Juanita, I miss you. Do you remember the time I phoned and asked you to take me back after we hadn’t spoken for six months? This was part-way through my trans-Canada tour with the Seamus Hazelmere Quartet. I’d been hired as rhythm guitar even though I’ve got ten years performing experience on Seamus, who’s a lousy lead.
And you said, “Sure, I’ll meet you at the corner of Dundas and Lansdowne.”
I was phoning from the basement of the drummer’s parents’ house in the Scarborough Bluffs. You were at home—a shared house just north of Queen West. Your roommates were an oboe player, an improv artist and a stealth feminist. At least, that was the cast six months earlier, when we last spoke.
I hung up the phone, already annoyed that you wouldn’t at least meet me halfway. (I know what you’ll say to this, about every dark thought finding its echo in the universe.) First the streetcar broke down, then I got lost transferring to the bus—cut me some slack; it was half a year since I last passed through town, long enough to dull my tracker’s nose. Then I got on the subway going the wrong way, and somewhere between Main Street and Woodbine, I decided to call the whole thing off.
I still wonder how long you waited at that corner, if you actually did at all—fall leaves gusting past, catching on the tasselled fringe of your weathered but stylish knit poncho from Kensington Market. I didn’t have a cellphone back then, as now.
Now, almost a year has passed. You’re either still angry or indifferent. But what bothers me more is that I still can’t figure out why you chose Dundas and Lansdowne as the backdrop for our date, probably no more than a couple of blocks from your house. One corner of a triangular block in a gridded city. Money Mart and No Frills on one side, a pizza place on the other. Take a short hike north and you hit Lansdowne and College. We could have met in the Tim Hortons opposite the twenty-four-hour carwash. Why didn’t you pick College and Dundas? (That’s the corner with the Sunset gas station, a Stop sign, and overhead wires like your aunt’s botched crotchet tablecloth.)
How many rendezvous have gone missing here? It’s confusing: a Bermuda Triangle of forsaken land cut off from the rest of the city by CNR railway tracks scything above and below the tramline-scarred streets. Why wouldn’t you let me come to you?
I’d knock on your door and wait on your porch, staving off the November chill by humming that song I wrote about you—it really was about you; I just changed your name to fit the rhyme scheme. You’d come outside and I’d kneel down and beg you to take me as I am, take away the memory of our unlucky past: back in mid-May, when I was playing back-up for some Juno-nominated, over-hyped crossover dinner jazz orchestra and by some miracle, you came to the show. Was it just to witness my humiliation, forced to override artistic principles to feed a natural hunger for commercial success? Outside the stage door, I bummed cigarettes off you; you kissed me and declared you loved my dreadlocks, even though that was the year when strands of grey began to creep in amongst the rust and tan. Do you know that’s why I kept the dreadlocks long after the orchestra threatened to give me the chop if I wouldn’t? We lay all night huddled beneath your trusty poncho and the falling petals of a magnolia tree in the Master’s Garden at Massey College (I’ll take full responsibility for giving you a leg-up over that brick wall then falling on top of you, though the truth is we were both drunk.) The next day, my band left for Rochester. All month I thought of calling to apologise for accidentally leaving you with my unfinished breakfast and the bill in the café next door to my Jarvis Street hotel. I know you still don’t believe that the tour bus would’ve left without me, that I waved frantically as we drove off, but you were sitting by the window, sleek brown head bowed over a novel by Proust, and you didn’t look up.
Or take the winter before, when I emailed from a Brooklyn hostel and told you New York was harder to crack than a toffee apple won in a stuffed toy shootout at the CNE (remember being upside down on the roller coaster, unable to scream because of that apple stuck in your jaw?). Somehow I convinced you to spend New Year’s with me, and all of the next week, drinking tequila in a SoHo speakeasy, funded by the remnants of your student loan. When you told me you were out of cash and had to go home, I should have asked you to share my bunk bed; I could have got a job at a record store and stopped dreaming about being the next John Pizzarelli. Instead, I let you go the way of most dreams, fading from my present and becoming my past as winter became spring.
Just like when we first met, two years and two months ago now, by an all-night bonfire on the shores of Lake Ontario. We woke to what would have been the perfect sunrise, until I realised we’d been lying in the sand beside a dead pigeon, nestled between the roots of an old oak tree. I gagged and rolled over, and you said: “Death is with us in all beginnings.”
That summer I lived in the Annex, in a rooming house above a laundromat. We’d lie on my futon mattress all day, listening to Coltrane and Ornette. At night we went to Paupers or The Beer Store, anywhere along that tired main drag of Bloor, so long as it was within walking distance—why waste beer money on bus fare? For the same reason, I was secretly relieved that you never invited me over to your place. I suspect you liked being the only girl at the rooming house, even with one shared bathroom between two floors.
When we broke up six weeks later you said you preferred being alone most of the time, and I realised you were the girl for me. I left anyway, for no better reason than the fact that you didn’t ask me to stay—or was it the other way round?
Each time we meet again you manage to seem surprised, as if we are meeting by chance, when it’s more likely that loneliness has got the better of me, and you can smell it. You’ve probably had as many lovers as I’ve had, but somehow you remained free to glide back into my life whenever I needed you.
I don’t know if you still live in Parkdale, or if in fact you never did. Perhaps the oboist was an imaginary guard dog you invented to scare me away. But if you’re ever in the area, take a tour of that three-cornered island stranded in a web of twisted tracks, short turns and diversions: streetcar purgatory. By night I sleep under the viaduct. By day I pace the island until I can’t tell its corners apart. (I shouldn’t have blown my last paycheque from the dinner jazz orchestra on these cherry red Fluevogs, but at least they’re holding up.)
When I get tired, I set down my backpack and sleeping foam right where I’m standing, and tune up my guitar. My guitar case is open, showcasing my self-titled album of original songs, a handful of loose change, and a cardboard sign that reads: Better late than never. I miss you, Juanita.
Phoebe Tsang is British-Canadian poet, short-story writer, librettist and violinist based in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of the full-length poetry collection Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse (Tightrope Books). Her short fiction was long-listed for the 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize, and short-listed for the Matrix Lit POP Awards in 2016. rained, and, her chapbook of collaborative visual poems with artist John Riegert, was published in Spring 2017 by Puddles of Sky Press. She is currently completing her first solo album, Button Music, inspired by her work as a tarot and oracle reader. www.TarotbyPhoebe.com.