City Chronicles

1.01 A city on fire

All our love and all our hate—it was all the same thing. Someone told me that once. I hadn’t understood what they meant until recently. Jake, my ex, had texted me. It had been four months since we had broken up. He wanted to meet.

At the time, I had moved out and was living with an old university friend Chloe when I received the message. She looked at me hopefully when I told her. But I knew better. I knew him better. I knew him better than he knew himself. I didn’t even bother asking why we were meeting. I just knew. Like we always know, you know? Some place deep down, somewhere we try not to go.

I walked into the hipster coffeeshop I had recommended: Boxcar Social, across from Summerhill station. It was where I go to drink overpriced acidic coffee and oogle the bearded, plaid-wearing patrons. It was a place I went to during some of my work breaks to give my eyes a rest from staring at a computer screen and trying to write catchy slogans for the newest books on the market. The publishing audience was an animal that demanded to be fed and I fed it with Facebook posts, Instagram photos, and the occasional tweet. That’s the life of the marketing copywriter, you’re always online and yet somehow, disconnected.

I walked in and caught sight of myself in the mirror. I was wearing a black toque and a green plaid shirt under my peacoat. I blended in seamlessly with the girl sporting the high ponytail — perched precariously on the side of her head, and the guy in suspenders and dark-rimmed spectacles. Jake was sitting in the back at a table made out of a slab of a tree trunk. He was wearing a toque and a sherpa jean jacket. That was one thing I had to give him. The guy had style. He looked up at me as I sat down. It looked like he was drinking a green tea or herbal infusion of some kind. Probably organic and/or free trade. He was holding a tissue paper and dabbing at his nose, the delicate skin, pink and watery. His eyes, large and searching. Before he could speak, I excused myself to get a chai tea latte and then returned to the table.

At first we talked about Christmas. It was the first Christmas in four years without him. In the earlier text he had asked if I was still on holidays. It was a Wednesday and I said I was. Do you want to meet soon? I have something to talk to you about. How about today? At 2pm? Okay. Okay.

More idle chatter about Christmas and the holiday break. He got up to use the bathroom. I saw that he took his tissue paper with him and his phone. Let’s get this over with, I thought. I stared straight ahead at the brick wall. I felt nothing. This is how I am in stressful situations. It’s a coping mechanism that has helped me in job interviews and studying for the MCAT while my parents argued in the background, fists flying and plates shattering. I wear indifference like armour, like an embrace from a silent stoic friend with a large wingspan, perfect for hugs.

Jake returned. I imagined him in rapid-fire discussions with some faceless friend. She’s here. Did you tell her. No. Why?

“Amelia, I have to tell you something. And you’re not going to like it.”

“Say it.” Why was he calling me by my full name like we were in some soap opera? I half expected him to turn away so we were both facing the camera, speaking into thin air.

“I’m seeing Suhasini. Suhasini and me — we’re together.”

Silence. I gently touched the rim of the cup. The whiteness of the cup was blinding me. I blinked several times. I took a breath, a deep breath. “Did you know that ‘Suhasini’ means the one with the beautiful laughter or smile?”

“No, I didn’t.” He shuffled slightly in his seat. And the tissue paper. The tissue paper dabbing at his nose. He sniffled softly. The herbal tea on the wooden slab table.

“I always thought she had a nice smile. Do you remember when I first introduced the two of you?”

“No.”

“Sure you do.” I leaned back in my seat. “You high-fived over your love of The Wire.”

“It’s a good show,” you ventured.

“It’s over-rated,” I snapped. “But before you met, I had gushed about her.” My voice was soft, soft like the first snowfall. “I said she intimidated me. That smile, that brain.” I tapped the side of my head. Once. Twice. A third time. I looked down at his feet. He had a bag of books. The bag was overflowing with paperbacks. Interesting. He hardly read anything but the Reddit homepage and Game of Thrones when he was with me. I glanced at one of the covers. Now he was reading Nietzsche! I looked up. “Is she as smart as I said she was?”

“Look … Amelia.”

Again with my name. “Where were you that night?”

“What?”

“The night you didn’t come home — after we had been broken up for, I don’t know, two weeks?”

“I, I was at, I was at her place.”

Everything moved in slow motion. There was a wisp of his brown hair, it was coming out from behind his ear, from under his toque. A server walked by as if under water. I looked down at my chai latte. It sped up to my face and flew across the room. It smashed into shattering, shiny pieces against the brick wall. There was a yell and then there was silence. Jake had sat up and his chair had toppled to the ground. There was a man wiping chai latte dribbles from his pant leg. His face a grimace. The girl with a high pony was feverishly typing in her phone and then looking up at me, and then down and then looking up. I grabbed Jake’s herbal tea. I felt the warmth of it in my hands. He looked around like a caged animal. I let go of the cup and I got up.

There was the aroma of coffee beans and something sweet and something tart. There was the tissue paper released from his hand, floating to the floor. The sound of the door opening and closing barely made a whisper as I walked out. I pulled up the collar of my black peacoat and adjusted my toque. The wind picked up and swirled around my feet. I could tell it was going to be a cold winter. I looked up into the sky. The sun was making a desperate attempt to emerge from the clouds. There was that light that made you squint even though it was overcast.

I walked slowly across the street and into Summerhill station, into the belly of the subway. Standing on the platform, I watched as the train approached. Its colours sped by me, light and hot air. I closed my eyes. I could feel the heat of the city. I could see its lights blinking, windows upon windows lit up in the sky, reflecting on the waters of the Harbourfront. The doors of the subway opened and I entered. I stood and watched as the sparks flew by in oranges and yellows. The same colours floating on the water, mirrored against the night sky. It was a city, a city on fire.

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