By Samantha Bernstein
He sat and watched the street for hours. Some days there wouldn’t be a single pretty girl. Some days there would be streams of them, a parade, roving packs. Often they were with boys, stupid shits smiling away, or not, even stupider, so John would think. Like him back then. Probably would have been scowling, or yelling like some of the assholes you see; especially on Vaughan Road, always some mother hollering his guts out. He at least would never have been yelling on Vaughan. Fucking downtown, anyhow. Angry at some bitch for being angry at him.
Back in the days when one angry girl still left two or three expecting him to call. Not boasting, just, there was no lack; from Tenth Grade on the ladies had loved him. The kid who could get the booze, knew where to drink it, could get a girl’s bra off in a heartbeat. His family had more money too than the other east-end kids, and the girls from the poky houses around Gerrard were lured by the TV and VCR in John’s room, his iguana aquarium and water-bed. And then there was the extra money from his business, and the girls at the raves he sold at – purely a business venture, those raves. He hated the scene, full of touchy-feely welcome home bullshit, but there were more girls than you could shake a glow-stick at. They liked him for laughing at them.
On Vaughan Road John sat out on the step with a guy called Malcolm, Five-Kid Malcolm. Sons, every one of them, poor fuckers. He lived with his latest wife and baby in one room, and for money he fixed things, any things, badly, fast. Then there’d be a sob story. He rents a drill, something goes wrong with it, he has to pay for it. It’s bullshit, he’d say, but who’d listen? John, sometimes, smoking on the one stair leading to the door of the stucco box that contained their homes.
Living at a bus stop is depressing. John had loved the bus, as a kid. Getting his Dad to stand at the front, so they could see the huge machine eat up the road. But watching people line up, get on, get off, every day, bus exhaust clouding John’s stoop – he never could have imagined how much he hated it. There was a woman, a haggard smiling little crone, who John wished would walk in front of the bus one day instead of onto it. She came home at seven every night, so valiantly sluggish, emaciated bow legs shuffling off the bus as she nodded her goodnight to the driver, clawed down the rail and onto the pavement. Clutching bags, always, her bony shoulders crossed with straps. Seeing her with groceries John almost thought about giving her a hand. He would feel the muscles in his arms twitch and hear himself saying, like his mother had taught him, Ma’am would you like some help with that? But then, what the fuck, he’d think; who does that?
And she’d be up the street already, Malcolm on about whatever – bad checks, slashed tires, crazy exes. He was the kind of guy who would trash-talk every dude he saw with a fancy phone, finally get a fancy phone off someone for cheap, and lose it the next week. Curse after it for a month. John sometimes wanted to punch Malcolm’s face – his bitter little smile, like life was just this pile of shit someone was making him stuff his face into – it was revolting. Because sure, you’re going to have to eat shit constantly, and the only manly thing to do, seriously, the only way to do it is not to let it creep into your face like that.
The year after the crazy bitch he had loved left, John noticed a new girl on the block. She noticed him too; she noticed everything. Which made it funny how they met, because John pointed out to Malcolm this girl’s wide-open eyes one afternoon as she got off the bus, and then later that week they came inches from a collision. She was staring at a tree across the street as she walked, and turned her head just in time to see John emerging from behind the unruly shrubbery next to his house.
Oh! Excuse me!
He had liked how composed she was, tripping away from him laughing at herself.
It’s just so pretty, she nodded at the tree. You guys have a good view.
That we do, Malcolm said from the stair behind John. John restrained an impulse to smash Malcolm’s head into the concrete. Mack daddy straight away. No thought that maybe this was a girl to have a conversation with.
She gave a kind of bemused squint, red hair blazing like the maple behind her. Well, enjoy, she said and walked a step; then, pausing, I just moved in – just moved to Ontario from Halifax – my name’s Carrie.
They introduced themselves and she walked on. Malcolm said – you like that, hey? Nice university girl? Maybe she’ll invite you over for dinner; I bet she knows some good things. But nah, nah, she’s got some scarf-wearing lover-boy to eat her food.
John only saw her with a boy once. She came home late on weekends from her job at a pub; sometimes John would be coming back from the 24-hour store and meet her walking up from the streetcar. She always seemed pleased to see him. He never walked past his own building, never lingered as she proceeded toward her apartment the next block up. Rare architecture for this city, John told her. That whole cluster of low-rises would have been full of Irish families when they were built, back in the 20s. But the women probably cleaned the houses on the other side of the ravine, and raised the rich people’s kids, same as now.
She liked his observations about people. He offered her a joint one mild afternoon in December and she accepted, so they stood in the alley by the dried stalks of weeds and talked. She was studying sociology, but seemed shy about it, and John realized it was because she didn’t want to make a big deal about being in school. In the clear afternoon light he felt suddenly the slackness of the skin on his face as he looked into her lineless 23-year-old beauty. Just old enough to settle down, just the age to make some guy happy. Not him, he knew. Still, she didn’t mind looking into that lightly lined face of his. John made her talk sociology, got it out of her with chat about things he’d read in the newspaper, or seen on the History channel. And he was happy, because it was good to hear someone who had a fucking idea in their head that wasn’t a complaint or a want.
In March, Malcolm, wife, and baby, snuck off in the night. John carried duffle bags, an enormous television down the stairs and stuffed them in Malcolm’s burgundy Mercury, glad to see the family gone. John could not have taken another week of Malcolm wheedling and bullying their landlord, Malcolm sitting on the stoop with the bitter, supplicating little smile on his lips as his wife came home from her shift at No Frills. Their proximity to John was a danger; he thought sometimes that he would go up to their apartment and kill them all in their sleep. A ninja mission to put them out of their misery. At those moments he wished he had stayed in military school, been sent to Afghanistan and spent years shooting miserable fuckers, Afghani Malcolms with crosshairs in their useless eyes. Having the right to shoot them. Instead of that, John thought, he might end up on top of a building someday, picking off pedestrians at random. The night Malcolm disappeared, John fell soundly asleep during a show about the American Revolution, the emptiness of the apartment above buzzing in John’s brain like calming white noise.
John came to know the times Carrie was around, and often went outside for a smoke when he expected to see her. As the weather got warmer she stopped for longer conversations; once, on one of those impossibly warm April afternoons, she ran into her apartment for two cans of Creemore and they sat on John’s stoop as she toasted him and the tenacious sun.
John knew it was bullshit to be looking for her in the street, to be timing his smokes to her routine. He loathed himself, but Thursdays at 4:30 he’d think of smoking, put a smoke to his lips and forget to light it; he’d be seeing Carrie on the bus, drowsy after her long day but smiling because it was done. And at 4:45 he’d be out on the stoop, solid wrists resting on his knees like he’d been there all day. She knew, of course; he thought she must know. But he couldn’t stop waiting for her any more than he could stop talking to her about his life – I don’t know why I’m telling you this, he’d say, trying to lightly toss out of view the snapshots of his childhood, or of jail, or girls’ rages, which he had inadvertently brought out. Intent on making Carrie speak, or on speaking about the neighbours, the mayor, the war. And ten minutes later discovering himself blabbing again. She seemed so curious, sitting quietly on his crumbling concrete stair. At least, John thought, he managed to keep invisible his present life – to appear before her without a trace in his eyes of the boxes he’d spent the day seeing, one after another clasped to his chest then shoved onto the truck at his father’s North York warehouse. No, he would talk lazily with her in the twilight as if he lived off smoke; all through winter and early spring he succeeded in staying mysterious to her.
One night he saw her and almost wished he hadn’t. It was after eight o’clock and John had been sitting nearly motionless in his apartment all afternoon. His sonofabitch father had come by, had the insolence to come there to see what shit his son lived in, and mock him for it. Your mother thought you might need this, the old man had sneered, clicking open a late 90s Lincoln trunk to bags full of apple juice cans, crackers, cans of soup. Stayed for five minutes to snort disgust at John’s dusty room, the blue sheet tacked to the wall above the grimy glass between his room and the street.
When Vaughan had quieted from the rush-hour trudge home, John drifted toward Tim Horton’s. His body so broad and spare that even this night his useless years hung lightly on him. He met Carrie on the way back; she was coming out of the store with smokes and a stick of licorice. There was something in how she carried her head, the tilt of her round, rosy cheeks that made John see her at teenage bush parties, closing time at unfashionable bars. What would she be like fucked up? Drunk, late at night; would she be rowdy? Easy, he thought; she would have been sweet, and easy.
Carrie. He said her name before he knew he was saying it, startling her. But she smiled when she saw it was him, offered him a cigarette. They smoked and she prattled about her day; for once she just launched right in, exams, late nights studying, her last exam that morning.
So you’re done, John said, as it started to rain.
Done! She blinked up into the rain. And no work tomorrow. She was twinkling up at him, knowing she was doing it, suggesting that she was entitled to cut loose, too tired to go out but a little giddy and looking to shake up her routine.
Come inside, John said. For a minute. I’ve got a j, we can celebrate.
A flicker of concern in her playful squint at John’s face, passing to assent. Okay, she said; Thanks, I think I will. I’ve got a pile of dishes, and I’m probably gonna crash out after two puffs, but what the hell.
She tossed herself onto John’s couch and he wondered if she was keeping her eyes on him so that she wouldn’t see his apartment, wouldn’t register her surroundings in her face. She was smiling pleasantly and relishing the last of her cigarette. He shut off the TV and switched on a lamp, knocking and catching an empty bottle of Jack. He gave her a raised eyebrow, went to the kitchen, returned with two cans of Canadian, cracked them and said Cheers! To the end of exams. He put a bud in the coffee grinder, filled the room with its noise. Carrie watched him steadily.
Are you alright? she asked.
John was not prepared for this question. The dumb bitch is going to give him sympathy? He was languidly, efficiently dusting pot into a rollie cupped in his long, solid palm; glancing at her sideways he meant to smile, but he failed, turned a lazy, pouting look at his joint as he sealed it. Inhaling, making the cherry glow, and stretching his muscular frame backward, he looked at her again, exhaled away from her dewy face saying Yeah. Of course. And succeeded in smiling. Dismissal flickering across his pretty lips.
He passed her the joint, keeping his fingers well away from hers. He had never been one of those creepy fuckers, rubbing skin, insinuating. Don’t touch them until you touch them for real.
He forced himself to ask her what she would do with all her free time now she was done exams, forced himself to keep his face a neutral mask as she answered. He wanted her to shut up and he wanted her never to stop talking. She was tired; her short ponytail splayed against the back of the couch where she rested her head, her eyes resting drowsily on John as she talked. Why don’t you go to school? she asked him.
You would have hated her too, then. Her healthy, self-aware face looking at you. She knew she was being audacious, was perhaps poking at something that would bite. On her four hours of sleep, after days dissolved in text-book case histories she wanted to hear something different, to be told a living person’s story from his mouth. It was a lovely mouth.
John leaned over and put it to Carrie’s cheek, and then tenderly to her smiling lips. Their sweet, ashy taste. He would show her something, impertinent cunt. She drew gently back and he looked at her quickly from beneath his long lashes. Her sad sweet expression made impenetrable the air between their two faces, and he knew it had crept into his eyes like syphilis, the mark of his inviability. And so he put a hand on her leg, hard, and the other at the base of her throat.
Girls used to love his hands, veins twining the knuckles, the broad thumb. He’d know right where to put that thumb. By the time she got finished telling the cops what happened he could be on a Greyhound to anywhere; go north – grow weed south of Sudbury or somewhere. She lodged her left hand in his armpit and pushed, but not hard, a symbolic gesture. He pressed her hand to his ribs with his elbow and pushed his body against hers. His hard, wiry, sensual body. Even in her terror something in her moved towards it, and he felt it, and saw the fear increase in her eyes. He’d had so many girls on that couch; and the thought of all the beautiful girls he’d made bounce and squirm with pleasure weakened his grip. Carrie thrust her body upward; his right hand on her collarbone, he slipped his left hand down her pants. Her clit was soft and warm, and ever so faintly wet.
He had lifted his body slightly off her, unsure for a moment – open his fly, no, first pull down her pants: he was somewhere aware she could knee his balls if he wasn’t careful, kept his legs pinned on hers at the calf. He tried not to push too hard against her chest as he worked to drag down her jeans. If only she would help him. Her thighs quivered in the effort of throwing him off. Hot. Good thing she was not too tall. Strong, though. She was starting to gasp; she had been trying to breathe calmly but now little gasps were escaping her; her face was red and her eyes watering. Poor little pubic bone exposed, its fair short hair, pale pink shirt twisted beneath John’s forearm. Can you please at least put on a condom, she whispered.
John let her go. As though a drill sergeant had blown a whistle he flung himself off her, skirted the filthy coffee table, gracefully through the doorframe – she had once praised his grace – into the stinking corridor, past the stain on the wall from the beat-up kid who had bled on it, out the smeary glass door into the street; the face of the lady who came home at eight every night and never looked at him, or at anything, tonight glaring at him with a hard fear – what are you looking at, bitch – but nothing came out of his mouth, which would have looked like a little boy about to cry, if it weren’t set in a face that was looking at its own blood spilling into the street.
Later he couldn’t tell whether he’d walked in front of it purposely or not.
Samantha Bernstein is in the third year of an English PhD at York University; her writing has appeared in various places, including Exile, Books in Canada, and The Fiddlehead. Her memoir, Here We Are Among the Living, is forthcoming from Tightrope Books in Spring 2012.