No Power

Christmas, 2007 / No. 19
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

She is suddenly awake. Consciousness pulls over her eyes like a screen coming down, and a rough-cut version of their afternoon plays back. What she sees shocks her. The room is lit the gold of late evening. The air is still and oppressively hot, and she is sweaty.

He gets up first, limps down the hall to his bathroom. When he returns, he is that different person she also knows. He wants her out. “What time is it? ” he says, looking at his bare wrist, then rooting around aggressively for where his watch might have dropped.

“It’s late,” she says, helpfully. “I’d better take off.”

Franklin seems scattered. He abandons his watch search almost before it’s begun and looks around the room as though trying to tell if it really is the one he normally shares with his wife. “Something’s wrong with the central air,” he says, walking gingerly over to the temperature control near their door. Nicole can see he is sore.

She picks herself up off the bed. She doesn’t have any bruises that she can see. “Your clock’s gone off too,” she says, staring into the dead face of the bedside alarm.

“Hmm,” he says, but he’s distracted again. He is now absorbed in the task of pulling the sheets off the bed. As if his wife will be home any moment. As if he needs to neutralize the damage. They both know she doesn’t fly back until tomorrow morning.

It’s Nicole’s turn to go down the hall to the bathroom. She flicks on the light switch. Nothing happens. She leaves the door slightly ajar, letting in what little natural light is left in Franklin’s hall. Sitting on the toilet, naked, she wonders how long this business with him can go on and is surprised to find that she still can’t imagine an end.

When she gets back to the bedroom, Franklin is standing beside the heap of sheets. He has puffed himself up in the way she’s seen him do many times when dealing with contractors, his glasses returning to him, now, some of the authority of his job. But from the head down, he looks like a boy, not an architect. He has obviously thrown on the first thing he found in his dresser drawer—a yellow T-shirt and faded red shorts. He looks at her as if to say, “Where are your clothes? ”

“Power’s out,” he says instead.

“No kidding,” she says. “Guess we really lit it up. Ha ha.”

Franklin ignores this. “I hope to God we won’t lose a fridge full of food,” he says, like whatever is in the kitchen represents the last rations he and his wife will ever be allotted.

“That would suck.”

“Look, Nic, I…”

“Whatever. Don’t bore me here. We’ll have coffee at work tomorrow,” she says, her back turned, pulling on her skirt.

“O.K. Great. Yeah,” he says, his voice looser now, confirming something to himself. “I just gotta get this mess cleaned up.” She can’t see his face but is sure it has been recalibrated to contrition. On that same screen in her mind, Nicole sees Franklin, fifteen minutes from now, on his knees again, this time scrubbing away the evidence of where she first pushed him down, just inside his front door. “Ah, Franklin,” she says to herself, depressed by it.

She buttons up her rumpled work shirt, thanks God she had the foresight to keep a hair elastic around her wrist, and looks into Franklin’s wife’s mirror, where she adjusts herself as best she can. Franklin hovers, silently hurrying her. She defies him, taking the time to straighten her suit jacket, says goodbye, for which she receives a dry, relieved kiss on the forehead, and is escorted to the back door. She thinks, “I’m the recycling bin,” but reminds herself that this is part of the bargain and that she entered into it freely.

Outside, the heat takes her in its grip and she is jarred, disoriented, but glad anyway. It makes her feel sane. She has a six-block walk to the subway, during which she can also recalibrate. She wants her face to read uninvolved, unknowing. The heat will help her sweat out the rest.

All the houses she passes look like Franklin’s. Many have stone vases on the front step that hold unlikely, competitive combinations of flowers and plants. In the fading light, they strike Nicole as funereal. She is suddenly anxious to get back downtown.

It is only when she finally gets to Yonge and Lawrence that she realizes something odd is going on. The stores she passes all have makeshift signs saying, “closed. no power.” Outside the subway station, people are scuttling around like ants disturbed from their hole. Nicole goes past them to the turnstiles.

“Trains aren’t running, miss,” a T.T.C. worker says as she approaches, looking exasperated. “Haven’t been since late afternoon.”

“What’s going on? ” Nicole asks, but the worker has already turned around and is advancing toward some older women, waving her arms at them in a depleted “Don’t bother!” gesture.

Nicole walks back out to the street corner where, squinting at the scene, she sees a man in a sweat-soaked work shirt directing traffic. He clearly has no idea what he is doing. Traffic is bunching up in every direction. As she watches, someone gets out of their car and hands him a child’s twirling baton, but it is pink and sparkly and just makes him look stupid as well as inept. People start to honk, and Nicole gets the strange feeling that much has transpired since she left the office with Franklin at three o’clock for the site survey that never happened, which turned into the caution-to-the-wind stop at a liquor store, which became giggling, drinks, and fondling on a park bench, which, in turn, became twin, conspiratorial cellphone calls to cancel their late meeting with the senior project co-ordinator, and ended with she and Franklin driving, rather too drunk, the short distance to his house. Though they have not courted, have not assumed the nitty-gritty regularity of picking times and places, and have never discussed their uncommon approaches to pleasure, still, somehow, every so often, they hear a single, fervent thought pass between them: opportunity. They take it. He gives her control. She uses it. They fit. But only that way. Briefly.

“You need water? ” someone says to her now.

“Excuse me? ”

“Water. Four bucks a pop. If you’re one of them that’s walking home—you’re gonna need water.”

“I’ll take a taxi, thank you.”

“No cabs. You’ll be walkin’,” says the morose, chinless woman, as though pronouncing a sentence. She turns and plods away with her two big bags full of bottled water. The crotch area of her flood-length khakis is dark with perspiration.

Nicole suddenly feels dizzy. She needs a shower. She might still be just a bit drunk. And she is thirsty. “Actually, wait,” she calls to the woman, “I’ll take one—please.” The woman turns and pulls out one tiny, lukewarm Evian. Nicole pats her side and realizes: her purse—she’s left it at Franklin’s. An icy tingle travels up from her feet. “I don’t have any money,” she says, more to herself than to the sweaty woman.

“Sorry to hear that.”

Furious with herself, wanting the water very badly, and trying to determine whether Franklin will be kind enough to resist burning her things before his wife gets back, Nicole riffles through her satin-lined suit pockets and comes up with a crumpled ten-dollar bill, two quarters, and four pennies.

“Another one who lives by the almighty bank machine,” says the woman, sounding disgusted.

Nicole hands her the ten-dollar bill, but the woman waves it away. “This heat’ll do you in. Shouldn’t be out without any I.D. or cash during a power outage like this one.” She hands Nicole a free water. As she does, the woman’s eyes shift in a way that indicates she has received payment of a different kind, having seized her opportunity to chastise the better-heeled woman. It should not, Nicole thinks, feel like such a bad deal. But it does.

Still, unwilling to beg this woman to take her last earthly coin, Nicole doesn’t protest. She opens her water bottle and drinks its contents in one long gulp, then looks around. Among the many people at the intersection, she makes out a steady flow of business people walking north. But they can’t all be walking home, she marvels. She herself lives on the waterfront. It will take hours. Looking west down Lawrence she feels a kind of panic tighten in her stomach. Her hair has begun to extract itself from the elastic in sections that flutter around her face, getting caught at the edge of her lips and making her nose itch. She pushes them back and glares. It is as if the street has become part of a foreign city to her, and she, a disoriented, clueless tourist who doesn’t know the language. She begins to crave, doubly, the comfort of her own home.

Her cell is, of course, back at Franklin’s with her bag. And so she jogs across the street to a row of pay phones. Ahead of each is a lineup ten people deep. As she waits, beads of sweat rolling down her stomach from under her breasts, Nicole overhears scraps of conversation that confirm what’s started to dawn on her: “…says the whole city’s out…”; “…people are still down there in the goddamn dark…”; “…afraid they’ll be looted, so they’re staying put.”

When she finally gets her turn at the tepid receiver, she can’t seem to get through to Franklin’s cell. She hefts the dangling phone book container to look for his home number, only to find the pages she needs have been stolen. She dials 411 but something is wrong with the line. She dials the operator and has the same problem. “No,” she says, slamming down the receiver. “No. No. No.” The people who’ve lined up behind her blink at her frustration. They look ready to pounce if she doesn’t step away.

She considers walking back to Franklin’s but cannot imagine ringing his doorbell, finding him clean-shaven, changed into appropriate clothes, greeting her with—what? She can only imagine the kind of self-hate and indignance he might take out on her. He is, after all, the one with the wife, the one with seniority at work. He only likes to toy with the idea of being the vulnerable one. Screw it, she thinks. She’ll start walking. She can pick up more water on the way. The concierge at her building will let her into her condo, and she can still get a good night’s sleep. It will be fine.

She goes back to the corner and merges against the now very heavy northbound flow of foot traffic, an eerie army of people who look just like she and Franklin, returning from offices probably much like her own. How grim, she thinks. But a few minutes in, as she finds a rhythm, she begins, oddly, to enjoy herself. It’s absurd. The whole city really does seem to be without power. People are giving off an energy Nicole remembers from her childhood. Growing up in a small northern town, her grandmother would sit with her whenever the power went out and they would sing songs and she would feel that anything was possible, that she could be anyone she wanted.

People are standing in the shadowy doorways of their flower shops, hair salons, and computer stores with nothing better to do, as if the pedestrians were part of a civic parade. Nicole overhears scraps of jokes and finds herself smiling at the punchlines. One man says all this unplanned exercise is very bad news for gyms, good news for cobblers. Another woman tells everyone within earshot that she’s been walking for three hours already and can’t imagine what trouble her children are up to. There is only the slightest note of fear in her voice, and Nicole wishes she hadn’t caught it.

The comments continue, block to block, and she feels sorry for them—these people whose need for drama has been met by a false, temporary emergency. By nightfall, the power will have been restored and their lives will be as boring as when they’d plugged in their blow-dryers this morning. This is play-acting, just as it was when she was a child. Even then, deep down, and despite what her grandmother told her, Nicole knew she couldn’t be anyone but herself. Which is still true, she thinks now. In spite of the games she plays with Franklin, or maybe because of them, she does not believe in escape. Soon this will be over. She will take the subway the rest of the way home. She will bathe and sleep and return to work and drink coffee beside Franklin. No harm done. Still, every so often, she reaches into her suit pocket and palms the ten-dollar bill.

But when, more than an hour later, her feet have started to hurt, and a smell comes up, regularly, from inside her shirt, and it is pitch black, and the city has been sucked into an impenetrable abyss, and she is not quantifiably closer to home—when all her brief good humour and tolerance have been walked off, Nicole begins to resent the cheery, nearly festive mood of the crowd, the cars stuffed with young men who pass, hooting their horns in knuckleheaded fraternity, the friendly neighbours who hand them water bottles at street corners. People are actually celebrating this, she thinks with enough disgust to spit, though she never would.

Eventually, she decides she can stand it no longer. She gets off Yonge Street and heads for the nearest residential street that parallels it to the west. There, she reasons, she can at least go about her trudging in peace. Two steps from the corner though, darkness swallows her like a great mouth. She sees just the flickers of the occasional candle in a front window, like holes poked in black cloth. Twice, without notice, she is startled by people who come upon her from the opposite direction. She imagines, again, those stupid, ghoulish urns that must still be sitting on the steps of all the houses she’s passing, just steps away. And in the void, she feels her usual certainties being worn down. Doubts about her choices. Her preferences. The darkness feels like it is seeping through her skin. She quickens her pace and tries to focus on the regular click-click of her heels.

Suddenly, a woman appears out of the dark.

“Hello,” the woman says, passing.

“Hi,” says Nicole.

The woman suddenly stops: “Nicole?

Then women both turn, coming very close, like dogs, to confirm one another’s features, which appear very pale and grainy.

“Holy geez! I can’t believe this!” says the woman, who turns out to be the rather too young and angular receptionist for the group of offices where Nicole works. “What are you doing here? Don’t you live downtown? ”

“Oh, yes. Um…”

“Isn’t this nuts?” the woman jumps in. “Apparently, it’s going to be out for days. I think I found the last Thai takeout in the city for me and my husband!” she says, hoisting a greasy paper bag of food.

Nicole’s throat has tightened. “I was on a site survey,” she blurts out. “A site survey just north of here. I couldn’t get home.” She reaches up and touches her hair nervously. Then her soiled shirt collar.

The receptionist adopts a queer look. “Oh,” she says. “You were on a survey all this time? ” And Nicole can see, even through the ink-blot darkness, something clarifying itself in the receptionist’s clever, mouse-like eyes: she was the one who put through both Nicole’s and Franklin’s calls this afternoon.

“Well, I’ll let you get back on your way then,” says the receptionist, evenly, and Nicole has an urge to hit this girl in the smug mouth and run. “Yes, I’d better keep going,” she says. They take three steps from one another and, when Nicole turns to get a last look, the receptionist has already disappeared, carrying her fragrant Thai and her secret irretrievably into the hot night.

At the next intersection, Nicole, stunned, and despite the intense pain in her feet, jogs back to the relative comfort of Yonge Street, where cars and people have now formed a throng, a mob, a human mass she wants to disappear into. She continues her walk but calculates, with every step, how long it will take for the leak she’s caused to spread. Another forty minutes and she’s convinced she will be drowned, sunk by this crowd, or by what is known of her. She passes a young man with a wide grin and a loose sandwich board that reads, “TWO WORDS: CHEAP AND COLD, ONE-DOLLAR PINTS TODAY ONLY!” Before she knows what she’s done, Nicole has answered the call and steps past him into the bar.

It smells like a lifetime of cigarettes and stale beer and she would normally run the other way, but instead she takes a seat at the bar and orders the pint, which she sips by candlelight. All around her, groups of people, probably at the half point on their own long walks home, seem to be content to share the situation with strangers. The mood is giddy. Nicole sits with her back to their chatter, resentful or maybe even jealous.

Now an extremely elderly woman approaches the bar. With great effort, she props her curved, bird frame up on the stool next to Nicole and orders a whisky sour. In the flickering light, Nicole makes out the upper-class profile of a dry matron, like a figure from a Rembrandt. The woman turns to Nicole and considers her for a long moment with her pale, shrunken face. Just once. Thoroughly. Then a jolt of knowledge—or bemusement, Nicole can’t be sure—turns some idea on like a light in the woman’s ancient skull, and pulls up one corner of her mouth into an amused grimace. As though she is reading every aspect of Nicole’s condition. As if she can see directly into her insides.

“My dear,” says the woman, in a voice like paper being crumpled, “you are lovely.”

Nicole just blinks at her. The old woman reaches into the dated but expensive handbag on her lap and brings out a silver case from which she plucks two long cigarettes, lighting both in a gesture Nicole has never seen, except in black and white movies, then hands one over. Nicole takes it and breathes in deeply. The woman digs out an alligator-skin change purse and pinches from it a one-dollar coin, putting it down on the bar beside Nicole’s pint. “Your ale is on me,” she says, lifting her milky eyes so that two identical reflections of the candle’s flame leap into them. Beside her, the ember of her cigarette gives off a precise trail of grey smoke.

Nicole drags on her cigarette and considers the word: lovely. She crosses her legs and lets herself feel it. Be it. Then she turns her gaze to the candle itself, which occupies a spot just beyond the raptor-woman’s manicured hand. There, in the flame’s yellow heart, Nicole recognizes a malicious, hot glare. She quickly, forcefully, attempts to blow it out. She blows and blows, but the flame only wavers before returning, stubbornly, to life.