I came to believe Anders never truly loved a woman, or a man, for that matter, but he loved the piping plover. He would die or kill for his beloved endangered species. He showed me a faded, aged video of the piping plover, chirping, and complaining on the lakeshore, the sandy beach along Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Islands. I helped him, virtually a computer illiterate, upload the video, duplicated from his original Betamax videotape, from his university research database to his smartphone. I thought the bird, with patches of grey, was slightly bizarre, rather ugly and unphotogenic, a squat, jerky creature, the size of a sparrow, overrated. I couldn’t believe Anders had devoted his personal life and academic career to learning the intimate habits, nature, and essence of this rare bird. What, I thought, if the piping plover did go extinct—would the world truly be a worse place? At an intellectual and moral level, I realize I am wrong in the grand scheme of things, but, in practical terms, which was how I lived my life and survived from day-to-day, I couldn’t see what difference the rare bird’s existence made to the world.
In any event, I served Anders in the coffee shop, The Campus Circus Café & Gourmet Diner, his favorite café in Bloor Street West, not far from his house on Brunswick Street, where he lived alone. I thought he was a fortunate man to own and live in a house in the fine midtown area of Toronto, but he had been a tenured professor at the university and the cosmopolitan metropolis was his hometown. His career, while sounding rather boring, was a success, even, if, say, he didn’t have a spouse and children. In fact, he hardly ever mentioned any family to me, except in the context of an alcoholic sibling, who passed prematurely, and estrangement. I couldn’t see how a woman would be so interested in loving and living with someone who devoted his life to the piping plover, but I am a woman who loves people and urban adventure; I’m not an enthusiast of the outdoors and nature.
At the café, I always enlivened his evenings with my conversation, liveliness, enthusiasm, vivaciousness, and a bubbly personality—or this was how he described me. I possessed the endearing and fundamental features and qualities of a woman he had been indoctrinated to dislike, he joked, as an academic, a biologist, a zoologist, an ornithologist, specializing in the piping plover. Even though he retired several years ago, those research efforts, the field work, and academic activities seemed to have occurred as long ago as a lifetime. Although he was a leading expert on the piping plover, he felt as if he had forgotten his academic papers, published in academic journals, and research papers, full of statistics, annotations, and footnotes, which I saw at his house, stacked in his home office, and even the university campus, when we dropped by the library and his former departmental office, which we visited at night, on the sly, with his old keys, which still fit the locks, and online when I happened to Google his name out of curiosity.
Anders started to blame his memory losses and the disappearance of a large bank of memory due to potentially premature dementia. He simply could not be certain, he said, whenever he spoke with me, at the Campus Circus Café & Gourmet Diner, located near the University of Toronto campus. He felt he could not deny he had experienced memory and cognitive decline. He also expressed worry about hand tremors, the twitching of his eyes, grimacing. Now he spent most of his free time on researching investments, as he built up a stock portfolio, moving away from bank savings accounts, with term deposits, and guaranteed investment certificate’s into riskier assets, technology stocks.
Meanwhile, he drank the finest coffee ever brewed, he said, alongside his favorite barista of all time, whom he tipped generously. I flirted with him, joked with him, laughed at his nerdy, geeky jokes. Meanwhile, I pondered how even he managed to remain single after all these years. Of course, I managed to provide myself with a ready-made answer; he was a leading expert on the nearly extinct and endangered species, the Piping Plover. Still, he reminded me he felt he had practically forgotten everything he had learned, remembered, discovered, and taught as a wildlife biologist and ornithologist. He blamed what he joked was senescence and potentially some form of premature dementia, or cognitive decline, memory disorder, or psychological disorder, although it was interesting to note his ability to learn, I surmised, hadn’t been impacted as he continued with passion and conviction to invest in the stock market.
So, I dismissed his concerns about memory loss, especially when he went overboard and bought with whatever cash he had available, declining stocks during a bear market, which then quickly rebounded, so that his paper profits were considerable. He seemed to be thinking straight; in fact, he struck me as still sharper than many of the academic types who dropped by the café and diner I knew. I said I thought if he could learn new subjects, then he probably wasn’t suffering from any form of dementia, but some psychosomatic phenomenon. “I majored in psychology,” I said, although I didn’t add that I dropped out because I couldn’t afford tuition. I enjoyed the study of psychology and I enjoyed the active social life, being popular among young men, in residence, because I was outgoing and had a womanly figure, but I wasn’t as smart as some of my friends—I didn’t have their sharp memories—beautiful people who could socialize and party and then sit down to write a complicated multiple-choice exam and score in the ninety percent range.
I invited him to dinner at the apartment I shared with my boyfriend, who worked in investment and portfolio management for a public schoolteachers’ pension fund. I needed to be secretive about the invitation and dinner date, though. I told him not to tell anyone because if he found out he would kill me.
“Lynn, why are you with someone who will kill you for being with another man?”
“Because it’s the flaw in our society, it’s manly thing—because even in Toronto, even in Canada, in contemporary times, it’s what expected of boyfriends, to be overprotective of their girlfriends.”
“And you have no problem with it?”
I didn’t explain how much I was in love with the man, despite his nagging jealousy and recurring bouts of simmering anger and paranoia, which boiled over into rages, during which he burst into violence and started breaking furniture, ripping, tearing, and cutting my clothes, and even spitting in my face, and hitting me and choking me. I didn’t want to burden him with my personal problems, my insane loves and passions; I didn’t want to explain I didn’t think I could afford to live in my own apartment. I was tired of renting basement or attic rooms from friends of friends or hard-working families, who didn’t speak English as a first language, good hard-working people with conservative lifestyles and cultural notions of privacy imported from overseas. Instead, I glossed over my own personal problems, even though I believe I had attained a certain level of intimacy with Anders.
“It’s the price you pay, if you want to keep the boyfriend who let’s you live in his big expensive apartment downtown for free.”
“You could live with me. It’s a big enough house, with three bedrooms, one I converted into an office.”
“You’d let me live with you?”
“I wouldn’t have made the invitation, if I wasn’t serious.”
“If he starts slapping me around again, I just might.”
He was extremely disturbed to hear my boyfriend had been getting physical with me, even though I believed his psychological abuse was worse; but I tried to reassure Anders there was nothing that should leave him disturbed. Then I wished I hadn’t said anything; there was a time when I wanted our relationship to be strictly professional, since he was a generous tipper, the best customer in terms of gratuities, but that we were far past that stage and had become friends.
“Eat,” I encouraged.
We ate the best wholesome gourmet meal he had ever eaten in as long as he could remember. He took to the Madeira wine I served him, although normally he never drank, since his brother, who led him to being estranged from the rest of his surviving family, was an alcoholic, chronic, unremitting, whose abuse of alcohol eventually led to his premature demise and death. He vowed he would never take the route his brother took in life and became abstemious.
“Where did you get this Madeira? It tastes simply divine. I can’t resist its rich essence.”
“Drink up, connoisseur,” I urged and encouraged, “it came from Martim—he’s a native of Madeira. He was born on the island, but immigrated to Canada as a child. He thinks I love him because I treat him with respect. He’s a lawyer, the first person in his family ever to go to college. Despite his success, he’s abused and put down by his family, particularly his mother. He still lives with his mother and doesn’t have many friends. He doesn’t know the true meaning of friendship, so when he meets someone like me, who treats him well, he automatically falls in love. He thinks I’ve fallen for him because I show him the respect he deserves. I don’t know how to tell him how to back off and stop showering me with affection and gifts.”
“Does he do estates and wills?”
“I think he’s a jack of all trades lawyer.”
Since Anders insisted, I found myself in the awkward position of sharing personal information, Marti’s full name, phone number and business address, between friends, which, as a practice, I usually compartmentalized, and preferred to keep separate. I had to admit, though, the number of friends I had became fewer in number since I started living with my boyfriend. In fact, I carried a handbag Martim had given me, having told my boyfriend I bought the luxury accessory with tip money, and Anders happily accepted one of his business cards I found in a hidden compartment. He continued to sip the Madeira, when I invited him, slightly tipsy, into the hot tub.
“But I didn’t bring a swimsuit.”
“Naked is best,” I said.
With some encouragement and cajoling, he stripped off many layers of clothes, his blazer jacket, his cardigan, his button-down shirt, his t-shirt, and a wifebeater, and then his trousers, his pair of long underwear, his short underwear, boxer briefs—or were they cycling shorts?—and slipped into the hot tub naked beside me. He was well endowed, and when I joked “size matters,” he laughed so heartily he started sputtering and coughing, and I worried he was suffering an asthma attack or even a coronary.
“You’ve never been married?”
“No, for the umpteenth time,” he replied.
“Relationship with women have never been a priority,” he confided. He gazed directly in my eyes. “I was worried they would be a distraction or I would badly hurt a woman’s feelings.”
“You’ve so devoted yourself to the behavior and mating habits of the nearly extinct piping plover—you were married to your work—that’s the reason,” I said. “But now you’re retired.”
“Yes, I’m finished, at the endgame.”
“And—don’t be offended—but you’ve never even had a boyfriend?” I asked.
“Why a boyfriend?”
“Sometimes boyfriends work better for men.”
“Agreed, but not this guy.”
I reached over across the hot tub to touch his private parts, but he recoiled. With my face turning crimson, I rolled back my eyes, and gazed at the poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger from “Pumping Iron,” which my boyfriend had taped to the ceiling. “Sorry,” I murmured.
“No reason to be sorry. You’re the best,” he said, and gently touched my shoulder. “It’s like you say,” he said, his voice trailing off.
Warm water dripping from my naked flesh, I stepped out of the hot tub. With concealed pleasure, I noticed he was staring at my breasts, the soapy sudsy water dripping from my erect nipples and my pierced navel. I found the second bottle of Madeira, which my lawyer friend, my unrequited lover, had given me. I gave him the bottle of Madeira and urged him to take the fortified wine home since it was far too sweet for me.
Several weeks later, I scurried along a dark, abandoned Bloor Street, fleeing outside my apartment building past Honest Ed’s discount department store with its circus lights and bargain signs. I rushed down the side street of aging houses on Brunswick Avenue and visited Anders’ house. Earlier, Robert, ranting, raging, started slapping me. I feared he might close his fists and started hitting and punching me. Precisely that happened, as he broke one of my teeth, a molar, in the back of my mouth, near my wisdom teeth, and that was when I made the decision to flee.
“Robert was angry….” I said, my voice trailing off.
Anders insisted on calling the police, but I seized the cordless handset from his hand and hung up the telephone, in the middle of his bumbling call. I protested the police would destroy my boyfriend’s career and reputation and disrupt and upend my life. He replied maybe my boyfriend needed to have his reputation ruined, if only as a deterrent, but he sadly acknowledged my problem.
“What triggered the whole episode?” Anders asked.
“He found out I had you over for dinner.”
“So? It was perfectly innocent.”
“But he set up a hidden GoPro camera above the hot tub and showed me the video after he started drinking.”
“You don’t need to explain.”
Then, another time, yet again, I sought shelter at Anders’ house. In an oversized button-down shirt, cutoff denim shorts, and flip flops, I scurried out of the glow from the street lights in the drizzle, rain, and chilly wind gusts. I had bruises on my face. He again asked me if I wanted to call the police. Looking distraught, I said nothing, but when he started to dial the emergency number, I again took the phone from his hand.
Later, the police followed my boyfriend one evening, as he commuted home from an office tower in the financial district, after he had been drinking and flirting with the servers in short shorts and tight tank tops in Hooters. The police officers started questioning him, since he carried a fine bottle of vintage wine, which he shoplifted from the liquor store, in a brown paper bag from which he drank, as he commuted on the subway train to Spadina station near our apartment building. My boyfriend became even more suspicious and paranoid. He talked with his friend, my boss, who owned the Campus Circus Café & Gourmet Diner, where I was gainfully employed as a server and maître d’. So, as if I had no choice, I felt compelled to give Anders the cold shoulder.
Then, as Anders continued to research the stock market and financial news online, on his laptop, he noticed when he checked his e-mail, I had unfriended him on Facebook; I was perturbed, angry with everybody. But Anders was disappointed—far more than I ever expected or anticipated—I unfriended him on Facebook, at a time when he started to get the knack and gist of social media. My actions must have struck him as cruel, petty, and vindictive since I helped him set up a Facebook account, after I encouraged him to buy a smartphone.
I showed him how to set up a Facebook account, posting selfies of us together, which I snapped on his newly purchased smartphone in the bar and cafe. I gave him tips and pointers on operating the smartphone. He groused the smartphone would waste his time and money. I gently laughed since, as I subtly reminded him, he was retired, no longer preoccupied with the piping plover. Now I assumed he possessed plenty of time and money to become social with women, or if he preferred men, but, when I entered his name in the internet search engines, the extent of his devotion and research on the piping plover amazed me.
“But I only want to be with you,” Anders said.
“I’m flattered,” I said.
One night I left my medication, antidepressants, and antianxiety medication, when I stayed over in his house on Brunswick Avenue. When he reminded me, I had forgotten my pill bottles at his house, I said, he could dispose of the medication, throw the tablets of impramine and lorazepam into the garbage. Besides, I admitted, I was trying to go pill free. I left unmentioned my fear I might sometime use the medication to harm myself or end my existence. Still, he sensed my vulnerability and trepidation, and advised me to seek counselling. He then asked me why I had unfriended him on Facebook, why I had given him the cold shoulder at work and wouldn’t speak with him at the café, which he continued to visit for early morning breakfast and evening coffee. I immediately responded to his fresh request, accepting him as a Facebook friend. He messaged me, “Can I come over?”
That was so unlike him, taking the initiative with a woman, I said, yes. I had already told him my forever jealous boyfriend was away on business, having travelled to San Francisco to meet with the management of Silicon Valley companies in which the pension fund wanted to invest. Anders strolled his jaunty walk down Brunswick Avenue and Bloor Street West to my apartment building. I buzzed him inside the lobby through the intercom. I hugged and kissed him at the door.
He awkwardly tried to reciprocate, asking, “What happened?”
“The boss doesn’t want me chatting with you, fraternizing with you. He says it’s a distraction, affecting my productivity, but he’s close friends with my boyfriend.” I explained my boyfriend was close friends with my boss, going back to their freshman years at The University of Toronto, where they shared a room in residence and belonged to the same fraternity. Then my boyfriend helped my boss find the money to buy and run the café and diner, lending him money for the down payment, helping him obtain bank loans and lines of credit for upgrades, renovations, and operating costs. “So, he’s forever grateful. Anyway, I think my boyfriend’s jealousy has gotten the better part of him again.”
“You should leave.”
“Where will I go?”
“You can stay with me.”
We talked for hours about hope, dreams, and aspirations. Finally, he interrupted me, while I dreamed aloud about us living in a house together, in a small town, near Guelph or Peterborough, where we could enjoy the peace, quiet, the solitude, and a rural lifestyle, even a farmstead, with an apple orchard, and some goats.
He said a certain issue was plaguing his conscience. He wanted to tell me about an incident that happened when he started as a researcher for the piping plover. The incident forever after changed his life and made him, partly, in effect, the person he was today. If he had the chance, to turn back time, he would have reversed his actions. In the early eighties, he said, he found a nesting area for the nearly extinct bird along the stretch of Hanlan’s Point Beach when he initially started his field research for his doctorate. He set up an observation blind with tripods and a thirty-five-millimeter camera, with a long telephoto lens, and rolls of high-speed color film, near the nesting area, which was clearly marked and delineated with warning signs and signs and information placards. He debated and argued with the city recreation staff about whether they should post the warnings since a park supervisor who observed plenty of vandalism on the island feared it might attract the wrong element. Then—then, he said, he realized he wasn’t ready to make a revelation.
This issue must have been bothering him for some time, plaguing his mind. I urged him to drink more Madeira, and, eventually, he opened up to me, about the truth, leaving me astounded. After he set up an observation blind with camera near the nesting area, he observed towards sunset a solitary teenager exploring the nesting area. He assumed he was a local resident, a rare Toronto resident fortunate to find residence in a house on the island. But the youth totally disrespected and disrupted the nesting area and eggs, vandalizing the site. Angry, out of control, Anders attacked the teen, a college freshman, judging from his varsity jacket, with the tripod. He raged at the death of prospective chicks, since the delicate eggs were smashed, using physical force against the young man. When the youth retaliated and attacked him in return, he struck him badly with the heavy tripod, inadvertently injuring him, striking him in the head, knocking him unconscious. When he desperately tried to rouse him, he discovered he was dead, certainly not the outcome he desired, not what he intended. He ended up dragging and dumping the young man’s body in Lake Ontario. The youth’s death remained a mystery, although he felt a few islanders and park employees had their suspicions.
I didn’t know whether to believe him until he pulled out yellowing clippings he had glued into a scrapbook—articles from the Toronto Star, dated from the early eighties. He carried the neatly clipped and underlined and annotated articles in his leather portfolio case.
“You see what the piping plover has meant to my life.”
How could I express skepticism and discord towards such passion and devotion? I marveled at his role as confessor and mine as confidante, yet fell asleep on his lap, as he tried to explain he was sorry for his impulsive, angry actions. When he woke in the morning, he realized he had never had a woman fall asleep on his lap before. Before he left, he carefully and quietly moved himself and gently covered me with a quilt comforter. He left me a note on the kitchen table and carried the Madeira home.
When he arrived at his house, an hour later, at dawn, he felt serene, peaceful, blissful, grateful, and blessed for the life he had lived. He poured himself a glass of wine, the Madeira, as he sat on his comfortable chair on the porch. He swallowed the imipramine and lorazepam tablets, which I had forgotten at his house, one by one, as he sipped the entire bottle of wine leftover from our visit. He continued consuming antidepressant and anxiolytic tablets until he was drowsy and lethargic, and the wine bottle was empty. The pill bottle toppled over, spilling what little was left over of their prescribed contents. Feeling at peace, he listened to his favorite Motown songs from yesteryear on a vinyl record as the sun rose and the light flooded the patio. He drifted into a deep sleep as his finger twitched. Then his entire limbs and body flailed and convulsed in a rhythmic seizure.
When I heard from my boss Anders had passed, I had my suspicions about what happened, reinforced by the memory of the last time he saw me, about the issue plaguing his conscience. I felt cheated and at a loss; I wanted to see Anders happy; I wanted to take him to a night club and I wanted to dance with him. I thought it would be cool to make him giggle as I prodded him to smoke some pot. Time might have healed my wound and made me forget Ander’s demise, and I would have forgotten him; my experience as a server, where tips alone were sometimes enough to pay the rent, taught me there are dark and sclerotic places, scar tissue, in the most innocent hearts.
Several weeks later, Martim called me. Anders had indeed visited him, consulted him for legal advice, and drafted a will. Martim provided me with a briefing in regards to Ander’s death and his estate. Then he couriered me a copy of Anders’ last will and testament. When I took the will to Martim’s law firm, Martim told me that he felt as if he was in a conflict of interest position because he knew me personally and drafted Anders’ will. Martim urged me to seek legal advice from another firm, but he told me off the record he believed the will would pass scrutiny by a judge, in the unlikely event it ever went to court was or was challenged by a potential heir or beneficiary. He told me he had already made additional deeper inquiries, wanting to be certain no one was excluded unfairly—at least according to tradition. He went above and beyond the usual due diligence, since the circumstances were unusual. After he made further investigations, and phone calls, he discovered the retired professor had no other heirs, no surviving nieces or nephews, no cousins, nobody, who would come forward and contest the will, which he figured was valid, airtight. After probate and clearances and a decent interval, the red brick neo-Victorian house on Brunswick Avenue became my home, and Anders found a deep place even deeper in my heart.
The long-ago death of the youth, who vandalized the nesting ground of the piping plover, remained a mystery. When I tried to explain the situation to Martim he warned me to be careful and reminded me he didn’t want to hear about any cold case files. He feared I would ruin his career with my revelations. If I couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie, he urged me to find a more experienced criminal lawyer, who, he warned, would probably bankrupt me since I wouldn’t be eligible for legal aid. I realized I was severely challenging my friendship with Martim. I never mentioned the dark secret to him again. Instead, I researched the case alone extensively, tracing every lead, clue, and tip, often from blogs, databases, archives, and websites online, on the Internet. I even searched the archives and morgues of the Toronto Star, after I met a reporter who worked there, who became a regular at the Campus Circus Café & Gourmet Diner. But I could never betray the trust of my benefactor. In fact, to keep the peace Anders helped establish, I visited yet again Martim, who finally helped me with the paper work to take out a restraining order against my former boyfriend.
Several months later, I visited Hanlan’s Point and the long narrow stretch of beach, to visit and explore the setting where Anders claimed his actions led to the inadvertent demise of the youth. I reenacted the scene he described, using a long stick of driftwood, a perfectly natural pole, I found on the beach as a substitute for the tripod. In the dawn along the lakeshore, before the sun rose above the horizon surrounding the abandoned beach, with the CN Tower barely visible through the tree line, I attempted to stage a reenactment. I went through the motions, feigning the blows he described, trying to gain some insight into his actions and the youth’s fate. As the morning progressed, I realized I had become obsessed and stopped from mental and physical exhaustion. Determined to relax and forget, I strolled to the part of the beach where I left my blanket and towel and picnic basket and backpack. I pulled off my top, since the beach was clothing optional. After I tanned and rested and felt as if my mind had cleared, I discovered I was sunburnt. I felt dry and thirsty and sipped from the chilled canned vodka cooler and juice boxes I packed, and then I became restlessness and energetic. I decided to take a stroll along the beach in direction of the island airport, near the site where Anders’ misadventure occurred decades ago. As I strolled along the shoreline, I came across what looked exactly like a piping plover, the rare, endangered, nearly extinct bird. I stalked the round, chubby bird, following along its erratic trail. I took out my smartphone and tried to takes pictures of the small bird with grey, beady eyes, and a short, stubby beak. But I could only get close enough after quietly and stealthily stalking the bird, with reddish-orangish legs, because the wide-angle sense of the smartphone and the diminishing light as sunset approached made photography difficult. I began to believe the piping plover was a reincarnation of Anders, mocking me, as he ran off and stopped, tweeting, before he jerked and jumped and scurried ahead. The bird, a dark stripe across his forehead from big beady eye to big beady eye, allowed me to approach nearly near enough with the smartphone camera before he ran and flew, taking off in abrupt short flight. Finally, when I thought I managed to take a final picture of bird I was confident was the rare, nearly extinct piping plover, it took off again. When I uploaded the pictures to my computer later that evening, no matter how I enhanced the images with photo editing software on the monitor of my desktop computer, I could never make the dark blurred images clear enough to positively identify the piping plover. I glanced at the bird identification handbook, turned to the section on the piping plover. My dripping tears blurred the blue fountain pen ink from extensive annotations in Anders’ handwriting.
John Tavares’ previous publications include short fiction published in various alternative magazines, literary journals, quarterlies, and anthologies, online and in print: Blood and Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone, Broken Pencil, Tessera, Windsor Review, Paperplates, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, The Writing Disorder, Gertrude, Turk’s Head Review, Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine, Bareback Magazine, Rampike, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, The Round Up Writer’s Zine, The Acentos Review, Gravel, Brasilia Review, Sediments Literary Arts-Journals, The Gambler, Red Cedar Review, Writing Raw, Treehouse Arts, The Remembered Arts Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, Mgversion2>Datura, Riverhawk, Quail Bell, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Grey Border’s Magazine, Free Lit Magazine, Montreal Writes, Yarnswoggle, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Westview, New Reader Magazine, Event Horizon, IO literary Journal, Fishbowl Press, Otherwise Engaged Journal, Mobius, New Texas, Qwerty, Oddball Magazine, BlazeVOX, Celestal Review, Bombay Review, Nude Bruce. His short stories and creative nonfiction were published in The Siren, then Centennial College’s student newspaper. Following journalism studies, his articles and features were published in various local news outlets in Toronto, including community and trade newspapers like the East York Times, the Beaches Town Crier and Hospital News, where he interned as an editorial assistant.Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. His education includes graduation from 2-year GAS at Humber College in Etobicoke with concentration in psychology (1993), 3-year journalism at Centennial College in East York (1996) and the Specialized Honors BA in English from York University in North York (2012). He worked as a research assistant for the Sioux Lookout Public Library and as a research assistant in waste management for the SLKT public works department and regional recycle association. He also worked for persons with disabilities at the Sioux Lookout Association for Community Living.