Gerald

You’d think that people living in big cities would share something. You’d think that there would be a solidarity borne of common struggle, that people would pass each other in the street with a knowingness in their eyes, a nod if not a smile.

Here we are, in this crazy thing. It’s going, it’s gone, there’s nothing we can do about it now.

Like being strapped into a cart about to go over a cliff, harnessed in at the neck and waist, and reaching over to squeeze the hand of the stranger sitting next to you.

But it wasn’t. The stranger, surprised and affronted by the touch, looked at you with fear in his eyes. That was, unless you happened to be a cute young girl. If you were a cute young girl, the look softened, the hand ceded to the grip.

This was a thought that Gerald often had, in fact a surmise at which many of his thinkings arrived. If you lived in a city, the thing to be was a young woman. Doors were held for you, food and drink appeared in your hands. The world was excitable and open to you.

It’s not as if Gerald had a pair of lacy underwear hiding in a drawer at home. He just thought that if he had to do it all over, given the choice, he would be a cute young girl.

He owned a building in the city. It was a modest building, four stories tall, of a rectangular, unimposing design, but he kept it in perfect condition, clean and always with a fresh coat of pleasant-coloured paint. He had worked hard to have this building as security in his old age, and no one had given him anything and it had not been easy.

Today, he was sitting in a plastic chair just outside the door of his building. It was a sunny day, and he was waiting for a prospective tenant to come see an apartment on the third floor.

A young woman lived on the top floor of the building with her boyfriend. This was not a cute young girl. This was a beautiful girl, of the sort of overwhelming beauty that is seen only rarely over the course of a lifetime. She had light, light blue eyes. She was tall but very fragile, like a long, thin rod of glass.

Today, this woman was screaming at her boyfriend. She was screaming and crying and hiccupping. She had a thick layer of shame in her voice, and a ragged edge of desperation and fury. Gerald hoped that she would stop before the prospective tenant was supposed to arrive, so that he would not have to knock at her door and ask her to be quieter.

He thought of all the things he had done for such girls in his life, all the tricks he had pulled to make young girls pay attention to him. I would not go back, he thought. Provided one must live in the city, provided one has to be a man. It’s better to be old. 

Fires

Whatever it is, don’t pick at it. The phrase usually refers to skin ailments, but can be easily translated to apply to emotional wounds.

Olivia got home from coffee with Mike to find Jessie lying on the floor of their kitchen. The front door of their apartment opened into the kitchen – illogically, like everything else in the apartment – so that the first thing Olivia saw upon pushing the door open, keys in hand, carrying a small bag from the grocery store, was Jessie’s almost naked body splayed out on the floor. There had been only a few occasions on which Olivia had seen Jessie anything but almost naked; it was her preferred state of dress, the precarious edge of nudity. Today, the form of this that Jessie had decided on was tiny denim shorts and cotton bralet. She was also wearing some kind of moon pendant, the necklace accentuated by her deficiency of clothing.

“What are you doing?” Olivia asked.

“Is it over?” Jessie asked, propping herself up on her elbows. “Did you break up?”

“He broke up with me,” Olivia said. She opened the fridge and put in the few things she’d bought at the supermarket: a new container of hummus, a couple of individual yogurts, a bunch of green onions. A box of rice crackers went into the cupboard.

“Man.” Jessie rolled over onto her stomach and cradled her chin in her hands. “It’s really over?”

Olivia closed the cupboard and turned to face her roommate. She was wearing a black dress with a high collar. “Yep,” she said. She noticed for the first time that there was a more-than-half-empty bottle of white wine on the floor next to Jessie.

“Man,” Jessie said again. “I really thought you guys were perfect together, you know?”

“What are you doing on the floor?” Olivia asked.

“I don’t know. I’m thinking. And the floor is cold. Everything in this apartment is sweating hot. How are you wearing that?”

“Have you been outside?”

“No. Is it not hot outside? What time is it?”

“It’s four, Jessie.”

“Want to go do something?”

“Not really.”

“I’ve been wanting to do something all day.”

“So go. Do something.”

“I don’t know. I’m bored. Or sad, maybe. I can’t think of anything to do that will make me not bored or sad.”

Olivia sighed and walked to her room. She could hear Jessie from the kitchen saying, “Or not sad exactly. I’m melancholy, I think.”

Olivia found a cardboard box in her cupboard and started to pick Mike’s things from among her own. There wasn’t much to pack up; it hadn’t been a long relationship and over the course of it, he had only left necessities in her apartment. There were a couple of pairs of boxer shorts, a toothbrush and a bottle of mouthwash – the stunted travel size – there was an inexpensive watch that seemed to have stopped, a nameless, faceless white t-shirt, a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls that Mike had been sort-of-reading for months, and an electric razor, brought over in a moment of pre-parental-encounter haste about a week ago, which looked like the only thing he might actually want back. Olivia gathered it all and arranged it, item by item, in the box. The entire collection barely reached the rim, and it looked small and insignificant. The summary of a romance. Olivia was contemplating whether to rearrange it when Jessie walked in. She lingered in the door, hanging off the doorframe.

“So…what happened?”

“Nothing. He broke things off.”

“Just out of nowhere? I thought you really liked each other.”

“Well.”

“He had to have some reason.”

“He doesn’t feel like we’re going anywhere, he wants to go travelling, he wants to do it by himself. There were a lot of reasons, but really he just didn’t want to be together anymore.”

“Want to go egg his house?”

“No, Jess!”

“Come on. It would feel so good.”

“Jesus, he lives in a condo building. He rents the place from his parents.”

“We could wait outside and just get him as he walks out.”

“He would see us!”

“No, we could –

“I’m not even discussing this.”

Jessie shrugged. “What are you going to do with his stuff?”

“Send it back to him.” Olivia closed the box, with purpose, and taped it up.

Jessie came into the room and grabbed her by the shoulders. “You’re allowed to be angry, Liv.”

“I know,” she said. “Thanks, Jessie.”

 

Olivia had to go into work that evening. On the way home, she realized she’d forgotten her keys. She felt a momentary pinch of frustration; it wasn’t like her. She assumed that Jessie wouldn’t have left the apartment, but when she arrived, there was a note taped to the front door in her friend’s loopy handwriting. Come to Rosewood Park.

Alright, Jessie, she thought, too tired to resist. I’ll play.

Rosewood Park was a block from their apartment. It was on the corner of two busy streets; hurried cars paid it no attention. It featured a jarring mix of graffitied surfaces and overgrown wildlife, lush maybe-poisonous urban weeds growing out of its every un-concreted surface. The only people Olivia had ever seen in it were letting their dogs piss on it.

Jessie was standing over something in the middle of this park. Olivia started to get an uneasy, foreboding feeling in her stomach. As she approached, it became clear that the something was a fire.

“Christ, are you allowed to have an open fire in a public park?”

Jessie shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Olivia looked closer and saw that the thing that was on fire was the box she had packed of Mike’s stuff. She wanted to scream, she wanted to cry, she wanted to hit Jessie.

“Jess, what is that?”

“Oh yeah,” Jessie shrugged again. “It deserves to be burned.”

“Jessie, that’s fucked up! We can’t burn his stuff.”

“No, it isn’t,” Jessie answered. “Let’s get drunk and dance around the fire.”

“It’s not as if he was a bad person.”

“No, sure, he was a decent person. He just didn’t love you.” Jess handed her a bottle of wine, not the same one that had been in the kitchen.

“Not everyone can love you.”

Jessie threw something else into the fire. “And that’s shitty. People who claim to love you should be capable of doing so.”

Olivia let herself drink copiously. Later, as the embers settled, as Mike’s property was burning into nothing, Jessie leaned in and settled her elbows on her knees and said, “But he was a real shit, wasn’t he?”

There was only a very satisfying ash left. “He wasn’t. Honestly. He was good people. That makes it worse, doesn’t it?”

“Let’s not bother thinking about it.”

Jessie flung the last thing into the fire. The white t-shirt. A police car went by, sirens on. “Let’s go get arrested,” she said.

Night Bus

My prettiness is wasted tonight.

Frances wanted to sit at the back of the bus, but has settled for the middle so that she doesn’t have to sit next to anyone. It is a cold clear night. Her bare lips are stained, the souls of glasses of red wine. Her phone lies silent in her pocket, settled against her thigh.

 

Frances goes out on Friday nights. All her friends go out on Friday nights. Usually they get together first and drink until they are rosy and alive, until their secrets come tumbling from their tongues into each other’s open palms. They talk about the things that happened to them over the past week; inanities become important and tragedies are passed off as dramas. Then cleansed, triumphant in their communal girlhood, they help each other straighten dresses and fix hair and march off into yet another night of neon youth.

This Friday night is like every other. Her evening class finished, Frances makes the short, cold walk through the warm bustle of campus. She feels good. She’s wearing her favourite jacket and new jeans. She took the time to do her hair this morning. She feels like the whole world might be looking at her. On the way to the bus stop, she takes out her phone to see what her life has been doing without her. Messages from other girls, full of giggles two-dimensionalized and burgeoning plans. An email from her mother. Right, must call tomorrow. Finally, the important one:

Hey bitch. Drinks at 9 at Lucy’s.

Frances feels the tiny, secret thrill of being called a bad word by your best friend.

The bus ride home is quiet. The young people are absorbed in their own worlds, plugged in to the anticipation of tonight and tomorrow, the as-yet virgin time between now and another Monday. Older people, ones with serious jobs and families tucked away in distant suburbs, sit with half-closed eyes, letting the slackening mood of the city wash over them. Frances texts busily.

She gets off the bus at the right stop, unlocks her door, takes off her shoes. Her room mates are all at home.

“Hey girl! Lucy’s at nine.”

“Yeah, I know. Kate texted me. What are you wearing?”

She eats dinner quickly and has a glass of wine, just to get started. She sings in the shower, songs she hopes to dance to later tonight. Then it begins. Bottom drawer, black stockings. The first ones have a run. She throws them out and puts on a new pair. The dress. Three are tried on and discarded before the perfect one is found. It is examined critically, at angles. Its skirt sits perfectly flat across her hips, flaring out a little at the bottom. It cradles her small waist and neat bosom and opens at the neck to reveal strong, taut skin. Frances knows that one day her skin will lose its shape in all the used places like an old pair of jeans, but she cannot feel it yet. She hangs a long chain and bauble around her neck – not the jewellery her family gives her for birthdays. Then the hair, half up in a way that she hopes looks effortless, the rest falling around her shoulders. Ready for anything. Through all this, girls swirl in and out of the room steadily.

“Can I borrow your shirt with the cut-outs?”

“Are you wearing your high-waisted jeans?”

“Do you think Curtis will be there? I don’t want to see him, but I feel like if he’s there I’ll, like, have to talk to him.”

Frances laughs and suggests through it all, always the helpful friend. Finally, she closes her door so she can be alone for the last and most important part. She plasters her face in even peach and then apples her cheeks. Slowly, carefully, she draws a dark frame around her eyes. She tars her lashes just so and places strategic spots of glitter at the corners of her lids. Last of all, she spreads thick, strong colour over her stretched smile, traces her cupid’s bow, covering up every millimeter of lip. Just as she turns for one last look in the mirror, the door is conquered by the room mates’ siege.

“Hurry up, it’s time to go!” And the night begins.

They all pile into the crowded bus to go to Lucy’s. Teenagers carrying poisoned Seven-Up bottles maintain a steady barrage of obnoxious, giddy laughter. People with sad jobs and denim skin are just now coming home from work. A lady at the front of the bus stares straight out the window, cradling a grocery bag on her lap. Her eyes are deeply weary. Frances’ roommates are discussing potentials for the night. Who will look best, who will be a mess, who will kiss whom.  Frances laughs along, glances into the reflective surface of the bus at intervals. Behind her face, she can see the dark sky skulking heavy over still-lit shops.

When they arrive, Lucy comes to the door of her apartment. She is tall, thin, and Asian, and takes understated pride in her pseudo-exoticism. She’s wearing her favourite outfit: sky-high socks and infinitesimal shorts. They emphasize the subtle triangle nestled between her thighs.

“Hurry up, bitches. We’re already drinking.”

The gaggle of girls takes the stairs two at a time up to the apartment. Frances is the last one through the door. High-pitched kerfuffle greets her. Through the flurry of hugs, her friend Kate grabs her and drags her to a couch. For a split, safe second, Frances is wrapped in thin arms and affection. Then Kate thrusts her away, looks her up and down.

“I think what you’re wearing is perfect. Stand up,” she orders. Frances stands, twirls. “Yeah. So cute.”

“Thanks!” A moment of triumph. “It’s a new dress.” She perches on the edge of the couch once more. “What’s the plan?”

“We. Are going. To have. The best time tonight.” Kate proceeds to list a bright streak of places and names, the other girls chiming in. Frances feels excitement rise in her stomach and her head starts humming with possibilities. Someone puts a glass of wine in her hand, followed in a few minutes by a shot of vodka.

Boys have been invited tonight. They lumber into the apartment. They are somehow too big for the room and for a moment, they stand awkwardly suspended in the doorway. Then Lucy jumps up to greet them, and the party is resumed, the yammer instantly becoming more crazed. The smells of whiskey and pot mingle with hairspray and vodka, and a lower rumble settles in underneath the bright, burbling conversation.

Frances is introduced to a Jack and a Tim and a Roy. Jack starts talking loudly about a rapper that he has allegedly discovered. Frances thinks that his exaggerated arm movements make him look like a vertiginous stork. She has another drink and joins Tim and Roy in a very intense conversation about campus politics in which they all nod at each other a lot. Tim has a sweet, crooked smile, and he looks over at her often. Frances thinks this is making her dizzy, but she has also lost track of how much she has drunk.

After a while, Kate comes bursting into their little circle, a gleaming force of delight. “Stop being so serious.”

“We’re not being serious.”

“Are too. It’s fucking Friday night!”

The party crescendos up and up and up, noisier and more colourful, the conversation becoming more excitable and the flirtation more overt. At this point everyone is breathing liquor like dragons, and in the corner Frances thinks she sees Lucy and Jack and a few of the other girls taking some kind of pill. She and Tim are talking – she has forgotten what about, but she is laughing, throwing her head back. She is giddy and charming. Then someone puts music on. Some of the girls abandon self-consciousness and dance, more join, the rhythm of conversation competes with the rhythm of aggressive electronica. And just when it seems that the apartment cannot hold all the light and energy, that it will burst and send them all, projectile, into the black night, the clarion call sounds: “Bus comes in THREE MINUTES!” Everyone clambers for scarves and coats and purses, jostles for one last look in the mirror. Then they are out the door, a flurry of resilient limbs and smiling shouts, dashing for the stop. On board, they occupy the bus completely. Impossible to notice anyone else.

The club is chaos. The music pounds until Frances’ brain loses touch with her body. She is drawn into the tangle of sweaty people; her friends seem to have disappeared the moment they walked in the door. She looks around desperately, her stomach tightening. Where ARE they? Through the crowd, she spies a familiar face. Tim, with his crooked smile. She waves. He comes over and takes her hand. She wishes she’d had time to fix her hair.

“Want to sit down?”

They find a booth by the bar and order drinks. They send shy glances at each other over the table. She giggles and he starts laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” she asks.

“I’m laughing because you’re laughing!”

“I’m a little bit drunk,” she confesses, as if it is an intimate detail.

“Aren’t we all.” He lets out another laugh, this time laced with something bitter. “How old are you?”

“Almost twenty-one.”

“And you’re still having fun?”

“What do you mean?”

He gestures to the club at large with his drink. “You’re not tired of it yet?”

She pauses, unsure of the answer. Then she narrows her eyes at him. “You think you’re cooler than me because you’re bored of clubs? These are my friends. This is what we do on Friday night.” He looks comically surprised for an instant, and then his face settles back into placidity. “And you’re here too.”

He shrugs. “Whatever. Want to go dance?”

On the dance floor, Frances can feel strangers’ body parts touching her. Normally this would make her uncomfortable, but on Friday night it is exhilarating, all the unknown particles of someone else’s skin jittering up against hers. Her head feels light and she moves to the music without thought. She and Tim are pressed very close together by the other dancers around them. He is clutching a handful of fabric at the back of her dress, which she finds odd, but she doesn’t mind. I don’t mind! And then his lips are on hers, and this, too, is exciting, they have just barely met and his lips are warm and wet and his tongue is in her mouth and she feels vaguely nauseous – Barf or butterflies?– and then they are kissing. After what seems like ages, he pulls away with an expression she can’t interpret. She looks up at him earnestly. He scratches his head.

“I have to go now, so…”

What’s that supposed to mean? Am I supposed to offer to go with him?

They stand looking at each other, their closeness now awkward.

“You’re so pretty,” he says. “I had a lot of fun with you.” Then he turns and leaves. Frances watches him go in bafflement, being bumped in the back and the sides by other people’s elbows and asses. Right.

Just then, Kate emerges out of the crowd, half-lurching. She wears the remnant of a wide, giddy laugh and her hair is messy. She takes both of Frances’ hands, catches her up in a just-invented dance move. Frances lets herself be swung around, limp and dizzy.

“Where the heck did you go?” she asks Kate.

“I’m dancing! Why aren’t you dancing?”

“I don’t feel like it right now.”

Kate stops, immobile against the blur of the night, and cradles Frances’ chin. She steadies her eyes on Frances’ pupils.

“But you’re always my best partner in crime.” Reanimated, she leaps up onto her tiptoes and gestures to someone in the crowd. “I’ll get you another drink.”

“Kate, no. I’m just tired.”

            “You can’t be tired! This is life!”

“I – ”

But Kate is gone again, flowed back into the writhing organism of strangers.

 

Frances is sitting in the middle of the bus. Her hair is still in place. She reapplies her lipstick in her pocket mirror. She wonders if anyone wonders where she is, but her phone lies completely still. The bus is almost empty at this time of night, and silent. It floats down the street, a dim tube of moving light, indifferent to the world outside. At the next stop, the doors whoosh open and a drunken crow of a man is blown in. He wears a long black leather jacket. Greasy grey tendrils frame dancing eyes and a sparse mustache. He swings into the seat opposite Frances and begins to address the bus generally.

“These city women don’t like me. Been eight years that no woman loved me.”

He sways dangerously, his eyes half closed. He opens his mouth too much when he speaks, cavernous gaps and rotting molars.

“I don’t love…don’t love no one anymore. ‘Cept vodka.”

He chuckles grotesquely at himself. Frances is scared. Suddenly, he looks straight at her, and she realizes she has been staring. He will not let her go.

“I was young too, eh? Like all you pretty little people.”

Her mouth is opening and closing noiselessly. She is paralyzed, a goldfish skewered on a harpoon.

“You think I don’t know what it’s like? Think it’ll make you happy, eh.”

She cannot look away. He turns from her for a second, looking out the window, and then, before she knows what is happening, he has jumped from his seat and is bearing down on her, arms outstretched, mouth wide open.

“YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL, LITTLE GIRL! YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL! YOU’RE THE MOST GODDAMN FUCKING BEAUTIFUL THING I’VE EVER SEEN!”

The bus driver has pulled over, is getting up from his seat. Frances hears him yell, “Sir, sit down!” behind her. But she has already leapt from the back door in retreat, she is sprinting through the snow. She knows she is sobbing but she cannot feel it.

She arrives home damp and miserable. She gets into bed and sinks under the covers still in her party dress. Her ruined makeup smears onto her sheets. The glow of passing cars sneaks in through the cracks in her curtains and flits across the wall, fast and constant. She buries her face in her pillow and screams until she can’t anymore.

 

Gin and Scraped Knees

It was a Tuesday night, and she was drinking by herself, which she found thrilling. She wished she had something to write on, any scrap of paper, a napkin like writers in movies or politicians in legends. She considered asking the bar tender for one, then failed to find a writing implement in her purse and gave up. She cradled her gin and resolved to think writerly things, instead.

The bartender was a frazzled but robust-looking dyed blonde woman and the clientele consisted mainly of men with thick beards and bad teeth who, though they were not old, seemed already to have been beaten by time. There was, however, a circle of fresh faces one table over, young things sporting thick-framed glasses and painfully casual t-shirts, loudly discussing politics. Not too seedy but just seedy enough for hipster tourism.

She found herself looking at her phone often. She was waiting for someone to call, though she wasn’t expecting anyone to, and every time she checked, minutes had been added to the night. It’s young, she told herself, and so am I. Young enough to waste time. And so she sat and drank with no purpose but to drink. Occasionally she glanced over at the hipsters to see if they had noticed her, but discovered that they operated along the same lines as watched pots: if you’re looking at the hipsters, they’re never looking at you. How dull it must be never to boil.

The night skipped on, and when she had lulled her mind into blankness, she paid for her drinks and headed for the door. Some of the real customers were lounging around the entrance, a cluster of chapped hands and nervous faces. Short, efficient smiles. She stopped and asked them for a cigarette. One of them acquiesced and there was a silence while he lit it for her. It was a warm tar night, quiet hum in the air. She considered them and they her, and then one man asked, or maybe stated, “So you were reading in there.”

“Yeah,” she answered. “Yeah, but the take one leave one section didn’t have anything good in it. Big surprise.”

They laughed collectively, short laughs to match short smiles, and she laughed along, in the spirit of good sportsmanship. The same guy asked, “Fiction or non-fiction?”

“Fiction. Always fiction.” She laughed again, but he just nodded.

“Why always fiction?”

Finishing their cigarettes one by one, the men went back into the bar and finally there were just the two of them outside on the pavement, anchored by the orb of a street light and surrounded by gravityless blackness, talking. Like the others, he wasn’t old but gave the impression of age that comes with a life lived at its base, a usedness, a thin, permanent coat of dirt. He knew about literature and had travelled and he spoke eloquently, but there was something in his eyes that was not quite there, that was, she thought, on another pavement, in another city, in front of another bar with another girl. He asked her if she’d like a drink.

They sat at the bar. The bartender, more frazzled than before, served them without registering that they had left once and come back for more, or perhaps just without caring. They talked for a long time, and when the hours became thin and the loud young men were yawning and paying their bills, he inevitably asked how old she was.

“Twenty.”

“Jesus, that’s young.”

“It doesn’t feel that young.”

“It is. Are you in school?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s good. Good to have a way in life.”

She laughed. “I don’t have a way. I have no idea what I’ll do when I graduate.”

“Well, sure you do.”

“No, really I don’t. I could do just about anything.”

“But you’ll have a degree. You’ll get a good job, right?”

“Hopefully.”

“So you’ll get a job you like, in a place you like. You’ll get comfortable, try to make yourself happy.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Have a family, maybe. You like kids?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

He nodded, satisfied, and she felt she had something else to say to him, but she couldn’t think of what it was. She noticed now that he had nice arms and a chin that looked strong and soft at once, and for a brief, flirting second, she pictured herself lying next to him and asking who the faraway girl was who had his eyes. But when the moment passed, she thanked him for the drink and got up to leave. He smiled and told her he’d see her again. For a moment, they stood looking at each other and agreeing to believe it was true.

As she unlocked her bike outside, the man who had given her his cigarette poked his head out of the window of the bar and reminded her jovially not to drink and drive. She laughed at him, but then did fall down twice on her way home. The next day, she woke up with a  pounding headache and scraped knees. For a few days, she carried an unsettled feeling around with her, and worried that she did not know where it had come from. By the next week it was gone with the scrapes.