by Hilary Dean
It was hard to explain.
“These roses are like … a … representation? Of like—”
“Hang on. No offence, Adrian, but it looks like you just got a bunch of flowers and put them all around your apartment and then they all died and you just took a picture of it.”
“Yes. But actually, these roses—”
“It’s trite. Is it trite on purpose? Is it a comment on banality?”
It was hard to explain my photograph during the critique because no one could shut their stupid fuckface mouths for even one second. The class was called Theories of Representation but it should have been called A Room Full of Assholes Think You are Dumb.
There were a million assignments in art school and you were supposed to come up with meaningful art for all of them, even a photography theory compulsory you never wanted to take in the first place. They were making me take it. I wasn’t even in Photography because I sucked at it, obviously. I was in Film. Totally different. But you had to take everything no matter what you specialized in. You think Fine Arts is going to be a bird degree and then you have to take classes all through the summer and talk about art until you want to kill yourself and also everyone else.
“It’s cheesy. Dead roses. Dying love.”
“It’s not about love, you guys. It’s about … like … Euhhh.”
I stopped trying to explain and started not caring, which was much easier. They didn’t mean to be mean. They just had to say smart things in front of the teacher to seem smart.
“Just so beyond clichéd.”
Or they were all cockfaces, I don’t know. I wasn’t any better. I lied all the time in the opposite way because I wanted people to like me. I always said something positive even if I was ambivalent about someone’s art installation or experimental film or shitty band. My ex-boyfriend Greg used to call me out on it all the time. You’re so fake, he would say. He would do a dead-on high-pitched wide-eyed imitation of me. Oh, I thought your film was great. So good. Those theatre students were really talented. I really believed they were dead. That blood looked really authentic. You make the best blood, what’s your secret? Oh, cherry Kool-Aid, ohhhhh.
Outside, it was bright and hot and ten million squirrels were running around like crazy. City squirrels are scary. They’re all demented from a diet of Styrofoam and a life of narrowly escaping death. Each one is a mangled survivor of savage violence, with matted fur and scabby patches of skin. The ones downtown were always missing an eye or an ear, or a whole entire tail.
They scurried up the trees and across the shoulders of Egerton Finchaven, eponymous founder of the college, forever immortalized as a bronze pigeon-shit-covered squirrel sentry. His expression suggested a tranquil bliss, and from his right arm, earnestly extended in frozen mid-gesture, dangled a lacy pink bra. The bra had hung there for months, and was not a random act of vandalism, but an art installation homage to American college movies. Some jerk had gotten an A for it and I was jealous.
I could tell by the sun that it was just past three. I had a geography teacher in high school named Mr. Ludwig who was obsessed with the altitude of the sun. He made us learn to calculate it down to the decimal point with a protractor. He promised that it would come in handy if we got lost or stranded, as if we were foolhardy Sea Captains on weekends. But then I found myself breaking the sky into angles any time I was outside and the habit continued. I missed high school. I liked it when answers were just right or wrong and no one thought you were shallow because you took pictures of flowers and had all of Adam Sandler’s movies.
On my way home, I stopped at the drug store to get makeup for my blandy pie face, bandages for my bloody knee gash, garbage bags for my gross apartment, and condoms because even though I was a mess, I was also still an optimist.
Outside my door, there was a bouquet of red roses. As I stared at them, my neighbour Elizabeth came down the hall with her terrier, who jumped all over me.
“Down, Ricki Lake! Hi, Adrian.”
The dog had red nail polish on. I looked to see if Elizabeth had matching, but her nails were plain.
“You’re so lucky,” she said, looking at the roses. “Getting flowers all the time.”
I smiled and shrugged like a cartoon, with jaunty shoulders and upturned palms.
“Yeah.” So fake, Adrian.
Elizabeth sighed. “When I was twenty, I got flowers too.”
I nodded the nod that you nod at the people that you see every day, instead of saying goodbye. I carried the flowers inside, dropped my purse on the floor, and opened the box of garbage bags.
I was twenty and I got flowers. My apartment was filled with red roses. There were ancient arrangements in yellowy water and shriveled variety store trios in plastic cones. Some were long-stemmed and solitary with sharp triangle thorns. There were a few velvet newborn babies like the ones just delivered but most had brown petals tinged with pink, beyond dead and crusted with decay.
I put the garbage bags in the cupboard. I wanted to throw the roses out but I couldn’t just yet. They were innocent. They had nothing to do with any of it.
And where to start, even if I could? Most of the roses would seem, to an objective observer, inarguably gross and unfit for display. Others slightly less so. But where was the cut off? Medium-dead? Or at the first hint of imperfection? And who was I to say that some flowers were less perfect than others? Weren’t they all interesting to look at in some way, if you laid aside your expectations of a better, lovelier flower? If you could forget, for just one second, your impossible ideals?
“Whore!” A man screamed from the sidewalk under my window. “Fucking whore!”
I hit the play button on my CD player and rolled the volume to max before remembering that it was empty and that all my CD’s were destroyed. I turned on the TV and started rolling a joint.
“Slut! Where were you last night? You didn’t sleep here last night, you whore!”
I’d gone a whole year without drugs of any kind, since Greg had been militantly anti-them. But after we’d broken up I’d started smoking weed again because it made being stalked by him more relaxing.
“Who was it, whore? Who were you with?”
I had been with Wes the night before. I was still feeling weird about it. I felt weird after it happened, and as it was happening, and definitely before he tied the condom in a knot, slingshotted it into the trash can across the room with a practised arcing trajectory, kissed me and said, Promise things won’t be weird between us now?
I got up and closed the window. People yelling my name was super embarrassing because of Rocky.
As I smoked, I wove an intricate mummy-lattice of bandages around my wasted knee. Then I grabbed five garbage bags from the cupboard and filled them with roses. It took a long time because I had to take several breaks in order to stare into space for no reason and by the time I finished it was getting quite late. I had to get ready for work that very second, or call in sick to the restaurant. If I called in sick I could avoid seeing Wes. But if I stayed home then I would be at home.
I brushed my teeth and washed my face. I hadn’t cleaned since the fight, and the corpses of my murdered makeup were all over the bathroom. Delicate eyeliner pencils snapped in half, sweet lipstick stalagmites squished to pink mud. A shiny plastic uterus trailing the black ink of its mascara wand abortion. White porcelain stained with blue shadow. Glass fragments from a vial of concealer that splattered the walls the colour of my skin when it smashed.
“I’m sorry,” I said, as I dropped the pieces into the garbage. “I’m so sorry that this happened to you.”
I opened the mirrored cabinet above the sink and reached for my pills. One for depression, two for anxiety. I swallowed them with a hand trench of water from the tap.
I couldn’t call in sick because then they’d be shorthanded. Well guess what, I didn’t care if they were shorthanded, fuck those assholes. But if I did call in sick, I’d spend the rest of the night imagining all the accidents that were happening that wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t been shorthanded.
I could deal with seeing Wes. I could pretend that things weren’t weird. I’m not the kind of actor who could emote on a stage with people staring at me, but I’m good at acting like a nice, normal person even though I’m actually a very terrible, shitty person.
I got dressed in my black shirt black skirt uniform and then put my new make-up on. I locked my door, took the stairs, and ran out of the lobby as fast as I could. When I looked back over my shoulder, I saw that Greg was running after me but I wasn’t worried. I had a good lead.
Even after two months of following me everywhere, he hadn’t built up the cardio to keep up with me. He had no physical endurance and wore tight corduroy pants. When we were together, I’d never judged him for being un-athletic, only for being delusional about it. He’d do this thing, like when he’d help me and the film kids carry equipment, or after draining a boiling spaghetti cauldron into my parents’ kitchen sink. He’d pat his arms and say, I have very powerful upper body strength. Built up from years of canoeing.
People would nod with blank-faced politeness. All you had to do was look at him to know that he was lying. To officially confirm that the last time he’d ever canoed was at summer camp ten years ago, leaving more than a decade of Kazantzakis-reading stasis for any muscles he might have had to atrophy into the white speckled fish flab you saw before your eyes.
I dodged people on the sidewalk with my patented ninja stealth. I sprinted across Wellesley Street and ran down the stairs into the subway. The doors of my train closed and I felt relief spill down my spine like a divine waterfall made from the tears of angels. Across from me, a man and a woman were making out with loud slurping mouth sounds. Out of courtesy, I changed seats so that I wouldn’t murder them.
Walking toward the restaurant, I could see Wes and Ev the sous chef standing by the alley, smoking. I felt my asshole clench.
Wes was a sexy pasty white boy comedian. He treated me in two different and very specific ways. He was either sleepy-eyed hungover and annoyed by everything I said or hyper-attentive; laughing at my jokes, asking about my dreams, giving me head out of nowhere in the storage room at work. One mood was worth putting up with for the other mood.
He was amazing onstage. He had a sweetly mean candy punk confidence that drew people to him, made people want to please him. After each show, he’d have a dozen Toronto-coy suitresses pretending not to wait for him at the bar. His act was smart and twisted and I was attracted to the sweaty, earnest energy of it, which I had expected would translate into the heights of frenzied ecstasy during our ultimate coitus. Which was not what happened.
Here’s what happened: Everything up until the act of penetration was great, you can go ahead and use your pervy imagination for that part, you giant perv. Then I was on top and I was just about to come. I was on the glorious precipice of coming. And then, without a hint of probing suggestion, without any warning or lubrication, he jammed his finger straight up my asshole. The sudden jolt of ripping pain took me right out of the moment, right out of everything. I made a terrible noise but his stupid face below me was oblivious. He came. I watched him come. This all happened in one single second in slow-motion and then it was over. I got off him and I was lying there staring at the ceiling like … Whaaaat just happened? And I looked at his stained yellow scurvy pirate fingers with their jagged untamed hawk talons and I was furious.
Not even about the pain. The pain was only a sparking ember of hurt by that time. But the loss of my pleasure was an agony that burned through my body with the raging fire of a thousand hells.
He smiled. He kissed me. He was sweet to me. And all I could think was, Get your finger out of my ass, Wes! Get your finger out of my ass, Wes! But it was too late to say that. And then he said,
“Promise things won’t be weird between us now?” And I was like,
“Yes.” But I was lying.
He said, “Are you sure? Are you sure things won’t be weird?” and I was like,
“Yes,” but I was lying again.
You have to talk about these things, buddy. You have to communicate, I said to him, in my mind the day after.
“Hi,” I said to Wes and Ev, in a normal way that was not weird at all.
“Adrian,” said Ev, “Greg’s here. He’s at table nine.”
“What?” I said. “He can’t be here. He couldn’t’ve gotten here so fast.”
“He took a cab,” said Ev. “We saw him pull up.”
“He’s a resourceful young man,” said Wes. He offered me a cigarette from his pack and I took it. “You should go home, Aidge. We’ll cover.”
“Yeah,” said Ev. “We’ll tell them you looked sick.”
“You looked terrible,” said Wes. He smirked and reached out to light my cigarette for me, cupping the space around it with his hand. “But seriously, Adrian. Don’t you think it’s time you went to the police?”
“Where is he from?” laughed Yolanda. I was flopped on the couch in her mom’s basement, melting my sweaty legs on its leather cushions and then peeling them off to feel the suction. She unwrapped the BLT sub I’d brought for her, took a bite, and spoke with her mouth full.
“Where is he from, this guy, where the police aren’t dicks?”
“I don’t know. Oshawa.”
“The police, as if. Like they’re going to care about Greg, that scrawny Amish-looking wankfest.”
She poked a stray tendril of lettuce inside her sub with a gold fingernail.
“I knew the first time I met him, you know. We all knew. We all hated him.”
“I know, Yolanda.”
“You should have listened to me.”
“Because I knew.” She clutched my arm. She had a habit of clutching arms. She touched people too often and too intensely.
“That night at the diner when he said he hated Harold and Maude?”
“Who hates Harold and Maude?” Yolanda slammed her ginger ale down on the table.
“What kind of horrible evil monster hates Harold and Maude?” She was screaming now, spitting sandwich blobs everywhere. It was her second-favourite movie, after The Year Punk Broke.
I had an appointment with Dr. Nikhil. She had been my doctor for years and I loved her. I felt so at ease with her I’d thought nothing of going to her about my hymen situation three years before. I had met the handsome English teacher (not my school, it’s allowed) who was going to deflower me and I wanted to know—was I stretched out already from tampons and ballet, or was I going to rip apart and bleed all over the place, Old Testament style?
When I’d gone to her for my panic attacks, I told her I was stressed out about school and sad about The Environment. She asked if there was anything else in my life that was a stress factor apart from school. No. She asked if I was doing any recreational drugs like marijuana. No. She asked if I was getting enough sleep. No. She asked if my parents knew what was going on with me. Yes.
Lie, lie, truth, lie.
“So, it’s been six weeks now. How are you feeling?”
“I feel sad,” I said. “And bad.”
“I feel pain,” I said. “There’s pain all over. But at the same time, I can’t isolate it. I don’t know where it’s coming from.”
“Like an ache?”
“Yes. But it’s sharper than that. It’s like a sharp ache. And there’s also a bubbling to it. Like a bubbling aching sharpness.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s hard to explain. It feels like the pain is under my skin but over my organs. In my blood or fluids. Maybe my veins. It feels like my veins are melting but with a sharpness? Like how it would feel if your blood was powdered glass. Flowing and melting and stabbing.”
I looked at her hopefully, expectantly. This was the part where she’d smile and say, Oh yes, that sounds like meltystabbyveinyitis. Let me write you a prescription.
Instead she frowned and asked if I was drinking enough water. She said I probably wasn’t getting enough exercise. And then I looked at Dr. Nikhil and the way she was looking at me, and I realized that I didn’t really know her at all. She was familiar to me, but I didn’t know her. And I didn’t mean anything to her. Not really. She had requisitioned my tonsillectomy, vaccinated me, and even swabbed the cells of my cervix. But there existed between us a chasm far deeper than any vagina.
“So the medication isn’t working,” she said.
“It was working,” I said. “And then I think it stopped working.”
“Okay. I can definitely help you with that. You were probably on too low of a dosage. So we’ll increase … (she paused to write on her notepad) … that.”
“And Adrian, these medications have to be carefully monitored. So promise me that you’ll come and see me right away if there are any changes in your appetite or sleeping patterns.”
Outside the pharmacy, I clenched the prescription between my teeth while I rummaged through my purse for my insurance card.
“How many times have I told you not to do that?” said Greg, emerging from the shadows like a vampire except not sexy and I guess immune to daylight.
“Stop holding things in your mouth like a fucking dog. Have some respect for yourself.”
His beard had grown longer. He was wearing a stupid white shirt with stupid suspenders and a stupid tie and a stupid hat.
“Leave me alone, psycho,” I said. “You have to leave me alone. Unless you’re here to give me money for all my stuff you wrecked.”
“I told you, I was throwing out your trash. For your betterment. For your growth as a person. All I’ve been trying to do is to help you, Adrian. But you never listen. You don’t change. I mean, you’re in film school and you can’t even sit through The Seventh Seal without falling asleep.”
“You hate me,” I said. “Listen to what you’re saying, you hate me. You follow me around, you scream outside my window, you trash my apartment, you destroy my things. That equals you hate me. So leave me alone. Stop sending me flowers, stop everything.”
He put his hand to his chest as if there was a heart inside it that hurt.
“Adrian, I love you. Don’t you understand? I love you despite all your flaws, despite all your failings. Love is too powerful to just throw away. But you did. And you ruined my life.”
“Yes, I’m aware. Can I please go now?”
“You promised me that we would be together forever. And you broke your promise. So I just want you to know that when I kill myself, you’re going to be the one who finds my body. That’s my promise to you.”
“Awesome. You have a great day now.”
It was difficult to pay attention.
“What makes your main character different from any other rambling, self-obsessed protagonist? Why should we care?”
It was difficult to pay attention in screenwriting class when I sat across from Owen Cosgrove and spent the whole time thinking wicked-perverted thoughts about him. Every week, I’d tell myself to choose a different seat so I wouldn’t be distracted. But then, for some reason, I never did.
“Well, she’s a sixty-year-old prostitute addicted to crystal meth.”
“She’s the only witness to her twin sister’s murder.”
“Okay, but, like, and? What makes us sympathize?”
You needed to say things in class to get participation marks. And it was a small class, only twenty-five people, so it was totally noticeable if you didn’t participate in the script critiques. Plus, our desks were arranged in a tight circle to encourage “civilized liberal discourse” as well as the objectification of Owen Cosgrove.
“Wait a second. This guy’s supposed to be the city’s ace private detective, and you want us to believe that he’s completely incompetent? That he’s living with the serial killer but missing all the clues that are right in front of his face?”
“It’s called an Unreliable Narrator, in case you didn’t know.”
“Thanks, I got that. But when you reveal who’s behind the monastery massacre in the first act, the detective loses all credibility. If I already know it was his mother, I can’t take it seriously.”
“I took your mother seriously last night.”
“Stacey. Claire. Please.”
Professor Adelman hardly ever intervened. She was dignified and reserved, defending the honour of our mothers and adjusting her watch in such a subtle way, as if she were only feeling for a pulse and happened to notice the time.
I should have been criticizing someone, but it was difficult to pay attention. I kept having flashbacks of the cop drama we’d shot a few months before. Owen Cosgrove had played the disgruntled janitor, and I got to strap a fake bomb to his sweating, lightly muscled chest. Except that soundstage was actually freezing so my memory must have added in the sweat? Anyway, as I wrapped tape around Owen’s torso, I was making jokes about being all aroused, except I wasn’t joking. And now I have sex dreams where I make him come just before the bomb goes off and we both explode and die.
It was wrong. Do you know what he did every single weekend? He read to the blind. Voluntarily. I’m not even kidding. I might as well have been jerking off to Mother Theresa every night, I’m so depraved.
There was a knock at the door. A delivery guy came in and said, “Flowers for Adrian Green?”
“Aww,” said everyone. I watched a bouquet pass around the circle of desks and land in front of me. Red roses.
Everyone was looking at me. Owen was looking at me.
These roses were different. There was a scent wafting off of them, something strange and sulphurous.
“Adrian,” said Adelman. “If you can put those away, I’d like to discuss your script, The Horrible Whore. I have to say, I was quite disappointed. It seemed as though you didn’t put any real effort or thought into it.”
Oh, because I didn’t.
“Would anyone else like to say anything?”
As the vultures descended to feast on the dripping bounty of my failure, I imagined Owen Cosgrove naked, reading to the blind. They wouldn’t know.
After class, he stopped by my desk.
“Do you want to grab a coffee?” he said. “And just like, walk around?”
I nodded. He glanced at the roses in their waxy pink wrapping.
“From your ex again?”
I was still nodding from the nod before, reading Greg’s card. I smiled dumbly at Owen and dropped the card inside my purse. I gave the flowers, awkwardly, to Adelman for her desk.
“I can’t keep them,” I said. “You know, symbolness.”
She looked at the roses and looked at me.
“Do you mean symbolism, Adrian?”
“Oh. Isn’t it called symbolness when it’s a bad symbol that doesn’t work?
“No, Adrian. That is not a word.”
The coffee shop lady didn’t like me. It’s like she could tell I was an awful person filled with terrible thoughts. I closed my eyes and listened carefully to the inflection of her voice as she spoke to Owen. Okay. Just her personality. Same way with everyone.
As I walked with Owen, he’d stop every so often to pick up garbage from the sidewalk. He’d carry it until we reached a receptacle to drop it into. Oh my god, so hot. Other people’s random garbage.
He said that he liked my script. He was lying to make me feel better because he thought I felt bad about the critique. But I didn’t feel bad about the critique, I felt good because he was lying to make me feel better.
“Where do you want to go now?” he asked. “Is there anywhere we could find a bomb that you could strap on me?”
I laughed. And then I said a laugh. I said, “Ha ha.”
Was he fucking with me? Because it was going to be very awkward going through life getting turned on every time I heard the word “bomb.”
“You know where coffee tastes the best?” he said, “In my bed.”
“Oh my goodness. You read to the blind with that mouth?”
There was too much pollen in the air. I needed eye drops every ten seconds for my allergies. But then I started seeing pollen dust indoors too, and that didn’t make any sense.
“Yeah,” said Yolanda. “I get that too. It’s from all the acid we did in high school. Like optical flashbacks.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve read about that.”
We were crawling around her bedroom floor cleaning up grains of rice that had fallen out of our hair and our Rocky Horror outfits.
“Yolie, have you noticed all these people now who are wearing black jogging suits to Rocky? Why is that a thing now? Like, why can’t they make an effort? Look at us, we look amazing.”
I was Magenta, she was Dr. Scott.
“Fuck,” she said, “I wish we had some acid right now.”
“Me too, fuck.”
There was no acid anymore. The hippies were all gone, and kids in the news were dying from taking fake acid poison.
I slept with Sebastian from photography class. He had beautiful bug eyes and exquisite squid lips.
He said, “I really like you. But you’re not my type. No offense.”
“What’s your type?”
“I like farm girls. I like heavy boots and lots of plaid. And of course she would have to be vegan.”
“That’s impossible,” I said. “Vegans are so weak, they’re like origami people.”
He grunted, rose to kneeling, picked me up in his gorilla arms, and tossed me back down on the bed.
“Hey, your calendar’s wrong, fool,” I said, looking up at the wall. “It’s not August yet.”
“It’s been August for weeks, Helen Keller.”
“No. And your ex-girlfriend wasn’t a farm girl. And she was only vegetarian.”
“Well, she wasn’t the one. When I find the one, she’s going to be taller than me, older than me, and smarter than me.”
“I’m smarter than you.”
“No,” he said, putting his smiling Bengal tiger face right up to mine. “You’re like the biggest idiot.”
Next day, I had a headache because of the squirrels. There were more squirrels than I’d ever seen on campus before, and louder than ever. Their twittering was frantic and unsettling; a mad chorus of sinister rodent songs about chewing people’s faces off.
I was also super annoyed at all the tourists downtown. Smiling so happily. Staring at everything. Finding Toronto fascinating for some reason. And what strange foreign land had they travelled from where everyone wore black jogging suits but did not jog?
“Did Puff Daddy tell everyone that jogging suits were cool now?” I asked Owen.
“He’s P. Diddy now,” he said. “Try to keep up.”
Owen snapped at me sometimes. He’d get mad for no reason.
At Yolanda’s party, there were too many people hogging all the air inside her house. I hung out with Wes’s friend Dylan on the front porch. He had dark hair and blue-grey eyes and his voice gave me sparkly brain shivers. Out of genuine concern, he asked about the scab above my knee (bike, dog, gravel) and gently moved aside the hem of my dress to inspect it. His innocent smile conveyed the caring sympathy of a friend, and when his hand grazed my leg, my vagina began frothing like it was rabid.
“Watch yourself,” said Wes.
“Huh?” I was peeling potatoes. I didn’t look up.
“Dylan really likes you. And he’s my friend. You can’t be stupid with him, Adrian. You can’t be careless.”
“He isn’t a precious baby duckling, Wes.”
“No, listen. He’s a good person. He’s too good for you.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you suck.”
As I rinsed the potatoes, he sang the song Daytripper very casually, as if he were just singing it. It was a passive-aggressive way of calling me a skank, but it was a cute way of being passive-aggressive. Such a great song.
But then later, in front of the dishwashers, he casually asked me if vegan sperm tasted better than meat eaters’ sperm. As if I was some kind of cum-gargling sewer-slut.
“Come on, Wes,” I said.
“What? It’s a scientific inquiry.”
I knew that he knew what he was doing. That he was demoting me out of the category of women he would respect too much to publicly ask that question of, while disguising it as an expectation that I would be cool enough to answer it casually in these modern times. But by answering, I was volunteering myself for the category he would subsequently use as his excuse to not like me anymore—uptight bitch or stupid slut. And that was sad. He couldn’t be nice because I was being weird after I promised that I wouldn’t be—because of the lingering ass-finger ghost. But he thought that I didn’t like him anymore, so he had to act like he didn’t like me anymore. And that made me actually not like him even though I still kind of did. But when he looked at me all blank as if he’d never touched me anywhere at all, oh my god, I hated him so much.
“What?” he said. “It’s just a question.”
“Fine. Go fuck yourself.”
He looked at me like I was crazy.
“Well, fuck you then. Uptight bitch.”
My apartment was freezing. My landlady came up to check the thermostat and said there was nothing wrong with it. It seemed fine to her. I stood there wearing four sweaters and shivering, making small talk so that she’d stay long enough to feel the chill and start believing me. It was the blazing end of August and it felt like Planet Hoth.
Even worse, my neighbour across the street was spying on me, watching the whole thing. He was probably the one messing with my heat too, as some kind of entertainment for his own amusement. What a petty, cruel thing to do to a person. To use them as your own little science experiment as if their life was nothing. Fucking asshole. I couldn’t sleep for six nights in a row because of him.
“Adrian,” said Wes. “Eat this.”
It looked like a plate of spaghetti but it smelled like rust.
“Why?” I said. “Who told you to give this to me? Where did you get it?”
“It’s from the kitchen,” he said. “Ev made it.”
I looked over at Ev and she waved.
“Because you haven’t eaten all day and you need to eat. You look sick and you’re acting weird.”
“No, I’m not.”
I was not acting weird. I was acting very normal. I was acting very normal on purpose because this thing was happening where my thoughts were appearing in my head as words on paper. And as soon as I thought anything, the paper would start crinkle-burning at the edges. Then I’d have to start thinking new thoughts really fast to get another page before the last one burned. Considering that this was happening, I was doing an excellent job of holding it together. Considering this was happening and I had even come into work, I should have been given a congressional medal of honour.
It was Wes who was weird. I had evidence that would hold up in court. Exhibit A: The morning after we’d slept together, I was getting ready to leave but I had to step around a bunch of loose notebook pages that were scattered all over the floor.
“You have new material?” I asked.
“No.” He was sitting at his desk wearing only blue boxers, editing a video on his computer with a lit cigarette in his hand. “That’s just a letter some girl wrote me.”
“Really?” I said, “There’s like twenty pages here. What does it say?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I haven’t read it.”
“Don’t you want to?”
He laughed. “No.”
“Did she write on both sides? Did she number the pages? If I organize it and staple it together, will you read it then?”
He took a drag. “I’m pretty busy, Adrian.” He blew the smoke out the side of his mouth in a thin stream. “I can’t read every letter that every crazy girl writes to me.”
I pushed the plate of spaghetti away. I looked up at him.
“You’re so cool,” I said. “How are you so cool?”
“Aidge, listen. If you’re feeling sick, Ev said she can make you soup. Or even something from the weekend menu.”
“I’m not cool at all. I’m not even cool one bit.”
“Buddy, just eat something.”
He handed me the menu. I blinked over and over, hoping that my eyes would focus. But it wasn’t my eyes. The menu made no sense.
How was my neighbour doing this? He’d found out where I worked. He had access to expensive technology. No, there had to be a group of them to organize all this. A crew to install cameras. They were watching me read the menu to see how I’d react. I had to act normal, so they wouldn’t know that I’d figured things out.
“I have to go,” I said brightly. “I have to quit. Not because of you.”
I took my apron off and grabbed my purse from the shelf.
“Because of something else,” I explained.
Outside, I looked up and saw a body plummeting to the ground like a falling star. Before I could scream, my eyes pulled focus and there was nothing there. Only a shadow, or a bird, or a shadow of a bird or a bird of a shadow.
I found Greg’s card in my purse, the one that came with the flowers. I read it again: “I Will always love you, Adrian. From the cradle to the grave.”
That doesn’t even make sense, asshole. I didn’t even know you when you were born and if I did I would have been a baby too, and babies don’t know what love is, or at least they don’t know a word for it from a language. And that’s not even original, that’s the U2 song from Reality Bites.
I ripped the card into wretched snowflakes. I triangled my fingers and delicately seasoned the inside of my purse with them. Then I walked around the city. I walked and walked forever. I took all the tiny pieces of the card and dropped them into different receptacles on random streets. I got rid of them all. I lost track of time. I looked up to find the sun but there was no sun. Only grey.
It occurred to me for a moment that what I was doing wasn’t normal behaviour. It was superstitious and strange and not something that a strong, confident woman would do.
I once met a strong, confident woman on a train as we pulled out of the station in Savannah, Georgia. The English teacher I’d fallen in love with had moved there and I’d gone to visit him. When I left to go home, I was waving goodbye to him from the window and I was crying as the train pulled away and it was the most romantic moment of my life.
The woman beside me was wearing a Sea World souvenir baseball cap with a dolphin on it. She said, Honey, is that your man? Just wave goodbye, honey, it’s easy. I’ve said goodbye to lots of men. Just left them in the dust. And another one always comes along before the dust can even settle. She made me laugh. She made the rest of the train ride so much fun, and she showed me pictures of Sea World, and I never forgot her. You think that Americans can’t really be like how they are in movies, but they totally are.
Wait. What if instead of destroying the power of the card by separating its parts, I had increased its power exponentially by spreading the surface area it covered?
I reached for my pills. The bottle was empty. I had repeats though. Repeats repeats repeats.
“Drink lots of water,” said the pharmacist. “And no alcohol while you’re on this medication.”
Yeah right, buddy. Yeah right yeah right yeah right.
Outside the pharmacy, there were more annoying people hanging out, wearing black jogging suits and watching me, smiling. They probably weren’t tourists. They looked more like a boring theatre troupe or a sporty touring orchestra. And they knew my face now, from hanging out in my neighbourhood all summer. They’d nod and smile at me but it wasn’t pleasant, it was irritating. Do you have a staring problem? I wanted to say. Stare much?
Hot bug-eyed Sebastien took me to High Park for a picnic, which was really nice, really really really nice, I know, I know. But I couldn’t eat any of his food. He said he wanted to prove to me that vegan food could taste like real, and I would love it.
“Just try it,” he said, offering me a plate of white cubes. “Adrian, come on. Not even fruit? Not even a plum?
“I’m not hungry.”
What did he care if I ate or not? Why was it so important to him?
“Sebastien, did someone give you this food to give to me?”
“What do you mean? I bought it at the store.”
“I’m just not hungry.”
He had a Frisbee. He wanted to play Frisbee. He had this idea that I was the kind of girl who would run around on the grass and throw a Frisbee in the sun. He had his camera out because he wanted to take pictures of me doing this, pictures of having fun. But I was wearing heels and I had no energy and I just wanted to sit and smoke cigarettes with my back against a tree. He had this idea that I was a certain kind of girl and we’d have a certain kind of day. But it was so beyond never happening that I couldn’t even try to fake it.
I had already ruined everything but I agreed to walk to the petting zoo. There were four majestic bison in a small pen. They had crusty fur and they smelled bad. They looked at me and they begged me to save them but I couldn’t, I couldn’t. And I felt so terribly sad because this was the worst, most devastating place on Earth, but the crowd of people all around us were smiling and laughing as if it were a nice place, a happy place.
“What do you think of this?” I asked Sebastian.
They had messed up and I’d caught them. A passionate vegan wouldn’t like to go to a petting zoo. In fact, the whole afternoon had been full of urgent artifice, a poorly staged production of human romantic clichés. It all made sense. From the beginning, a part of me had always known that Sebastian was too good-looking for me, too obviously out of my league. My question was the final test.
“What do you think?”
“I think it’s nice,” he said, “to say hi-son to the bison.”
What the fuck?
They couldn’t tamper with the headache pills because each bottle came with a silver seal and cotton stuffing inside that proved it hadn’t been tampered with.
But they would know that I would be tricked by the illusion of safety, and they knew that what they were doing to me was causing headaches. And they would also know what drug store I usually went to, so I had to go to a different store.
But they would expect me to go to a different store. They were watching me and laughing at how predictable I was. They would have put their poison chemicals in the bottles at the new store, positioned in accordance with my height and my eye line. But would they know that I would anticipate this as well? Would they predict, based on the study so far, that I would always think I was a step ahead of them and therefore choose a bottle on a lower shelf? Would they have anticipated that I would thwart their strategic positioning, and then attempt to thwart my thwarting?
I heard an angry voice from the aisle behind me. I slowly walked around the corner to see who was talking. A man and a woman in the dental care section.
“No,” said the man. “How many times do I have to tell you? The toothpaste with the baking soda, the dental floss with the mint, and the mouthwash with the long-lasting flavour.”
“But I don’t like the taste of baking soda,” said the woman. “I like a sweeter toothpaste.”
“Lorraine,” said the man, “Do you want me to kiss you or not?”
“Run away, Lorraine!” I yelled.
Then I turned and ran from them, my head filled with boiling lava. A bearded man in a black jogging suit smiled at me obnoxiously as I ran past him and out the door.
It was painful to breathe. In the studio at school, I dragged paint across a canvas but it was difficult to paint. How had I painted before? I couldn’t remember. Was I painting too slowly? Did this look like normal painting? Were Gerry and Claire whispering about how I was painting weird?
“Who’s that?” asked Stacey. She leaned over to look at my canvas.
“Oh,” I said. “This is my high school geography teacher.”
I was painting Mr. Ludwig. Trying to get him right. Trying to re-create the blanked out peaceful expression he had, even when I was so rude to him. I had told him that solar geometry was useless in real life. I had promised him that as long as I lived, I would never need to calculate the altitude of the sun. I was obnoxious and bratty. He asked me to leave his class. He gave me detention. And then—
“They’re going to kill you in Crit for this one. But I like it.”
“Thanks, Stace. He wouldn’t give me peace.”
“Mr. Ludwig. At school. We had a chapel in our school. And during mass—this is Catholic mass—there’s a part where the priest tells everyone to offer each other the sign of peace. And it’s a handshake. You shake people’s hands who are sitting around you and you both say, Peace be with you. So I was doing that. And I turned around. And Mr. Ludwig was standing there, and I offered my hand to him. But he wouldn’t shake it. He just stood there and shook his head, No. He wouldn’t give me peace in church. In front of God and everyone. Because of how awful I was.”
“Wow,” said Stacey, “You’ve lost like a ton of weight, Adrian. You look awesome.”
A woman poked her head in the doorway and glanced around the studio as if she were looking for someone. She had grey hair and was wearing a trendy black jogging suit. She smiled at me, then walked out. Lost.
“Guys,” I said. “Do you know whose dumb music video is shooting around here? All the people wearing black jogging suits and running shoes?”
“No,” said Claire.
Stacey and Gerry shook their heads.
“There’s all these extras hanging around the city and they’re dressed in black jogging suits and sneakers and I hate them.”
“You’re talking so fast,” laughed Claire. “Too much coffee, eh?
“It sounds like a performance art piece,” said Gerry. “Probably the new media school is doing it.”
“Oh,” I said. I went back to painting. “New media is bullshit.”
Ev invited me to see Wes’s show. When I got there, I saw her sitting near the front of the stage but I stayed in the dark at the back by myself. He wasn’t funny. I didn’t laugh once. Other people were laughing but it was all fake. They were acting, acting like laughing people.
After his set, Wes headed toward the end of the bar where I was standing. Lots of girls smiled at him and waved to him, and as he walked through the room, he greeted each of them with a fond pat on the head.
When he got to me, I looked right at him and focused what I was thinking into my eyeballs which was, If you pat me on the head, motherfucker, I will kick you in the balls. But he turned his back and ignored me completely.
He turned around.
“Get your finger out of my ass!” I yelled.
Then, obviously, I left.
The next morning, Yolanda and I were sitting on the smoking patio of the coffee shop when I looked across the street and saw a man in a black jogging suit staring at us.
“I’m so sick of these people,” I said. “Like, find something to do. Okay, you know me, hi.”
I waved sarcastically. The man waved back with wide open eyes.
“What is that guy’s problem?” I said. “Why is he being so creepy? Should we go somewhere else?”
“What guy? Who are you waving to?”
“I don’t see anyone.”
When I first realized I was going crazy, I did what I thought was a very sane thing to do. I went to the library for information, like I would have done normally if I was researching something normal. I figured, other people have gone crazy, so there must be lots of books on it and what to do about it and how not to be crazy anymore.
I knew exactly what I was looking for. The book would have a sky-blue cover with text in white italic cursive that said, So You’re Going Crazy … and on the back would be a photograph of the author; a renowned doctor, an elderly man with soft white hair and a kind smile. He would look sort of like Kurt Vonnegut, and he would tell me not to worry, that everything was going to be fine, and here’s what to do to control your brain and stop it from seeing these terrible things that no one else is seeing.
But my book wasn’t there. And the self-help section was just rows of meditation and rainbows, and people on the covers holding out crystals like they could save you. I scanned the shelves with my head twisted sideways to read each individual spine. I flipped through books and spoiled their endings. Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, AA, naturopathy, hiking a very long trail for a very long time. No thanks, buddy.
There was one of them in the library watching me. Amused by me. He was real. I looked at him and I saw every wrinkle on his face and every crease in his jogging suit and he was real. There was no book that could help me.
There was only fear. And a sudden cold, sharp clarity. The universe was pulsing with dark secret things that I hadn’t been able to see before. Now I saw everything. It was all perfectly clear.
There had been a mistake. I was supposed to have died already. They had been sent to collect me, to make things right. They would join me on the subway platform and point to the black pit of tunnel as a speeding train approached the station. On the street, they’d look up and point to bridges and fire escapes for me to jump off. They spoke very little. They spoke without speaking. They looked at me and filled my head with their words. It’s time, Adrian. It’s alright. It’s easy.
They left messages for me. A dead bird on the sidewalk in front of my apartment, its insides oozing out red and pink. My initials spelled out in gothic clouds. The lit up yellow windows of a distant apartment complex forming a perfect X.
I didn’t want to die. But my head was filled with kaleidoscopic images of my death, simultaneous variations of scenes playing over and over until each one seemed both an inevitable future and an event in the past, as if I’d already died a thousand times and was only lingering inside a breathing bag of skin.
I wasn’t sure how to do it. I was too scared to fall or drown or bleed. I had no way of getting a gun. Plus, there was the problem of leaving my body for someone else to find. I didn’t want anyone to happen upon it and be traumatized forever. There had to be a creative solution, like exploding or disintegrating. The voices were big advocates of jumping. Of falling.
I didn’t know what to do. There was nothing to do. Except lie on the floor of my apartment with my hands pressed to my heart and stay there for days and days and days.
There was a knock at the door.
“Adrian? It’s Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth. Okay. Okay. Okay.
I opened the door.
“Hi, Adrian. Hi. So, I was wondering? If maybe you could stop playing that song. That song you keep playing over and over? I’m sorry, I know it’s probably for a school project or something. And I love David Bowie, of course. But any song, even the best song, when you hear it a thousand times…”
“Oh. Okay, Elizabeth. I’ll turn it off. That’s easy. That is not even a problem at all.”
“Thanks, Adrian. You have a good night.”
Dylan had lent me a pile of CD’s but the one Bowie song was all I played. It wasn’t homework for school because I had dropped out of school. The song was for not killing myself. It was for staying safe and not killing myself because my body had turned against me. My body had violent urges to go outside and step in front of speeding cars. It was pulling itself in terrible directions and the mind had to use all of its strength to stop it. It was difficult to control the body and drag it away from the dangerous magnets. It took everything I had and I was steadily weakening.
Inside my apartment, the body wanted to reach for knives and stab itself with them and swallow all the pills, so the mind threw away all the knives and the pills. Most of the mind was responsible and was trying to save everything. But part of the mind also wanted to die, just not as badly as the body did. The body was relentlessly begging to die, although it had used its own arms to throw the dangerous objects away. I didn’t know what was which part. Who was fighting to die and who was fighting to live? And which one was me? And who was going to win?
The song I kept playing was Jump (They Say). But really, it’s a song about not jumping. The words are about not killing yourself, but it was the melody of the synth hook that was saving me. It was the exact sound of the lure of falling, of giving in to the universe, of giving yourself to the sky. But by listening to that sound, you could hold that feeling inside you. You could swallow it down and hold it in your lungs and lock it in your heart and you could have it. You could neutralize the dangerous magnets, and watch all the scary things swirl around you while you stayed perfectly still.
I didn’t have headphones. I needed a place where I could blast the song as loud as I wanted to, a place like my old bedroom at home that was now my mom’s second office.
I called my mom. I told her that I was sick and I was taking a break from school and I wanted to come stay with her for a while.
“You sound strange, Adrian. Wait, are you doing a bit? Are you doing Rain Man? I love that movie.”
I had this idea that home was safe. That they wouldn’t follow me there. They would leave me alone because home was solid and clean and pure and good.
I took the bus up to Richmond Hill. Beside me, there was a man wearing headphones. He was learning English from a tape.
“Your mother is a lovely woman,” he said. “Your mother is a lovely woman.”
They knew where I was going. But they hadn’t sent anyone on the bus with me and that was promising. Hopefully I was right and there was a force field at the border of the town that they wouldn’t be able to penetrate. Probably at the welcome sign that said, Home of Elvis Stojko.
I stared out the window and watched the town materialize block by block.
“Your mother is a lovely woman. This photograph does not do her justice.”
Forty-five minutes north of Toronto, the squirrels are fluffy and bouncy. At dusk, I’m not even kidding, wild bunnies hop across the lawns. Nothing bad can happen in front of bunnies.
My mom had ordered a whole table of Chinese food but I couldn’t even eat one fortune cookie.
“What’s wrong, Adrian?”
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
“Then promise me you’ll stay home tonight and rest.”
“I promise,” I lied.
It had to be that night. Home didn’t mean anything. Geography didn’t matter. They would never leave me alone.
My fortune cookie had been the final sign. Inside it was a white paper rectangle, blank on both sides. No fortune. No future.
I had a plan. I followed my plan. I waited until everyone was asleep, and then I silently left the house using my patented ninja stealth. I walked to the hospital. The same hospital where I had been born. Symbolness.
I went to the Emergency Room but I didn’t admit myself. I just sat there. The plan was to swallow all the pills I had left, all the anti-depressants and sleeping pills that had never worked.
From here, I could go directly to the morgue without bothering too many people. It would be just another death, a matter of routine for trained medical professionals.
I swallowed the pills. I drank from my water bottle. Then it occurred to me to leave a note. I found a pencil in my purse and a stray hospital leaflet that was asking for donations.
I didn’t know what to write. I hadn’t thought about it.
When someone commits suicide in a movie, they have a reason. They write the reason down in their suicide note. But I didn’t have a reason. I just had to die, it wasn’t even up to me. I knew, in a cloudy way, that people who loved me would have feelings of sadness about me being gone. But that was a minor inconvenience, a trivial detail compared to my pain. If they could have felt my pain, they would have understood.
But I couldn’t write that. Because it wasn’t even pain. That word was too small. My DNA had sharpened into stabbing microscopic helices, corkscrews piercing through my cells.
This feeling of needing to die was stronger than any feeling I’d ever felt. Certainly it was far more vast than any sadness. It was stronger than my love or my empathy for anyone. It blacked out all other emotions with such urgency that any trace of them within me was a mote of sunlight compared to a thousand haunted planets. It was a burning compulsion that eclipsed all else, obliterated all reason.
There was no such thing as a reason, anyway. Just as there was no such thing as a promise. A promise was only a word for a symbol of a concept in a dimension of a reality that didn’t even exist.
But I couldn’t write that either.
Peace out forever, I wrote.
I was sitting at a desk, alone in a room full of empty desks.
The door opened and an elderly man walked toward me.
“Where am I?” I asked him.
“You’re in Richmond Hill, Ontario.”
“Oh good.” I said. “That’s where I wanted to be.”
The man was wearing a brown blazer with light brown patches at the elbows. He sat down in the chair opposite me.
“What day is it?” I asked him. “What time is it? I feel like I had an appointment or something. I’m supposed to be somewhere else.”
“It’s September 22nd.”
“Oh,” I said. “Mr. Ludwig. I didn’t recognize you.”
“Hi. Oh. There’s a test today and I didn’t study. That’s why I have this panic feeling. I’m supposed to take a test and I’m not prepared. I have dreams like this sometimes.”
“It’s alright. There’s only one question. All you need to do is tell me the altitude of the sun.”
I looked down at my empty hands.
“I can’t, Sir. I can’t see the sun. And I don’t have a protractor or an atlas.”
“You can do this. I promise. I’ll help you.”
“You will? Can you tell me the latitude of Richmond Hill?”
“Yes. It’s 43.8729 degrees north.”
On the desk in front of me there was a pencil and a leaflet. I wrote the number down. “And what time is it, please?”
“It is exactly noon. On the autumnal equinox.”
“Okay. I know this one. That means the sun’s rays form ninety degrees with the Earth.”
“And the sub solar point is the equator. So, that’s zero degrees. The altitude is the angle between the Earth and the sun.”
“Alright. Then, for every degree of latitude away from the sub solar point, the altitude decreases by one degree. Right? So I just have to subtract. That’s easy. I can just do subtraction on this paper.”
I printed as neatly as I could. I passed the leaflet across the desk to Mr. Ludwig. He held the paper up to the light and read it. He folded it and placed it in the pocket of his blazer. Then he held out his hand and I shook it.
“Peace be with you,” he said.