Elaine lies on the floor on a futon, and thinks about her brother, Stephen. She wonders if he had ever figured out futons, and thinks about how inexpensive ice cream was when she was a child (five cents as opposed to a dollar). She feels like she has reached the middle of her life, “like the middle of a river, the middle of a bridge”—she feels suspended, as though she is “supposed to be a person of substance, with responsibilities and achievements.” She feels like she’s “sinking back through layers of time and space like layers of liquefied mud.” She hates the city, which she identifies as Toronto, and it becomes clear that she no longer lives there. Toronto has “become a world-class city.”
Elaine’s thoughts about her brother speak to the lasting effect that their friendship had on defining her identity—even doing something as mundane as lying on a futon makes her think about him. This theme of banality extends to the ice cream cone, which illustrates how universal the impact of the passage of time is; nothing escapes its effects. The image of her life as a bridge over the river refers to a specific bridge that she used to live near.
Elaine lives in British Colombia now, which has an unreal landscape, like that of a greeting card. She lives with her husband, Ben, who runs a travel agency. She has two daughters, Sarah and Anne, and thinks about how sensible their names and lives are—she compares their names to Cordelia’s, which may have led to what happened to her. Elaine has a career as a painter, which she sees as a job respectable people would not have, but she does not identify as an artist because she finds it embarrassing—she sees being an artist as something lazy. These days, she sees her life as a narrow escape; it’s “the kind of life that she never thought she would have when she was younger.”
By every standard, it seems that Elaine has achieved an admirable life, and only her sense of insecurity prevents her from taking pride in her life. Elaine’s discomfort with respectability and normalcy becomes clear here, although she does not explain the source of that discomfort. The fact that she prefers to identify as a painter rather than an artist speaks to her discomfort with grand labels or fixed categories, though the reader is left wondering what she sees this life as an escape from.
Elaine has come back to the city for a retrospective showing of her work at an alternative gallery called Sub-Versions, which is run by women, and is annoyed that the Art Gallery of Ontario wouldn’t do it because they favor dead men. She is staying in the apartment of her ex-husband, Jon, a studio on the waterfront. He left a note that said “Blessings” with the key, which she sees as a mark of how much he has “mellowed” since their youth. The neighborhood used to be full of “dingy warehouses,” before being overrun by artists—now a wave of lawyers is coming through, and she predicts that Jon will be forced out.
Given that Elaine is having a retrospective showing of her work, she has clearly had a fairly successful career—however, that career has been somewhat defined, if not limited, by her gender, and Elaine’s frustration points in part to her desire to be taken seriously as an individual rather than a member of a category. Her return to Toronto makes her think about change in terms of gentrification; the city, which used to be poor while she lived there, has become a cosmopolitan hub for artists and elites.
Elaine thinks about the last time she saw Jon, at Sarah’s graduation. They stole away to get lunch and “got plastered,” which confused her husband, Ben, as she used to call that relationship a disaster. She likens the relationship to a traffic accident—"the two survived each other, which counts for something.” Jon used to make avant garde artistic constructions, including pieces made with hair clippings and pieces from his friends’ garbage—now he supports himself doing special effects for movies, making fake “hacked-up” body parts. Elaine wishes that he were there—she does not feel ready to meet strangers, and thinks that the whole thing will be more of a hassle than a source of excitement.
Elaine’s description of her relationship to her ex-husband refers explicitly to the intense conflicts that she had with him, but the closeness that the two maintain indicate that Elaine does not have a singularly negative view on conflict. Despite the violence between Jon and Elaine, their relationship remains integral to her identity. Rather than burying or running away from a catastrophic past, Elaine continues to engage with it—this also speaks to her understanding of time as involving layers that do not disappear, but just accumulate.
Elaine goes into the kitchen to make herself tea, and feels like she has experienced a little jump in time when she finds herself in the main room without knowing how she got there. She then puts on a light blue sweatsuit (her “disguise as a non-artist”) to go look at the gallery. She considers getting glasses instead of contact lenses, but does not want to “look like an old biddy.” She sees a poster with her name on it, “RISLEY IN RETROSPECT,” which someone defaced with a mustache. She admires it, and thinks about male facial hair and their opportunities for disguise and concealment. She wonders if Cordelia will see the poster, and if she will come to the show.
Elaine’s choice of outfit, which she explicitly thinks about as a disguise, proves that she thinks about her social identity as somewhat malleable; using an outfit, she can change the way that people perceive her. However, misperception or alterations of her image do not inherently bother her: when she sees the defaced poster, she thinks more about concealment and men than any sense of offense. The fact that Elaine thinks about Cordelia here, despite no explicit reference to her, emphasizes again the centrality of that relationship and the fact that through memory absence can be as potent as presence.
Elaine thinks about her childhood. She had been happy before they moved to Toronto—her family had lived nomadically, moving from place to place for Elaine’s father’s research. The roads were mostly empty because of the war, and food was rationed. They used to camp out and drink tea and go to the bathroom in the woods, where their father taught them to hide all evidence of their visit by burying toilet paper. They walked through forests so her father could research the spruce budworms—he loved “a beautiful infestation.” They stayed in motels, in tents, or in cabins. They kept their furniture in storage most of the time, so when they briefly stayed in apartments and took it out, it always looked unfamiliar.
This moment provides context about Elaine’s upbringing—on a national and historic level, she grew up during World War II, and the impacts of that on her family appear to have been primarily financial, although the empty roads point to a larger social impact. On a more familial level, her father is a scientific researcher, and their whole family moved around for his work, centering their lives around work and a scientific understanding of the world. Elaine seems comfortable with this rootless and nomadic lifestyle, which could be the effect of nostalgia or an indication that her experiences of settling down, still to come, will be painful.
Elaine’s brother, Stephen, used to play at war with wooden toy guns and swords. He liked to color blood onto the blades with red pencils. He used to sing “Wing and a Prayer,” and they would play war together, although Elaine had to play as the infantry and do everything he said. They also got into secret fights, and the secrecy contributed to a sense of collaboration and collusion. Stephen always won these fights, as he was bigger. One night, Stephen taught her to see in the dark; they were camping out by a fire, far from the war. Elaine thinks that “these are her memories of the dead.”
Although Elaine’s relationship to Stephen appears to have been extremely close, the secret fights that she describes serve two functions: firstly, they lay out a pattern of conflict and intimacy that will define many of Elaine’s later relationships. Secondly, though they may just be childhood games here, they also describe a “children’s world” that exists separately from the world of adults—their parents can’t know about the details of their fights, and this isolation between children and adults will also deeply influence Elaine. When Elaine reflects at the end about the dead, it comes as a bit of a shock to the reader, as she does not clarify who is dead. Besides establishing the theme of mortality, this reminds the reader that Elaine has already lived through this childhood, so any of these memories might be influenced by her later life—just as the past influences the present, the present state of recollection might shape memories of the past.
Elaine remembers a picture taken of her at a motel on her eighth birthday—she knows that she was wearing hand-me-down clothing, but does not remember what she wants, besides pipe cleaners and silver paper from cigarette packages to make “something amazing” with. She also wants a balloon, because she has only seen one—an old balloon Elaine’s mother tucked in the bottom of her steamer trunk before the war, which she takes out when Elaine has the measles; it breaks immediately. She is given a Brownie box camera as her present that year, which she uses to take photos and put into scrapbooks. They live in this motel for weeks, and the war is already over at this point so there is more food. They do schoolwork in notebooks that their mother assigns.
The young Elaine wanted a set of very simple, almost useless objects, like a balloon or the paper from cigarette packs, both because her family was not particularly wealthy and because material resources were more limited during the war. This ability to be more thrifty defines a generational relationship to materials that contrasts with the modern-day consumerism. It’s also significant that Elaine was homeschooled at this point, as it partially explains her discomfort with certain established social institutions. The camera and scrapbook are significant objects, as they allow memories to persist over time—even if Elaine does not remember a particular moment in her past, she might remember a picture, or be able to look at those pictures and know that the moment must have occurred.
In the winter, Stephen and Elaine like to roll around in the snow like puppies, wearing winter shoes that do not fit. Their parents tell them they are finally moving to a real house and settling down for a while. When they get there, the house is in a horrifically downtrodden condition, covered in mud and dead flies and cigarette butts; Elaine’s mother says that they all will have to pitch in to fix up the house. Elaine feels trapped in their new house, and wishes for the rootlessness and impermanence of their old life. They have to sleep in sleeping bags, but Elaine has her own room. The house starts to look like a real house as time passes, but Elaine still thinks that it’s a far cry from picket fences and white curtains, there in their “lagoon of postwar mud.”
The relationship between Elaine and Stephen continues to display a level of energy and intimacy that contradicts strict gender norms—they tussle around with each other, not treating each other as “girls” and “boys” but as siblings. The decision to settle in Toronto marks the first major transition in Elaine’s childhood, overturning many of the norms and expectations from her more nomadic childhood. The association between their settling down and the end of the war further intensifies the connections between the war and her family’s financial situation, and the catastrophic state of the house symbolizes the fact that these consequences are not easily or quickly dismissed: the end of the war does not mean the immediate end of all of its consequences.
Elaine’s father now dresses in jackets and tweed for his job as a university professor, instead of the flannel and heavy pants he wore as a researcher. These days, their house is full of drawings by his students rather than jars of collection samples. He judges the drawings based on their accuracy, whereas Elaine judges them based on color. Elaine and Stephen get to play in the labs in the zoology building on the weekends; they spend time with snakes and cockroaches and rats and get to use the microscopes to look at slides. In private, they like to look at their own scabs and blood under the microscope, but they feel like their curiosity is supposed to be more limited so they keep it secret. From the building, they watch a Santa Claus Parade, their first parade—it changes Elaine’s image of Santa Claus, which she forever connects to the “lizards and smell of formaldehyde.”
The way that Stephen and Elaine play in the zoology building is particularly interesting, because they feel that their scientific interest in their own bodies is somehow taboo—on the one hand, science supports the pursuit of knowledge and development of reason, and on the other they feel that their curiosity should be limited. This feeling is particularly acute for Elaine because of her gender; young girls are not supposed to be interested in scabs or blood, and even Elaine’s genuine interest in those things is influenced by the knowledge that she is crossing social norms. The moment where she views the parade and begins to associate it with formaldehyde provides important insight into the formation of memories—although these associations are not completely random, Elaine also does not have control of them and cannot change her impression once is has been made.