City Chronicles

1.02 The people who never leave you

There are people who enter your life and they never leave you. No matter how far away they may be, there they remain, with you. You were sitting under a tree and your hair, it was golden, golden in the light. A soft rain began to fall. I rowed a tiny boat to you. There was a wave, erupting from the surf. The wall of water immense. I let go of the oar and felt the boat capsize. I was under water, swirling in its wake. Then I surfaced, my lungs exploding into the air, I gasped and felt more water fill my airway. I looked over at you. You were sitting at the shoreline and your head was turned away. I tried to call out to you but you couldn’t see me. “Sebastian!” Your name choked in my throat. A sparrow on a nearby branch lifted into the sky and you watched it ascend into the clouds. I felt a pain in my chest and the salt water stinging my eyes.

I woke with a start. The salt water trickled down my face. I tried to breath slowly and evenly. I knew it had been a dream but I kept my eyes closed and I waited for you to turn and look at me. I pictured your face laughing. You were always smiling and you were always young and pure and good. But it was just a dream. You weren’t here with me.

I splayed out on my kingsized bed and looked at my phone. The time read 4:03am. I had been waking up at this time for the past two weeks, ever since my coffee date with Jake, ever since he told me about him and Suhasini. I had only sent a few hateful text messages to him that night, and I had waited one week before messaging her. “I hope you know when the relationship is over, he’ll have his eye on someone new. He doesn’t know how to be alone.” I thought that was the right amount of classy and pissed off.

But what I had said and what I had did kept replaying in my mind. I saw the shards of glass on the ground after I had hurled the coffee cup at the brick wall. I remembered my messages to Suhasini before I knew about her and Jake. Did she know anyone who was looking for a roommate? No. He had told me he would eventually want children but he had changed his mind. Just like that. He had changed his mind. I’m sorry, she said. That’s terrible.

I had asked her if she wanted to go out for coffee. I needed someone to talk to you. I’m sorry, she said. I’m really busy. Now I realize she was busy consoling Jake. She was my friend and she had been consoling him. I wondered if they talked about me. I wondered if they had decided together when they should tell me.

I had been in Toronto for two years now. The city has a way of stripping a person down to their essential parts. Jake was lost to me in the milieu of the city. He was an apparition. That, or he was probably at a Wes Anderson themed party somewhere in an Ossington-Dundas upper apartment with his new actress-girlfriend. Maybe they were perusing a used bookstore and buying criticism books about the plays of Samuel Beckett or oohing and aahing over the fashion stylings of The Sartorialist and Garance Doré’s latest book. I decided they no longer existed to me. The city didn’t have to strip them from my life; I would do it myself. I would strip myself down to my bare essentials.

I got up from my bed and began pacing the length of the room. I wanted to get outside, get out of my own skin. I was trapped in these four walls. Chloe slept soundlessly in the room next to me. After the breakup, she had taken me out for pizza.

I stepped off the subway and when my cell reception kicked in, I dialed her number. She was at our place.

“Hello?”

I couldn’t speak.

“Amelia?”

I was glad to be alone in the subway corridor. I was blinded. There was a wall of salt tears. I existed behind this wall and the world was on the other side. “I was right. He’s with … her.”

“Where are you?”

“I don’t know. I got off the subway.”

“Okay, get back on and come home.”

“Okay.”

That night Chloe took me out for pizza at Louie’s Pizzeria, a stone’s throw away from our apartment. Chloe is rather practical. She’s someone who makes lists and has Google reminders of when to pay the hydro bill. I’m always 15-20 minutes late for appointments. Sometimes she’ll joke about how basic she is, with her love of Justin Bieber’s album Purpose and her excitement over anything pumpkin-spiced, but she’s a sharp and grave person. All our glassware is meticulously laid out on the open shelving in our kitchen. She’s someone who keeps tabs on what she owes and what’s owed to her. Check her Exel spreadsheet if you don’t believe me. I usually go to her for advice about work but usually nothing related to relationships. Her and relationships aren’t on speaking terms.

I look at the time. 6:07am. Speaking of work, I might as well get up and get ready for my interview. I’ve been working at Monroe Press for a year and a half. The position was created to fill a maternity leave for the last marketing manager. A year had come and gone and yet they kept extending my contract, one month at a time, for the past six months. I was so used to precarious employment that I kept accepting the extensions. I was living month to month. Chloe was indignant about my work situation.

“Tell them you can’t live this way,” she said.

Before my contract had expired, I had sent a six-month reminder and then a three-month reminder and then a one-month reminder. You get the idea. Finally I took Chloe’s advice and said no to the seventh and final extension. I had hesitated in making the decision since it was my first “stable” job in the city — one that lasted for longer than a two-month contract and didn’t involve me standing in front of a booth like a mannequin.

Today was my interview. For a position I had held for the last year and a half. Work life is like love life. Every day is a fresh humiliation. I had made sure to be available for out-of-office events for the company, I had gone to continuing education classes to keep my skills fresh and relevant. I had taken my coworker Beth’s advice and I had tried to show my manager Eva my commitment to the company and to the position.

When I first met Beth, she seemed reserved. She had a particular way of speaking. I could see the gears turning in her head as she contemplated her next sentence. She had a particular way of moving in the world. She commanded it, it didn’t command her. Her mind was a vice. She could pick up on nuance and changes in the air.

I walked into the meeting room. She was sitting behind a round table with Eva. I recalled a similar scene when I first began working for the company, when Eva had offered me the job. Eva sat behind the desk in her tailored suit and perfectly coiffed hair. Her high heel hung languidly in the air. I looked over at Beth. She looked like she was about to pass out. I smiled at her encouragingly as if she was the one being interviewed. The interview lasted for half an hour and afterwards she reached out for my hand. Her hand was moist and cold to the touch. I shook it and looked at her briefly. She smiled at me weakly, her eyes pained. I wanted to reach out and squeeze her shoulder.

A week ago we stood in the room we shared together at the office.

“I’ve decided to decline the extension,” I told her.

“Fuckin’ Eva,” she breathed.

“It’s fine,” I tell her. “If they wanted me, they would’ve offered it to me by now.”

I let go of her hand. I knew they had a few more interviews to conduct that day. In Toronto, there are a slew of earnest twentysomethings who’ll work for next to nothing. It’s a company’s dream and an employee’s living nightmare. I thanked her. There was a sliding glass door behind her that opened out onto a balcony. The sun was streaming in and her hair was luminous in the light, rays spread from the crown of her head and radiated along her jawline. Sometimes her beauty will strike me like a blow to the chest. I blinked and turned to Eva. I thanked her and shook her hand. I made my way down the stairs and into the light of the winter afternoon. The snow had fallen the night before, blanketing the city in white down. I looked up and watched as the snow began to fall again. I reached my hand out and caught the flakes on my open palm. The only sound was my muffled feet in the snow.

Two days later I received an email for Eva. It was friendly and succinct. She thanked me for my commitment for the past year and a half but they had decided to go with another candidate. I turned off my computer, my eyes two shining orbs glowing in the dark. I was living in Toronto, the most expensive city in Ontario, and I was jobless and partnerless. This was my life now. I felt the salt tears flowing down my face. It didn’t seem to matter what I did or didn’t do, how hard I tried, there would always be someone to replace me. I was replaceable like all people.

People say that the city is where you come to test yourself, your resilience and tenacity. It can eat you alive. I could see Jake and Suhasini holding hands at the Christmas market, walking down the cobbled pathways of the Distillery District. They were probably holding hot apple ciders and sharing a poutine under a heat lamp. Their hands exposed to the cold air, their laughter ringing out into the night sky as a string of cheese stretched like a balancing wire between two poles of fries. They were cuddled on the couch watching How to Make a Murderer and indignant and overwhelmed with the injustices of the world. They were planning a trip to Los Angeles or Amsterdam or Berlin.

I sat in my apartment, just a three-minute walk to Yonge Street, and there was not a breath of sound. There was only the light from the streetlamp outside. The walls of my apartment were white and tilted. I closed my eyes and I saw Sebastian’s face. He was under the tree and he had turned away from the bird flying into the air.

“Imagine,” he said. “How free they are.”

I was beside him. “Yeah,” I said, “it must be nice. To lift off whenever you feel like it.”

He nodded.

“Where are we?” I asked him. I watched as the rowboat floated away along the water.

He smiled and looked at me. His hand rested softly against my face.

“Why aren’t you here with me?” I opened my eyes.

The darkness of the room was lit up briefly. It was my phone ringing on silent. I wiped my face and picked it up.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hey.”

“Hi.”

“It’s me, it’s Sebastian. I’m in the city.”

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