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Celia, Misoka, I


The Beginning of the Beginning

It was the most unusual winter of my time in Montreal, the most unusual winter of my time in this world. One thousand nine hundred and fifty-two days have passed since I left Montreal and, even now, I find the events that took place that winter around Mount Royal hard to believe. Sometimes they return, in my dreams at night or my daytime reveries, but are inevitably cut short by the same callous question: Was it real? Was it real? Was it real? I despise this question. It persists and recurs like a terminal illness, intent on severing the connection between me and that inconceivable winter, its inconceivable passion. Each time this question cuts short my reveries and dreams I feel the deep wound it inflicts.

For Montreal, it was a very ordinary winter. It was no longer than usual. It began toward the end of December and ended at the beginning of March. It was not a particularly cold winter either. In that period of less than three months, there were only three snowstorms delete, and days when the temperature dropped below minus twenty you could count on both hands. But in that most ordinary of winters life opened a window for me it had never opened before and would never open again. To this day I still find the scene I saw through that window hard to believe.

It seems that everything began with the death of my wife. In her final days, my feelings for her underwent a huge transformation. I was repelled by the massive changes in her physical condition, perhaps even disgusted. I was scared by the pain she was suffering, perhaps even terrified. Of course, I still did my best to look after her, but the “still” in that statement conceals a change that had taken place. A cool rationality now dictated my behaviour rather than the warm spontaneity of feeling I had once felt. I no longer saw her as the woman with whom I had lived for twenty-three years. She was but a skeleton to which clung the barest remnants of sentience. When I held her hand it was out of a cold sense of duty, and when she lost consciousness for the last time, I was no longer flustered by what I knew was happening. I woke up my daughter, who had just fallen asleep, and asked her if she wanted to call the emergency services. “Do you think I should?” she asked, her voice frail with exhaustion. I knew what she meant. That there was no point. “We should at least call,” I said, out of obligation only.

The paramedics arrived in fifteen minutes, and eight minutes after that my wife stopped breathing.

It was during an annual check-up that my wife discovered something was wrong. Further tests established that the cancer that was growing in her pancreas was in its middle stages. Only seven months passed between the check-up that revealed something was wrong and the moment she stopped breathing. For the first four months, her condition was relatively stable. When the chemotherapy started, she did all she could to stay in good spirits and stick to her normal schedule, even continuing to help out every now and again at the convenience store. But with the arrival of the new year her condition began to deteriorate rapidly. The morning she collapsed in the bathroom was the first time we called the emergency services and she was hospitalized. From that day she began to lose weight rapidly, her mood began to fluctuate violently, and her body, tormented by pain, began to edge visibly toward death.

The day she was hospitalized I entrusted the convenience store to a friend who had always wanted to buy it and spent all of my time by her side. Before I knew it, six weeks had passed, and in the first week of February her doctor told me that there was not much point in moving on to the next stage of treatment. We decided to take her home from the hospital. Although my wife must have known what this meant, she was happy to return to her home and her mood in the first days was noticeably better than it had been in the hospital. Every lunchtime a nurse would come to check up on her and every other day a religious friend of ours would visit to pray for her. This friend would ask me to join her. Neither my wife nor I were Christian, but our friend was convinced that my praying could still lessen my wife’s psychological and physical pain. When it came to prayer, I have to admit, I was not very sure of what I was doing or even for whom I was doing it — as I prayed for my wife, I was also praying for myself, praying that when God came for me, he would not come so slowly. I did not want to suffer like she had. Within three weeks of my wife returning home, I was signing her death certificate.

My wife’s death was perhaps a release, both for her and for me. In comparison, the death that followed three months later brought a purer sense of despair, a passing no death certificate could account for — the death of the relationship between my daughter and me. In truth, the symptoms of our worsening relationship had become clear when she started middle school. That was the time when her reliance on and attachment to me began to diminish and our conversations and interactions became increasingly rare. A clear example of this was her attitude to birthdays. Before starting middle school, she would look forward each year to the birthday present I gave her, and every year on my birthday she would make me a card, something, for some reason, she never did for her mother. But when she started middle school she stopped caring about my presents and even stopped remembering my birthday. So our relationship was already in dangerous waters when, after graduating from high school, she did not choose the university I wanted her to go to, or even the major I thought she should take. Despite all of this, I was not prepared for our relationship’s demise. After she graduated from university, I knew that she was not planning to continue in education like I hoped she would, that she wanted to find a job right away, and a job far away from Montreal at that, but I did not think that meant that our relationship was doomed! When the last of her applications to work in Toronto and Vancouver was rejected, I was secretly pleased to see the downcast expression on her face as she moped around the house. Then, when I came home in the evening five days later, she told me she had been accepted for the only position she had applied for in Montreal. Before I had a chance to congratulate her, she told me she had found somewhere to live near her workplace and was going to move out in a few days. I had not expected this at all. “Why do you have to live somewhere else?” I asked her. “I want to,” she replied coldly. She moved out that weekend, and the move was more drastic than I could have possibly imagined: she had not only moved out from my house, but from my life. In the following four months she did not phone me once, nor did she answer my calls or respond to my emails. She did not even tell me where she was living. In the end I couldn’t take it anymore and I sent her an angry email in which I wrote, “As your father, I at least have the right to know if you are dead or alive.” I thought the anger would prompt her to reply quickly, if only to let me know that she was okay, and I waited, on edge, for ten days. It was a suspense more agonizing than that which had gripped me during my wife’s final days, and I began to lose my hold on reality. On the evening of the tenth day I bumped into one of her middle school classmates in the supermarket and asked her if she had heard from my daughter. To my surprise, she responded without hesitation in the affirmative, saying they had eaten dinner together the night before. At first I was overjoyed because I knew that my daughter was alive and well (at least up to the day before), but this was followed by a sense of humiliation. She cared more for a middle school classmate than she did her own father. It was clear that I no longer needed to wait for her reply. Whether she was living or not, I knew our relationship was dead, though I would never know the reason for its demise. Perhaps there was no reason at all beyond the simple fact that all young people tend to turn against their parents at some point in their lives.

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Personal Attention Roleplay

The day after my first sleepover with V, I am buoyant in a way I feel certain must be transferring to the clients. I greet each one breathlessly, flushed, teeth dry from grinning into the wind. I linger with the people who want to chat, instead of scurrying away immediately as I usually do. I help M. Rancourt with his cat litter, I change a lightbulb for Mme. Colley. I discuss conspiracy theories with Mr. Del Santo for half an hour while he rolls and smokes a joint in his pyjamas. Between stops, I take the hills head-on, I coast the dips with no hands, I am expanding like the universe, I think, I have infinite care to give and I know it will come back to me. I am ready to receive. I spot a patch of new crocuses, the first blooms of the season, and tear up with tenderness.

I arrive, bubbling over, at the last client's apartment. She greets me by throwing a jiggling sack of raw meat at my face. Fortunately, I have good reflexes. I catch it before it hits, and cradle it gently. I can see the blood streaking down the insides of the plastic, little bubbles of pink. She yells that we delivered her an uncooked dinner last time. "It's unacceptable! Bande de caves! Vous n'avez aucun respect pour moi!" She is sobbing a little, but also smiling, maybe with rage. I consider dialling the on-duty staff, but then I think, I can handle this. I apologize to her in my calmest voice, gently place this evening's meal container on her hall table, and tell her I will sort it out with "the bosses," even though the Centre is a non-hierarchical collective. She still slams the door, but after patting my hand a little.

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Cine Star Salon, The

I. Sharp Instruments
The clanging of woks and harried calls from the cooks seemed louder that Sunday, the bustle carrying a more frenzied air. Sophia felt like a caged animal. She looked up at the ceiling, wishing to float above the flood of noise. Across the table, her parents sat straight-backed and elegant--they dressed up during Sundays for the mass. At this dim sum place along Fraser Street, they were familiar faces to servers who were used to serving them efficiently. Her father always brought them to the same place after the service; he enjoyed the anxious, deferential treatment. Sophia wished everybody would just slow down, that the plates of deep-fried rolls would land on the table without that haphazard clink, the tiny steaming bowls set down with some care. The world lacked in grace. There was no need for all this hurry.

There was also no need to talk so loudly. Sophia marvelled at how her mother's excited voice surfed above the noise level in the restaurant, while Samuel and their father hungrily served themselves with the newly arrived delicacies. What was it with men that could make them so indifferent when everything around them was chaos?

"There might have been a fight, some confrontation." Her mother looked to Sophia for confirmation. During last night's Skype call to Manila, every single detail had been dissected, with Sophia's mother embellishing with things remembered from the past, and Auntie Mila correcting her faulty memory, happy to fan the same topic as it kept at bay the other usual subject, which was her perpetual singlehood. They had harmoniously called it an accident. Sophia, who had been eavesdropping, missed the kindness of the word, its blamelessness, now that her mother was adding fresh angles to her younger sister's juicy gossip. "Maybe it wasn't an accident. Who knows?"

The feast on the Lazy Susan gave off the aroma of sesame and pork fat, all of which ordinarily made her day. Sophia had a voracious appetite. Adrian had once said that she wasn't like other beautiful women who ate like birds.

That morning she didn't feel like a single bite.

"Your Auntie Rosy," her mother waved her chopsticks at Sophia on your, stressing that the woman was just someone Sophia called Auntie, not a family relation, "has not seen a customer since the accident. The ale left with an unfinished haircut and a bleeding cut on her cheek. Fight or no fight, Rosy must have been drunk!"

Her father shrugged. "What's going to happen now?"

"For sure, she's going to lose the business. It's so sad." But her mother didn't sound sad. She sounded cold, satisfied even.

"Where did Auntie Mila hear this?" Sophia made her voice sound skeptical, poised to dismiss the story.

"Everyone in the neighbourhood is talking about it. I'm surprised you haven't heard."

"I haven't been in touch with them." She avoided her mother's gaze by looking up at the server who put down a fresh teapot on their table before hurrying off with the empty one. He brushed against another server pushing a cart that carried towering piles of bamboo steamers. Sophia herself felt like a tottering container in danger of falling to the floor, her secrets tumbling out like meat filling from a breached dumpling.

How generous she had been back then, sending money and packages filled with salon supplies and gifts to Manila. It had been three years, but Sophia was remembering all of it too clearly. How, at the beginning, it hadn't felt like a burden. Every amount she signed off, every package she sealed and shipped left her with a nostalgic glow from paying homage. It hadn't been hard to keep these charitable efforts from her stingy parents--as a child, Sophia had harboured bigger secrets. That Auntie Rosy was grateful to the point of tears every single time only spurred her generosity. Being left to run Cine Star after Aling Helen's death had made her fragile and resilient at the same time. Such contradictions were the stuff Auntie Rosy was made of. Perhaps the end had been inevitable. Their friendship couldn't have emerged from their dreadful misunderstanding unscathed. When everything finally blew up, Auntie Rosy no longer wanted to speak to Sophia, who had been irked but ultimately relieved by this outcome. Through all of it, her family had been unaware and uninvolved. As always.

Outside the skies were bright, the leaves vibrant in the late-September showdown between summer and fall, but all Sophia could see were the smudges on the glass window, swirling traces of mist where the cleaning cloth had been. A cut on the cheek. Auntie Rosy had been a stylist for decades. What had taken so long, Sophia thought, for something like this to happen?

The scene played out in her head: the woman storming out of Cine Star, hand cradling one side of her face. Murmurs rising among onlookers lined up at the next-door pawnshop and the bakery at the other side. Auntie Mila would have pieced the story together from plenty of sources. Her account was so detailed that her mother, who knew nothing about the people living next door to their Collingwood area townhouse, would talk about it for a long time.

But it was Erwin's version that Sophia wanted to hear. It had been months since they had last spoken, but from what she could tell from his Facebook and Instagram posts, her childhood friend still lived in the same neighbourhood, worked at the same call centre outfit. Heard the same rumours. Erwin was Sophia's remaining link to Auntie Rosy.

By the time they left the Chinese restaurant, the morning's sunny skies had turned into a defeated shade. "It might rain," Sophia remarked, looking through the window of her father's Honda. Next to her, Samuel had earphones plugged in his ears, his slouch disguising his springing height. He looked thirteen instead of nineteen. As her mother went on questioning Auntie Rosy's life choices, Sophia found herself agreeing with the prevailing belief within the family that her brother was the clever one.

"Mila says Rosy and Soledad are still tight. They are still seen together at nights."

Aling Soledad! Sophia had not thought of her for years. When she was growing up, the rumours about the woman swirled around their neighbourhood like a swarm of bees. Back when she believed that being beautiful brought a woman a lot of trouble. The string of boyfriends. Affairs ending stormily. The next man a step down from the last. Sometimes a baby in their wake. Sophia wondered if Auntie Rosy still styled Aling Soledad at Cine Star like the old days. For free.

"She should be locked up," her father huffed. They were stopped at a red light. An old lady with a walker ambled across the pedestrian line. "Both of them."

"Vincent, naman. That's too harsh." Sophia's mother rubbed his shoulder. For the first time that morning she had reverted to her mellow and tremulous voice, which Sophia guessed was used at her job as a receptionist at the community centre. It sounded like she was shivering and was concealing it by being friendly. Polite. Auntie Rosy's accident had resurrected the loud, commanding voice she had once wielded against noisemakers as a college librarian.

The light turned green and the car eased forward, leaving the topic of Auntie Rosy's accident at the intersection. Sophia waited for something within her to settle, her heartbeat or the food in her stomach, but her pulse had been fine and she had eaten very little at the restaurant. Her sigh created a cloudy patch on the car window, which looked out to hardware stores, parking lots, obscure office buildings rushing past. It was all familiar landscape, but what went on behind those vandalized stucco walls, those glass doors advertising hours of operation? Something always lurked behind the surface, every wall knew of some drama. Her father drove faster and the shops flew past with their untold stories, leaving Sophia with her faint reflection floating along the pavement. A lady's face with shapely eyebrows and lips, not belonging to the little girl she had felt like a few blocks ago.

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