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Destinies book cover for  Destinies
a novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen

For months Jamie had been pulling his courage together to make the announcement to Jane. Studying her, he thought sadly of all the years through which they'd traveled together to arrive at this unhappy point. Their marriage, like his education, had been "arranged" by his family, and by hers. It had been expected that they would one day marry, and throughout his years in the Service in Africa, Jane had written faithfully; her letters had been his one tangible link to home and the life he'd lived there. They had created in him a great fondness for her, and that fondness had led him to live up to the expectations of the families. But love - as he dreamed of it in private moments - hadn't ever entered into it. He and Jane had been good friends who'd slept together for a time and who had bred two children, but now no longer had even the friendship in common. He felt like a failure and a coward. One entered into a marriage with the intention of making it work throughout a lifetime. He'd failed because the marriage had failed.

Quietly, after dinner and after the boys had been tucked in bed, he told her, "I think it would be best if I leave. We scarcely see each other these days, and when we are together, we don't seem to have very much to say. I know you've been feeling it too. Of course," he added quickly, "I'll always provide for you and the children. But ... it's just better if we admit it hasn't worked out."

She sat very still, watching him intently, and he felt foolish, as if he were simply parroting words far too many other men had spoken before. It sounded clichéd: I'm leaving; we didn't make it; I'll make good my obligations. Overheated, miserable, he lit a cigarette and waited for what she'd say.

After a time she lowered her eyes and gazed fixedly at the teacup centered between the fingers of both her hands as if she might suddenly lift the cup and exclaim over the patterns of leaves clinging to the bottom and sides. But her silence held. It made him feel even worse. Was it possible he'd been mistaken, that she'd been content with the marriage?

At last, her eyes still on the teacup, she asked, "Where will you go?"

"I thought I'd take a place downtown, closer ..." He trailed off and drew on his cigarette. To be closer to the CBC, and to the theaters was what he'd intended to say. She knew that.

The crux of the matter was she couldn't take his career seriously. To her it seemed like some sort of game he'd embarked upon. When he eventually returned to his senses and went back to work at a proper job he'd be behaving according to what she'd always expected a husband to do. He simply couldn't make her see that he preferred writing for radio and television, preferred performing onstage, to working in some laboratory, poring over diseased tissues squirming on a slide under a microscope, with the smell of death everywhere. He'd given up his research career in order to have life, and the theater and performing were life. Jane didn't agree. They would never agree, despite his success. He understood that. The confines of her existence had been as rigidly prescribed as his own. The difference between them was that he'd elected to break through the boundaries and seek something that offered him a little pleasure in the course of his working hours. He suspected she would go on until retirement age totting up her columns of figures, lining up debits and credits so that everything would balance perfectly on the final page. He couldn't bear the routine predictability of an existence she found so eminently satisfactory. He couldn't bear the neverending sameness of the days, of their conversations, of their projected future.

"I see," she said, withdrawing her hands from the teacup. "Well." She took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. "I can't say I wasn't expecting something like this. I imagine you'll want to tell the boys."

This statement turned him cold. Seconds before, he'd been thinking of his sons as little reproduced packages of Jane. Now he saw them in their reality and knew he'd been indulging in wishful thinking. He was leaving them, thereby destroying the family unity; he would have to try to explain to them why.

"Of course," he said thickly, and took another drag on the cigarette before putting it out.

"When had you planned to go?" she asked, looking around the dining room as if seeing it for the first time.

"I hadn't actually planned. Sunday?" He could stay with any one of a number of friends until he found an apartment. "Whatever's best for you," he said, wanting to be considerate of her feelings. They had, after all, spent eight years together. He couldn't just discount all the shared experiences, the memories, or the reality of the boys. Thinking of Mark and Stephen made his throat ache. He saw himself with them, heard himself telling stories to make them laugh; he could hear their laughter. He didn't want to tell them. Magically, impossibly, he wanted Jane to disappear somehow so that he could go on into the future with his sons. It seemed horribly unfair that his desire for a different kind of life should cost him his children, a very steep price to pay. No, if life were fair, each of them could have taken a boy ... could have ... impossible. He was rarely home as it was. Who'd look after them? Who'd get them off to school, see to their meals, their baths? No, it wasn't possible. The price, mounting by the moment in his awareness, would be his absence from their lives. He would not be there to witness their growth into young men. He was going to cry; he could feel it behind his eyes, and coughed, hoping to dislodge the lump of emotion constricting his throat.

"Well, that's it, then, isn't it?" she said, and stood up to carry her teacup out to the kitchen.

He remained seated at the table, staring at the spot where she'd just been, wondering if she really cared at all that their marriage was ending. He didn't think she did. His announced departure was an inconvenience, that's all, a disruption of the planned passage of their days. She'd adapt; she was extremely flexible. She'd reshape her thoughts and time around his absence and, ultimately, it would be as if he'd never existed, except in the shape of Mark's nose, in the color of Stephen's hair, and in the boys' memories, perhaps, for a time. Until they forgot him. But he wouldn't allow them to forget him.

All at once it seemed as if he were losing everything. He thought of Sherrill and added her to his tally of losses.

Jane was rinsing the cups and the teapot. He stood in the dining room doorway watching her as he lit a fresh cigarette. He was smoking too much; his throat felt raw.

"We'll have to move," she said with her back to him. "This place is far too expensive."

"You needn't do that," he said.

"We'll have to move," she repeated a bit more emphatically, shaking the soapy water from her hands before turning to look at him. She was quite a pretty woman, with good skin and clear eyes, but she seemed like a complete stranger to him. "You haven't really thought this through, have you?" she said, not unkindly. "You're going to have to support two households, James, and that's expensive."

It was his turn to lower his eyes. He looked down at his shoes, reminding himself that it was time to polish his and the boys' shoes. He always enjoyed getting out the kit and giving a good shine to the leather. "You're probably right," he said, then looked at her again. She was watching him like a mother, he thought. With consternation she followed all his movements, a disapproving mother.

"Look," he said. "I really am very sorry it's turned out this way.

She nodded, drying her hands on a tea towel. "I think it would be best if you slept on the sofa tonight," she said, carefully hanging the towel over the handle on the oven door. She switched off the kitchen light, and walked down the hall and up the stairs. He stood in the darkened doorway listening to the sound of her feet climbing the stairs. Her last remark had been unnecessary. He'd been sleeping on the sofa most nights for months, but had been telling himself it was out of deference to her need for sleep and her having to be up early every morning to get the boys fed and off to school before she left for the office. The truth was he'd developed an aversion to touching her. It made him feel too dishonest.

With a sigh, he straightened and turned to look back at the dining room. The wood paneling depressed him with its somber dark gleam. He craved air and lightness, room to move about in. Three more nights in this house and he'd be thoroughly depressed, perhaps to the point where he'd change his mind and stay simply because it required too much energy to go. He switched off the lamp over the dining room table and went quickly down the hall and up the stairs.

"There's no point in prolonging it," he said, going directly to the closet. "I might as well go now and come back on Sunday to have a talk with the boys."

"As you like," she said in the same calm tone with which she had held the entire conversation. Her robe and nightgown over her arm, she shut herself into the bathroom to get ready for bed.

He heaped his clothes into two suitcases, found an old vinyl suit bag and pushed his trousers, sports jackets, and suits into its too small confines. Then he carried the two cases down to the front hall and came back up for his toiletries. "Damn!" he whispered. Jane was in the bathroom. He didn't want to have to see her or talk to her again tonight. He scooped up his cuff links and dropped them into his pocket, then looked around for anything he might have missed. Never mind! he told himself. He would collect the rest of it on Sunday.

Downstairs, he rang for a taxi, then was stopped by the realization that he had no idea where he was going. He could call up half a dozen friends - Ron, or Colin, any number of people. The idea of offering explanations at ten o'clock at night, of arriving fully laden with his clothes, defeated him. He'd check into a hotel and do the talking and explaining later.

He looked around the spacious, nicely decorated room, feeling disoriented. It was a favorite hotel for touring companies. The dining room wasn't bad, but it was starting to get a little show-bizzy, with people hanging out in their best gear hoping to be seen. Still, he'd always liked the hotel and felt a bit ill and bewildered now at finding himself alone here with his two suitcases sitting on the bed and his overcrowded suit bag hanging in the closet. He sat down in the armchair, staring at his luggage on the bed. Not yet eleven o'clock. He was hungry. He'd been unable to eat any of the dinner Jane had prepared; he'd been too nerved up, waiting to make his announcement. It was all over now, anticlimactic to say the least, and he was hungry.

"Fuck it!" he said softly, depressed. Pocketing the room key and his cigarettes, he left and went down to the dining room.

While he was eating, he thought once more of the boys, and of Sherrill, and his throat closed again; he lost his appetite. He signaled to the waitress, who said she'd send a barmaid. He pushed away his half-eaten steak and sat back to wait.

The barmaid approached the table wearing a quizzical expression. As she came nearer, she broke into a happy grin. "Jamie? It is you! You don't remember me, do you? I'm Leslie. Remember? We worked together about four years ago, in Montreal."

He smiled at her, feeling something ease in his chest. "Of course I remember," he lied, trying to place her. "How are you?"

"Just great. How are you? Listen, are you going to be around for a while? I'm off in fifteen minutes. We could have some coffee, talk. I can't get over seeing you. What're you doing these days?"

"Just closed another revue last week."

"Terrific! Listen, want a drink? I'd better get it or I'll just stand here all night yakking."

"Scotch," he said. "A double, neat. And a Heineken. Please."

She wrote down his order, dropped the pen on her tray and gave him another beaming smile. "I just can't get over it!" she exclaimed. "I'll be right back."

She wore too much makeup, he thought, but she was attractive. Watching her walk away in the short costume the barmaids wore, he decided she had decent legs, although she was a bit broad in the arse. Her hair looked stiff with lacquer. Never mind. He was glad to see someone smile, glad at the opportunity to chat about old times and inconsequentials. Anything, just then, was better than sitting upstairs staring at his overladen suitcases, thinking about the family he'd just broken up.

It wasn't the first time he'd made love to a woman who wasn't his wife. In the past few years he'd made love more often to other women than he had to Jane. Jane had never cared much for physical displays. But this felt like the first time. Perhaps it was because he was standing on the brink of his freedom and knew he could, in the future, have an independent life, enjoying his work. What he wanted and hoped for was to meet someone who'd never bore him by being predictable, someone who'd understand his need to keep his brain alive instead of allowing it to atrophy in some deathly, well-paid, nine-to-five job, someone who'd delight him and bring laughter with her when she entered a room, someone who'd be supportive, caring and gentle yet passionate, someone who'd love making love, someone he could love unreservedly. A dream woman. Women like that didn't exist, he thought. Obstinately, even stupidly perhaps, he looked for her each day as he moved through the world. Not actively. He was simply keeping his eyes open; he'd recognize her when he saw her. For now, Leslie was a warm, willing body into which he could spill his accumulation of anxieties and small fears. Her breasts were too large, but her legs were good and he liked taking his time touching her. Every so often, she laughed and exclaimed over seeing him again and he tried not to hear. He didn't want to talk or have to listen; he simply wanted to enjoy sensation. The room seemed far less empty and ominous with her in it, with her clothes strewn all over the floor.

"Do you like this?" she asked a little coyly, and he lifted his hips, saying nothing.

"You do like this?" she said after a moment and he felt himself becoming irritated with her. At once he disliked himself for his irritability. What was happening to him? he wondered, stroking her stiff hair for a moment before sliding his hand down over the warmer, more welcoming softness of the nape of her neck.

She sat up to look at him and he felt terribly moved by her, so moved that he drew her down into his arms and held her lovingly. We're all such a sorry lot, he thought. Where does it end?

In the morning when he awakened, he felt disgusted with himself. He leaned on his elbow for a minute or two watching Leslie sleep, then got up and went into the bathroom. No toothbrush, no razor. He felt dirty and tired. Under the hot shower he decided to go straight out to buy some toilet articles, then come back with the morning papers and start looking for an apartment. First he had to tackle the problem of how to get rid of Leslie without offending her. He knew if he had to smile and make small talk to her over breakfast he'd sink back into the previous night's depression.

She was awake when he emerged from the bathroom, and sat against the pillows watching him get dressed.

"I'm afraid I've got an early appointment," he lied, tucking in his shirt tails. "And I've got to get out to a drugstore to pick up some shaving cream, a razor. You understand."

"Sure," she said, not smiling. He didn't think she believed him. He was unskilled at lying; he hated doing it.

He came over to the bed and bent down to kiss her on the forehead. Most of her makeup had come off on the bedclothes. She looked younger and far more attractive without it. For a second or two he wished they knew each other better, that they had things to talk about. "Look, I'll leave you the key. Take your time and lock up when you're ready to go. You can leave the key at the desk for me. I am sorry about this." He was sorry, but he could see she didn't believe that either.

"Sure," she said again. Then, brightening, she asked, "Will you be in the bar tonight?"

"I'll try," he promised with a smile, feeling worse by the moment at compounding the lies. He hoped to be out of the hotel by the late afternoon. He was being a bastard; he knew it, but couldn't see any other way to extricate himself from the situation. He should have exercised more self-control instead of attempting to soothe his feelings at someone else's expense. He'd never been the sort of man who'd used women; he liked them too well to mistreat them intentionally. Last night had been a self-indulgent mistake. He didn't think either of them had benefited from being together. If Leslie had, he couldn't see how. Her willingness to see him again, to take whatever attention he might care to pay her, seemed unspeakably sad. He wouldn't have capitalized on her eagerness in the first place if she hadn't happened along at a moment when he'd been thinking less than clearly. All he wanted now was to escape the situation he'd created without doing further damage to either of them. He kissed her naked shoulder, then straightened and picked up his jacket from the armchair. Checking to make sure he had his billfold, he made his way to the door.

"Thank you for a lovely evening," he said, and escaped.

It was a bitterly cold morning, with snow underfoot. He should have worn his topcoat. The wind cut right through to his skin and he hurried up to the drugstore at the corner, anxious to make his purchases and then have breakfast. He'd have it at the counter in the drugstore and look at the ads while he ate. That would give Leslie time enough to clear out of the room. Why was he behaving so badly? This isn't me, he thought, pushing with relief into the warm interior of the drugstore. I don't treat people, women, that way. He loathed the idea of having a reputation as a lady-killer, one of those men who used women like public conveniences.

He wouldn't do that again, he told himself as he collected a can of shaving foam, a razor, some blades, a toothbrush, and a tube of toothpaste and carried them towards the cashier. As an afterthought, he turned back and inspected the bottles of men's cologne, deciding to treat himself to some Chanel after-shave. He gave the cashier his Mastercharge card, then waited impatiently, made hungry by the smell of frying bacon, while the woman checked his card against a lengthy list of numbers on an orange sheet. Satisfied, she rang the charge, had him sign the slip, then put his purchases into a large brown paper bag.

He ducked outside to buy a Globe and Mail and a Star, then returned inside to seat himself at the counter, placing the bag at his feet. He was famished, and ordered two eggs, a double order of bacon, a side order of grilled tomatoes, whole wheat toast, and coffee. While he waited for the food, he opened the Globe and folded it open to the Apartments to Rent section. He marked several possibilities and sipped at his coffee. He was starting to feel a little better. The waitress behind the counter smiled at him as she set down his food. He returned her smile, then placed the paper beside his plate in order to continue scanning it while he attacked his breakfast.

Halfway through, he thought about Mark and Stephen and once more lost his appetite. He could too clearly see their small, earnest faces and felt again a coward and a traitor. The guilt was compounded by his treatment of Leslie. He'd finish eating and get back to the hotel. If she was still there, he'd make up some story about his appointment having been canceled, buy her a bang-up breakfast, and see her on her way properly. Picking up his knife and fork, he went back to work on the food and quickly finished. The waitress, bestowing another smile upon him, refilled his coffee cup and deftly removed the empty plate.

"Rotten day, eh?" she observed, looking over towards the window.

"Hmmm," he murmured, folding open the Star.

"You must be freezing," she said, "going out without a coat. But you're English, eh? You people never feel the cold, do you?"

"Oh, we do," he answered, wishing she'd leave him to get on with the ads. "I'm staying just down the road. Not out long enough to get cold."

"Yeah, well ..." She carried the coffeepot on down the counter to refill other cups

"Jesus!" he whispered under his breath. He reached for his cigarettes only to find he'd left them back at the hotel. Putting down the paper, he walked over to the far side of the drugstore to buy a pack of Gitanes. When he got back, his Globe and Mail was gone. Turning, he saw the man who'd been seated two stools down from him going out the door with the newspaper tucked under his arm, still folded open to the classified section. Defeated, Jamie retrieved the Star and his paper bag, dropped some money on the counter, and pushed out of the drugstore to buy another Globe.

Half-frozen, he got back to his hotel room to find Leslie had gone. On the desk was a note with her telephone number. "Call me," the note read. She'd signed it "Leslie" and had dotted the i with a little circle. He left the note on the desk and opened the Globe to go over the ads again.

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