A Lady Under Siege
Author:B.G. Preston

9

Having banished Betsy to the deck, Seth and Meghan moved to the living room for their talk. “I hate having to raise my voice to her like that,” he said as he settled onto the couch. “But it’s the only thing that gets her attention. I’ve been very sharp with her at our place. The house, I mean. Used to be our place. I still call it that.”

Meghan sat in a chair across from him. “She doesn’t like being there, she’s made that clear. It makes her feel creepy to be there and I’m not,” she said. “Her biggest complaint is when she tries to go to sleep at night she has to listen to you and your girlfriend in bed in the next room, giggling and God knows what else. Couldn’t you at least make sure she’s fallen asleep before you go at it?”

“Yes, well, it’s a bit of a moot point, really,” said Seth. “Soon enough there’ll be plenty more night-time noises to disrupt her, because what I came by to tell you, in person, is, Irena is pregnant.”

Seth was a professor of comparative literature at York University, and Irena had been one of his undergraduate students. She’d flirted with him, and he’d encouraged it, but had known better than to act on it while she was still enrolled in one of his classes. On the first day after term ended and the marks were in, she was at his office door. “Now you’re free to see more of me,” she’d said. Soon enough they were meeting almost daily, at his office, her apartment, even at the house near Lawrence and Yonge he and Meghan had bought with a generous down payment from his parents. Meghan never caught on—it was Irena who forced Seth’s hand, making him choose between her and his wife, and by that time he was addicted to her—the affair stirred his blood, and made him feel alive and virile. So Meghan moved out, Irena moved in, and he had a lot of explaining to do, to friends, family, and colleagues. He liked to say Irena was a “mature student,” all of twenty-six, so there could be no stigma about it. He was forty-one. And now he was going to be a father again.

Meghan stared at him, but he avoided her eyes.

“Oh Jesus,” she said.

“Yep. We’re going to have a baby, we’re going to get married, the whole bit.”

“You sound so enthused,” she said sarcastically.

“I want to be. I should be. The timing’s not great.”

“You stumble from disaster to disaster,” she said. “Or maybe you repeat things on a ten year cycle.”

There did seem to be a pattern to it, or at least a repetition. A little more than a decade earlier, when Meghan was twenty-one and an undergraduate, she’d taken a course in creative writing at U of T, led by Seth, who was then a PhD student. He came from money, and seemed tremendously sophisticated, well-travelled and worldly to her, a girl from small-town eastern Ontario—Fenolen Falls to be exact. It was an evening class, and a bunch of students went out afterward to a place where undergrads shared pitchers of beer. Seth joined them, and talked almost exclusively to Meghan, and later took her back to his place, where they made sloppy, drunken love. Three nights later they did it again, only sober this time. Prior to this her love life had consisted of a few casual and unsatisfying dorm party hook-ups, so she was feeling like Seth was a major advance, a breakthrough—her first adult romance. They slept together twice a week for three weeks until she figured out he already had a girlfriend, and confronted him. “I’ve dropped her,” he said. “Oh? When?” “Now.” After that, they saw each other every night, and within two months Betsy happened—an accident, obviously. Seth expressed true love while lobbying for an abortion, and Meghan had agreed to it, had made the appointment, but at the last minute couldn’t bring herself to go through with it. And that’s how Betsy came to be.

“Betsy’s not a disaster,” he protested. “You could say congratulations. She’s going to have a sister.”

“Half sister.”

“I want you and Irena to get along.”

“I should be friends with the woman who destroyed my marriage.”

“I destroyed our marriage,” he said, looking at her finally.

“Is that the new version? The first was, you were too weak, and she came on too strong. She did know you were married, even if you forgot.”

“You’ll need to forgive her, and me. And in time you will. Give me some credit, I helped set you on your life’s path. You were just an aimless girl taking vague courses toward a useless degree, I’m the one who saw talent in your drawing and got you into OCA.” There was truth in this—prodded by Seth she had switched to the Ontario College of Art to study design and illustration, juggling classes and motherhood through her early twenties, while most of her peers were partying it up. But she was in no mood to give credit.

“Thank you, Mister Svengali, I’d be nowhere without you.”

They locked eyes for a moment. Seth looked away first. Being a man, he hated emotional scenes like this. He’d said what he needed to say, and was actually relieved when Meghan said, “You should go now.”

She moved to the front door and opened it for him. On the doorstep he turned and said, “I think Betsy will like spending time with us, once she has a sister. More of a family environment.”

“Goodbye.” Meghan slammed the door on him. She leaned her forehead against it, and composed herself. After a moment she walked back through the living room, and the phone rang. Without thinking she picked it up. It was work, more specifically her friend and workmate Jan, catching her up on the latest rumours about job cuts and rolling heads. Nothing new or substantial to report, just Jan venting, mostly, until she remembered the real reason she had phoned, that a meeting about a book cover Meghan was working on had been moved up to tomorrow. She’d need something to present by ten in the morning.

“Can you do it?” Jan asked.

“Yes of course. I’ll be up half the night though.”

“Don’t kill yourself over it.”

“I have better reasons to kill myself,” said Meghan. “Though I’d rather kill Seth right now.”

That started a whole other conversation, and by the time she hung up the phone, and went to the kitchen and looked at the clock, she realised with a shock thirty minutes had passed. Betsy. Through the backdoor window she could see her daughter happily bounding up and down in the air. Up and down, on what? A trampoline. She opened the door and took in the sight of her neighbour Derek watching her daughter from his back yard. His elbows rested on top of the fence and he was drinking beer from a can.

“One, two, three, go for it, Bets!” he shouted encouragingly.

Betsy did a full forward somersault and landed on her feet. Her face was flushed with excitement and pride as she rebounded skyward.

Meghan called out, “Betsy!”

At the top of her trajectory, Betsy met her mother’s gaze. Her body froze, and completely forgetting herself she came down hard, catching her feet on the metal edge of the trampoline. It pitched downward and catapulted her—she frantically waved her arms and legs for balance, but in an instant she’d been projected like a missile, head first onto the lawn, crash-landing in a full-on face plant of the kind that wins prizes on Funniest Home Video shows.

Meghan raced over to her in a panic. “Are you alright, are you alright?” she cried out, but Betsy was already pulling herself to her feet. She batted her mom’s helping hands away, shouting, “I’m fine. I’m fine! I’m not hurt at all.”

“Let me look at you.”

Betsy felt her lips. “I’ve got grass in my mouth,” she said. “But it really didn’t hurt.”

“Grass and dirt,” said Meghan. “All over your face.”

“Think they used pesticides on it?” Betsy asked.

“I don’t know,” said Meghan.

Derek piped up. “Nah, the last owners never used anything. They just left it, more or less. They were really old, sweet ancient people. Deaf as posts, both of them—the ideal neighbours for me. Then he died and she had to go into a home.”

“Derek gave me the trampoline,” said Betsy excitedly. “Do you like it?”

“No,” said Meghan, bristling at the idea that the two of them were on a first name basis. “It’s old and decaying and I’m sure it wouldn’t pass safety standards.”

“But it’s fun!” Betsy protested.

“It’s dangerous. I don’t want it.”

“Did Daddy leave? You told me I could do anything I wanted once you finished your talk.”

“He left, and yes, that’s true, I did say that, but—”

“Then I get to keep the trampoline,” she trumpeted. She sang it over and over, like a victory song. “I get to keep the trampoline! I get to keep the trampoline!”

“We’ll see,” Meghan told her. “No promises. Go inside and get your face cleaned up, and let me talk to our neighbour for a minute.”

Betsy ran into the house. Derek took a final swig from his beer and dropped the empty into the dirt behind him.

“I see you two have made fast friends,” she said coolly.

“Lovely girl. Full of life,” he answered.

“Yes, she is. And the key to that is to let her win some battles sometimes. I wish I didn’t have to let her win this one. But I’m afraid I do.”

“Excellent plan,” said Derek. “Compromise is essential to civilized life. Without it we’re just animals.”

Meghan let that pass without comment. She was tempted to say, Yes, and speaking of animals, last night I saw you rutting like one. But the way he looked down at her over the fence put her on the defensive, as if he were the judge and she the one on trial, when it should have been the other way round. She stood as tall as she could and said, “You weren’t very civilized last night.”

“Was I rude?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Then I’m sorry. I don’t remember it all that well.”

“You were yelling at me in my window.”

“I was responding to someone yelling down at me, as I recall.”

“But I wasn’t rude. You were.”

“And I’ve apologized. I was inebriated, so I wasn’t myself. Except that I usually am inebriated, so I guess I was myself. In any case we did kill the noise and put out the party lights, just for you, more or less. I hope you got back to sleep?”

He was smirking—as if he knew she’d watched him and that girl going at it on the picnic table. Meghan said, “Yes I did, thank you.”

Derek looked toward her house. “Betsy loves the trampoline.”

“She’s got a bike helmet, and knee and elbow pads from a brief interest in skateboarding,” said Meghan. “I’m going to make sure she wears them. Are you sure this thing is safe?”

“When it was new, it was top of the line, it’s not some cheapy Chinese knock-off. It’s not new now, obviously—I salvaged it from the trash but I gave it a good going-over.”

“I think I might buy her a new one,” she mused.

“You look like the environmentalist type,” he said. “Throwing out things that still work should be sin number one.”

“But peace of mind trumps all. If you were a parent, you’d understand.”

“Don’t make it sound like privileged information,” he said.

“I didn’t mean to sound that way.”

“It’s common knowledge people worry about their loved ones.”

Just then Betsy, her face freshly scrubbed, came bounding onto the deck and down to the lawn.

“Well?” she said expectantly.

“You can keep it,” Meghan said. “I might get you a new one instead though.”

“Yippee,” Betsy shouted. The hug she gave her mother was the most joyful, unselfconscious, and heartfelt embrace she’d given in a long, long time.