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I, Gloria Grahame

I, Gloria Grahame. It is certainly with a sense of some guilt that I write that. Or not guilt. Let’s just say that it seems a kind of false freedom, because I am not. I can only be her for a short while, while pen is put to paper, or perhaps I should say more accurately, finger to keyboard — when I am writing whatever this is. (I don’t call it anything, not even a diary or a journal, that would be too presumptuous.) She is certainly not me, and I have no relationship with her other than the fact that I do imagine I am this particular storied Hollywood film noir star, and I write as if I were her occasionally. But no one sees that writing. If you are reading this it is probably because I have been arrested finally or put to death. Good riddance, as they say. But all I do is fantasize that I’m Gloria Grahame. I am not her. I’m a very different person from her, and it’s being completely honest to tell you that.

How do I begin to describe myself?

I have always been not very manly and somewhat invisible. Now that I am of a certain age, I wear hats and scarves, even in summer, and they serve to cover me somewhat, as I do not wish to be noticed. In fact, I wish to disappear; that is, short of dying. Why? It has basically become a little too much trouble to be alive. I think everyone reaches a point where that becomes the case and then they just die, one way or the other. That’s my terribly depressing theory. It isn’t that we outlive our usefulness or that nobody loves us, it’s just that it finally isn’t worth it anymore, the struggle. Anyway, first of all, or perhaps most of all, there is my voice. Have you ever heard Truman Capote’s voice? You might google it, and if you do, you will discover that even for the most dedicated homophile it is just a little too much. I can’t help it; I was born this way, to quote the great Gaga. When I open my mouth I betray myself. And yes, I always sashay a little bit, and there are mannerisms. But it is not a case of choosing to act this way; let me make that perfectly clear. If I had my way I would be someone else, I would be John Wayne, particularly the way he looked when he was young. (Did you know his real name was Marion?) Yes, I would prefer to be effortlessly masculine, which is the way I describe the type of man I am often attracted to. This makes me hopeless in a Quentin Crisp sort of way. I lust after the type of young man who would not be caught dead in public with me, which makes my case tragic, except of course for what you can get up to in private. But I pretty much don’t bother with that anymore, either. So I have become this haunted thing, or rather this thing that would wish to be haunted or hunted, or something, but what I am really is just the type of person who makes people feel uncomfortable and who they would like more than anything to ignore.

Some women like me. Some. (Others, I threaten.) But it’s more as if they take pity on me, and that is perfectly fine, I, Gloria Grahame too, it’s something, anyway, it’s someone actually having an emotion in regards to me, or perhaps I should say having an emotion in my direction or at least in my general vicinity. Which is certainly better than nothing. Or is it? When I was younger I made an effort to hide it, there were the scarves and hats back then, too — which, when you come down to it, accentuated it more than anything — if one adds sunglasses then one has become Greta Garbo, certainly not a very butch self-presentation. But there was also an attempt to monitor the voice and the hands and the hips, that is to not be in any way myself, which I was sometimes successful at doing. Successful in the sense that people didn’t so much not know that I was effeminate, but they quite generally appreciated the fact that I was doing my best to cover it up. It was gracious of them to notice, and gracious of me to try. I was being considerate of their sensibilities, trying not to offend.

And then in those days I did not have tenure. That’s why I fought so hard for it, and now here I am teaching at a small university just outside of town. But I spend a lot of time in the city where I live. I spend a lot of time walking my dog, Poopsie. Yes, she is called Poopsie. Do what you want with that. The truth of the matter is that I would call her Poopsie, anyway, in private, so why not just make it public? It was bound to slip out, anyway. It’s all part of giving up. My last dog was actually named Rex, which was comical in its own way because he was also a miniature poodle. I could carry him around in a canvas bag, which I would do now and then, and even take him to class. The problem was he had cerebral palsy — yes, he did — and when I let him walk around the desk of the seminar room he would fall and quiver, and the students would think he was drunk. It was an interesting gauge of each student’s moral compass. Some would laugh, the boys usually — the effortlessly masculine ones — whereas the girls would punch the boys’ arms and be gushingly sympathetic to my little dog with CP. Anyway, calling this new little miniature poodle Poopsie is all part of giving up, the process of giving up who I am — while paradoxically being more publicly what I am. This is the beginning of a struggle not to exist anymore. Because though people might be able to tolerate a little poodle called Rex (there is, after all, humour in that) they are not about to care very much about one called Poopsie, and the male owner will be forever exiled from their consciousnesses. Out of sight, out of mind.

I hope you will applaud me in this end-of-life project; to fade from view long before I die. After all, it is quite evident that no one wants to see or hear from me anymore. In disappearing, I’m really just complying with the general zeitgeist. I’d ask for your advice — but you are, in fact, not there. I have just made you up in order to calm myself down. There must be someone reading this, even though it will never be read. And as I have imagined this, I also have imagined you, the same way I have imagined Gloria Grahame. You are somewhat sympathetic, but slightly frightened by me, and perhaps a bit confused? Because it seems to me that when I write as Gloria Grahame I am also able to write myself.

What does it mean to write yourself? It means what every writer knows: that they do not exist anywhere else but on paper, in the characters they create. That’s true for me more so than anyone. Even T.S. Eliot — who was apparently nondescript and worked in a bank — was not as nondescript as me. Except for the afflictions that are my face, my body, my age, my fluttering hands. What happens to me is I come home after a hard day at school (it’s two classes a day, twice a week — it must be admitted, I have absolutely nothing to complain about), and I am discouraged by the petty nothingness of my life, at how small even my humiliations are. And then I sit down and write this. I create. And everything that causes me discomfort, everything that causes me pain, is suddenly glorious. Glorious Gloria.

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The Rebellious Tide

Chapter 3: The Glacier

Seagulls soared overhead in undulating patterns. They would form perfect concentric circles, their outstretched wings frozen in the air, before darting across the sky in every direction. Of all the new things he had seen since leaving Petit Géant two months ago, these birds brought him the most joy.

The sun beat down on Civitavecchia, the clay-coloured port town outside Rome. Heavy beads of sweat made the journey from Sebastien’s forehead to the base of his neck.

The dock was alive with the sights and sounds of the sea. Everyone moved with purpose. Sailors stamped out cigarettes and hurried across the concrete. Merchants sold balls of deepfried dough to hungry travellers armed with suitcases with indestructible shells. Smoke and salt were infused in the air, but he liked the scent.

The hiking backpack he sat on was stuffed with almost everything he owned. An elegant woman in sunglasses dropped a handful of coins in the cap on the ground in front of him. He realized he looked like a beggar. “Signora!” he called out, wanting to return her money. She quickened her pace. He pocketed the change.

Fuelled by rage and a desperation to flee everything he knew, Sebastien had spent the last two months fixated on a plan. He had a purpose now. It brought him to Civitavecchia and, more specifically, to the Glacier.

It wasn’t a real glacier, of course. It was a ship. Towering above him like a steel behemoth, its hull was white like snow. A thousand eyes stared down at him — panels of blue-tinted glass held in place by silver bolts. The ship exhaled a thin plume of smoke from the pyramid-shaped funnel at its summit several decks above him.

“Sebastien?” A woman in a turquoise pantsuit stepped off the gangplank that led to the ship’s crew entrance. A silk scarf decorated with golden anchors was tied around her neck. It was his first time hearing a South African accent. “Sebastien Goo?”

He stood up and waved before slinging the heavy backpack over his shoulder. She smiled brightly as she approached, her heels unsteady on the concrete dock.

“It’s Goh,” he corrected her with a smile. “Like ‘Go home.’ Not Goo.”

She held her palms to her chest with her mouth open, embarrassed. “I’m so sorry!”

Sebastien laughed. “It’s fine. It happens all the time,” he lied.

The woman introduced herself as Claudette, manager of the photography department. She led him up the gangplank into the belly of the ship. Two uniformed men in blue shirts and dark pants stood guard. One of them made small talk with Claudette while the other checked Sebastien’s passport and employment papers. The guard handed back the documents and gave him a decisive nod.

“Thank you, sir,” Sebastien said with an overly enthusiastic smile. The guard jerked his head in the direction of the metal detector beside him. An X-ray machine devoured the backpack before spitting it out on its conveyor-belt tongue.

“Why is this ship called the Glacier?” Sebastien asked, as he followed Claudette through a maze of steel corridors.“Seems like a strange name for a Greek ship sailing the Mediterranean.”

“It used to do the Baltic route. I guess they didn’t bother to rename it.”

She stopped abruptly at a door painted the same ivory colour as the walls. “This is your cabin,” she said as she knocked.

The door opened seconds later to reveal a man in his early thirties, wearing nothing but a pair of orange soccer shorts. A fresh layer of sweat coated the well-defined lines of his torso. His close-cropped hair was the colour of sand.

“And this,” Claudette said, her cheeks blushing, “is your cabinmate.”

“Welcome aboard!” The man took Sebastien’s hand in a crushing grip. “I’m Ilya. Sorry for looking like such a beast. I was just doing a quick workout.” He pivoted to grab a towel, revealing constellations of little round scars across the otherwise smooth skin of his back.

“I’ll let you boys get acquainted,” Claudette said. “Ilya, be a doll and give Sebastien a tour of the ship. Sebastien, I’ll come by in three hours to brief you on your first assignment.”

“My first assignment?”

“The captain’s cocktail party. You’ll be taking photos.”

“Cocktail party?” Sebastien hadn’t known what to expect on joining the staff of a ship, but he didn’t imagine sipping a negroni with the captain.

Claudette let out a pretty laugh and looked at him as if he were a puppy learning to swim for the first time. “This is no oil tanker. This is the Glacier.”

* * *

The Glacier was a 90,000-ton floating hotel that offered guests the same grandeur they’d expect to find in any European capital. “It’s a luxury liner, not a cruise ship,” Ilya explained an hour later as they marched through the winding passageways of the staff quarters. “At least that’s what they want us to call it. Cruise ship is a dirty word here. It’s more or less a cruise ship, though, but with a superiority complex.”

The two men were dressed in identical uniforms the staff members wore while visiting the upper decks of the guest quarters. The gold buttons on the turquoise blazers were embellished with anchors. Their white pants had perfect creases ironed down the fronts. Sebastien tugged at the collar of his shirt. He wasn’t used to being strangled by a necktie.

A gold badge was pinned to the lapel of each jacket. His cabinmate’s badge said:

Ilya Tereshchenko
Fitness Trainer

He glanced down at his own badge.

Sebastien Goh

Ilya strolled through the corridors like he owned the ship, explaining every stop along the tour with the flair of a maestro. He seemed to know everyone they passed, swapping smiles and air kisses.

“We call this Styx,” Ilya explained, sweeping his arms outward as though revealing the grand prize of a game show. The wide passageway was the main artery in the lower decks of the staff quarters, stretching from one end of the ship to the other. “There are seventeen decks on the Glacier. The top fourteen are where paying guests wine, dine, and sun themselves into a stupor. The bottom three are where staff and crew live. These lower decks we call Hades — the underworld. Styx is the river that runs through it. In Greek mythology, the newly dead are ferried down the River Styx but only if you’ve paid the toll.”

The Glacier’s version of the River Styx was a social hub for the ship’s staff and crew. There was the cafeteria (“The food isn’t too bad, if you’re a zoo animal”), the staff bar (“The crew bar on C Deck usually gets wilder”), the staff purser’s office (“Uma will be your favourite person. She’s the one who pays us in cold, hard cash”), the computer lounge (“Since they installed Wi-Fi everywhere, nobody goes here except for the Filipino Mafia”), and the medical clinic (“As many free condoms as you need!”).

Over a thousand people worked aboard the Glacier. They lived on the three lower decks of Hades, ordered by the ship’s strict social hierarchy.

Located just below guest quarters was A Deck, where the ship’s white-suited officers lived. An exclusive wing near the stern was home to the captain and his commanders. If the officers were the upper crust of Glacier society, the commanders would be the aristocracy. “You need a special key card to enter, unless you make friends with one of them,” Ilya said with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “Their cabins are much nicer than ours. They don’t have to share with a mate. They have portholes so they can look outside and not feel like they’re rotting inside a coffin. There’s even carpet!”

Directly below the officers was B Deck, home of Styx and all members of staff, including Ilya and Sebastien. This was the realm of the turquoise-suited middle class comprised of people holding titles deemed respectable, such as massage therapist and art auctioneer. They generally came from wealthier countries. “As staff, we get more privileges than crew. We can hang out in the guest areas when we’re off duty as long as we’re dressed appropriately and wearing our name badges. Crew aren’t allowed to do that. We can go to the crew bar, but crew can’t enter the staff bar. Class division is a cruel reality here, I’m afraid. It’s sickening, but I guess we’re the lucky ones.”

Near the bottom of the ship were the crew quarters of C Deck. This was for the lower class of servers, cooks, bartenders, housekeepers, and deck cleaners. Most of them came from countries in Asia and Eastern Europe. “They work longer hours and get paid worse than staff. Plus, guests and officers treat them like servants.” Ilya shook his head in disgust. “Most have families back home. The money here is better than it is there. They deserve more respect.”

“It sounds a lot like the real world,” Sebastien said with a shrug.

“You’re wrong, my friend.” A devilish smile returned to Ilya’s lips. “This is as far from the real world as you can get.”


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Bath Haus



This is a fucking mistake.

My heart beats against the back of my sternum like it might knock itself still.

I kill the ignition and Nathan’s SUV sinks into silence. My wedding band slides right off, joining spare console change. Nathan and I aren’t married, but he insists we wear rings.

The iPhone buzzing in my pocket is a miniature washing machine. Nathan’s calling. I wait it out, don’t move. A simple phone call that I treat like a kidney stone. Excruciating and it needs to pass. He leaves a voicemail.

“Oliver. Dinner’s wrapped up, headed back to the hotel now. Give me a call if you can. Wondering what you’re doing. Did you remember Tilly’s heartworm medication? Don’t forget. It’s important. Call me. Love you.”

Mental note: return Nathan’s call within the hour. Thirty minutes is his typical limit. If he doesn’t hear back within half an hour, we fight. But he’s out of town, and I can stretch it to an hour. He can’t fight me from Manhattan, and it sounds like he’s been drinking anyway.

Cars jam the parking lot, bumper to bumper, nose to nose. Hidden from uninvited curiosity by a blanket of thick tree cover. No rhyme or reason or pattern ties one vehicle to another. A rust-­scorched Pontiac sits beside a sleek black Mercedes. The polish on the Benz captures light from a lone streetlamp, painting itself in electric-­blue waves. Countless more juxtapositions abound. Cross sections of the city. Not a single thing in common among their owners.

Except one: the desire to have sex with other men. Anonymously.

Breath fights me on the way out, clawing my windpipe like something feral. Oddly, my heartbeat slows and for a moment, I worry perhaps it has stopped altogether. One sneaker in front of the other, I make for a lone door—­windowless, heavy. The building is unmarked save for the name I’d found online days earlier:


I tug the handle, and the door creaks open on one, two, five sets of metal hinges.

Low lighting, obviously. And a smell, pervasive, that soaks everything. I can almost wring it from the air. Cheap sterility. A pungent odor that’s at once recognizable. The purple bottle. Lavender, I think, and adjacent to Pine-­Sol on every supermarket shelf.

“Hey.” A man greets me from behind a glassed-­in desk. Not unlike a bank teller. “You a member?”

No, I say—­only not aloud. A cough, then: “No.”

“You need to be one.” He pushes a clipboard through an opening and I note the thickness of his fingers. He’s large, but his sweatshirt still hangs loose. His features are drawn to the center of his face, needlessly crowding it.

“How much?” I ask, certain I’ve spoken out loud.

“Forty bucks. For the year. And I need your ID.”

Not bad, and an ID makes sense. No minors allowed. Here, a birthday is the difference between no strings attached and the sex registry. I slide him my driver’s license: Oliver Park. Twenty-­six years old. Washington, DC. Organ donor.

A flare of blue Xerox light crosses his face. The abrupt flicker leaves behind a wake of blackness as my eyes readjust. For a fleeting moment, Nathan materializes in the dark and my pulse spikes. But seeing things in the dark is normal. Things that aren’t there. My thoughts return to the copy machine. Proof of my visit crowds the tip of my tongue with questions, and I tug my bottom lip.

He reads my mind: “For our records. We never share it, but we need to know our patrons. Legal shit.” A pause. “You signed?”

I nod and trade his clipboard—­cash attached—­for my license.

“If you’re gonna drink, you gotta leave a card.”

“You can do that here?”

“Only in the bar. Two-­beer max. One if you want liquor.” I’m quiet for a beat, and he taps his finger. “Look, don’t sweat the charge. If you forget to cash out, it’ll say dry cleaning.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Regret from walking in sober—­fear of whiskey dick or something stupid like that—­vanishes as I slip him my credit card. Dry cleaning’s not the best cover because Nathan handles ours. But I’ll pay with cash after.

“Perfect.” He stoops beneath his desk, and for a few long seconds, I’m alone again. When he stands, he holds a cream-­colored towel, folded into a neat square. Atop it: a single-­use packet of lube, two condoms—­fruit flavored—­and a brass key on a rubber cord.

“Nine zero three.” He grins, and his narrow eyes crease. The corners of his mouth nearly touch his beady irises like a feline’s. “Have fun.”


When I’ve lingered too long, he gestures to the door on my left. I’m suddenly a bit like Alice. I’ve just met the Cheshire Cat, and Jefferson Airplane drums over which pills do what in my head.

Through door number 2, rows of lockers wait. I’m eager to leave the solvent reek of cleaners behind, but it only thickens. I’m also not alone, and my heart hiccups. Men stand and sit and linger in stages of undress, manspreading on changing benches, tiny towels intentionally parted.

None of them are particularly attractive—­or if they are, the darkness is a mask—­but that’s not the point, is it? What’s important is that I’ve left my life behind. I’ve abandoned its norms and its mores for Haus. Where we all play half-­hidden in shadow and nakedness and thirsty eyes aren’t transgressive.

Haus caters to consequence-­free expression, and I’m going to give in. An odd decision only in that I’d sworn I’d already made it. Somewhere between a heart-­thumping Google query and cranking Nathan’s car, but apparently I hadn’t. Until now.

I locate the nine hundred row, find 903, and slip my key in.

What would Nathan say if he could see this? Of course, he can’t. And he won’t ever know. His conference keynote is long over. He’s left NYU Langone Medical Center for his hotel. The Millennium Hilton according to his e-­confirmation. Awake or not, he’ll expect a call back soon. The longer his voicemail grows stale, the more he’ll needle later. His statement, I love you, will assume different punctuation. I love you?

I pull my T-­shirt off, and gooseflesh crawls up my bare back.

Nathan’s thumbing through news on his phone. Or if not, he’s fast asleep. Glasses on the nightstand next to iced water. No, water’s not quite right; Nathan sleeps beside a hotel tumbler. It would’ve held bourbon but it won’t by now. And it won’t have been his first. One hour, timestamped, and I’ll call him from his own car in the parking lot.

My chest tightens. I draw in breath, slip khaki to my ankles, and step out from my shorts.

I’m in black briefs now. Briefs and sneakers—­no socks. Nothing else. An older man, pear-shaped and lumpy, stares in obvious ways. He consumes both my flesh that’s exposed and my flesh that isn’t. When our eyes meet, he doesn’t look away and I’m embarrassed for him. Then I remember where we are.

An undeniable pleasure blooms. This man lusts for me and being objectified is an intoxicating little feeling I’ve missed terribly.

I toy with removing my underwear but opt to keep covered. At least a little bit. Don’t get ahead of yourself. I wrap the towel around my waist and hang the key from my wrist. I don’t need Nathan’s medical degree to know to keep my sneakers on. No amount of lavender solvent justifies bare feet on this tile.

The leering man’s no longer there. He’s likely vanished down a black corridor, hazy from steam, and I follow suit.

Down the rabbit hole and into a space that feels dark enough for developing photographs. Hot jungle air. Low red light touches everything but corners where shadows of men grind and thrust and bob. Moaning. Hushed words, frightening and thrilling.

“Yeah . . .”

“Don’t . . .”

“Yes . . .”

“Take . . .”

I pad down another humid hall. Stifling, door-lined, and each door is numbered. The inevitable looms on either side of me, like a sharp knuckle about to knock. A sign behind the Cheshire Cat had detailed room rates and these rent by what? The hour? The minute? The hall spills into a kind of gallery where projectors paint the walls in flickering vintage porn. Grainy cowboys smoking cigarettes and cock. No volume, but you wouldn’t need it—­the space teems.

My palms are wet and itchy. Am I really prepared to do what I’ve come here for? What I only just decided I would do? I’ve come this far, and this is very far.

I find what appears to be a lounge, and drink relief like cool water. A casual refuge. Barflies. Sultry Britney belts “Toxic” on a TV over the counter, and I could be in any gay bar now. I’ll take a seat here and regroup.

Breathe, Oliver.

“Vodka tonic?” I ask a shirtless bartender in jeans so low it’s a shame he’s off-­limits.

Black light sets his teeth aflame in fluorescence when he bares them. “Locker number?”

“Nine oh three.”

He winks and slides a glass of well liquor my way. The drink has bite, and a thrumming pulse hurls alcohol through my blood-­brain barrier. I’m done in two swallows.

“What are you looking for?”

The voice comes from behind, but its owner sidesteps and claims the next stool over. The accent takes me by surprise. Scandinavian maybe.

He’s in a towel too. Rubber flip-­flops. He moves with intention, and his shoulder muscles tense and relax. A tightness in my gut says I’m buying whatever the hell this stranger plans to pitch. He’s muscular and svelte at the same time. Taller than me, but most men are.

His eyebrows lift and he smiles before repeating himself: “What are you looking for?”

Blond bangs frame deep eyes. Ocean deep, actually, and Alexander Skarsgård here just might drown me. I clear my throat. “I’m not sure yet.”

It’s the truth, which means I’m off-­balance. In situations like this, the truth is what we offer when we don’t have anything better.

He draws closer, and I flinch. A second, knowing grin, and he reaches into my glass for ice with long fingers. He places a wet cube between full lips, where it starts to melt, before slipping it inside his mouth.

When it cracks between his teeth, my resolve—­what little there is—­does precisely the same. Our eyes meet, and I resist the urge to look away. Something taunting says he wouldn’t let me. His ocean-­deep eyes would chase mine. Pin them down, pin me down.

Tiny hairs on my face and chest stiffen with static charge. His hand finds my thigh, travels beneath my towel. Fingers run the hem of my briefs.

“I’m Kristian.” He whispers unfettered possibility into my ear: “I have a room.”

I nod, and he stops just shy of my crotch. Dopamine—­and whatever the fuck else makes a body high—­rafts through my veins. I’m intoxicated and trailing him down a hall.

Everything is about the present. Nathan doesn’t exist here. Nor does the home we’ve made together. This is Wonderland, and Wonderland only exists in the now. There is only now. The door shuts behind us in a room couched in darkness. My heart pounds, and Kristian says he can feel my pulse in every part of me.

Electricity snaps, arcs from me to him. We kiss.

The towels are gone. As are my briefs. He spins me to face a sweating wall, my palms flush against it. Steam from saunas and showers and whirlpools pipes in through unseen vents. Dampness crowds the air, pools in body crevasses.

We slip against each other, but he holds me firm. His mouth on the back of my neck.

I turn long enough to say: “Condom.”

“I have,” he answers, and I swallow the softball in my throat. My thoughts barely keep pace with my heartbeat. I’m doing this. No more thinking about it. The bridge is crossed and every moment after this will exist in the light of a new truth.

I’ve pulled a trigger. I’ve cheated on Nathan, and like a gun, I can never un-­fire.

He brings my wrists together behind my back. I expect he’s fumbling with the condom or the lube or both.

Only he isn’t.

Instead, his free palm pushes its way between my shoulder blades. I turn, and his grip on my wrists tightens. His fingers reach my neck, and my heart catches fire. I’m vulnerable for a moment, but soon his hand will run through my hair, gripping it for what’s to come.

That doesn’t happen either. His fist stays on my neck.

I’m vulnerable still, and something isn’t right. The knot of excitement shoots from my groin to my chest. It constricts my ribs in tandem with Kristian’s hands. I only now appreciate the length of this man’s fingers as they find their way around my neck.

Another line is crossed. I jolt, start to spin.

“No you don’t!” Like a spring trap, he catches my arms and twists them behind my spine. My body stiffens. This is wrong. Everything is wrong. Adrenaline pumps like jet fuel, and my insides swell with heat.

One hand firm on my neck, he threads the other through my back and elbows. Pinning me with his forearm and chest, his fists clamp my throat like a vise. And like a vise, they squeeze.

My arms contort. I struggle, and he pulls tighter.

Spasming, I gasp for air that isn’t there.

Eye spots bloom and grow and float, and my consciousness snaps into a single thought. It takes longer to resolve because my brain’s suddenly oxygen starved.

This man with the ocean-­deep eyes. He’s killing me.

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Burning the Night

Some of the papers, I imagined--those that had not been immediately driven to ground by the black, oily rain--fell, in that odd, unhurried way that airborne papers have, drifting past the blazing islands of debris, fluttering to rest in the grass where moisture fixed and darkened the charcoal lines, the sinuous trunk of a jack pine, the slope of a Toronto roof, the curve of a man's hip. Hours later, when the fires burned in on themselves and the snow came with a white, ashy fury, water hardened into barnacled ice, anchoring the papers so that, when fingers pulled at them, they were released with odd, torn patterns.

Others flew, like strange birds--cream manila, cartridge white, rag grey--into the racing currents of air, the giant exhalation, the gasp. These settled, finally, into nests of cracked porcelain, tumbled brick, kindled wood. Or they became lost in debris-strewn alleys, the yards, the shattered rime of the marsh grass along the beach.

In my mind's eye, I could see the leather case falling with curtains and shards of glass, the tiny bottles and dresser-top jars, a tin coffee pot, that small oil painting on a piece of board. How long did it take for fire to travel through the trail of splintered wood that had been Mrs. McTavish's house? Find the shattered washstand where the case had come to rest? The small portfolio was durable, though, and flames only managed to work their way into one corner before its bonfire underpinnings collapsed and it tumbled into the yard. The drawings tucked within barely damaged, seeming only to have been gnawed at in one corner by a rodent with fire in its teeth.

"I kept it all close by me," Aunt Harriet told me. "The case with its journal, sketches and photographs tucked inside, resting on top of a ragged collection of the drawings people found. You should have heard the nurses complaining that it got charcoal and chalk all over the bedding and my clothing.

"Hospital volunteers, or Mrs. McTavish, when she visited, would do their best to describe their sequence. I thought I could remember the order in which the papers lay. On top were the ones from inside the case only burned in one corner, and then there were a few Mrs. McTavish retrieved from her front yard. The rest? Found by people sifting through debris. Added over several days.

"Of course it was only a matter of time until I accidentally knocked everything over. When the papers were gathered up, I had no way of knowing which was which. The loose ones that people found here and there were in with those that had been in the case. One of the hospital aides offered to iron the most crumpled pieces of artwork for me but I said no, I wanted to be able to feel the ridges, the rips and torn edges.

The odd thing was that, in time, I got to know the shapes of the damage as well as I could remember the drawings and paintings themselves. That one, with a kind of spoon-shape torn out--it's the figure of a soldier, isn't it? I suppose there's not much left of the actual charcoal sketch, but I imagine you can see his hands. Yes, I've been told, I think, his hands, and part of his uniform. That one was found half a mile away. Would never have been picked up, I suppose, if it hadn't been for that little article in the newspaper. Church ladies or Mrs. McTavish would come in and read the papers to me, and, of course, there were stories to fill the pages for months on end. This one, with a crescent moon shape near the top--you might wonder what that is, but I think it's a sketch of driftwood washed up on Kitsilano Beach."

Along the jagged opening, the twisted branches reach out, dead wood on sand, sand marked with small stains of--what? Blood? Oil? The liver spots of age?

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