There was a drought. An absence of companionship that sunk in after a fun but short-lived fling with a photographer, which I’d ruined by yelling at him for not calling me in over a week. “This was behaviour he wasn’t willing to tolerate,” he’d told me, rather fairly, before hanging up. I was confused, since I’d managed to convince myself I was never one to get caught up in neurosis over guys. At least, guys I wasn’t serious about. I blame my lack of reason at that time to the weird world of drugs, drinking and anarchic pseudo-hipster culture that was consuming my days on the East Side and inflating my sense of self-righteousness.
I had been living in a basement suite with whacky, high-brow art-scene types. One sewed her own clothes with pieces of her bed sheets and carried the 12 pound cat around like a baby, while talking about “the decadent state of maximalism.” We lived beneath a group of musicians who were making a name for themselves in the local noise scene with their multi-instrumental hyper-drone style improvisations. Due to these distractions, and no space save for a bedroom off the kitchen, I spent every minute not at my day job draining profits inside two watering holes in my neighbourhood. These locations became headquarters for all my social activity over the next two years.
I blame my lack of reason at that time to the weird world of drugs, drinking and anarchic pseudo-hipster culture…
Here, in the boisterous atmosphere of foamy, ale drenched air our close knit group of 10 or so reveled in free-spirited hedonism. Losing countless hours of our time arguing around the taps on the culture of consumerism, capitalist greed and merits of artistic temperament while collecting in our wake endless half-empty pints, Jameson shots and trips to the bathroom with a communal tab of coke, or container of ecstasy tablets, or vile of some bizarre drug I’d never heard of before. The bartenders were all in our little fizzy club of exiles, and so we never seemed to run out of things to say to one other, or glasses to hold up in solidarity against the night’s blistering fatigue.
I wish I could say it all had purpose; that is was like Leonard Cohen’s Stanley Street Montreal, or some underground beat generation rising in contemporary counterculture, but it was more like the Beat Generation’s discarded drinking buddies. We were an ordinary and unfamous crew of deadbeats and could-haves, a film grip, a hat shop owner, a self-published writer. None of us were really saying or doing much of influence. We were scraping by and getting high enough to think we mattered.
In the faux-glitter spell of careless debasement I didn’t really pay attention to who I was sleeping with; it was here or there, or not here and not there. Time blurred. Bands trumpeted closing time, as after-hours flickered on behind draped curtains that were pulled furtively across saloon windows. Mornings came heavily, with much effort and motivation only to get to the next night of Rampant war-fevered benders.
One night he fell into our circle. He was scruffy and thin, with a sweet smile. We talked, and I did what I can only imagine is flirting though, really, I have no sense of what kind of person I was back then. I must have appeared somewhat fascinating I suppose with wild eyes, impassioned tones, giggling all over myself with a kind of desperate fear for my life’s trajectory that I tried to disguise with bravado and self-assurance.
On the way back to my place, we stopped outside the convenience store on the corner. It was 4 am but from my blurry perspective, he looked like a man who could get the job done in enough time to allow for some kind of sleep before the alarm went off. He didn’t seem to be looking at me the same way; in fact, his was more polite reservation.
“So, I guess this is it,” he said, half-waving.
“Unless, you want to come over.”
He struggled with an answer and said finally, ” I’m not looking for a relationship right now.”
I laughed, like a relationship was some kind of other-worldly utopia only very young children believed in. “Go buy us some condoms,” I suggested. Bless him, he obliged. He reappeared a few minutes later with two boxes.
“Wow, you know I have to be at work in three hours?” I said, surprised by the complete turnaround.
He stammered. “I just… figured you could use the extras.”
“What? Do you think I’m some kind of whore?” I was only half-joking.
“No! Sorry. That, that’s not what I meant. I was just trying to be helpful.”
I slipped my arm through his as we walked the darkened sidewalk, not telling him I was quite glad for the help, since I was still too embarrassed to buy condoms on my own. This left me at the mercy of my dates who’d produce some florescent green contraption obtained from a bathroom vending machine, or something out-of-date enough to be a reminder of failed prom night expectations.
Back at my place we got to work and soon, half undressed in my bedroom, were rolling around making out on my floor mattress. I sat up over him and unclasped my bra, staring down with serious intent. I leaned in, brushing against him, kissing his neck. I was so wrapped up in doing things in a sexy way and not an awkward way, that I didn’t immediately notice that the noises he was making were not of pleasure. I moved down his chest, towards his jeans, unzipping them slowly and trying to remember all the tips and tricks gained from Cosmo magazines over the years. I was actually paying very little attention to him, until I was forced to confront the persistently limp indication that something was amiss. Looking up I discovered that he was crying.
I took it personally. “What did I do?”
“It’s not you.”
“Was it my teeth? I’ve been told I can use too much teeth.”
He laughed, coughing slightly and wiping at his eyes. “No, you’re great. Really. It’s just…”
Watching him, it dawned on me that he was suffering from a distress all too familiar. “It’s okay.”
“I’m still in love with my ex,” he blurted out, and rolled over. His white cheeks shone out against the red sheets, glowing in the dim light of the room like a satellite image of mystery mounds on Mars. He didn’t seem to care.
I sighed and sat up. “Put your pants on.”
After helping him find his clothes we tiptoed out of my room to the back door on the other side of the kitchen. He stood in the doorway, tussled and wet faced, with an expression of miserable shame.
I patted him consolingly on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine,” I said. I could think only of the quote I’d repeated to myself many times in the same headspace. “Just remember what Nietzsche said. We love life, not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving.”
He nodded, wiping his eye with the hand that was not clutching his jacket and hat. “You have a good heart.”
It was like being shaken, the comment was so oddly jarring to my state of mind. He seemed genuine and honest, but I wondered how could he know for sure. Did I have a good heart? It stuck with me, and opened up a crack in my mind where sober thought began collecting until one day, several months later, I had the breakthrough realization that I was going to end up some degenerate cripple getting an unexpected group visit from concerned friends and family if I didn’t start taking some responsibility for my poor life choices. I eventually managed to extract myself from the needy fingers of my night tide comrades, and moved across the city into a highrise next to the ocean. I focused on work and quit everything cold turkey. In the straightedge days that followed, I taught myself to release the notion of attainable perfection; and the self-abuse that came with assumed failure of this chimerical ideal.
One afternoon while walking to the corner store for a sugar fix, my remaining vice along with caffeine, I passed a scrawny guy with a beard in a truckers cap, busking on the street. Paying for my goods at the counter, I peered out the window inspecting the banjo player. He seemed lost in the melody, clearly enjoying himself immensely. He didn’t appear to be a homeless type of busker, but more the kind that saw the sidewalks as an opportunity for an audience. Everything about him was familiar in a way that nagged, and then through the glass I caught his eye. I knew him. Somehow. He stared back at me like I was a sudden apparition.
“That’ll be two seventy five. Miss? Miss?”
I glanced up at the clerk, like I was stoned. “Sorry,” I said, paying him. “I know I know that guy…”
I paid the clerk and left the store, stopping in front of the banjo player who was now strumming with a pained look on his face.
“Hey,” he said, in recognition.
“Hi!” I replied, oblivious. “I think I know you!”
The guy bobbed his head as he strummed the guitar. He missed my hint. I tried a different tack. “I’m having trouble placing you…”
The banjo skipped a note, hitting a discordant twang before the fingers sorted themselves out again. “Uhm… Well, we know each other from that night. Ah, two boxes of condoms?”
I tilted my head, staring at him in slow realization. “Of course! How are you?” I asked, hoping to be blasé enough to convince him I could hardly remember the incident.
He watched me, his fingers moving to memory. “Better, yeah. Better. Got an EP out of it.”
In a flickering moment of panic I thought he was talking about our exchange, about crying while I was working my magic on him in our failed casual encounter.
We studied each other for another moment until I noticed the small stack of CDs in the guitar case at his feet. Beside them was a small handwritten $5 sign.
I began to rummage through my coin purse. “I should have some money here,” I said.
“Oh, you don’t have to…”
I pulled out some change, counting it first, before dropping it in the case. “May I?” I asked. He shrugged, flashing his sweet smile.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Sure,” I replied casually. After waving good-bye I walked away, swinging my bag of candy and holding the CD out to give it a good inspection. It was titled, “Used to Loving.” I thought about turning back, maybe hanging out with him for a while, but it didn’t seem right. Not when we were both busy moving forward.