From Savage Love, published in CNQ: Canadian Notes and Queries 74. This issue and TNQ: The New Quarterly 107 were published in 2008 as a Salon des Refusés, a critical and artistic response to The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart. The Salon was curated by Daniel Wells and Kim Jernigan.
On Tuesday Ona Frame went to see his friend Shelby to discuss the Betsy Edger affair, which had erupted in the spring just when he was getting over what they both referred to as the “Regrettable Incident” involving the drug-addicted, emotionally intense but self-centred, one-time small-time movie actress with the luminous face, who had attracted both Ona and Shelby, briefly, into an insanely competitive if not vicious romantic triangle that threatened the foundations of their friendship.
Ona Frame had initially regarded Betsy Edger, a would-be author and part-time bookstacker at the local public library, as a transitional love object, someone whose tranquil, no-affect disposition promised little drama and fewer demands and also seemed, prudently enough, the antithesis of Shelby’s type (dramatic, histrionic, large-breasted blonds with unfinished doctorates and fetishistic erotic tendencies were the usual). But then Shelby fell harder than ever for Betsy Edger, and the same situation had developed as before.
Quiet, calm, immature, undemanding, monosyllabic, untalented, plain, auburn-haired Betsy Edger had turned sexually voracious overnight, it seemed, and would leave Ona’s narrow bed in the moonlight, dress quickly and carelessly in the clothes she had just slipped out of, sometimes leaving a soiled intimate article apparently by accident, and rush, with neither apology nor excuse, across town to Shelby’s palatial, adults-only condominium with the hot tub-and-pool combo and the wet bar beside his computer workstation where he did his day trading and wrote poems he published in national journals. Ona, it must be said, made a spare living writing a horoscope column for the local newspaper and, occasionally, doing private readings for individuals of his acquaintance.
Betsy Edger would tell Ona she loved him but could not erase her desire for Shelby who made her feel pampered and filthy and expected her to do things she had only read about in books or peeked at on the Internet. When she left Shelby to return to Ona Frame’s apartment, she would roll her eyes in an agony of guilt and say that she loved Ona for his unimaginative steadiness, that she thought he would be the one to father her children, that with Shelby it was only about sex and the fact that he could help her get her stories published. To both men, she said her behaviour was uncharacteristic, that she had never been with two men at once, that she knew she had to decide.
Ona Frame loved her honesty. He felt that no one had ever levelled with him in such an extraordinarily forthright manner. But then her eyes would dip, she would cross and uncross her legs and adjust her bra straps, and he would know that she was thinking of Shelby, would in fact soon abandon him for some outré rendezvous. While love-making between Ona and Betsy had dwindled to an occasional hasty encounter in the dark between his foetid sheets, often so mechanical and dispassionate as not to disturb Twinks his cat sleeping at the foot of the bed, Shelby and Betsy had embarked on a fugue of compulsive exhibitionism and public sex.
Ona Frame himself had recently spotted them fingering each other in the Family Passive Recreation Area at the corner of Rte 67 and Middle Line Road while apparently engrossed in doing the Sunday crossword on a park bench. He had also seen them fondling in a booth at the Dunkin’ Donut and having torrid intercourse only half-hidden behind the hydrangeas in Congress Park at dusk.
He had, in fact, developed his own compulsion for following Betsy and Shelby, spending long hours watching Shelby’s darkened windows for signs of movement or trailing Shelby’s late-model, atrociously undependable BMW as it wound through the streets, watching the two heads in front of him combine and separate then combine once more in a dangerous dance of eros and imminent pedestrian death (or so he thought). Once he trailed them to the public library where Betsy worked and came upon them masturbating together in the fiction stacks by the letter M for, as Ona Frame thought, mischief, menopause, malicious and mad. They paid no heed to Ona or the four or five other readers gawking at them over their books, their eyes fixed on one another, on their pulsing fingers, the convulsive movements of their thighs, Betsy’s left hand wandering strangely over the books at her back, her mouth whispering unintelligible words.
When she arrived at his little bachelor apartment, with the Edvard Munch prints, the dried field flower bouquets and his grandmother’s yellowing lace doilies, for their regular Thursday night peppermint tea and Scrabble date, Betsy was as prim and collected as ever and made no mention of the afternoon’s assignation. But at half-past-eight, just as Ona had assured himself of victory with an eight-letter triple word score (“oxymoron”), Betsy emerged from the bathroom clutching at her wristwatch and anxiously announcing that she had to leave. She said Shelby had turned frantically jealous of her relationship with Ona and that she had to get back to him before he did something desperate and self-destructive.
“Self-destructive?” Ona Frame repeated.
“He’s capable of anything,” she said. “He’s been losing in the market. He hasn’t written in weeks. He is totally obsessed with me.”
Her eyes gave a little dip, which made Ona shudder. Some hint there, he thought, of self-consciousness, of pleasure taken in the drama she was creating. Oh, to have the whole suicidal world of men at your feet, he thought. But it made him love her all the more.
The phone rang. It was Shelby. He asked to speak to Betsy. But Ona held the phone and said, “S, are you desperate and self-destructive?”
And Shelby whispered harshly, “Yes, you idiot. I’m standing on a kitchen stool with a noose around my neck. Put her on.”
And Ona waited, thinking, before saying, “No, S, go ahead and hang yourself. I found her first. We can’t both love her.”
Betsy’s expression of frantic agony turned to despair as she ran out, leaving the door open in her wake. There was a tremendous crash at the other end of the line, followed by a lengthy guttural moan, then silence.
Ona Frame hung up the phone, poured himself a thimble of lime vodka from the freezer to calm his shattered nerves and returned to the horoscope he had been preparing that afternoon. “Scorpio: The path you are on will surely lead to disaster unless you learn flexibility and humility. Avoid ropes. Value old friendships.” Shelby was a Scorpio. Ona didn’t need to check the star charts to write that one.