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Uncle Felix wasn't really my uncle, he was a family friend, and my parents explained to me that it would be weird to call him Felix, or Mr. Dunlop, so he became Uncle Felix from then on. He was my Dad's roommate, and my Mom's best friend. From his visits when I was a only five or six, I could see that my parents would change. My mom, who usually wore her work clothes to bed would laugh a little more, and he and my dad would go to the bar and come back smelling like beer and cigarette smoke, but in a nice way. Before he left, each time he would say, "now don't grow while I'm gone sport," and I would nod, and accept his hug.
Uncle Felix did some stock trading in Vancouver, owned a Jaguar, had a penthouse, but would make a trip over to our little suburb in Esquimalt about once every two years. When I asked my parents why he had so much more money than us, they mentioned something about having special advantages and no kids. My parents would always ask him if he had finally met someone, and Uncle Felix would shrug and say something along the lines of "marriage was an institution designed to make free men slaves," and my dad would chortle and my mom would punch him in the shoulder. When he came over it was the only time my parents would stay up past midnight, and when I got older they would let me join them on the back porch. My dad would even pour me some of his scotch, as I listened to them laugh until the mosquitoes stopped biting. When I was about 12, I asked him, "am I more like my mom or my dad?"
He laughed, "well, you look a lot like your dad, he used to have locks of brown hair once, almost as long as yours. You're quiet like him too, sport. I'm very observant," he winked at me taping his head. "You only say something when you need to say it, so it makes you sound smarter. Now your mom, well, you smile about as much as her."
I pouted as a reaction.
"She is quite the little serious one," my mom said, "I can never tell if she's happy or not, even when she was a baby, she wouldn't cry, she'd just glare daggers until we figured out what she wanted."
When Uncle Felix visited when I was fourteen, my parents let me stay up later than usual. Lighting his cigarette, Uncle Felix put his feet up on the wicker coffee table, and forgetting that it was lit, the smoke trailed into the night sky. "I'll tell you about the day we all became friends, Charlotte. Your mom, your dad and I." My mom would shift in her arondok chair, and my dad would get out and pace, at the edge of the porch, seeming fascinated with the August stars.
"Your mom hated me at first, Charlotte." Uncle Felix smirked
"I did not," Mom protested, "we just had nothing in common."
"That's right," Uncle Felix stretched his fingers, "she was this ballerina type who never partied because she was worried she would gain weight. She wore a purity ring, and was going to get married to her high school boyfriend. Who she phoned all the time."
"All the time," my dad nodded, "it was literally all we could hear from across the hall."
Uncle Felix waved his cigarette, narrowly missing my nose, but I didn't mind it too much.
"Now your father and I were buddies, right from the first day. But I have to say he was stuck in high school a bit, he still wore his varsity jacket and had a wall of certificates and s***. I thought he was a bit full of himself actually so I didn't really hang out with him that much outside of the dorm."
My dad punched him in the elbow, "You snored Felix."
Uncle Felix waved his hand away, "whatever, so one day there was this party that everyone on Godthorn hall seemed to be invited to, and us three didn't get the memo. Your mom's roommate dropped out after the first month, so I guess she was bored, and stopped by our room. We decided to go on a little adventure."
"We got a bus downtown and it was awkward at first because we didn't really know your mom, but she turned out to be cooler than we thought. She knew the city better than we did, and she showed us this bar, and after she took us down this ally, which she said was a short cut, but actually just lead to this old abandoned construction site."
My mom smiled a bit, "you were so scared Felix."
Uncle Felix laughed and put his cigarette in a makeshift ashtray, "yeah, I admit I was ready to call the cops. But she lead us up there, and told us there was someone she wanted to meet. Sure enough, deep within the rebar frame there was this little shack someone threw together from the leftover building supplies and stuff. She knocked on the plywood door and turned to us and said, 'I want you to meet the smartest man alive.' The door opened and this homeless man appeared, who she introduced to us as Craig, and he didn't look like your typical bum. He was clean cut, you know, with short hair, a slight beard, crooked glasses. Hell, I think he was wearing a collared shirt. The man gave your mom a hug, and she passed him some chicken wings she put in a doggy bag from the bar. The man had set up little benches in his house and invited us to sit. He even had lights which he ran on the construction equipment's energy source, and he made us tea on an kettle. We talked the whole night. He asked your mom how she was doing, and apparently she had been going to Craig's hut since she was eleven, after she met him volunteering at the Salvation Army. Then he asked us about our lives."
Uncle Felix looked at the stars, "Craig was like a councillor."
"The smartest man alive," my dad added.
"So we sat there, just chilling with him. Talking about philosophy and stuff until three in the morning, when our eyes could barely stay open any more. From then on we would go visit Craig in his little shack. It became our Saturday night thing, and we became friends."
My dad started to clear the bottles and plates, and my mom stretched comfortably in her chair. "Better call it a night Charlotte," my dad would say to me, and I nodded and staggered upstairs to my bed, but I could still hear mom and dad and Uncle Felix talking outside, late into the night. I peered at them out the window. My friends who I had been stuck with since second grade would never visit a homeless person with me in an abandoned shack. An adventure for Stacy, my supposed best friend, was using her fake ID to get her into the tanning salon. We talked about how we would be best friends forever and crap, how we would all go to the same university. But my mom's laugh's which carried up to my window made me recognise a pang, an absence of something in myself.
When Uncle Felix roared out the driveway in his Jaguar the next day, I asked my mom, "Why doesn't he stay for very long, or visit us more. If you and dad are such good friends with him?"
My mom was reading, on her swinging chair, looking over her garden and sipping her coffee. She would always do this before she went to work, her hair pulled back into the bun she used to sport when she was a dancer, though now there were subtle grey highlights. Her high heeled boots were kicked up on the table, and she applied her red lipstick comfortably, without a mirror. She stared past her book for a moment.
"Well Charlotte," she paused, "everything has a balance, and everything needs to be taken in moderation. Uncle Felix had a time when me, dad and him could balance each other out. But now we have a family and a new balance. You would understand if he stayed here longer," and she pushed up her reading glasses and went back to her book.
It three years would pass before Uncle Felix came again, and that would be plenty of time to worry about universities, about friends, about balance. I had made up my mind, in my graduating year, that I wouldn't go to university and take a gap year instead. When I told Stacy, she said, "why would you want to do that? It's so weird. You're not going to know anyone." That was the appeal. To get away from my parents, my friends who would cluster in the hallways of UVIC just like they clustered around our high school's lockers. I saw a documentary about India in the IMAX one afternoon when I skipped Spanish, and took a bus to the museum instead. India seemed like the perfect place, far away from my parents, far away from Victoria, far away from my friends.
After I had decided this Uncle Felix arrived at our house in a bus instead of his sports car, with a suitcase full of his worldly possessions. His shaggy hair was longer, and a wayward beard emerged. That morning, getting ready for school, I could heard Dad talking to him on the phone and Uncle Felix's voice on the other end, "Andrew, I'm going to need you to help me out for a bit," he said. My Dad's face became stony and he walked into the other room. He came out after half an hour, slumped on the living room couch and muttered, "Felix is going to crash here for a couple of months, that brokerage fired him, and being the idiot that he is he gambled away his f*ing savings. He's dirt poor and needs a place to stay."
My Mom did something she never did, and spat. "Damn, it was a matter of time before they realised he was the immature moron he is. Charlotte," she snapped at me, and I looked up pretending to be oblivious to their conversation. "This is what happens to people who are given jobs by their parents."
"I don't like it either Beth, but we're friends, and this is what we have to do," my dad sighed, pressing his palm into his forehead.
After school Uncle Felix draped himself over the chair, his hair greasy, and his usual cigarette dangling out of his mouth. "Hi sport!" he said to me his face shining. I put down my backpack and hugged him. "You didn't keep your promise," he scolded me, "you grew up."
"I'm sorry about your job," I muttered to him, but he shrugged, "what's money anyway?"
My mom marched out of the kitchen, she had come home early from work, and was not impressed. "Felix, I'm going to lay down some rules while you are in my house."
Uncle Felix sat up and raised an eyebrow, "throw them at me sis."
She reached over and pulled a cigarette out of his mouth. "There will be no smoking inside, or you will give us all cancer. I made up the spare bedroom, but there will be no female guests. You will cook us our meals, and do the laundry while I'm out during the day. You will start looking for a new job immediately." Mom gave me a glance, "oh and every day after she gets back from school, you will take Charlotte out in the Honda, because she needs to practice driving. Andrew and I don't have enough time."
Uncle Felix nodded, "fair enough" he said to my mom, and then he turned to me, "how about it sport, do you want to hit the road?"
"yeah, sure" I told him, "but I'm pretty bad."
"I think I can take it," Uncle Felix winked. "You can't be worse than your mom."
As I crept along the road, struggling to switch the signal for the right hand turn, Uncle Felix seemed fixated on the Gary Oak trees which lined the road.
The thing about driving that scared me the most was that I just had to push a little harder on the gas, turn the wheel just an inch, and I could be dead. Then there were the things out of my control, a dear crossing the road, a driver running a red light.
"You can go a little faster sport," Uncle Felix urged. But I didn't want to. The movement scared me, the responsibility, the speed, all coming together to make my hands shake on the wheel. I nervously checked the rear view mirror.
"You're mom didn't seem so happy to see me," he muttered.
I remembered what my mom said about balance at one point and mentioned this to him, while skimming the intersection.
He laughed a little. "That is why I love her."
I slammed on the breaks, and a car honked behind me. "What?" I turned to Uncle Felix.
"Don't just stop," he scolded me , "pull over here."
I was too frozen to move, so Uncle Felix had to guide my steering wheel. "There we go," he muttered.
"You love my mom?" I choked on my own spit.
Uncle Felix laughed, "Not Love, love. Friendship love. Like the way I loved that old man Craig in Vancouver, or the way I kinda love your dad."
I thought about this for a moment, about my own friends at school. "I'm pretty sure that's not love Uncle Felix."
"Don't tell me that," Uncle Felix winked at me, "It's all an old bachelor like me has to go from."
A month had gone by and Uncle Felix hadn't even sent out a single resume. My mom rattled around the house, cursing after every dirty sock of his she found on the floor, swearing his name we she found the fridge was empty. "One more week," I heard her mutter to herself. She stopped combing her hair into a neat bun, and left it down, where it was messy and curled. Stomping out of the house, frazzled in the morning, she began to snap at me as well. My dad would glare at Uncle Felix when he left for work in the morning, but Uncle Felix, immersed in the sport section of the paper didn't get the message.
I enjoyed having him there. He told me stories during my driving lessons, not just about my parents, but about history, and the books he was reading, and the architecture of the buildings we passed in Victoria's bustling roads. It had been three months since he had arrived when he pulled into the Royal British Colombia Museum's parking lot. "Let go in and look at the Woolly Mammoth," he suggested so I followed.
The museum was almost deserted on the Tuesday afternoon, and we could hear are footsteps resonate against the cold floor. The curator waved us through and I followed uncle Felix past the recreated Victoria town and up to the natural history section. The mammoth was smaller than I remembered when I was a kid. Its eyes were the same beaded glass of a stuffed animal. It was eerily fake, in the fake display corner where the fake horizon was created where the curved wall painted with a prehistoric sky met the Styrofoam boulders on the ground. I couldn't help but feel sad for it, stuck in its little corner of mimicry.
"How long has the museum had this Mammoth?" I asked Uncle Felix.
"Been here since I was a kid," Uncle Felix muttered, pressing himself against the railing separating us from the mammoth.
"I come here sometimes," I admitted, "not to see the mammoth, but you know where the old cart is in the Victorian town, I'll bring a book and read there where no one will bother me."
Uncle Felix laughed, "don't you have friends Charlotte? Shouldn't you be at parties instead of doing driving lessons with an old guy like me."
I just stared at the mammoth. Its trunk up in a half hearted trumpet. "Yeah I have friends," I shrugged, "I don't like them very much through."
At school I would go through the motions to secure myself a spot at the lunch table. I curled my eyelashes so that the girls would talk to me and I laughed at the dumb things the guys had said so that they would like me. I didn't tell uncle Felix this but I think he understood.
"University will be better" Uncle Felix said. The old lie that adults tell high school students who didn't fit in.
"I don't know if I want to go to university after school," I confessed, something I hadn't confessed to my parents yet.
Uncle Felix snapped around, "Charlotte, what? You're a smart girl, your marks are perfect why on earth would you not want to go to University?"
"I don't know," I shrugged, "It seems that people only do it so that they can make friends and enjoy an extended period of high school. It's not like you can do much with a degree now anyway, I'd rather travel or something. I was thinking of India."
Uncle Felix started to pace, and paused a long time by a fossil exhibit before saying, "I went through the same thing when I was your age. I was convinced I would start my own business. But I'm glad I didn't because though I goofed around allot in high school I started to smarten up in University. I was able to meet people like your parents." He turned sharply to me, "Remember that story about Craig the homeless man?
"Yeah, " I nodded, "what happened to him?"
"Died of Pneumonia, just after your mom and dad got together."
"I'm sorry-" I started to say, but Uncle Felix cut me off.
"He died after they kicked him out of the house when they started to rebuild that skyscraper that he was under. He ended up of one of those God-awful shelters and he picked up a bug there. Then he left for the streets and he got more sick and died like just an ordinary bum."
I started to speak but Uncle Felix waved his hand over my mouth once again.
"The point is Charlotte, Old Craig would always tell me the reason he did so well was because he didn't wander around. His house was his rock. His fortress. Good friends will keep you on course, like your parents did for me." He smiled, but when he smiled it was tainted with something, and I couldn't figure out what. "So that's why you can't just wander around the world on your own and say that you have friends that you don't like. You'll end up homeless."
When we got home my parents were fighting. Tip toe shouting, kitchen bar forming a barrier between them. "Out now," Mom's uncharacteristically shrill voice trailed off.
"Perfect," my mom fumed, as Uncle Felix plopped himself down on the couch, oblivious to the implication that the discussion was about him. "Perfect, just the person I wanted to talk to. Felix you're late for dinner." He shrugged.
My mom, biting the inside of her cheeks, slopped food on a plate and smashed on the table in front of Uncle Felix. When we sat down, mom asked me where we had been. "The museum," Felix explained between a mouthful of food.
Mom was quiet for a moment, collecting her energy, before finally whispering, rage boiling under every word. "Felix you are leaving tomorrow. Pack your bags. I want you gone from my house."
There was no more explanation. Uncle Felix simply picked up his plate, scraped the food off into the compost, washed it, and put it away. He managed to fit his possessions in his bag, while we stared at him from the table. My mom, looking for some reaction. My dad trying to show some pity silently with downward cast eyes. I wanted to give him a hug goodbye, to say how much I liked our driving lessons, to promise him something. But I couldn't collect my words and I couldn't think of what promise I would make.
Uncle Felix took out his lighter, and his hands shaking, lit up. My mom crinkled her nose. He put his suitcase over his shoulder and muttered, "I guess I'll bus out of here." Then he turned to me, and said as he always did, "don't grow up too much while I'm gone sport."
Two weeks after he left, I knew things were back to normal. I walked downstairs to get a glass of milk and from the kitchen, I saw my parents in the den. They were watching to TV and laughing. Dad almost asleep, and my mom's hair was down in a pretty way. I stood there, sipping my milk and watching them for a few seconds. My mom looked up, and smiled. "Come on in Charlotte, we're watching Dexter."
"I have some homework I want to finish up," I told them. I walked upstairs, happy that the balance thing Mom told me about once was alive and well.
At the end of the year I had my plane tickets for Northern India where I would help teach English for a year, and then maybe start a Bachelors of Education program. But driving past the museum with my new drivers license, I felt a little bit guilty. I owed it to Uncle Felix to let him know that I had directly disobeyed him. When I got home, I found his number scrunched up in the office drawer. He picked up after the third ring, and wearily greeted me. I told him what I was doing and he sighed. "Oh well Charolotte. You may as well. I envy people like you who can just pick up and travel. Sometimes I wish I did more of that."
I asked him what he was doing.
"Some day trading and online poker. I can make enough to get by," he said.
Then he asked me about my parents, and I said they were fine. He paused for so long that I had to check that he was there.
"I'm much better now," he cleared his throat on the phone "you know, without them. I was stuck with them trying to relive those times we were friends, before they were together and had you. It's like I've gone through a bad break up," Uncle Felix gave a sad laugh, "you know one of those relationships which hold you back on things that don't exist anymore. I never thought about it this way, but sometimes I wonder if that's what Old Craig was like. Living in that old deserted building while the city grew up around him, while he refused to move."
I made a committal noise.
"Well take care in India, sport," he said to me, "send me a postcard."
I told him I would, but never did.