When I was a kid my dad made me kill the chickens to toughen me up. Now, I am anything but squeamish. When I’d finished, I would go inside, my mind on other things, and my mother would holler at me to take off my dirty boots and shirt. She kept an immaculate house, dust lifted off every surface, the oak railing polished with Murphy oil soap.
In university, during the one and a half years I’d actually pursued an undergraduate degree, a school counsellor told me she thought my parents put too much pressure on me with their expectations. They insisted that I be diligent in the barnyard—helping with the mucky manure in the garden earth, overseeing the animals’ biological processes of eating, evacuating, and finally being sent to slaughter—and in the house, which my mother demanded be so spotlessly clean.
At the time she said this a humming started up in my head and pretty soon all I saw was her mouth moving. The walls were bumpy concrete. On one, she’d hung a bright South American blanket, probably bought from a travelling merchant in the library foyer in September. I sat there, lost in the blue and fuchsia weave, wanting to get up close, imagining the earthy, goat-like aroma of the woven wool, the scratchy feel of an animal’s warm hide against my cool cheek.
Hazy smoke and beaded curtains hung inside Bohemian Village, but the day was one of the first warm ones of the year, so my friend Heather and I sat on the patio in the late afternoon sunshine.
“He isn’t exactly homeless,” I told her, as she tapped her silver lighter on the wooden table, which was scarred with deeply carved letters and angular hearts.
Heather swivelled her head to look for the server, lips pursed like a morning glory facing the night.
“He’s squatting. That old factory on Cherry? The one in the paper last week?”
Everything was a question because I was looking for agreement, acknowledgment, even a slight nod. Heather moved her fingers in the air like a pianist warming up and the waitress walked over. I didn’t want beer but, rather than argue, I slid one of her cigarettes out of its foil envelope and held it to my lips.
“Honey,” she said, as she lit it for me. When I drew in air, the tip crackled and glowed.
“Did you see Mrs. Johansen’s pants today?” I asked. “Those plaid bell-bottoms with the purple clogs?” I stuck a finger in my mouth and pretended to gag.
Heather stared at me, head cocked, waiting for me to agree with her assessment of Anders, my boyfriend.
“He has a different lifestyle,” I blurted out. “He doesn’t care about one day buying a fancy car or making sure he’s at work on time.”
“Those are two different things,” Heather said.
“Well, work then,” I said. “He doesn’t care about work.”
She snorted, said nothing else, and neither did I. When our pitcher arrived, Heather set our glasses side by side and poured. I looked around the patio at the other pockets of smokers, artists, writers, and kids from the nearby university. We were all in our own separate pods. It reminded me of Blade Runner—those floating cars moving past one another in the caverns between skyscrapers.
“I just don’t get what you see in him,” Heather said, wiping foam off her top lip with one finger. She began to list Anders’ inadequacies once again. It made me angry because she hadn’t ever heard me out, hadn’t listened as I told her about the lightning bolt of sudden attraction that had struck Anders and me. If she really cared, I would have been unlocking all those doorways, letting out my giddiness, because that’s what I felt. I was in love. But my joy stayed buried beneath her judgment and my mother’s imagined voice, sharp with sarcasm on the phone. A homeless man? Will it be an outdoor wedding?
That night, on the walk back to my aunt’s house, I peed in a laneway. Sometimes I did that, just dropped my jeans and underwear beside a row of dented garbage cans, squatted, and stared up at the moon as urine splashed to the ground. It wasn’t just a drunk thing. I did it to feel connected to the earth. Because in a lot of ways I still missed home, where the rhubarb harvest would soon be starting, where the air would be pungent with aromas. Anders would approve, I thought, and bit my bottom lip.
When I told him about it, the next afternoon, he paused thoughtfully before asking, “What do you do if you have to take a shit?” We were sitting on a park bench, holding Styrofoam cups with plastic lids. My face burned red. When I didn’t answer, he said, “It’s just another part of the reality.”
“I know,” I said.
Anders rubbed at a deep crack in the sidewalk with the sole of his black dress shoe, back and forth over the mud-stuffed gap. I chewed on the edge of the cup until a mouth-shaped hunk broke off.
“Do you have any cigarettes?” he asked.
I only ever smoked Heather’s so we walked to the 7-Eleven, where I paid for a pack of Belmont milds.
“Ta,” he mumbled when I handed it to him, and that worried me, because it made the gift seem like charity, a donation to the needy. That wasn’t what I wanted at all.
After we left the store, we headed for a picnic table in the park. The grass was wet and water soaked through my canvas shoes and red stockings, making me hop back and forth. Anders laughed at me—not like I was a spoiled baby, but like I’d never slept outside in a blizzard, like I didn’t know how hunger felt. I looked like an idiot, I knew, so I laughed too.
Through the smoke of his cigarette, he squinted at me.
“I’m not a loser, you know,” he said, his dark eyes accusing. “I used to run mountain rambles. I was the leader, like.”
I nodded and touched his elbow, let my fingers creep around to grip the boniness of his arm. He pulled away, but only to lift his arm and wrap it around me. I sat stiffly, like a twelve-year-old out on a date. Anders looked down at my wet feet. They were freezing, the thin white fabric of my shoes still stained with soot and grass streaks from last summer. I tucked them under the table.
Anders grew up in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. When he was seventeen, he started shooting heroin with his best friend’s sister. After she almost died from an overdose he went in and out of rehab until he realized he just had to leave. He travelled, went to work on a freighter carrying olives from Greece, ended up in Montreal, then hitched to Toronto. His father was a coal miner, like his grandfather before him, but Anders couldn’t go underground.
“Down there in that blackness . . . ,” he said, a far-off look on his face as he gazed toward the edge of the park. I loved listening to him, how his accent made him sound like he was singing. Sometimes when he talked really fast I couldn’t understand him. I had to strain to hear him or ask him to repeat himself.
“I hate that,” he said. “It holds me back. People always thinking I don’t belong.”
I reached for his hand, the one not holding the cigarette.
“I don’t think that.”
His knee bobbed up and down but his fingers didn’t move. They just lay there, under mine, waxy and cold even in the warm spring sun, and we both watched his cigarette burn down, the ember dulled to a pillar of ash.
“You were high,” Heather said at work, a couple of days after our drinks at the Bohemian. It had gotten cold again. Jamal, the ukulele player who busked our corner, had a sleeping bag hung over his shoulders, with a long gash spitting out stuffing. I pulled yellow and orange peppers methodically out of a cardboard box and laid them on the fake green grass lining the wooden shelves of the vegetable stand.
Her cheeks were flushed but her lips were pale. She didn’t look well.
“So how do you know how you really felt?”
Heather meant at the protest, where I’d first met Anders. All the old chants shouted at cops lined up in front of the embassy, holding up scratched Plexiglas shields in front of their stern faces. Horses clip-clopped on the pavement and my friend Bobby and I slipped inside the dark mouth of an alley beside a Thai grocer to smoke a joint. When we heard a clanging sound beside us, we turned to see Anders climbing out of a Dumpster.
“Hey!” Bobby said, and put a hand over his mouth.
He was like that, paranoid, always loud about it. Plus, Anders had interrupted his long lecture on media and the culture of image I wasn’t even listening to. I was staring across the road, wondering if people ever actually opened and closed the embassy’s ten-foot-tall iron doors to slip out for a smoke break or a bag of potato chips in the afternoon. It looked like the entrance to a palace, and that voice boomed in my head—“I am the great and powerful”—or whatever it was, from The Wizard of Oz. The summer I was eleven, that movie played on T.V. about six times and it seemed I was always watching it with my best friend, Becca, our fingers curled absent-mindedly around naked Barbies as the screen changed to colour. Then, at the end, that moment when clever Toto pulls the curtain open and the great Oz is revealed as just a vulnerable old man, hunched over his machinery, controlling his own illusion.
Anders walked toward us, carrying a clutch of carrots, their long pale roots tangled together. In his other hand, he held out an apple with green and red hemispheres. When my eyes met his, I had this sense that I knew him, that we’d met before. “There you are,” I thought, and reached for the apple, as if enchanted.
“You’re not going to eat that, are you?” Bobby said. “It just came out of—”
I took a big bite, holding Anders’ gaze until I gagged on soft rot, spat up the chunk. He stared at me, mouth slightly open. The smell of garbage was in my face.
“Fuck,” said Bobby. “Who the hell are you?”
Anders pressed his knuckles against his lips, his eyes lit up.
“I didn’t tell her to do that,” he said, talking about me like I wasn’t even there.
We walked Anders back to his squat, Bobby and I, down a long alley, lined with red brick, more metal Dumpsters. The cracked asphalt sank under rainbow-skinned puddles outlined in grimy froth. I reached over to hold Anders’ hand. His skin felt cold in his unravelling fingerless gloves.
“Shit,” he said, but he didn’t let go even as Bobby tried to tug me away, afraid, like I didn’t know what I was doing. In order to keep me Anders had to hold on. I’m just like that, I guess. When I see something I want, I go for it, no matter how hard the task. Before we left him that day, Anders kissed me gently on the cheek. All the way to the streetcar stop I focused on the warm imprint of his lips. I imagined people could see it: an oddly located heart throbbing through the thin skin.
I cupped a green pepper that had grown strangely, curled top to end.
Our boss had asked us to segregate the weirdest ones, the ones people wouldn’t buy, and put them in the free bin on the stand outside the store. But I liked to give each of them a chance.
“It was love at first sight,” I told Heather.
“Are you O.K.?” she asked.
I had been meaning to ask her the same thing.
“Sometimes you just recognize things. People, I mean,” I said, still hoping she’d understand. “It’s like fate.”
“But he eats out of the garbage,” she said. “He’s homeless. Filthy.”
“He showers once a week.” My voice rose as I added, “and he’s squatting,” annoyed at having to explain Anders’ living situation yet again. I put the pepper down and gathered up some mushrooms that had tumbled to the ground. “You’re just jealous.”
Her shoulders slumped, her chin dropped.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you.”
Alex, we were both thinking. The one-night stand with a musician who was married, his wife and baby back in Kentucky. How Heather obsessed about him for weeks, flinging out E-mails that were never answered. Her hand churned through the loose change in the pocket of her floral-patterned apron.
“That was totally different.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it was,” she said.
I moved on to the Scotch bonnets, setting aside any with oddities or obvious bruises. I had to wear latex gloves, the kind doctors use, because the peppers were so hot. When I didn’t speak again, Heather threw her arms up in the air.
“You’re fucking insane,” she said, and turned back to pricing the arugula.
“Sometimes you just know,” I shouted, causing a customer to look up from shovelling lychee nuts into a bag. Behind him, through the thick plastic windows, a blur of wet snow fell to the ground. I’d worn my thin summer shoes to work again because I was thinking of Anders. Panhandling downtown on the cold concrete, or napping on the creaky wooden floor of the old hat factory where he’d taken me one day, when we’d sat on a ratty, brown couch, scratched to its wooden frame by cats.
“Once I was an extra in a film,” Anders said, “and the director asked me if I’d consider it as a profession.”
“Why don’t you?” I asked.
He blinked. I saw the sadness in his eyes, noticed the faint scrawl of crow’s feet. I couldn’t tell how old he was but he was older than me.
“It might be an option,” he said, and threw his butt against the brick wall, which was covered in swirling graffiti tags. “Maybe it’s time to go home,” he said.
My gaze was stuck to the spot where the sparks had flared then vanished.
“Don’t go,” I said. “Please don’t go.”
He sighed, slipped an arm around me, pulled me into the spicy, intoxicating power of his scent. I closed my eyes.
“You little bee,” he said. It’s what he called me, because I buzzed around him, and because I always stopped to smell the new blooms.
Around the back of the factory, by an apple tree already in bloom, was a window that wasn’t boarded up. We squeezed through, dropped to the basement floor, and he took me upstairs to his corner, washed yellow from the sun falling through a hole he’d made in the plywood. We lay there, curled together in the wide, warm shafts of light.
A few days after our argument, Heather sent an E-mail to my parents telling them to come and get me. “She’s fallen for a man who lives on the street. She seems to be delusional.” I found a printout of it shoved in my parents’ junk drawer. I crumpled it into a hard ball and flushed it down the toilet. What did she know about me, I thought angrily. I’d forgotten she knew it all, because I’d told her everything. I hadn’t counted on the danger.
My parents didn’t say anything about Anders. They’d pretended to bring me home because they needed my help. The first crops of mustard greens were coming up and the strawberries would soon be ready for tourists to pick, until their backs started to hurt from squatting in the fields. Each morning the pale pink and white pills showed up beside my orange juice in a small wooden box that had once held my baby teeth. I let their bitterness steep under my tongue.
My heart was broken, but I didn’t complain—about the work or the growing heat of my attic room. When one of the barn cats had kittens, I brought the runt inside as soon as her blue eyes opened and named her Apple, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s baby. In bed, I held her warm purring body in the crook of my arm and yearned for Anders, for the sounds and ugliest smells of the city, even for Heather, who’d sent me a card to say she was sorry, trying to explain her actions. I mailed her a letter addressed to Anders and told her how to get to the factory, which streetcar to catch, the bus she’d need to transfer to, the stop near the edge of the ravine where she’d have to get off. I didn’t hear from her again, and never did hear from Anders, a man who’d crossed an ocean to start a new life but couldn’t come to find me. My life became a lonely routine, the silence of the night broken only by the crazed chirping of frogs in the marsh across our concession line, eager to find their mates.