Don’t ask me to explain my relationship with Oso. To be honest, it isn’t that complicated, but I grow weary of the questions. You’ve known him how long? All my life. We were baptized on the same day in the same Anglican church. You’ve never been married. Wait. How many kids do you have? We’ve never been married; we have three children together. We’re friends who live in separate houses. The children accept this because they must. Now that they’re older, they walk the five blocks in between our buildings. During school breaks, they run back and forth multiple times a day. Sometimes, Oso cooks for me and, occasionally, I cook for him. We’re friends. We’re best friends. But we can’t live together. Or, if I want to be honest, I should say Oso is the one who can’t live with me.
This Christmas, we packed the kids off to their grandparents’ house in Portland. The next day, we met a group of longtime friends at the airport, ready to have our annual adult vacation. Only Cecilia, the wildly popular self-pubbed author of children’s comic novels, had to fly in for our confab from a book-signing in New York. The rest drove in from their scattered places in Washington state. We kissed; we hugged. After squeezing our respective vehicles on the street outside my building, we went out for Indian food and drank far too much wine.
While staggering back to my place, Oso held my hand and slipped it in his coat pocket. I was used to this sort of affectionate display from him–his manner of owning me without actually being my owner–and his touch caused my chest to convulse on the icy air. Oso let go of my hand and thumped on my back.
“Watch it, there, Julia,” Claire said. “Oso’s giving you convulsions again. He had better cease and desist.”
Claire was the eldest among us–she was our history teacher back in school–and her white hair was capped with a red hat. By this time, she wasn’t merely a retired teacher of history, still dear friends with her loony, scattered students, but oracle to her core group–her inner sanctum of history nerds. Her sharp warnings, often taken as humorous, left undeniable bites. Her figurative teeth had morphed into canine fangs.
“Julia’s fine, she’s always fine.” So said Oso. So said Oso perpetually.
The white air hung heavily around the Christmas lights such that all of our heads seemed ringed with halos. Ah, we were all angels in some pageant, but the play didn’t involve me. It never had, even though we had all decided my apartment should be this year’s meeting place.
We took our wool-coated, winter weaving figures laughing into my stairwell. It was either laugh or cry for most of us, except for Cecilia, who had decided long ago that romantic relationships were for the birds–maybe the bees, too, but definitely not for her. All told, there were six of us, the other two being men I’ve decided to leave as shadowy nether figures for the purpose of this story. But it’s a fine point to make that we were three males and three females, all crammed into my stairwell, then in my tiny two-bedroom apartment.
We piled blankets and pillows on the floor and broke out three more bottles of wine. As Oso yanked out the corks, I caught Claire subtly rubbing her back and groaning.
“Are you all right, Claire?” I asked.
“Oh, fine, just too old for our slumber parties, as much as I enjoy them. This may be the last time I sleep on the floor. Didn’t you say your kids were in Portland? I’m sure I could fit on the bunk bed.”
“You could sleep in my bed,” I told her.
“No. I’m sure you and Oso will want to share that.”
I turned around before I could catch Oso’s expression. These days, he would do anything not to sleep with me. I suspected he was in love with somebody else, but didn’t care to ask. In fact, tears filled my eyes from out of nowhere–wasn’t I done crying over Oso? I walked all of ten paces to the laundry closet and shoved clothes from the net bag into the washer. For reasons still unknown to me, I pulled off my outer clothes down to my undershirt and shoved those in the wash, too. I watched the water fill the drum before realizing the party had gone silent.
I was half-naked, and in front of my friends, too. I forced a smile and spun around on tip-toe. “What a fool I am,” I said.
“You don’t know what a fool is until you self-edit and self-publish your novels,” said Cecilia. “We’re talking minus the darling panties and tank top.”
“It’s my nightly routine. I forgot you were here.”
Claire rose, creaky noises and all, and wrapped a blanket around me. Oso had disappeared with the other men–that explained the silence and lack of gamely puns about my strip show. From the kids’ bedroom, I heard the record player oozing out scratched, honey sounds. Oso’s Janet–his favourite singer. He’d met her once, twice, three times at different spots around the world. Her family was friendly with his.
I dropped the blanket and stood in the bedroom doorway and stared at the mess the kids had left behind–dirty clothes, scattered papers, books. The three men gazed at the album cover, at the willowy golden-honey Janet. Oso glanced at me, and then turned back to the cover–black-headed Oso, stretching his burly body on the incongruously small child’s bed, our gangly and shadowy men friends hovering near his authoritarian air. Oso always had his way. Always.
“Is there something wrong with me?” I asked.
Oso didn’t look up this time. “You’re fine,” he said.
And the record played, as though caught on Janet’s voice, “You’ve got to show your feelings, feelings. You’ve got to show your feelings.”
“I hate this music,” I told him.
Claire touched my shoulder. Claire’s presence couldn’t be avoided, and even Oso looked up at her.
“Janet and I’ll be in Australia at the same time in January,” Oso said. “Our flight paths will intersect. It can’t be a coincidence, can it, Claire?”
Claire pursed her lips together. “No, Oso, I think not. There is no such thing as coincidence.”
With that, Claire took my hand and led me from my children’s room.