Memoir

Love Story

How Layne met Carole Corbeil, soon to be an esteemed Canadian novelist

Everything is sexy and thrilling when I share my first cab with Carole Corbeil. Her name dazzles me. I’ve seen it in the Globe & Mail for a couple of years. It carries an allure of mysterious glamour. I read her and am amazed. She speaks to me in Saskatoon where I have a bad case of outpost envy. We see everything being noted, honoured and rewarded in Toronto. We feel ignored. It is an ordinary Canadian malaise. It’s not that I hate Toronto, but they get all the plums and we get the dried cod. Carole Corbeil through the organ of a national newspaper lights a fire in me. I never expected to be riding in a cab with her. But here I am an almost hick from Saskatchewan and we were on our way looking for her boyfriend who is going to be my new boss.

We have been drinking white wine in a bar on Queen Street. We are waiting for her man to appear. I’ve been falling into her eyes for a few hours. She has this smoky look and low melodious voice and she more than matches the hype. To sit with her is to fall for her. I can see I’m not the only one. It’s the forgetful way she holds the stem of a wine glass, the way she smokes only an inch of her cigarette. I just want to be nowhere else; for the first time I am content to listen and learn, and she is a great teacher. In my mind this is the best table I could be sitting at in the country. I’ve sat in a lot of Canadian bars and none have made me this happy. These are the eyes I want to be lost in. But I’m afraid of her intelligence. I don’t know why? She isn’t a show off. I listen to her story. It’s a good one.

She’s married to an American architect who moved to Toronto to work on the CN tower. They’ve raised each other and then she can’t stop herself. She cheated on him and feels terrible about it. It all comes from growing up between two fathers, one an English Canadian and the other a French Canadian. Her mother was a beauty who’d ripped Carole and a sister away from their French father and later, in desperation, married a powerful English doctor from Westmount who was 25 years her elder.

Carole tells me every pleasure for her means a betrayal for somebody else. She finds on average that she can stay monogamous for 3 years. After that her attention wanders, not her loyalties, but her attention, she suffers badly for it. It’s simply biological now. She wants a baby, her body is crying out for it. She needs to love unconditionally. She is ready to be a mother and a good one. She’s had the bad example of her own parenting to not follow.

But men love to fence with her, courtship is a game of sparring with her mind. It all bores her now. She’s looking for someone who isn’t threatened. She’s found him in my new boss. She loves him more than the others. When he walks into a room she feels like a mother would when a child comes to view. He arouses her dormant passions, ones she’d long ago locked away. He’s beautiful to her and has the finest mind. His intelligence is sharpened by alcohol and the lovemaking is rapturous.

I wish she was talking about me and listen drinking wine and forgetting more and more the object of all this praise is my new boss.

As time passes and the boyfriend is not appearing Carole loses enthusiasm for her subject. We switch to literature, which I call books.

I tell her how I read Dostoevsky in Northern Manitoba in 40 below weather. I was broke, hungry, holed up in a motel room, nowhere to go back to and no way of going forward, at that time I thought I’d understood the author’s Russian fevers. I was waiting to go down into a nickel mine, a job (like her boyfriend) which never materialized.

I keep talking, telling my story. I don’t want her to go and I don’t want her to think about her missing boyfriend.

There’s a certain period of time when the sugar in alcohol feeds me and when inhibitions are lowered sufficiently so I can speak with some confidence on any subject. I don’t need to know much about it, in fact the less the better. I feel I need to protect this magical femme from any embarrassment. It is an honour to be with her. I can’t imagine making her wait for me. I turn to the subject of her writing and how she has fed and taught me in that small prairie town so far away. How her take on art has inspired me to come to Toronto and learn more. She is my teacher.

She responds to this new focus. She says almost no one talks about her reviews. She’s found it strange a public act like writing in a newspaper tends to isolate one more. She’s hungry for connection. Exposing herself every week tortures her. She enters rooms filled with artists and feels chills from corners and does not know why. Has she offended someone or withheld praise? What she wants now is the privacy of writing a novel, something where she can fulfill her lifelong ambition. She knows the talent is there and she knows she’s ready to sustain that kind of work, but she needs a partner to support her in this.

I can see her life is a cauldron of anxiety like mine, I feel I can help her. She looks frail to me now, unloved, under-nourished, and vulnerable. I want to help. How though? I offer to buy cigarettes. She wants to go. We pay and step out to the street. She looks distracted. I run for cigarettes and when I return she asks if I’ll share a cab with her. She’s going home and maybe the boyfriend will be there. Before I can answer she waves a delicate hand and a cab screams to a stop. I watch her slip effortlessly into the back seat. It’s truly a thing of beauty witnessing that act. I never tuck into a cab with more finesse. I try to match her nonchalance.

She looks deep into me. I force myself to not look away. I fear what she’ll see in my eyes. She must know I want her. For what feels like the first time in my life I’m not lonely, not in her presence, of course, it’s hopeless, well, maybe not hopeless? And then…

She thanks me for taking the cab with her. She says I’m kind. I have an unusual streak of kindness in me. My mother must have loved me very much. For a short moment in time she rests her head on my chest. It’s a brief gesture of gratitude and yet I feel rewarded. I feel received, included, valued, and understood. I feel like I belong to her small perfect club. I’m not as beautiful or gifted as her boyfriend, but I’m here.

I was there and she never blew out the small candle that burned in me. In fact that touch of her head and curly hair against my chest lit a furnace nothing could extinguish.