Hot or Cold

Christmas, 2002 / No. 9
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

What do you think it means when as soon as he leaves, instead of slipping on the T-shirt he always leaves behind, you not only strip the sheets, but also wash and tumble dry the duvet and then get back into bed and hold the smell of detergent to your chest?

This is the question I’m left pondering after my only real contact with the world wordlessly left while I wordlessly watched him leave, and I’m still pondering it when I drag myself out of bed for the third time that day.

I’ve just started battling the water pressure under the shower when I hear a knock on the door. It’s the only person it could be: Romano, wanting to show my apartment. I towel myself off and put on my extremely unattractive track-suit pants. Romano has a man and a woman with him—a couple, I assume immediately, because of the way they match.

While they take a look around, I start the kettle and assemble my cup, tea bag, cream, and sugar. I’d like a coffee, really, but lately the stuff I’ve been fixing hasn’t been great. It’s been undrinkable, in fact—inexplicably, as I’ve been making coffee in the same coffee machine with the same kind of coffee and adding the same combination of cream and sugar for years. Then, suddenly, one day it just didn’t taste right anymore. I varied the proportions and combinations—even tried using filtered water—but nothing worked. Puzzlingly, coffee from elsewhere tastes marginally better (the reverse of the situation before), but still not like it used to. So now I drink mostly tea.

The man and woman both have soft black leather coats and are wearing new denim. The woman is blond and has lots of different colours on her face. They both look like they go to the gym. The question is, what are they doing here? Some people who have money don’t like to spend it, I guess, at least not on rent. They’d rather have soft leather coats. Or maybe they think it’s artsy here. It’s not artsy here, it’s just rundown, but sometimes yuppies confuse the difference.

I say hello to the woman but she doesn’t acknowledge me; she’s too busy looking around the apartment, or, more accurately, scanning it like a hawk. She’s like Mirelle at my old work; one time, when a guy with a bunch of good clothes actually showed up, and the usually aloof little Mirelle went through them all with this sudden fixed attention, like there was a magnetic field between her eyes and the target, as she examined, pounced, gathered her bundle, and made careful decisions about which ones to try on—a total focus on the task of getting the best possible thing. That’s what it is; she’s got to get the best possible thing. That’s how this woman is. She pierces through. Nothing wrong with it, I suppose. It’s just a bit out of place in my crappy apartment.

Her boyfriend seems much less concerned. He glances around casually, nodding his head at the occasional statement by Romano: not bad cupboard space…close to the T.T.C….I notice the rent Romano is quoting them is fifty dollars more than what I’m paying, and that he’s sweating profusely, even for him.

They don’t stay long and I’m taking my first sip of tea and searching for the converter when I hear another knock at the door and the woman reappears.

“Could I ask you some questions,” she says, with no rising intonation in her voice.

I stare at her, but still without getting any kind of whole impression. It’s been happening with me a lot lately—floating along and usually remembering what’s gone on or what I said or did afterward, but only partially, and still with no clarity.

Mundane stuff like getting a nickel for change, but always with this haze around it—like someone’s taken charge of my body and is performing all the necessary actions for me, and what I’m getting is the video replay.

“What’s it like living on the ground floor? ” the woman asks, at least with the hint of a question about it this time, but I’m fixated on her blue eyeshadow. Then a wave of confusion passes over me as I think, “What’s it like? What’s it like?

“I don’t know,” I say.

She takes a moment to process this, then looks at me like I’m an idiot, as everyone does when you indicate a lack of knowledge about things like this—it’s out of the question, apparently. You must know, they say. You must know.

“Well,” she says, narrowing her eyes a little, probably trying to work out how to handle this and deciding on an impertinent look of patience, “I notice the laundry room is just across the hall, for instance, and I was wondering about any noise coming in from the street? ”

“The laundry closes at ten,” I say, aware of the possible marginality of this comment, but only after I’ve said it.

“O.K….,” she says. “And before ten? ”

“It’s not noisy. I mean, you can hear the coins go in the slots and hear the machines starting up,” I blurt out, uncharacteristically, “but it’s not noisy.”

Now she’s looking at me like I’m crazy. I guess that didn’t sound too great, but what do you expect here?

Soundproofing? She’s the crazy one. I’m aware I find the rhythms of the laundry room comforting: the tinkle of the coins going through the slots, the beep that sounds with the fifth quarter, the start-up whirr that always follows.

“What about the temperature,” she says.

“Of what? ”

“Of the apartment.”

“Depends,” I say.

“Can you elaborate, possibly…,” she says, like she can’t believe someone wouldn’t. She’s waving one hand out slowly in front of her body, in a gesture that indicates a desire for more of something, and she’s grimacing slightly.

I could elaborate, I think. I could say, “If what you want is a controllable environment, why don’t you go somewhere else, you crazy bitch? You can’t predict that kind of thing here.” Let’s see, I could say, “The temperature was O.K., I guess, for most of the winter, except that the heating broke down on several occasions, which made it quite cold, which was exacerbated by the fact that the pipes also froze on several of those several occasions, making a compensatory hot shower (or any kind of shower) impossible. The temperature is fine now, but my guess would be that in summer it’s going to be quite hot in here because the window is small and I don’t see any sort of air-conditioning apparatus, do you? ”

I guess this would be an answer to her question but, since I’ve already thought it, I’m not inclined to say it. You get into the habit of thinking and not saying, and then eventually, when you’re called on to say something, you realize you’ve already thought it, and then to go back seems really difficult, and perhaps also pointless. So I just shrug.

She looks at me like she can’t quite believe I exist. Maybe she thinks I’m retarded. Probably she thinks I’m just stupid. Probably she thinks I can’t speak well or answer questions, just because I haven’t answered hers. Probably she thinks like I used to think: demonstrated inarticulateness being tantamount to a crime. It must be that I can’t speak, because if I could, why wouldn’t I? Because that’s what people do. They answer other people’s questions, even volunteer extra information. It matters to do this, she probably thinks. What she doesn’t realize is that it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter what she says or what I say because neither of us knows anything important and it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t understand this and thinks I’m stupid and no one is watching and everything everyone does falls into a void and even if she did move in here, whether the temperature was to her liking or not would be irrelevant in the long run.

And for that matter, I think, noticing that I’m shaking with something I think I recognize as anger, or maybe it’s just disorientation, don’t walk into my apartment with your boyfriend and leather coat and your scanning like a hawk and your assumption that I’m here to provide information for you. Did it ever occur to you that I might not want to speak today, or maybe not for the rest of the week and the week after that and however the fuck long?

The woman’s gaze has softened now, though—it’s suddenly changed, like my coffee. Maybe she was just hit by a wave of sympathy for the impaired. But she gives me a smile and pauses for a moment, shakes her head with something like regret, then leaves.

Good thing, too, because a bit more of that and I might have broken down. I might have asked which thing was it that she wanted to know: whether it gets too hot—or whether it gets too cold.