It was February a few years ago when Fiona moved in next door, with her accordion and zydeco repertoire. And though I would have normally defended a woman’s right to practice her instrument, play it and generally follow her bliss, at the beginning I thought the 5:00 a.m. renditions of Follow Me Chicken might drive me mad.
To be fair it was, and still is, a building of artists, actors, writers and musicians, all of us slightly insane and near starvation, and it was wonderful how the music in the evening spilled out through the open windows, onto Parker Street, where in the warmer months, many in the neighbourhood congregated for free nightly concerts of rap, classical and jazz, each played at the same time, overlapping into a splendid symphony, to which the locals rumbled, loved and danced.
I still live here, writing obsessively that which goes mostly unpublished, loving my view of the street and its sounds, and being a part of a threadbare but artistic neighbourhood, which will soon be bought up by an artless moneyed class, wanting to live vicariously through the starving creators and performers they displace through gentrification and the introduction of Best Buy and Whole Foods stores.
Anyway, the relationship between Fiona and I sort of unfolded like this:
Like so many writers, I worked into the small single digit hours, when the spiders of mind come out to creep, then I slept past noon every day. Fiona on the other hand, rose early to get to her job at a coffeehouse in the financial district, where she worked long hours slinging espresso drinks, adorning each cappuccino and latte with her celebrated foamy art, to the delight of her crooked chintzy-tipping stockbroker clientele.
Then, in the evening, after only a short break, she would work one gig or another with her all girl band, Pussy Zydeco. This left her with only the hour between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. in which to practice.
(By the way, I know what you’re thinking, and how an all-woman zydeco band gets regular gigs in this town is anyone’s guess.)
Our first conversation on the subject of her sleep-disrupting habit took place at her door on February 2nd of that year, after the gaudy sound of her warming-up her instrument first passed like a ghost through my wall.
It shocked me out of sleep, and into a panic attack. Disoriented, I asked all of the important questions: Was it an air raid siren I was hearing? Was there even such a thing, anymore? If so, was it signalling a nuclear attack? Had the kitschy little Republic of North Korea finally gone berserk? Were we all about to be transformed into mere sidewalk shadows on that frosty morning, before the little brown birds of winter had their chance to sing?
Bizarrely, it was an accordion.
Being played next door.
In an instant I’d pulled on my jeans and was knocking at her door, ready to demand silence. But when a woman, with a red, pearly keyed accordion bridled to her front, opened the door, I was made speechless by her startling beauty.
The building manager had told me that Fiona was moving in, and I’d heard her directing movers the day before. But this was the first time she and I had met, face to face.
“Hi,” I said, weakly, rubbing an eye with a knuckle. Then, “Uh, good morning.”
“It has possibilities,” she said.
“You’re a musician.”
“Yes,” she said.
“But it’s 4:55 a.m.”
“Yes, it’s always an early start for me,” she said. “I know I should still be in bed, but it’s a sacrifice I make for my music.”
I wanted to protest, but couldn’t. Instead, I stood hypnotised by the soft gift-giving gaze of her simple hazel eyes, her long ginger hair and the grace with which her neck drifted elegantly into her strapping, load-bearing shoulders. Then there was the succulent cleavage, visible just above the accordion’s bellows between the v-shaped boundaries of her gauzy India blouse, and accentuated by the pressure placed upon her bosom by her ample instrument.
I imagined her then, moving in her apartment alone, like a delicate wraith to the sound of her own music. In my mind, she was a squeezebox ballerina, au naturel except for where I imagined the to-and-fro mechanics of her instrument made personal protection necessary.
But then I saw the extraordinary thing that sealed my love for her, forever. It was the blood red, black outlined valentine tattoo, the size of a dime on her left cheek, pierced by an arrow, straight and true.
“Got a camera, mister?” she said. “I’ll give you a minute to go get it. Then you can take a picture.”
“No,” I said, looking down at the hall carpet, at a cigarette burn I hadn’t seen before. “I’m sorry. I’m not a starer. I don’t stare, I mean, normally. It’s just that it’s very early.”
“And you should be in bed,” she said.
“Yeah, I just live next door.” — Irrelevant, I know.
“Then you’ve not got miles to go before you sleep.”
I’d been dismissed, and she was right. My door was ajar, and the rumpled linen of the bed I hadn’t made in a week awaited me, so I turned without complaint and did the zombie shuffle home. There, I lay down and looked at the ceiling, as the bayou melodies began again.
So, resolving the matter of the early morning music was made impossible by infatuation, mine that is, and I spent the following days waking to syncopated renditions of Geno Delafose and Queen Ida tunes.
Later I’d peek through my window blinds, and watch Fiona as she walked out onto the street, on her way to work.
I’d become captivated by her walk, the way she would hoist the strap of her bag up onto her shoulder, her head held high and everything in motion from the shoulders down. She would stand at the corner of Parker and Commercial Drive and demand the traffic stop, by virtue of her posture alone. The world was hers, as she strode importantly, and without pretense.
I knew, though, that I was the bug who lived next door. But bug or not, love was love, and I had to have Fiona for my own. If she only knew how I listened at her door as she slept, I know she’d have appreciate just how deep my feelings were for her.
My aching for Fiona only increased as February began to rapidly vanish. Valentine’s Day approached, and I became determined that the 14th wouldn’t pass without action.
Soon I had a plan, the foundation of which was a love poem I would write. I knew that most poems of deep meaning took years, even decades to write, but it was already the 12th. I had only two more days. I’d have to trust my passion to guide me.
I started to compose my poem to Fiona in the lonely hours long before dawn, before I would hear through my wall the wheezy sound of her instrument being removed from its case. In the dim lamp light, and with only a pencil and paper, I began to write, accompanied by the sound of a solo horn, heard from an upper floor, playing a jazz ballad as soft and as sad as falling snow.
The poem, I decided, would be entitled, my zydeco valentine. (Lower case, by the way, wherever possible, always makes the title of a poem seem more profound.)
I worked steadily for 48 hours, and was ready to recite my work on the morning of V Day. It was my magnum opus. Visions of beatniks had danced in the air as I wrote, along with Goethe, Shelley and Byron. The piece would eclipse the power and profundity of every poem that preceded it. I was no longer dandruff on the shoulders of giants. Now I would be a giant; I’d make Fiona melt.
But how and where to deliver my verse?
The answer to the question came as I watched her leave for work that Valentine’s Day morning. Gazing at her from out of my window, I struggled to put on my coat. Once outside, I followed her at a safe distance.
Now I’d chosen how to give her the poem, and she’d not only be surprised and honoured when I put it into her hand, but maybe even a bit bashful. Her female coworkers would be envious, and every man present would know that he had failed his own lover by being so incapable of creating such a masterpiece.
I took a different bus than hers, and arrived moments after she had donned her apron. Outside, it was rain mixed with snow, so customers were soggy and impatient. Fiona, on the other hand, was cheerful, confident and industrious, executing perfect daffodils, rosebuds and butterflies in the froth of every cappuccino, latte and café mocha. It made her damp patrons smile, and I held her in such high regard that I fell into a glorious state of euphoria, knowing that I was about to make her my own.
There were five people ahead of me when I got into line, holding Fiona’s poem in my moist hand. Things were moving nicely until a plump junior executive in a bad suit ordered hot breakfast bagels and pour-overs for four. The chunky bastard had slowed down the line. People were looking at their watches, and tapping their toes. That’s when self-doubt set in. Until that moment, I’d believed that simply handing the poem over would be easy. The longer I waited, however, the more I wanted to run.
After several long moments, I finally made it to the counter to face Fiona, and caught myself staring once more at the valentine tattoo on her cheek.
“It’s you!” she said, when she saw me. “The little geek from next door.”
Fellow employees snuck peeks over their shoulders.
“Yes,” I said, and looked at the folded sheet of paper in my hand. Then looking up, I said, “I came to say I love you.” — What!?! It just slipped out of my mouth. I was obviously possessed. Fiona’s eyes got hard and squinty. I knew I had to backtrack, and rescue us both.
“I mean I want a double Americano,” I said.
“You get that order, Wendy?” she said. Our eyes had locked. “Double Americano.”
“Yup,” Wendy snickered, and started the drink.
Fiona was oozing a blunt and unexpected hostility.
“Are you stalking me?” she said.
“No,” I replied — a stab at incredulity. “This is the first time I’ve ever even been here. What makes you say that?”
“For some guys, just showing up amounts to stalking. Are you one of them?”
“Pffft, of course not.” I shoved the poem into my pocket. “I’m a writer, a poet. I belong in a coffeehouse.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But not in mine. Get it?”
Wendy placed the Americano in front of her, and Fiona pushed it across the counter to me.
“Five bucks,” she said.
This, I hadn’t foreseen. I patted my pockets. I had $2.37.
“Is there a problem here?” said a beefy man, coming up from behind the counter. His nametag read, Manager Bob.
“There was a problem,” Fiona said. “But he’s leaving. After he pays.”
“I seem to be short,” I said.
“Then good-bye,” said Fiona, taking the coffee back. “And don’t let me see you in the hall, when I get home.”
“Yeah, uh okay. I guess I’ll go to Starbucks.”
I turned and walked away, defeat sticking to me like a gummy coating of mouldy caramel macchiato.
Outside, I ducked under an awning, and took a quick inventory of my fatal failings. I was an obnoxious, puffed-up, self-absorbed wanker who people preferred avoiding. I was soft and unattractive, flabby even, from sitting all day, trying to write prose and poetry of importance, and failing. In spite of this, I was fool enough to believe I could entice a woman like Fiona into my little, meaningless life.
I pulled the poem out of my pocket, tore it in two and let it fall into a puddle. There it could drown, for all I cared.
Then as I began to walk away, a truck sped by, through a large puddle the size of a carp pond, and a huge wave of oily water rose up and fell over me. It was the final humiliation. There was a blunt razor in the bathroom cabinet at home. Too blunt to shave with, but still sharp enough for my purposes. Wasn’t it expected of every writer that he eventually commit suicide? My time had come.
Trying to shake off the water, I carried on, then felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. There waiting for me stood a small rain-soaked old man in a tattered raincoat, with the two torn halves of my poem in his hand.
“This yours, fella?” he said.
“Didn’t you just drop it? I think you’re a litter bug.”
“No,” I said. “I’m very environmentally conscious.”
“Then take it,” the old man said. “Take it and put it where it belongs, in the garbage.”
In the garbage? My poem belonged in the garbage? A new light had been shed. I snatched the two pieces of paper out of his hand.
“Off with you, old man,” I said, at last finding the indignation necessary to re-enter the coffeehouse. “Go pull some posters off a lamppost, you mothball-stinking Precambrian geezer.”
“Hey!” I heard him say as I walked away. “I was a Rotarian, once.”
It was muggy, crowded and close in the coffeehouse when I returned. I climbed up and stood on the only empty stool I could find, unfolded the two halves of the poem, and held them together. Then I shouted over the noisy crowd —
“This is a love poem for Fiona.”
No one stopped talking, so I yelled even louder —
“A love poem, I say! For Fiona.”
In a moment the room went quiet, except for some soft coughing. The last words spoken came from a petite older woman who said, “What the hell…?”
Then I began.
“It’s called my zydeco valentine.”
(some more subdued coughing, then silence)
“Shit.” I heard Fiona say, from behind the counter.
All valentine faced, as you are
How you haunt my love-empty rooms
I ask thee to be with me
On my journ-ey
To our destin-y
Let me squeeze your accordi-on
We’ll walk into the sun
Ignoring the weather
Both light as a feather
I love you Fiona
Silence. All eyes were on me. In the distance, a coffee cup was heard breaking on the floor.
“Is that it?” someone hollered from the back of the room. “I never know for sure when a poem ends.”
“Yes,” I said, and bowed.
“Who’s Fiona?” someone else shouted. “I knew a Fiona, once. She was a prison guard. Retired to Florida. Has nine cats. Is that who you mean?”
“No, ma’am. I mean….”
“Don’t you say it!” Fiona screeched. “Someone call the police.”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Manager Bob stepped in and tackled me to the floor. It was a long fall from such a great height, and I landed on top of him. Then he applied a hammerlock, and repeated Fiona’s call out for the police.
I struggled madly, but literary genius and physical strength rarely strive hand-in-hand.
Fiona came up and gave me a kick, as I lay there with Bob’s hairy arm round my neck.
“You’re sick,” she sneered. “And that’s the worst Valentine’s Day poem ever written.”
“She’s right,” I heard someone in the crowd say.
“Don’t quit yer day job,” laughed another.
Almost immediately, I heard a hiss at the counter as milk began to be steamed once more.
* * * * *
Fiona moved out at the end of the following month, which made complying with my restraining order much easier. Soon after, I began to write my novella about my relationship with her, our joys, our aspirations and our heartbreaks. They say novellas sell best nowadays, now that no one has time for entire novels.
I call it my zydeco princess.
A literary agent named Maxine said she might be interested, whenever it’s finished. Maxine always wears pantsuits, and drives an old mint condition Mercedes convertible. She has the sad blue eyes of a person full of unresolved hurt.
Maxine walks her Schnauzer, Fritz, every morning at 7:30. In the evening, she likes to go to foreign movies, and eat at good restaurants. I think the men she dates are sort of creepy, though. Sycophantic morons who compensate with expensive suits and shoes.
Sometimes, I put coins in her parking meters, when they run out of time. I try really hard to be there when it happens. I even polish her hubcaps, occasionally, when she’s in watching a movie. She doesn’t know that I do it. She doesn’t need to. Just call me Mr Invisible.
I’m writing her a poem.