TODAY, MAY 26TH, 2020—AND I’M sorry to be insensitive, but, pandemic notwithstanding—today is a gorgeous summer day in Toronto, a day when the natural world, intoxicated, pushes itself to extremes of display.
Heat vibrates over the sidewalks, tulips stand shriveled in their dried-out beds like saints burned at the stake; the sun blazes in a glassy blue sky and the earth explodes with blowsy, funky growth.
Who am I to quibble about the season? No one will understand my misgivings: that it’s a hot summer day on May 26th, when it should have been a day of gentler sun and breezes perfumed with lilacs just blossomed; a day animated with robins bobbing and listening, bobbing and listening, on grass green as unripe limes; a day when you could still smell last night’s rain; a day in spring.
That’s just the way things are now.
Now we live alone, the way we always wanted to. Didn’t we? And there would be no time for social interaction anyway. Our schedules are full. Once every hour, on the hour, Alexa exhorts us to wash our hands for twenty seconds, paying particular attention to the base of the thumb, around the anatomical snuffbox.
We do not touch our faces, our lips, nasal membranes, ears or eyes. Those await the touch of a child or a dog or a friend or lover, in a near future that’s held teasingly just out of reach. Our lives are colored like the dreams of fairy tale princesses:
As we ache for someone to arrive who will touch our faces, we sleep like death. Every hour drags one hundred years in its wake. One pale hand clutches a rose, white for innocence, red for lust.
We’re disturbed by thunder in the night, a commotion like distant war, and we huddle by the tower’s window, hugging our knees, watching as the trees of the forest, stretching to the horizon, bend and flatten with the force of the gale, spring up again to their full height as casually as the soft bristles of a brush.
We play solitaire, and for once we really mean it. Queen of Hearts receives Jack of Spades. Done, start over.
What is solemn becomes trivial; what was intimate becomes public ritual. We say goodbye to loved ones at funerals attended in Zoom chat rooms; we say hello to virtual fuck buddies as we masturbate, with astonished abandon, in Zoom chat rooms.
We press our cheeks to the flat screens: “Goodbye, grandma, ashes to ashes and dust to dust…” or “Fuck YEAH!” depending on the circumstances; and the screen burns down to darkness. Where did everyone go?
We still retain a sense of decorum. We do not masturbate with astonished abandon at funerals as we say goodbye, at least, not yet. But you never know.
I’m not ruling anything out at this point.
That’s just the way it is right now. Goodbye, grandma; fuck yeah.
And we are baking bread. Bread! The litmus test for our self-esteem. We are the same bunch of cowed serfs who gave up bread during the Salem witch hunt of the anti-carb craze—I saw Goody Roddis with the ciabatta!—we are the consumers who’ve never bought anything but white sandwich loaves, the lowest of the low. White trash bread.
But now we plan our days around nurturing sourdough starter and perfecting our autolyse and oiling the tired joints of the stand mixer. Now we understand baker’s formulas and we push the fifty-percent hydration. We long for the Maillard reaction, but honestly, any reaction would do.
We look at our loaves that burst, crackling like static, from our home ovens and we pause to admire the reddish-gold hue, the paper-thin crust (of course, because we threw handfuls of ice cubes into the inferno when we opened the oven door, fell upon the living, breathing dough, which shrieked like a mandrake and we wrestled it into submission, pinned it to the pizza stone and slammed the oven door shut.
(We watched its first moments writhing in hell through the narrow pane of glass, watched it grow silent, then stiffen with resignation until, satisfied, we moved on to other tasks. Wash your hands, said Alexa).
The dough is now bread. A loaf. This is a miracle. Having admired our success—we live alone now, remember?—we don’t wait until the bread has cooled. We want comfort, so we rip open the hot loaves with our bare hands, like a lioness, on the deranged edge of starvation, rips open the belly of an antelope.
We slather the gummy, still-steaming crumb with salted butter and cram it into our mouths until we are choking with comfort. Then we cry, because it wasn’t as comforting as we expected; then we rip and slather and cram again, desperate to believe that this next time will click, that satisfaction is a simple measure of quantity.
We are a bunch of heartless, grieving, self-absorbed, butter-slicked, overwrought, overweight narcissists, that was before the pandemic, but now we are barely contained chimeras. We’re psychopaths with translucent skulls, ordering submachine guns and anthrax from the dark Amazon that exists in the nightmares in which we boil our pets and rape our loved ones and crash our car into the daycare centre, right through the plate glass, just so we can hear the screams.
We have forgotten how to have conversations, though, to be honest, not many of us were into them in the first place, unless they were conversations about what are you going to do for me or about how he gonna get what is fucking coming to him.
But at least we’re alive. Aren’t we?
I PASSED THE DAY IN THE company of a homeless friend, while he told me about how Saddam Hussein is staying at the same crowded city shelter on Lake Shore Boulevard. He also recounted how THEY abducted him last year, and, after taking him to Mount Sinai Hospital, implanted microphones in the soles of his feet.
And I have just—so many questions about that.
How is Saddam doing, is he manscaping more, and does he have any regrets? Is he OK with the lasagne, does he spend his days sitting on a patch of urban beach, skimming stones? Does he have a WMD with him, as a souvenir, and what flashes through his mind, just before he falls asleep?
What’s interesting on the sidewalks that I could be listening to? Are there sensors that direct our feet one way or another? Is it like a traffic system for pedestrians? Does a sneaker sound different from a pair of Oxfords, and how? Do the ants cry out when they see the shadow descend, or does it just reverberate through the borg mind, a slight ripple of fear dispersed until it’s tolerable, like our fear?
Are these implants why you can walk out of your house at three AM, with the streets dead and empty and then be run down by an eighteen-wheeler, driven by a drunk man, the only other person awake in the city?
That happened to another friend of mine, and he survived. More than survived, you’d never know he’d been run over by an eighteen wheeler driven by a drunk man at three AM. And I wanted to ask him, what is it like, is it like Tolstoy describes it in Anna Karenina:
“… she was terror-stricken at what she was doing. “Where am I? What am I doing? What for?” She tried to get up, to drop backwards; but something huge and merciless struck her on the head and rolled her on her back. “Lord, forgive me all!” she said, feeling it impossible to struggle. A peasant muttering something was working at the iron above her. And the light by which she had read the book filled with troubles, falsehoods, sorrow, and evil, flared up more brightly than ever before, lighted up for her all that had been in darkness, flickered, began to grow dim, and was quenched forever.”
Tolstoy could imagine being run over by a train, something huge and merciless that strikes you on the head, could imagine the panic and moment of regret that every suicide feels in those final moments of clarity, when the bravado has flipped to indecision, when they would turn back, but gravity won’t loosen its grip.
My friend who escaped just smiles. There’s something changed about him, something set or sunken in his face, the shock of not being dead, perhaps. He’s stopped taking drugs. He doesn’t live downtown anymore.
I never called him once during his long recovery, but he came to visit me.
IT’S THE END OF OUR SUMMER DAY in May, and I’m sitting on the balcony, having a smoke with my homeless friend. We tried to have sex, but despite my best efforts, he was distracted. Usually no one appreciates a blowjob more than a psychotic homeless person. I had to stop and ask him.
“What’s up, you all right?”
“There’s this guy’s apartment over on Oak Street, I was there the other day. I looked around and there was my aunt’s door, and my cousin’s TV and a bunch of flowers I was supposed to get, and I realized, that was really my apartment. Why did they give it to him? It’s so fucked up.”
It is fucked up, I say. It’s fucked up and it’s just not right.
We’ve had a light supper: “chunky soup” from a can, though food described as chunks is not congenial to me, it is harrowing. Still, we ate chunky potato soup with bacon, and I made a salad, grated carrot and apple and raisins and peanuts, very seventies, very Kensington High Street and Biba. He heated up the soup for me, I made the salad for him.
We’re smoking a cigarette and we’re just in each other’s company, quietly, and I think:
I’m totally calm. My mind is at rest, there’s nothing to figure out or pressing. Every immediate problem is solved or awaiting a response.
The balcony, facing east, enjoys the benefit of a mild breeze. I’ve rescued the plants I never planted by watering them and promising I’ll plant them tomorrow.
I’m alone in the apartment, and no one can come here without my invitation. I’ve received the Canadian government’s emergency financial help, CERB, and I have no worries about money. My rent is paid two months in advance, and for the first time in six years, I’m not in a panic.
Two young men recently told me “you’re beautiful,” and, what’s more, demonstrated that they meant it.
I love Beethoven and I learned to play the Opus 126 Bagatelles on the piano, and I can really play them, it wasn’t just an affectation.
My book is approved for distribution, it’s literally perfect, every word chosen by me, the cover just as I imagined it, not so much as a comma out of place.
This is the most rare and precious thing: A moment of absolute peace and contentment.
And I say to my homeless friend:
Something terrible must be about to happen.