a trip to the mall yields a gift from the gods of chance
SATURDAY: AN EX-ROOMMATE DROPS BY with a friend who’s in town to see the Raptors play. (I’m not sure, but I think the Raptors are some kind of sports team.) My ex-roommate installs the handsome Raptors fan in my armchair, offers me a doggie-bagged hamburger, then flits about, wreaking delightful sketchy havoc.
He scrummages through another friend’s personal effects (some of which he appropriates—he’s a bit of a kleptomaniac), tidies the kitchen, messes up the bathroom, and gives me news of someone, let’s call him “Ben,” whom I haven’t seen in nearly two years.
Ben and I are estranged because of my big mouth and my snippy tactlessness and my sour, flippant remarks about his abusive passive-aggressive female partner, whom he endlessly complained about but couldn’t seem to break free of. Ben took offense at my unasked-for advice, which admittedly was a little brusque, and stormed off in a straight-guy huff.
This is because straight guys pretend they’re manly and strong, but in fact, compared to gay men, they are as fruit flies to our turkey vultures, so spindly and ephemeral is their sense of self-worth. Straight men are used to being coddled and kow-towed to, and receiving the world’s deference and the security blanket scented with Febreze, so they are soft and frail.
Gay men, by contrast, eat rock-hard shit for breakfast and halt juggernauts of bigotry with our bare hands, all while dancing backwards in Louboutin cocktail booties, lashes mascara’d so thickly our eyelids glue shut, and wearing a print dress from the Sally Ann that someone’s grandmother died in, so we’re ready to take whatever you care to throw at us.
Like, “Hey, faggot!” for example.
Then we laugh our silvery, ironic laugh, shove a butt-plug up our hole and head to the office.
You know. Tough.
Straight men are all about the masculinity and the deference, but their masculinity is butterfly-fragile, so that if you so much as brush its powdery wing they are irrevocably maimed. And trust me when I tell you that they will exhibit their stigmata with a stoic, martyred acceptance that is worse than any accusation, like those portrayals of saints holding out their lopped-off body parts on a tray or having their entrails slowly wound up on a wheel.
They will pull on the sweat-stained track suit of their straight-guy pride, they will draw themselves up to their full height and they will take their elevated chin, their grim have a nice life, dude, expression and their affronted, bruised ego out the door, pulling their ruined masculinity behind them like a stuffed toy rabbit on a string.
Still. Ben was handsome and slim-muscular, refined and smart and soft-spoken, with a hint of Barbadian accent, and he let down the straight-guy façade every so often and we’d mud-wrestle, winner take all, quite effectively. So I feel wistful about Ben, wishing we could be friends once more, although I’m not so wistful as to think my comments were unjustified. Just badly timed, and with a little too much emphasis, perhaps, on the words “co-dependent” and “dysfunctional”.
You know, and can I just say, seriously. I mean, someone’s gotta cut me a great, big bleeding side of slack, and it might as well be me.
And, in case you’re wondering: When we mud-wrestled? I always made sure I lost.
MONDAY: I ARRANGE A HOOK-UP with a guy in North York. For an elite downtowner, as our bloated odious demagogue premier, Dug-Up Ford, would call me, this might as well be the moons of Jupiter. As I rarely travel north of Bloor Street, and start bleeding from the ears somewhere around St. Clair, I pack with a vengeance, remembering that it is food and its availability that determines the outer boundaries of possible interplanetary travel.
Book for the subway ride ( Resident Alien: The New York Diaries, by Quentin Crisp, who I am trying to become), shoulder bag with cigarettes poached from the Mohawk nation, lighter, butane. An apple, culled from my roommate’s sock drawer and slightly mummified, in case I get peckish, a sweater in case it’s cold up there, sunglasses for viewing any displays of the aurora borealis.
Hey, Cortana: What’s his particular corner of North York called?
You can’t be serious, girl.
Phone charger. I will definitely need the phone charger cause my phone’s at twenty-eight percent, but I figure I’ll plug it in at the hook-up’s place before plugging the hook-up into me. Yowza!
And I have five dollars and some change. A subway ride is three dollars twenty-five cents, but because I’m providing a little government-sanctioned legal cannabis sativa, I figure I’ll touch him for a subway token to get me home, if I’m still able to walk to the subway, that is.
I am placing a heavy burden and high hopes on this hook-up. And I haven’t even met his boyfriend yet!
I’VE BEEN ON THE NORTHBOUND TRAIN for twenty minutes. As the subway leaves York Mills station, my hook-up texts me: “When you arrive at Sheppard, go upstairs to the mall, find the Shopper’s Drug Mart and wait for me there.”
At Sheppard Station, I head up the escalator and look for any random exit because it is all the same to me, and it is not immediately apparent what the mall means, because that is what North York is.
One big mall.
I have no idea where I am in relation to the mall, the exits were designed by Max Escher and a sign says “take this stairway down to the first level” while displaying an arrow that points to the ceiling. The sign is in front of another escalator.
I take this escalator back down to where I started and follow a TTC worker, who leads me into a cul-de-sac where she disappears through a door marked “Employees Only.” I backtrack. I take another escalator up and this time I exit to the street, where the people, who are all teenagers, look different and full of cares and have diametrically opposed interests to me, and I look across Yonge Street and I see the words “Harcross Centre” on the front of what looks like a mall.
It looks like a mall because everything looks like a mall. This particular mall does not have a Shopper’s Drug Mart, but it has a fine-looking Rexall.
I’m glad I brought the sweater because it is freezing cold on the street corner. I text the hook-up: “Hi! I’ve arrived and taken the wrong exit, is it OK if we meet in front of the Rexall Drug Store instead of Shopper’s?! LOL!”
I’m unsure which way is north and which way is south. Perhaps this does not matter in North York, where you can just say the mall to indicate directions. I cross the street to the Harcross Centre, sit outside on a granite bench and vape.
I wait and vape, vape and wait. I wonder if the teenagers in North York are property speculating and driving up housing prices, and how they manage generally without adult supervision. I’m convinced the teenagers are looking at me with stern disapproval, the way the people looked at me in Flatbush, New York, when I was running around looking for a pay phone wearing a semi-transparent Indian hippy shirt, tight, white hot pants from Joe Fresh and sandals, which would not be a positive thing. Or perhaps they haven’t seen an adult in a while. The vape produces impressive clouds of pipe-tobacco-y sweet smoke, but it makes me cough like I’m going to hack up a lung.
I text, “Hi, I’m wearing blue shorts, sandals, a jean jacket and I’m reading!”
I text, “Hi, I’m still waiting for you in front of the Harcross Centre! Sure hope you’re getting these!”
I text, “I’d feel a lot better if you were responding!”
I text, “I’m waiting fifteen more minutes! LOL!”
My phone has just shut itself off with a little Bronx cheer, like, “I’m on strike for better working conditions, loser. You might at least charge me.” I turn it on again. The screen is on power-saver mode, like, “I’m working to rule, buddy. And you call me dim!”
I call the hook-up. A voice says, “The wireless customer you are trying to reach is not available at this time.” I have two dollars and fifty cents, in dimes, and I’m realizing that the hook-up has come out without his phone, or the hook-up doesn’t have a phone plan but is using an app—or the hook-up is a wanker who has pulled one over on me.
I AM ON THE SOUTHBOUND SHEPPARD-YONGE subway train. I’m heading home, meaning that in my imagination I’m heading as far away as possible from the hook-up who’s pulled one over on me, for which “home” will do. I am so demoralized that I am alternately crashing asleep like a stone dropped down a well and waking up with a little yelp one stop later.
Almost convinced that I’d been the victim of a perverse practical joke, but wanting to avoid a two-hour walk home, I had wandered with anxious determination along the byways and alleys of North York, in the process walking directly into a plate glass window that is not the exit to the Yonge-Sheppard Centre, which is the mall (because for some reason I stopped wearing my glasses about a year ago); locating, now that it was too late, the Shopper’s Drug Mart, where I waited for the historical thrill of knowing my hook-up had waited there, hopefully feeling guilty as a Christian, and for the practical matter of charging my phone via a socket located on a nearby pillar—which was a decorative gew-gaw socket installed merely for its visual flair and architectural irony and which did not charge my phone.
I had no sense of how long I’d been wandering around, but it was no longer twilight, and I had that rising panic you feel in dreams where you suddenly realize there will be a terrible calamity if you don’t make it to an appointment you’ve just remembered.
Crazily, because I didn’t know his address, only the street and that it was “directly across from the station,” I started to try and find his apartment building. This involved approaching a young dad and his son, the only pedestrians available, with such a shyly apologetic demeanor that they jumped in the air when I spoke. They were, however, able to point me to Yonge Street, which would be like wandering along Forty-Second Street and enquiring whether Times Square was anywhere nearby.
Then it hit me: I only knew my hook-up by his screen name, and I did not envision myself, in the movie of the week that will be my lasting contribution to Canadian culture, asking random residents of the building, as they exited or entered, “Excuse me, do you happen to know in which apartment Big-Hung-Bubble-Butt-4U might be found?”
I did not see myself doing that with anything like nonchalance.
I decide to give up and head back to civilization, or, in a pinch, just absolutely anywhere that’s not North York. I don’t have enough to make the subway fare, which is not usually a problem at this hour, when the TTC ticket booth guys abandon the booth to go for haircuts or play Parcheesi behind the doors marked “Employees Only.”
However, this is North York. When I reach Sheppard Station I find that in this wacky topsy-turvy mall desert of furrow-browed teenagers the ticket booth guy is clearly visible, looking work-ethical and fierce, bristling with multiculturalism and wiry, fiery red hair.
I consider just dumping the inadequate handful of dimes into the fare box and striding away, but that’s like fare-dodging and I could be arrested, though this rarely happens.
I am the adult in the room and I am nothing if not compliant. My fare-dodging strategy will be to age myself to “golden oldie” status, a little white lie which requires the addition of three years.
This is a concession which I would not, before today, have considered psychologically safe, but I have been beaten on the anvil of desire and tempered in the purifying crucible of rejection and I no longer care. I will pretend I am disoriented and in the throes of early-onset senile dementia, which I now view less as a tragedy and more like a coping mechanism.
I approach the booth.
“Excuse me, do you have a seniors’ fare?” I make my voice querulous and raspy, as though I have just torn out my feeding tube and fled the Sunset Lodge. I only wish I had a kerchief and shawl.
“Ten — Seniors’ teeckets? Vhat? Vhat?”
“I think I’m — a little — short…”
Ticket Booth Guy looks at me like he just recently spotted something similar crawling out from under a rock.
“Jus’ go troo!”
Life, they tell me, can reasonably often gift us with random moments of bliss that sneak up unexpectedly and just as quickly pass, leaving gratitude and nostalgia in their wake.
I’m not convinced about the bliss thing, but I can confidently say that humiliation this made-to-order is rarely experienced without participation in a spelling bee, awakening in a urine-soaked bed or attaching pornographic selfies to the email of recommendation you are sending to your friend’s probation officer. My tender dialogue with Mister Go-Troo is humiliation perfection.
I left home at six-fifteen. It is ten-thirty as the subway train approaches Wellesley station. Normally I get off at College, one stop further, but I am suddenly blindsided by whimsy, and I think: “Let’s get off here for a change, and take the alternative route.”
The streets are fairly quiet on a Monday night, but it’s still the gay village, or what’s left of it that drugs, rising rents and quasi-equality haven’t ravaged, so there are still flickers of that tawdry, hot-dogs-for-dinner, dirty bingo drunk sex circus I sometimes guiltily, secretly miss.
Nothing disappoints quite as much as getting exactly what you asked for, and now that the larger-than-life, extravagant outlaws have been homogenized, suburbanized, deflated and dispersed, mediocrity and misery have filled the void. Goodbye, desperados and Doc Martens; hello, homelessness and heroin.
I cross Jarvis, and now I am walking past the Petro-Canada gas station with its convenience store and twenty-four hour A&W Burger.
And a voice calls out, “David? David!”
I look at the car stopped at the lights one west-bound lane away from the curb, the car in which the driver is leaning over and calling to me.
“It’s Ben!” says Ben.
He drives around the corner, turns into the gas station lot, pulls up next to me. I hop into the car. He’s still so handsome it brings tears to my eyes just to sit next to him.
Everything’s all right. It’s old stuff, what happened, and we’ve moved on. We’re cool.
A random stranger—who to this day I still haven’t met—sets in motion the arrangements whose failure leads to my spontaneous decision to take a route walking home that I never take. I’m led through the maze, gently nudged here and there, teased and disappointed and red herring’d; told, subliminally, “this way, now this way…”
So that I can encounter someone whose warm touch I’ve missed, a soul I never meant to hurt, at the one, exquisitely-timed moment when he’s stopped at the red light with me right there on the sidewalk, and be friends with him again.
This is why synchronicity is my atheist substitute for faith, God for the godless.