, is slower but it lets her type what she wants to say before it reads it off. “A GUIDE CAT WOULDN’T BE A PET,” says Speechy.
“This’ll be good for me. Keep me from getting bored and going on blind person Tinder. What do you think that’s like anyway? A lot of people reading their profiles in erotic ways?”
“I DIDN’T REALIZE YOU WERE BORED.“
“I won’t be when we have a kid. A cat and a baby. I’ll have plenty to do then.”
“YOU SHOULD WORK ON GETTING TO THE STORE.“
Gibb freezes, halfway over the sandwich he’s assembled with skill. Cut tomato, layers of ham and cheddar. Everything on the cutting board with minimal mess. “Oh. So that’s what this is.”
Damn. She had meant only to tease him but irony is Speechy’s great weakness. They need to build an app that can tell a joke.
Sandwich in hand, Gibb makes his way down the hall, only to stop at the threshold to the living room and raise the lunch in triumph. “Success. Look! I didn’t kill it.”
That’s different and you know it, Iris thinks. But when she types it out, she’s too fast and makes mistakes. Tata diffrent and uiu know it. Speechy says it anyway, word for word.
Gibb moves to the front door, the sandwich still in hand. “How far should I go? Emergency room? Let’s see if I can get this sandwich there in one piece.”
His expression is fixed and, for a moment, it looks like he really will try to take his ham and cheddar to Toronto General to prove a point. Then he takes a big bite, creating wounds no doctor could repair.
An alarm on her phone cuts the space between them. Her ovulation app. Now is the ideal time. Gibb puts his sandwich on the commode and wipes his hands on his pants before feeling along the wall for the stairs. Iris knows how it will look if she tells him not to bother. But she isn’t in the mood for stilted sex with their clothes half-on while Gibb puffs from behind because some website said the position would improve their odds.
“A dog won’t make me a better father,” Gibb calls. “I’ll be as bad without one.”
Iris heads to the bedroom, typing as she walks. “NEVER SAID YOU WERE BAD.”
“I’m figuring it out, Eye. It’s a new city, that’s all. I was fine in Montreal.”
True. But he grew up there, and his sister was nearby. In case of emergency, Dr. Diedre was only a heartbeat away. Toronto is too foreign and none of its doctors are related by blood. In the bedroom, Gibb is already half-naked. His arms are bruised and there’s a scrape from getting too close to a wall. The hair on his chest has tufts of grey. She found grey hairs of her own the other day. They’ve been married for almost ten years. Tick tick goes the clock. Ding goes the ovulation app. Now is ideal. Now. Now.
“Give me a month with the cat,” says Gibb. “Not a whisker will be harmed.”
“YOU DON’T NEED TO PROVE ANYTHING.“
“Somehow I think I do. Are we doing this or not?”
“I HAVE GRADING TO DO.“
Gibb stalks out of the room. He knows where the door is; he doesn’t even feel for the frame. Iris lies back and stares at the light fixture. If she never gets pregnant, she’ll come back to this moment. On her deathbed, she’ll recall that lazy Sunday afternoon when the ideal time slipped away. Tick tock. For months, she’s consulted doctors about the odds of her condition being hereditary. Would she hear her baby cry? No one could agree. Her condition was so rare they could only offer hope. Perhaps hope is all she has.
Iris emails her stepmother. Subject line: Save a kitten for us! She wonders if there’s a countdown clock to menopause; she’d like to know how many chances are left.
The ovulation app continues to send notices and Iris continues to swipe them away. They’ve had sexless weeks before but now the neutering has added weight. Gibb sends away for a litter box, food bowl, and harness. Harness? Yes. For how else can a guide cat guide? From the kitchen, a perky podcast host assures the world that, with enough work, cats can be as effective as dogs. Gibb offers a list of names. Snoopy. Lassie. (Apparently, he thinks giving a dog’s name to a cat is the height of comedy). Iris keeps checking Facebook. Mrs. Amestoy still needs to find Arthur a home.
The point isn’t to get a cat, she texts her sister. It’s to get him HELP.
Get the cat. Kind of want to see what happens.
We’re not here to entertain U.
Dogs can’t change diapers.
I can change the diapers. I don’t want to be dealing with HIM too. Iris listens to Gibb bang around upstairs. Collecting more bruises and scrapes. Tired of worrying all the time and pretending not to.
Pretty sure that describes parenthood.
On Saturday morning, they lock up the house and head northeast beneath a perfect-for-driving sky. It’s a two-hour drive if the traffic is good. They work through audiobooks when they drive – there’s an aural code for yes or no answers but that hardly favors deep conversations. Iris prefers musician biographies and epics, but it’s Gibb’s turn to choose and he’s obsessed with thrillers. Daring men doing, presumably, what he can only dream.
An hour in, the telltale alarm sounds from her phone. Now is the ideal time.
“Better pull over,” says Gibb. “Don’t worry. I can make it quick.”
Not something to be proud of, thinks Iris. She turns on her signal light and begins to slow.
“Whoa!” says Gibb. “I was kidding. Well, sort of. I mean, I don’t have to be. I used to have sex in cars all the time. When you’re fifteen and in the suburbs, you don’t have a choice. Are we isolated? Do I need to move into the back?”
By now, the car has stopped and Iris can use her phone. RELAX, CASANOVA. WE’RE GETTING GAS.
He’s disappointed. Did he really think they were going to do it on the side of the 401? Gibb heads for the rest stop to find the bathroom, cane tapping concrete as he makes his way. She’s about to signal to him to wait but gives up. The daring man wants his adventure. Let him have it. Iris fills the tank, breathing in the sweet gasoline fumes. Snoopy. Lassie. If he thinks these are good for a cat, what will he want for the baby? Their discussions of children, so important in those early days, are long ago. Back when babies had been like cryogenic freezing or weekend trips to the moon. Terrific ideas – but ones for their future selves. Now they are their future selves and where are they? The moon is still thousands of miles away.
Iris pays at the pump and heads inside. She expects to find Gibb wandering about but finds a crisis in progress. There’s the telltale circle of onlookers, and Gibb is in a field of gumballs, the tipped over machine nearby, its smashed glass receptacle lying like a gaping jaw. Gibb’s cane is by the wall, and Gibb sits with his arm before him. His sleeve is torn, and there are spots of blood in the elbow beneath. Someone’s helping him, but a few people have their cellphones poised to capture the moment. Gibb hoped to go viral; he might actually succeed
Speechy has several phrases pre-set that are delivered with a touch. “I’M HIS WIFE” comes out loud and clear even as she breaks through the crowd. She draws a circle and a dot on his shoulder, their own personal code to let him know she’s there. People glare at her. They’re blaming her, and maybe they should. What is the line between pretending not to worry and being careful for all the right reasons? Is that the other game of parenthood? Iris takes Gibb and refuses to let go. Whoever might want vengeance for the destruction of the gumball machine doesn’t appear; no one stops them as they return to the car.
“Meant to do that,” says Gibb. “Had to make sure you were paying attention.”
In the car, Iris takes the small first-aid kit from the glove compartment and disinfects his elbow. It’s a minor wound, and Gibb doesn’t wince. He’s too good with pain these days. She imagines him in the army, learning how to make sure they never hear you scream.
Off they go again. Gibb settles in as Iris takes the car back to the highway.
She should have gone into the rest stop with him. She should have forced him to wait. This game of worrying and pretending not to was exhausting. Playing mother to a husband. No wonder she didn’t want to fuck him on the side of the road. That’s for real lovers. The switch from helpmate to lustful wife isn’t one she’s managed to do. She’s pushing through, of course, like the relationship podcasts tell her to, but the problem with faking-it-til-you’re-making-it is that you end up wondering if he’s doing it too. The move to Toronto was meant to be a reset. Start again, this time with a steady income. Iris had loved her small musician’s life, but Gibb’s accident meant it was no longer tenable to rely on part-time tutoring and occasional gigs. How can she have time to be the lustful wife? She’s too busy being practical. Finding solutions to problems she never dreamed she’d have. But that’s who she is. All her life, she’s been alone to deal with whatever’s come her way.
The highway diverges. East is Ontario and, eventually, her stepmother’s farm. But Iris turns west. Back towards home. And onward to Mrs. Amestoy and Arthur and Montreal. Solve the problem. Iris glances at Gibb to see if some internal compass will tell him of the change. But her husband turns off the audiobook and shuts his eyes; he tells her he wants a nap.
It’s six hours to Montreal, twice their original travel time, and she’s outside of Kingston when Gibb begins to stir. He twists his body to get out the kinks. “How long was I out?” he asks even as he touches the face of his watch. He’s surprised that he slept so long, and they’re still on the move. “Construction?” he says, and Iris slaps the dashboard once. She was going to say traffic, but this is more plausible. It’s summer; the 401 is always under repair.
Gibb turns on the audiobook, which is a relief since now there’s something to drown the heavy beat of her heart. This isn’t a suicide mission, but it’s something close. There’s been no time to text Mrs. Amestoy and no proof Arthur is waiting at the end of the road. And does she think Gibb won’t notice when they suddenly end up in Quebec? That he’ll mistake the great golden retriever for a kitten? But bad decisions have an inertia all their own. She just needs him to change his mind. The exits keep passing. Now Montreal is only a few hundred kilometres away.
“Construction must be done,” says Gibb. “Driving feels pretty smooth.”
Iris prepares her reply. I went the wrong way. Isn’t that the craziest thing? Well, we’re so close to Montreal, we might as well stop… Weak. Worse than weak. It’s not even a Hail Mary pass.
“The book ended,” says Gibb.
Iris clicks her tongue which, in their world, means Huh?
“We had hours to go. We shouldn’t have reached the end until we were heading home.”
Oh God. Has Gibb read this book before? Iris never rereads books. She never re-listens either. Gibb’s mouth, framed by stubble, creases as it folds into a frown.
“Iris? Eye, why is it taking so long?” There’s a quiver in his voice. He’s woken in the night and doesn’t know where he is. “Pull over,” he says. “Eye, tell me what’s going on.”
She slows down and stops at the side of the road. They’re in the middle of nowhere, alongside a stretch of field and fence that has seen better days. Her fingers shake as she types. The words come out wrong. Gibb keeps saying her name. You’re going to leave me, she thinks. What else do you do when your wife kidnaps you? Dr. Diedre will spend years gloating about how right she was that I would be a terrible wife.
She stops typing. Diedre. The doctor in Montreal.
“WE’RE GOING TO SEE DIEDRE. IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A SURPRISE.” She adds that the cats aren’t ready to be separated from their mother; they’ll come for them next week.
“God, don’t ever do that again,” says Gibb. “I was – I thought it wasn’t even you. That something had happened, and someone else was at the wheel.” He laughs as the terror drains away. “All right, then. Fantastique. Don’t worry, when I see her, I’ll pretend to be surprised.”
Iris quickly sends another text. Dear God. Please let the doctor be in.
Dr. Diedre owns a triplex in NDG and rents out the top floors. She’s is in the garden when they arrive and rises out of the pond of sunflowers and gladiolas like a bird startled into flight. Two siblings have never been more unalike. Diedre is small and hard, like a walking fist. No one has ever been good enough for her little brother. As a pathologist, Diedre’s whole job involves looking at cells to see if they’re cancerous. That’s the look she’s always given Iris. Are you something that’s wrong? Do I need to be concerned? Diedre was against the move to Toronto, where it would be harder to swoop in and save the day when something went wrong – as she was almost certain it would. She greets Iris with a chill like December frost before taking Gibb’s elbow and guiding him to the door. With Iris, he demands the right to find his way on his own. But he lets Diedre take charge. As he had when they were young.
They disappear into the house, leaving Iris alone to look out at the city. Montreal in spring. Bicycles and sandals and a vague nip in the air, reminding everyone it’s not quite June.
As she’s digging out the overnight bags, she spots a text from her stepmother. Iris texts back that something’s come up. She swipes over to Instagram where Mrs. Amestoy has posted a picture of Arthur, staring into the camera as he wears a sign around his neck: Give Me a Home! In the space between confessing to Gibb and arriving in Montreal, Iris formed a new plan. It’s the one, she realizes, she should have had all along. She sends Mrs. Amestoy a message. She and Gibb happen to be in town. Might they stop by? Iris isn’t even inside when their old neighbor sends a flurry of happy face emojis and a note that she’ll be home for the rest of the day.
The house isn’t Gibb-proof. Shoes are scattered. A gym bag sits in the middle of the hall and thick pathology textbooks are stacked along the floor. Diedre recently renovated and describes the new room she made by knocking down a wall. To make it, she combined the office with the guest room which means the only place for them to sleep is the pull-out couch. She tells Gibb this as he helps her move the coffee table out of the way. It had been hard for him to help Iris when they moved. Or had it been her own insistence on moving all the furniture alone?
“I’d have done this already if I’d known you were coming,” says Diedre. She’s talking to Iris, but Iris knows Gibb doesn’t know that and knocks on the wall to tell him she’s there.
“She didn’t warn you?” says Gibb.
“WANTED TO SURPRISE YOU BOTH,” says Speechy.
“Kind of risky. Dee might not have been here.”
“Oh, I’m always here,” says Diedre. “Work and home. I don’t have a life.”
“What happened to that lawyer?”
“Athena? That was two years ago, Gibson.”
“I can’t keep your girlfriends straight.”
“Well, that works out since I don’t want them that way.”
An old joke, at least between them, but they laugh as if it’s the first time. They decide to load up the BBQ for dinner. Steaks. Burgers. When Diedre says they’ll need to run to the store, Iris jumps in to volunteer. Their old apartment is steps away from Jean Talon Market.
“I’LL TAKE GIBB TO THE MARKET. WE CAN TRY AND SEE MRS. AMESTOY.”
“Why would I want to see her?” says Gibb. “She was always your friend more than mine.”
“You go see her,” says Diedre. “I’ll drag Gibson to the store, and we’ll have dinner ready when you get back.
Iris could, she supposes, tell Gibb that Mrs. Amestoy wants to see him but she doubts he’d buy it. After Gibb came home, the Amestoys tried to help and even gave Gibb the name of several services that could be of help. But Gibb, sour in his new condition, was rude and distant. At last, the couple had given up. Iris pretends to text Mrs. Amestoy and Diedre uses the opportunity to send Iris a message, even as she keeps chattering away.
I know what’s going on. When Iris looks up, Diedre is casting a knowing look. The doctor must know Iris is unlikely to suggest a surprise visit for the sake of it. She must suspect Iris had another purpose. If she leaves, will Diedre say something to Gibb? But if she stays, she might as well admit she’s giving up. Perhaps she should accept it. She married a cat person. She and Gibb will have to figure things out on their own. She should stop now, invent an excuse for Diedre, and never tell Gibb what she almost did. The logical thing. Sensible too.
Don’t say anything to Gibb, she texts. We’ll talk when I get back.
The old apartment is where she left it, but the door is a new color, and, in the window, a sign reading Quebec Libre sits between the curtain and the glass. “Nouveau separatists,” Mrs. Amestoy sighs as she and Iris plant themselves in the garden. “Bad enough I had to live through it in the seventies. Now God’s making me do it again.”
Despite the fact she’s leaving, Mrs. Amestoy hasn’t neglected the flowers, and the tomato plants are in a healthy state. At the patio table, they drink and munch on Peak Freans while Arthur rests at her feet. Iris always saw the golden retriever with his harness. Now he looks like any other dog. Big and dopey. He had remembered her at once and almost knocked her down when she’d arrived.
Mrs. Amestoy’s hearing isn’t what it used to be, so Iris is writing everything in her notebook. When do you move out? she scrawls in big letters so Mrs. Amestoy doesn’t need to squint.
“End of the month. Thirty years in this place. Thanks to rent control, it made no sense to leave.” She looks around at the garden and Iris guesses she’s seeing not just this crop of plants, but all the ones that have ever been. “To think: this is the last home I’ll ever leave.”
Iris strokes Arthur’s head and writes. Find him a home?
“Old woman, old dog. Nobody wants either.”
How is he with babies?
Mrs. Amestoy doesn’t quite follow what, to her, is a non sequitur. “I don’t know. The children were grown up by the time Bear’s eyes went. They trained him well, but who knows how he’ll be in retirement? The old lose their patience with rules. And he’s losing his teeth. Adopting him is like getting a used car that you know is going to break down in six months. You’re asking for trouble.”
Iris has already thought of this. But for her, this is part of Arthur’s appeal. He’d be a warm-up. Get Gibb used to having him around. Can he still do what he used to? Guide people?
There’s a light in Mrs. Amestoy’s eyes. “You want him for Gibb? I thought he hated dogs.”
Old dog new tricks, writes Iris. Mrs. Amestoy’s laugh is a young woman’s laugh, the laugh of the young wife enduring the first round of Quebec separatists as she putters in this garden for the very first time.
“He’s yours if you want him. But he might be useless. They bond to their owners. You don’t know grief until you see a dog go through it. You might be better getting Gibb a dog of his own. Assuming he even needs one. Bear just wanted an excuse to have a pet. He didn’t need Arthur. He was like you and Gibb. Adaptable.”
Adaptable? Iris underlines it for emphasis.
“You and Gibb and Bear. You all figure it out. I can’t hear, and I get flustered. Do you know I’ve never asked anyone to write things down like you’re doing now? I’m stubborn. Look at this garden. I’m keeping it up even though after I leave the landlord is tearing it down. Wants to build a back porch.”
Iris looks down at Arthur. You can’t put him down.
“Oh, don’t worry. My grandkids love him. I’ll guilt them into taking him. Unless you really do want him?”
Iris looks from Mrs. Amestoy to Arthur, growing fat and missing teeth. Old age, that second childhood. He’d be another baby in the end. She excuses herself and hides in the bathroom where she sits with her chin on her fist. She dreams up the future. House and baby. Both of them fighting to adapt again. She opens the ovulation app. The next ideal moment is on its way. But is any moment ideal? Dogs. Cats. They’re delays. Distractions.
She’s still staring at the phone when a text comes with bad news. The kittens are dead. A fox, writes her stepmother. Or a stray dog? Iris knows which Gibb will think. When she returns to the garden, she stoops to rub Arthur’s belly to say goodbye.
On the back porch, among music and sizzling meat, Gibb cooks by touch and grills vegetables with pineapple for dessert. Their father’s dessert, the siblings recall. He was the one who had taught Gibb how to feel when a steak is medium-rare. Over dinner they lapse into stories Iris has never heard, and Diedre produces a guitar, which Iris plays while the siblings sing songs of their youth. Iris misses her own sister and knows she can’t let her baby grow up alone. She and Gibb will need to have two; it would be a crime to do anything less.
Iris helps to clean while Gibb stays in the yard, finishing his wine and strumming the guitar. “You’ve been teaching him,” Diedre says. It’s been a while since they’ve had a lesson. He said he didn’t like having to learn by ear, but it’s clear he’s been practicing. Adaptable as ever.
“So,” says Diedre. “This surprise trip …”
Iris dries her hands on the dishtowel and takes out her phone.
“You need help, is that it? You want to move back and take one of the places upstairs?”
Having convinced herself that Diedre had somehow deduced the truth, Iris almost laughs. Two years ago, after the accident, Diedre had insisted that Iris would never be able to care for Gibb alone. She always assumed Deidre had given up on the idea. But, no. It’s always lived in the background, the parasite ready to strike.
“Gibson says you’re trying to have a kid. I don’t see how that’s going to work unless you have help.”
This is, of course, exactly what has been scaring Iris for weeks. But an idea changes when it’s spoken out loud. Especially by the sister-in-law who’s waiting – begging, almost – for you to tell her she was right. Iris can doubt herself all she likes, but she’ll be damned if she’s going to let Diedre know. Beyond the window, Gibb sits with his wine and guitar, outlined by the summer sun. His body in silhouette. Her husband.
“JUST MOVED. NOT MOVING BACK.”
“They have pathologists in Toronto. I could try to get a job there.”
Iris can’t imagine living with Diedre. She can’t imagine Gibb wanting it either, no matter how much they get along. “IT’S A KIND OFFER. WE’LL KEEP IT IN MIND.”
Deidre screws her mouth. “If this wasn’t why you came, what was this trip all about?”
Iris shrugs. “SOMETIMES A SURPRISE IS ONLY A SURPRISE.”
She pockets her phone – her way of saying the conversation is done. On the back porch, she sidles in next to Gibb as he sits on the patio table with his feet on a chair. He winces as he stumbles over a chord, and Iris wraps her arms around him so she can position his fingers on the frets. She relaxes her hands so he can play on his own but she stays where she is, pressed against him, and she tickles his earlobe with her breath. Her adaptation of a whisper and one he knows well. She shows him the ovulation app, and he grins. “We’ll have to wait until Dee goes to bed,” he says and even though this is probably only going to be another hour, Iris aches as if he’d told her to wait a year. Tick tock; she wants him now.
Joel Fishbane’s novel The Thunder of Giants is available from St. Martin’s Press. His fiction has been widely published, most recently in Ploughshares and New England Review. www.joelfishbane.net.