by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Arthur made a one-handed grab for the ball. It bounced off his fingertip, gaining momentum, and ricocheted off the edge of the peeling bleacher bench. He had time for another wild, futile lunge before it skipped along the foot plank, veered, and rolled through the gap. Making an agonized noise between his teeth, Arthur crouched and peered into the shadows beneath the bleachers.
Twenty-five dollars’ worth of hand-dyed merino lay in the dirt.
Keeping an iron grip on the second ball and the two circular needles in his other hand, Arthur righted himself and contemplated his options.
Realistically, there was only one. He sighed and fished in the cloth supermarket tote he used as a project bag. The zippered notions pouch was at the bottom. He pulled out the little, sharp scissors and gave a preparatory wince.
A voice underneath him said, “Yo, do you want me to throw it back up to you?”
“No,” Arthur said hastily, imagining yarn unreeling everywhere as he missed the catch. “Can you catch something else?”
“There’s more?” the guy asked, sounding amused.
“It’s all attached.” Arthur put the half-finished sock into the tote, trying not to tug too hard on the length of fingering yarn that attached the ball of merino to the rest. He squatted and fed the bag through the gap. “Okay?”
“Hit me,” he said, and Arthur dropped the bag. The guy caught the handles with a neat overhand maneuver.
“I’ll be right down.”
“I’m coming up,” the guy said in the same moment, and by the time Arthur had screwed the lid on his thermos, the guy was climbing the bleachers towards him.
“Thank you,” Arthur said, taking the offered bag and yarn. He looped the handles over his arm and gingerly picked particles of soil off the ball. At least it wasn’t muddy.
“So what are you making?”
Arthur had only recently gotten used to answering that question in glorious detail. He pulled the circulars out of the tote. “It’s just a plain cuff-down pattern, but I’m really loving this yarn. There’s a bit of silk in with the merino it to give it a lustre, and the dyer’s colours are wonderful. I’m just doing basic stripes, but with one semi-solid colourway and one variegated you get a really interesting effect.”
The guy regarded the four inches of ribbing. “Is that knitting?”
Arthur reversed his momentum. “Yes.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a sock.”
Blonde eyebrows went up. “A sock.”
“A pair of socks. This is the first one.”
“You’re making socks? By hand? That’s a thing you can do?”
“Yes.” Arthur braced himself for the familiar catalogue of jokes.
“That’s amazing.” His expression looked as though he’d just discovered a new colour.
A shout came from the field. “Colin!” The small group of guys who’d been having batting practise by the baseball diamond had gathered in a knot with their bats and gloves. One made a full-arm come-this-way wave at the bleachers.
“‘Kay, in a sec,” Colin yelled. He turned back to Arthur. “We’re in a pickup league. Kind of. I busted up my shoulder pretty thoroughly on my bike this winter, so there’s not a lot of pitching in my near future. You play?”
Arthur shook his head. “I’m just killing time before work.”
“Oh, yeah? Where do you work?”
“Tech support call centre,” Arthur lied automatically.
“Yeah? I did that once. Lasted, like, three weeks. Okay, well, I gotta go. Maybe I’ll see you again,” Colin said, and jogged down the bleacher stairs. There was an embroidered patch of Grover the muppet on the butt of his worn sweatpants.
Arthur brushed at the ball of yarn until it no longer felt gritty, checked the time, and packed up his things for the walk to work.
Tuesdays were his favourite, because it tended to be quiet in the store and, more importantly, the new stock came in. He spent most of the afternoon elbow-deep in skeins of alpaca and silk, balls of linen and bamboo. The new summer line from his favourite local hand-dyer literally made his mouth water, and when he took an order of space-dyed cashmere laceweight out of its box, Jody, who was working in the next aisle, told him to get a room. Arthur ignored her and closed his eyes and held the yarn against his cheek, a handful of warmth and comfort.
The house was silent when he got home. He hung up his coat and poked his head into the living room. Celia was sitting on the floor, a vortex around her of pencil crayons and barrettes and fashion magazines and bracelets and a plate of pizza crusts. Tumbled on its far reaches, at Arthur’s feet, was the French and math homework she should have been doing. She was wearing earbuds, swinging her head to music Arthur had probably never heard of and would probably hate, while she filled a page of her sketchbook with an improbable colour scheme.
Annie was at the dining room table, bent over a stack of looseleaf lecture notes that she was coding with three different shades of highlighter. Her biochem textbooks were ranked in front of her at precise right angles to her pages. There were no pizza crusts in sight, and she’d put a coaster under her mug of green tea. She wasn’t wearing headphones, but when she was studying she had a level of concentration that could etch glass, and she didn’t look up.
Arthur continued through to the small kitchen. There was congealing pizza in a box on the counter. He ate two slices standing up, leaning against the sink.
Upstairs, the landing was dark. Mom was at class, and Ma Ma, his grandmother on his father’s side, must be out at some community meeting or documentary showing; there was no light under her door. Feeling weirdly invisible, Arthur went into his own room and shut the door behind him. He selected a podcast, and got as far as turning the sock’s heel before he went to sleep.
Two mornings later, he was sitting on the bleachers casting on the second sock when Colin came up the stairs two at a time and deposited himself beside Arthur.
“Hey. I didn’t catch your name,” he said, and took a slurp of coffee.
Arthur looked sideways at him, at his dark blonde bed-head and the rows of rings in his ears and his ratty army surplus pants with the bulging buttoned pockets. At his need for a shave and his refillable travel mug with a photo of the earth from space on the side.
“Arthur Wu,” he said.
“Colin Griffiths,” Colin said. He lifted his hand, and Arthur braced himself for some complicated multi-stage handshake, but Colin was only readjusting the lid on his cup. “My PT says knitting would be good therapy. So, will you teach me?”
“Sure.” Arthur was always happy to introduce anyone to yarn.
“Cool. What do I need to get?”
“Some superwash worsted in a couple of colours you like, and the best four-millimetre, sixty-centimetre circular needle you can afford.”
“I have no idea what you just said,” Colin said cheerfully.
With a great deal of repeated spelling, they managed to get the specs onto Colin’s smartphone.
“Where’s a good place to go? Will you come with me?”
“I have to go to work,” Arthur said, stowing his knitting away.
“You going to be here on Monday?”
It was his day off, but… “Sure.”
“Awesome, see you then.”
Nearing his street as he walked home after work, absorbed in contemplation of what pattern he would choose for the cloud-grey linen yarn he had his eye on–a vest? He was pretty sure he wasn’t the type of guy who could pull off a vest–he vaguely noticed someone ahead of him on the sidewalk, coming the other way, waving. With a jolt he realized it was she was waving at him.
“Arthur!” Ma Ma smiled up at him. “I thought you usually took the College streetcar into work.”
“I…came another way,” he managed, the thought of baldly lying to her seizing up his brain.
“Isn’t it nice to come home when it’s still light out?”
“Yes, it is. Are you going out?”
“Mrs. Liu and are going to a talk on the imperialist colonization of Australia. Enjoy your evening.” She planted a kiss on his cheek and continued down the sidewalk.
It’s nothing, she won’t think twice about it, Arthur reassured himself, swallowing through a dry mouth. It’s fine.
On Saturday afternoon, he was pinning up a few new swatches in the lopi section when a semi-familiar voice asked, “Is this knitting tech support?”
Arthur jumped and turned around. Colin grinned at him.
“Superworsted and circular,” Colin said. “Right?”
“Superwash,” Arthur corrected him. “It’s this way.” He led Colin to the worsted section and pointed out some yarns for him to choose from. “Squeeze it. Put it against your skin. Feel is just as important as colour when you’re choosing a yarn.”
Colin held a ball of variegated pink and lime green against the side of his neck. “I thought you said you worked in a call centre. Is this your part-time job?”
“Don’t choose that for a first project. It’s a mohair blend, it’ll drive you crazy. Try this one.”
“Were you afraid I’d think it’s, I don’t know, not manly or something? Not me, seriously. I gave up all that macho crap. Plus, I did ask you to teach me how to knit.”
“Okay. This one’s got a touch of cashmere in it, but you’ll have to wash it by hand.”
Colin blinked at the price card tacked to the shelf. “I have owned bikes that cost less than that.”
“This one’s here’s good value, and it comes in a lot of colours…”
Colin finally decided on skeins of a basic three-ply in solid grey, goldenrod, and forest green. He balked again, though, when Arthur took an Addi Turbo circular down from the wall of needles and accessories. “Does that say seventeen dollars?”
“Beginners deserve good tools,” Arthur said, a little severely. “This other brand is half the price, but you’ll pay for the difference in irritation.”
“Okay, I see where you’re coming from.” Colin took the offered needle, and Arthur ushered him over to the cash.
“Do you want me to wind those skeins into balls for you?”
“I don’t know, they look kind of cool this way. Do I?”
“Yes, you do,” Arthur said.
“Okay, ball me.”
Arthur heard Jody, at the other cash, snicker, but that was because Jody had the maturity of a six-year-old. He used the ball winder on Colin’s three skeins, stacked the balls and needle in a paper bag, and handed it to Colin.
“How do you like your coffee?” Colin asked.
“I’ll bring you coffee on Monday. How do you take it?”
“Oh. Whatever you usually have is fine.”
“Black? Double-double? Flavour shot?”
“You don’t have to–”
“He likes lattes,” said Jody.
“Latte it is. See you Monday.” He waved with the hand holding the paper bag, first to Arthur and then to Jody, and departed.
“What?” Jody said mildly, when Arthur looked at her. “Let the attractive young man bring you something you’ll enjoy, Arthur.”
“I can ring those up for you,” Arthur said to a woman with green hair and an armful of cotton DK.
Sunday dinner was and always had been obligatory at home. No one in the house was particularly enamoured of cooking, though Arthur remembered his father covering the counter of their old apartment’s cramped kitchen with trays of wontons, platters of bao, racks of croissants and cinnamon buns. A few years back, though, Celia had risen to the challenge of Sunday dinner (“If I have to eat another frozen lasagna I’m going to hurl”). Arthur didn’t object to frozen lasagna and didn’t mind eating the same thing several days in a row if it meant he didn’t have to think about what was for dinner, but Celia’s cooking did present him with foods in combinations he wouldn’t have thought to eat otherwise. This evening it was two kinds of soup, crescent rolls with asparagus spears sticking out of the ends, and roasted mushrooms on skewers.
“What did you do this week?” Mom asked Ma Ma, ladling cream of carrot soup into her bowl.
“Mrs. Liu and I went to see the Aga Khan Museum. They have an exhibit on right now of Ottoman ceramics. Absolutely beautiful. So intricate. Celia, you would enjoy it.”
“My fashion and design class is going there on a field trip next month.” Celia dragged a mushroom off the end of a skewer with her teeth.
“Celia, use your fork. How is Mrs. Liu?”
“She’s doing well. Her arthritis is not so bad, now that we’ve been going walking together. Also, I finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
“Did you enjoy it?” Annie asked.
Ma Ma took a bite of crescent roll and chewed thoughtfully. “I’m not sure.”
“Ma Ma, you should read The Grapes of Wrath next,” Celia said. “We’re taking it in English. I thought it would be really boring, but it’s not. It’s about the Depression.”
“You all read such sad books,” said Mom. “Annie, did you read anything interesting this week?”
“One of my TAs emailed me an article about a team in Pakistan that’s breeding tabby cats with stripes that glow different colours in the dark.”
“Cats that glow in the dark?” Celia said gleefully.
“It’s not new. Labs have been doing it since the eighties. Fish, rabbits, sheep…”
Asparagus crunching between his teeth, Arthur wondered about yarn from glow-in-the-dark sheep. How would it look in the daylight? Would you have to charge it, like with solar garden lights? Would different dyes give you different colours, or would all that be done genetically?
Annie tapped the top of his foot lightly under the table. “Arthur?” Mom said. She was looking at him. Celia was rolling her eyes. “What did you do this week?”
Arthur thought about the six-year-old who had come into the shop with her mother to choose yarn for a sweater “in Spiderman colours.” He thought about the eighty-five-year-old Estonian man, accompanying his daughter, who had marvelled at the self-striping sock yarn and told them about how he had learned to knit in the DP camps after the war, because it passed the time and he could trade finished socks for cigarettes and food.
“It’s a lot of the same thing over and over,” he said.
“You seem to be there a lot recently. They never used to ask you to work weekends,” Ma Ma said sympathetically.
“They laid some people off.” Which was true.
“Have you heard any more about that senior position you told me about?” Mom asked.
“No. I don’t know if they’re going to post it.” Also not a lie.
“Have you talked to your supervisor about other opportunities?”
“It’s not really a good time to do that, Mom.”
Mom sighed. “You’re a bright young man, Arthur. You could do so much better than a call centre. You need to focus on your career, not just a job.”
“Hey, so, talking about focusing on a career,” Celia jumped in, “what I did this week was look into summer courses. There’s this school up in Haliburton that has a whole fabric arts curriculum.”
“If you want to go to summer school, you should try getting a better grade in your biology course,” Mom said.
“Mom, I’m not going to need biology in the fashion industry.”
Mom clicked her tongue. “Everybody wants to be famous. Nobody thinks they should have to work.”
“Of course I’ll work,” Celia said. “There are a lot of jobs in the industry. Stylist, buyer, production assistant–”
Tactical error. Arthur winced. He saw Annie wrinkle her nose.
“Production? You go ask your Po Po how she liked sewing shirts all day!”
“Moooooom,” Celia said, and they were off, the same conversation they’d had monthly ever since Celia had declared that she was not going to be the pharmacist Mom had assumed she’d be ever since she’d been fascinated with the antique coloured medicine bottles at Auntie Emily’s drugstore at age eight.
Arthur ate his soup and glanced at the course calendar forgotten at Celia’s elbow. She had marked a course called “Fitting Every Body” with a heart-shaped pink post-it. One of the listings below caught his eye. “Your Yarn, Your Choices.” He picked up the calendar.
He’d used the shop’s demonstration spinning wheels plenty of times. It was mesmerizing, how cloud-soft fibre twisted and coalesced into yarn, and the only reason he hadn’t bought his own wheel was that he couldn’t imagine explaining it to Mom. As it was, he got the feeling she thought knitting was a bizarre affectation, some weird combination of self-indulgence and pointless effort.
The school had dyeing classes too, and colour theory, and a week-long exploration of the uses of every type of fibre ever discovered or created.
It sounded interesting, Arthur thought, and put it out of his mind.
On Monday, Colin brought him an enormous latte.
“What colour do you want to work with first?” Arthur asked, and uncurled the needle. Colin handed him the yellow. “I’m going to start it for you, and then I’ll show you how to go from there.”
“So the first thing you’re going to teach me isn’t how to start?”
“Once you know the part after starting, the starting will be a lot easier.” He pulled a length of purple scrap yarn from his own bag. “This is just temporary, don’t worry. This cast-on is easy to unravel, so later on, you can pull out the untidy part you make while you’re learning, pick up the stitches, and knit more in the other direction. You can make it as long as you want.”
“It’s a Doctor Who scarf?”
“If you want. Most people are ready to start something new by the time it’s regular length.”
“Man, you’re fast,” Colin said, watching Arthur’s hands.
Arthur got the cast-on and first row set up, and then demonstrated garter stitch to Colin and handed over the yarn. Colin did one laborious row, chanting the steps of each stitch out loud. Then he exhaled deeply and put the needle down.
“What are you working on?” he asked, shaking his hands out as though he had just climbed a rock face.
Arthur held up his growing triangle. It was a ridiculous novelty yarn, feathered and tinseled and ribboned, and he was doing a simple miniature shawl to show it off. “It’s a swatch to use in the store.”
“Use for what?”
“To give people an idea of what they’re getting.”
Colin wrapped the yarn around his pinky the way Arthur had shown him, did five more stitches, and put the needle down again.
“So, you quit the call centre and didn’t tell anybody about it?” he asked.
Arthur counted the stitches on his needle. When he finished, Colin was still looking at him.
“I got laid off,” Arthur said.
“And didn’t tell anybody about it,” Colin finished.
“I got another job,” Arthur said defensively.
“Call centre drone to knitting guy. Man, that is hardcore,” Colin said in admiration. “Me, it took me two full years to self-destruct out of pre-med.”
“You didn’t want to be a doctor?” David Tran, whom Arthur had…known once, had been pre-med. It was all he’d ever talked about.
“I thought I did. My mom’s a doctor. I guess I liked the idea of helping people. But after a while, just the thought of completing pre-med, then med school, then residency, then maybe specialization–the thought of being on this one track for the rest of my life made me feel like I was dead and buried.”
He picked up the knitting again and completed two slow stitches. “I work in a bike shop right now. Last year I was a sous-chef at this vegetarian place. A few summers ago I planted trees in B.C. Basically I like to do something really intensely for a while, and then go on to something else.”
It sounded terrifying to Arthur. IT had bored him throughout university, and it had bored him daily at the call centre, but at least, Mom had said and he’d agreed, he’d always have a steady job.
Colin made an anguished noise. “It’s gone!”
“The loop! It fell off and it’s gone!”
“It’s all right, you just dropped a stitch. It’s not hard to pick it up again.” Arthur took his crochet hook out of his shirt pocket and wove the stitches back up the ladder until he could slip the loop of the last stitch over the needle again.
Colin laughed. “Holy shit, I’m actually sweating. So how long do I do this for?”
“As long as you want. You can change colours to make stripes. When you’re comfortable with that stitch, I’ll show you how to purl. With those two stitches, you can do anything.”
“How about a hat? Or a sweater? I’d really like to make a sweater.”
“You should probably finish the thing you already started, first,” Arthur said.
When Celia cooked, Arthur and Annie did the (sometimes voluminous) dishes. Annie washed, following her own precise methodology, and Arthur dried.
Annie pulled the plug to let the grey water swirl down the drain. Arthur dried the last few plates and stacked them on the sideboard. By the time he was finished, Annie had filled the sink with the cutlery and fresh, soapy water.
“Arthur?” Arthur leaned closer to hear her over the whoosh of the faucet. “Weren’t you at work on Wednesday?”
Arthur automatically glanced at the door to the kitchen. It was shut so that they wouldn’t disturb Mom and Ma Ma catching up on the twenty-four-hour news channel in the living room. “Sure I was.”
“I saw you in the park at nine-thirty. I wouldn’t say anything, except Mom was with me.”
He went cold all over. “Did she see me?”
“I don’t think so. She didn’t mention it. I only saw your back through the trees. You were up in the bleachers.” She put a handful of gleaming spoons onto the dish rack.
“Why were you on King Street at nine-thirty?” he asked. It came out sounding indignant. In their three years of living in the house, as far as he knew, none of them had ever visited or mentioned that park. That was why he’d chosen it to wait in in the first place.
“I have a late class on Wednesdays, and Mom had a dentist’s appointment. There was a problem with the streetcars on Dundas, and we watched two packed ones go by on Queen, so we decided to walk down to King.”
“It’s–I was–” He had never been good at making up excuses on the spot.
“You don’t have to explain.” She turned and looked at him. “As long as you’re all right.”
“Yes, I, I’m fine.” Annie’s direct stare was, as always, a little unnerving. “I like my job. Where I work. It’s good.”
Annie rinsed a thicket of forks. “I’m pretty sure you could just tell Mom whatever’s going on. Or at least Ma Ma.”
“I’m pretty sure I couldn’t.”
She shrugged minutely. “It’s up to you. But you’ve been a little weird lately, and eventually she’s going to notice.”
He concentrated on drying a fork as if it were a fragile and complicated mechanism. “Weird how?”
“Kind of…wound up.”
He took a breath. “Work’s been busy.”
She bumped his shoulder with hers, a rare physical contact from her. “You don’t need to lie to me.”
“All right,” he said, and they finished the dishes in silence.
The yarn shop shared the ground floor of the converted Liberty Village factory building with other small businesses: a soap and candle place, a print and framing shop, a vegan bakery, a handmade candy emporium. In the vintage clothing store, on the ten-dollar sale rack, Arthur found a kelly green baseball jacket with white sleeves. It was the sort of thing he would never, ever wear. He bought it and kept it rolled up at the bottom of his backpack, putting it on whenever he sat in the park.
He acknowledged to himself that this was possibly a little over the top.
Colin came to the park with a messy nine inches of yellow, green and grey stripes that had one dropped stitch laddered halfway down to the cast-on edge, and three stitches more than he’d started with. Arthur did a couple of rows to set it back to rights, and demonstrated how to purl.
Five minutes later, Colin sighed heavily and held up a tangle for Arthur’s inspection. “I don’t think I’m doing this right.”
He’d somehow double-wrapped the yarn and possibly invented a new stitch, but it wasn’t purling. Arthur picked the row back to the beginning. “Watch. Yarn in front, needle through the front of the loop…”
“Slower,” Colin said. Arthur started again. “Slower than that.” He leaned in close, the unruly fringe of his hair tickling Arthur’s ear.
Arthur slid the needle into place.
“Hold on.” Colin laid his right hand over Arthur’s. “Let me look at it.”
His fingers were warmer than they had any right to be. Arthur felt the hairs on the backs of his arms rise for reasons that had nothing to do with the cool spring air.
“Okay, next step,” Colin said. He kept his hand there as Arthur wrapped the needle, stopped, drew the yarn through the loop, stopped, snicked it off the end of the needle.
“Cool. I think I’ve got it,” Colin said, lifting his hand, leaving a cold, hyper-sensitive spot on Arthur’s skin.
Arthur picked up the chemo cap he had agreed to knit as part of the shop’s community work, and did three rounds in 2×2 rib instead of 1×3 before he realized what he was doing.
“Hey, excuse me, do you have–Arthur, holy crap,” Celia said. Arthur dropped aran tweed in Lilac Bud and Fireflies all over the floor.
“Are you–oh my God, you work here,” Celia said, and expertly stuck out a foot clad in black Keds with silver tulle ribbon for laces to block an escaping ball.
“I, I, okay. Yes. I work here. What are you doing here?”
“I have to get sample cards for three different textile media for my fashion and design class. Why are you whispering?”
He unhunched his shoulders with difficulty. “Why here?”
“I liked their website.” She frowned at him. “Are you okay?”
“You startled me.” His heart still hammering, he busied himself with picking up the yarn and nestling the balls into the appropriate cubby.
“My bad. So maybe you can help me,” she said brightly.
“Sample cards? We probably have some old ones in the back.”
“Awesome. I’m going to go check out the magazines.”
Arthur found a handful of last fall’s sample cards and checked with Francine, the manager, that it was all right to give them away. When he found Celia again, she was deep into Noro Magazine‘s summer issue.
“Thanks,” she said. “Hey, do you get an employee discount?”
“Nice,” she said speculatively.
“Mom doesn’t know,” Arthur said.
Celia rolled her eyes. “Like, obviously.”
“I’m going to tell her.”
“Whatever. How much of a discount can you get me on this?”
He rang the magazine up for her. As she was sliding it into her purse, which was the size of an overnight bag and covered in so many fabric flowers and beaded pins that he could barely make out the colour underneath, Arthur said, “So don’t mention it to her, all right?”
“Like I need that kind of drama,” Celia said, grinned at him, and flounced out, leaving him feeling strangely reassured.
The coffee shop was humid and crowded. He and Colin snagged a tiny round table beside the window, where they could hear the beginning rain tap against the glass. Colin’s scarf was into multiple stripes now, the stitches getting more even, his movements less laborious.
“What are you making now?” he asked, as Arthur held up his needle to shake the grey panel out.
“A vest.” He figured he could sell it at the store, if he decided he didn’t like it in the end.
Colin fingered the textured fabric. “It doesn’t look like knitting.”
“It’s called linen stitch. I’m doing it with linen yarn too, but you can do it with anything. It makes a reversible fabric that doesn’t stretch too much.”
“Show me,” Colin demanded, and Arthur demonstrated. It wasn’t a complicated stitch, but there was a lot of moving the yarn around. It had a soothing rhythm once he got into it.
“I went to that website you told me about, with all the patterns. Man, I don’t know how you even choose. I want to make everything, you know?”
“Yeah, I know,” Arthur said. “My queue is four pages long. There’s all these new sock construction techniques that have come out in the last few years, and the store just got some gradient bamboo-silk blend that I know the best shawl pattern for. And there’s a Japanese company that just released a line of recycled paper yarn and a bunch of basket patterns…” He looked up from turning his work to find Colin grinning at him. “Sorry, that’s probably boring.”
“No, I like watching you get all excited.”
Arthur cleared his throat. “Okay, so I can go over the linen stitch again if you want.”
“Sure,” Colin said, and rested his hand on the back of Arthur’s chair as he leaned in.
When he got home, he could hear voices coming from the back of the house. He toed off his shoes and went into the living room. Annie was at the dining room table, absently tapping the end of a highlighter against her lips as she listened. Celia was standing with her head tilted towards the closed kitchen door, behind which Mom and Ma Ma were having a heated discussion in Cantonese.
What’s going on? he mouthed to Celia. Though they’d all endured years of Saturday morning heritage language classes, Celia was the only one who could really carry on an adult conversation.
“Mom thinks because you’re twenty-six and don’t have a girlfriend you’re going to die bitter and alone,” Celia explained. Arthur felt his face heat.
“Ma Ma says you just work too much,” Annie added.
Celia shushed her and leaned closer to the door. “Mom’s worried that you don’t have a man around to talk man stuff with or whatever.”
Annie made a face. “Biological determinism in humans is not supported by the res–”
His father’s name popped out of the torrent of muffled syllables.
“Mom says if Dad was still alive–”
He was a warm but vague presence in Arthur’s memory, a teller of jokes, a maker of things. He’d been a new father when he was the age Arthur was now. The thought was bizarre.
“Whoa. Ma Ma just called Mom old-fashioned.”
Silence descended. Arthur heard the hiccup and hum of the furnace preparing to fire up.
Mom said something in the even tone she used when she was mad but didn’t want to talk about it any more. The kitchen door opened, and they all looked guiltily away as Mom stopped in the doorway.
“Ah. You’re all here.” She dredged up a bright smile. “Arthur, I wanted to talk to you. Your Aunt Emily is having a get-together on Thursday night. There will be a lot of young people there. I thought you might like to go.”
“I probably have to work,” Arthur said reflexively.
“Surely they can’t force you to work overtime every night.”
“It’s been really busy.”
Mom clicked her tongue. “How do you expect to meet someone and start a family if all you do is work?”
Behind her, Ma Ma sighed audibly.
“You don’t have to stay all evening,” Mom said. “Just drop in for a little. I’ll tell Emily you’ll try to make it.”
Total set-up, Celia mouthed across the dining room table.
He hadn’t been scheduled to work late on Thursday, and the party turned out to be tolerable, in the sense that it was excruciating but reasonably low-key. Vivian Chu kept trying to get everyone to play ice-breaking games involving coloured markers and bingo cards, but Vivian was always like that. He spent an hour and a half avoiding being introduced to people he didn’t know and eating miniature quiches and spring rolls, and he had a long conversation with Lilah Kong about how much call centre work sucked. He escaped at nine o’clock with the feeling that if it got Mom to relax, it might have been worth it, and anyway it could have been much worse.
The tick of rain on metal eavestroughs woke him before his alarm did. By the time he got to the park, the cuffs of his chinos were soggy around his ankles, and the downpour had settled in for a long spring soaking.
“No field trip for us, I guess,” Colin said, water dripping from the opening of his hoodie and onto his face. They both had the day off, and they had planned to visit a few yarn shops in the east end, and then go knit on the beach.
“Do you want to go to that coffee shop?”
“We could go hang out at my place. It’s not that far.” He gestured with a hand dug into the kangaroo pocket of his sweater.
“All right,” Arthur said. It was probably better than spending all day eking out a few cups of coffee.
The neighbourhood south-east of the park was a half-gentrified little pocket of the city, condoized industrial buildings interspersed with scruffy residential streets. Colin’s place was a shabby Victorian semi, plastic pots of soil in clumps on the cracking asphalt of the front yard, three bicycles locked to the iron railing on the porch. A life-sized cardboard storm trooper stood in one window, and a string of lights shaped like skulls lined the front door.
The layout inside wasn’t much different from that of his own house, though the furniture was sparse and battered. In the living room, an enormous sectional couch faced a large TV and a museum of gaming consoles. Two guys were slouched on the couch, watching a Japanese cartoon that seemed to involve a lot of yelling.
“Hey,” Colin said, and one of them raised an arm in response.
Colin led him up the stairs and opened a door. He took his shoes off and left them in the hall, so Arthur did the same.
“Have a seat,” Colin said, shutting the door behind them. There was only one chair, a wooden ladderback, so he sat in it. Colin took his phone out of his pocket and slotted it into a speaker unit, then began to fiddle with it.
The walls had been painted in recent memory, a pale yellow that lightened the room despite the fact that the one window looked out onto the side of the neighbour’s house. There was a door that led to what Arthur knew was a narrow closet. A futon filling one corner of the floor, a 1930s dresser with a tarnished mirror, and an upturned milk crate holding a lamp and the speaker unit were the only furniture besides the chair. The room smelled like wood and rain. The blanket on the futon was made of dozens of granny squares no more than three inches across, a rumpus of colour that drew his eye to the bed.
Arthur dug his knitting out of his backpack. The music started up, a slow, hazy beat. Colin sat cross-legged on the futon and looked at Arthur.
“You said you were ready to finish your scarf. Did you want me to show you how to cast off?” Arthur asked.
“Sure.” Colin reached for his bag and pulled out the scarf wrapped around the bundle of yarn. Then he put it down again.
“You know, Arthur,” he said, “one of us is seriously clueless, and swear to God I can’t decide whether it’s you or me.”
Arthur blinked. “What?”
“Yeah, still can’t tell.” Colin tilted his head and smiled faintly. “Okay, this is going to be awkward anyway, so I’m just going to use my words here. I think you’re kind of hot. If you want to come over here and join me, I think we could have some fun. If you’re not feeling it, it’s fine, we’re still friends and I’ll never mention it again. Cool?”
Arthur opened his mouth, and no words came out. Heat spread over his skin. He looked down at his hands, as stiff as the needle tips they held, held fast by strands of linen.
“I–” He licked his lips, and said the first thing that came to mind. “Okay. Let me finish this row.”
Colin made a breathy sound that was probably a laugh. Arthur didn’t look up to see. He knit one, brought the yarn to the front, slipped one, brought the yarn back, his hands nerveless as though he’d never attempted such a feat before. By the end of the row, he could feel his hands again. He slid the fabric down the needle with care, and placed it in the top of his backpack. He crossed to the futon, and folded his legs under himself beside Colin.
Colin leaned forward and put his mouth on Arthur’s.
Kissing wasn’t something Arthur had much experience of. David Tran hadn’t liked to do it, and before him there had only been Sam Yeo–but only on a few occasions–and that one guy at that university party he’d attended more or less by accident, and Julia Grey in grade eight if she even counted. It was softer and slower than he remembered it being with Sam. Colin slid a hand up Arthur’s neck and cupped the base of his skull, and that felt reassuring, as if he were being held safe and steady. Arthur’s mouth opened without his thinking about it, and still Colin’s lips kept moving on his gently, every so often a little caress with his tongue.
Colin pulled back. “You nervous?”
Arthur considered. “I haven’t done this a lot.”
“You want to stop?”
He shook his head decisively, and Colin grinned. “Well, then.”
He closed the distance between them, wriggling closer. His crossed ankles nudged Arthur’s knees. His other hand went around Arthur’s shoulders. Arthur made a fist in Colin’s sweater and leaned into the kiss.
When Colin broke it off again, Arthur let him go, and Colin pulled his hoodie over his head and dropped it on the floor. He scooted up the futon and laid back so his head was at the pillows.
Arthur was left on the end of the bed. Feeling on more familiar territory, he leaned over and unbuttoned Colin’s pants. Colin made a surprised sound. Arthur unzipped his fly and tugged down his chinos and striped boxers. He propped himself on one elbow and circled his other thumb and forefinger around the base of Colin’s soft penis. Then he leaned over and took it into his mouth.
This was the way things had been with David Tran, and Arthur had learned to like the feeling of him hardening on his tongue. In porn everybody was hard the second clothes started coming off, and it was kind of exciting to think of someone already being turned on by him by the time things got to this point, but that, he guessed, was the difference between porn and real life.
After he’d been sucking for about a minute, Colin said, “Hey, Arthur? Why don’t you come up here for a bit?”
Arthur stopped what he was doing and pushed himself up the bed. Colin pulled him down for a kiss.
“That felt good, it did,” he said, “but you’re going a little too fast for me. Can I show you what I like?”
Arthur went hot all over, not a good hot, but Colin kissed him again and he ignored his embarrassment mercilessly.
“Hang on,” Colin said. He sat up and kicked off his pants, and settled his boxers around his hips so that he was covered again. He tugged at the cuff of Arthur’s long-sleeved shirt. “How about taking this off?”
Arthur unbuttoned, and lay back down in his T-shirt and pants. Colin leaned down on one elbow over Arthur, putting his other hand on Arthur’s ribs. He put his lips behind Arthur’s ear and kissed down to his shoulder, then worked his way up to Arthur’s mouth again.
It was unexpected. He’d have guessed Colin to be someone who liked things hot and fast. Wasn’t that what he’d said, that he liked to do things intensely?
Colin circled a thumb around Arthur’s right nipple. Arthur’s hips jerked. He felt Colin’s lips curve. Colin tugged up the hem of Arthur’s T-shirt. He bent and licked that nipple, rolled his tongue around it. He blew on the wet skin, and Arthur made a small sound at the rush of cool air. Colin wrapped his lips around the nipple and sucked, and Arthur shoved his hips against Colin, surprised by a sudden flood of lust.
“So you like that?” Colin murmured.
“I…don’t know.” He wasn’t even sure it actually felt good–it was a weird sensation and no one had ever done that to him before–but he’d just gone from getting-turned-on to hard as he’d ever been.
Colin moved his hand to Arthur’s other nipple, rubbed it through the T-shirt, pinched it between thumb and forefinger, and–
“Ow,” Arthur said involuntarily.
“Sorry, won’t do that again.” Colin followed his hand with his mouth, chasing the sting with new sensation.
“Do you want me to…” Arthur put his hand on Colin’s chest.
“Yeah, I like that. You can pinch a little, it’s good.” Arthur did, and Colin inhaled breathily and shivered. Against his thigh, Arthur could feel Colin’s erection, hard as it hadn’t been when Arthur had had it in his mouth.
Colin slid his hand down and rested it on the front of Arthur’s pants. Arthur couldn’t help pressing forward. Colin thumbed open the button and slowly lowered the zipper, dragging his hand in a long, tantalizing stroke. He tugged at the waistband. “Can you take these off?”
Arthur wriggled out of them, and shucked his damp socks too, pushing everything off the end of the bed. He left his underwear on, half shy, half hoping Colin would deal with it himself.
“Very nice,” Colin said appreciatively, running the ball of his thumb up the hard front of Arthur’s briefs. “Rocking the tighty whities, Wu.”
Arthur put his hands up, dragged the pillow under his head, and clenched it in both fists. The position made him feel exposed, but he also needed to hold onto something or he’d explode.
Colin inhaled audibly. He squirmed down the bed a bit more, until his nose was level with Arthur’s waist. He cupped one hand lightly around Arthur’s erection, and with the other he pulled down the elastic of the briefs a little. He licked Arthur’s hipbone, and then, gently, nipped it with his teeth. Arthur jumped. Colin laughed, and nuzzled Arthur’s skin, pulling the waistband of his briefs down, kissing a curving path from his hip to the base of his penis. Then he folded the briefs down and kept going, stripping them off Arthur completely.
He rolled so that he was between Arthur’s legs. Of all things, it was the brush of his warm shoulders against Arthur’s inner thighs that made Arthur close his eyes and make a whimpering sound that had never come out of his mouth before.
“Yeah,” Colin said. Without warning, he licked a hot, wet stripe up the underside of Arthur’s erection. Arthur made the sound again. His entire body felt as though it were buzzing, a tingling tension centred on the touch of Colin’s mouth.
Colin moved his hand up Arthur’s penis, following his tongue. When he reached the tip he swirled his tongue and then took Arthur in. Arthur heard himself panting. Colin’s other hand cupped his testicles, kneaded lightly. Then one finger stroked the skin behind them, and Arthur nearly levitated off the bed.
“Sorry,” he gasped, or tried to, or thought. Colin made a sputtering noise but didn’t stop touching him, and it all blended together, wet and friction and heat and pressure, stoking a tense pleasure that was acute, then desperate, then undeniable.
“I,” he said, “I, ah–”
His orgasm was like being hit by some physical force outside of himself. It shook through him and left him limp in all ways, body slack, brain shorted out. He distantly felt Colin release him and drop to the futon beside him. The music and the rain were both still going, weirdly complementary white noise.
When he dragged his eyes open, Colin was grinning at him.
Arthur wet his lips. “That’s what you like?” he asked.
“Fun, right?” Colin said.
“I could probably manage that,” Arthur said. He put a hand in the middle of Colin’s chest and pushed him backwards onto the futon and repeated what Colin had just done to him, step by step and with gratifying results. He could think, suddenly, of other things he’d like to try, but he filed them away for another time. Following a pattern as written was a perfectly acceptable way to learn.
On Wednesday there was a power outage, and the emergency generators, to everyone’s loudly proclaimed lack of surprise, failed to come on. After two hours of everyone hanging around the silent cash register and shooting the breeze in the dimness, Francine sent them all home.
It was only mid-afternoon. He contemplated where to go before he realized that the house was probably empty, and anyway a power failure was an entirely valid excuse for being there.
The house was quiet. Ma Ma was curled up in a corner of the living room couch, reading The Hunger Games.
“Oh, Arthur, you’re home early,” she said, and stretched out her legs, feet bright in the striped socks he’d made her for Christmas. “Did something happen at work?”
“The power went out.”
“A surprise holiday, the best kind.” She inserted a bookmark between the pages and put the book down on the coffee table. “Come over here and sit by me.”
He perched on the other end of the couch. She propped her elbow on the back of the couch, leaned her head on her hand, and regarded him for a long moment. He fidgeted and wished he had something to knit–the vest needed blocking and finishing; he might start that striped shawl that everybody was working on this spring–and waited for her to say something.
“Arthur,” she said, “do you like your job? Are you happy there?”
He had an unexpected moment of painful disorientation in which he honestly couldn’t remember which job she knew about. “It’s all right,” he said cautiously.
“I worry about you, Arthur.”
He blinked. “About me? You don’t have to do that.”
She shook her head. “I don’t worry about the girls. They know what they want. But you… You remind me of your Ye Ye. Quiet. Always with your feet on the path in front of you.”
Wasn’t that how he was supposed to be? he thought, a little indignantly.
“If he hadn’t gotten sick, we’d still have the store,” she said. “We’d still be working. Seven days a week, work and then television and then bed.”
They’d all still be living there, in the shabby apartments above the corner store, Ma Ma and Ye Ye on the second floor, Arthur and Mom and the girls above that. The day Ma Ma had inherited the building, the store had closed and never opened again. The building had sold with chocolate bars still in the racks, canned soup and kleenex still on the shelves.
“Of course people have to work,” she said. “It isn’t healthy for us to have things too easy. But–” She rested her hand on his knee. “When I grew up, we didn’t think about being happy. It wasn’t for us. You worked hard, you got married, you had children, you worked harder for them.” She sighed. “And then your son dies before you, and you wonder what the purpose of it all was.”
“Ma Ma,” Arthur said said, alarmed, “are you ill or something?”
“Oh, no, dear, nothing like that.” She patted his knee and leaned back again. “They were different times. Now I am an old lady with a little money and I can do as I please. I just don’t want to see you make the same mistakes.”
His face prickled, as though she had peeled away his skin and was peering directly at his thoughts.
“Now I think I’ll make myself some tea,” she said, and stood. “Would you like some?”
She went into the kitchen. After a time, he rose on slightly quivering legs and followed her.
“I, um, I got,” he said, and leaned against the door frame. “I actually started a different job.”
“You did?” She turned to look at him.
“The hours are different. I’m not really working all the time.” His flush was starting to recede. His head felt filled with helium.
She shook jasmine tea into the pot. “Do you like it better?”
“Yes. A lot better. It doesn’t pay as much but…it’s a lot better.”
“How long has this been going on?”
He reviewed the time in his head. “A few months.” His old job seemed like something from a different decade.
“It’s an odd thing, having secrets, isn’t it?” she said, looking down as she capped the tea caddy, and then the water pot chimed to tell them the water had boiled, and he ended up not answering.
“Watch,” Arthur said. “It’s just like the knit stitch, the same thing you’ve been doing, only instead of keeping the stitches on the needle, you lift one over the other and off. Knit, over and off. Knit, over and off. Now you do it.”
“I am so done with this thing. You do it for me.” Colin pressed his chest against Arthur’s bare back, knees dimpling the futon on either side of Arthur’s hips. The scent of lilacs and the sound of someone hammering a few houses over drifted through the open window.
“You’re going to need to know how to do this,” Arthur warned.
“I’d rather watch you.” Colin rested his chin on Arthur’s shoulder. His arms clasped loosely around Arthur’s waist.
Arthur gave in and finished the cast-off edge. He leaned down to pick his scissors out of his notions bag and snipped the golden yarn, leaving a tail long enough to be woven in.
“Awesome.” Colin pulled the scarf out of Arthur’s hands. He flipped it back over his head and wrapped it around both of their necks.
Arthur lifted the beginning edge from where it hung tickling his stomach. “Now you can pick out the waste yarn and either unravel it to a point where the knitting gets even, or just pick up the stitches and cast off the same way. I left enough yarn.”
“I like the way it is,” Colin said. “I like seeing how I got better at it.”
“You have to cast off properly, though, or you’ll catch it on something and it’ll come apart.” He was already reaching for his needle again. It only took five minutes to secure the provisional stitches into something that would last.
“No one’s going to believe I made this,” Colin said with satisfaction, dragging the scarf off of them and looping it around his lampshade.
“What are you going to make next?”
“Eh, I dunno. Isn’t summer too hot to knit?”
“Not really. I mean, I wouldn’t work on a woollen afghan, but smaller pieces are fine, and if you don’t even want to touch wool when it gets hot out, there are some beautiful cottons on the market. And they’re doing amazing things with synthetics, they’re nothing like the crunchy plastic acrylics from the seventies….” He felt a suspicious staccato breath against his neck, and pulled away far enough to look at Colin. “Are you laughing?”
“Not in a bad way,” Colin said, grinning.
“You can always tell me to be quiet,” Arthur said, a little wounded.
“Nah, I think it’s totally cool how you’re so into this one thing.” Colin wrapped his arms around Arthur and pulled him back against his chest again. He kissed the side of Arthur’s neck with a dramatic smacking noise. “Don’t ever let anybody tell you to be quiet, Arthur.”
Sunday dinner was complex sandwiches and a towering plate of strawberry shortcake that was two-thirds whipped cream.
“What have you all got planned for this week?” Mom asked over a tiny token wedge of shortcake and a cup of coffee.
“Waiting for exam results,” Annie said.
“I have to work on my portfolio, it’s due in a couple of weeks.” Celia helped herself to a mound of shortcake.
“I’ll be doing something I’ve been thinking about for a while,” Ma Ma said.
“I’m going to start moving out of this house and into Mrs. Liu’s.” She scooped whipped cream up with her spoon. “Mrs. Liu and I love each other, and we’ve decided we want to spend the time we have left being together as much as we can.”
A few heartbeats went by.
“That’s wonderful, Ma Ma,” Annie said, with perfect composure. “I hope you’ll have a long and happy life together.”
“Yeah, congratulations,” Celia said, and widened her eyes in theatrical shock at Arthur across the table.
“That’s great,” Arthur said, dry-mouthed, feeling weirdly awkward.
Mom set her spoon down. “Ma Ma, I do wish that we could have had a chance to discuss this privately before involving the children.”
“Moooom,” Celia said. “We’re not little kids. And it’s the twenty-first century. Being gay is totally a thing that exists.”
“I understand that, but–” Mom smoothed her napkin over her lap. “Mrs. Liu is a very nice lady,” she said abruptly. “I hope that you will be happy together. Please excuse me, I’ve had a long day.” She pushed her chair away from the table and went up the stairs.
“She needs time to get used the idea,” Annie said. “You know she’ll be fine.”
“Of course she will,” Ma Ma said, and took another spoonful of dessert. “This is delicious, Celia.”
“Can I have your room?” Celia asked.
Later, when Arthur and Annie were doing the dishes, Celia clattered into the kitchen. “Ma Ma has a girlfriend,” she said in an incredulous stage whisper. “It’s weird. They’re, like, ninety.”
“Ma Ma is seventy-four this year,” Arthur said. He had several possibilities in mind for the sweater he was going to make her for her seventy-fifth.
“I can’t believe she didn’t tell us.”
“She just did,” Annie said.
“Maybe she had to work up to it,” said Arthur.
They both looked at him. Arthur polished the spoons with the dishtowel until he could see his face gleaming back at him.
“This isn’t knitting, is it?” Colin asked, lifting his foot under the blanket so that it hung down over them from above, light dotting through the holes in the pattern.
“Do you want it?”
Arthur turned his head on the pillow. “Don’t you?”
Colin shrugged. “It was here when I moved in. It’s pretty, but I like to travel light. I thought you might like it.”
“Why, are you going somewhere?”
“Yeah, a buddy of mine’s uncle is opening a camp up north, and he’s looking for people to work. Just cleaning and food prep and stuff, but hey, it gets me out of the city for the summer. Could be fun.”
Arthur watched the hem of the blanket sway above him. He had basic crochet skills, because it was useful for edging, and he’d bookmarked some more complex patterns, though he hadn’t gotten around to trying them yet. “Yes. I’d like to have it. It’s obviously a stash-busting project, but there’s a nice use of colour. I don’t even know how many pairs of socks you’d have to make to have enough scraps for a blanket this size. I don’t think they’ve made Kroy in some of these shades for years.”
Colin threw his arm across Arthur’s chest and nuzzled at his shoulder. The blanket tangled around his legs. “I’m going to miss not understanding anything you’re saying.”
“Well, I’m going to miss you listening anyway.” His voice caught unexpectedly, and then he swallowed and the moment passed. “You can give me the leftovers from your scarf, too, if you want.”
“You got it.” Colin moved on to Arthur’s neck, one hand sliding down his stomach. Arthur grabbed Colin’s hair and pulled him over for a kiss, and later, when Colin’s mouth followed his hand, let him go again.
Annie and Celia were on the sliver of a front porch, leaning against the windowsill, eating chocolate-covered things out of a plastic bag.
“Stopped at Bulk Barn,” Celia explained, holding out the bag. “Hey, nice blanket. That’s a lot of colours. Did you make that?”
“No.” He took a breath. “I got it from a guy who I just sort of broke up with who probably wasn’t really my boyfriend.”
Annie wiped chocolate off her thumb with a kleenex. “Are you okay?”
He hung the blanket over the porch railing, and dug in the bag. “I’m fine. It was sudden, but–I’m all right.” He broke a lump of chocolate between his teeth. Rich sweetness melted in his mouth.
“Is everybody in this family gay except me?” demanded Celia.
“Don’t look at me,” Annie said. “I’m not interested in any of that stuff.”
“You can babysit my kids, then,” Celia said. “I’m having four.”
“Only four? What are their names?”
“Portia, Taylor–” Annie’s lips twitched, and Celia swatted her arm. “Shut up! I’m planning ahead.”
Arthur heard a rustle beside him. He looked down in time to see the blanket slither off the railing and down to the ground behind the honeysuckle bushes that grew against the porch.
It took two damp knees and a scratched cheek and a lot of leaves in his hair, but he managed to retrieve it without snagging it or dragging it through the moist soil. He shook it out over the patchy lawn. He should probably give it a bath in Eucalan anyway; it would be a shame if moths got to it. He would, he thought, once it stopped smelling like Colin’s room.
“Arthur? Arthur!” Celia was hanging over the railing, phone in her hand. “Mom says we can order a pizza. You in a sausage mood or a bacon mood?”
When he got up to his room, he smoothed the blanket over the single bed he’d had since he was a kid. It covered it nicely, hanging amply over the edges, bringing brightness to the mostly utilitarian room. He got the leftover balls of yarn Colin had given him out of his backpack: soft handfuls of forest and slate, a little gold.
His stash was stored in clear plastic boxes in his tiny closet. He unstacked them until he got to the one with the wool worsted. The slate grey tumbled in next to two skeins of a nice cashmere-merino blend, lemon-curd yellow. The colour was summer incarnate. He seemed to remember buying some baby alpaca in green at the same time. Or had that been sport weight? He was pretty sure he’d had a pattern in mind….
He sat in the middle of a circle of boxes until the doorbell rang and Celia called him down to dinner, filling his hands with vibrant colour, planning all the things he was going to make next.