Friday, January 28, 2011

COST OF LIVING (first part of a fiction)

After the war, the three of us left alive from our regiment decided to split the cost of living by renting an apartment together in downtown Toronto. It was a one bedroom, one bathroom, one kitchen, one everything. I volunteered to sleep on the floor. Nobody else objected, but after the first couple of nights, when they awoke in the morning to my nude sprawl on the rug, they suddenly gained a quick case of propriety. Terrence said that we could alternate – he’d get the bed Mondays, I’d get it Tuesdays, Martin on Wednesdays, or we could switch the order all up if some night one of us brought a broad home. (They still had enough of the military ethic in them to believe that a system of some sort could solve almost anything. This, despite what they'd lived through for themselves for the past three desperate years. Proof enough, for me, that the army squeezes the good stuff right out of you. Injects its own stream of self-serving poison, that racket does, and all too eagerly.)

I finally told them: Fuck it. Just give me the floor

Harsh cold and discomfort: my bedfellows of choice. I had spent a good many months sleeping on dirt and all of its natural cousins, and I had grown to enjoy, even require, hard rocks as my pillows. Could cracked kitchen tiles be any worse? Even the gouges those stones made on your neck and your ears offered their own form of love. The rain made you wet, the snow made you shiver, the sun’s rosemary heat burned you quite red, but those stones, at night, nicked you with edges that snapped you awake; compared to the weather, they at least served some sort of purpose. I couldn't find much else that did.

The pain from those nights spent scrunched up on granite didn’t even feel all that bad. Almost desirable, even. I grew to relish the sudden jolt out of dreams that shot me straight up out of my sleep and awake into the night. It reminded me that I hadn’t bought it just yet. I often thought of those stones’ sudden scratches with every shift of my neck as akin to own girl’s lengthy red nails back home in Fort Erie, sharpened to talons just to test my soft skin. Made sense. She could get rough sometimes, and needed to see how much I could take from what she might give. The rocks weren’t any different. Smelled better, too.

Two years, off and on, of sleeping like this made white sheets and warm blankets an affront to my manhood. Give me a stray spot on the floor beside our small fridge, I told them. You pussies can have all the rest. They accused me of trying to play the tough guy. The war’s over, they said. You can relax now. At least take the couch. I told them to fuck off and let me sleep where I wanted. If 'playing the tough guy' was my one secret ploy, it wouldn't be enacted by arguing over who got the goddamn bed. The fridge’s dumb hum every night was bad enough; I didn’t need their daytime preaching in my ears, too.

For the first few weeks after returning to Canada, we all just kind of moped around. We were not unlike kids that had just been yanked inside from our recess five minutes too soon. We ate, boozed, screwed around, almost by rote. As much as my roommates insisted that they were ecstatic to be free from the army’s tight grip, I sensed a different truth from the stares they would suddenly put on like cheap masks from the five and dime store back home.

One afternoon I woke up from a nap and saw Martin staring out of our tiny kitchen window, looking up at the snow that had steadily been falling since breakfast, a wide ruffled blanket extended like cotton. Giant, white flakes. We’d seen a lot of that stuff up in the moutains in Europe, and it had always reminded us of home. Now we were here and it didn't remind us of anything. It just was. Cold and wet and ugly.

I could tell by his gaze that his mind was already back there. He had a half-mournful, half-pitying face, but grotesque in its pose, exaggerated and false. I’d never seen anything like it. Almost as if he was imitating what somebody sad was supposed to look like. Something that looked so blatantly false must surely be real.

“Tell me this,” I said. I leaned up off the floor and swiped some solid sleep from my eyes. I was so hungry that it actually looked almost edible. Army food will do that to you. “Ain’t you the one who told me to get over it? You aren’t going to find anything out here that we left behind over there.”

He turned around and took a look at me head-on. I could see the one-quarter Metis in his face from that angle. Depended on the light, usually, but I spotted it this morning clear enough. A kind of natural cloak to his face that matched his black hair. I was going to make a crack about him scalping me, my usual jibe, but I shut my mouth before the words sneaked out. I sensed a shadow or two.

“I’m just looking at the snow, boss ,” he said. “Watching it fall.”

“Is that what you’re doing?” I said. Already thinking about how I could get the hell out of here for good and somehow make him feel better. I was too exhausted and indifferent to offer advice. “Looked like you were getting ready to jump out and start some other kind of life, depending on how the drop went. This is only four stories, you know. There's a chance you might actually live. You telling me you survived Hitler and Hirohito in order to break a leg on Yonge Street?”

That made him smile, but Martin’s smile had never done much for anybody, let alone himself. One of those half-hearted grins that made the other person wonder what lay underneath all that forced joviality. Anybody who forces a smile once too often can never truly look real ever again. Something else I picked up overseas.


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