At seven o’clock on Saturday evening, the women’s washroom off the lobby of the Hotel Vancouver is full. All the cubicles are occupied, and three females are washing up at the basin: a child aged one or two, her young mother, and an older woman. They look astonishingly like each other, and they all look astonishingly like Carol Shields. My god, I think as I wait my turn in the washroom of the Hotel Vancouver, all of these people look just like Carol Shields.
The toilet in the nearest cubicle flushes. The door is unlatched and it begins to swing outward. I am next in the queue so I assume the small-women’s-washroom position: poised to stride forward and claim the stall, yet leaving enough room for the exiting woman to move unhindered to the wash basin. The cubicle door opens and I look into the face of Carol Shields.
I will speak to her, of course I will. Are you Carol Shields? No, not that. It is a cliché, and anyway I know it is she. Who else could it be, with those eyes, those cheekbones, that silky hair, that family of women I know so well from The Stone Diaries? I will be direct and sincere. Your books are wonderful. No, everyone says that. I was a fan of yours way before the Pulitzer, seventeen years ago when The Box Garden came out. Lord, no.
The moment is passing. But why do I press myself to speak to her? Carol Shields is a brilliant, passionate, celebrated writer. She does not need threadbare encomiums from strangers in washrooms. I picture her saying to her family, as they leave the hotel, One cannot escape them even in the lavatory at the Hotel Vancouver!
But she would never say or even think anything so ungracious. Carol Shields is a classy woman. I know it from her writing, her media appearances, and now her physical presence. I can say any old thing; it will please her. I open my mouth to say what comes, and what comes is a huge, admiring smile, a smile I really mean. I smile into the face of Carol Shields, and she is already smiling back.
I go into the stall and sit down, and I remember being told a long time ago by an anthropology professor that the smile was the early hominid’s way of baring his fangs when meeting strangers—just in case.