He said I love you by calling her back from her circle, by competing with her banjo, by holding her hostage to starving ghosts. He said I love you one hundred and ten percent and therefore you owe me something in return. You owe me I love you back one hundred and eleven percent. Can you dig it? She laughed, then sobered. Oh, you’re serious then, she said. Those words cut. Those words did not say I love you one hundred and twelve percent. Okay then, she said. I will shave back my performances by ten percent, cross my heart and hope to die. What else, he averred, there must be more. Well, she replied, I will cut back visits with my sisters by twenty-five percent. All together, that’s thirty-five percent more for you. That’s pretty good, hey? I can say I love you thirty-five percent more than before. Harumph! He tooted. I still love you more. Is that the best you can do? I’ve given you one hundred and thirteen percent of my heart and I still don’t feel your love. What about my children, she asked. I’ve given them back to their father for you. I walked them back to their paternal home. When do I get credit for that? Children belong to their father, he said. A woman belongs to her lover. She practiced saying I love you, I love you, I love you, in the mirror. Finally, she thought: the truth.
She wore Chanel No. 5. On nights my parents went out, she drifted out the door on a cloud of deep musky-floral pheromones, an accommodation of the sophistication she yearned for. Periodically, when we were old enough for them to leave the brood with a reliable steel-belted sitter for the weekend, they journeyed north to the Banff Springs Resort in British Columbia. There are photographs of them from one trip, souvenirs from a night club they had attended. My mother appears to be in her thirties, young, pretty, wearing a classic kind of Jackie O sheath dress. The photographer caught her smile and a sparkle in her eyes. She seemed happy then, and glamorous. I imagine that in that dress, in that club, she was enveloped in a cloud of Chanel No. 5. She later switched to a fragrance called Interlude – with the same base notes, a similar mysterious, musky presence. Other scents of my mother that I recall: Breck hair spray, spray starch, despair.