In the morning before waking, I dream of vast empty plains of flatland and red undulating weather systems in the far distance. It is a dream I have often which leads me to wake with a nameless anxiety, and while the images quickly dissipate like dreams do, the nervousness persists. It is before dawn and I lie there on the couch for an hour, before rising and dressing without showering because I have resolved to leave for the office alone, but Tadhg appears in the doorway of his bedroom before I can make my exit.
“Well Senan, how’s the head this morning then?” He asks in his meek manner which belies his Corkonian extraction.
“Same as.” I tell him as I strip the sofa of bed sheets.
“Ah man it’ll get better.” He says.
I check my phone for messages from Anaz but there are none since last night when she broke the silence which has existed between us for the past week and suggested we meet this evening for drinks. I check Instagram as well but little has been updated since I last checked it at about 2AM.
“I’ll make us some coffee and we’ll head.” Tadhg says.
I want to respond. Tell him that I’d rather make my own way to the office this morning, but I can’t put the words together. Instead I feel irritated by his presence, even though it is his flat I am staying in. I fold the sheets and leave them on one side of the couch, as if in anticipation of another night which will be spent there, and sit. Tadhg, still standing in the doorway, watches me do this, and after a beat when it becomes clear that I am no longer present, he moves to the coffee table in front of me and clears it of the cans and full ashtray that I left there the night before, despite his request that I not smoke inside. In the kitchen I can hear the coffee machine gurgle and spit, and the cans being crumpled one by one and binned. I consider just walking out the door while he is occupied, but checking my phone again I am reminded that I may need his couch indefinitely, so I stay where I am, staring vacantly into the screen of my phone, scrolling aimlessly and without register, down the endless feed of Instagram. Already new stories are appearing from people I barely know and I tap their smiling icons and view their manicured nails, brightly coloured and bedazzled, gripped around cardboard cups or tilting towards the small lens on their phones a plate with muffins of seed and bran and obscure berry or grape, and infused with cinnamon or pumpkin spice even though it is now November and not October, and the rain outside has turned cold and the air heavy, but all the pictures are warm and dry, and yet somehow still frigid and empty. After what seems like a long time but is likely only a few moments I am returned from my uneasy reverie by Tadhg planting a cup in front of me and falling heavily on the couch to my left, both his hands holding his own cup close to his lips as he blows on the steam that rises from it, and it is only then that I notice the cold of the room. The damp feel to it that I hadn’t felt before, and the dull throb of a hangover rousing behind my eyes.
“Are you gonna see Anastasia later then?” Asks Tadhg.
“I am.” I answer, though I don’t remember discussing with him my arrangement with Anaz. But then, I don’t remember much from last night.
“You sure that’s wise?” He asks with only a hint of incredulity.
“We share an apartment, Man.” I respond, and then after a beat, “And Buddy.”
“This isn’t the attitude you had last night,” Tadhg says.
“Well, I was drunk last night.”
“I can see that,” he says, drinking his coffee now.
“How many more did you have after I hit the sack?”
“Not enough.” I respond.
“Right.” He says, and a silence descends.
“Look, I know I need to end it,” I concede. “It’s gone fuckin’ toxic.”
“It’ll get better, Man.” He repeats.
I pick up my phone again and open Instagram and refresh the feed. A new story from Anaz appears at the top, her icon a smiling glittering visage cuddled up to the dog we share, Buddy. I tap the icon and Buddy appears again, at the end of his leash which trails back up beyond the camera’s sight, and ahead of him is the public park which is across the street from our apartment building. The grass is an almost luminous green, the cloudy sky not grey but bright, and the caption reads “Out for a walk with my little man!”, with the sunglasses emoji. I lock my phone and put it down again and drink the hot coffee, its taste bitter and sickening.
Tadhg is moving around his small flat, wiping down the coffee table and coming in and out of the living room from his bedroom in increasing states of dress. The place is tiny, the kitchen a cove, shared with an oversized washer-dryer that he was bragging about having bought, about never having to go to the launderette down the street again. The TV is too close to the couch, the coffee table too close to my knees, and the couch too low, old and impacted. I put down the cup of coffee and finish dressing by grabbing my tie, still tied from yesterday, and noosing it around my neck.
“Not gonna finish your coffee?” Tadhg asks, a look of concern, or perhaps irritation, on his face.
“I’ll grab one on the way to the subway station sure,” I say, before adding, “Thanks though, it was… decent.”
From the street the sky is a huge churning spectral mass of grey which cascades over the roofs of the differently crested buildings of downtown Toronto. We walk the short distance to the subway station in silence and I am tempted to put my headphones on now rather than when we get on the train. I hold off and tell Tadhg that I am running into Tim Horton’s to grab a cup of coffee, but he follows me into the shop and stands with me after I order.
I check my phone again for messages from Anaz, or anyone, but there are none. There are numerous new stories on Instagram, mostly of coffee cups and allegedly healthy breakfast choices. Anaz has posted a picture of a cardboard coffee cup and the yogurt and granola pot that she likes but always says is too expensive. I study the photo closely but there is little more info I can glean from how the picture is cropped. When I receive my own coffee, without thinking, I hold it out in front of me and open the camera function on Instagram.
“Are you taking a photo of your coffee?” Tadhg asks me, laughing.
“No.” I mutter, quickly locking my phone and putting it back in my pocket, disturbed by the apparent instinct of my own action. Tadhg continues laughing at me and despite the fact that he is probably my best friend in this country, the desire to walk away from him and put my headphones on is intense, and the knowledge that this reaction is merely a projection of other feelings does not quell the almost overwhelming impulse.
I walk out of Tim Horton’s and make a beeline for the entrance to the subway station, holding my coffee in my right hand and pulling my wallet from its pocket with my left. At the ticket barrier I stop and struggle with one hand to remove my subway pass. Tadhg sees this, and his own pass already in his hand, takes my wallet and removes my pass and hands it to me so that I can easily go through the turnstile.
“So where is it you’re meeting her tonight?” He asks me when we’re both on the other side, Tadhg this time holding my coffee cup while I put the pass back into my wallet.
“The Communist’s Daughter,” I tell him, before adding, “Ossington.”
“Ye seem to like that place, you go there so often,” he says, “I’ve still never been.”
Redundantly I reply, “We don’t go there that often.” Though I find myself thinking about this point as we descend the city and catch a train that’s already waiting at the platform.
At lunchtime I don my Bluetooth headphones again and hit play on a new episode of the podcast I’ve been listening to which is about an Irish serial killer who murdered his victims by pushing them in front of tube trains in London. I manage to duck out of the office unnoticed and make my way to the underground concourse 70 stories down and walk past a small second hand electronics store which is run by a short, crippled Asian man, past a dollar store where I bought a red rubber spatula when we first moved into our apartment, and through the link corridor. Then past a chain clothing store which reminds me of Dunnes Stores or Marks and Spencer or something of that ilk from back home, but is far more expensive just like everything is here. Past an LCBO which if I’m honest is located too close to where I work, and around the corner past three different Canadian banks, to the food court. I follow the kiosks which circle the seating area, reading the menus of each – Falafel, bagels, Indian, Chinese, Italian, Burger King, A&W Burger, Sushi – but I become aware that the seating area is full and bustling which will make it difficult to sit alone and away from absolutely anyone else, so I make a snap decision to leave the shelter of the concourse and take to the street.
The clouds still hang low and swollen and ominous, and though the pavements are stained damp it does not appear to have rained again since last night. I walk steadily along the footpath, dodging some people and overtaking others, passing different shops where I could take a look at the lunch options but am put off entering either by the crowds or by the glimpse of my own haggard and tired reflection in the windows. Persistent, the hangover has abated to something more familiar and manageable, but my mood is a strange amalgam of weariness and restlessness. Tired and tense at the same time. Muscle memory leads me to subconsciously take out my phone yet again, and by the time I realise what I’m doing I’ve already unlocked it. So I relent and go through the process of checking everything: messages from Tadhg and Aidan and Freddie and Harry asking where I disappeared to and if I’m free for lunch; a missed call from our apartment building manager; an email from my bank offering me increased credit and an additional credit card; countless emails from Linkedin even though I have unsubscribed numerous times, and Facebook even though I deactivated my account months ago; nothing from Anaz. Instagram consists of stories depicting what people are actually watching on TV at any given moment and posts about the colour of the clouds, or about how rain cleanses everything and how we should feel positive about this: “Positive vibes only”, followed by love heart emojis and the sun wearing sunglasses, probably expensive ones.
I’ve walked as far as the shop fronts go before they turn into condo building entrances, so I enter a Loblaws and absently wander the isles not focusing on what I might eat for lunch but thinking instead about the last time Anaz and I were together.
Despite a barrage of texts from Anaz asking where I was, rather than go home that evening, I had been out drinking with Tadhg and Aiden. I let myself into our apartment as quietly as I could so as not to set the dog off, or Anaz. But she was up.
“Do you realise we don’t had sex in two weeks more than?” She said from the shadows before I saw her on the couch eating caprese salad in red lace underwear and a halter top. Her trousers, shoes, socks and jacket were strewn to various different points throughout the apartment, which was lit only by the sprawl of the city shining through the floor to ceiling windows in sharp spears of light. I wondered briefly if she had been alone the entire time. Whether she had removed her clothes herself, but before the thought could fully form in my mind she spoke again, “Where the fuck were you?”
I digressed to the fridge and grabbed a beer, trying to remember what excuse I had made up, before finally settling on, “I told you, I was having drinks with clients.”
“Sex,” she said again, not listening to me, lifting above her head a slice of tomato with a generous sliver of mozzarella cheese heaped on top of it, and a leaf of basil, and then lowering it, craning it, slowly into her mouth, and then shutting her eyes tightly and clenching her fist with pleasure. It was a display I had observed before, and had previously found strangely arousing, but in that moment I was so utterly repulsed by the show that I felt like weeping. Instead I did as I always do and opened the beer and downed it while standing at the kitchen counter.
“Why we don’t had sex?” She repeated.
“Because we don’t even like each other, Anaz.” I muttered to myself.
“Where’s Buddy?” I asked her.
“I walk him and feed him and now he sleep in the bedroom, where you think, Senan,” She answered me with a calculated bite.
“You supposed to walk him,” She continued.
“I walked him this morning, like I do every morning.”
“Oh ya!” She scoffed.
“Why are we fighting Anaz, it’s Friday and we’re both drunk. We should be happy,” I said tiredly to her. To the empty apartment.
“Why you don’t come home?”
Had I not been drunk I may have considered the fact that she was right, I was bullshitting her, and had done so countless times before. Had I not been drunk I may have contemplated the possible reasons I preferred not to go home to our spacious apartment in leafy midtown Toronto, where I had a beautiful girlfriend and a dog and a future unfurling. But rather than think I drank, and I don’t remember who initiated it or how and I don’t remember desire awakening in me, and I don’t remember but I must have joined her on the couch, and I must have allowed my eyes to trace up the silken sheen of her sallow-skinned legs, crossed and toned and elevated on the coffee table, to her underwear delicate and transparent. I must have because an image of it lingers even now. So too lingers the fragrance of sex, still in my nostrils. The smell of stale cigarettes and liquor and caprese salad. The taste of her mouth in mine. The sensation when her teeth broke the skin inside my lower lip, and the sight of blood, black in the dark, marked on her chin. The taste of it when my teeth and tongue followed the line it had traced. My hands as they held her hips and her waist. My fingers when they found the flesh under her top and drew up to her arms and threaded her fingers held high above her head. Then her underwear torn away and my trousers unbuckled and lowered just enough. The impatience we shared as we both tried to ease me into her, our hands wet with spit. The image of a tug at the corner of her mouth forming a sinister grin which I should have paid more attention to as I held her arms down with one hand and arched a leg with the other, blood smeared on her face, dripped from my lip tense with intent. The image of her legs locked around me as they negotiated a rhythm. The memory of her words of goading in the guise of encouragement. The tightening of her legs around me and the slow inward rise of an orgasm. The memory which is trying to bury itself of her holding my hands to flesh under her hips, of her holding me there, inside her. The memory of her intent. The memory of my words of caution turned pleads, turned echoes unheeded.
The whole scene replays before me as I stand in front of single serving plastic containers of red and green salads, of triangular sandwich boxes, or wraps, or veg sticks and fruit cups. I haven’t eaten since lunchtime yesterday and though I feel empty and depleted, nothing in the array of options in front of me, anywhere in this shop, appeals to me. The disembodied voice of the Irish serial killer, gruff and slurred, brags in my ears about how many people he pushed in front of oncoming trains, how they were all ruled just suicides, and he repeats those two words several times, “Just suicides”.
Still standing in front of the lunch options, as if to break the trance I’m in, I take out my phone. Another missed call from our apartment building manager. Instagram stories from people back home, coffee cups and porridges with seeds and honey, salads of avocado and lettuce with tomato and egg, and complaints about the cold and the wind and the rain and “It’d be a grand aul country if you could only move it har har!”. A picture of a dazzling warm sunset posted by my sister in Australia with a caption about there being “A grand aul stretch in the evenings”. So many different emojis plastered over every picture that I can’t fathom what I’m supposed to feel at all. And a reminder that a friend’s birthday is tomorrow, which I dismiss.
I grab a sandwich and slalom the isles again, unsure if the sandwich will suffice or if I’ll need something more, something other.
At the dairy freezer I stop and peruse the different cheeses, all of them foreign to me and expensive, like everything is here. I pick up a cheese that Anaz likes. One we eat with crackers in front of the TV. Aged Five Years is advertised on its red ribbon emblem, and without looking around me, I open my jacket and slip it into the inside pocket, and walk to the checkout where I purchase only the sandwich, before leaving the Loblaws and without thinking, without giving it any conscious consideration at all, acting purely on some sort of toxic instinct, I walk out into the middle of the street, traffic coming in both directions, and I cross the road and walk into a Firkin Pub which has a John Cleese silhouette on the wall ascending the steps, and I sit at the empty bar and order a pint of Moosehead and a shot of Jameson, and when I’m told that I can’t eat the sandwich that I bought in the Loblaws, I ask what sandwich. The bartender actually has to nod at my hand before I realise I’m still clutching the sandwich box tight, crushing what’s inside, so I ask for a food menu as well and end up ordering a Classic Poutine which I don’t initially think I’ll eat but end up devouring.
Back in the office I spend the afternoon sending emails to clients: millionaire hedge-fund managers, managing billions of dollars worth of wealth. I send them short snappy missives which emphasise how I know how precious their time is and assuring them that I’m not in the business of wasting it. How their quarterlies show good numbers while many of their competitors are sliding precariously into the red. “It was my robust macroeconomic advice which assisted this, and with year end approaching I hope I can count on your business for what I’m sure will be another successful year. Kind regards, Senan O’Sullivan”. Then I avoid all calls and scroll Reddit and Instagram for hours until my neck and shoulders begin to ache. Anaz has continued posting stories throughout her day, of her yoga mat laid out in our apartment which she refers to as “My place“. Of Buddy at the obliterated end of a chew-toy even though it is usually me who plays those games with him. Of the view from our balcony which looks down the long stretch of Yonge Street to the city, broad and still at a distance. I am still scrolling Reddit when I leave the office, and still when I am waiting for the elevator, and still when I am riding it down the throat of the building. I am so engrossed in the variety of nothingness reeling before my eyes that I do not notice that Tadhg has gotten on the elevator as well and is speaking to me. I have to ask him to repeat himself twice before I can register that he is asking me about sleeping on his couch again tonight.
“You’ve been pretty out of it all day.” Tadhg says to me with a forced kind of humour.
“Have I?” I feign. “Just tired.”
“And will you be needing the couch?”
“Probably…” I tell him, wanting to form more words, to give him an answer more certain, but I am just breathing audibly on the verge of a panic attack. He stares at me puzzled until the elevator doors open on the ground floor, where we exit to the lobby and walk together to Bloor subway station.
The sky is now a disintegrating black horde manifested on the street as the heaviest rain I have ever seen, and we run through this along with hundreds of other people finishing work at the same time and descending from their offices in the sky and following the same routine. Cars and buses and taxi cabs blast their horns and make their presence known but otherwise there is only the sound of the falling rain and then the squeak of rubber soles on tiles as we enter the shelter of the concourse. At the ticket barrier Tadhg turns to me and says: “Let me know then, I’ll be downtown having a drink but the couch is there for you if you need it.”
To which I nod and respond: “Grand, I’ll let you know.”
And I’m thankful to him for being a friend, and I want to articulate this but instead we separate, going in different directions on the subway lines.
When I arrive in Ossington the neighbourhood is drenched in the light of the city, the streets shimmering back at the night sky like a warped mirror. I’m early and I stand for a time under the awning of a restaurant in the style of an American diner on the other side of the street from the small speakeasy bar that reads above its door The Communist’s Daughter.
It has been five years since I met Anastasia Smirnov on that curbside one sweltering summer night. Four years since I moved here to be with her. Three we have lived together. And two that we’ve shared Buddy. Each year marked by some type of progression or milestone or marker. Red Toronto streetcars pass me and chime at clocklike intervals. I take out my phone and text Anaz to say that I will be a little late, and then turn around and enter the diner restaurant and take a booth by the window facing across the street, and when the waitress comes by I order a gin and tonic off the bar-rail menu. In my ears ring the unsubtle hymns of Arcade Fire, and for the first time all day I feel tranquil.
Anaz texts me back to say she will be there in the next ten minutes. I respond sarcastically that I’ve been enjoying the stories she’s been posting all day, but I realise the subtext was lost when she says she has been able to relax and think. That she has tomorrow off work so we should put some wood on the fire tonight and enjoy ourselves. Adding wood to the fire is something she has always said: that our fire will die if we don’t add to it.
Instead of waiting just a little longer to speak to her in person like I know I should, I type out the message:
“Are we just going to ignore what happened the other night?”
“Ignore what Baby?” She responds a little too quickly.
“That you made me finish inside you,” I write.
And then immediately on top of that: “I wasn’t wearing a condom.”
“No Baby, you didn’t pull out because you were drunk.” She immediately responds again.
“Anaz, you wouldn’t let me pull out.” I tell her.
“No Baby, it was you.”
“Anaz, we were drunk but I remember,” I write, the memory of my rising panic giving me a sudden jolt.
“I wasn’t drunk.” She says.
Minutes pass and I don’t respond to the last message. I replay in my mind the events of the night as I remember them, only now I doubt myself. I doubt what I know is true. The minutes stretch and a directionless anger rises within me. I finish my gin and tonic and order another and while the waitress is walking away from me, I find myself typing: “The thing I’ve come to realise about you Anaz is that you are undeniably beautiful… but only on the outside.” I read this message over and over trying to calculate its effect before my fingers delete it and instead type and send:
“Did you take Plan B?”
“Yes Baby.” She says.
“How can I know that’s true?”
“Well you’ll see in 9 months when I don’t give birth.” She tells me and I can’t know if this was meant as a joke or not.
Another expanse opens between us, the only sound the din of shifting metal cutlery and ice in glasses like a death rattle. Anaz has posted a picture looking out of a bus window at the rain with the caption “Date night!”, and the drinks emoji. When I look up from my phone I can see her across the street finishing a cigarette outside The Communist’s Daughter, and as always I am struck by her beauty, and the night maps out in front of me coldly.
I will go over to her and we’ll order drinks, perhaps beers to start with but then we’ll move on to cocktails and we’ll definitely do shots, and then we’ll probably move on to another bar somewhere. Maybe we’ll take a cab back downtown, and maybe we’ll score some coke and then we’ll go home, possibly with some random people in tow, and the night will blur and we’ll never address that night or our problems directly, but we’ll take some wonderful pictures and videos and we’ll post them to our Instagram accounts and we’ll call them the memories we’ve made together, and people back home will comment on them saying how great I look and how happy we seem, and I’ll like the comments and respond with emojis which will assure everyone of my complete and utter contentedness.
Anaz vanishes briefly into the darkness of the bar but reappears when she takes the booth in the window box which is the best table in the place, and I become aware that all I need to do to break this cycle is to not join her tonight – that on some unconscious level I already knew this and took the first steps by entering the restaurant and not the bar.
I chew the ice at the bottom of my glass.
I tear a napkin to shreds.
I watch the waitress meander about the tables filled with the frivolous Friday nighters.
I order another drink.
The rain outside has started up again and I watch her over there, as she removes her red beanie hat which through the two water streaked windows that separate us looks like an undulating beacon, warning me, while always drawing me in.