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I was not biologically related to Uncle Max. When Uncle Max died from prostate cancer, a Nash cousin asked me to a party of Nash women. My cousin wanted me to speak to a group of grieving women to attend the spoken word, open mike night at The Black Swan Tavern. After Uncle Max’s funeral, the usual hagiography in the church, and the convivial reception in the church basement, which was wheelchair accessible, my Nash cousins wanted me to get in front of the microphone in The Black Swan Tavern and tell a story. My cousin pushed my wheelchair through the bar to the microphone for a Nash tradition, oral storytelling in the aftermath of a funeral. Tell the whole nightclub, including beer sodden patrons, who would probably rather listen to live rock music or dance tracks from a techno music DJ, with cool repartee, what I knew about Aunt Quinn and Uncle Max: how Aunt Quinn met Uncle Max; how Aunt Quinn claimed he saved her life.
I was a guest at their home over the summers of my youth, when I visited Toronto from my northwestern Ontario hometown, and lived with them during my first year of college. I’ve heard the story dozens of times before, particularly when my uncle and aunt always teased me about not having a boyfriend. I believe they volunteered their personal history for inspiration. They assumed I thought I did not have a chance of finding a boyfriend, and they were correct, but I have to admit I never made much of an effort. My Aunt Quinn, known to her colleagues as Doctor Nash, whose investigations in the use of low dosage acetylsalicylic acid in the treatment of myocardial and cerebral infraction have been reported in the media, always delighted in telling her story, although I cannot understand her reasons or motivation. If I was her, I would have found at least few details embarrassing and shocking, even scandalous. But, I think my Aunt Quinn was guided by the principles of transparency and imperfection—no-one is perfect, a judgement she confirmed and corroborated dozens of times daily in her career, even though she wasn’t even a psychiatrist.
I am strapped to a seatbelt in a motorized wheelchair, but The Black Swan Tavern was wheelchair accessible. Even though I suffer from multiple sclerosis and experience difficulties with memories and speech as well as tremors and numbness, I still cannot resist a good party and being the centre of attention, especially at a gathering of Nash nieces and cousins. Meanwhile, I try to forget I was first stricken with the symptoms of multiple sclerosis when I was a student in the radio and television broadcasting program at Ryerson Polytechnic.
Camera in hand, my Uncle Max strolled along the stretch of Woodbine beach. His neighbour, a psychiatrist, usually walked his adopted son along the beach and tried to find the boy a serene location to practice some of his voices exercises to control his stuttering. He encouraged my uncle to check out the scenery but warned the clothes on visitors, in quieter spots of the beach, on hot summer days, turned from board shorts and bikinis, to topless and clothing optional and nudes. At the time, Uncle Max certainly was not paying attention to beach goers. After all, there were actually no sunbathers or swimmers or even any joggers or hikers exercising along the boardwalk and beach around sunrise. Even though it was relatively early in the morning, it was hot and humid, as he walked past the row of inverted white rowboats parked in a neat straight line near the dock and the lifeguard station, with its stand.
Uncle Max was lost in thought, absorbed in melancholy. At his age, he believed life should offer more, but maybe his problem was he had to offer more to life than what he received. His lack of an intimate relationship with a woman also left something to be desired. He had not started meeting women until he was in his forties, after his mother died. Then he did it in a way, which backfired, because, he thought, it was sly, underhand. The wayward relationship started when he rented the back of his house, conveniently located downtown.
He thought he needed to be a conventional man and find a woman who could be his partner. His experience with tenants, though, made him think he would be better off forgetting about women. He needed to think about getting serious in finding a new career.
Uncle Max left teaching, after he had a meltdown. Towards the end of a double period English class, his psychiatrist neighbour’s adopted son fessed up to throwing a paper airplane while Uncle Max read Huckleberry Finn to the class before recess. Uncle Max lost his cool and ordered the student, red-faced, to the front of the class to read a page from Huckleberry Finn. But, the student was a stutterer. The punishment traumatized him and the episode left my Uncle Max apologetic and profoundly disaffected about education and the discipline of teaching, so he quit his job. His neighbour, the psychiatrist who had adopted the student with the stutter, suggested he explore his creative instincts and try to find work in photography.
Anyway, as Uncle Max strolled along the beach, in a quieter part of the city of Toronto, he came across a woman, half submerged in water, in the clothing optional part of the beach. Naked, Aunt Quinn was half-submerged in water. She exuded the distinct odor of spiced rum, through her breathe and the pores of her skin, but had no detectable pulse and respiration. Could she be a drowning victim? Trying to remember his workplace first aid and CPR courses, he carried her out of water and laid her down in the sand. He checked her vitals, the pulse in her neck, and pressed his ear close to her mouth to hear for breathing, but these signs were absent. Disbelieving his own observations, he checked again to ascertain it was not his imagination. Still, he found no pulse and respiration. She was dead, or near death, and he administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Soon she was coughing and sputtering, emitting phlegm and water. Confused and disoriented initially, she quickly regained a partial sense of equilibrium.
“Where am I?” Aunt Quinn asked.
“You’re on Woodbine beach, or, if you want to be technical, Kew beach, near the Leuty lifeguard station,” Uncle Max replied.
Aunt Quinn gazed around her, along the beach and shoreline, while Uncle Max stayed beside her to make certain she was all right. She glanced about the beach and realized she had blacked out, lost consciousness, nearly drowning in the shallow water lapping the shore of the Eastern beach. She gazed at the empty bottle of rum beside her beach towel and bikini.
“I hate myself and want to die,” Auntie Quinn said. She struggled to fasten her bikini, which for her stage of disorientation became a complicated operation, so she asked for his assistance. “Thanks for saving my life,” she said, “as miserable as it is.”
“Join the club,” Uncle Max said.
“I’m Quinn Nash, MD, FACC,” she said.
“You sound bewildered.” Before he could apologize, she said, “Quinn, as in quinine, which I studied for use in restless leg syndrome, which I’ve been known to suffer, and FACC, as in Fellow of American College of Cardiology. If you ever need open heart surgery, a coronary bypass, heart catheterization or valve replacement, pacemaker insertion, or any cardiac procedure, give me a call, and I’ll make certain you receive the best care possible.”
Uncle Max marvelled at her looks: she was full-bodied, voluptuous. “You’re not a doctor,” he said, “you’re a mermaid.”
“I’m a fucking doctor,” Aunt Quinn insisted, “do you want to see my ID?” She suddenly realized she had absolutely no idea where she left her identification, even though she eventually located the handbag beneath her beach blanket. She showed him the tattoo of the Rod of Asclepius tattooed below her navel.
“Actually, I thought you looked vaguely familiar. I think I recognize you from television newscasts. Weren’t you part of the surgical team that separated Siamese twins at Sick Kids Hospital?”
“I don’t even remember that procedure any more. There has been so many it’s become a blur in my memory. There’s been so many television cameras and news crews in operating rooms lately, it truly disgusts me, but the PR and Corp Comm departments tell me we need publicity for fundraising efforts.”
Aunt Quinn gazed across his hairy chest and abdomen to his camera. “So what are you doing with the camera?”
“My psychiatrist friend doesn’t think I’m suffering from mental illness. He says I’m simply the type who isn’t gay but might be best off without a significant other.”
“So he’s the world’s leading authority on relationships? Anyway, why would you need him to tell you you’re not gay.”
“Because he’s gay and divorced and I’m incompatible. Actually, he thinks I might benefit from a hobby like photography.”
“I don’t know if a nude beach would be a good place to start.”
“It’s early morning, you’re the only sunbather around, and I’ve heard there are a few rare bird species that frequent the beach.”
“Sorry. I thought it was still evening. I guess I passed out.”
“There’s no reason to apologize. It does look as if you’ve been drinking aplenty.”
“I’m grieving the death of my stepfather.”
He pursed his lips grimly. “I’m sorry to hear of your loss.”
After she somehow managed to fasten the strings and clasps of her bikini top, she sat down beside Max. “You don’t have to be so flippant.”
“My apologies. I didn’t realize I sounded flippant.”
“No, you’re right. You weren’t being flippant; I’m being touchy. On the other hand, he was only my stepfather.” Aunt Quinn looked him in the eyes and the size and clearness of her eyes unfazed him. “But, we were actually very close.”
“Seriously. Very close. Extremely close. In fact, we were too close.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, we were too close. After my mother died, after what was a decent interval, we started sleeping with each other. We were fuck buddies, friends with benefits.”
“As opposed to man and wife?”
“We might’ve even been an item, except I don’t think either of us is very clingy, and we lived separate lives and had separate households.”
“So what’s wrong with friends with benefits?”
“I didn’t say there was anything wrong with friends with benefits, but maybe I should’ve acted from the start as if there was something wrong; anthropologically it’s slightly taboo. After all, he was my stepfather, and he did pay for my university education, as if he was my biological father. He dished out tens and tens of thousands of dollars for tuition, textbooks, residence, everything.”
“But, your mother was already dead.”
“Yes, they were both chain smokers of the worst kind. I actually feel guilty I didn’t warn them more adamantly and strongly about the risks and dangers associated with smoking.” She poked the sand with her toes and gazed upward at the clear blue sky, where a jet fighter rocketed across the sky across Lake Ontario to the United States. “Actually, we started fucking or—to be more polite about it—sleeping with each other as soon as my mother discovered she had lung cancer.”
“I think I understand now.”
“No. You don’t. I don’t click well with men. My mother and friends say I’m too strong-willed, too stubborn, too insistent and set in my ways. I nitpick and focus too much on the negatives. That’s just the way I am and the way I was brought up. Hypercritical, but that attitude works well in an academic environment, as in medical school, as long as you’re not teaching first year. My stepfather, the only man available to me at the time, understood me.”
“I think I understand what you mean.” He looked at her hands, searching for the signs of a wedding band.
“What about you? Plenty of notches in your bedpost or belt?”
“I’ve actually never really seriously dated any women before.”
“Are you serious?”
“I was a school teacher, and I like to be in bed by ten.”
“So that explains everything? You look like you’re forty years old, and you’re such a good looking man.”
“I think you’re only saying that to try to flatter me.”
“I’m a fucking cardiac surgeon. I don’t say things to flatter people. Why would I want to flatter you? Why would I say something that isn’t true? I constantly tell patients, for instance, they’ll die a painful and agonizing death unless they quit overeating, smoking, or drinking.”
“But you didn’t tell your own parents.”
Aunt Quinn gazed at Uncle Max coldly.
“Actually, I warned my mother and stepfather repeatedly; I practically harassed them to quick smoking.”
“My apologies again.” Uncle Max, sitting beside her on bottom, noticed her large cruise ship beach towel and her beach blanket, mottled with sand.
“I think I’ve a similar incompatibility towards women. I actually rented out rooms in the house I own in the hopes of finding a woman who, I hoped, in the future, I could make my partner.”
She laughed. “Are you for real?”
Aunt Quinn handed Uncle Max the suntan lotion. She insisted he massage and rub the coconut-scented oil onto her back and arms and stomach, even on her sunburnt face.
“I’m telling the truth. I can’t really believe I did what I did, either, but at the age of forty-four I gave up hope. I didn’t think I could find a woman otherwise.”
She gazed at Max through her sunglasses and laughed again.
“After posting advertisements I was amazed at the number who applied to live at my place. But, I carefully screened the applicants into candidates who I might be compatible with.”
“That makes sense, seems reasonable enough.”
“But I looked for someone who might be suitable as a partner, too. It was a mercenary approach, but I thought I didn’t have a choice, and I believed this might work. So I chose an attractive middle-aged woman who might be eligible as a tenant and a partner, but that approach, well, ahem, backfired.”
The last woman was the worst and she attempted to sabotage his attempts to start a new career. When a potential employer called for an interview, she said he was with a parole officer or at the precinct with the police.
“Was she jealous?”
“I wasn’t quite certain what motivated her, but the fact she enjoyed a career in a human resources suggests she didn’t want me to succeed.”
Then, she received a promotion from another corporation and moved out of the rented room in his house. Eventually, the new gig in human resources at the multinational corporation didn’t turn out and she found work at a clothing store. She begged Uncle Max if she could return. Instead of saying enough, he let her move back into his house. He pretended he didn’t notice her vandalism. He did not tell me exactly what she did, aside from saying it was the kind of damage you expected from someone devious or jealous in a fit of rage, but he became disturbed over her behaviour. He found her conduct so bizarre he wondered whether she suffered mental illness or a psychological disorder, and he tried to think of anything he could do to help.
“I would have killed her,” Aunt Quinn told him. “If I caught her doing anything in my house, I would have wrapped my hands around her neck and choked her to death.”
Anyway, she found a job as a manager at an upscale clothing store. She again decided she could easily afford her own apartment. So, despite developing an interesting relationship, he felt relieved when she moved. Then she found she was not earning enough money. She was desperate, and she became even more attractive and seductive the more passionate she became. Again, Uncle Max decided to permit her to stay at his place. This time she felt guilty and insisted on cooking for him, but he did not like red meat, pork, or poultry—any foods that are fried and salty, which she insisted on cooking every night. He was finicky about what he ate, and he did not have the nerve to tell her he was vegetarian, so he felt bothered.
“A vegetarian diet,” Aunt Quinn said, “that sounds very heart healthy, low cholesterol, low sodium.”
Uncle Max shrugged again. Anyway, his tenant liked his appliances, dishes, and utensils so much she brought them to her catering jobs she started doing at the houses of friends and acquaintances and never bothered to return them. When he became upset and agitated after his favourite microwavable dishes disappeared, he realized he was thoroughly domesticated, a suburban homemaker. It was not as if he could not do without the dishware and utensils and did not have any extras. This woman stayed another year, and during the last nine months she did not bother to pay Uncle Max rent. He felt awkward and uncomfortable mentioning her arrears to him, so he said nothing. When he suggested she move, she threatened to hire a lawyer and put him through a legal and bureaucratic nightmare if he tried to evict her. He ended up having to change the locks and calling the police. He had not intended to create problems for this tenant, but he had not expected her to be as irresponsible and free-spirited, as some reckless friends he knew in his youth. He regretted he ever conceived of such a misbegotten attempt to lose his bachelor status and concluded renting out unoccupied rooms in his house was actually not a wise idea.
Aunt Quinn moved closer to Uncle Max, to the point where he could see the fillings in her teeth, the sand in her hair, and the flakes of skin peeling from the sunburn on her nose. “Wow. You really know how to love the ladies. Did you have any luck with these women?”
Uncle Max shrugged. “I don’t know, but you see how you’re not alone in your struggles.”
“But, I am in a league of my own. I ended up helping end the life of my stepfather.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, dead serious. I hated him for sleeping with me, loving me sexually. Then, I hated him for coming down with lung cancer and suffering a hideous illness after I warned him repeatedly. I loathed him for his chain smoking, for sneaking cigarettes, even after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He even smoked when he was in chemotherapy and radiation therapy and after surgery. So, I euthanized him.”
“Euthanized him?” Uncle Max muttered beneath his breath, hoping she had not heard so he could plea distraction. Shocked, he needed a few moments to digest the information, but she abruptly replied, “You heard correctly.”
Max looked around the beach, seeking reassurance in the sight of the shoreline still abandoned and empty in the still, tranquil morning, as the mist rolled in from Lake Ontario.
“It was an act of mercy, but he didn’t know or didn’t provide consent. Actually, I didn’t even necessarily do that; I just put him into a netherworld, where he might not survive. He might have survived his cancer because, even though he was suffering it wasn’t necessarily malignant, a terminal case. By then I hated him for sleeping with me, even when he was sick and old, and still smoking, and I couldn’t quit him, like he couldn’t quit his cigarette addiction. He was a bad drug I was addicted to.”
“So it sounds like it’s genuinely a grey zone.”
“But everything’s a gray zone for me. I’m living in a gray zone.” Aunt Quinn poked Max in his hairy chest. “We’re fundamentally compatible, and we’re both even going gray around the edges and fringes.”
“How can you say that when you hardly know me?”
“I know you well enough, and I think I love you. It’s a case of love at first sight. But, where do you work, what do you do for a living? You’re not a serial killer, are you?”
“No, like you, I only killed my parents without permission.”
“You really shouldn’t joke about it. You’re starting to hurt and make me feel depressed. This was the first place where we made love.”
Max gazed at the mist rising from the broad expanse of Lake Ontario, which, from this vista, resembled an ocean.
“Yes. I had just finished started medical school and had broken up with my first boyfriend, another medical school student. In hindsight, I think he took advantage of the fact that I was vulnerable and also drunk.”
“So, now you’re a victim?”
“No. I’m a predator, but I should warn you that—let’s—I’m confused—so this is morning?”
“It’s probably around nine am.”
“Around eight hours ago, I finished a potent bottle of Grenada spiced rum. Then, I hurtled his ashes, in a mahogany box, carved with the Blue Jay’s baseball logo. I was furious and threw his cremains into Lake Ontario from this beach, but a strong wind gusted and blew the ashes back in my face. The ash flew in my hair and scattered on my beach towel and blanket and body and on the very spot where you parked your handsome lean butt.”
Uncle Max looked at the sand-like powder. He gazed closely at what looked like a stone or rock on the towel. He picked the rock up and closely examined the light porous material. Aghast, he realized the fragment appeared to be an incinerated chunk of bone. For some bizarre reason, he impulsively pocketed the object in a pocket of his cargo shorts.
“So what did you say you do for a living?”
“I taught middle school, but, after spending a quarter century as a junior high teacher, I got my certifications as a financial advisor.”
“As in a stockbroker, a retirement planner?”
“Those can be separate disciplines, but financial advisors sometimes fulfill those roles.”
“So, you can help me look after my money. My stepfather tied up a lot of my money in complicated real estate transactions and investments. My lawyer is still trying to figure out the deals he made. He thinks Daddy Dearest may have simply embezzled the money to fuel his gambling addiction. That’s another reason I’m angry with him and may contributed to my decision.”
Uncle Max marveled at the attractiveness of my Aunt Quinn, her smooth skin, her sparkling eyes, her forward and direct manner, but he wondered at the same time if she might benefit from counselling or psychotherapy. What did they currently call this type of dysfunctional relationship? It was hip to say these were Daddy issues, but Daddy issues of a belated, mature woman sort.
“I injected him right in his hospital room. I did it when I visited, when no nurses or doctors could bother us. The nurses cleared out of his private hospital room whenever I arrived; I was a medical specialist, a cardiologist, and I had a reputation in the hospital for demanding and difficult. I’m not an anesthesiologist, but I knew pushing him over the edge from his therapeutic window of drug dosages would be easy. I simply injected him with slightly higher doses of all the medication, morphine, insulin, benzodiazepines, beta-blockers, he was prescribed. These levels, I calculated, would cumulatively amount to enough to shut down one of his vital organs without arousing suspicion. As far as I know, he passed quietly in the night and nobody seemed surprised.”
He looked at her, thinking she could not be serious.
“How old was he?”
“Seventy-five years old, around the average age for a male with his medical history.”
“Then, it sounds like he lived a fairly full life.”
“I couldn’t say. He liked to make money, and he loved to spend money. He owned an apartment building and an office complex which housed my clinic and stress testing lab, but after he died his properties were sold to sell settle debts.”
Uncle Max expressed surprise she showed no signs of pain from what looked like severe sunburn over her pale skin.
“And so now, I have to ask you: Will you marry me?”
Uncle Max looked at her, thinking she could not be serious.
“You could look after the finances and our babies."
It was like a dream come true, like a fairy tale, as if he had actually found a mermaid on the beach. This could not be true. She took off her sunglasses and took a ring from her finger. He laughed uneasily at the raccoon-like effect the sun had on her face, stenciled by sunglasses, and she placed the ring on his baby finger.
“Will you marry me?”
“I need time to think about this,” Uncle Max replied. “There’s a café on Queen Street, and I’ll go and get a Starbucks coffee for the both of us. If you’re still here when I come back I’ll have my mind made up by then.”
A seagull flew low, gliding directly over her head, causing her to duck.
“How do you want your coffee?”
“Black. I need it black, no cream of sugar, before heart surgery, so I’m stimulated and alert, but not with a stomach upset. One black venti coffee and a bowl of vanilla ice cream, and I’m ready for cardiac surgery for hours.”
Except this isn’t cardiac surgery, Max thought, as he strolled across the broad expanse of beach, walking up the residential side street to Queen Street and the streetcars, and along the sidewalk to the Starbucks café. He ordered a basket of sandwiches and juices and coffee, enough for a picnic, even though he was worried about using his credit card in a restaurant he never before frequented. He returned along the quiet alleyways and streets to the quiet section of the beach, where Aunt Quinn waited pensively and anxiously.
“You returned,” she said.
They ate a modest breakfast of croissants and coffee. Then when she asked him if he would marry her, he quietly said, sure, almost as if in jest. Following the brunch and coffee, she donned her Toronto Maple Leafs beach blanket as a dress. She wrapped a towel around her head and approached him officiously. “Now please rise.” She directed him to his position on the beach with the lake as a backdrop. “Now, I’ll act like I’m the priest or rabbi or reverend or the justice of the peace or mayor or captain of the ship, officiating at the ceremony.” She placed her arm around him as she directed him where to stand, facing her. “Now, do you—what’s your name again—”
“Do you, Max, take this woman, Quinn Nash, to be your lawfully wedded wife for life, for ever and ever, and that’s a good long time.” She clasped his hand. “Now think about it. Take your time.”
Uncle Max replied automatically, “I do.”
“Now do you, Quinn Nash (and remember that name because you own it, baby), take this mature, single, never previously married women to be your lawfully wedded husband?” She laughed. “I’m still hungover—I mean, wife.” She changed positions and faced where her impersonation of an officiant had been standing. “I do.” She changed positions again, her bare feet kicking up the sand and upraised an officious gesturing hand. “I now declare you man and wife. You may kiss the bride,” Aunt Quinn said. She moved from her position as officiant to bride. He wrapped his arms around her broad shoulders and narrow waist and she embraced him as she pressed him close, and they awkwardly kissed, their lips locking.
Then after she mused absently about fairy tale endings, Max said, “What about the poor, the sick, the lonely?”
“One day at a time, honey.”
And, they even ended up adopting the youth, which Uncle Max’s neighbor, could no longer handle. Uncle Max and Aunt Quinn remained together for over two decades until she succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver, which metastasized to her heart and lungs. The fairy tale was over, and, although they lived a quiet, ordinary, and solitary life together as a couple, the colleagues, nurses, family, and friends who attended her funeral reassured Uncle Max their relationship a good, long run. Shortly afterwards, Uncle Max succumbed to prostate cancer.