This is Where the Sun is Now
When the bus pulls into the station, you aren’t there, waiting. This isn’t unexpected. A week ago you sketched out directions over the phone to the construction site where you’ve been working. You said, I’ll be under the Cambie bridge like that should mean something. But the streets I thought would look familiar all run in odd directions. It takes me an hour to find the bridge, another fifteen minutes to find my way under it.
A chain-link fence blocks my way onto the muddy site, but I spot you quickly, standing near the skeletal frame of a brand new high-rise. You’re talking to someone, a thick man, identical in size and dress to a dozen other men moving slowly, like beleaguered ants, across the cleared square of ground where someday soon a private courtyard will appear, enclosed not by this rusted fence, but by expensive wrought iron and invisible alarms. I wait patiently. After a long while, you look in my direction and I wave. You signal through the fence, pointing at your watch, then holding up five short fingers before another man in identical brown overalls catches your attention and you disappear into a nearby trailer.
The sky is grey with the promise of rain, and though the streets are dry for now, my thin sneakers feel soaked through already. I hike my bag further up my shoulder. It’s over-full, but I can’t think of anything I should have left behind. I feel myself begin to drift down the block, toward the water. My body drags, heavy, like a sack of stones. There’s a bench in the shadow of the bridge, next to the shoreline, so I sit, and for five long minutes watch as pointless waves lap against the colourless sand.
Your apartment building is old, and the hallways smell like mildew, but it’s still better than your old place. Better than a half-room apartment behind the garage of a townhouse on Vancouver Island. At least here, there’s room enough for a couch. Room enough for me to stay, until I find a job and a mildew ridden place of my own.
You show me around the four tiny rooms—bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom. The scratched hardwood creaks and bows as we walk from room to room, saying nothing. The bathroom is all done up in a putrid greyish-pink, with mirrored tiles on the ceiling above the tub, and warped bubbles in the vinyl countertop. Your bedroom is a mattress on the floor, in the corner under a window with bent venetian blinds, and piles of clothes organized in no discernible order. The living room is a tangle of plants, a couch, a TV in the corner, and bottles of hard liquor arranged in a line on the windowsill.
You say, you can sleep here, pointing at the couch with one stubby finger before showing me the tilted balcony. You can see the water that way you say, gesturing towards a line of large square warehouses across the street. Smoke out here if you want to. I quit last week. Then you disappear, back inside, into your bedroom, and more silence.
A seagull floats against the deep grey sky. The clouds seem fixed in their positions. I stay on the balcony a while, watching through a long alley between the warehouses as tankers and trawlers skim past on an invisible ocean.
On the couch, in the half-dark, the orange glow of streetlights coming in strips through the open blinds, I fall asleep feeling a cool breeze off the ocean. The air feels different here, different than I remember. Heavier. And I feel different, too. Adrift.
You didn’t come back from your room after showing me the apartment, so I spent the evening reading, trying to reconcile myself to being back. I looked for something to eat, but the kitchen was empty, and the coiled elements on the stovetop were all bent from years of tenants hotknifing hash. I tried to watch TV, but the channels were all grey-blue shifting static. So I read nearly half the only book I brought until the sunlight disappeared and the sky went dark through the slats in the blinds and I was left, lying on this couch, listening to the unfamiliar night sounds of a city I no longer know.
I can hear you snoring through the walls. The sound of it makes me think of the first time we fucked, at the Biltmore Hotel, with cigarette burns on the carpet and the phone, when you fell asleep almost immediately and didn’t stop snoring until morning. And the time after, on a bed of rotting leaves behind the elementary school, when I was sixteen. I left Vancouver not long after that. Ran away. Five years gone, and back again. Homecoming to a place I’ve never really called home.
For a while, I listen to your grumbling snores, but the sounds you make are rhythmic and evenly pitched, and soon I sink into the same old dream. A freshwater lake, endlessly dark and endlessly deep, and my body, floating just beneath the surface.
By morning, the sky’s gone white with a sheet of oppressively low clouds, and a diffused light that seems to come from all angles at once. You’ve already left. A note on the kitchen counter reads, if you want to look for work, and just below that, a map to the Skytrain drawn carefully in pencil, two scratched up keys taped firmly to the back. I put on my least ratty jeans, a slightly wrinkled dress shirt, my thin black sneakers. There’s a feeling in my stomach like my body’s begun to eat itself. I leave the apartment, trying to pretend I’m not hungry.
On the long walk up Wall Street, an emaciated tabby materializes at my heel and follows me, past the rows of houses and apartments and warehouses and derelict community gardens. I cut at an angle through a short, paved alley. Broken bottles, green and brown and white, crunch harmlessly against the soles of my shoes. At the end of the alley, I look back, hoping that the skeletal cat managed to navigate through without cutting its feet. But the cat is gone.
Alone again, I walk up Powell to Commercial, turn, and hike the long hill up to Broadway. At the bottom, the streets all stink of fish guts and rotting vegetables, but further up, the stench is replaced by roasted coffee, Indian food, and hemp. I look for things I used to know—familiar storefronts, a bakery I liked. Nothing is the same. The buildings are off by fractions.
I walk by Grandview Park and think of the day I spent waiting across the street in the collectivized café. The sun was out, then. Long rays of slanting light seemed to skip across the surface of things, like a flat stone on water, yellow, then orange as the sun set and you walked in, smiling. That night over dinner, I told you I was leaving. Now I look across the street, trying to find that café. But it’s no longer there.
Further on, I pass a fruit market, crates of apples and pears and plums left in the open air under a faded awning, and my stomach knots again. I think of how easy it would be to pocket a deep purple plum, how little money I was able to bring. I keep walking.
Over the short bridge and up the tall steps to the Skytrain platform. I board the first train that stops, though I have no ticket. I remain conscious of transit cops while I watch the landscape of the city shift and move far below. This is not the city I remember. A new, plastic sheen seems to cover the buildings. The people I see walking are well dressed, with good posture. Before I came back, a friend warned me that all the punks had drifted east. I didn’t believe him.
The train stops and I get off, walk a five block square around the station in search of any place that’s hiring, then catch a train to the next station and start all over. I make my way from one end of the line to the other, repeating the pattern, again and again. I fill out applications with your phone number, listing references with out of province area codes.
By midafternoon, I’m feeling faint.
By evening, I feel the directionless light pass through me like a ghost.
I walk the long streets back as the light slowly fails and the sky dissolves from white to grey to black. The hallways of your building are hot and stifling and someone is smoking dank, pungent pot. I open your door.
A friend of yours is here. You’re sitting on the couch, laughing and coughing at the same time, and when I come in, your friend looks straight at me. His face is angular, sharp, but the rest of him seems somehow lumpen and shapeless. You say, We’re going for sushi. Want to come? and I nod, but your friend says nothing until we’re all in your dark blue Pontiac, at which point the words seem to pour uncontrollably from his mouth, and he talks about teaching chemistry to college students non-stop until we’re seated at a low table in a Japanese restaurant somewhere in Burnaby.
The waitress is wearing a kimono. She remains expressionless while you ask for one order of each item on the menu and then laugh for longer than you should. For the first time since being back, I notice the deep brown tan on your face and forearms, the lines accumulating around your mouth, and I realize how long it’s been since I’ve seen you smile. Then your friend starts talking again, telling you over and over how ugly your new haircut makes you look, and Did you know you’re getting greys? You should really start dying, and on and on and on until the food arrives, covering every inch of the lacquered tabletop, and we all eat in silence.
Though I haven’t eaten all day, there’s still too much food—sashimi, tempura, and black nori-skinned rolls of every variety, elaborately arranged in concentric circles of two-toned wooden plates. We eat for an hour, not saying a word. I diligently consume what’s in front of me, but the hunger is gone. When the waitress comes back, you argue heatedly with your friend over who will take the leftovers, but when an extravagantly long bill arrives, he pays it immediately. And then we leave, piling back into your rusted Pontiac.
You drive slowly, winding through the crooked streets. Somehow, the city seems distant. Words fall rapidly from your friend’s pointed face, but I’m done listening. Instead, I watch the buildings pass in slow succession, and try to make out the darkened shapes of warehouses looming against the black of the sky.
The water is dark and deep, stretching endlessly in all directions. I float, just below the surface, calm. The same old dream.
There is no sound until I hear your whispering voice and the click of the front door closing. After dinner, you disappeared into your room, dragging your friend with you. I spent an hour listening to you fuck, then get fucked, before sinking down into a bottomless sleep. Now I am awake. I keep my eyes closed.
I hear your feet thud softly on the hardwood, cross the room to the window. Then the clink of glass on glass, and a groan from the couch as you come to perch on the armrest. I open my eyes a moment before your weight crushes down on me.
This isn’t unexpected. I imagined it a week ago when, over a bad connection, I heard your voice again after five years away. In my mind, you felt familiar, but here and now, you seem somehow far away. Adrift, though your calloused hands are here, fumbling, and your breath is on my face, with the smell of grain alcohol and badly kept teeth.
And I think again of the first time we fucked, in that horrible hotel, and before that, living on Vancouver Island, in that half-room apartment behind the garage, and how I ran to come here, to this city, and left later for other cities, across the mountains and the long flat fields of grain, and back again, here, to this place, that no longer is what I want it to be, and probably never was and—
I push you away. You put up no resistance, just crumple like an empty bag into the corner of the couch, head sagging, hands folded in your lap. Your face remains motionless. The apartment is silent. A bottle of rye lies tipped on the floor, dark liquid pooled on the hardwood. I look at it, then at you, half-lit in the slatted light.
And then I leave.
The streets are long corridors of grey cement, gone black with moss and erosion, tinted orange under tall streetlamps. I walk, aimlessly. Sometimes people drift past, walking, like me, or skimming along in quiet cars. I feel their eyes look through me.
The smell of the ocean is gone, replaced now by wet firs and loamy earth. Soon, my legs begin to ache with cold and exhaustion. I keep walking until a park comes into view, and a bench, half-hidden in the shadows of towering, leafy trees, where I sit and wait until the sun comes up in the east, and the sky ignites into long red streaks of cloud, and I try to think of some place to go.
D.W. Miller is a writer sometimes, maybe, but mostly just a starving student and retail jockey. His short fiction has appeared (mysteriously) in the print journals FreeFall and STOPgap, and online at The Midwest Coast Review. When manifesting in corporeal form, he resides mostly in Calgary, Alberta where he works as Circulation Manager for filling Station magazine. You can also find him existing digitally on the interdigimegaweb at http://dw-miller.tumblr.com/ where he blogs about writing, philosophy, and politics.