City Chronicles

1.04 Pink skies and phantom limbs

There’s a time of day, in the morning, when everything is hushed. I hear only the endless construction of condos near my apartment, across the road a band of children run across the green fields. Their laughter and the sound of metal on steel. This is a quiet moment, a serene moment in the city.

There is also a time of day, say early evening late afternoon, around six pm when the sky begins to blush with pink, the walls of the buildings are blooming with the colours of peonies, the pink light radiates across the city.

I am sitting on my balcony at this time and I am awash in pink. I think about Sebastian. I wish he was here to see this but he’s not. After our night-out at Little Sister we decided to go for brunch at Mars Diner. He sat across from me and I thought, This is a welcome change from the last time we slept together.

It had been six years ago. He was doing his master’s degree. I woke up in his apartment, which joined the living room, the only partition between the two rooms was a flowing white sheet. I drew the blankets up around me while he scurried around the room, trying to find his satchel and books. He was teaching a class that day as a teacher’s assistant.

I watched him, his tall lanky frame, his disheveled blond hair. I never tire of looking at him, I never tire of him. He turned and looked at me. There were rows of books lining his bookcases. I laid in bed in front of the picture window. Why are we always cast in bright light, or is it just my imagination, the nostalgia of memory? But I don’t remember what he said. Perhaps it was a simple “Goodbye,” but I think he just looked at me with a look of relief and shame and I think, pity. He seemed to half-run and half-walk from the room. We never talked about that night, not really.

I had asked Chloe for her advice before she left for her work trip.

“Should I meet him?”

“I wouldn’t do it, no,” she replied.

Chloe rarely makes a decision without thoroughly weighing the pros and cons. Even before I asked her, I knew I was going to meet him. Old habits. They die hard. Or not at all.

I had told her once that if I messaged him, even if we hadn’t spoken in months or years, he would respond within minutes. There was something between us, an invisible thread that connected us.

“Also, you slept together,” she said.

That startled me. In that moment, I had forgotten we slept together. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about sex, but what we had together was more than that one night. It was for me, no matter how I tried to deny it.

Now he was gone, again. He hadn’t run off with his books in hand, like last time. We stood outside my apartment, his car in the driveway. It was the tail-end of winter. The sound of the water dripping and flowing into the street and always the endless sound of the city.

We stood there. He had a bemused expression on his face. Sometimes he’ll look at me and not say anything. Is it not a wonder that we still breathe in and out when all through our bodies, there’s only the throbbing pain of phantom limbs?

He gently placed his hands on my shoulders, as if he was afraid of breaking me. I felt his soft mouth and his rough beard on my forehead. And then, he was gone. I waved to him from the porch but he stayed facing forward. I was already a memory to him.

I am sitting on my balcony and I get out my phone and try to capture the pink skies and buildings. Sometimes I’ll walk along Yonge Street, from Keewatin all the way down to Davisville Station, and I will take photos of the sky. I am always looking up. At night, the pinks of the sky are saturated with deep mauves and purples. It is a living painting above the crush of cars and blare of horns, the lights from moving trucks, and the red flashes of bicycle lights, joggers in the night. I can feel the throb of the city inside my chest. It is a living, breathing beast.

I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know I’m searching for something, I’m always searching. I am walking down Yonge Street and I am looking up into the sky for some type of revelation.


I turn towards the voice. I try to return back to earth, to feel the sidewalk below my feet. Objects begin to take shape again, the streetlights and the outlines of people in the night. A face comes into focus.

“James.” The left side of his body is lit up in red. Cars wait impatiently for the light to change.

“What are you up to?”

“I’m just walking. You?”

“I got cut from work. It was a slow night.” Everything closes early around Yonge and Eglinton.

“That’s too bad.”

“It’s fine; I’ve been working a lot. I haven’t seen you around lately.”

“I’ve been busy … walking the streets.”

We both laugh.

“How’s the job hunt going?”

“Actually, it’s not really going.”



“That’s too bad. Are you up to anything tonight?”

“You’re looking at it.”

“Are you in the mood for coffee and board games, maybe?”

“Seems like a good combo.”

“I’m meeting some friends at Snakes and Lattes, the one on College. If you can take time away from your late-night strolls.”

I laugh. “I think I can make an exception for tonight.”

The light turns green and his body is lit up in emerald hues. We are two figures in a sea of bodies walking down Yonge Street, our laughter clear and bright.

City Chronicles

1.03 For those nights we won’t remember

I look down at my glass. Bourbon and other ingredients perfectly fashioned, its dark amber surrounding a large square cube. I am waiting for you. After twenty minutes I check my phone. You are running behind. I put my phone back into my black purse. It sits on the deep brown of the bar. I lean back slightly in my stool and look at the dark lettering on the wooden wall, bottles of liquor stand erect on shelving, glowing with light, the brick wall seeping out from behind. Outside, night has fallen but it’s still early. I’m the only one at the bar, a few other patrons sit in booths and tables.

I should’ve known I’d be waiting for you. You aren’t one to show up when you say you will. I’ve known you for a decade, but I always feel like we’re meeting for the first time.

“It’s me, it’s Sebastian. I’m in the city,” you had said. I had listened to your voice in stunned disbelief. It was as if I had willed you to call me, as if I had willed you into existence. You told me you were in the city for a few weeks, on a work project. You are a videographer and a writer. It makes sense. You told me once that you wanted to be famous. We were 21 years old at the time and it made me cringe even back then. But what I think you meant was that you wanted to be someone known and loved, you wanted to be cherished.

When I first met you, you were just a boy, not much of a boy. You sat across from me in the university’s main lounge. You were wiping the sleep from your eyes. It was well past noon. I barely noticed your existence. But I was the only one. Many girls fell down at your feet. You had this charm, this ability to make someone feel like they were the centre of the spinning world. Everything we said when we were together mattered. It was if we were on stage, you and I, on stage in front of an empty audience. It was only me and it was only you.

It wasn’t long before I found myself falling down at your feet. It happened so gradually like the first leaves falling. Slowly, barely perceptible, the leaves, they were falling. Suddenly, I was surrounded by them, a mountain of leaves. I was suffocating beneath the leaves and I swam up and there you were at the very top. You reached your hand out to me, your palm turned skyward.

But once I hadn’t known you. You were no one to me. You used to have curly hair but now you keep it close cropped. You loved to tell stories, you were a storyteller. One day I heard your thoughts on paper and on that day I fell down at your feet.

“I don’t really exist,” you said to me when I told you how I felt. “You’ve created me in your mind.” That’s something only you would say.

I hear the door open. I can feel you before I see you.

“Hey,” you say. “I think you dropped this.”

I turn to look at you. You stand there, a tall man. In your hand is a slim book with a simple cover. I take it from you. It is a book of poetry. I flip it on its back and pretend to read the jacket cover.

“No,” I say. “I don’t think it’s mine. You must be mistaken.”

I look up as you begin to smile. It is the sliver of the sun before it breaks the surface of the world. I try to hand the book back to you but you place your hand on top of mine and your other hand below the book, like a literary sandwich.

“I’m never wrong about these things,” you say. I am electric currents spinning along a wire, short-circuiting at its source.

I place the book down on the bar and you lift me up into the sky. Your arms are below my arms, my feet dangle above the ground. I try to breathe but I am a thousand stars exploding in the sky. It is me and it is you on a stage with no one around us. My eyes begin to water. I don’t know why. I try to blink them back but one tear slides down my cheek and hits you on the temple. You place me down on the ground, a group of wrinkles have sprouted near your eyes.

“Is everything okay?” you ask.

“No,” I say. “Everything is shit.” I’ve known you for almost a decade but this is the first time I’ve cried in front of you. I’ve never seen one tear leave your eye in all this time.

“I think you need another drink,” you say.

We sit down.

“What are you drinking?”


You motion for the bartender. I introduce you to James. I come here a lot I suddenly realize.

“Could I have what she’s having?”

“That’s The Bizness.” James has an easy smile but I think he reserves this smile for patrons. He doesn’t seem like someone who smiles outside of the bar unless prompted.

“Great, that’s what I’ll have.”

It’s strange to be sitting beside you at my favourite bar.

“What’s this place called?”

“Little Sister,” I reply. James places the drinks in front of us. I look at him briefly. I try to read him but I can’t. He turns his back to us.

“Cheers,” you say. “To everything being shit.” We clink our glasses together. I laugh at you over the brim of my drink.

. . .

I squint into the afternoon light. The sheets are white around you. You are asleep beside me. “Fuck …” I whisper. My mouth is dry ashes, my head a vice. I stretch out my body slowly. It is a sore body. I realize the lights are still on in my bedroom. We are lying horizontally along the bed. Your feet dangle over its edge.

I get up slowly and tip toe across the wreckage of fallen clothing and overturned shoes and into the kitchen. I open the fridge and take out a jug of water. I pour the water into two glass mason jars.

“Can I have a glass of water?” you ask. I nearly drop the jug. You have snuck out of bed as quiet as a mouse. I turn to you and you are standing in the late afternoon light and behind the sun is bright, filtered light. I hold up my hand to my face, to block the sun. Your face is in shadow, your hair bright in my eyes.

“Yes,” I say, “yes you may.”

You don’t take the glass. My arm stretches out, the glass between us. You are disastrously beautiful.

You reach out and take the water. You hold it in your hand and place it on the counter, you don’t take a drink. I’ve never seen a creature like you before. You pierce the heart, right at its apex. I think, I’m in love with a ruin.

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.


I couldn’t speak.


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.”


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.



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

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?”


“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?”


“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.