I WAS HAVING a bad winter. I had quit my job at the cafe because they were going to fire me anyway, for sleeping through a staff meeting and eating their garbage sandwiches without paying for them. And I couldn’t afford to keep the apartment as hot as my roommate wanted. He blasted the heat in his room and I snuck in after he had left for class or work to turn it off. Sometimes I forgot to turn it back on before he got home and hoped he didn’t notice. My room was so cold I had to wear a sweater and a toque to bed. I discovered that the wall in my closet wasn’t insulated. Condensation from the cold outside had caused mold to penetrate eight hangers’ worth of clothes. They were all covered in a thick green fuzz. I emailed my landlord to ask him if he’d buy a dehumidifier for the apartment. He told me to turn the heat on.
My apartment was on the top floor of a duplex and it was tiny. It had a door that was supposed to lead to the back deck but there was no deck. Instead it opened to a twenty-foot drop into the back alley. I had nightmares about walking out that door by accident. I also dreamt repeatedly about finding other rooms in my apartment that I didn’t know existed and made it much more spacious and liveable. In the dreams, I would crawl through a secret door behind my dresser, like the door in Being John Malkovich, but instead of finding myself in a brain, there I was, in a luxurious sitting room with a velvet chaise longue and a floral print couch.
It had reached that point in winter where my nose hairs froze when I went outside and took a deep breath, but I still didn’t own a winter coat. Just a wool coat that I’d bought at a second-hand store or a bunch of sweaters I would layer under my raincoat. I was very cold all the time.
My grandmother had moved from Saint Lambert into an old folks’ home in the North Island. Her old place had a rooftop pool that I had loved. When I was a kid I used to go swimming there late at night and my grandma would sit on the turf deck of the pool, glamorous on a sun chair in her robe and slippers, smoking. I could see her bunions in those slippers. We watched the fireworks explode over La Ronde from the pool as my lips turned blue. The new place had horseshoes on the lawn by the river, monthly birthday parties for any resident born that month, and an aviary. My grandmother was angry all the time now and paranoid.
I took the bus to visit her every second weekend. It was a long ride. In mid-January, I was on my way out to see her, when I ran into the mailman. He handed me a letter and the return address said it was from my best friend back home, Lucy. I saved it for the bus. Since I’d left, Lucy and I only communicated through letters. Lucy said texting and email felt meaningless and she was too awkward on the phone. I was sitting in those seats that are a group of four, two facing forward and two facing toward them, and two teenage boys were sitting across from me. Our knees were Tetris. They stared at their phones, showing each other YouTube videos and then laughing.
In the letter, Lucy told me that she had broken up with her boyfriend a couple of weeks before. She told me that just after they broke up she found out she was pregnant. She told me that she was four months into the pregnancy and that she had just had a miscarriage the day before writing to me. That’s why she was writing. To tell me how terrible it was to have a miscarriage and to tell me how much she missed me. She told me that she had passed a clot that looked like a boiled beat. Plop. That she wished I was there and could come over, make her tea and lie in bed with her and hold her. That she felt so alone. I started to weep on the bus and the ink from her letter ran down the page onto my fingers and the boys in the seats facing me went silent and looked at me and then looked at their phones, but I couldn’t stop weeping.
When I got off the bus it was dark and freezing. I called my mom as I walked down Boulevard Gouin, looking over my shoulder occasionally at the empty street behind me. I told her how cold I was and how Lucy was so sad and so far away, how I missed Lucy and how I missed her. She said she wanted to hug me and it was killing her that she couldn’t just reach through the phone and make everything okay. I held the phone away from my ear and closed my eyes. I pointed the speaker at my cheek while my mom spoke and the sound waves sent little puffs of air from the speaker onto my face and I pretended it was my mom’s breath. She said she would e-transfer me money to buy a proper winter coat. I said she didn’t have to, but she insisted and I started weeping again partly because I was so cold and partly because I knew I would be warmer soon.
Once I got to the old folks home, I signed my name in the log book at the concierge’s desk. My grandmother opened her apartment door and told me that I was late. The food was on the table. She had roasted a chicken and made tomato aspic. I told her I was having a bad day and she said she was too. She told me all about how she had done two hours of laundry and had dusted the whole apartment. She switched from English to French and back again without even noticing she was doing it. She told me that she had spent three hours in the kitchen making supper. She told me she thought the building staff had come into her apartment while she was sleeping and switched the door knobs to handles.
“They used to be knobs,” she said, as she showed me the door handles on the bathroom door and the door to her bedroom. “Now they’re handles,” she said. She pushed down on the handle and opened the bedroom door, then closed it, as if the motion were evidence.
When I got home my roommate was still out. I crept into his room and turned his heater back on. That night I dreamt about the small door behind my dresser. This time it had a door handle like the ones in my grandmother’s apartment. The door led to a spacious room I had not known about and all the extra space was such relief. My grandmother was there, and she was young and ethereal and putting my hair in rag curlers. She was wearing her silk robe and her slippers and she smelled like jasmine. In the morning, I woke to my phone buzzing on my bedside table. It was my grandma. She wanted to know if I had stolen two side plates from her apartment.
“No, grandma,” I said. “You know I would never steal from you.”
The year before I left Vancouver, Lucy and I smoked a lot of weed and ate mushrooms and drank Rosé on my porch watching the sun set. I got so stoned I thought I was dying and my whole body and brain went numb. We would go for long bike rides together in the rain. One time we were sitting in a bar on Main Street after smoking up and I whispered in Lucy’s ear that I couldn’t feel my limbs and I thought I might forget how to breathe. She said she felt like she was watching herself from outside her body. She took my hand between hers and rubbed so I could feel it. We walked back to her apartment holding hands, my head spinning and Lucy bracing me against the world. She made me peanut butter toast and we lay in her bed looking at the ceiling talking about death until we weren’t high anymore. She wrapped her body around me and we slept like that.
On Halloween, I drank too many pomegranate cocktails and ate too many weed brownies. I barfed so much that Lucy called the paramedics. My legs felt like giant slugs pulsating on the tile floor. I was hyperventilating and I hugged the cold ceramic toilet bowl just to feel grounded.
“If I die, tell my mom I love her,” I said.
When the paramedics came, they said I could go to the hospital or I could just wait it out in the bathroom until my stomach was empty and the weed wore off. They all stayed with me, Lucy and the two paramedics, while I barfed and barfed and barfed. When I finally stopped, the paramedics left and I asked Lucy to call my mom. I was too old to be calling my mom for a ride at three in the morning after a bad trip but I did it anyway.
Just before I moved to Montreal, Lucy and I smoked a joint at Wreck Beach and picked blackberries. Wreck Beach is a nude beach and we were nude. It was hot and we were caked in salt and sand and our freckles were popping off our faces. We were eating the blackberries and saving some in yogurt containers to bring home. I took a blackberry and squished it between my fingers. I leaned in to Lucy and told her to hold still. I slid the smashed berry down the centre of her forehead and along the bridge of her nose. I kept sliding the berry down her chin, down her throat, between her breasts to her belly button and down to her crotch. I slid my finger down over her pubic bone and then stepped back to inspect my work. She laughed and her shoulders came up around her ears. She laughed so hard her boobs jiggled and she took a handful of berries and crushed them. She smeared the juice on my cheeks and then my stomach and my shoulders and my thighs. We giggled and then we were serious and Lucy took photos of us on her film camera. We rinsed it all off in the ocean. When Lucy got those photos developed we flipped through them together in her kitchen, admiring the bruises of blackberry juice all over our naked bodies. Ridiculous sombre expressions on our faces. She gave me a picture of her standing with her back to the ocean looking straight into the camera. Her skin is tanned gold and her hair is long and wavy, bleached copper from the sun. She has one hand shielding her eyes and a purple line running down her middle, her mouth is open like she’s in the middle of saying something and she has a splotch of purple on the right side of her upper lip. With her other hand, she’s holding a container full of blackberries, gesturing toward the ocean. I love her in that photo. I love her.
I didn’t call Lucy right after receiving her letter. I knew she hated talking on the phone or maybe I wished she had just called me in the first place. I guess I felt like a letter should be replied to with a letter, not a phone call. But then I didn’t have time to write to her, or maybe I didn’t want to. I went to Jeans Jeans Jeans and bought a down-filled parka.
“Better than Canada Goose,” the salesman told me. I spent every penny of the three hundred dollars my mom had e-transferred.
At home I pulled the photo of Lucy with the blackberry smears out of an old notebook and slipped it in the frame of my mirror with her letter just below. I stood there in my parka looking in the mirror and looking at Lucy.
Carmella Gray-Cosgrove is a writer from Vancouver, living in St. John’s. Her work has been published in Riddle Fence, nominated by Riddle Fence for the Journey Prize and long listed for the Prism Fiction Award.