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When I Get Back From the Holy Land by Richard Cumyn
published in Volume 2, Issue 1 on January 20th, 1995

The night Row told me about it, Winton Marsalis was on the stereo and I was watching La Serie Rose on the French channel with the sound off. One woman was lashing another one on the bare ass with a wooden switch. I was supposed to believe that blood was coming out of the welts. It was about half past one in the morning. Roweena's paintings were stacked all over the apartment. I could not walk without tripping over one.

"I'm having the baby underwater," she said and I said, "That's fine." At the best of times, Row is a basket case. I think that is why I love her.

She said, "With dolphins. In salt water. They'll have to be brought in."

I said, "I hope it's a good bonding experience. You going to have a life-guard on hand or what?"

Nothing surprised me anymore, not since she told me that I had to vacate because her best friend, Debra, was moving in with her, and they were going to live together like husband and wife. Her exact words. Husband and wife. I scratched Rafferty behind the ears and flicked off the show. They just discovered each other, Row and Deb, like explorers finding new land.

One-thirty in the morning. She was cooking potato soup that was this thick, humid thing filling the air in the apartment.

I said, "What if one of the dolphins butts the baby with its snout and kills it?"

"You're just upset about having to leave."

"What the hell am I supposed to say?"

What I really needed was another month. She had no idea what it was like out there. There was nothing. I was just back from Africa. I wanted to stay in this country, but there was nothing.

Then she got all agitated. She said, "I never noticed before. This place has no fire escape. We're on the third floor of this rat trap. How am I supposed to get out if there's a fire?"

I said, "Can I at least take the cat? He'd be company for me. I was reading somewhere you're not supposed to keep cats around babies, anyway. Something about their litter boxes."

She was thinking out loud. "I'm not sure about the logistics of this trip. First I have to get to New York somehow. Then meet up with the other women in the group. Then we fly over together. How am I supposed to pay for this?"

"What about the cat, Roweena? Can I take him?"

She wasn't listening. She said, "Do you remember when we got to Deb's that night, after you rescued me from Ray, I made you sleep in the other room and I said, "Don't you try coming into my bed in the middle of the night or I'll shoot you"? I didn't really mean it."

"I know you didn't," I said.

She said, "I wish you weren't here right now, but I don't want to have to close the door after you go. Does that make any sense, William, to you? Does it make any sense that the cat just isn't enough to keep me from disintegrating most days? But people...people -- you're not going to be here when I get back from the Holy Land."

I said, "You don't have to worry about me."

She said, "Do you want to go?"

"Where? Israel?"

"No. Away. Out of here. This apartment."

I said, "We could get a better place. Bigger. You said that guy at the print store was going to phone you back. I could work."

"The three of us live together, you mean? You, me and Deb?"

"Four soon."

She didn't say anything for a minute, just chewed on the ends of her hair. She hadn't calmed down much. Then she said, "I don't know. I had it all worked out. This baby was going to arrive balanced and connected. You know what I'm saying? And familiar, I mean to me. It doesn't matter that half of her is Ray. She'll be coming out of a salt sea into a salt sea. Well, it'll be a swimming pool beside the sea, but you get the picture. It'll still be holy land. And she'll arrive among her cousins. Dolphins are smarter

than us, you know that? It's documented. But if my baby is not familiar to me, if I don't have something to link her to, then I'll start to lose her right away. I have to do this. Doing this is like putting a photograph away safe in a tea can so I can pull it out and remember who I was."

"I could use another week," I said.

"Debra will be here day after tomorrow. You know that."

I said, "Who would you be if you weren't running people's lives for them?"

She said, right out of nowhere, "You remember that time at Oom-Pa-Pa when we rescued you from that slut who wanted to hump you right there in the middle of Bob Jokinen Arena? It was Oktoberfest. There was plywood down covering the ice."

I said, "What does that have to do with anything?"

"She's serving beer and she takes one look at you and the slut is in love with you. She comes out from behind her counter and starts unbuttoning your shirt. If Deb and I hadn't pushed her back onto her keister she'd of jumped your bones right there and then."

"That was months ago. So?"

"So, you and I have known each other forever, since we were babies practically. You never touched me. You were always a gentleman."

"We were kids, Row. I didn't know anything."

Suddenly switching, she said, "You think you have Deb pegged, in your mind, don't you? You think she's this bull dyke who chews men off at the root."

"Now there you go making sense. Right on. Exactamundo."

I could see that that hurt her. She said, "Why don't you get out of here right now? Why don't you leave? OK? Now."

I scooped up the cat. I was all ready to go. I just wanted her to make a decision about Rafferty.

"You never touched me, William, all the time in high school when we were going together. Why can't it be like that again?" Her pupils were blurring, starting to swim.

"What about the cat?"

"Forget the cat!" she screamed. "Just leave. Get out of here!"

I got my clothes together in about half a minute. There was not much to stuff into the bag. She wasn't going to brush me off like this, though. She wasn't going to close the door. Not talk about dolphins and the Holy Land and then close the door on me.

I hoisted the bedroom's little dormer window up as high as it would go in the frame and climbed out. As I swung myself up onto the roof, Rafferty scooted past me and perched against a chimney. Once I was settled I began to think about our finding each other again, ten years after high school, and about my rescuing her from Ray.

It was the middle of December and freezing like Antarctica when I called her from the bus station to say that I was back in the country. She pulled up in a rust-spotted Chevy Caprice station wagon with wood paneling painted on the side. I had been teaching Namibians how to build irrigation systems. I had never even seen an irrigation system before, but I was the development officer and I had the cheque book. They loved every sweet thing I did and said.

The heat and the flies, though. I was starting to go thin in the head. I got Roweena's new address from a friend and wrote her a letter, never expecting to get anything back. She wrote me and I wrote back and pretty soon we had a regular correspondence going. She mentioned that she was married now, but mostly she wrote her thoughts about art and politics. I told her about the fighting in Namibia, about the time soldiers stopped the bus I was on and began pulling people off at random. Eight, ten people, all black. There was no settlement there, just bush. Then they let the bus continue. We got about two hundred meters down the road when we heard the shots. The bus driver did not even slow down.

Roweena's husband, Ray, was away selling for most of the week, she wrote, and she was thankful that she was able to read my letters and learn about an exotic part of the world she might never get to. I told her that it was not all that exotic.

She began painting to fill the days. In her letters she described what she was working on, floral and still-life arrangements. She had not let anyone see them. Her husband did not even know she did it. She wrote that it was not something he would necessarily understand. She did not want to upset him too soon by showing him a part of her he did not know about. We exchanged nine or ten letters before I returned to Canada.

The day she picked me up, the heater in her station wagon was broken. She said that things were a little tight right then and Raymond needed the other car, the Marquis, to be in good working order because that was his livelihood. We held each other for a long time in the front seat, rubbing each other on the back, hugging for warmth. She told me how good it was to see me again. I wanted to ask her how she got herself into this. We drove to a coffee shop in a mall where we got warm before continuing to her house.

It was a Saturday. Raymond was home waiting for us in the kitchen when we came in through the back door. I guess Row and I had identical looks on our faces because her husband kept moving his eyes back and forth from one of us to the other as though he were watching a tennis match.

After he shook my hand, he said, "Problem with the car?" and Roweena said, "No, why, Ray- dear?" and he said, "It doesn't take two hours to drive to the bus station and back." She told him where we went, but I could see he did not believe us. He was breathing heavily, clenching and unclenching his fists.

Roweena said, "Why don't we all go into the living room and you two can get acquainted."

Ray looked at her as though she had just spoken to him in a language he did not understand, and then he glared at me. I excused myself to use the washroom, which she pointed to at the top of the stairs. From up there I could hear them.

"Don't make such a big deal of it. I'm sure he has a place to stay tomorrow night."

"The weekend is my only time, you know that."

"He was such a long way away from home, though. He's made this effort."

"Why'd you tell him those things about us?"

"What things? didn't read my mail. That's private."

"Just what do you two have to keep private, anyway?"

She said, "Don't be silly."

Then I heard a slap and the table legs scraping on the floor and a thud that I figured was Roweena falling. I was finished in the bathroom, but I kept still and listened through the door.

She said, "If I lose this baby..." and started to cry.

"Tramp. I want him out of here."

She said, "You have no right to read my personal mail. It's all in your head. I'm sorry, Ray...Don't." A whack like the sound of a cane on fabric. Another slap. She sobbed, "Stop, I'm sorry. I won't do it again, Ray. Sorry. Please."

"Tell him to go away. Tell him we've got family coming to visit and he can't stay. Tell him something like that."

"All right. I'll tell him."

"Good. Get up off the floor. Clean yourself up."

I waited until things were quiet, then came downstairs. They were sitting together in the living room, side by side in the same love seat. Her eyes were puffy and red, and she was holding her hand against the side of her neck.

He said, "I suppose you heard us." I did not say anything. He said, "You don't know the first thing about us."

I tried to keep my voice calm. "Maybe you and Roweena should spend tonight apart."

His face reddened. Ray was a big man. He was off the couch and into the kitchen quicker than I thought it possible for someone his size. He was there and back before I knew what he was doing. In his hand he was holding a thin fiberglass curtain rod about the length of his arm.

"You're out of here, mister," he said.

Roweena got off the couch and ran up the stairs.

"Count of five," he said, sliding the rod across his open palm. He was smiling stiffly as if he expected to be photographed.

"I think Roweena had better come with me, Ray," I said.

"You don't know me. You don't know me well enough to use my first name."

I was just about to say, "All right, you win," when Roweena rattled back down the stairs two at a time and then slid something across the pine floor. I felt it hit against my foot. I looked down.

She said, "Pick it up, William. It's loaded."

I did not want to touch it, but Ray was moving toward me. I crouched on one knee, picked the thing up, and pointed it at him.

"He doesn't even know how to use it," he said, but he had stopped moving. The switch was still raised above his head.

Roweena said, "William and I are going, Ray. You can keep everything. I don't care. Don't try to follow us. Come on, William."

I began to shake as I tried to keep the pistol trained on him. Roweena held me by the collar as we shuffled backward toward the front door. She bumped into the half wall that separated the living room from the front hall and when I bumped back into her the gun went off. She screamed. The bullet hit the ceiling above Raymond's head. Chunks of plaster and dust fell down on him.

He began to blubber. He said, "Don't go with him. Don't leave me here. I love you," but we were already out the door. We ran to her car as if we had just robbed a bank.

I thumped on the roof with my heel to get her attention.

She stuck her head out. She had to twist her torso around to get a look at me in the dark. The sky was packed with stars.

I said, "This would be the way out if there was a fire."

"Oh. Well, that's good," she said.

"Put your foot on the eavestrough when you first climb out. It'll hold. Once you're on the roof you can step over onto the building next door. You should maybe put a couple boards across for a bridge. Something like that so it's safe."

She said, in a tired voice, "Do you have somewhere to go, William, this time of night?"

"Oh, I've got places," I said.

She said, "It's cold. Maybe you should come back in."

I said, "I was just wondering about something. What happens if the baby opens its eyes under water? Won't the salt burn its eyes? How's the kid supposed to breathe?"

This perked her up. She smiled and said, "Oh, the baby will still have the protective mucous covering from when she's in the womb. I'll be weighted down on the bottom of the pool - it'll be deep, over my head, but body temperature warm - and breathing with scuba gear. When the baby comes out she'll float around for a few minutes still attached. She won't be breathing yet. I won't even hold her

until later. After I cut the cord, the dolphins are there to guide her to the surface, instinctively. They'll treat her like one of their own. They're very gentle and loving."

"Her first contact won't be human, then," I said.

"That's what I like about it," she said. "It will be pure and holy. You better come back inside before you fall, William."

I swung feet-first back in through the dormer window. I said, "What are you going to say to Debra? She's not going to like it that I'm still here."

"I don't want to think about that yet. I don't know what she'll say. I mean, what can she say? Will you just stay and keep talking to me? I didn't mean what I said before. I'll paint. We'll grind some fresh coffee. I'll paint. Let's not worry about it right now. I'm pretty sure it'll be all right. Don't go yet."

I said, "I can do that. That is something I can do, at least."

It was getting pretty cold, but I left the window open wide enough for Rafferty to squeeze back in.

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