The Original Face
An excerpt from The Original Face (Véhicule Press, 2017).
“I don’t think I’ve ever wanted inner peace,” I typed to Eloise on Facebook Chat. “Inner warfare just seems so much better.”
Waiting for her response, I drank green tea from a paper cup. I didn’t feel good or bad, but neither, like a tree. It was June something, twenty-ten-something, and I was sitting alone at a round table near a window inside one of Montreal’s many Starbucks. It was hot and sunny outside. The air-conditioned Starbucks, in comparison, seemed weatherless, like a kind of non-season. Near me, a teenager was playing a space combat video game about explosions being beautiful, and on the wall in front of me was a banal painting of a red fish. “Who painted this?” I thought, abstractly focusing on the eye and the mouth. “Salvador Dali,” I thought. “Just kidding,” I thought.
The future, as usual, seemed dark. I was a “freelance web designer,” which sounded okay, but essentially meant “70% unemployed.” I was also a “new media artist” making conceptual videos that I shared online or presented at exhibits, which was only vaguely getting me anywhere. I had spent the past few months feeling deeply uninspired, unable to come up with anything, not even a simple tweet, just passively staring at my computer screen like it was some sort of hypnotic lawn ornament.
Trying to create art videos was now a source of anxiety, as opposed to an outlet for it.
Because of this, procrastinating on my own work by aimlessly browsing the internet felt more calming than usual, like a meditation retreat. I wasn’t sure where all my usual creative thoughts had gone, if they had escaped my skull like feral animals into the night and were now somewhere else in the world, moving around in packs, rampaging in suburban yards maybe, or if I had just exhausted every possible thought I could have as this person, in this environment.
“Creative dry spell,” I thought.
“Same,” typed Eloise on Facebook Chat after a long absence. “Sorry I’ve been unresponsive. I just got absorbed in replying to this email.”
“It’s okay,” I typed. “How’s Baltimore?”
My dream job was not having a job.
Strategically late by about an hour, I met up with Grace and her friends at a “modern” Mexican-themed restaurant. It was a week later and Ashlyn’s birthday. She was turning 25, was wearing a white knee-length dress decorated with random splashes of colours, as if fireworks had exploded on it. Next to Ashlyn was her boyfriend, Roberto. I felt relieved that Roberto was present, as he usually functioned as my default “guy friend” within Grace’s friends group. “Mexican boyfriend,” I thought. “Mexican restaurant,” I thought. I couldn’t tell if these two items were connected or not.
I removed my backpack and jacket, which was wet from the rain and glistening a little. I wanted to sit at the end of the table, next to Grace and her friend Andrea, but before I could locate a chair, Ashlyn’s mom, Diane, who was visiting from Newfoundland, and who I had never met, got up and gestured to indicate that she wanted a hug, probably because I was one of Ashlyn’s friends. “It’s my mom,” said Ashlyn, laughing. Hugging Diane, I became overly aware that I hadn’t really been around people in almost three days, hadn’t even felt once, in that period, the need to socialize with other human beings.
I hugged Ashlyn’s mom as a way of forcing myself to get into a social mood and Diane said, “Oh, he’s a hugger,” and I replied, “I am a hugger.” Then Diane returned to her seat and we weren’t talking anymore and didn’t interact again for the rest of the evening.
I stole a chair from another table, sat next to Grace and began communicating with her in short sentences, something that felt less like a conversation and more like exchanging Morse Code by telegraph. Simply being in a stable, healthy relationship with Grace felt like a major life achievement for me, something I should win a Nobel Prize for maybe. Sitting at the other end of the table, Grace’s friend, Val, smiled at me and waved a little and I waved back. Grace’s friends group was composed of people she had grown up with and who had moved to Montreal around the same time as her. The group had been carefully assembled and optimized over a number of years, was sometimes pruned like a bonsai tree to maintain the desired shape. This was very different from my approach to friendship, as my friends rarely came together as a single group. They all had, at one point or another, landed individually in my life, like lost Frisbees, and would probably exit it in the future, to be replaced by new individual, single-usage friends.
One major difference between Grace and I was that I didn’t expect my friendships to be permanent.
Grace asked me if I was planning on ordering anything and I replied that I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend money. She introduced me to a friend of Roberto, Jorge, who was visiting Canada for the first time. Jorge seemed amused by Montreal, observing people around the table like he was watching a play about the social customs of young adults in Canada. I glanced at Andrea, who was staring at her phone and touching the screen with her finger, as if tickling it. I needed a new artist photo for my website and wanted to ask Andrea, a freelance food photographer who also worked part-time in a print shop, for help, but couldn’t get myself to. I still felt shy and asocial and ostrich-like, mostly unable to process human interactions. I imagined myself, a grown man, being banished from the adults’ table due to inadequate social skills, ordered to go sit at the children’s table instead.
I felt grateful that there was no children’s table in the restaurant.
Overhearing Ashlyn’s laughter, I thought about how she was turning 25. I visualized myself at age 25, a period of my life that now felt both distant and near, like an illusion of false perspective. I placed my head on Grace’s arm and said, “Hug my head,” in a soft voice and she did, covering it with her other arm and squeezing gently. Grace said, “Why your head?” and I replied, “It’s where all the good things happen,” without thinking and then we both laughed a little. A waitress carrying several items approached the table. Grace and Andrea’s order was a shared plate of tacos stuffed with black beans. Before the waitress disappeared again, Andrea ordered a daiquiri. Grace drank water from her glass, emptying it and then tactically refilling it from a bottle of Bacardi hidden in her handbag.
“You can have some if you want,” said Grace.
“Thank you,” I said. “Sneaking in drinks is so much more fun than buying them.”
“I know,” said Grace, prolonging the last syllable.
“We’re totally out-partying that other table,” I said, pointing at a group of seven seated at a table across the room. From my point of view, they seemed less like human beings, and more like well-operated puppets.
“When we got here, I thought they were us,” said Grace. “I thought the open wall was our reflection in a mirror for some reason. They kind of look like us. It didn’t seem like we were having fun.”
“They look really bored,” said Andrea. “Maybe it’s no one’s birthday for them. Maybe it’s just a Wednesday.”
“They look like they’re from an alternate universe where we all have jobs,” I said, taking a sip from Grace’s glass.
“I have a job,” said Andrea.
“Real jobs,” said Grace, laughing a little.
The waitress returned with Andrea’s daiquiri, prompting Grace to hide her drink. Andrea’s beverage was red-colored and looked planet-like in texture and composition. I stared at the drink absent-mindedly and thought, “Morgan Freeman,” and then, “Morgan Freeman narrating a space documentary about this daiquiri.” Using her phone, Andrea filmed her drink for a few seconds, zooming in and out overzealously, then sent the recording to someone through Snapchat.
I continued to drink Bacardi with Grace, began to feel, several sips later, more or less normalized, the alcohol calcifying a false sense of confidence, making me officially cede command of my body to my social persona. I mentioned the website photo to Andrea, who automatically agreed to help, even offering to do it for free. We began discussing when to meet, but were interrupted by the waitress surprising Ashlyn with a chocolate lava cake. Many people used their phones to photograph Ashlyn and her birthday cake.
“I wish the camera on my phone wasn’t broken,” said Grace. “I miss Instagram.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think we’re okay. I feel like this moment is being over-documented right now.”
“I know I’ll be able to look at everyone’s photos later, it’s just,” said Grace, “it’s not the same.”
About half an hour later, we exited the Mexican restaurant and walked in unplanned groups of three or four to Sharx, a bar located a few streets down that contained a bowling alley. Unbothered by the rain, I sprinted ahead to join the lead group of Ashlyn, Roberto and Derek.
“Thank you for the shirt,” I said to Derek, who was Ashlyn’s roommate. I didn’t know him very well, but had recently, through Grace, inherited an expensive-looking shirt from him. “I actually really like it.”
“Oh, my pleasure,” said Derek. “I was just trying to get rid of it. I own way too many blue shirts.”
“I have been broke for a while now,” I said, “so this is really good for me.”
“What’s going on with you?” said Derek. “Grace was saying that you’re thinking about moving to Toronto, but you weren’t sure.”
“We’ve talked about it,” I said. “I really like Montreal, but it’s starting to feel like I’ve done everything that I needed to do here. My friend Eloise lives in Toronto and I’ve already been there a few times. It seems like there would be new opportunities for me if I lived there.”
“I could see why that would make sense for you,” said Derek. “It’s too bad if you’re moving, though. I mean, I don’t know you very well, but Grace really seems to like you.”
“It’s a lot to think about,” I said.
Grace and I had originally met through my friend Jane, who knew her friend Ashlyn. We had been dating since November. Grace was 32, three years my senior, and worked part-time as a hostess in a primarily anglophone Irish pub and grill in Monkland Village, where she only had to know a few basic sentences in French. She had short, dark black hair and walked with a very slight limp as a result of an old soccer accident. She was more extroverted than me, seemed to feel energized around people, enjoyed talking and socializing and living her life unironically. In addition to her job, she was also completing individual courses like biology and chemistry, prerequisites that would eventually allow her to apply to a physical therapy program at McGill University in Montreal, her first choice, or U of T in Toronto, her fallback plan. Earlier in life, she had studied communications and later social work, each time dropping out before graduating. Her complicated journey towards something resembling a career meant that we were currently at similar points in our lives, and, therefore, romantically compatible.
Unlike most people around her, Grace wasn’t an artist. She sometimes described herself as “boring,” especially when comparing herself to her close friends, whose social media presences were all catchier, more exciting and better-liked than hers. She could play the guitar very well but rarely did, the electric model and amp in her room mostly accumulating dust. What I liked about her was simply that she was a good person, stable, kind, reliable and caring. We both tended to say “I am sorry” a lot, were always trying to out-apologize one another, as if our relationship was a kind of BDSM in which the safe word was “sorry.”
Grace was also, I felt, someone whose trust and desire to trust had been abused in the past, the kind of person who could only figure out what a “healthy relationship” was by deducing from what it wasn’t, like trying to determine who the culprit was in a game of Clue. Based on stories she had told me, I sometimes visualized her ex-boyfriends as a kind of museum display of deranged jerks. One was a graffiti artist who, one night, had gotten too drunk and insulted her friends, then later stolen her bike. A few months before, Grace and I had run into him at a house party, resulting in an unpleasant conversation that had quickly escalated into a shouting argument. “But what’s the value of someone’s life compared to a cheap bike?” her ex-boyfriend had said in defense of his actions.
Judging from her agitated response, it seemed clear that, to Grace, the value of this specific person’s life was worth much less than the cheap bike.
Entering Sharx, I spotted an ATM machine and decided to take out money. I wasn’t sure there would be sufficient funds in my bank account for me to withdraw $20 plus processing fees, but I was able to complete the transaction without any objections from the machine.
Retrieving money from the dispenser, I felt like I had just won some sort of private lottery.
Downstairs, I ordered a beer, received Alexander Keith’s in a tall glass, paid for the overpriced drink without leaving a tip. Rejoining Grace and her friends near the shoe station inside the bowling alley, I asked Roberto if he was good at bowling and he answered, “I don’t remember,” which made me laugh, though he hadn’t intended the remark as a joke. I told Grace that I had “zero interest” in bowling and she replied, “Are you sure? I can lend you money for a game,” and I said, “No, it’s okay,” in a calm tone.
Several minutes later, I sat on a teal couch near our group’s assigned lane and observed Jorge, who seemed intrigued by the large television monitor above the shoe station. The television screen was displaying the third period of a Stanley Cup hockey game in the middle of June. The only other person in the bowling alley looking at the monitor was a random man in a trench coat who was clapping to encourage the athletes on television, though the athletes on television seemed unaffected.
Grace sat next to me and we shared my drink while holding hands. Later, after finishing the beer, I brought the empty glass with me to the men’s room, where I locked myself in the only unoccupied stall. I retrieved a tall can of Sleeman hidden in my backpack, snapped it open and calmly transferred the can’s content into my empty glass. I began thinking about how this situation, sneaking beers into public places to save money, was just normal behaviour for me, how this way of living, having little income and keeping my responsibilities and the overall cost of my existence to a minimum, was what I had decided was the optimal arrangement of my life in Montreal, a kind of Feng Shui gone horribly wrong.
“My comfort zone would be someone else’s depressing wasteland of unemployment,” I thought.
Coming back, I saw that Grace was having difficulty bowling, mainly because the ball was too gigantic for her. I glanced at the scoreboard, noticed that Roberto, despite having gutter-balled several throws, was now in the lead. Roberto looked surprised by this, but not unproud, as if impressed by his skill at this seemingly random, strategy-less game. The television monitor above the shoe station was now presenting professional wrestling, which Derek was watching, or trying to watch. On the television monitor, a wrestler with a beard was holding a microphone and arguing with a wrestler dressed in a suit and a tie.
“I wish this had subtitles,” said Derek. “I love wrestling. I just never watch it.”
“Why are they so angry?” I said. “They’re just talking right now. Even talking is making them angry.”
“Everything makes them angry,” said Derek. “That’s the point of wrestling. So they always have a reason to fight. You couldn’t be a wrestler otherwise.”
“So there’s no wrestler with good conflict-resolution skills?” I said.
“That would be a terrible wrestler,” said Derek. “Or wait, no. People would want to see him get his ass kicked. They would make him world champion.”
After the game, whose winner was apparently no one, as most players seemed uninterested in the final tally and eager to move on, I replied to a text message from Jane while Grace, Andrea and Ashlyn discussed what to do next. Andrea mentioned that she wanted to go to a loft party at which the band Blue Hawaii was either playing or DJing, she wasn’t sure, but then was successfully out-lobbied by Ashlyn, who convinced everyone to relocate to a bar in the Gay Village.
Several minutes later, we all stood in the entrance at Sharx, mentally preparing to face the rain again. Half the group agreed to share a cab while the other decided to travel by subway.
“Are you coming with us?” said Grace.
“I don’t have a subway thing,” I said.
“How did you get downtown?” said Grace.
“I walked,” I said.
“You walked?” said Grace, with an inflection that sounded like an accusation.
“It took me, like, fifty minutes,” I said. “I hadn’t gone out all day. It was fine. I think I’d rather walk to the Village as well.”
“I can lend you money to get the night pass,” said Grace. ‘Then later we can take the bus to get back to my house.”
“It’s okay, I have money with me,” I said. “I just don’t want to spend it. I don’t mind walking. It would take me twenty minutes to get there. I’ll walk.”
“But it’s pouring outside,” said Grace.
“It’s not pouring,” I said. “It’s just raining.”
“Let me pay for you,” said Grace.
“No, it’s fine,” I said. “Never mind, I’ll buy the night thing.”
“Are you sure?” said Grace.
“Yeah, it’s okay,” I said. “Forget what I said. I’ll just buy the night thing.”
“Okay,” said Grace.
I walked with Andrea, Val and Grace to the Guy-Concordia metro station in unintentional silence, the weather thwarting our attempts at conversation. Inside the station, I stopped at an automated vending machine while the rest of the group passed through the turnstiles. “Hold on, Daniel needs to get a night pass,” said Grace, forcing the others to wait. Swiping the pass at the gate, I was denied access and shown the error message “Plage horaire interdite.”
“What’s wrong?” said Grace. “It’s telling me that I can’t get in,” I said. “Hold on.”
I sprinted to the booth attendant, who was reading a magazine.
“Excuse me,” I said in broken French. “I just bought this and it’s telling me that I can’t use it for this time slot.”
“It’s after midnight,” said the attendant in French. “You need to activate the night pass before midnight. It doesn’t work otherwise. It’ll work tomorrow night.”
“But I just bought it,” I said.
“Well, I am sorry,” said the attendant.
On the other side of the turnstiles, a distressed-looking Grace began shouting things in English like, “He just bought it, I saw him,” trying to help. After arguing with me a little more, the attendant offered to trade me a regular, single-usage ticket in exchange for the night pass and a small additional fee. I thought, “This is bullshit,” and felt within me an unknown amount of anger sparked by poorly timed personal pride. I looked at Grace and mouthed, “I’ll just walk,” and she said, “Wait,” and moved in my direction. She wanted to discuss this with me further, but I repeated, “I’ll just walk,” in a firmer tone and added, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
I climbed the stairs and exited the station. I began walking east, tried to convince myself that leaving abruptly was the moral thing to do in this situation. “I am broke,” I thought. “I really can’t waste money right now. Also, I like walking. What’s the difference?”
Around me, fine translucent needles were coming down from the sky in a screensaver-like manner, as if they made up a detailed pattern obeying its algorithm. I glanced ahead through the rain, saw moon-drenched buildings in the distance. The city of Montreal looked withdrawn and self-conscious, as if it was thinking, “I keep getting bigger and bigger, but I still feel like I have no idea what I am doing.”
I walked on Sainte-Catherine and eventually reached the Gay Village. I located the bar, tried going in, but was stopped by a doorman. There was a cover charge, I was told. Feeling annoyed, I looked past the man to register the bar’s vibe, which didn’t seem particularly promising. I thought about leaving, going home. I retrieved my phone and saw that Grace had messaged me a few minutes earlier to warn me of the charge at the door. I composed a text message explaining that I didn’t want to pay the mandatory fee, didn’t feel like being social anymore, would be leaving. Then I thought, “Wait, I am being an asshole, I suck for wanting to go,” and deleted the original message. I composed a second text asking Grace to come see me at the door.
About a minute later, I saw her getting up and walking towards the entrance. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay, but looking at her directly, I realized that she was upset.
“Are you okay?” I said.
“I didn’t want to make you waste money,” said Grace, becoming emotional a little midsentence. “I am sorry I made you buy the night thing.”
“Hey, it’s okay,” I said in a warm tone of voice. “I am not mad. I know I’ve been saying that I need to be careful with money, but money is stupid. We shouldn’t argue about money. I am sorry I stormed out earlier. That was probably just misplaced ego on my end. It’s my fault. I am dumb.”
I placed her head against my chest and hugged her. I was surprised that she was crying a little, didn’t think she would be over something as simple as this. Though we had been dating for five months, we hadn’t, in that period, fought, not even once. On a few occasions, we had even joked about what the topic of our “first fight” would be, if it would sound something like, “Listen, I am sorry that I am upset with you, but you can’t expect me not to react this way after what you did, though I apologize if me being upset makes you upset, that wasn’t my intention, I just want what’s best for you.” In reality, I suspected that our first real fight was going to be about Toronto. I knew that if I decided to move there, I would probably become just one more disappointing man in her life, and that if she was upset, it wasn’t because of money at all, but because she liked me and was afraid of losing me, didn’t want to give me any reason to distance myself from her.
We kissed. I began to think that what I wanted was no longer to go home, but for her to feel good again. I grabbed her hand and paid the cover to get into a bar I didn’t want to be in, with money I wasn’t sure I had. We sat at a table with her friends and I began chatting with Roberto, then with Derek and Val. My mood suddenly seemed radically different, as if it had been imported from another brain, one created from scratch in an underground lab that had the ability to maintain, at all times, ideal levels of dopamine and serotonin.
I came up with little jokes.
I told a story.
I made Grace laugh.
I woke up at Grace’s apartment, in Grace’s bed and with Grace’s cat, but without Grace. In my sleep, I had accidentally drooled on one of her pillows, leaving a signature that looked like a territory marker, some sort of unmotivated graffiti that didn’t involve getting out of bed. I searched her nightstand for my glasses, but could only find rolling papers and a Ziploc bag that contained a small amount of weed. Locating my pants on the floor, I checked my phone for the time and saw that it was 1:30 p.m., meaning Grace had already left for work. Grace’s cat, an overweight, comical-looking eight-year-old male named Tom-Tom, was monitoring my actions. His eyes were wide open and he looked overly alert, like an undercover cop.
“Grown man arrested by cat for trespassing and vandalism,” I thought.
I petted Tom-Tom a little. His black fur had a peculiar texture, as he wasn’t very good at cleaning himself, too large to reach certain areas. Rejecting my attempt at affection, Tom-Tom jumped from the bed and ran towards the kitchen in an unintentionally funny, animated GIF-like manner. I liked Tom-Tom, liked how he existed outside of language, how he didn’t have words like “comical-looking” to describe his own condition, and therefore was unaffected by them.
[ End of excerpt ]