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Pawn shop blues - Page 2 

I always wear it in the way she said will draw people to me. Funny thing, this ring. I haven’t noticed a marked difference in my life. Seems to me I attract and repel people pretty much the way I always have. With a look or a gesture, or a few well-chosen words. For sure, no one is going to come near me tonight. This, at least, makes me happy. You’ve gotta take your pleasure where you find it, or some damn thing. And for now, another glass of cheap beer, and a little eavesdropping on some cheap conversation oughta do it. I probably won’t respect myself in the morning, but hey-what else is new? I sidle over to the bar, where two cheesy girls in spandex cat suits are talking about a local production of Hamlet that some guy “translated” into modern English. It’s getting massive press right now. Good press. This makes me crazy, because the point of Shakespeare is the beauty of the language, as all but the tiniest of mental midgets know. “It’s really great,” one girl is saying. “It’s a great story.” I restrain myself from violence. “Oh yeah,” the other girl asks. Scintillating commentary, I think. “Yeah.” “It’s an adaptation, isn’t it?” Wow. Big word, adaptation. “Huh? Uh, I think the guy that wrote it is dead.” I’m not even kidding. She actually said that. “No, no. I think it’s by Shakespeare, but this other guy took it and rewrote it.” Right, because it needed rewriting. I cannot live in this world and be happy. I just can’t. “No, the guy is dead.” There is a fellow standing next to them at the bar, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. I can think of no reason for this ridiculous attire. “I couldn’t help but overhear,” he says. They look at him, expectantly. “Uh, I’m James Dalliance. I wrote it.” I almost lunge for his throat. I swear to god. But I know he wouldn’t get it and furthermore, those chicks would probably leap to defend him, and I’m not feeling my strongest. They might win. At least I now have an explanation for the cap and shades. I hate everyone here. I have lost my taste for beer. Actually, I’ve lost my taste for pretty much everything. I let my empty glass slip from my fingers. It bounces once on the black linoleum floor and then shatters into a million pieces. I turn on my heel and head for the exit. I can’t even begin to process what I have just witnessed.

I start walking home, trying to get lost in the purity of being able to see my breath. It helps for a while, until I pass a Mr. Submarine shop. There is a huge neon sign in the window that screams, “we bake our own bread.” That does it. My heart is broken and so is my will. Why should that be such a huge selling point: that some two-bit corporate sandwich shop bakes its own bread. Have we really come that far? That home-baked bread-which of course it isn’t, no one lives in this particular shop-that home-baked bread is something amazing. And furthermore, do we actually believe that bread baked in the festering inferno of a fast-food kitchen is really a whole lot different from the average mass-produced hot-dog bun? I can’t take too much more of this. I am trudging down Bathurst Street hanging my head. Two guys in backwards baseball caps and generically ripped jeans walk past me. “Hey,” says one. “How’s it going?” “Alright,” I lie. “Where ya headed?” “Home to bed,” I say, in a fit of drunken candour. “Why don’t you come with us?” “Nope. Goin' home.” I keep walking. So do they, but they walk backwards, slowly, drunk. “Come with us,” the first one yells. I shake my head and keep walking. “Yeah,” yells the other. “Come with us; we want sex.” Will this night never end? “You’ve got each other,” I yell back over my shoulder. “Why drag me into it?” and then I hail a conveniently passing taxi. One of these days I’m gonna get the shit kicked right out of me.

I awake, smiling, from a dream of soul-wrenching beauty. I lie in bed, caressing the remembered images, amazed at the visions my mind chooses to show me while I sleep. I dreamed my apartment was visited by ladybugs. Thousands of them, millions maybe. They eyed me sagely from every corner of the living room, their glistening cherry backs like cough drops abandoned on the brown velvet couch and easy chair. Every surface in the kitchen was alive with them; they gamboled on the sunlit windowsill and crawled with slow ancient peace across counter tops and dirty dishes. They filled the white porcelain bathtub and gathered happily on the rim of the small bathroom basin. I dreamed I walked astonished through this colony, crying with gladness, my heart brimming with the feeling of having been honoured. They circled me, flying, chirping, and I sensed that things would be different now, so much better, now that I had been blessed this way. A blissful feeling. Some of them stopped to rest on my shoulders, and I would have liked to embrace them, hold them. But they were tiny, fragile, fleeting. I could sense little ladybug voices whispering their secrets to me, entrusting me with knowledge they have guarded forever.

Here now, I lie quiet and still in the nest of my bed and try to recall what they might have told me. But the silken thread of their silent voices is spiralling away from me, as fast as I reach out to reel it in. The words are lost to me now, in the late-winter overcast grey of my bedroom in morning. It's hopeless.

I roll over in bed, feeling the wooden slats of my futon frame, hearing them groan and give reluctantly. Fatty is a pile of warm, dreadlocked fur, bunched up in my armpit. My limbs are heavy, unwilling to work with me. My nose is cold. I want to go back to that place, that glorious red place, and I close my eyes. But the way in has been concealed. Try as I might, I can't find it again. And Fatty's awake now too, and harassing me in the evil, vindictive way of elderly pampered cats. I bat her away, still trying, desperately, to find that entrance. But the phone rings. I answer it, against my better judgment, and there is no one there. Well, no one will admit to being there, but I hear someone hang up. Again. I'd love to know who's doing that. Or maybe I wouldn't.

I abandon the notion of returning to my ladybugged apartment somewhere in an alternate universe, and haul myself out of bed. Fatty jumps down after me. She gallops ahead into the kitchen. I take my time, casting about eagerly, almost expectantly, hoping to see a ladybug or two hanging out on the bookcases or settled on the coffee table. Nothing. I can hear Fatty complaining voraciously from the kitchen. Jesus Christ this cat is a burden, this houseguest of a cat, handed down from nomad to nomad and finally to me. She's nice enough, I suppose, though a little on the grotesque side, and not the cat I would have chosen. However. I make it to the kitchen, still straining to catch a glimpse, a flash of red. I would be content with the merest hint of crimson. But I remain disappointed and down-hearted.

The linoleum of the kitchen floor is cold on my bare feet, and the shock of it makes most of the dream slip away, before I even realize it. I know the feeling of having been somewhere else, somewhere completely foreign and magical will stay with me all day, and maybe right into tomorrow. I love that weight. The lingering, muttering remains of dreamtime. I stretch luxuriously and then shiver. Morning.

Fatty's food bowl is half-full, but clearly, Fatty is a pessimist. She is ranting now, and winding her stout little self around my legs. An interesting blend of rage and flirtation. Clever old cat. She knows my weakness.

"Alright already, Fatty," I tell her. "Have a bit of dignity." I open the cupboard that holds her jar of food and she just about has a stroke, poor thing. She is blissfully excited. I top up her bowl and she sets upon it, gorging happily. So easily satisfied, this cat of mine. Perhaps there's a lesson in there for me. But I doubt it.

My brain craves coffee and my nervous system is willing to agree to that. I can't face the notion of making it. The coffeemaker, like the cat, is a hand-me-down, and again, not the appliance I would have selected. It brews, at a leisurely pace, a kind of burnt teasing ambrosia. Coffee that smells like an old friend with open arms, who suddenly uses an embrace as an opportunity to twist the knife in further. Coffee with a vengeance. I don't feel capable, today, of bringing that on myself. And so it is decided. I will venture out.

I prepare by brushing my teeth, and squinting at myself in the very dirty mirror that fronts the medicine chest. Close enough, I decide. In my room, I shimmy into the pair of overalls I've been wearing three days running now, and a thermal shirt I scammed from a friend. It used to be white, but last laundry day I threw a pair of peacock blue socks in with my whites. I do that now and then to keep things interesting and new. So now the shirt is a kind of phantom blue. Just a hint of colour. I like it. It's an evasive shade.

Outside, it is absolutely evil. The sky is relentless, solid, heavy grey. The roads are coated with brown nasty snow; the sidewalks are treacherous, malevolent. We have already had a teasing spring-like day or two, but clearly, this is winter's last revenge. I hate it. I grit my teeth as the freezing rain mixed with snow batters and hammers against me. I am going only a short distance, but I allow myself to imagine I will never achieve my destination. I fancy myself lost in the tundra, like Amundsen. Is that his name? Must look that up, I make a mental note. I know I will have forgotten this question with my first grateful sip of scalding coffee. I am constantly making notes to myself about looking things up. Rarely do I follow through. I am a storehouse of trivial knowledge as it is. Shards and scraps of trivia. I hoard information, and often offer it to people who just don't give a damn.

Here now, I lie quiet and still in the nest of my bed and try to recall what they might have told me. But the silken thread of their silent voices is spiralling away from me, as fast as I reach out to reel it in. The words are lost to me now, in the late-winter overcast grey of my bedroom in morning. It's hopeless.

I roll over in bed, feeling the wooden slats of my futon frame, hearing them groan and give reluctantly. Fatty is a pile of warm, dreadlocked fur, bunched up in my armpit. My limbs are heavy, unwilling to work with me. My nose is cold. I want to go back to that place, that glorious red place, and I close my eyes. But the way in has been concealed. Try as I might, I can't find it again. And Fatty's awake now too, and harassing me in the evil, vindictive way of elderly pampered cats. I bat her away, still trying, desperately, to find that entrance. But the phone rings. I answer it, against my better judgment, and there is no one there. Well, no one will admit to being there, but I hear someone hang up. Again. I'd love to know who's doing that. Or maybe I wouldn't.

I abandon the notion of returning to my ladybugged apartment somewhere in an alternate universe, and haul myself out of bed. Fatty jumps down after me. She gallops ahead into the kitchen. I take my time, casting about eagerly, almost expectantly, hoping to see a ladybug or two hanging out on the bookcases or settled on the coffee table. Nothing. I can hear Fatty complaining voraciously from the kitchen. Jesus Christ this cat is a burden, this houseguest of a cat, handed down from nomad to nomad and finally to me. She's nice enough, I suppose, though a little on the grotesque side, and not the cat I would have chosen. However. I make it to the kitchen, still straining to catch a glimpse, a flash of red. I would be content with the merest hint of crimson. But I remain disappointed and down-hearted.

The linoleum of the kitchen floor is cold on my bare feet, and the shock of it makes most of the dream slip away, before I even realize it. I know the feeling of having been somewhere else, somewhere completely foreign and magical will stay with me all day, and maybe right into tomorrow. I love that weight. The lingering, muttering remains of dreamtime. I stretch luxuriously and then shiver. Morning.

Fatty's food bowl is half-full, but clearly, Fatty is a pessimist. She is ranting now, and winding her stout little self around my legs. An interesting blend of rage and flirtation. Clever old cat. She knows my weakness.

"Alright already, Fatty," I tell her. "Have a bit of dignity." I open the cupboard that holds her jar of food and she just about has a stroke, poor thing. She is blissfully excited. I top up her bowl and she sets upon it, gorging happily. So easily satisfied, this cat of mine. Perhaps there's a lesson in there for me. But I doubt it.

My brain craves coffee and my nervous system is willing to agree to that. I can't face the notion of making it. The coffeemaker, like the cat, is a hand-me-down, and again, not the appliance I would have selected. It brews, at a leisurely pace, a kind of burnt teasing ambrosia. Coffee that smells like an old friend with open arms, who suddenly uses an embrace as an opportunity to twist the knife in further. Coffee with a vengeance. I don't feel capable, today, of bringing that on myself. And so it is decided. I will venture out.

I prepare by brushing my teeth, and squinting at myself in the very dirty mirror that fronts the medicine chest. Close enough, I decide. In my room, I shimmy into the pair of overalls I've been wearing three days running now, and a thermal shirt I scammed from a friend. It used to be white, but last laundry day I threw a pair of peacock blue socks in with my whites. I do that now and then to keep things interesting and new. So now the shirt is a kind of phantom blue. Just a hint of colour. I like it. It's an evasive shade.

Outside, it is absolutely evil. The sky is relentless, solid, heavy grey. The roads are coated with brown nasty snow; the sidewalks are treacherous, malevolent. We have already had a teasing spring-like day or two, but clearly, this is winter's last revenge. I hate it. I grit my teeth as the freezing rain mixed with snow batters and hammers against me. I am going only a short distance, but I allow myself to imagine I will never achieve my destination. I fancy myself lost in the tundra, like Amundsen. Is that his name? Must look that up, I make a mental note. I know I will have forgotten this question with my first grateful sip of scalding coffee. I am constantly making notes to myself about looking things up. Rarely do I follow through. I am a storehouse of trivial knowledge as it is. Shards and scraps of trivia. I hoard information, and often offer it to people who just don't give a damn.

If I let them continue, there is no telling where I'll end up. But how to nip them now?

Fortunately, this decision is not left to me. The door swings open to admit a blast of cold air and a familiar bundle of winter clothes. That's how depressing this season is - I recognize my best friend only by his winter layers. Peat is wearing a striped stocking cap that ends in a point and a pompon. He's worn it every winter since he was eight. He pulls it off as he comes in the door, and his unbelievable hair struggles free.

"Hey," says Peat, and I reply in kind. He wrestles out of the straps of his knapsack, and dumps it on the stool beside me. He peers into my cup, which is almost empty.

"You've just about hit bottom," he says.

"You got that right," I tell him. He pats me on the head and picks up my cup. A minute later he's back with coffee for both of us. Sometimes Peat is more perfect than anyone has a right to be.

He moves his knapsack onto the floor and sits down beside me. And then begins the long, slow process of unwinding his layers. His jeans are baggy and ripped and I see he's wearing my pink longjohns beneath them.

"Hey," I say. "I've been looking for those."

"Sorry," he says. "I forgot to mention I borrowed them." I dip my head down to the level of my cup and slurp up some coffee.

"How're you feeling today," Peat asks carefully.

"Okay."

"I tried to call you last night. Did you go out?"

"I went to the Dance Hole and caused a scene."

"What else is new," Peat asks, laughing. "What happened?"

"It's a long, gruesome story."

"I've got nothing but time."

I drop my head into my hands and rub my eyes. The ladybugs still dance there, and for a moment, I am silent, thinking, remembering the dream. I am about to speak when I feel a blast of cold air on my back and hear a depressingly familiar voice barking "coffee."

"I'm doomed," I tell Peat, still cradling my head in my hands. "Doomed. I can't even go out for coffee without him showing up. What is he, stalking me or something?" Peat exhales loudly.

"He's headed this way," he mutters to me.

"Goddamn," I say, and look up, just as Dug drops onto the stool next to me.

"You didn't come out to karaoke last night," Dug says accusingly. "Did you go out somewhere else? I called you, but your answering machine was on."

"My next-door neighbour was having a seizure," I say and hastily light a cigarette. "I was over there cramming a spoon in her mouth so she wouldn't choke on her own tongue. Somehow karaoke slipped my mind."

"Oh," Dug says. "Too bad. You missed a great night. There was a guy who looked just like Johnny Rotten, pissed out of his head, who got up three times and sang I Will Always Love You. It was beautiful."

I can feel my gorge rise as Dug talks. I feel I cannot spend another moment in his presence. Peat, sitting on the other side of me, is silent. He has the right idea. He's so smart sometimes, is Peat. I keep saying I'm going to take a vow of silence. But that's just the thing, isn't it - I keep saying it.

"I was talking to Zeke the other day," Dug is saying. This piques my interest.

"Oh yeh?" I ask. Brendan brings Dug his coffee. Dug presses a dollar into his hand without a word or a look. I am repulsed. I look up in time to see Brendan roll his eyes. Dug noisily slurps some coffee.

"Yeh. Zeke says you've submitted some more stuff to smack. Short stories or something?"

"Uh huh. What did he say about them?" I am trying to be casual, but I don't think I'm really achieving it. I suspect that any thought I've ever had has immediately flitted across my face. Dug's lips are thin and smirking.

"Not much, really," he says. "Just that they're looking at them. When did you start writing short stories?"

"Nineteen seventy-seven," I reply. Beside me, Peat is laughing into his coffee, and elbowing me under the counter.

"Are you still working with them," I ask. I am trying to gauge how important to my career it is to be nice to Dug.

"On and off," he says. "I do a little of everything for them once every couple of months. A little editing, some paperwork, some art department stuff."

"Still got your finger in everybody's pie, huh?" Peat says this more to his coffee than to Dug, in fact, I don't think Dug even notices Peater is with us. Now it's my turn to elbow Peat under the counter.

"Well," I say, and drain my cup. Suddenly I am at a loss for words. It's difficult to see Dug. I don't much want him to know anything about me, but there are things he knows of me that no one else does, not even Peat. Especially not Peat. And sure, I don't like Dug much now, but there was a time I truly did. And maybe the way I behave toward him now is a kind of denial, a sort of embarrassment for ever having felt the way I did.

As much as I’d like to forget it, my relationship with Dug is something that happened. Intangible and immutable. I want to say “like the seasons” but it's way too cheesy, and besides, our relationship was not at all great or transcendental, or even remotely poetic. Although at the time, I may have thought it was. I must have thought it was. It's the only explanation. Well, besides fascination and lust.

Dug and I started spending all kinds of time together after the smack party. We were always strung out from never getting enough sleep, but blissed out by the constant kissing. I stopped craving chocolate. It seems to me that all we ever did was lie entwined in bed, extolling each other's virtues. And that was a lot of fun for a little while. But it's a funny thing about lust and fascination. Eventually, they wear off, and you find yourself taking a good, hard look at the person sharing your bed. It bothered me that Dug and I would go out for breakfast and have absolutely nothing to talk about. That should have told me everything I needed to know, right there. But the sex was so entrancingly good, and so frequent— and, I was making up for lost time— that it was entirely too difficult to walk away. Of course, Dug was so horrible to me that in the end, it was all I could do to crawl away as fast as my battered and bruised self-esteem would take me.

"Well," I say again. "I've gotta get going. Tons to do today. Peat?"

"Oh. Uh huh. Me too." He gets up and begins piling on his layers. Dug is sprawled on his stool, his long legs stretched and lazy. I look at him once, quickly, and my traitorous heart skips half a beat. I hate that. Funny thing about lust and fascination— sometimes it creeps back.

"See ya," Dug says, amber eyes peering through chestnut hair. "I'll put in a good word to Zeke for you next time I see him."

"Whatever," I mutter, and turn abruptly. I am almost out the door when I hear Peat say, carefully and distinctly: "Adios asshole."

Outside, the cold is refreshing, bracing. I say so to Peat.

"Yeah," he agrees. "It was getting pretty stale in there." I nod, silently. I am trying to measure the depth and width of the hole in my soul. I have completely lost my desire to be out of the house. Bad things seem to happen whenever I venture forth.

"Come on home with me," I say to Peat.

"Oh, Stellah," he whispers, and winds his arms around me. "How I've longed to hear you say those words."

"You're such a goof," I tell him. Our faces are centimetres apart. Our breath mingles, visible. "I'll make you coffee."

"And I'll make you crazy."

"You already have," I say. "Let me go." He squeezes me tighter. He smells like vanilla and cinnamon. His eyes are wide, bright, like two golden sunflowers in an endless field of green.

"Unhand me, you cad," I say. He laughs a sinister laugh, and runs his hands up and down my back. I glance into the doughnut shop at where Dug is sitting. I can't help it. Peat notices and squeezes me once more, hard, and then lets me go. He starts to walk away. I scurry after him, feeling like shit. This is becoming all too familiar lately. I slide along behind him, slipping on the ice, cursing myself, Dug, feelings, the universe and everything else.

"Peat. Hey! Peat." I catch up to him, but almost lose my balance in the snow. I clutch his arm to steady myself, and he shakes himself loose. I am the lowest of the low.

"Listen, Peat." He stops walking, but won't look at me.

"Jesus," I say. "What the hell is going on? I'm sorry, okay?"

Peat folds his arms across his chest and looks me right in the eye. His sweet stocking cap flops over his left shoulder. His hair is rumpled around his face. His eyes are naked. I open my mouth to talk, but he holds up his hands, like he's trying to stop a train with them.

"I don't get it," he says. "I don't get you. Isn't he an asshole? Didn't he treat you like shit? Of all the people you loathe in this town, don't you loathe him the most?" I am nodding, voraciously. These are very good points he is making. "So what was that, back there?"

For once, I have no answer.

"Whatever," he says.

"I'm sorry."

"You said that already," Peat says. His cruelty takes my breath away. I stand there, trying to make sense of what is happening. But nothing comes to me. My heart is actually aching, with this weird, dull sort of pain. I didn't know that could really happen.

My mind wants to wander, explore this concept, ignore this situation, but since I have put a moratorium on thinking, I reign it in, focus on Peat. His face is shuttered, and he is waiting, it seems, for me to respond. I am more helpless than I have ever been. I gesture, dumbly. Peat nods, as if it is no more than he expected.

"I gotta go," he says.

"What about the coffee," I ask. I can't stand the thought of watching him walk away.

"Some other time," he says over his shoulder.

I watch him slide away, over the snow, through the market. I have no words to describe or explain what is happening here. Someone is hiding something, of that much I am certain. I stand there feeling savage, feeling mute.

I walk numbly home, climb the stairs in a daze. There are no messages on the machine, which only seems fitting. The apartment is freezing. So is my soul. I take off my boots and climb into bed, fully clothed. If I'm going to be pathetic I might as well really wallow in it, I figure. I shut my eyes and wait for it all to go away.

I lie there for a long time, listening to the traffic, the ceaseless traffic on Spadina. Outside my darkened room, the world, I suspect, continues to turn. This seems unbelievable to me. I wonder where Peat is, what he's doing. I feel disconnected from my body, floating, weightless. I wish I could achieve the same distance from my mind. But a mind is a heavy thing, always there, always with me, waiting for the perfect moment for an ambush.

Fatty pads heavily into the room. She is mangy, but lovable. She leaps up onto the bed, and wraps herself around my neck. She is breathing heavily, almost menacingly, the poor asthmatic thing. I pat her for a while, stroking her lumpy back rhythmically. She begins to drool. I try to ignore how disgusting this is, wanting only to take some comfort in the presence of another creature. But she is too gross. I lift her off my neck and place her on the bed beside me. She seems to accept this philosophically.

I try to recapture the absolute peace of the ladybugs. It has become more difficult to remember the nuances of the dream, almost impossible to conjure it up again. I think of Mona, and am suddenly desperate to speak to her. I pull the phone off the night table and into bed with me, and dial her number. It rings three times and then her answering machine picks up. Her voice, canned and distant, instructs me to leave a message. I hope she is screening her calls, as she often does.

"Mona," I yell into the phone. "Mona. Are you there, sitting there, listening to this? pick it up, it's important. I'm withering. You could save me."

She does not pick up the phone. Either she is not home, or she has totally lost interest in saving souls.

"Call me back," I groan, "please." I replace the phone on the hook. This sucks. This day sucks. If only I knew how to meditate or something. But I am too skeptical, I think, for that sort of thing. Also I have no patience, and the attention span of a gnat on acid.

Dug used to meditate, which in retrospect is hilarious. He'd get all weird and serious, and then he'd disappear into his room, and moments later I'd be choking on incense, sitting in the living room alone, waiting for him to have his transcendental experience and get back to earth in time to take me out for dinner. And then afterward, when we were having dinner, he'd want to tell me all about it. He'd tell me all about how he went inside his body and saw all his internal organs, and cruised around in there, and knew he was intrinsically connected to everything in the universe. Which is great and all, really deep, heavy thoughts, but Jesus Christ,, keep it to yourself. What is the point if you have to walk around talking about it. And the way Dug talked it was like bragging, gloating: I am so in touch with myself. I am hipper than thou. It was nauseating. I will not think about Dug.

The phone rings. I lunge for it, certain it's Mona, certain she will fix me.

"Hello," I practically yell. No one answers. "Hello.î

Radio silence. I can't believe this. What fresh hell is this? At least it's not ringing so much in the middle of the night anymore. That was becoming nerve-wracking. I was beginning to feel like my grandmother. She dreads the phone ringing in the middle of the night or in the early moments of dawn: it always means tragedy, death. She would just about have a stroke if the phone rang and dragged her panicking from sleep. But I used to love it.

Midnight phone jangling would pull me from the swamps of dreams with one word on my lips: Dug. Even long after we had broken up. Even now, sometimes.

He would call me, drunk, from some bus stop at three in the morning to tell me he loved me. At first, I found this sweetly charming. It made me feel so treasured to lie in dusty sleepiness, in the warm fist of pillows and quilts and listen to his wandering, inebriated declarations. Of course, he never mentioned he was on his way home from fucking his boss. In time, though, I wised up and began answering, "If you really loved me, you'd let me sleep through the night."

And as time wore inevitably on, the tone of his phone calls changed. His declarations became sloppy, pathetic accusations, all the sweetness turned sour and cryptic. I began to feel cursed rather than treasured, but still, I was the one he thought of, turned to, called up in the lonesome middle of the night. I would cling to that notion. And when the phone calls ceased, at last, often I felt troubled waking in the morning from a night of even, unbroken sleep, as if something had been left out of a dream. Thinking about it, I have no patience for the way either of us were then. We were totally play-acting, it seems to me now. Just acting out our roles, waiting for the scene to end. And what a long, tiresome scene it turned out to be.

I am so restless, so absolutely unable to be alone with myself these days, and yet, in company, so poisonous. I get up off the bed, disgusted with myself, and roam the apartment. It seems I practise a sort of reverse alchemy. I turn gold into rust. Everything I touch—everything—crumbles in my hands.

In the kitchen, late afternoon winter light struggles through the filthy pane of the window. It weakly illuminates the crud on the dishes that are heaped on the counter and in the sink. There is a film of grease covering the stovetop, a veil of crumbs on the kitchen table. For a moment, the place seems foreign to me. I have no idea who is living here, who uses these rooms, who leaves this mess. There is a distinct odour of rot, here, the sweet lingering smell of decay. Weird perfume. Rich and mouldy. It catches me at the back of the throat, reminds me of something. I feel bloated, subhuman, stuffed with self-pity. I waddle around the kitchen heavy with these feelings. Beneath my feet, the ancient linoleum floor creaks and groans. I feel a sort of sympathy with it. Slowly, laboriously, I lower myself into a hard wooden chair. I remember an afternoon spent at my grandmother's house, looking after my baby cousin. His parents were, at the time, immersed in an incredibly messy divorce, so little Liam was putting in time at grandma's, waiting for the shit to flush away. Anyhow. He was about two or three years old, very curious and naive, as babies tend to be. I remember telling him outrageous lies about things—telling him I was a 217-year-old dragon with a tail hidden under my sweater, and that my dad, when he was born, had enormous cauliflowers instead of ears, and had to have an ear transplant. I feel the truth of those lies now. I am as grotesque as all that. I am the freak child of freak parents. I must be. I mean, it's obvious, isn't it?

I drop my head into my hands, massage my temples. I will the bad thoughts to disperse. Enough self-pity. Enough. I will do the dishes. I will wipe the stove. I will seek absolution in the instant gratification of housework, since casual sex and soft drugs seem to have stopped working for me.

Let there be light, I think, and flick the switch. The overhead light blooms, and reflects off the kitchen window. That's a little better. And music. I must have music, before this silence deafens me. The reason it's a cliche is because it's true. Nirvana. Music to clean kitchens by. Crunching guitar and the tortured voice of a dead poet. I feel better already. I am at the sink, hauling dishes out of it and piling them up on the counter. The stainless steel is coated in weird slime. I run scalding water into the sink, swish it around with the dish cloth. Lots of suds. Suds are good. Suds will save me. Glasses and cutlery first, just like they taught us in home ec in grade seven. I'm getting into it now, there's a definite pleasing rhythm to move to.

Plates next, and then, most satisfying, pots and pans. I'm putting my all into this, just scrubbing away. I can't remember the last time I was so happy.

Above the sound of Kurt's complaints and the cheerful swishing of water down the drain comes a knock at the door. Dare I answer it? I am becoming paranoid and insular. And it's not exactly that there's no good reason for thisóI mean what with the phone calls, Peat's weird behaviour and Dug's omnipresence, it's been a pretty fraught few weeks. But it's more than that. It seems to me I used to be able to get along okay, you know? It seems to me I used to have coping mechanisms. Actually, that's not even true. I didn't used to need coping mechanisms. I used to just live my life. But here, now, I'm freaking out on a daily basis. I don't like myself this way. And so I wipe my soapy hands on a dishtowel and head for the door.

I've never seen Mickey in all his finery before, and so I'm a little taken aback at the sight of my 53-year-old barrel-chested neighbour clad in a bulging electric blue spandex sheath. His bald head, the exact colour of strong Earl Grey tea, gleams from beneath his feathered headband. I can't decide whether or not I'm glad I answered the door.

"How do I look?" Mickey asks. I am momentarily flummoxed by the question. I can think of several appropriate answers, none of which, I feel sure, will be the answer Mickey seeks.

"Stunning," I reply, and silently congratulate myself. It is both truthful and flattering to him.

"Really?" he asks, clearly pleased. "You don't think it's too much?"

"Well," I consider, "that depends. What were you hoping to achieve?"

He smoothes his hands down the front of his dress, which makes the rolls of manly middle-aged flesh beneath ripple and roll in a mesmerizing way.

"There's a big party tonight at La Fiesta. I've decided to go all out."

"You've certainly done that," I tell him. "I had no idea you had such nice legs."

He casts his eyes down coquettishly, and swings one stockinged, stilleto-shod foot, tracing a slow arc between us.

"Would you like to come over for a drink and help me put on my face?"

"I don't know how much help I'll be, Mickey. I'm not much of a girl as far as that stuff goes."

"Oh. come on," he says. "It'll be fun. I've got some rum I brought back from Bermuda, and I just made a peach upside down cake. We'll have a little party."

He looks wistful and excited all at once, and I find myself loathe to disappoint anyone else today. And anyhow, the dishes have waited this long. And, it might be fun. So I take a moment to silence the stereo and let the water out of the sink, and then I follow Mr. Miss Thing across the hall into his apartment.

Mickey lives a much richer life than mine. For one thing, his apartment is extremely stylish. It's done in cool shades of blue, with a few gold accents, and tons of kitschy stuff. And his kitchen, I see when I enter, is fully equipped with the best in kitchenware. Mickey has a little deck out behind his apartment, and in the summer he frequently hosts fabulous brunches. I've been to one or two of them. He's an excellent cook and has very bizarre friends. Brunch there is never dull.

Naturally, he's listening to Gloria Gaynor belt out ìI will survive.î What did people listen to on Saturday night while primping and preening before that song came along? It's a mystery.

The peach upside down cake is sitting on the kitchen table, looking plumply delicious. I have managed to shake off my embarrassing self-pity, and I'm quite pleased with myself for being so versatile. Meanwhile, Mickey struts around the kitchen area, mixing fresh squeezed orange juice with overproof rum, and garnishing the glasses with peach slices, and shaking his booty indiscriminately.

"Sit, sit," he says when he spies me standing aimlessly by the table. He flutters his hands as he says this, and then picks up the drinks and brings them to the table. I sit down and take one, sipping it meditatively. He bustles back to the kitchen for plates and a knife.

"Ice cream?" he asks.

"Why not?" I say.

"Why not indeed," he replies. He is in rare form. I think the spandex has personality-altering properties. What am I saying. Of course it does.

Finally, he's ready. He slices two big pieces of cake and adds a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream to each, and then we dig in. The cake is really good. Mickey certainly knows how to entertain. By the time I make it through my slice, Mickey has replenished my drink and I'm beginning to feel the effects. It is at this point that he hurries off to the bathroom and returns with an overflowing tool box crammed full of makeup and accessories. He digs through it as I look on. Mickey pulls a gleaming black tube from the box and holds it aloft.

"Cocksucker red," he gloats. He pulls a small mirror from the tool box and outlines his lips with the colour.

"Want some?" he asks.

At first I think to say no, red has never really been my colour and lipstick is not something I wear casually. But Mickey is so clearly excited, and the rum packs such a wallop that I find myself agreeing. Before I know it, Mickey has painted both our faces, and I'm wearing false eyelashes and half done my fourth drink.

"Drink up, love," he says. "It's time to get this party started."

I down what's left in my glass and rise to my feet unsteadily.

"Coming?" he asks.

I shake my head no and he pouts for a moment.

"Straight girls," he says in a world weary way. "Oh well, darling. It's your loss." He tosses on a beautiful Persian lamb coat and ushers me out of the apartment, locking the door behind us. As I let myself back in to my decidedly less stylish pad, I hear him tottering down the stairs on his heels, giggling to himself.

Back home, hot-cheeked, lipsticked and swirly-headed it occurs to me that I am all dressed up with no place to go. Not that I can think of anywhere I would go looking like this. I think to call Peat, but then I remember our argument and decide against it. Mona has still not returned my call of this afternoon, and I think she said something about going to a movie tonight. I sashay into the living room and lay myself down on the brown velvet sofa in as elegant a manner as I can manage, and start to have regrets about not going with Mickey. And the next thing I know, I'm over at the phone, dialing a familiar number. There's a rising pitch of excitement within me as I listen to it ring at the other end, and there's a part of my brain struggling to be sensible, but as is my wont, I push it away. Finally, a voice answers.

"Dug?" I say, though I cannot believe I am saying it.

"Yeah," he answers. "Who's this?"

"It's Stellah."

"Well, well," he says. "What's up?"

I think about asking him out for a drink, but all the things Peat said to me in the market this morning come flooding back, and I finally start paying attention to them.

"Nothing," I say. "I meant to dial Peat's number. Sorry to bother you."

I sit for a long time in the living room, in the dark, with just the flashing neon lights of the chinese restaurant to keep me company. I'm not sure what to make of my life at this point in it. It seems to me I'm always waitingóI always have been waiting. It's like I'm standing on the edge of a precipice, trying to get up the nerve to jump, or waiting for it to be the right moment to jump. But I don't know what I would be jumping into. It seems to me that there are all these things you're supposed to know about living, that somehow, I just don't know. It's like I'm wandering through my days, drinking coffee and hanging out with Peat and waiting for some amazing thing to happen. I can't ever get the sense that what is happening to me right now is significant or important in any way. I see other people going about their lives with a sense of purposeóthey're bank tellers or architects or whateverónot that I know any of them, but I see them on the streetcar. They have boyfriends and pets and take classes and meet for lunch. Is that it? I have a cat who's just passing through, and a half-written harlequin romance that really isn't very good. I have a waitressing gig and an apartment that pales in comparison to the one next door.

And I have Peat. Wish I could figure out what all that was about today. It's not like Pete's romantic choices are any better than mine. He falls in love at the drop of a hat, with the most unsuitable women. Women who are bound to leave him after he finishes fixing them up. Pete's a great fixer-upper. It's how we became friends, even. He stood by me while I had the slow-dawning realization that Dug is a bottom-feeder. Jesus! Dug! What was I thinking, calling him up? Looking for trouble, I guess. I wish I could find a way to stop confusing significant with painful, important with damaging.

I pick myself up off the sofa. My sugar, rum and lipstick high has dissipated markedly. In the bathroom, I stare at the false eyelashes, trying to figure out how to remove them. It's beyond me. I get most of the lipstick off, though my lips underneath look raw, bitten. The spiders on my eyes will have to wait until tomorrow. I pad back to my bedroom, where Fatty waits, nestled in the unmade bed.

Mona is steaming milk for our lattes. She has just pulled an apple pie from the tiny oven in the tiny kitchen of her tiny apartment. I don't know what I did to deserve this kind of treatment, or when she became so proficient at such domestic tasks, but I am pleased that all these factors have fallen into place now, when I need them. I am sprawled on her futon couch on my back, upside down, head hanging over the edge, watching her work.

"I haven't got a clue, you know."

"Hmm," she says, pouring milk into espresso. "Sugar?" she asks.

"Really, dahling," I drawl. She dumps much sugar into hers and begins the laborious stirring process. I swing my feet off the backrest of the couch and finagle my way into an upright position. Mona brings me my latte and a slice of cinnamon-scented pie.

"I really have not got the faintest idea."

"About what now?" asks Mona. She pushes her fork into the flaky pie crust. Steam and good smells waft out.

"About how to have a relationship." I take a sip of piping hot latte. "I have no idea how that works. You meet someone, they're cool, they think you're cool. You go out, have dinners, see things - movies, art shows, whatever. You fool around on a regular basis, you start to act as a couple, and then suddenly - it's not you it's me, or I don't think I can give you what you want (of course, you never get asked what you want, so apparently you're dating mind readers) or I'm not going to marry you (you never wanted him to) so I think we should stop seeing each other. And every time you say: Do you like hanging out with me? Are you attracted to me mentally, physically, spiritually? And the answers are always yes. And then you say, but you think we should stop seeing each other, and again the answer is always yes. So then you say: You're damn right it's not me, it's definitely you. And it happens every goddamn time. My longest relationship lasted two and a half months, and he was out of town for six weeks of that. So riddle me this, my wise friend: Is it them? Or is it really me?"

I flop back on the couch, exhausted, and slurp miserably at my latte. Mona is peering at me over the rim of her cup.

"You ran into Dug again, didn't you?"

"Three times already this week and it's only Tuesday," I mutter. "But it's not just him, Mona. we're talking about a definite and disturbing pattern here."

"What makes you think I have the answer? Surely not my long list of happy successful relationships."

"I know, I know. But you're smarter than me. You're supposed to have the answer."

Mona shrugs. "What can I tell you? Eat your pie. Drink your drink. Make better choices."

"Better choices," I snort. "That's helpful advice. I'm going to start asking for resumes, and offering mine. You know, I think a checklist of neuroses and hang-ups might be handy. I'll just say, upfront, I'm dysfunctional in these specific ways, how about you? If our neuroses mesh, we can proceed to the next level. Here's the kind of girlfriend I am, is this what your company is looking for? Written job descriptions might also help."

"I haven't seen you this bitter in a long time," Mona says. "What's really going on?" She has adopted her Sigmund Freud "tell me about your childhood" face. In my current unsettled state, I find it a little—well—unsettling.

"The usual," I sigh, "compounded by the heavily ironic fact that I've decided to write a harlequin romance, which is hilarious, considering my limited understanding of basic romantic/sexual roles and the whole dating thing." I pause, take a breath. It feels like the first breath I've taken all day. "Wow. I am bitter."

"Why don't you start dating Peat?"

I stare at her, gobsmacked. "That's funny for so many reasons."

"What's funny about it? You guys hang out together all the time, you have everything in common, you already know each othersí shortcomings, which means there will be no nasty surprises."

I start to answer, and then realize these are all very valid points she has just made.

"Have you ever considered it?" she prompts. She is looking pleased with herself for coming up with this revolutionary idea.

"Sure, I guess. It wouldn't work out, though."

"How do you know?"

"Well," I say slowly and patiently, "because it doesn't work like that. It's not some kind of mathematical equation, you know. It's not like buying a new bra or something."

"Who is the first person you want to tell when something happens to you?" she asks. She's very crafty.

"You know it's Peat," I say. I am sensing my imminent defeat at the hands of her superior logic.

"If he disappeared, wouldn't there be a tremendous hole in your life?"

"Yeah, Mona, there would, but you're not listening to me. I'm telling you it just wouldn't work."

"Why wouldn't it?" she asks. She's like a dog worrying a bone. She's trying to wear me down.

"First of all, Peat would say he doesn't want to risk our friendship."

"How do you know?"

"Because that's the kind of guy he is. Because he thinks that's what he's supposed to say."

"Yeah, but you could talk him out of that."

"That's just it, Mona. I don't want to talk anybody in to or out of anything. I want to meet someone who will do whatever he has to in order to be with me. Is that so much to ask?"

"Apparently," she says.

"Apparently," I repeat. "Is there any more pie?"

I take the long way home from Mona's. It takes 10 extra minutes to get to Kensington Market, but it means I get to walk through a park and almost completely avoid Spadina Avenue. The air is teasingly warm, for the first time in what feels like years. The ground beneath my combat boots is spongy and verdant. If I listen hard, I can actually hear bird song beneath the din of rush hour traffic. Against the backdrop of my now-habitual crankiness, I start to feel a gently percolating good humour. By the time I get home, I am singing under my breath.

"Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter..." It seems to me that truer words were never spokenóor sung. I attribute a lot of my current angst to my unshakeable belief in the wisdom and truth contained in pop music.

My earliest notions of romantic love came not from my parents' rock-solid relationship, but from pop music lyrics. No wonder I'm so fucked up. The first part of my life I listened almost exclusively to The Beatles. I listened first and constantly to their early records, where love was simple and bright. Hey, you know what? She loves you. I wanna hold your hand. It seemed to me then a thing easy and free. A series of simple transactions. A light and beautiful playing at thrust and parry. There seemed to be no complications. But even then, the songs I was most drawn to were the somewhat melancholy, unrequited love songs. Like Annaóyou say he loves you more than me, so I will set you free, go to him. It all seemed very clean, clear and pure. Sure, you could hear the heartbreak in John Lennon's voice, but everyone wins, everyone gets something. Anna gets to go to the one she wants, plus has the knowledge that if it doesn't pan out, she has a backup plan. The nameless, he gets the girl. And John Lennon gets to feel noble and tragic, plus he gets his ring back, which seemed to me to indicate hope for the future.

It all sounds so easy, like around every corner will be someone I want, who will want me too. and it seems like all one needs is three minutes of pop song-type negotiations in order to end up with the love of one's life. Maybe that's true.

The light on the answering machine is flashing when I enter. This sends my mood back to precarious. Heartened though I am by the spring-like weather, I feel things could go either way, depending on who has left—or not left me a message. My nagging curiousity beats down any self-preservation instinct I have left, however, and I push the playback button.—Two hang-ups again!—and a short message from Peat. Peat, who I have not seen since our little argument outside International Donuts. Peat, my loyal, charming, funny, cute best friend. Peat, with whom I should, by all rights, fall in love. I pick up the phone and call him.

I am lying in bed, suddenly very much awake. I can hear Peat breathing in the other room. The springs creak on the pull-out bed as he moves in his sleep. At least I think he's sleeping. I call his name softly. He doesn't answer. The neon sign from the Chinese restaurant downstairs flashes spasmodically against my bedroom wall. I want a glass of water, but cannot rouse myself to go get one. I wish I could train fatty to get me such things, but she's an old cat and not very agile or particularly bright. I feel like I've entered some kind of cult. The cult of inertia. A body at rest tends to sloth, and a body in motion longs for rest. Most nights, I can't sleep. And I don't know if that's because all day I've done nothing to earn the right to sleep, or if mysteriously, once more, I have lost the lid for my box of fears. They tumble out. What if I did undercook the chicken ravioli? I don't feel so hot. Maybe I've poisoned myself, and Peat, too. What if my friends are only pretending to be my friends because they feel sorry for me and don't want to hurt my feelings? What if no one ever loves me for more than a month or two? It happens, you know. It could happen to me. And that's the worst thing about my pop music mythology. That possibility is generally not dealt with. Sure, the fear is entertained, but by the time we get to the bridge, someone's true love is heading over it. The problem is, it's never mine. And I begin to think, what if I never get to kiss anyone ever again? What if the last time was just that—the last time? If that's the case, I'm not satisfied. Although, I must say, the difficulty lies not in kissing someone, but in arranging it so I will get to kiss them again and again.

I seem to have murdered sleep. It's just as well. I sit up and turn the light on, and then my computer. I think perhaps I'll spend a little quality time with my romance novel. The computer makes a happy little "nice to see you" beep, and I open the file marked "Money Gig."

Len Hawthorne and Charlotte Tilson are sparring once again. The sparks are really flying. I have no idea where this story is going. The sort of thoughts I've been entertaining all day are not necessarily conducive to writing a Harlequin. It all seems so futile. I mean, I know who I'm writing for. I've seen those sad women on Friday night with their big bottles of diet Coke, a bag full of Lean Cuisine and an armload of bodice rippers. I have stood behind the counter and tallied up their purchases. And even then, at the tender age of 16, I felt the cold wind of possibility. This was back when I still believed I would wake up one day and find that in the night I had had grace and beauty bestowed upon me. My father used to say that seven is the age of reason. I must have thought that grace and beauty would each have their age. If they do, I think perhaps it is one I have not yet attained, and perhaps never will.

And so, I think, what exactly is the point of diet cola and Lean Cuisine? We all know it's not for the taste of it. I say to myself, why bother trying to observe and obey conventions? It doesn't make me happy, and it sure as hell hasn't guaranteed me my one true love. So what if I never wear lipstick again? What if I stop shaving my legs? Waxing my upper lip? What if I never again pay attention to what I wear or what I eat, what I say or how I smell?

"Stellah?" Peat's voice is thick and sleepy. "What time is it?"

"Huh? Oh. I don't know. I can't sleep. Sorry I woke you."

I hear him turn over. Fatty squeals and leaps off the bed. He must have rolled on her.

"Oops. Sorry Fatty. Are you okay, Stellah?"

"I guess so. I don't know."

"Which is it?"

I shut the computer down. "Instead of a chapter of my Harlequin, I've typed a low-rent feminist manifesto," I say. "Hey, Peat, do you think I cooked the ravioli enough?"

"It was great, Stellah. Great ravioli. Very well cooked. What's with you lately?"

He is sitting up in bed, rubbing his eyes. His hair is tufted and angular and glinting with the flashing neon. He pats the space beside him on the bed. I approach cautiously and perch on the edge.

"Everything, lately, is with me. Do you think I have more than my share of existential angst?"

"I think you think more than most people. It's not a bad quality, but it seems to be wearing you down. Why don't you just try being?'

"That's very zen of you. Are those my longjohns? Why can't I just be happy? Do you want a glass of wine? There's some left from supper."

Peat is looking at me with a sideways grin.

I crossed the street to the house where Mona had said she would meet me. But I could feel this onerous thing embedded in my chest. I had a feeling I knew exactly what it was, but the truth of it was too horrifying to admit. So I continued to ignore it. Mona, as per usual, was late. And when finally she showed up, I tried to pretend everything was normal. She was giving me some funny looks though, so at last I said: Look, I was outside and this bird landed right in the centre of me, beak first. And now I can't get rid of it. I'm terrified of it, this bird. Its beady little black eye just staring up at me. I can see the bugs crawling through the dark brown feathers. And the beak on the thing, my god, the beak is huge. And there is nothing I can do to help myself. I don't have the will to pluck it out. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. A bird in the house means death. What about a bird in the chest? It's not dead, either. Sure, it's lying there against me quietly enough, but it is not dead. I know it's just biding its time. For what, I do not know. But I am squeamish about birds. I always have been. Mona, on the other hand, is in a very no-nonsense mood. She wants to get rid of it. Here's what I am afraid of: First, I am afraid there will be a tremendous and frightening geyser of blood. That is the most practical of concerns. Also, it seems to me there must be a reason for this new addition to myself. Yes, the bird is loathesome and scary, but very suddenly, it has become part of me. And I am afraid to part with it. At the same time, I cannot look down at it, and I have no interest in even admitting that it exists. Mona, however is firm in her resolve to remove this thing from me. She grasps it with both hands and plucks it from my breast. And there is no incredible spurt of blood. It's quite anticlimatic. There is a tiny, perfect hole between my breasts. A souvenir. I have no idea what this means.

The thing is, I want to take a chance with Peat. I really do. No, actually, I don't want to take a chance. I want to be with him, but I want to know it will all work out. And there's no way to know that for sure. That's one of the things that stops me. The other major thing is I think that he is probably the oneóor one of the onesóand I don't know if I'm ready for that. I don't know if I'm ready to stop being attracted to assholes. Peat is definitely not an asshole. We see each other every day, and I sure don't want that to change. He's the one I want to tell things to. I like it when he stays over. I like it when he's the last person I see before I go to sleep and that his is the first voice I hear when I wake up. And kissing him was shockingly nice. It felt like coming home, which frankly scares the living daylights out of me. Peat knows me so well. No one knows me like Peat does. I'm not sure I like it. And I don't know what to do. If I say no to him, our relationship will have to change. I won't get to see him every day. He'll be hurt and embarrassed. Mostly hurt. And I don't want that. Is that a good enough reason to start a relationship? Everyone thinks he's my boyfriend anyhow. Also not a good enough reason. I am strongly compelled in two opposite directions. Confess all and let myself fall in love or run just as fast as I can as far away from all this as possible.

I've never thought about a relationship this much before. Normally I just rush pellmell into things, never thinking about the consequences. Yes, once I'm in I start to analyse and second guess, but only because I have no idea how to make things work. And I can't do that here. There's too much at stake.

Peat left early this morning, before I woke up. The apartment feels strange without him in it. I get out of bed and roam around. He has tidied upóleft no evidence of himself. It's most unlike him, and I find it strangely chilling. A tiny glimpse of a Peat-free existence. I don't like it. In the kitchen, the sunlight slants in, setting the dust motes dancing. I make coffee automatically, and while the broken down machine starts to do its thing, I climb into the shower. But there isn't enough hot water in the world, let alone in the tank, to wash away the memory of the mangy bird, or the memory of the look in Peat's eyes when I didn't jump at the chance to fall in love with him. And I think to myself what's the point? What's the point of starting anything when you know that one day, one day when you're in as far as you've ever been and you're really starting to dig it and you think finally I've figured out how to be in love, one day he'll just wake up in your bed, roll over and say you know what? I don't think I'm in love with you. What exactly is the point of that? and Peat is really vulnerable right now, what with his mother and all, and he thinks I'm really strong and invincible, because I have led him to believe that I am. And that's why he wants me. But some day he'll see through that. And there it is. If I let myself fall in love with Peater Moss, eventually he'll figure out that I'm not the girl he thinks I am and he will split. And so.

When I open the shower curtain to grab my towel, Fatty is sitting on the black and white tiled floor, staring at me. What a weird cat. The coffee maker is singing the final chorus of its brew cycle and the scent of coffee has permeated the apartment. The sun is still gaily streaming in. If I was in a better mood, I'd be on top of the world, just from these few facts. However. I wander naked back to my room. This is one of the pleasures of living alone, this traipsing naked through the apartment. I stop in the living room to press play on the cd player. There's a Tom Waits cd in there I've been listening to nonstop. As his dusty voice mingles with the sunlight and the coffee smell, I start to feel a bit human. It's not a bad feeling. I'm just getting dressed when the phone rings.

"What fresh hell," I wonder aloud. "Hello?" Naturally, there is no answering voice. This has become tiresome, though still unsettling.

"Listen," I say. "I'm pretty sick of your shit. I've got a lot on my mind just now, you know. I've got a spooky cat, a shitty job and a best friend I'm considering falling in love with, plus I'm trying to make my fortune writing a harlequin romance. To tell you the truth, the last thing I need right now is this fucking phone intrigue. so how about giving it a rest, alright?"

"Stellah?"

Shit. "Hey, mom. Sorry about the f-word. I just keep getting this joker who calls up and says nothing. Doesn't even have the decency to do a little heavy breathing. Heh heh."

"Is everything okay dear?"

"Oh, sure, sure. You know, except for that stuff I mentioned earlier. What's up with you?"

"Not much dear. Just thought I'd call and invite you for dinner on the weekend. Bring Peat if you want."

My mother is among those who believe Peat is my boyfriend, despite my repeated claims to the contrary. But moms generally see what they want to see, mine especially.

"Sure mom. I'll be there for sure. I'll have to get back to you about Peat."

"But everything's okay?" she asks again.

"Couldn't be better," I lie. "Gotta go, okay? I'll see you in a few days."

I've never really been in the habit of confiding in my parents. I don't know why. I just never have. It's not like I consider them the enemy, or think they wouldn't understand me or my life. They probably would. It's just not something I've ever done. And I'm not about to start now.

In the living room, Tom Waits is singing "I hope that I don't fall in love with you." And so am I. I suspect that if I listened less to pop music and more to jazz or classical, my lovelifeóand perhaps my life in generalówould be on firmer ground. But maybe I'm making excuses. The coffee is calling me quite urgently from the kitchen. I am powerless to resist. I have set today aside to work on my cursed harlequin, a task that seems all the more ironically useless in the face of last night's debacle with Peat. Well, maybe I can use that energy, mine it for further poetic advantage. Not that there's anything remotely poetic about the harlequin. Maybe that's the problem. So I get myself a cup of coffee, turn on the computer and start staring out the window. Spadina is awash in transit buses and careless drivers and pedestrians burdened with shopping bags. Right across the street a couple, about my age, stand close together, talking intensely. They're little and cute, and though I'm far away from them, I can sense fond and friendly energy between them. Or maybe I'm projecting. But they remind me of Peat and I. So they're chatting away, and then they move closer together to kiss. His hand is on the back of her head, half buried in her hair, and she has snaked her arms around his waist, under his jacket. I feel a funny twinge, right in the spot where the bird buried its beak. And when they break apart and turn to go their separate ways, they hold hands, stretching their arms out until the very last minute, until the forces of physics break their connection.

Shit.

I turn off the computer and grab the phone.

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