A fruit fly undergoes metamorphosis within the confines of its pupa, emerging after a few days transformed. It is no longer a wiggling worm-like larva, focused exclusively on eating. It climbs from its chamber on six new legs, stretches its wings, and in a matter of a few hours begins its short life as the winged, sex-crazed adult you might find hovering over a bowl of fruit. I say sex-crazed because their mating habits appear to be entirely arbitrary. They fall in love with whoever is handy: mother, sister, the girl next door, or auntie, perhaps only drawing the line at uncle.
I was hurrying the sorting and counting of my flies, probably making mistakes. Red eyes were clearly different from white, but curved wings could be tricky to distinguish from normal. Now all that was left was a final cross, an arranged marriage between two specific fruit flies. I used a rubber hose and glass tubing device called a “pooter” to bring the couple together. Two glass tubes were joined by a length of rubber hose. One piece of glass was in my mouth, the other would hold the fly. I pushed the glass tube by the cotton plug in the vial of flies, sucked up what I knew to be the female, and then withdrew the glass tube. Holding my breath so that the fly was held up against the mesh blocking the end of the tube, I made the transfer to the new vial (the bridal chamber) and blew gently. The virgin female fly joined the male, and I withdrew the pooter so that the cotton wool could again make a tight seal. This process was complicated a little by my delicately balanced front tooth.
Earlier in the fall, I had lost an upper incisor in a squash game when my opponent’s racquet had caught me in the mouth. After several dental treatments I was fitted with a temporary “flipper” tooth while waiting for the final bridge. At first it had been firmly attached, but it had come loose, and now balanced precariously in the empty space. I was good at keeping it positioned with my tongue.
I tidied up my corner of the lab, pocketing my pooter and a vial of fly pupae that were on the verge of hatching. They would be coming to the dance, as any hatching males would have to be removed to prevent them mating with their sisters. This would certainly happen in the first eight hours after hatching, fruit flies being both precocious and indiscriminant.
Taking the stairs two at a time I thundered down to the ground floor. The outside air was cold and fresh, quickly clearing the lab smells of yeast, molasses, agar and ether from my head. Across the quad a girl hurried towards the library, her head bent into the wind, a quantity of books held tightly against her chest. Lights were coming on in rooms facing the quad as I hurried past a young oak that rocked back and forth in the wind, rattling and flashing the pale undersides of its remaining brown leaves. I had packed my bag earlier, and stripped off my lab coat as I ran. Pulling open the car door, I threw the balled up white coat into the back seat and slid in behind the wheel, shivering. It was a quarter to five, and Montreal was an hour and a half away if I were lucky with traffic.
My car was an eight year old 1959 Vauxhall Cresta. The hood latch was broken, and to prevent it from flying open I had used bright yellow half inch rope to tie it shut. I was rather self-conscious about this, and so tended to park a block or two from Emily’s house, a great stone pile near the top of posh Westmount. This was where I would be going after changing into my tails at my sister’s house.
The previous summer I had fallen in love, but enjoying this relationship with Emily from a distance was proving difficult. She was a girl I had admired for several years, the younger sister of a close friend, and three years my junior. We had connected during the summer and I was smitten. I could think of little else other than her smile, her sophisticated frame of reference, her dark eyes, her hair, her long legs, in short all of her.
“All of me, why not take all of me?” I imagined her singing this song, but then thinking about it, recalled that she rarely even hummed, and I was pretty sure she couldn’t carry a tune. This was perhaps her only flaw.
She had begun studying at McGill and so we were separated by a hundred miles. At Bishop’s I haunted the porter’s office, where student mail was placed in pigeonholes visible from a window, but tantalizingly out of reach. If you arrived early you could watch the porter slowly walk up and down the rows of boxes, studying addresses intently before tucking letters into appropriate slots. That fall I approached this window full of hope that it might open onto Montreal and my beloved. Leaving genetics class, I would rush across campus to check my mail, and then rush back to be in time for physical chemistry. If I were lucky I would spend the first few minutes of class carefully reading and then re-reading her round, slightly backhand, script. But the excitement I felt on seeing a letter lodged diagonally in my pigeonhole rarely extended into the actual reading of it. I wanted steaming love letters, while hers were somewhat tedious, recounting the events of her week. She would sign off with “love Emily”, but I wanted more. Sometime about mid October her letters became both infrequent and dismally short. Inevitably she had found another. He was presumably more exciting and certainly closer to hand. This was my suspicion at any rate; our break-up had not taken place formally. She saved that for the St. Andrews Ball.
This ball was a dinner dance, held on a Friday as close as possible to the 30th of November, St Andrew’s day. I had been to this ball before and knew about its eccentricities. As is often the case in former colonies, certain citizens work at being more Scottish than actual Edinburgh natives. They live in a misty world of heather, kilts, dirks, hogmanny and haggis, becoming quite over the top near the poet Robbie Burn’s birthday. They also get quite worked up on St. Andrew’s day. As a result the motif of this ball was decidedly Scottish. You got a meal, though the menu was hard to read, being printed on tartan paper. It was speckled wi’ wee apostrophes and odd items such as “Champit Tatties” and “Bashed Neeps.” Haggis was an important element, but I don’t know who got to eat it. I got chicken with gravy, potatoes and turnips.
Emily had invited me to this event in September when things were fine between us, but now, as I drove to Montreal in the cold wind of that last Friday in November, I felt nervous. We would have drinks at her house at seven, before driving with her family to the ball at a downtown hotel. I liked this plan; it didn’t involve my embarrassing car and its ropes.
Out of breath and tucking in my shirt, I ran up the steps to her front door and rang the bell. Mrs. Forsythe answered the door, and always gracious, invited me in, shaking my hand.
“Emily will be down directly,” she said, “She is just applying the finishing touches. Perhaps you would like to have a glass of sherry?”
“I hope Emily’s eyes are okay,” I said. She gave me a blank look and furrowed her brow slightly. A voice from the kitchen area called: “Mrs. Forsythe!” Someone sounded a little frantic.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” she said, and crossed the entry hall to disappear behind the kitchen door.
I was joined in the living room by Emily’s older sister. Beatrice was three years older than I was, but she felt it was more like ten. She was also a pretentious snob. We chatted and I learned that she was expecting “Rupert” to arrive shortly. Beatrice had just smugly produced this information when the door chimes sounded. I let Rupert in and accepted a black cape with a red lining that he took off with a restrained flourish, but none the less a flourish. I suppose capes pretty much demand this, but I thought to myself: “What a pretentious pseud. He belongs with Beatrice.” The hand I shook was hard, rough, and square, with blunt fingers. Beatrice looked at me looking at the hand, and said with a coy smile: “Those are rock climbing hands.”
When I gave him his delicate sherry glass, it looked in danger of being crushed and shattered. I doubted that those hands would even notice the shards of glass. I began to chat, asking what he did. Beatrice volunteered that he had been farming sheep in New Zealand.
“I don’t detect any accent,” I said.
“Rupert was spending his optional rotation down there. He is in his final year of medical school.” Beatrice was good at supplying information; Rupert hadn’t had to say much so far.
Emily came into the room, and I stood up to greet her. She did a little twirl for us, and settled on the couch beside her sister. She gave me a broad smile and said hello. I sat down again. She could have sat next to me, but instead was across the room.
“Tell about the plane and Kilimanjaro,” prompted Beatrice.
While we waited for the Forsythe seniors she was able to drag stories out of Rupert. He had flown a small plane that used a Volkswagen engine out of Nairobi, and after many adventures, had landed at the base of the mountain - before climbing it. The stories were related in an off-hand manner devoid of bragging and pretension. He seemed both humble and sincere. I sank deeper into my couch. It wasn’t a competition, but I felt trivial, a school boy, a silent school boy over whom waves of envy and petulant irritation interfered with a genuine interest. Emily was hanging on his every word. This was the stuff of real men.
“And what do you do?” asked Rupert, stepping back from the charging water buffalo and fixing me with blue eyes that sparkled in a face tanned and wind-whipped. He had acquired his tan from a saddle amongst New Zealand sheep, as well as from the sun reflecting off the snows of Kilimanjaro. How had he fit in all these adventures and done medicine too?
“I’m at Bishop’s studying biology and chemistry.” My voice sounded oddly high and squeaky and I cleared my throat several times before attempting a sip from my empty sherry glass.
The parents appeared, so we assembled in the drive while Emily’s dad backed the car from the garage. He rolled down the window of the Cadillac.
“You know, I think we can take one car. You get in the front with your mother Emily.”
So I drove to the dance sitting in the back beside Rupert. My stomach felt empty. Emily’s chatter from the front seat concerned people I didn’t know. They were desperately funny people whose antics were apparently hysterical. I didn’t seem to have anything to contribute and so sat and looked out the window at the lights in dark buildings that moved by us, silhouetted against a moonlit sky.
“Oh don’t let’s go into that now,” said Emily, her face showing signs of irritation.
We were alone for the first time and in a place where the loud music didn’t make conversation difficult. My thoughts were like a tongue that couldn’t stay away from a sore tooth. They had to be probed and explored. I reviewed each piece of evidence, considered every glance, every look and every expression. I searched for an explanation that didn’t indicate the end.
“But last weekend,” I began.
“I explained,” she interrupted, sighing audibly. “I left my new contacts in too long. I had to have my eyes irrigated at regular intervals. I couldn’t come. There was a worry about by sight for God’s sake.” Emily was exasperated.
I had asked her to a college dance the previous weekend, but the long awaited and long-ago organized affair had not taken place. Instead I had taken an unsatisfactory call at the residence pay phone. She had rushed through her explanation and I was left in the booth feeling that empty stomach I was becoming used to.
“Your mother didn’t seem to know about your eye problem,” I said.
“Well if you insist on spoiling the evening,” she said.
How could she think I would just pretend? How could I possibly enjoy the evening with this pall hanging over us. I wanted to kiss her, to feel confident that this was the girl who meant so much to me. She was someone else now. When I put my hand on her shoulder she twisted away. Was this the girl who, in a veranda hammock, had snuggled into my arms to watch the moon reflect in the lake, while a loon called?
“There’s someone else isn’t there.” I said this quietly, but she didn’t answer. She took a few steps away and tilted her head back so that she seemed to be studying the ceiling. Her mouth was a flat line. I repeated myself more emphatically.
“There’ve been lots fraternity events, and I have to go to them. I’ve made several new friends.”
“But there is someone specific I think.”
“I suppose so.” Her voice trailed off. “I didn’t want to have this conversation now.”
We were in a hotel room that someone had rented for the evening. The dance was taking place in a ball room below. This was where we left our coats, where the girls spent time primping, and where there were some bottles on a coffee table. I moved over to them and poured a drink.
“You’re not going to do anything foolish are you?” Her voice had a softer feel to it. The edge had gone. I looked over from where I was standing and took a long swig of whatever I had poured. Wincing, I looked at the bottle and saw it was Rye whiskey, not a favorite.
“No I’m not going to do anything foolish.”
“It’s time for the dinner,” she said. “Come on.”
I took another hefty drink, gagging a little, but enjoying the burning sensation as it rushed down my throat to sit uncertainly with the sweet sherry and very little else. It was nearly nine o’clock and I hadn’t eaten since a quick sandwich at noon. Emily had turned away from me and started for the hall. I took a step after her and then reached back for the glass I had just set down. I finished it in two big swallows and followed her out of the room, gasping a little as I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. I watched her hips move in front of me as we walked along the corridor and felt a stabbing pang.
When we reached the ball room we had time for a couple of dances and a gin and tonic before we moved into an adjacent dining room. Feeling quite a bit better and anticipating the food, I was delighted to see that each place had a loaded dinner plate already in position. I was well into mine when I felt Emily’s tugging hand and exasperated tone.
“They haven’t said grace yet. Stand up for heaven’s sake!”
I stood. Quite a ritual followed, with prayers, toasts, speeches, and as a climax, the piping in of a haggis. We stood for this, and I followed it carefully, turning my whole body as it passed. I was feeling a little dizzy and the bagpipes were more irritating than usual. I refilled my wine glass.
At one point I felt the bulge in my side pocket and remembered that I had brought my flies with me. Thinking that perhaps my dining companions might be interested, I produced the vial.
“I wonder if I have a virgin female?” It seemed rather amusing to me. Most things did, except the things I felt like crying about. My emotions were one way or the other it seemed. The flies were not a good idea.
“Put that away,” she said. I was beginning to think of her as “She.”
Dinner was not a success. My gaff with the pre-grace chicken consumption had not been well received and no one was interested in my fruit flies.
“Are you sure more wine is a good idea?”
“It’s an essential idea.”
There were two other couples at the circular table and they were not friendly. They were McGill friends of Emily’s and I couldn’t help feeling that they were judging me carefully, and that I was coming up short. It was after we had finished dessert and were sipping coffee that I decided I could show just how sober and funny a fellow I really was. I would make a speech. I had watched Rupert at an adjacent table get up to say a few words before proposing a toast. Bolstered by the glasses of wine, it seemed the smart thing to do. I rose a little unsteadily, and leaning on the edge of the table began.
“I would like to propose a toast to…,” to what I wondered. “To, to, to absent friends.” I was so delighted with the concept of absent friends, that I may have said “friends” with more enthusiasm than was wise. My tooth shot from my mouth. All I heard was a “tink” as it connected with something, probably crockery. Now I was missing my front tooth. It was sort of amusing I thought, but Emily was not smiling. She had been rather icy throughout dinner, mostly talking to her friends. There was a lot of dinner noise from other tables and I had given up listening to the conversation that was not directed at me anyway. I leaned forward and began pouring coffee from all the cups into a large pitcher.
“Be careful, you’re pouring it on the table. What are you doing anyway?” Emily had been facing away from my “speech.” I grinned at her. “Oh God, your tooth.”
I searched the bottom of the cups one after another without success. Then it occurred to me that the tooth might have been in the pitcher to begin with, so I distributed the coffee back into the cups, reaching somewhat unsteadily across the table. And there it was, winking at me from the bottom of the jug. I was triumphant. I had it back into my mouth in a trice, and just in time, because at that moment we all rose for the toast to “The Queen.” The room was spinning a little as I held a coffee cup aloft and carefully pronounced “The Queen,” adding under my breath, “and all who sail in her.” I noticed that the eyes at the table were on me and that one of the girls I had taken an instant dislike to, was laughing and pointing at me. I looked down at my white shirt front where a chocolate éclair stuck to me like a decoration.
“Aha,” I said, “the order of the éclair.” I spent some time with a napkin and glass of water, scrubbing away at the brown stain. When I looked up, I found the table had cleared. The group was making its way back to the dance floor, leaving me with my éclair. I took a bite, savoring the whipped cream filling.
The rest of the evening is a little indistinct. Deciding that enough was enough, I left and walked home. It was several miles and it cleared my head. I made my way back along the city streets and then entered residential Westmount where I looked into the lighted windows of houses I passed. I caught glimpses of the families inside and thought about them. I was outside looking in and felt very much that way. It was after midnight when I reached my car and I was quite sober when I patted the front hood and rope, saying: “Good car, good car. You’ll take me home.”
I drove calmly and carefully, and it was two hours before I was back in residence. During the drive I reworked the evening in my mind. I thought of ways I could have handled the situation better. Actually any way would probably have been better. There were moments when I was convinced that all was not yet lost. But reality did sink in.
After climbing the residence stairs, I turned the key in my bedroom door and flipped on the light. The first thing I noticed was Emily’s picture. She was staring at me from a cardboard frame beside my bed. I walked over and sat down, taking the picture in my hands. Then I tore it in two, top to bottom. Then I ripped it again, from side to side. I dropped the four pieces and closed my eyes for a bit. I was very tired. I dragged off my clothes and flung them in a heap onto my chair. I wouldn’t be wearing that outfit again in a hurry. I scattered the pieces of photograph roughly from the bed to the floor with a sweep of my hand, and climbed in. It was as I was lying there on my side studying one of the picture pieces, that I realized something. I leaned out and grabbed the nearest scrap and peeled off the top right corner of Emily. Beneath her picture, was another, now also ripped into four. Part of my dog was staring at me. I scrabbled together the four bits and gazed at the noble trusting face of my beagle. She had been my childhood companion. It was all too much, but happily, between pangs, I began to see some humor. Both bitches had been ripped up, and while one had been a genuine love, the other was clearly something I had concocted. I lay back on the bed and studied the cracks in the ceiling, feeling a momentary twinge of envy for the fruit fly way of life.