Coming Of Age

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Every Little Piece of Me

November 2014


Mags hadn’t expected the club to be so crowded. The band’s previous shows in New York had been sparsely attended. But Align Above’s new album had dropped a few weeks before, and tonight there was an electricity in the air, something that she couldn’t explain. In the green room she drank half a fifth of whiskey and smoked three joints before stumbling on stage in a haze, her body hot and cold at the same time, her skin sweaty and goose-pimpled.
     “I’m fine,” she told Emiko, her manager, who held Mags’s face in both her hands and stared into her eyes like she was trying to see into the future. “This is what I need. This is what I do.”
     She sang. She knows she must have, because people were cheering— so many people, the audience a big blur of colour in front of her, pulsing with vague outlines of human forms. Adrift, she locked eyes with a beautiful Asian boy while she was singing “Barometer”— a song she had written about Sam, so new she had only ever played it live once before— and she was surprised to see that he was singing along, gazing at her with such naked adoration that it made her shiver. “You will rise, I will rise, we will rise, like a barometer,” she sang, and his mouth moved with hers, almost as though he was claiming her voice somehow, making the words his own in a way that momentarily startled her, her hand dropping from the mic, her voice fading out before the end of the line.
     After the show, she found him in the hallway outside the green room, waiting for her. He was just a kid, a scruffy teenager with doe eyes and expensive sneakers, a forelock of hair sweeping down across his brow. But she could feel the relentless pull of the pit, that gaping maw of a comedown she ran from at the end of every show, so she pressed herself up against him, the contours of his body meeting hers in a way that was familiar and yet unfamiliar, like wearing someone else’s shoes. 
     “Do you have somewhere we could go?” she asked, lips inches from his ear, which fluttered almost imperceptibly as she breathed against it.
     “I have my own place,” he said, and she could feel the newness of those words in his mouth, how good it felt for him to say them.
     They were in the Uber by the time she started second-guessing herself, realizing too late he wasn’t even close to what she wanted. But it wasn’t until they got to his apartment and she saw all the video cameras that she knew she’d made a huge mistake.
     “I’m not a pervert or a weirdo, I swear,” he said, his doe eyes clouding over with worry as she inched toward the door. “It’s this stupid reality show I’m on. They leave the cameras set up all the time.”
     “Reality show?” Mags was sobering up, and all she could see were blinking lights, red and green and blue, cables tangling across the floor like tussling snakes. She suddenly felt as though the entire world was watching her, as if they could see through the eye of the lens right into the depths of her soul.
     “They’re not on right now, I promise,” the boy said. “See?” He picked up a cable attached to a camera and showed her the dangling end. Mags realized the blinking lights were all in her head. “There’s a schedule. They’re only on when the crew is here.”
     Mags stepped toward the camera tentatively, as if it were a wild animal she wanted to feed from her hand. She touched the top of the lens, which was coated with a fine layer of dust, and blew the dust away gently. “That doesn’t seem very real,” she said.
     The boy laughed nervously. “It’s not,” he said. “There’s nothing real about reality television, trust me.”
     She moved around the room, feeling the boy’s eyes on her. At least the reality show explained the apartment—sparsely but tastefully furnished, with high ceilings and exposed brick, a pool table at one end of the living room and an entire row of expensive guitars lining the opposite wall. She wandered over and picked one up, strumming it before realizing it was a vintage Gibson Les Paul Standard Sunburst. And it was signed.
     “Eric Clapton,” the boy said, shrugging. “I got it at an auction last year.”
     Mags ran her fingers over the strings. It probably cost more than all of Align Above’s equipment combined. But the boy didn’t seem to care—he hadn’t rushed over to grab it from her, hadn’t kept it under lock and key. “Do you actually play this?” she asked.
     “What’s the point of a guitar if you don’t play it?” He took it from her and began strumming softly. Oh no, thought Mags, please don’t. But then he started singing, his voice soft and earnest, and she could do nothing but sit there, helplessly listening, not knowing whether she should laugh or cry. At least it wasn’t one of her songs— from what she could tell, it was something he had written himself, probably during a period when he was listening to a lot of melancholy stuff, Bon Iver or The National. When he stopped singing, she smiled at him, and before he could launch into his next number, she kissed him, the guitar pressed between them, the strings mashed up against her belly.
     Later, Mags got up from the boy’s bed in the dark and walked naked to the bathroom, keeping the water cool as she splashed it over her face, avoiding her own red eyes in the mirror. Walked back through the apartment, head jumbled, running her hands over the exposed brick, heading toward the balcony to see those lights of Tribeca, wondering what it must be like to live here, to live this life.
     Before Mags made it halfway across the living room she saw her, through the glass doors of the balcony— a woman wearing only a T-shirt and underwear, climbing up onto the parapet, her pale skin scraping across the concrete as she stood up on the ledge. Mags grabbed a blanket from the couch, scratchy and wool but big enough to cover herself, and rushed to the balcony, the wind hurtling itself at her as she hauled open the doors, all rust and smog.As soon as the doors opened she realized she had no idea what to do. She tried to remember how high up they were— four storeys, five? Surely high enough.
     “Hello,” Mags said quietly.
     The woman turned to face her, and Mags realized she was still a girl, really, barely out of her teens. There was something vaguely familiar about her. Her eyes were a startling blue, her hair white-blonde and cut close to her head in a haphazard way that made Mags think she had done it herself. Her T-shirt had a picture of a fairy on it, possibly a cartoon character from a television show Mags had never seen. Even as she balanced there on the parapet, she stood with her back straight, her hand on her hip, her head angled at a perfect, fashion-model 45 degrees as she regarded Mags through mildly inquisitive eyes.
     “It’s you,” the woman said. She dragged both her hands down her thighs as though she were drying off sweaty palms. For a moment, Mags thought she was going to reach out to shake her hand, but instead she crossed her arms over her chest, cutting off the head of the cartoon fairy. “What are you doing here?”
     Mags didn’t say anything for a minute, afraid the truth might push this woman over the edge. “Are you planning on jumping?” she asked instead.
     The woman dipped her toe off the ledge, her eyes drawn to the street below. Then she pulled her toe back and turned to face Mags again. “Are you naked under that blanket?”
     Mags glanced down at her round calves and bare feet sticking out of the bottom of the blanket, which hung just above her knees. “I guess when I saw you climb up on that ledge, finding clothes wasn’t exactly my first priority.”
     Narrowing her eyes, the woman crossed her arms tighter over her chest. “You slept with Val,” she said.
     Val. Mags knew the boy’s name, but it was so much easier to think of him as “the boy,” as if he were the only one. But now. Val. She nodded.
     “Good for you. My brother loves you, you know. The show tonight was the only thing he could talk about for weeks.”
     “He’s your brother?” Mags asked.
     “We’re both adopted,” the woman said. “Everyone knows this. You know this.” She paused. “Or maybe you thought I was his girlfriend.”
     “No,” said Mags, realizing she hadn’t. But she didn’t want to talk about Val anymore. And she was sick of talking about herself. Sick of herself in all kinds of ways. Maybe just sick. “Can we get back to talking about why you’re standing on that ledge?”
     “I’m pretty sure I’m going to jump,” the woman said, without drama, without pathos. I’m. Going. To. Jump.
    “Pretty sure?”
     “Very sure.” She spread her arms wide, an eagle about to take flight.
     Mags thought about all the things she could say. No. Don’t do it. You have so much to live for. But did she? How could she know? “What’s your name?” she asked instead, stalling.
     The woman stared at her, her body silhouetted against the New York skyline, backlit by the lights from a thousand different windows, a thousand different lives being lived. Then she started to laugh, a huge, aching belly laugh that Mags worried would propel her off the edge through the sheer force of its kickback. When she finally stopped laughing, she looked out over the city again. It was like a switch had flipped, and she was back to thinking about whatever it was that called to her.
     “It’s Ava,” she said. “You might be the only person in New York who doesn’t know that.”

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Our Homesick Songs

There was a mermaid, said Finn.

Yes, said Cora. She pulled an old towel up over her, a blanket. Out on the dark green night water, said Finn, there was a mermaid. And, because mermaids need to, it sang. Sad songs, homesick songs. Night after night, over a hundred thousand fish. And the only one who could hear it was a girl.

Lonely, said Cora.

Yes, a lonely girl, said Finn. Orphaned. But tying knots and listening to the mermaid sing made her feel a bit better. All through the night, she’d lie awake and knot and listen to the songs.

And then the storm, said Cora.

Yes, the storm, said Finn. There was a storm one night. And the girl couldn’t think of anything but her parents not being there, and the knots weren’t helping as much as they should, and the mermaid was singing and singing, not high and pretty, like you might think, but low and long, like she felt, so the girl got up, out of bed, and followed the song down to the water.

The sea.

Yes, to the sea. Where the storm was wild and it was probably too dangerous –

Definitely –

And it was definitely too dangerous, but she kept going anyway, the mermaid’s singing washing up to her, calling out to her. She walked all the way to the edge of the sea and then, even though it was freezing cold, she took another step into the water. She should have sunk down, but she didn’t. She stayed on the surface.

She what?

She stayed on the surface.

She did? I don’t remember this part . . .

She did. Because the sea was so thick with cod, brought out by the singing, hundreds of thousands of them, she could walk on them, right across their backs, out and out and out towards the song . . .

Oh . . .

And it got louder and louder until it was louder than the wind, until –

Until she saw it wasn’t a mermaid at all, said Cora. Yes, said Finn. Until she saw it wasn’t a mermaid. It was Dad. It was our dad. Singing.

Cora and Finn were on the ferry, going west. The sun had set and their parents were asleep, leaning against each other, surrounded by bags and boxes. There was no one else there. It was too foggy to see out the windows, to check for boat lights or anything else. Too quiet and late for music, too much pull of the sea for reading. There was nothing to do but tell stories. Tell this story.

And then? asked Cora.

And then everything, said Finn.

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Sometimes I'm a girl and sometimes I'm a boy. Today's a girl-day, so it's Orianthi. Red skinnyjeans, my brother's old Blundstone boots, a black tee, no logo, purple hair chalk. It's a coolname, right? Rockin' guitarist and all. Back story on the boots--I was wearing them the dayCarter took off, three months after our seventeenth birthday. Otherwise they'd be gone too.They're awesome, all worn out and scuffed up and vintage-like.Carter ran away, and I followed. We're tethered, but I guess he forgot. I miss his quirky hyenalaugh, his tenderness, his viciousness. Raspberry pie at midnight, single fork. Ori, whispered,sing-song, reverent. All that science shit he used to teach me, trilobites, coprolites, dendrites.Ukulele punk--humble, badass. Whatever. Short story, he's gone.I'm kind of wondering how I ended up here, Room 11, Nap-Away Motel. Bed shaped like ahammock, stink of cigarette smoke and mouse piss, stain on the carpet that looks like blood,cracked mirror in the bathroom. Bleak. Dubious beginning for a lost-twin quest.I waited for Carter to come back, for seven hours and thirteen days. At first I wasdisbelieving. I sent him jokey texts with stupid emojis that I knew he would hate and waited forhim to respond. Then I got really pissed. Stopped texting him. But I kept looking for him at allthe places we hung out. Around the sixth day I spiralled down into a blacker place. Soundtrack"Cosmic Love", Florence + the Machine, all that darkness when the stars go out. On the seventhday I found his cell phone. Smashed open, all its robot-like innards exposed. The screen wasshattered into a million little pieces of cracked ice. I cradled it for a moment in my cupped palms.Like a dead baby rabbit. Then I hurled it at Carter's bed.A couple of months before he took off, he started acting weird. Cagey and nasty. Some kindof secret pulsed through his veins. No riffs on his uke. He muttered and scribbled in his3notebook. I'd looked inside it before--brain-eating amoebas, blue straggler stars, crap I didn'tunderstand--but when I snuck into his room to peek inside the notebook again, I saw crampeddark words multiplying and spilling over the pages, jagged fangs, disemboweled dogs. They sayterrible things will happen if I reveal anything, he had written. I've made a discovery though,about dendritic spines, about the connectivity of the interneurons. I thought it might help, butthey say I can't tell, not ever. Not even to Ori. They tell me things about Ori that I don't want tobelieve, horrible things about what--Carter caught me. His eyes were grey and wild, filled with snarling wolves. He ripped thenotebook from my hands."The proof is in here. About everything! Now they'll have to come and take me," he hissedvehemently."Who?" I asked.His lips curled back to form the words. "You're not who you say you are. They said youwould do this, that you would interfere!" My guts slithered and constricted into a tight coil. Hedropped the notebook and turned his head sharply to the right. "Shut up. SHUT UP! GOAWAY!" I skittered out of his room. In the morning he was gone.Here's the thing. Carter and I look out for each other, because no one else ever has, not really.Spent most of our childhood bounced around between our mom, our grandma, and foster care,which mostly sucked, except for foster home three. Big funky farmhouse on the edge of Oshawa,lots of fruit smoothies, two wiry grey dogs, and a foster mom who was into drumming-circlesand yoga. Stella. She bought Carter his first ukulele. I miss the dogs the most. Nancy and Grover.They both had those weird blue eyes that could pin you against a wall. She got sick though.Stella, I mean, not Nancy.4Foster home five was nothing like number three. No dogs, no smoothies, no yoga. Bunch oflittle kids with snotty noses, running around with dirty bare feet, wet diapers hanging down. Fishsticks and overcooked pasta with watery tomato sauce. Lots of beer-drinking and bad reality TV.Kathy was nonchalant about Carter's disappearance. Figured he was old enough now to be'starting out on his own.' Mr. Jepps didn't even notice Carter was gone.So the vigil of waiting for Carter's return was mine alone. Thirteen days and seven hours. Onthe eighth hour his postcard arrived. A touristy one, with a glossy Canadian beaver on the front,Toronto, written in large cursive script across the bottom. The back was crowded with the samedark cramped words from his notebook. My name, again and again. Ori, Ori, Ori, like he wascalling out to me. I'm at the edge of the universe, THE FUCKIN' EDGE, looking over. There's apencil in my heart, right here, right here, and it hurts, you can't imagine how much it hurts me,but they can't take it out, they can't get to it, but every time I breathe I can feel it impaling me,the slivers of wood piercing, fiercely, fiery, fury, flurry, there's a flurry of words slipping out ofmy brain. Someone has tampered with it. There were a few more sentences that I couldn'tdecipher, and then: I can only eat tacos now. Ori! I could hear his voice, pleading like he wasbeing held hostage. There was a sketch, small and detailed, of some kind of pointy-nosed rodent.Like an earless mouse. But with rows of sharp teeth. And circling the outer edge, like a frame:On earth we strive for earthly things and suffer sorrows daily. In heaven choirs of angels sing,while we play ukulele.I carried the postcard around in my back pocket for five days. Folding and unfolding it,slashing that beaver's pelt into four. Re-reading all the craziness, until it was embedded into mymind. The beaver was magical; I thought it was an amulet that would bring Carter back. Until I5realized that it wasn't bringing him back, it was calling me to him. A magnet, tugging at mymarrow, pulling me to my twin.Pulled on the Blundstones, threw my clothes and my notebook into a bag, scrounged aroundfor cash. I had a couple hundred stashed away. My life's savings. Carter had a Mason jar filledwith change that I emptied out. Stole a couple of twenties from Mr. Jepps' beer fund. Hitched aride with a neighbour to the city. Told him I was meeting Carter, like it was all planned. Big fattruck, driving fast along the 401, going west. On the drive he told me neighbourly stories. Thebowling alley fire. Mr. Marshall's dog. (Twenty stitches. And that cone of shame). Graffiti onthe war monument in the park. Eventually he turned on the radio. Soundtrack, his, not mine:"Sunglasses at Night," Corey Hart.

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The Dishwasher


THE SNOWPLOW’S ROTATOR BEACONS light up the buildings’ white-coated façades as it slogs up Hochelaga pushing snow. We finally manage to pass it and turn onto a small, dimly lit street. Low-hanging cottony clouds fill the dark sky. The comfortable warmth of the car interior is almost enough to put me to sleep. You can just hear the dispatcher’s voice on the CB. Mohammed turns down his music the moment I get into his black Sonata. He keeps his car immaculately clean. No crumpled up newspaper floor mats, no old coffee cups or leftover food in the compartment under the radio. Just a small Koran with an illuminated cover and a receipt book. The leather seats are good as new. A fresh, minty aroma suffuses the car.

We pull onto Rue Ontario. Tall snowbanks line either side of the street.

Mohammed ignores a call on his cell. He never answers when he’s with a customer. In the extra rear-view mirrors he has mounted on each side of the windshield, I can see his serene face and wrinkled, baggy eyes under bushy eyebrows. We keep driving to Sicard, then turn right. I don’t have to give him directions. Mohammed knows the route by heart, has for some time. Mohammed, Car 287, is senior driver at the cab stand on the corner of Beaubien and des Érables. Mohammed is the cabbie who nightly takes home half the bar and restaurant workers who ply their trade in Rosemont. Mohammed is a fifty-four-year-old Algerian. He’s owed favours by every taxi driver working the area between Saint-Laurent and l’Assomption from west to east, Jean-Talon and Sherbrooke north to south. Even the old guard, the holdouts still driving for Taxi Coop, respect him to a man. Every second time I catch a taxi at the stand, I don’t have to say where I’m going; every third time I don’t even give my address. It doesn’t matter who’s driving. They know me because I’m a customer of #287. Mohammed is as generous as they come. The kind of guy who’d pull over to help two people moving, stuck under a fridge on their outdoor staircase.

I remember one time two or three years ago. We were driving down D’Iberville, getting close to my house, must have been 1:30 in the morning. The moment we turned onto Hochelaga I had a nagging doubt. This was back when I was closing by myself. At the end of a busy night I’d be so spent I’d sometimes forget some of the closing jobs, like making sure the heat lamps were turned off, or that the cooks hadn’t left the convection oven on. That night I just couldn’t remember if I’d locked the back door of the restaurant after taking out the dining room garbage. Mohammed stopped in front of my place. He looked at me in one of his mirrors. I still wasn’t certain, but I convinced myself I must have done it automatically. I got out of the cab. I stood there next to the car, hesitating, with my hand on the open door. Mohammed turned around and said:

“Get back in, my friend. We’re going back.”

He didn’t turn the meter back on. It turned out I hadn’t locked the back door, and the meat order hadn’t been put away in the cooler. When we got back to Aird and La Fontaine, where we’d started, I held out sixty dollars.

“No no, my friend. The usual fare.”

He wouldn’t take more than twenty.

“It was my pleasure. You’ll sleep better tonight.”

Sometimes, deep in the night, you come across people like Mohammed. After years of night shifts, years of going to bed at four in the morning, I’ve gotten to know all kinds of characters, from young kids so jacked up on coke they chatter uncontrollably to hard cases content to ride their downward spiral all the way to rock bottom. The night sadly doesn’t belong to the Mohammeds of this world. But they’re out there, making it a more hospitable place for its denizens.

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