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The Music Game



In a brief lull between two customers, I headed over to the cash register and pressed the FEED button. I took the rectangle of white paper that spooled out of the printer and laid it on the metal work counter. Mrs Gélinas had gone off to get a “good coffee,” and I, the employee, was now all by myself at the stall, desperate to get a few ideas jotted down. I unclipped the pen from my apron, stuffed a handful of ground cherries into my mouth, and bent over the scrap of paper. In tiny writing I scrawled a list of things to do when I got home. Laundry. Push ups, sit ups. Read the news (thirty minutes). Research Quebec’s colonial history. Submit a poem to a poetry review. When I’d filled the whole paper, I folded it in half, slipped it into the back pocket of my jean shorts, went back to the cash and wrote a list of things I wanted to do before the end of the year. Join the Y. Finish writing poetry collection. Send at least three short stories to literary reviews. Learn Spanish. Save five hundred dollars (unrealistic?). Take driving test. Take first-aid course. Deepen connections with friends. Learn to identify local plants. Go camping (more than once). See Jess at least three times. For a split second, I forgot I was at work.

But the appearance of two customers dragged me quickly back to earth. It was a woman and a man, thirty-ish, hunting for the perfect punnet of strawberries to take to a family dinner. I spotted them out of the corner of my eye as they peered at the fruit. The guy wore a grey t-shirt that clung to his pecs and showed the first hint of a paunch; his hair was still wet from a recent shower; around his neck he wore a little cross on a gold chain that he probably hadn’t taken off since his confirmation. The woman was wearing one of those synthetic tanks with a built-in bra, its crisscrossed straps forming the shape of a sun on her back; her hair was pulled back from her face with a pair of Dolce & Gabbana shades. The pair of them gave off such a vibe of contented exhaustion, lullabies, soft words, and milky kisses that I was astonished—almost concerned—not to see a baby carrier on either of their shoulders.

“My mother loves strawberries,” the man said, raising his eyes heavenwards to indicate that his mother was rather difficult.

“Should we get those? How about these ones, honey?” the woman said, tasting strawberries, moving away from her boyfriend but still holding his hand so she tugged him with her.

“Whatever you think, bae,” said the man, in a tone that suggested his girlfriend was the one being difficult right then.

I took a couple of steps sideways and flashed them a friendly, unassuming smile. “It’s your decision,” my smile said. I noticed they were both wearing flipflops, and the woman had painted her toenails white. While they were trying to decide, I went on thinking about my lists. Take jiu-jitsu classes. Discover good music. Go to the arthouse cinema. Do more dumpster diving. Make jam. Get my name on the waiting list for co-op housing. Register for university? No. I mentally put a line through that last item.

“Excuse me!” said the woman, her mouth full of strawberries. She took a moment to mime the ecstasy she was experiencing from the little red fruit and then asked, “Where are these strawberries from?”

“They’re from the Île d’Orléans,” I said, in precisely the same way I might have said, “They’re from Wonderland.”

“These are the ones! We have to get these ones!” said the woman, handing me her strawberry tops, which I tossed into the soggy cardboard box we used as a garbage can. “This is the winning punnet of strawberries!”

She laughed and turned to her boyfriend, but his phone had started vibrating in his pocket and he was walking off to take the call.

“Yyyyeeeeello?” said the man, as the woman pulled out an enormous white leather wallet to pay.

I swaddled the punnet in a plastic bag, held it out to the woman, and took one last look around to make sure the pair hadn’t forgotten a stroller somewhere nearby. As I looked, I met the eyes of the Lebanese grocer, who was sweeping the floor in front of his stall. I said, “Have a nice day,” to the customer, waved at the grocer, and went back to my list. Just then Mrs Gélinas arrived back at the stall with her coffee and a pastry.

“A good coffee to start the morning!” she said. She perched on a stool and bit into her Danish. I nodded in agreement, as if to say the boss certainly deserved such a treat before making a start on her workday. Silently, I was filled with disgust at myself.

I stuffed the list into my pocket, smoothed down my apron and headed over to the walk-in fridge. I got out some crates of strawberries and raspberries and laid them on the work counter. I grabbed the all-purpose knife lying on the stainless-steel surface and, forcing myself to repress the vivid images of bloody accidents parading through my head, I cut open some of the boxes and arranged them in rows on the fake grass display. Mrs Gélinas had already had to abandon her breakfast to deal with a regular, an old guy wearing a canary-yellow suit. I opened a cupboard underneath the display and took out a variety of small, medium and large baskets. An idea for a poem came to me (red fruit, canary-yellow suit, bloody workplace accident, dull people) and I plunged my hand into my pocket to find some paper to scribble it down—but then I noticed a customer in his fifties wearing cycling gear waggling his chin at me, waving a punnet of raspberries to get my attention. I wiped my hands on my apron and went over to serve him. When I was done with the cyclist, there was a young Anglophone woman—tattooed arms, half-shaven head, red dress with white polka dots—then a gangly French guy in his twenties, then a retired Italian, and then half a dozen other early risers.

Whenever I had a spare moment, I got some more paper and wrote more lists. Things to do every day: write, eat well, do more push ups and sit ups, study film or read (postmodern philosophy, Russian literary classics, and so on), write a letter to a friend or to someone in prison. Write to Jess. I drew a heart around Jess’s name. I’d remember to write to Jess without putting it on the list, but I liked forming the letters of his name. A list of things I should stop putting into my body: alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, sugar. A list of friends I ought to write to more often. A list of books to read. A list of nice clothes I’d buy myself one day.

I yawned and glanced at the clock. Still only nine. On the other side of our displays of strawberries, raspberries, and rhubarb, a constant stream of customers had started pouring into the Jean Talon Market. The typical customer wandered around, latte in hand, eyes half-closed or hidden behind smoked glasses, a satisfied smile playing on their lips, delighted that spring had finally arrived. I remembered sadly that I too had once loved spring; that I too had once been a customer at this market, wandering around the stalls with a latte in my hand. But this year spring left me cold. That wasn’t quite accurate, though. It was more that I felt as though I’d become part of it myself, that I was simply another adorable bud on the verge of blooming, a young shoot engorged with sap, just one more detail among all the charming elements of the Jean Talon Market. I was ornamental. I’d now become something akin to the coffee they offer customers at a car dealership: nothing more than a nice little touch.

Anka arrived at the stall pushing a cart. She didn’t say hi, and I didn’t say hi to her either. Anka made me nervous. She managed the second Gélinas Fruits stall, on the other side of the market, so I never got to work with her. Every morning when she arrived, I tried to do something interesting so she’d notice me. But what could I do, other than sort strawberries and serve customers? How could I know what Anka was interested in since I’d never talked to her? I groped my way forward. Some days I directed tortured looks her way, other days I smiled at her. Today, I pushed the sleeves of my t-shirt up to my shoulders and tried to ignore her.

“Hi, Lucille,” Anka said. She’d been at Gélinas Fruits for long enough to be on first-name terms with the boss. Her voice was husky, low, sweet.

“Hello, Anka,” Madame Gélinas said.

She put her bag in the cupboard (“right next to mine!” I thought), disappeared into the walk-in fridge and came back out with at least six crates, which she carried as though they weighed nothing. She piled them onto her cart and repeated the operation several more times. Then she came back over to her bag, took out a cap, which she put backwards on top of her curly hair, and went off pulling the cart, like a calm warrior heading out to the battlefield. She was wearing a t-shirt with wide stripes and overall shorts that revealed long, muscular legs a basketball player would have been proud of. I sighed and closed my eyes, overwhelmed by desire, and then I tidied up the metal counter.

During my lunch break, when I spent ten dollars because yet again I’d forgotten to bring a sandwich, I got my notebook out and started writing a serious list: Staying in Montreal vs Getting the fuck out to the country.

Points in Montreal’s favour: it’s a place where you never run out of possibilities. So many stories mingle here. I like living in Montreal because there are books and music, readers and musicians. The people I know who’ve moved to the country hardly read at all any more. The only things they read are Margaret Atwood or The Big Mushroom Guide. In Montreal, you have a lot more opportunities to meet people, to develop trusted connections, to form groups with people like you (which is necessary for the struggle). I don’t want to save myself alone, I don’t want to be an individualist. You have to be strategic: there are more opportunities for the struggle in the city (at least for now).

What options would I have for a social life in the country? A) end up in a polyamorous collective, B) become the village hermit to the detriment of my mental health, C) try to integrate into village life also to the detriment of my mental health. I wrote “alienating” in my journal, landing on the mot juste. If I leave here I might never make another friend, never mind find comrades or lovers. When I reread, I noticed that I’d moved from listing to editorializing. I took a bite of my shawarma and a sip of Canada Dry. Then I picked up my pen again and wrote: Also (by this point I had greatly reduced the size of my handwriting), maybe one day I will publish books or find myself a job in journalism or something like that, and there are more potential contacts in Montreal. I sighed.

Points against the city: there is no life except for human life. There are no lakes, rivers, forest. There are no deer, clearings, fish. Just a few stars one night in ten. It fucking stinks. The tap water tastes of chlorine. I live on the third floor of a triplex on Saint-Denis with two other girls. I can barely get three tomatoes to grow on the balcony.

I have to buy, steal, or dumpster dive for all my food. I can barely even get a job in a café because jobs are so scarce. You practically need ten years’ experience just to get a minimum-wage job with barely decent conditions. If I stay here, I’ll probably die without ever seeing a fox. Everything irritates me, everything makes me sick, the cars, the buses, the trucks, the police, the Métro, the jobs at the Jean Talon Market, my friends’ careers, my friends’ studies, my friends’ alcoholism, my alcoholism, the Place des Arts, the Grand Prix, the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood, the Petit Laurier neighbourhood, Tout le monde en parle, the cat grooming places, the twenty-dollar fish and chips, the Mile-Ex, the gay parties where everyone is too cool to talk to you, the men who call out “nice ass,” the crooked bosses, the crooked landlords, the crooked friends of friends, Jarry Métro station, and the hundreds of people who every single day walk past old beggars and the homeless woman who sells the Itinéraire and the people who hand out the 24h newspaper, staring at the ground and then buying themselves a five-dollar coffee a block later. I feel alienated, I wrote again, stating the obvious, not caring, because it was my own personal list and not something I planned on publishing. (Sip of Canada Dry, bite of shawarma.)

Conclusion: it’s lose-lose. “I’d like to quit, but where would I go?” I scrawled. “The things I want to be free of are everywhere.” I underlined the word “everywhere.” And then I felt anxiety swoosh up in my stomach like an elevator when I thought of the career I still didn’t have, of my bank account, which never had more than seven hundred dollars in it, of my single film-studies class that had cost more money than I would make this summer (I still wasn’t an official resident of Quebec), and from which I’d gained nothing except the certainty that I was the least audiovisually talented person in the world and that I would never have another good idea again (I’d had my last good idea when I was fifteen). I thought of my savings account once more, which I’d dipped into regularly over the past year and which now had only two hundred dollars in it, of the three unpaid internships for various cultural organizations which hadn’t led anywhere, of my friends, who were disappearing one by one under mountains of stress, work, trials, and relationships, of Jess, whom I could probably never sponsor according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s criteria, of the money I owed my friends, of the money I owed the City of Montreal, of the money I owed the library, of the money I owed my father, of the cavities in two of my teeth that I hadn’t yet had filled, of the ideas for my book that would go with me to the grave, and which would rot along with me, never developed. Around me, the clamour, whiffs of coffee, ice cream, fish, Mexican pulled-pork sandwiches, children crying, the admiring oohs and aahs that kept me from eating my shawarma and writing my list in peace. Some buskers were playing Hallelujah on an electric keyboard and improvising on the flute. Children were asking, “Can I have this?” Adults were exchanging dirty twenty-dollar bills for smelly small change. Carbon copies of me pulled on aprons and invited customers to taste the plums and tomatoes. Trucks backed up, car trunks opened, cart wheels squeaked against the concrete and the gravel. Couples with their arms around each other’s waists exclaimed, “Oh, I just want to stop by Première Moisson,” and parents commanded, “You have to stay with mommy and daddy.” Nothing ever happened that didn’t fit with the idea of the Jean Talon Market. I was imprisoned in an ad for the market, an ad that had already been running for several weeks. Was this endless carrousel of customers real? Maybe it was just a hologram projected by the market management in the hope of attracting real customers. I lowered my eyes to avoid the gaze of these virtual customers to whom I would soon be selling fruit. I was hot, I was trembling with nervous tension, and my lunch break was coming to an end.

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The Fifth

A Love(s) Story
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Stoop City

Now is the Time to Light Fires


It’s like last winter when she took that girl Lena on a road trip and left me to finish my thesis in the sub-zero gloom. Marzana is gone but her chattels prevail and everything, even the Weeping Fig she lugged from Ikea, evokes her. My Lorazepam shuffle wears a triangle from couch to bed to toilet back to couch, where I curl in her threadbare sweater.

Sleepless, dreamless, I up my dose.

The department offers bereavement leave and contracts my replacement, a kindness that permits me to stay home, forever pantless. I stack my research and drape it with cloth. Now who will argue the importance of historical processualism with archaeological data from pre-literate cultures? I draw the blinds. Stop changing, stop bathing. I eat cereal dry out of the box by the handful.

I’m not me anymore; I’m husk, shucked and forgotten.

After the truck hits, that’s grief. Hydraulic pistons fire and the open-box bed lifts at its hinges: a dumping, a burial.

Nobody calls.

Nobody visits.

Every day is Sunday.

I light a candle. “You can come home now,” I say to webbing that ghosts the empty corners of our room. I say to the drunkspun moths, “Come home!”

One day she does.

Marzana’s lingerie drawer slides open and her garter dangles like a question mark. My spine zings with apprehension. Her perfume spritzes, infusing the room with her scent. The bed sheet turns down on her side.

I whisper, “Is that you?”

There’s an indentation on pillow and mattress, a definite presence.

“You’re here,” I say.

She shimmers when I kick off bunched socks, toss my T-shirt, join her on the bed. I trail fingertips down my throat, collarbones, my scarred solar plexus. I falter—shy at last.

She hurled herself at me the night we met, a hastily-bought rose between her teeth. I relive our drunken tango at last call, the halting, zigzag lurch back to my old place, necking against darkened storefronts, groping under clothes. Now, lying in our dusty bed my hand works alone, intent and sorrowful, but a censoring pall hovers. Perhaps in her transformed state—nebulous, ethereal—she feels sexually inadequate? What allure does the primal realm hold for her now? I rest sheepish palms above the comforter and, suckling close, she spoons me instead. It’s not warm flesh, but it’s something. Old soup comes to mind, some kind of gelatinous substance, and I can hardly breathe for fear of crushing her in the night. Like she’s a newborn or a kitten and not the crystalline essence of herself—her Soul infused with her distinctly flawed personality—that has transcended time and space, travelled countless unknown dimensions, returning against all odds.

All summer long we bump around the condo, relearning how to share this space. Nights, she settles against me and I contemplate an eternity of abstention. Sex with Marzana used to be like shouldering an oversize grain bag, pouring, pouring an endless pile. The thinning rush over time, a lessening stream, the pitter and pat to empty. In her After Life she prefers not-quite sisterly camaraderie—cuddling, hugging, holding hands.

I am pent. I simmer. But at least I’m not alone.

Marzana still roots through dresser drawers and abandons chucked clothing in piles on the floor. She stacks DVDs in towers by order of preference, her massive rom-com collection mocking me with sunny Hollywood covers. I survey her mess, mark a Cartesian coordinate system grid to impose order, and begin to excavate her cultural materials. I cradle and brush each item, starting in the southwest corner. I tag and label, jot notes.

This becomes my Stonehenge, my very own Pompeii.

Artefact 1.1: tucked in an overdue library book, I discover a black and white photo of Marzana at Hanlan’s Point, a nudist beach I refuse to visit on principle. Who took this portrait? Marzana turned just as the shutter opened and her hair caught the wind, obliterating most of her face. But her mouth is open. Sensual, teasing. The lines of her body echo in the pines behind her, in the boardwalk strips and faded pier: she was disappearing even then, waving goodbye.

Other things surface. Things I do not especially wish to see. Phone numbers on tiny scraps of paper, some with lipstick imprints from hungry mouths. Love notes, an entire incriminating series spanning more than a year from Lena, her so-called art-friend. Each piece of evidence spontaneously combusts in my hand or else Marzana ferries it out of reach. Those letters dance upon the ceiling, taunting. I string up clothesline and peg each charred, surviving remnant in chronological order, then cross-reference dates with my personal calendar.

An alleged out-of-town softball tournament occurred the same weekend as a particularly amorous getaway, recounted in gory detail by Lena.


Marzana skulks behind her green recliner and, righteous, I fume for days.

It’s bad enough she died. She had to cheat, too?

Marzana’s mother calls. I stare at the phone but don’t pick up and naturally she refuses to leave a message. Marzana retaliates by not coming to bed which is fine because frankly, I prefer to starfish the mattress, face planted, and I sleep better than I have since before it happened.

Artefact 4.6: a card from her family filled with their slanted, foreign cursive—squiggles and so many consonants. Jare Swieto. It depicts old world children parading from a small village to the river, carrying ghoulish dollies that they beat with sticks and set alight. Another incomprehensible springtime ritual that bears examination. An uncashed cheque floats out when I open the card. Marzana snatches it mid-air. I wonder, can we still deposit it? Nobody’s haunting the electricity bill.

Soon the place is a booby-trapped eyesore. Dishes pile by the sink. Spills congeal in the fridge. Milk sours. A meagre harvest comes and goes. October bequeaths a snowstorm that eats November and I become almost as much a ghost as Marzana, padding barefoot on the frigid floor, confounded. If I could only assemble the clues correctly, I’d finally know: who was she, really? What has she become?

Our bickering escalates to dorm-room levels. Someone removes grid notes from the excavated artefacts; I find them taped to a box of maxi pads in the bathroom cupboard. Someone dims the lights while I work causing eyestrain and mental fragility. She feigns ignorance but I catch her twinkling with mirth. I crank the Gregorian chants she hates and my stereo disintegrates completely, leaving a blank square on the dusty shelf. Instead, her favourite song by that shitty Canadian band blasts the air, sourceless. Marzana’s peace offering—finger-painted hearts boasting our initials—dribble condensation in the frosted windowpanes. I wipe them with an angry palm.

Caroline, department administrative assistant, says she has to meet with me. “Paperwork, you know?” She offers to do this off-campus. “It must be so hard,” she purrs in the Tim Horton’s. The release agreement sits before me, its tiny font devouring the page like so many ants.

“They’re firing me?”

“You don’t have to sign now,” she says. Sotto voce, she adds, “You might want to consult a lawyer.”

Caroline smells sympathetic, like lilies, like gardenia. Her face is impossible: pink cheeks, lavender eyelids, perfectly groomed brows. Her skin is soft and powdered. I consider stabbing it with the plastic stir-stick.

“Marzana eats all the groceries, she won’t do dishes. I can’t even re-decorate,” I confide.

She pats my arm. “I know you miss her, sweetheart.”

Caroline’s pretty face is a curtain, drawn.

“You think I’m making this up?”

Mortified, I abandon my green tea.

“Don’t you want your donut,” she calls after me.

My throat sticks when I imagine opening the front door to our suite, breathing in that musty bog. Terminated. How will we live without my disability pittance?

Outside, I pace in front of our building. Snowflakes nip my face. They convene on my hair, my clothes. I have sneakers, not boots, and my feet slide on black ice hidden by the heron-coloured silt. Winter is coma-quiet and, just like Marzana’s life, virulent secrets lurk.

It may never end, this bone-clacking cold.

Wind rakes my flesh, pulls my nerves taut. It wakens something in my reptile brain, the part guarding ancient history, and I remember things weren’t always terrific. This profound loneliness, this disappointment, had arrived long before she died. All those stay-home Saturday nights—too much dinner, bloated on the couch watching some anaesthetizing bullshit from her dread movie collection. But mostly, mostly, it was just me waiting for her to call or to finally come home: hammered, incoherent and utterly blameless. She’d simply pass out, shoes still tied, forearms X’d on her chest, shut up like a pharaoh’s tomb, mysteries sealed intact.

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Common Goal

Common Goal

A Gay Sports Romance
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Love after the End

Love after the End

An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction
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