We’re sitting at a bar. Viola and I. Across from us is Miley, Viola’s friend from high school, and Miley’s husband. Aside from a few fries on Viola’s plate, we’re done with dinner and are sipping from our second round of drinks. They’re discussing the film we just watched. According to them—the husband suggests this tidbit and the ladies approve—the film had a marvelous storyline with a very, very, very (three times, with increasing intensity) sad ending.
Miley turns to me in an attempt to pull me into the conversation. Her hand, holding a cocktail glass, wobbles. “How did you like the movie?”
“I really don’t understand how you guys can take such subject matter seriously. A Shakespearean rip-off no doubt. And a bad one at that.” Their questioning eyes compel me to explain further. “Come on! Two feuding families and a lover from each side? We’ve seen this before.”
Miley’s husband moves his index finger horizontally, as if to ask me to rewind. “It’s a what?”
“Shakespearean rip-off,” I repeat, louder.
“Sounds like milk shake,” Miley cackles, sipping her drink.
I turn to Viola. I know she hates it when I criticize her friends, but here I have a point. “Viola dear, help me out.”
Under the diffuse light, Viola is beautiful. Short hair becomes her, makes her look perkier. She didn’t believe me when I first told her this. But for at least the last year, she hasn’t believed much of anything I have to say.
“Who is this Shakespeare fella, honey?” she asks.
It could be that they’re conspiring. To make fun of me. But Viola has never been good at acting or pretending. She levels her stare, genuinely waiting for an answer. The strap of her bra shows on her shoulder. This is a bra for “decorative” purposes only. It doesn’t hold anything in place after the surgery. She thinks I don’t like her this way. She doesn’t believe me when I say I do.
“William?” I spit it out.
“Now we know The Shake is a guy.” Miley’s sneer manages to mar her glossy red lips. She wipes away the stain.
“Honey, is he one of those obscure directors whose films you complain you can’t find on Netflix?”
At this point, I’m clueless as to what to do next. I settle for Googling “Shakespeare” and showing them his picture, the famous white-collared mugshot, his immense forehead and drowsy eyes. Viola hates it when I fiddle with my phone, especially in the presence of others, particularly her friends. Since her diagnosis, I’ve been trying to abide by her rules. Now, however, I can’t let this pass.
I extract my phone and while bringing it to life, say, “He’s a playwright. Honey, I know how you frown upon it when I fuss with my phone but this matter needs to–”
The phone is in my hand, tipped towards Viola. But my grasp is getting looser and the phone is slipping. Prompted by my awed expression or the imminent threat of dousing my phone in olive oil and vinegar, Viola grabs it. She looks at the screen.
Your search—Shakespeare—did not match any documents.
We’re a couple of blocks away, in the car, before Viola begins venting.
“What the fuck was that?” She enunciates the words and with each utterance thrusts her head forward.
“Viola, you don’t understand—”
“Of course, it’s only you who understands.”
“I don’t understand it either.” I turn to look at her, to establish eye contact. “It’s a different level of not understanding. And if that calms you down, mine is much more troubling.”
“Even when you don’t understand, that’s a different level of not understanding,” she scoffs. “No, what would calm me down is if you’d stop being a snob and join us in a normal conversation. One day it’s a dead singer coming back to life, next day a fucking writer is suddenly lost. Get out of your cocoon of conspiracy theories. Your illusions. Funny, I remember you were the one to keep pushing me to leave the house and mingle.”
She’s right. A slew of people were mobilized to lure her out of our home, but I was the most insistent. She has every right to be angry. I acted childishly. But, in my defense, it was childish only if we actually lived in a world where Shakespeare had never existed.
I consider recounting the plots of Shakespeare’s plays to see if Viola recognizes any of them. As I’m wondering which one to start with, her head turns to her right, meaning—as I’ve painfully learned in our years together—do not disturb.
Viola’s bra gets stuck under the door as I enter the bedroom. I pick it up and place it on top of her drawer. She’s already in bed, tucked beneath the blanket. I’ve spent about an hour in the living room on the Internet. My search for “Hamlet” brought the English meaning of the word, “Macbeth” was no more than a historical figure, and “The Merchant of Venice” pointed me to some Italian company specializing in exporting pasta. I checked my favorite bookmarked websites for new conspiracy theories but found nothing more than rehashing of the same speculations on 9/11, human-made diseases, mind-controlling radio waves, and the still-living Elvis Presley’s clandestine whereabouts.
By the time I change into my pajamas and slide into bed, I’m convinced that something is seriously awry. I inch towards Viola and gently spoon her. I can tell she’s awake.
“Do you remember our first date?”
Her raspy whisper barely reaches my ear. “What’s your point?”
“Not the flirting and coffees. The real date. The one we dressed up for.” I slip my hand under her top, careful not to approach her chest. “The one where we kissed for the first time.”
“Don’t even think about it.” This time, she’s so loud I could’ve heard her from the living room.
Sex, she means. The last time her Tamoxifen-decreased libido gave us a chance, it was after such a long time. Things started slowly and they gradually picked up. Alternating between romance and passion, we took turns as we were used to. The spell broke when she was riding me and, in a split second, I raised my hands, as if by instinct, to cup her absent breasts. At the time, I thought I was fast enough to withdraw my hands. But something in her eyes changed, died, and almost simultaneously, I went soft inside her.
It’s been two months.
“It was a ballet, our first date.” I roll over, lying supine. “Romeo and Juliet.”
It feels like losing someone to sudden death. You wish you’d known them better, had settled some sort of unfinished business. The more I excavate my brain, the less I remember about Shakespeare. I try to do my best with the little I have. I survey students, patrons in the Chapters bookstores, clerks, professors at University of Toronto and Ryerson. No one has heard the name. The savvier the person, the more vehemently they deny his existence. It would be a slight to their erudition not to recognize “the most famous playwright of all time” as I introduce him.
It’s well past noon when I resort to the Toronto Reference Library to continue my solo and so-far-futile investigation. Naturally—I already find it natural—the middle-aged woman behind the information desk winces at the name, consults with her peers, and reads something on her computer screen. She delays her definite response by wiping some invisible dirt off her skirt, as if looking for a sign of Shakespeare on her thigh, or so I think. At the end she asks, “Have you checked British Drama section?” Anticipating my next question, she adds, “The fourth floor, in front of the elevators.”
To the fourth floor I go, riding the round, glassed-in elevator. The drama shelves are in a rather secluded area, raising my hope that perhaps whatever plague the world is afflicted with, these forgotten shelves have remained immune to it. Soon I’m inundated by names—Bernard Shaw, Shaffer, Eliot, Pinter, Beckett, Yeats—names that immediately ring familiar, each occupying their turf, a decent share of the space. But there’s nothing here I came for, there’s no dwarfing and humbling of these luminaries against the missing sun.
I extract volumes of books, mostly encyclopedias and dictionaries of that period, and kneel on the floor. I leaf through them, first gently then more aggressively. I don’t need millions of results on Google; I don’t need rows of books; I’m happy with a mention somewhere in the bowels of these aisles, in the footnotes of any of these books. The first time my hurried thumb tears a page, I flinch in disbelief. The subsequent times though I’m doing it half-purposefully, taking pleasure in the revenge I’m leveling against I don’t know who or what. As if these books are in collusion for whatever happened to their missing neighbors.
When the security guards find me, I’m surrounded by a mess of ruined books. They escort me to the management office. When they ask for my incentive, I only shake my head, tired of explaining. They keep me there for two hours until they assess the damage, fine me in the hundreds of dollars, and let me go.
Aimlessly I lurch towards The Balzac Café next to the library, pull out a chair and stare at people. It’s past five in the evening. People trickle out of their offices, populate the streets and some of them spill into the café. Their chatter interweaves, creating a constant drone. Everyone seems to be at ease, in collective neglect, living in a Shakespeare-less world, as if he never mattered.
Next to me, there’s a round table with four chairs, three of which are occupied by older women in similarly long, drab outfits. They are busy stirring their mugs. Their hair, long and white, reaches below their shoulders. What catches my attention is their striking contrast to the other patrons, the nonchalant way they’re comfortable with themselves. Oblivious to the comings and goings around them, they’re engaged in an incessant conversation of which I hear only snippets. It’s all about a casserole one of them made or the new words the grandson of another has recently spoken. The banality of their chatter merges with the mechanical manner they stir their steaming drinks. For a moment, my Shakespeare-obsessed mind transforms them into the witches in Macbeth, their mugs morphing into a boiling cauldron. And just as immediately, the vision dissipates. I’m reminded that I can never bring this resemblance up to anyone, not in this café, not in this world, not even to my wife.
They rise, and their table is soon taken over by a group of loud students. My eyes follow the women as they push the glass door open and step out. Now, they’re staring at something behind the door that I cannot see. One of them is showing something to the others, illustrating an imaginary shape with her hands as her friends nod. Then, they shuffle onto the pavement and are swallowed up by the hasty crowd.
Curious, I stumble out and notice a corkboard hanging where the old woman’s fingers pointed. It’s overflowing with colorful ads: private tutors, studios to sublet, indie concerts, documentary festivals, used furniture for sale, and one Q&A session with a celebrated writer, a certain Will Shane, whose successful novel has recently been turned into a film: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told! The session happens tonight at seven, next door. It’s open to the public.
That night seven years ago, after we watched Juliet miming her grief over Romeo’s faked death on pointe shoes, Viola and I went for a stroll along King Street. It buzzed with noise and booze. I knew she lived in a condo down King West and, in a sense, I was walking her home. When we got there, she took my hand and looked me brashly in the eyes. “Thanks for tonight.”
She was going to start her next sentence, when I blurted the line I’d practiced in my head. “Which one is your window? You know, for Romeo to serenade you from beneath.”
She crooked her mouth, a gesture I later learned meant hesitation, or a display of it. “Well, since our families aren’t at war, it might be safe for you to come up and have a coffee.”
Her single-bedroom unit felt so homey with bamboo sticks and plants of various kinds—jades, money trees, ferns, calatheas—scattered around, warm colored couches covered in cushions. She still had her black dress on, the one that accentuated her curves. After a cup of coffee, a short obligatory conversation and the brushing of skin on skin, I slipped the noodle strips of her dress down. Underneath lay her breasts, perky and round, a spectacle of symmetry. They bespoke eternity, a youth never to expire, not yet raided by the malignant multiplying cells. No lump, no irregular firmness.
We made love, wrapped in, over, and under the cushions. We did it again the morning after and in the days that followed. After two weeks, lounging in post-coital laxity, she asked, “What part of my body do you like most?”
I had seen enough of her by then, had been so familiar with the geography of her body, it felt like a question posed to an expert. Forcing my gaze to meet hers, I said, “Your eyes.”
“No, seriously,” she said.
I looked at her lips. “Your mouth.”
“Tell me the truth,” she insisted.
I told her the truth. “Your boobs.”
Will Shane bears no resemblance to Shakespeare. Not that he should, but it was somehow what I expected, or rather hoped, for him to be a reincarnation of the missing maestro. Strange as it sounds, it would have made things simpler.
He’s in his early forties, clean-shaven, well-mannered, and tall. The host, a young blonde in a grim blouse and long skirt, introduces him in a series of short sentences: a New Yorker of British origins, Master’s degree in dramaturgy, started his career with a few off-off-Broadway plays, catapulted into stardom with his debut novel, working on his second, and we’re thrilled to have him here. Applause. Extravagant bow.
He’s a good talker, and takes the room in less than a minute. He starts by saying he never expected such reception for his novel, to be on the charts for sixteen weeks in a row, to sign a seven-figure contract with Hollywood. He draws laughter by quipping, “Eight figures in Canadian dollars.”
The interviewer switches to more serious questions. The urgency and relevancy of his novel for our times. The writer preaches about the significance of love in the time of rancor and enmity, and how universal and profound the message of his phony rendition of Romeo and Juliet is. I chuckle toward the old man sitting on my left, but he’s so engaged in the talk he doesn’t even bother to look at me.
His work-in-progress? He doesn’t want to reveal much, he claims. It’s a historical drama about a valiant army commander who, in his quest for power, lured by his own wife, murders his king. Gasps emerge from the audience. And there are, he adds, certain supernatural elements in the story. When pressed, the writer smirks. “You’ll have to buy the book,” he says.
The old man next to me is enthralled.
So am I.
It was a Sunday afternoon when Viola called me into the bathroom and asked whether I could feel a lump in her right breast. The bathtub curtain was half-drawn. Viola stood facing me. Naked and defenseless. Water still ran, slapping her right cheek, as if her right side had already started shedding tears. Her eyes demanded reassurances, for me to say it was no more than her obsessive delusions.
But it was there, unmistakably so.
We agreed to forget it for the night. But we couldn’t. It forced itself upon our lives, Viola’s directly, and mine as a suffering observer. We were together, hand in hand, when the doctor reported the results, putting on a show of routine sympathy. All the while, Viola was silent, registering the news with resignation I had never known her to possess. She didn’t cry. I did.
Until then, I’d resisted meditating on death. Millions of people had already done that and to no avail. My paltry wisdom couldn’t possibly add to the heap. Besides, when my time came, I figured I’d simply die and be gone. It was easier to live like that. But then, that was philosophizing about my own death. I’d never considered it looming over a partner whom I happened to love.
That was how, as the stages of treatment came on one after another, I took any new transformation in her body as an encroachment of the Angel of Death. My beloved was haunted and I couldn’t do much to exorcise the demon from her. We had long discussions whether she should do a double mastectomy. Was it enough to remove her right breast? I would catch her topless, looking at the mirror, pressing one hand against the right breast and then against both. Not satisfied with either option, she would sigh.
Eventually, she underwent surgery to remove both breasts including her nipples. We supposed the hardest part was over but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Her chemotherapy started. Session one, session two, all through to the seventh. Headaches. Vomiting. The indiscriminate battle against malignant cells. Then it was time for hair loss. Trying to adjust to the image of her head in a wig, to the image of her ambling around in my shirts, flat-chested. During that time, she grew uninterested in day-to-day aspects of life, in people—including me—and even in her beloved plants, some of which she’d groomed since her days of singlehood; they wilted one after another, like some terrible metaphor.
My attempts at consolation and support failed. The weariness beneath the veneer of hope showed. She felt unloved. My assurances in forms of gifts and kisses were inadequate. She read between the lines. She brought up her breasts, or rather their absence. I couldn’t say it didn’t matter as I’d shown in the past that it did. I couldn’t say that I’d come to terms with the change either. It would’ve sounded as if I was forgiving her for breaking my favorite mug. So, I changed the subject, which was a polite way of confirming her worries. Only once, putting on an indifferent expression, did I bring up implants. When my plants died, she said, did you see me replacing them with plastics? I shook my head and she caught me looking at her wig. She pulled it with ten fingers and threw it at the wall. That was the last time she wore wigs.
I sought explanations. It didn’t matter that cancer was the most common disease in Canada. For me, it was rare, happened once, to Viola, and I was looking for the culprit. That was how I found myself drawn into the world of conspiracy theories, a world whose pundits either believed cancer had long been cured or that it was a man-made plight. And it was in those forums I got acquainted to other unsolvable cases throughout history.
It helped to believe there was a universal conspiracy that Viola’s disease was part of it. It helped to know there were other questions for which people couldn’t account answers.
One’s misery is more bearable if shared.
I’m still slumped in my chair, marveling at the possibility of the goings-on around me as the herd of Shane’s fans form a line for his autograph. After a while, I realize I’m surrounded by empty chairs while Shane is chatting with a handful of remaining patrons. I spring up trying to muster the courage to confront him. But as I’m sliding through the rows of chairs, I see him putting on his coat and stepping out with two women.
I don’t make a conscious decision to follow Will Shane. My intention is to meet him in person, alone. The truth is I don’t even know if he’s aware that he’s a fraud. To my disappointment, his entourage accompany him down Yonge Street. Shortly, they turn left on Bloor and then enter Marriott Hotel. I count to ten and slip inside. They’re sitting in the lounge, already talking to the waiter. I find a couch where I have a good view and sit. I busy myself with my phone (another attempt at Googling the missing writer’s name, despairingly wishing for this all to be but a technological glitch) and let the time pass, hoping he won’t invite the ladies to his room.
He doesn’t. After they’re done with their cocktails, he kisses both on the cheeks, grabs his bag and makes a beeline to the elevator. Aware that what I’m doing now is bordering on illegal, I join him in the golden box. He presses eight.
“Which floor?” he asks.
I hesitate as if I’m having difficulty summoning a random number. “The same.”
A touch of suspicion flashes across his face but he seems to play along. When we reach the eighth floor, he strides out, oblivious of me. It’s only after a dozen steps that he stops and lifts his head. There’s a camera pointing at him, at us. He turns on his heels and coughs.
“I should warm up to the idea of diehard fans stalking me to my hotel room.”
He slurs the words, in stark contrast to the articulate manner with which he responded to questions during the interview. It soon becomes clear why as a whiff of alcohol escapes his mouth.
“Among other things,” I say, suddenly at ease.
“I remember you there. Why didn’t you get your autograph earlier?”
“I’m more interested in knowing your source. Your inspiration.”
“I’ve already answered that question several times.”
“Have you heard of a writer named Shakespeare?”
“Are we talking plagiarism?”
“What would you say if I invited myself into your room?”
“I’m reviewing the ways you could possibly hurt me. Can you think of any?”
“I just want to talk.”
He strip-searches me with his squinting eyes. I try to help him by taking my hands out of my pockets and hunch a bit. He has a stronger build anyway.
“You’re really looking for answers, aren’t you.” He smiles. “Follow me.”
He swipes his card and opens the door. His room looks clean, except for his desk, on which papers and several copies of his book are strewn around a typewriter. I sit on the embroidered chair by the bed.
“Coffee? Anything from the minibar? My publisher graciously agrees to cover the costs.”
Impatiently, I wave my hand and shrug. That’s when I start: “There was a British writer from 16th Century…” I tell him all I can remember about Shakespeare, a mishmash of vague biography and influences. For the first few sentences he towers over me, listening. Then, without interruption, he sits at the edge of his bed, propping on his elbows, a posture he keeps for the next fifteen minutes or so.
“Now I’m being accused of killing this guy off from history and removing his traces from the real and virtual worlds, and also from people’s memories?”
“Not necessarily you—”
“So there’s a puppet master orchestrating everything, including me. Everyone but you?”
“Yes.” I wish I had a different, more cogent answer. “I have no evidence but I can roughly tell you what you’ll write next.”
He throws his palms up as if to surrender. “Hey, I’m already a suspect,” he says in mock fear. “Don’t pile more evidence against me.”
His playful answers, the slanted way he holds his wine glass and the everlasting smirk on his lips denote some denigrating attitude toward me, a maniac. I’m nothing more than an innocuous diversion for his Friday evening.
“So,” I pause, aware of the pleading edge in my voice. “You know nothing, anything at all, about all that I’ve said?”
He lets out a gush of air while widening his eyes as if he’s really giving it serious thought, then he shrugs. But it’s not the heaving of his shoulders that I observe. In his expression, I discern a sad, familiar pity, resembling the glances Viola and I have been exchanging over the past year.
“How can I help you?” he asks earnestly, almost compassionately.
“I want to understand.”
Like a man who has all the time in the world, he rises to his feet and waddles towards the minibar. He picks up an upside-down glass and mixes whiskey with coke in it. He then extends his hand, offering me the cocktail.
I stare at the glass, not sure how to decline his generosity for the second time.
“Come on, I’m not trying to poison you. If it’s really the conspiracy of the whole world against you, you shouldn’t trust the tap water either.”
“It’s not that,” I mumble but my opposition is not strong enough. I succumb and down half of the glass, even let myself enjoy its burning along my insides.
My phone vibrates and I know it must be Viola. It’s past nine and I haven’t been in touch with her. Shane nods, encouraging me to take it. I relent. Viola’s voice is jaded, a bit apprehensive. She asks where the hell I am and I say I’m still in the office. A lame lie she won’t believe. Though she wouldn’t have believed the truth either. I tell her I’ll be home soon and she retreats to her stoicism with a lonesome okay, tainted with suspicion and resignation. A few months ago, in the calm after a bitter spat, she told me she didn’t object if I started seeing other women, provided I let her know. And I’m sure that’s what passes through her mind now. I hang up.
Will Shane reclaims his corner on the bed. He tips his glass towards my phone on the table. “That your partner?”
I nod. “Wife.”
“She doesn’t share your suspicions then.”
My glare at his impertinence is short-lived. “No one does. What does that make me to you? A lunatic?”
“That’s a plausible option. A frontrunner. But I’m—despite your contention—a writer after all. I’m not supposed to go for the obvious.”
“So, what’s your plausible explanation for all that’s happening?” As I say the words it occurs to me that nothing unusual is really happening outside of my mind.
“I wish I could tell you that I was part of a cabal, some sort of a covert sect, perhaps even funded by governments, in charge of wiping people’s memory, that there’s been a concerted effort to wipe certain names from history. But you’re smirking already, you’d have probably lapsed into a fit of laughter had you been more drunk.”
As if on cue, I finish the whisky in my glass. “To me, all things considered, that’s an answer.”
“Not the answer. And sorry to disappoint, I don’t have it.” He pours me more whiskey, without bothering to lighten it with soda. “What I can tell you is, deal with it as you do with any loss in your life.”
“I tend to cope better if I know the underlying reason.”
“The problem is that sometimes you never understand. It’s not to be understood. It’s there to be accepted,” he says with deliberate pauses between sentences, with a know-it-all panache.
Silence settles and neither of us attempts to break it. Not much is left to say, or do. I reach for the back of my chair, a gesture to denote my imminent departure, to which he shows no reaction. I’m a few steps away from the door. By crossing that door I’ll accept defeat, a concession to the Shakespeare-less world. On my left, Will Shane’s anachronistic typewriter is conspicuous, an unlikely island jutting out of a deluge of papers, one of them still stuck in its teeth. It’ll soon be full of ink in form of words. Words that would sound fake and hollow to me. Yet, they’ll make the ingredients of a possible masterpiece according to the people of the world, this world.
“Leave your contact info.” He pauses, probably anticipating my surprise, which I hide. “A ballet company in New York signed a contract to perform Ronnie and Julie. I know the choreographer. It’ll be something. I’ll invite you and your wife to the opening.”
There’s a pen amid the papers on the desk. It’s no more than the stretch of an arm to grab it and scribble my email address. The rest would be thanking him for his time and generosity, shaking hands and politely slipping out of the room. But the way he said it, Ronnie and Julie, that stupid combination, there’s some sort of authoritative, matter-of-fact certainty to it, as if it’ll be the first time that dancers will dance to this ballad; as if Viola and I, younger and undisturbed by tragedies, hadn’t been to one of its renditions years ago.
“Feel free to jot it down on any of those papers,” he prods.
Doing what he wants me to do means I’d be a collaborator in rewriting the history, rewriting my life, rewriting Viola. I take one short step. My hand travels in the air, lingers on the pen, and continues its traverse, over the typewriter, until it reaches its far end. My other hand comes to its aid, grasping the near edge. I lift the typewriter, balance myself with its weight, and in a sudden move gyrate towards where Will Shane must be standing.
He indeed is there. Averting eye contact, I bash the typewriter on his head. He lets out a whimper and collapses on the bed with a thump. The bed, soon to turn red with his blood, concaves under his mass. It isn’t until my third or fourth smack against his face that I notice the rivulets of blood and it makes me wonder if they are for real. They shouldn’t be, I repeat to myself, if the man below me is not. He can’t be real, as I’m not the sort of person predisposed to violence. So, everything here should be a bad dream, as I shout to myself, a lengthy one gone awry. Everything should be normal once the dream finishes, once I wake up next to Viola, my feisty, exuberant Viola who has never been sick and, I indulge myself into believing, will never be. I call her name, over and over again, until I don’t.
And the rest is silence.
With special thanks to Nazanin Khani.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.