Yeah there were non-stop girls. Yeah the girls did not stop. Yeah we were silicone giddy. Yeah there were enhancements. Yeah there was tanned skin and colossal bass and buoyant handfuls of T&A. Yeah there were bright G-strings glowing in the blacklight. No you could not actually grab the buoyant handfuls of T&A without getting wrist-locked and possibly choke-slammed by the dragon-armed, lazy-eyed doorman and subsequently barred from this nirvana of non-stop girls. Yeah by dragon-armed I mean the doorman had badass dragons tattooed all over his enormous trisauraceps. Yeah there was sugarfree Red Bull. Yeah there was shitty coke laced with fuck knows. Yeah there was a shot called the Tequila Mockingbird. What else was there? A yoyo and an astronautical-themed room called the Space Heater that I was earnestly considering until I found out it cost two hundo just to walk in.
A joint that may have had a hair in it, maybe something more sinister. A bride and groom who’d been married at noon, both of them grinding face into the stripper with blond streaks in her jet-black hair. At some point I learned the name of the stripper with blond streaks in her jet-black hair. Annie or Mandy or Bambi. Annamandambi. Also a white dude with a Jheri curl and a Vietnamese woman sipping straight well vodka and leering at Theo, one eye fluttering shut. A table full of chunky-watch-wearing Bobby Bigwheels who found out we were from Nova Scotia and started buying us Jӓger bombs. When I told them I dropped some Jӓger on a hamburger last year and created the Jӓger bun they did not register the hilarity. At one point Theo walked into the dank strip-club kitchen—which had closed several hours earlier—and grabbed tiny, cold pulled pork sandwiches for the entire table. Drew invented a drink called the Comatose and Corrine countered with the Consensual Rufie. We proceeded to consensually rufie one another and then got into an argument about which sexual indiscretions should now be referred to as “pulling a Jian” in honour of J. Ghomeshi. At some point the bartender cut Drew off and Drew tried to give him forty bucks for a pint but the bartender just wiggled his enormous neck muscles and said no. One of my last blustery memories is Drew wearing two pairs of wraparound sunglasses, shouting, “This bartender is a good bartender and a quality dude because I tried to bribe him and he would not accept the money!” Last call happened and Theo grabbed a suspiciously full pitcher off an empty table and poured us all pints and then the Bobby Bigwheels came back in from smoking cigarettes and asked where we got the now suspiciously empty pitcher and we said something about Jӓger buns and walked off cackling into the vacuous lightscape of Yonge Street. Yeah there were non-stop girls. The marquee said so and the marquee was legit.
Why were we there? I don’t mean the Silicone Palace. Should be obvious why we were there. I mean why tread the lurid urban cellulose of Yonge Street? Why were we milking the city’s inflamed urethra when we might have been stumbling around Ossington or somewhere else genuinely cool? Why, even though I’d seen on Twitter that there were some good poets reading on Queen West, did I not go? I’ll tell you why. Because I’m a half-closeted poet who becomes an inferno of envy every time I see a writer my age with a book out. Because I feel secretly threatened by tight-pants Torontonians with their slim bicycle wheels and I do my best to make jealousy and resentment seem like casual loathing due to Ontario’s economic hegemony over the East. Because some part of me knows that to become a real writer I must become an adult and it is so much more fun to keep having a time and scribbling anonymous lines. Because me and Drew are two dirtbags spending two thirds of our lives cashing VLT chits in a dingy pub back home in Halifax and our tyrant boss would only give us two days off. Because even though my dad lives in Newmarket I’d rather share a room Drew booked in some mall-like downtown hotel than talk to my father about nine irons and search engine optimization and market segmentation. Because after getting jagged in our hotel room and walking out the door the first thing we saw was a sign that said “non-stop girls” and although Corrine and Theo were saying about a place on Dundas it seemed safer and easier to get rowdy here than go somewhere dim and fashionable that would make me feel pathologically provincial.
But why were we in Toronto at all? Because Theo was finally marrying Corrine and we hadn’t seen anything like enough of them since Corrine became a bona fide TDSB art teacher and Theo started his PhD at York. Strange: this guy was going to be educating people about environmental studies and I remembered him tipping porta-potties as we walked home shittered from the Ward Room during that blur of beer and books I now call undergrad. I remembered how proud he was in grade ten when he traded a cigarette for a blowjob from Sarah “Darth Vader” MacDonald. I remembered him kicking out taillights because Handsome Pete whispered in his ear. I remembered him squealing the tires of his parents’ VW as we peeled up Barrington Street, flying a skull and crossbones out the window. I remembered him convincing Drew to moon some girls from the back seat of said VW and then just easing on the brakes and coming to a gentle stop while Drew shrunk into an amoeba of embarrassment and it turned out the girls were Shelly and Tara from St. Pat’s. I remembered him throwing an empty bottle of Colt Forty-Five high into the air, the glass skittering all over the skate park, each fragment a startled insect. That tall street punk shouting “My dog doesn’t wear shoes!” and Theo just laughing, pitching another bottle into the floodlit sky. I remembered him getting in a fistfight with Drew the day we graduated high school because Drew thought it would be funny to kick a half-eaten McChicken® out of Theo’s hand. Drew kept saying he didn’t want to fight but Theo was staggering and mouth-breathing into his face and eventually Drew just leaned back and one-punched him.
Thankfully I caught him on the way down, because Theo weighed a solid two hundo back in the pre-vegetarian era and he was all white-socketed and wobble-kneed, tumbling tooth-first toward the phalt. For some reason Nancy still displays the picture on her mantelpiece: Theo, wearing his tux and grinning next to Tara McDougle, one eye squeezed into a bloat of purple chub.
Which reminds me: Nancy.
Antsy Nancy. Anansi. Nance.
I might end up sitting at a table with Nancy. I will certainly see Nancy. I may well end up having to talk to Nancy. Sure it’s been fifteen years since I stole Nance’s vibrator, Blue Velvet, and tore around the neighbourhood before losing it to the tires of a moving van.1 Sure I never actually managed to apologize even though I’ve now formed at least eight million different syntactical combinations of the words I would have liked to say. Sure I’ve seen her hundreds of times since the Blue Velvet incident and it’s always been, if anything, eerily congenial. Sure she’s super respectable and in her mid-fifties now, though still miraculously mom-hot. Sure she’s remarried to a doctor named Cliff who walks as if his genitals out-weigh a T-bone. Still: this awkwardness in me. This psychological kidney stone of shame. This complete cowardly inanity. I want nothing more than to cower before Nancy, bare the foul cavities of my soul and beg her forever-forgiveness. But that is something I will never do. That is something for which I do not have the marrow.
Theo and I are standing in line at a brunch place on Queen West and even if it was worth the wait my hangover would probably reject all gustatory value of the quail’s eggs or cashew butter or whatever else makes Theo’s favourite brunch spot so special. The line is a miasma of cut-off jean-shorts and expensive tattoos. A girl wearing a denim skirt is dribbling a basketball. Several dogs skulk near the outskirts of the patio and when I overhear someone asking what breed is that the owner answers “a rescue.” We are standing in line at a place that we may never get into and I am thinking of the vestibule of Dante’s Inferno. I am thinking of the uncommitted, souls who chose neither goodness nor sin, the ones who sit on the shores of Acheron, perpetually stung by hornets and wasps, their existence a tailing pond. Nothing left but to envy the dead.
We are waiting, now, in this procession of hipster cred and I am thinking this place represents all the hollowness of Toronto and my dad is texting me to see if I want to go for brunch at Yonge and Eglinton and Theo is ranting about the Anthropocene. Theo is talking about the Anthropocene and how we’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction event in the last five hundred million years. I’m texting my dad to say thanks but no thanks and Theo’s talking fracking and fossils and some geologist who believes that after humans go extinct the earth will be inherited by rats. “Look at their track record,” he says. “A startlingly versatile genus. Even now they colonize and rule entire islands.” I am nodding haphazardly and craving water, craving coffee, hankering to sit. Theo’s talking Rattus sanila and Rattus norvegicus and saying how rats have been following humans around since the Pleistocene and there’s a solid argument that the project of human civilization has built a perfect habitat for our whiskered successors. Saying that once we’re gone the rats could proliferate indefinitely, some growing as large as mastodons and others scrawling on the walls of caves.
We are finally sitting down and Theo is talking ocean acidification and river diversion and apparently human activity has transformed half the land mass of the planet and according to stratigraphers the changes taking place right now—radical carbon buildup and sudden polar melt—will be visible in the geological record a hundred million years into the future. It is this, Theo is saying as I order eggs Florentine, it is not music and pyramids and spaceships but pollution and massive-scale destruction that will be humanity’s real legacy.
I say that sounds kind of nice. There is a beauty about the idea. I like to think of the remnants, the traces of us meandering through the rock long after the species is gone. Our existence written into the skeleton of the planet, an arabesque signature on the scroll of deep time. A colossal, life-affirming gesture. A lost species shouting “We were here!” into unseen catacombs of the future.
“But what about short term?” I ask. “What about Nova Scotia?”
He says that by 2100 the sea level may rise six feet, which would be enough to basically drown Halifax. The good news is that with violent, unpredictable new storm systems moving north and rivers flooding all over, the oil economy may not even make it to 2100. “But basically,” he says, “Halifax is a sinking peninsula.” I am thinking that even this, in its way, is beautiful. My eggs Florentine arrives and I am thinking Venice, thinking Manhattan, thinking Halifax, imagining all these coastal cities a century from now—concrete pillars sprouting out of water, hives of algae and barnacles, the salt gnawing their walls and the current buckling their foundations. I see the tide creeping up over Citadel Hill, swallowing the old town clock and the ceremonial cannons. I picture the cobblestone walkway of lower water street, entirely subsumed. What would it be like to swim my old neighbourhood, to dive down and see the underwater mailboxes and hydrants and parking lots, knowing each curve and corner of the ocean floor?
Theo and Corrine are getting married and I am thinking about hummus. Half-drunk, cogitating on hummus. There are worse things to think about. I was thinking about Coeur de Pirate and the crone who breathes down my neck while I try to pour pints at the bar on Gottingen and now hummus. Nancy smiles at me and I wave while trying not to acknowledge Cliff or look at Nancy’s chest and I am thinking about the strippers from two nights ago. The sun is thumping as Theo stands at the head of the aisle and Rob is picking up the volume as if to suggest Corrine is going to appear any moment and I am thinking I should probably drop the word “stripper” from my vocabulary and start calling them dancers.
A hush. Everyone stands. Enter bridesmaids.
“Hey, you’re that guy, right?”
This from a cherub-faced redhead who’s at least six four and I’m sure I knew back in the when though I can’t remember where from. I have just decided that I loathe cocktail hour and I need another Tequila Mockingbird or whatever that grenadine-pink signature cocktail is called.
“You’re going to have to specify.”
“The guy who climbed that electrical tower. Gavin Something. That’s you, right?”
“Woah. That was a big deal. Huge deal.”
“Hot day huh?”
He looks confused. “Yeah.” He sips his cocktail from the straw. “Beautiful.”
A short girl who is far too attractive for Cherub Face shows up and suggests via arm language that she’s Cherub Face’s girlfriend. Just in case I’m about to scheme a move.
“Hey Babe,” Cherub Face says. “Shazia, meet Gavin. He’s the dude who got electrocuted in Halifax when I was in grade eleven. Climbed all the way to the top of a radio tower. He was a Chronicle Herald legend.”
“Yep, that’s me. Canonical Harold.”
The lanky cherub extends his freakishly large hand and decides to finally introduce himself as Sam Dingle and I’m remembering Sammy Dingle, Theo’s gangly cousin who never took off his high-school basketball jacket and earned widespread acclaim for apparently sleeping with three girls in one night at the “Safegrad” party at Harnish Farms. The last of these conquests on the roof of a barn in semi-full view of a gathering crowd of twenty-plus.
“I was there that night,” Dingle is saying. “I saw it all go down.” Dingle sets his hands like he’s holding a basketball and I know he’s about to tell the story so I figure it’s a good time to walk away. I grab two more Grenadine Dreams and head up to the treehouse. That’s right, the venue literally has a treehouse which is far too huge and luxurious to be called a treehouse but is a mixture of tree and house no less. Although it’s probably supposed to be for the kids Theo managed to reserve it for the groom’s party and there’s a few guitars up there and hopefully a stash of whiskey and as I climb the stairs I can see that it’s enticingly desolate.
I open the door onto fake hunting gear and fake fireplace and ersatz bearskin. The room is ringed with sauna-style wooden benches and on one of them, all alone, sits Corrine, nursing a Nuclear Sunbeam, shoes kicked onto the floor. “Shit. Hey Corrine. I thought this was, like, the man cave.”
She shrugs. “The woman cave is full of mothers going menopausal.”
“What? But you’re married now. I thought that ended when you said ‘till death rend us asunder.’”
“Yeah, no. Menopause still happens.”
“Bummer,” I say, laughing and thinking this is why I am still fond of Corrine in spite of all the history, thinking that if Dante’s Brunch Vestibule represents everything that is loathsome about Toronto then Corrine is everything exciting and genuine about the place.
We remain silent for a while, her sitting, me standing, both sipping rosy-hued consolation. The treehouse smells like cheap scotch and rented suits.
“The other night was fun, huh?”
“Possibly too fun?” I sit down beside her.
“That one stripper, Sandy? Total smokeshow. Blond streaks in her jet black hair?”
“You mean Bambi? Pretty sure she was into me.”
Corrine eyes me over her Saccharine Sunset.
“I’m talking contact. Serious contact.”
“Reluctant eye contact? What’d she charge for that?”
We laugh. When our voices peter we can hear the babble of pleasantries below.
“So. Congratulations.” I am serious and yet it is hard not to roll my eyes. I offer my glass and clink, then sip. “Beautiful ceremony and all that.”
“Yes,” she stiffens her back, voice going suburban. “Lovely. Such a beautiful bride.”
We laugh together again. “Not bad,” I admit. “Theo’s a lucky dude.”
She keeps her body still, eyes on the floor. Her shoulders say don’t go there. Her mouth says, “How’s the poetry going?”
I gulp the rest of my Wet Dreamsicle.
“Good, I’m thinking of putting a manuscript together.”
“Published anything lately?”
“Yeah, here and there.”
“Email me. I’d love to see some new work.”
I watch the ice melt in my empty glass and hope that Corrine is not going to ask me again about the thing with her friend Lara and then she asks me again about the thing with her friend Lara. Cute Lara with the bust of Shelly tattooed on her shoulder above Plath’s yew tree. Lara who couldn’t make it tonight because her second book is launching in Vancouver.
Corrine is saying once again about Lara’s new online literary journal, as if I didn’t already know all about Lara Barryman’s found poetry and Samizdat’s mandate to publish mixed media and digital poetry projects. Corrine is saying Lara recently got some huge amount of funding and she’s looking for people, saying nothing too lucrative, saying foot in the door, saying crash on her and Theo’s couch for a month or two. I am thinking no and thinking why do you want to help me and saying sounds cool, saying I’ll think about it. Corrine says please do and then stays quiet for a while. Finally she blurts out that Theo really admires and envies me and there is an eerily timed cheer from below and I ask what for and she says for staying in Halifax. “He’s always respected you,” she says. “He misses you and wishes he could’ve stayed there too. It’s hard for him you know?” I’m thinking bullshit and thinking why are you trying to get me to move here but also thinking maybe if I came Theo and I could really reconnect. Maybe I could date Lara or one of her friends and become Samizdat’s associate editor and get a nepotistic but who-cares-if-it’s-nepotistic book deal.
I hear a glass smashing somewhere outside and look up to see Drew and Theo swaggering up to the treehouse. Drew looks to be prematurely hammed, finishing a cigarette and talking loudly with an arm around Theo.
Corrine stands up. “Well, I guess I should show my face down below.”
I nod. “Gobble them up, Bridezilla.”
She pauses, stepping into a shoe. “What do you think of Theo’s aunt Vanessa?”
Vanessa? As in Nancy’s little sister. As in coolest aunt ever. As in married to a pro snowboarder for fifteen years and said marriage recently ended, possibly because Vanessa put on weight though still looks great. As in used to do liquor runs when we were fifteen as long as we’d share a beer with her and tell her about the cool new music even though we didn’t know shit about the cool new music and just listened to the same DayGlo CDs over and over. As in rockabilly-red hair and full sleeves of pin-up girls and skeletons and generally rad tattoos. As in basically the reason I took up snowboarding at fourteen was to one day go pro and pull a corked ten-eighty while stealing her from her balding mediocre pro husband. As in many many indecent nights with the duvet fluttering as my breathing increased.
“She’s cool. Why?”
Corrine shrugs. “Says you turned suddenly handsome at twenty-five and now you’re mega-bangable.” Does Corrine really think it’s funny or cool to say something like this and then walk away?
Drew stumbles into the treehouse as Corrine and Theo pause to kiss. “Bra!” Drew high-fives me. “What are you doing up here, writing poetry?” Drew does ghouly fingers every time he says the word “poetry.” Chuckling, he reaches into the faux-fireplace and finds his stash of Johnny black. He takes a swill straight from the bottle and holds it up with two hands, like some tiny rectangular Stanley Cup. And then he is humping treehouse air and slurring, “Good to know you’re still pounding like Ezra.” As he hands me the bottle of JWB I am thinking of Vanessa. I am swilling whiskey and I am thinking of Vanessa, thinking of Vanessa, thinking of Lara and Samizdat, thinking of Corrine thinking of Nancy.
Is there history with Corrine? When is there not history? We all met Corrine back in the when. She’d moved to Halifax because her father had a visiting professorship at Dalhousie. She showed up at the Bowl with some street-punks she’d met on Spring Garden, wearing a plaid skirt with torn fishnets and looking for pot. All of us middle class white boys in studded leather jackets were racing to roll up and give her supers. We were sixteen, all virgins, and thought people from Moncton were exotic. She was eighteen from a land of streetcars and Sky Domes, all tattoos and GG Allin lyrics, her body a swirling fantasia. Drew, Theo, and I were all smitten and I’m still baffled that I got to be the first to date her. Six atomic months and then intensities faded. Lethargy happened. Too much pot happened. A twenty-five-year-old metal drummer with a three foot beard happened. Promising we’d always be friends and meaning I would secretly always want to get back together happened. Then university and a few sporadic girlfriends happened and some version of the question “what are you doing with your life?” or the word “career” happened and always wondering what could have happened with Corrine happened. And that is basically my entire romantic history.
Do I care much now? Of course not. Have I forgotten utterly and forgiven entirely? Of course I have. Am I finally able at this point to appreciate her company as a friend, sans jealousy? Naturally. Do I sometimes fondly recall the tattoos that only myself and a select ten or fifteen others had ever witnessed? Very rarely. Do I periodically indulge in recollections of the time I emailed her my experiments with imagism and she wrote back that she liked the way the language sounded like a bright and tortured music? Never. Did the thing that she said next—There is a real voice in you, struggling to break through— become an anthem for all my deepest hopes and desolations? Categorically not.
Break, voice. Dissolve these paltry surfaces.
Unfurl exalted—devastate the vast.
Vanessa’s tossing me shameless eyeballs but I keep glancing at Nancy’s legs, having, as I happen to have, a clear view of Nancy’s mum-azing legs which she seems to think are concealed by the table cloth. Several times throughout dinner Cliff has reached down for a healthy inner thigh rub which makes me feel kind of hot and also pervier than usual. The couple next to me at the table—one of Theo’s friends from environmental studies with a white girl wearing a sari—keep kissing and talking about how much better than this their wedding is going to be. Corrine’s father Anthony the Classics professor is monotoning away, saying how marriage is a contract, saying Hegel this and Heraclitus that and I’m seriously considering a nap if I don’t get another non-red-wine beverage in me ASAP and then I get some mating season eye contact from Vanessa and I’m thinking why not as the server puts crème brûlée down in front of me. I’m taking a spoonful of crème brûlée and thinking where the hell is my coffee and if I ever get married I will serve Irish coffee for desert and why not move to Toronto and get a part-time job copy-editing for Samizdat? Why not make a run for Vanessa? Why the shit not?
Our births, our deaths, our dearest traumas. What important events of our lives do not take place in the hospital? It was in the hospital that I returned to quasi-life a few days after I got drunk, climbed an electrical tower, and pealed through the night sky into the tree that saved me. Theo came to the hospital, one of the first days I was well enough to accept visitors. He said he was sorry he let me do it and I said he should be sorry. I said he should go back and climb the tower himself. I lifted the blanket to show him the bandages—all the way up my left side. “Talk to me when you’ve got a set to match,” I said, turning to face the wall. But he didn’t leave. He took my hand and squeezed it, forgetting all the panicked fears of a fourteen-year-old boy and just holding me. We didn’t cry or say anything but at that moment he was my brother and my father and my mother and my child.
I have lived 5, 512 days since that night and never has the moon set without my giving some reflection to it. And why had I counted the number of days? Because I almost died, I suppose. But, more than that, because when I woke up in the hospital I realized that not only did I almost die but that if I had died it would not have made any difference to anything or anyone. I realized, then, that I was virtually alone in this heaving gasp of a cosmos. That I was helpless against the colossal indifference where space meets time and that not even soaring through the air, not even a bolt of lightning shuddering my teenage body, could save me or heal me or make me into something that mattered. And maybe the electricity that scorched my flesh gave me my voice, my real voice. But it also kept that voice from breaking through.
I reflect on this now from the treehouse, where I am waiting for Vanessa. I returned her gaze and nodded up to the treehouse and sauntered outside, looking over my shoulder to make sure she saw. The bright half moon and the cool night air blasted me into temporary sobriety. I climbed the steps slowly and walked into the treehouse, sensing through the darkness the empty cocktail glasses and the smell of wood and sweat. My fingers paused on the light switch for a moment, gently fondling the plastic nub. Then I decided no and left the lights out. I sat down on the hard wooden bench and listened to the echo of speeches sprawling into the courtyard and rising up through the floorboards. Theo is speaking, now, and there is lots of laughter. He always was an articulate bastard. Should I feel bad for missing his speech? Maybe, but I feel more capable of love up here, just hearing the sound of his voice in the distance, unable to parse the words.
Stop right now, thank you very much. The DJ is playing Spice Girls and Corrine’s friends are bobbing joyfully around the dance floor. They know all the words and all the choreography. I need somebody with the human touch. Sari Girl is gyrating in front of the Environmental Stud, dipping her granola booty ludicrously close to the floor. The Environmental Stud is doing tight Travolta arm-circles. A handsome man with a close-trimmed beard is dancing with Vanessa, who is getting shittered in a hurry. She never came to me in the treehouse and now I’m wondering if she really looked at me across the dining room. Could Corrine have made up the whole “bangable” thing? Clearly, the only answer to such questions is hard liquor.
So Drew and I lean on the bar, doing Malt Whitmans, doing JD Salingers, doing Gertrude Steins. Before long Drew goes full bellige, yelling that he is the mayor of the wedding, yelling that he is MC Hammered. Theo comes by and we tell him he’d better talk to the DJ and he says we might want to slow down because it’s just past nine. I make the responsible choice and ask the barkeep for two Caesars and he hands me two waters and says “trust me” and the Spice Girls fade into Backstreet Boys and somehow Drew and me are on the dance floor, screaming out the words to “Backstreet’s Back.” Vanessa approaches and leans in to say something and her lips brush against my neck and I laugh, pretending I can hear her, then grab her arm as Queen comes on. Then it’s Bowie then Madonna then “Little Red Corvette” and then I have to go to the bathroom and when I come outside Vanessa lifts up her dress and flashes me her butt and it is genuinely not bad, even though she is wearing a total stepmom thong. She pulls me outside and we fall, giggling, into some bushes and as far as I can tell we are actually having sex but I’m too wasted to feel much and then Drew and Sammy Dingle come outside and apparently they don’t see us because they light cigarettes like ten feet away so we stop having numb sex and just lie there, giggling. One of them shines an iPhone flashlight on us and then Vanessa’s up and running away and I don’t know if I should follow her but I’m getting a gnarly case of the spins lying here in the soil looking up at the stars.
That angelic asshole Sammy Dingle helps me up and drags me inside and gets me a bottle of water. I slouch at the table, trying to stitch my consciousness together one sense at a time, struggling against the spinning lights on the dance floor. I check my phone and see three texts from my dad, the last of which reads “Drinkypoos?” I put my phone away without responding, wondering whether I’m really going to fly home tomorrow afternoon without seeing my father at all and whether that is a time issue or some seriously twisted attempt at revenge.
The music switches to a slow song which means blaring lightshow torture melts into disco ball swirl. Corrine dances with her father and Theo comes and sits down with me and asks how I’m doing and do I need something. I say fine and yes I need someone to love me unconditionally for the rest of my life. He laughs and says I should consider getting a dog and then somehow produces a slice of wedding cake and a lukewarm coffee and I mow the cake and sip the coffee and say actually a dog is not a bad idea.
He makes small talk until the food and coffee sobers me up and then asks if I’ve ever considered leaving town, says that for a lot of people leaving home is the only way to find their path. I tell him maybe I don’t want the same success he does. Maybe I’m happy just to work my day job and write my poems and hang out with Drew and the rest of the boys in Halifax because I can’t imagine better friends or a better place. He nods and smiles and seems to not quite believe me and in fact I’m not sure how much I believe myself. Of course I know that my friends who’ve left the province all have careers or partners or exotic travel stories and I have none of these things. Of course I know that on some level this place is like a succubus. A leech feeding, almost imperceptibly, on the future.
“You know I love Halifax as much as you do,” he says eventually.
“Yeah, well, it’s easier to love something from a distance.”
“You think it’s easy?” Theo barks. “You think I wanted to leave? No. I miss you and I miss my mother and I think of the ocean every night as I fall asleep. I have a deep respect for your choice to stay. But I was stagnating there, and at some point I had to grow up. I don’t know if it’s that peninsula or that city or just our particular group of privileged Haligonians but I know that our friends who stay home are stagnating. Treading water on a sinking peninsula. But the horror is that I also know I love that sinking peninsula more than anything else. That is the tension I live in every day.”
I nod and say I think I know what he means. I do not say that I am living the other side of that tension, always wondering what it might mean to move to Toronto and take my father’s offer of the Newmarket basement until I get settled. I do not say about living one’s whole life keeping one eye trained on the metropole, do not mention what he already knows: that my Nova Scotian father left me and my Nova Scotian mother for Ontario when I was ten years old and how it feels like acid searing flesh that my now rich father clearly thinks this is the best decision he ever made. I do not say that that is a version of the tension shaping basically all young Nova Scotians I know: to leave and thrive or stay and suffer. Suffer economically but maybe not spiritually. Suffer and feel in the place you want to be.
We sit there for a while in silence, watching Corrine slow dance with one of her uncles. After a while Theo blurts that he’s sorry. He didn’t mean to let everything slip out like that but it’s just he’s a bit drunk and he worries about me and he wants to see me do well by myself and we’re almost thirty now and sometimes he gets a little emotional.
I tell him I’m sorry too and maybe he’s right and he takes my hand and squeezes it. A server comes around and tops up my coffee and I sit there staring into the cup until Theo says it’s okay. I ask what’s okay and he says, “The whole history. You and Corrine. It’s in the past and it’s okay and I’m sorry about that too.” I’m thinking maybe it’s not okay for me and I didn’t ask for Theo’s infuriating forgiveness but I know he means well so I put my hand on his shoulder and say, “Thank you, thank you, let’s just forget about the rest of it. All that matters right now is that I am so happy for the two of you and she looks magnificent.”
Theo hugs me and says thanks and then the DJ leaves for an interlude that Theo seems to know about because he gets up and goes to stand by Corrine as Rob takes the stage and starts to play a horrendous acoustic version of “Purple Rain.” I nurse my coffee and listen to Rob’s falsetto and imagine the kinds of dog I could get and picture a new Gavin, one who exercises three times a week and writes poetry every morning and eats kale and quinoa and meets all kinds of wholesome women at the dog park, a Gavin who starts thinking of adult human females as women instead of strippers or dancers or girls. It turns out that miraculously enough there are more speeches and Drew of all people is giving a speech and when he says “Theo and Corrine, you guys are as close to my heart as my heart is to my body” I stand up and applaud uproariously and walk outside, thinking treehouse. Maybe I’ll find my dog in the treehouse.
I pass the bathroom and there’s a crowd and some commotion and I gather that Vanessa’s in there and someone hisses “what did you do to her?” and I keep walking, thinking treehouse, thinking quinoa, definitely not thinking Corrine Lara Corrine Nancy and then outside in the courtyard on the way to the treehouse I see Nancy, see her alone for the first time tonight, and I know there is only one thing it could mean.
Theo came to visit, but Nancy never did. I spent two more weeks in the Victoria General and then went through months of bedrest at home. The doctors said I was lucky to be alive. As if we aren’t all lucky to be alive. But me especially, I guess. I had come ridiculously close to death and it took more than a decade before I started to feel unrattled by that. My dad came down from Ontario for a week and as usual he had nothing to discuss except sampling variables and regional demographics. It just made it weird between him and my mother, who didn’t know what to do except ensure I took my medications and rubbed the right creams on the right places. It was probably stupid and strange but I always imagined that Nancy would show up for a visit. I really thought that the touch of her hands could heal the burns. I thought that Nancy could peel back the bandages and lay her palms on my chapped white flesh and make me pink and bright and clean, make me a child again.
I wonder where she’s coming from but I don’t think too hard about it and as she tries to walk straight past me with a polite motherly smile I stand in front of her and say “Hello Nancy” in a tone that I hope means “Nancy you have to stop here and talk to me now because you’re the only person who can save me” and somehow it works and she stops. And then I’m wondering what I need to be saved from and it’s not quite the dive bar and it’s not quite the underemployed malaise of Nova Scotia because in some weird way I love both those things.
Nancy is wearing a black dress with spaghetti straps and I’m looking at the brown curve of her shoulders, tanned from the hours reading thrillers in her yard. There are freckles all over them, a thousand tiny constellations melting into one another. The backs of her arms are taut, no lady-sag detectable, on account of the yoga. But this is not about any of that. This is not about the fact that she has aged like a sunset. This is about salvation.
I’m thinking maybe what I need to be saved from is that toxic shame in me, the shame that I can’t quite locate but is of course about more than stealing Blue Velvet back in the when. But as I peer into the creamy galaxies of Nancy’s shoulders and think about putting a hand on her sun-browned neck I realize there will be no forgiveness of this shame because the shame is me. It is the shame of coming from a colonial, sinking, backwater peninsula. The shame of being descended from a heinous mixture of the British and French settlers who claimed that place from the Mi’kmaq and built cannons and burnt villages and then sold the whole package to Canada. But more than that the shame is the shame of everything I’ve ever done and felt and fucked and wanted and repressed. The shame is basic human depravity and it is howling, howling through me now.
I’m thinking maybe I don’t need to be saved, just salved, and I’m saying “Nancy, Nancy I’m sorry,” and she is laughing nervously and saying sorry for what and asking me where’s Vanessa and I’m saying “No no seriously I’m sorry.”
The night peals into outer space and the courtyard becomes a vacuum.
Nancy looks at me with genuine concern and I say, “I’m sorry about Blue Velvet. About your, well, sex toy, and everything.”
Enter harrowing, harrowing moments.
I am an astronaut drifting away from a spaceship and all the fuel expired.
Nancy is not laughing now. “It’s okay, Gavin, it’s in the past. But thank you.”
She moves to walk away but I reach out for her and she flinches and gives me an are-you-fucking-serious look and then actually says “Are you fucking serious?” I say “I think I am fucking serious” and “I’ve always sort of loved you” and “Save me.” Then I lean down to kiss her and she’s whispering not here, hissing let’s go up to the treehouse, but then she’s actually saying, “Gavin, don’t be ridiculous.” I try to kiss her again, thinking maybe if she just slapped me but she doesn’t just slap me, she backs away again and says “No” in a way that is unequivocal. She puts her hand on my shoulder and says, “Don’t be ridiculous. I can’t save you, Gavin. I will never be able to save you. I don’t know what’s wrong and I’m sure it’s hard but I will never be able to save you.” Nancy walks back inside and I am alone in the darkness.
Floating, floating, in the darkness of the courtyard at the end of the known.
I wait as long as I can, listening to the bass thud and the girls squealing “It’s my song!” every three minutes. Then I go inside to find Vanessa but the chorus of bridesmaids outside the ladies informs me that she’s still incapacitated and it’s still my fault and I’m thinking maybe it’s good that I didn’t have to fully deflate that particular balloon of my horny adolescent imaginary. Or maybe that fantasy is already looking like a well-trod condom strewn across a grungy sidewalk. I go to the bar and am surprised to find Drew neither there nor on the dance floor. I don’t see Theo or Corrine either and the bartender tells me it’s last call so I get two beers and a bottle of water and walk away.
Back in the courtyard I hear voices coming from the treehouse. I ascend the stairs and hear the sound of acoustic guitars. Drew and Theo are strumming fast power chords and they both send me huge grins as I walk in. They are playing The Misfits, playing GG Allin, the songs we used to play back in the when. And I’m thinking who cares that the DJ is playing Miley Cyrus and who cares that I sent twenty poems out last year and only one got published and who cares that I work at a shitty dive bar with an undergrad degree in English and Philosophy wilting in my back pocket and who cares that Vanessa is hugging a toilet and who cares that although Nancy says she forgives me for the Blue Velvet thing I will never feel forgiven for the shame that has made me? Who cares? I am here and I am alive. I am thinking I will get a dog, put together a book of poetry, sign up for OkCupid because people my age don’t meet at the bar. I am thinking what I have known all along: that I will not move here, will not work for Samizdat, will not date Lara or schmooze Torontonian because I could never write properly about bike lanes and brunch lines and the trees that grow in condo gardens.
I stumble out onto the porch and Theo and Drew and Corrine follow me. Theo has some cigars and we light them and then I put my arms around them all at once and we are alive, here, together. One Upper Canadian princess and three children of the ocean standing in a tree, looking out through the branches at the city and the night sky, living. When I get home I will dive head-first into the cold water of the North Atlantic. I will feel the sand saturating the water as it kicks back from the surf. The sea will rub the sand against my body like softest pestle, grinding the mortar of me, and I will be happy and moving and tortured and alive. Because if this peninsula is going to sink, I am going to sink with it. Sink weightless, weightless in the womb-dark deep.
David Huebert is the author of the poetry collection We Are No Longer the Smart Kids in Class (Guernica, 2015). In 2015, David’s fiction won first prize in The Dalhousie Review’s short story contest and The Antigonish Review’s Sheldon Currie Fiction Prize. “Silicone Giddy” is a follow-up to “Bellyflop,” a story published in The Puritan 28. Both stories are part of a collection-in-progress entitled Peninsula Sinking.