“The problem is,” Greg Berman said, “is that the number that we call a
calendar year is really an ordinal number, but we say it like it’s a cardinal
number. I understand that in Polish – your great-aunt Fela,”
he added parenthetically, addressing Betty, “may she rest in peace, once told
me that – years are actually called by their ordinal numbers.”
mean...” Betty began but did not finish, her mind still abuzz from her
father-in-law’s repeated is.
year would be called the one-thousand-nine-hundred-ninety-ninth year, and next
year will be the two- thousandth year. When you say it like that, it’s obvious
that the century and the millennium ends next year,
not this year.”
Berman is an educated man, Betty said to herself, and should know that the
century and the millennium is a plural subject and takes end, not ends.
it comes to a person’s age,” Greg went on, “there isn’t any ambiguity like
that. Our lovely Betty here, whose birthday we’re trying to celebrate” – he
sighed deeply – “is turning twenty-five today and is beginning her twenty-sixth
to celebrate? It’s been almost eight months now since it happened. Eleven days
after the wedding. She and Paul had to cut short their honeymoon to come home
for the memorial. Not that they had
needed a honeymoon, with all the trips they had taken together in their more
than seven years as a couple. But, anyway, by now...
think that in Hebrew,” Marcia Berman said, “there aren’t any ordinals higher
Not. Quite. True,” said the redheaded woman named
Audrey, who was visiting Harvey from New York. Why she had separated the words
– out of diffidence or for emphasis – was not quite obvious to Betty. Not. Quite. Obvious.
had met Audrey at the memorial – she seemed to have been a friend of Daniel’s –
and they had struck up a friendship based on having been close to Daniel at
different times in his life. Or so Harvey had told Betty when he informed her
that he was bringing a friend. Audrey was quite pretty. “The year two thousand
is hashanah alpayim,”
she went on, fluently now, “and the two-thousandth year is hashanah
which do they use?” Harvey asked.
Audrey said. “It’s sh’nat alpayim, which means the year of
two thousand. And a woman who’s twenty-five,” she added with a chuckle, “is
called a daughter of twenty-five.”
fille de vingt-cinq ans, Betty translated mentally into her mother tongue.
“J’suis une fille de vingt-cinq ans,” she said aloud, looking at her
“Et moi, une fille de cinquante ans,”
Mireille said with a laugh, quickly adding, “Presque.” Her
fiftieth birthday was a month away. “Almost a daughter of fifty,” she said,
aware that not everyone at the gathering spoke French. But Betty overheard
Harvey explaining it to Audrey: “In French it sounds like a girl of fifty.” It
was said in an audible whisper, but the way Harvey leaned into Audrey’s ear
made Betty suspect that they were more than friends. Harvey had broken up with
his latest girlfriend, Monique, about a month earlier.
felt a surge of relief, like the passing of a dark cloud, now that the talk was
about age, and the silly argument between Paul and Harvey about when the new
millennium would begin was, for the moment, put to rest. At least until the
next argument between the brothers would erupt. As if to confirm that
expectation, a thunderclap could be heard in the distance. The storm had moved
on from Montreal, but it was still somewhere nearby, probably somewhere in
Eastern Quebec. Maybe in Rimouski?
For as long as Betty Wilner had known them – pretty
much all her life – the Berman brothers, two years apart in age, had argued.
Now they were both lawyers, sons of a lawyer, and arguing was what came
naturally. Their arguments followed a predictable pattern: Paul would argue
from logic and Harvey from precedent or custom, so that while both brothers,
like all McGill law graduates, had both the BCL and LLB degrees, Paul
personified civil law and Harvey common law. Naturally enough, Harvey worked
with a criminal lawyer, while Paul clerked in the large firm, specializing in
property and estate law, in which their father was a senior partner.
at their secondary school, the now-defunct North American Academy, the student
body was split between those who called it North Am and those who called in
Northam. (The adults called it NAA.) Harvey argued for North Am, by analogy
with Pan Am, while Paul favored Northam, because it was how the first two
syllables of North American, when spoken fluently, would be pronounced.
Betty, for her part, was of the North Am persuasion, because that was how her
friends had said it; they derided those who said Northam as snobs who
wanted their school to sound like a prep school. But at that time she wasn’t
close to Paul yet; that didn’t happen till a short time before the end of their
schooling there – hers after Grade 11 and his after Grade 12 – in order to go,
respectively, to the Cégep de Saint-Laurent and into the second year at Vanier
her twenty-fifth birthday approached, Harvey argued that there should be no
celebration during the year of mourning. But Paul, who had organized her all
her birthday parties since her twentieth, maintained that it didn’t matter
since Betty wasn’t Jewish anyway, at least not by the standards of the Bermans’
Conservative congregation. To the hip, liberal rabbi who had married them, on
the other hand, the Jewishness of the father whom Betty had never known had
been enough, and he wouldn’t have cared about the year of mourning.
won that argument in the sense that, by dint of persistence, he had managed to
get a reasonable number of friends and family to attend the party, even
Mireille, the mater dolorosa who had been the one who had to fly to New
York in order to identify the body, to arrange for cremation after the
forensics had been done, and to collect and bring back the most personal of
effects. But although Happy Birthday
had been sung, the occasion was far from joyful.
so, toasts were raised. And when Harvey, in the course of toasting, made his
remark about this birthday being his sister-in-law’s last of the millennium,
Paul insisted that the year 2000 would be the last of the old millennium, since
there had not been a year zero. That was when their father, as usual, stepped
in to mediate.
When Betty watched the Berman brothers argue,
Paul was to her not the man she loved, now her husband of eight months, but the
kid brother of her brother’s best friend. (Le petit frère du meilleur ami de mon frère. De feu mon frère, she corrected herself mentally. My late brother’s. Betty. by this time, thought mostly in
English, but every so often she felt the need to express a thought or a feeling
in French, and never more so than when thinking about family relationships.)
when Paul argued with people other than Harvey, she remembered him as the
knight who brandished his rhetorical lance on her behalf in any discussion in
which she was involved. It didn’t matter who the other parties were – fellow
students, teachers, parents, Mireille’s lovers – Paul was always on Betty’s
side. This was what had helped revive the childhood crush she had had on Paul,
who was almost as good-looking as Daniel, and turn it into love in the course
their last year at North Am.
after her seventeenth birthday Paul picked her up at the airport when she came
back from a weekend in Toronto with Daniel, who had just taken off for Cuba.
During the drive back to Saint-Laurent she recounted her experiences in
Toronto, including her arguments with Daniel, and Paul told her that he loved
her mind. J’aime ton esprit, he said, and when she was silent he added,
“and everything else about you.” “I love you too,” she
said, and he drove her to his house. His parents were out, and they made love
for the first time. Before Paul there had been Gérard Brunet. But since that
time, eight years now, there had been no one else. Not even the thought of
The party was winding down. It was a Tuesday evening – the 8th of June – and
people didn’t stay late. The older Bermans – Greg and Marcia, Greg’s brother
Harold and his wife Tilda – were the first to leave, followed shortly by
Mireille. The younger crowd trickled out one by one or two by two, until only
Harvey and Audrey were left. Their presence made Daniel’s absence into
something like a palpable presence of its own, hovering above them like a
earlier, when he called Betty from France to wish her a happy birthday and she
used the occasion to invite him to her wedding four months hence, he said that
he would not only be there to “give away” his sister, but he would also make an
effort to attend her twenty-fifth birthday, for the first time since her
twentieth. They spoke in French and he said that, rather than her anniversaires,
he would celebrate her lustriversaires, a word that he had adapted from
the Italian for the recurrence of a five-year period. At the wedding, though,
he said that he wasn’t sure, as though he had a premonition of what would
happen less than two weeks later.
by now, was wishing that Harvey and Audrey would leave too. Perhaps Harvey had
been right after all: it was too soon to have a party. The conversation dragged
on from one trivial topic to another: the delis of New York and Montreal
compared, the future of the Expos, the new Mylène Farmer album (Audrey had
never heard of Mylène Farmer), and especially – and repeatedly – the strangely
tropical, stormy weather, with tornadoes ravaging Ontario and thunderstorms
over Montreal. At the same time, any mention of world events – the war in
Kosovo and the indictment of Milošević, the end of military rule in
Nigeria, the war in Guinea-Bissau – was avoided, lest someone bring up Daniel,
who had reported on them. The only exception was the recent elections in
Israel, which Audrey talked about. She didn’t trust Barak, she said.
that Betty wanted was to be alone with Paul, in bed with him, in his arms.
“There’s someone that I wished had been at the party, but couldn’t make
it,” Betty said as she sat down on the bed and let her shoes fall off her feet.
Paul sat down beside her.
“Someone you invited?” he asked, putting his hand on her arm as a way of disguising his
annoyance at not having been consulted about the invitation. She, of course,
knew how to see through his disguises.
she said as she turned to face him with a smile.
is it?” He began to unbutton his shirt.
There was no disguising his surprise, even shock. “You... you know her?”
back at North Am, ten years ago, she was Daniel’s girlfriend...”
but... but do you know who she is? That she’s May Green, the porn star?”
laughed. “She was. She retired at twenty-five.” She turned her back to
him, a signal for him to unzip her sundress, unhook her bra and kiss her back.
It was a routine that he loved, and it was for his sake that Betty kept a stock
of back-zipper dresses, which were going out of style. “Then she had a baby.”
do you know all that?” he asked between kisses to her shoulder blades.
came to Daniel’s memorial. She didn’t stay long, but didn’t you see me talking
to a woman with a one-year-old baby?”
was Megan Kenner? With the short hair?” Paul sat up
with a start.
laughed again. “Not much of a porn-star look, was it?”
thought she looked familiar, but...” Paul mumbled inconclusively.
that was Megan and her kid. She had her implants taken out so that he could
nurse on natural tits. And the child is my little nephew Sam. Our little
nephew, I guess, since you’re his uncle by marriage,” Betty said as she
finished undressing and lay down on the bed, exposing the front of her body to
the warm, humid breeze wafting in through the half-open window.
mean...” Paul said after he unbuckled his belt, his hands in mid-air as though
unable to continue his undressing.
it’s Daniel’s child. You see, their relationship never really ended. When he
was at Columbia, whenever he came back to Montreal on vacation, he would always
see her. Then she moved to Toronto when she graduated from Concordia, which was
around my twentieth, and that’s when he more or less stopped coming to
Montreal, except for Fela’s funeral and for our wedding. But they kept seeing
each other, off and on, until the end, sometimes in Toronto and sometimes in
New York, and even in Montreal when he was here for Fela’s funeral and she was
here for that reunion.”
he knew about the baby?”
course he did. It was intentional. Megan wanted
did you find out?”
until he was almost one, a little before our wedding. Maman told me. She knew all along.”
kept it from you?”
said that Daniel and Megan preferred to keep it quiet, for whatever reason.”
that why you’ve kept it from me?”
guess so. And... well, it just never came up.”
about Daniel’s estate?” Paul asked after a pause. “I’ve been wondering about it
all these months. I asked my dad, and all he said was that in New York these
things take time. Has Megan put a claim on it?”
have to. He wrote a will, leaving everything to his son, Sam Kenner-Wilner.”
did?” Paul again stopped his undressing, after pulling down one leg of his
pants. “And you knew that too?”
just assumed that you would get it,” he said in a resigned tone, pulling down
the other leg.
guess I would have, if it hadn’t been for Sam. You know that my father died
before he knew that I was going to come along, so he left one-third to my
mother and two-thirds to Daniel, but Daniel gave me half of his share. Of
course you know all that,” she added with a smile as she pulled the sheet over
herself. The night was warm and sticky, and no more than a sheet was needed for
I know. But it just doesn’t seem right.”
estate going to that... that kid?”
was Paul saying? “Why not?” Betty asked, beginning to
feel annoyed. “Sam is his flesh and blood.”
the money came from your father, and he
isn’t your father’s flesh and blood.” Paul, fully naked at last, was lying on his
side, facing the supine Betty.
are you talking about?” She turned to face him.
didn’t know? Miki Wilner was not Daniel’s biological father.”
What the hell was Paul talking about?
smiled. “Remember the DNA test on his body that Daniel had done back in
sure, that was to prove that it really was his body.”
proved that it was your father’s body, but not Daniel’s. It was no
secret. Daniel told Harvey all about it.”
was silent for a long time. “Then who was his father?” she finally asked.
“Legally, your father of course, under the presumption of
paternity. But biologically, I guess it was your mother’s last boyfriend
before she met Miki.” He paused. “You didn’t know? No one ever told you? Not
Daniel, not your mother?”
shook her had, unable to speak.
“Maybe she was ashamed,” Paul said tentatively. “And
took a deep breath. “It was around that time that we kinda stopped being close.
Maybe even a little before, after I got close to you.” She wiggled her toes on
Paul’s leg through the sheet, on top of which Paul was lying quietly.
sure is the night of revelations,” Paul said with a chuckle that he quickly
suppressed. “How come you’re telling me all this tonight, about Megan and her
Her kid? What a
way to talk about their nephew!
I called Megan,” she said, trying to keep calm, “to invite her to the party,
she told me that now it’s okay to tell you. She said that keeping it from you
had something to do with legal matters and with you being a lawyer and
my husband. I don’t know. Anyway, whatever Daniel had that’s in Canada, which
is most of it, is now in trust for Sam, for Megan to manage. She’s an
accountant, you know.”
that’s what she majored in at Concordia.”
she got her license?”
don’t know. Does it matter? She’s the executor of the will. Once probate in New
York is completed and when Daniel’s apartment gets sold, it’ll bring in another
quarter of a million. He got it for eighty thousand!” Betty laughed. “Not that
Megan needs the money,” she added. “It’ll just be there for Sam.”
just doesn’t seem right,” Paul said again as he lay on his back, still on top
of the sheet. “I wonder if my dad knows about it.”
would guess maman told him, since he’s her lawyer, but probably
dad sure does keep things confidential,” Paul said with a laugh that sounded
bitter, almost angry.
isn’t that his obligation?”
“Yeah.” Paul laughed again.
suddenly felt herself bereft of sexual desire. “Good night,” she said, turning
away from her husband.
not yet,” he said. It was as if he had just become aware of the hard-on that she
had noticed building up over the last ten minutes. He quickly wriggled himself
under the sheet and into contact with her. But she moved further away from him,
almost to the edge of the bed. “Not now, honey,” she said. She never called him
honey, except after not now, and that didn’t happen often.
They were awakened by distant thunder in the middle of the night and made
love perfunctorily. After Paul went back to sleep Betty could not hold back
unwelcome thoughts. She remembered that, during their first year as a couple,
she had briefly harbored suspicions that Paul was interested in her wealth more
than in her. She had talked to Daniel about them. He hadn’t seemed to share her
misgivings, but encouraged her to listen to her own heart and mind. Her love
for Paul had finally won out.
now Paul’s carping about her not inheriting Daniel’s estate brought back that
memory. Did Megan suspect that, if Paul had known about the child, he would
have contested the will? Is that what she meant by “legal matters and Paul
being a lawyer”? And would he have used as an argument the fact that Daniel was
not her full brother?
matter? Of course not to her. But to
Daniel, perhaps? Is that why he had become more distant from her after
she turned eighteen, when he gave her half of his wealth? Or was it because of
Paul? Daniel and Paul never got close, despite the double bond – best friend’s
brother/brother’s best friend and
sister’s boyfriend/girlfriend’s brother. For eleven days, brothers-in-law.
feeling came over her that was like what she felt when Paul and Harvey argued:
that the man beside her was not Paul, the love of her young life, but another
Paul, someone she had just had so-so sex with. When had she ever felt like
that? Maybe toward Gérard, around the end of her seventeenth
year, when she first began to feel attracted – in a mature way – to Paul.
she now remembered with a start, was the last time that she had made love with
Gérard. Plus jamais avec ce gars-là, she
remembered saying to herself. Never again with this guy.
But that couldn’t possibly be how she felt about Paul. There was no other guy
that she was attracted to. No, it was just a malaise brought on by the intimate
revelations of the evening.
weren’t intimate revelations supposed to bring a couple closer together?
wasn’t the revelations. It was Paul’s attitude. Why did it “just not seem right”
that Daniel’s son should be his heir? And what did Daniel’s biological
paternity, discovered by sheer accident, have to do with it?
it Megan’s work? At North Am Megan’s reputation had been that of a slut; it was
known that she liked sex and lots of it, and she did what came naturally to
her. Just as Paul, who liked to argue, became a lawyer. Or, for that matter, as
Megan, who was good at math, also became an accountant. Who was Paul to judge?
LCD face of the clock radio on Betty’s nightstand showed 3:14. I’d better get
some sleep, she said to herself. She got up stealthily to go to the bathroom,
found that it was time for a tampon, and went back to bed.
had taken the twenty-first Alesse tablet some forty-odd hours earlier, at
breakfast on Sunday. She now remembered, as she was stretching next to her
sleeping husband, taking care not to touch him, that at the time she was
thinking that this tablet would perhaps be the last one for some time to come;
that, if Paul agreed, she would not resume the Alesse cycle on Wednesday of the
following week; that she would tell him, perhaps on this very night of her
birthday, that she could not longer think of any reason to postpone getting
pregnant, now that her thesis was almost done; that she hoped he felt the same...
next time she looked at the clock, it read 8:22. She sat up with a start. There
was no sign of Paul or, she realized after she got up and walked into the
kitchen, of his having made himself any breakfast. In the past, on the
occasions when he had to go to the office before her waking, he would
invariably leave her a note declaring his love and his hope that she had slept
well. This time there was nothing.
on the coffeemaker, sat down and began to cry.