by Suzannah Showler
It hadn’t rained in over a month, and Mark was going on a date with a girl named Angela. Across the city, the grass had turned pale and matted. Every day the air seemed to deepen, finding space to carry even more heat and damp. Mark had been killing days walking along the river, starting downtown and curving north into the neighbourhood where he grew up, where his parents had still lived until not too long ago. The week before, a spark from someone’s cigarette had carried across a sheet of lawn and burned down one of the huge homes squatting by the river. Now it looked like an animal carcass, blackened and cut open. Where Mark walked, the water had retreated from the shore, abandoning some kind of weed along the bank, draped there like mouldy lace.
Mark was staying in a sublet on the fourth floor of a hot, brick box of a building downtown, and he hadn’t been sleeping. The night before his date with Angela, he wrestled with the heat on the crowded-feeling mattress for a few hours before giving up and waiting out the night beside the window, sitting on a chair with a torn plastic seat cover, the foam coming out like spit from a mouth. Mark watched the street below spill out from the bars, listened to voices heaving and calling out to one another, calling out to no one, screeching and clawing and overlapping. Nightlife, Mark thought. Night is just another kind of day.
This date was kind of a set-up. One of the friends Mark still talked to had suggested it. Mark had met Angela once, but he wasn’t great with faces, and he wasn’t sure he’d recognize her again. They’d agreed to find each other in front of a bar in the market. Mark hadn’t realized his eyes were closed until he had a hard time dragging them open when Angela touched his arm.
Mark? Oh good. I thought it was you.
Mark tried to pull his mouth up and his eyes down to get at something like a smile. Angela, he said.
That’s me. She opened her arms and laughed, glancing down at herself as though to be sure. She was standing in front of a shop window, her silhouette cut into the light and her face obscured. She was pretty. Great, Mark thought. This is great.
The place was crowded, and there were fans turning on long poles from the ceiling, looking like they might detach from the root, blades dragging through the wet air. Angela and Mark moved to a free table at the back of the room. This place is my favourite, Angela said, sitting down. I love the vibe. Have you been here before? She picked up a menu and looked at it.Have you eaten?
Mark hadn’t eaten, but when the waitress came he just ordered a pint.
Too hot to eat, he said. He could feel sweat cropping on the strip of skin above his lip.
So, Angela said after their drinks arrived, I hardly know anything about you. Jake wouldn’t tell me anything at all. What do you do?
I’m sort of floating it out this summer, Mark said. I grew up here.
Oh yeah? I’m from a small town. Do you know Maxville? Near there, but smaller. Angela held her index and forefinger in a pinching motion and laughed. I got out as soon as I could. Came here for school, then I just stayed. What about you?
Yeah, Mark said, I know what you mean.
Me too. I got out as soon as I could.
I thought you said you were from here.
I live in a different place, though. A sublet. Craigslist. The guy who lives there went up north for work. Research, I think. He works at the university. This guy, it’s weird, he took all the major furniture with him. Or else he never had any. Couch, table, bed. The apartment’s all shelves and chairs. All the small stuff. Mark rubbed the sweat from the back of his neck.Don’t sweat the small stuff he thought, but forgot to say out loud. He laughed at his own joke anyway.
Angela looked at him. She tilted her beer bottle towards herself and looked at it, but didn’t drink. So, where do you sleep?
I don’t, really.
She laughs a lot, Mark thought.
Good location? Angela asked.
Not far from here, Mark said. Downtown.
Don’t you just love the city in the summer? Angela said. All the festivals. It’s so great. She told a long story about being pulled up on stage at a concert, but Mark didn’t recognize the name of the band.
Did you ever—Mark punctuated what he was saying with the last swallows from his glass. The warmth of the drink in his empty stomach was comforting. When you were a kid, I mean, did you ever think about how everything would turn out? Like, this stuff. Being here. Living in the city. We had to—I think it was in grade five—we did these drawings of ourselves in ten years. So I was ten, and I thought that twenty meant grown up. We all thought that, so everyone drew, like, houses, and dogs, and families and shit. These whole lives. I don’t remember what I drew.
Do you like dogs? Angela said. I had a dog growing up. A border collie. She was a farm dog.
Mark thought Angela was talking about something, but he wasn’t sure what. It might have been his turn to talk.Into his third pint, he remembered that he’d had drinks before leaving the house. Angela was nursing a bottle. Did he order it for her? This is a date, Mark thought. We are talking about the things people talk about. People talk about their lives. Say something about your life, Mark. He started pulling at the greasy surface of the table with his thumb. A thin, dark layer started to come up, wedging itself between his flesh and his nail. It felt like wax. This bar is dirty as fuck, Mark thought. This bar is dirty as fuck, Mark said. Angela said something back, but Mark was distracted. He looked at her looking at him and worried that it might have been a question.
I’m going to the bathroom, Mark said, and he stood up. I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere.
Where would I go? There was something in Angela’s voice that Mark couldn’t quite place. Her words and her face didn’t match. She was mostly smiling, but Mark was pretty sure she didn’t want to be there with him anymore.
I don’t know. Anywhere.
The washroom was so hot the mirrors were almost fogging. It stunk of piss and beer and something chemical from the urinal cake. Mark thought maybe he would stay in this room for a while. That could be nice. He splashed water onto his face and looked up into the mirror, trying to make eye contact but only able to dart from one pupil to the other. He turned away and leaned onto the side of the sink, feeling the corner press into his ass cheek. Taking a couple of quick steps forward, he put his hand into his pocket, thumb cocked back, index and middle fingers straight out. Mark turned around slowly and drew the hand, pointing it at his own reflection, extending his elbow until it ached. He closed his left eye tight as he found the temple and took aim. Pow.
Sitting down, Mark said, I know this music. I know this song from somewhere. I think—I think this is my friend’s band. I mean, not really my friend, but I know him. Yeah, this is totally them. What’s this band called? Mark felt like something was ringing through him, like his blood was thick and full, rounding out each vein. What the hell are they called? It’s the name of some character from a movie. Some arthouse pretentious shit. Damn, I’m sure it’s them. I think. What are they called?
I have no idea. I’ve never heard this song before. It’s nice. Catchy beat.
Shit. This is going to drive me crazy. The waitress came. Yeah, another please, and do you know the name of this song? Can you find out who’s playing this?The waitress said she’d check, and she walked away.
I hate this song, Mark said to Angela.
The waitress came back with a pint. She put the glass down and didn’t say anything else. She forgot, Mark said. I really wanted to know.
Well, I guess you can look it up later or something.
Mark thought about his parents’ old place, the set of encyclopedias they’d kept, the edges laced with gold leaf. He said, What I meant before was, you know, what kind of a thing is that for someone to make kids do? What kind of an exercise is that? It’s totally fucked up, getting kids to think about stuff like that. I hate that teacher. I think about that now, and I really fucking hate her.
Angela looked at Mark for a second, and then she looked away, and then she stood up. I’ll be right back, she said. She could as easily be leaving as taking a piss, but either way, Mark went to the bar and ordered a shot of Jack Daniels. The bartender looked at him like he might refuse, like he thought Mark was doing everything wrong, and Mark wanted to say I’m not a fucking child, but when the bartender put the small glass in front of him he didn’t say anything. He paid the night’s tab by throwing a sweaty mess of bills across the bar and didn’t ask for change.
Angela was sitting down, one arm straight out over the side of the wooden chair. She’d slipped down to the edge of the seat, her spine in a slouch. She ran a hand through her hair, flipping its weight from one side of her head to the other, and then she got her phone out of her pocket and slid her finger across the screen. Mark had a feeling she was going to say she should go home, but he didn’t want to go back to that apartment yet, to that stupid vigil at the window. He said, Let’s get out of here. Let’s take a walk. He thought Angela would refuse, but she shrugged and nodded at the same time.
They took the back exit out of the bar into a courtyard paved in cobblestone. It was uneven to walk on and dimly lit. They walked the perimeter, and for a moment, it seemed as though they were edging around the limits of the world, as though this still, stale space was all there was. I’m a little drunk, Angela said, stumbling. You’re hard to keep up with. Mark saw a crack of light and moved towards it. He grabbed Angela’s hand.
They turned a short corner and emerged onto a street flanked on one side by crowded patios. Tables covered with sweating glasses of beer, puddles everywhere, people looking at one another in the greasy light. Mark directed them down the street and out of the concentric twists of the market, working his way past a strip dotted with monuments and statues that would eventually drop off with the descent to the river. They didn’t speak, but Mark kept Angela’s hand gripped sweatily in his until they got to the flat slates of rock leading down to the water. Angela followed Mark as he climbed down. They sat by the river. Mark stared at the lights under the bridge, which seemed to waver down and touch the surface of the water. Everything seemed suddenly simple. This is fine, Mark thought. We’re still young. Everything is great.
Mark looked over at Angela, and for a second her face was illuminated by beams of light reaching ahead of a car as it turned the corner above them, swinging onto the bridge. The light seemed heavy, like it was pulling the car forward. For a second, Angela’s features looked caught and huge, her mouth and eyes too open. The darkness rushed back in, the image of Angela’s face hanging in front of Mark for a moment in improbable colours, a hovering, spectral cut-out.
What are you thinking, Angela said. It sounded like it wasn’t a question, and for a moment Mark thought she was saying she already knew, and he couldn’t remember a damn thing Angela had said all night, but he wanted to be a giant hand touching her whole body at once. She was sitting apart from him, leaning away. It was too dark to see her face.
Mark had been thinking about the first time he got wasted. Not just a little bit, like when he and that kid who lived down the street would steal tall cans from his dad and drink them by the river, laughing through the bitterness that caught in their throats, throwing themselves through space as though plagued by too much gravity. He was thinking about the first time he was truly plastered. It was the summer before his fifteenth birthday. His aunt was getting married, and he and his parents made the drive back East. The reception was held at his grandparents’ house, sprawling and wooden, the colour of butter. He chugged Baby Duck with his cousins, and later, five of them pressed into the bathroom. They’d passed around a bottle of vodka that tasted the way rubbing alcohol smells, pushing down the burning in their stomachs with the thick corners of home-baked toffee squares. A cousin gave Mark a pinch and then a slap on the cheek, which Mark had hardly felt. Ontario baby’s come home all grown up, someone said.
Part of the lawn outside was sectioned off for dancing, ribbons tied to wooden stakes set in the ground, loosely holding a square. Mark felt like a falling star, losing parts of his body as he went down: fingers, feet, ass, elbows. Gone, gone, gone. Goodbye, he remembers thinking. Goodbye, fuck it. He danced with his aunts and uncles, his cousins, he danced with their friends, girls, got sweaty, forgot to care. He kissed a girl for the first time, covering her whole mouth with his, letting her tongue reach inside him and loosen something until it was open.
Mark thinks it was his uncle who found him later in the bathroom. A dim memory of hairy arms hauling him vertical, a quick shot of his feet as they followed clumsily along. The arms lifted Mark onto a small, thin bed on top of one of his grandmother’s quilts, rolled onto his side, cupped his shoulder with a quick jostle, and left.
The door opened but never closed all the way. The line of light streaming from the hall through the crack seemed to fix itself to his pupil, pinning him to where he lay. It pulled him into something, and he felt some kind of understanding. Everything is fine. Formal shoes clattered off, and the bed shifted. An absurd party dress came down on top of him. He remembers a moist feeling in his ear and on his neck, an uncomfortable weight on his crotch turning wet and warm. It felt good to not do much. Mark couldn’t seem to turn his head away from the door, and the beam of light holding him there filled his vision until it he couldn’t remember a time he hadn’t been seeing it, until it was the only thing he knew.
Now Mark looked at Angela. She hadn’t moved, and he felt that she was expecting something. He waited for a car’s lights to fill the space between them again, wanting to see her face lit one more time, wanting the aftermath of it to hang in front of her shadow. But no car passed, and through the darkness, Mark thought he saw Angela say something. The way her mouth opened was like that dress, the layers of tulle receding, something unwrapping itself.