– Fiction by Carolyne Topdjian –
I stopped ignoring him on a frozen February morning.
It was the kind of Monday I pictured postal carriers calling in sick. Five seconds out the front door of my apartment building and my nose-hairs had stiffened to pins. Ten seconds, and ice water streamed from my eyes. At the street corner of Parliament and College, clouds drifted from storm drains. Someone’s car engine sputtered. I tugged the collar on my parka to shield my cheeks and mentally cursed the pedestrian stoplight. Standing still was crystalizing my bloodstream.
I stomped my chukka boots, hoping to stem the bite of frost from my toes, and regretted my decision to opt for fashion over function. It seemed like a good idea back in October, but now… I had forty-seven dollars in my bank account until my next paycheque from the company. Not nearly enough to invest in a pair of fur-lined mukluks. I could ask my step-mom, Kiki, for a loan, but that would come with an earful I didn’t need.
You proved your point, Genevieve, she would say in that nasally tone. Stop being immature and come back home.
Too bad she’d converted my room into a sewing studio slash walk-in-closet. Not to mention home was a town full of losers, gossips, and vacuum-sealed bumpkins, where everyone had their neighbors pegged by high school and forever kept tabs on their failures. The only way I was headed back there was through a frontal lobotomy. Or Easter break. Whichever came first.
The light changed as a streetcar blared its horn at a careless driver. Chin tucked to my chest, I merged into a group of pedestrians crossing the intersection in search of heated destinations: banks, falafel joints, coin-wash laundromats. I had seven minutes to spare before the start of morning rehearsals and steered past fogged windows into my regular coffee shop—the one where breakfast sandwiches tasted of cigarette smoke. More importantly, it had the qualities I sought: cheap caffeine and nonexistent lines.
I was in and out with a cup of black fuel warming my fingers. While staring at the lid’s Contents Hot! warning and venting steam into my nose, I nearly tripped over his feet.
They’re what I saw first: his legs extended, faded work pants with hems that were too short, long johns underneath. I’d sensed him peripherally on previous occasions—passed him for months—but he’d never been this close to the door before. I jerked to a stop to avoid kicking him and coffee splashed and collected in the creases of my polystyrene lid.
The brim of his tuque was pulled low over his brow. His eyes were shuttered as if he were hibernating through the worst of winter. Given his patchy stubble and rosy skin stretched tight over his cheeks, he couldn’t have been more than ten years my senior. My gaze downcast, I made to pass. Dog piss stained packed snow. Leaning alongside him, a battered cardboard sign pled NEED MONEY FOR FOOD in spidery letters. I hadn’t meant to read it.
I paused, wondering why he was out on a day like today. Perhaps the soup kitchens were burdened with too many mouths to feed or the shelters overcrowded with flu sufferers. Without thinking, I reached into my tote bag where, atop my balled-up socks and leotard, I’d stashed a chocolate-glazed doughnut. Breakfast-to-go, I’d rationalized a minute ago, though, if I was being honest, the only place this doughnut was going was down and up my throat again. Last month, the studio had hired a nutritionist to lecture the company—a vegan do-gooder named Gayle who shat golden nuggets of kale. She could kiss my deep-fried ass. No one asked her to parade around her office in tights. My stomach gurgled.
As nimbly as I could with my mittens, I laid the pastry in its waxy bag next to the beggar’s sign. It would freeze into a solid ring in the time it’d take me to walk the remaining distance to my studio, but I’d done my deed, paid it forward. His musk of sweat, piss, and tobacco—muted thus far by the cold—barreled into my sinuses. I imagined myself licking the floor of a public urinal and held in a gag. Repulsive. As if I’d spoken the insult aloud, his eyes shot open and blinked at me with suspicion.
“Wharrt’s this?” His voice was akin to grinding rocks.
By now I’d distanced myself enough to breathe again. “A doughnut.” I sounded like a child caught misbehaving. I shifted my stinging toes, already regretting my altruism.
He poked at the bag, checking it for its contents. “Dohn’ wanno fuckin’ doughnut!” He flung the offering toward me. It rebounded off my chest, onto the pavement. I back-stepped, my heart kicking wildly against my ribcage.
“Your sign says you’re hungry.” I met the red-rimmed pits of his eyes even as commonsense ordered I leave. Immediately. What if he carried a knife or was a deranged nutjob? What little body heat I possessed crawled up my neck.
“Shhuh”—he folded his arms and looked me up and down—“whachha know about hungry?” All too much. But that was my dirty little secret, wasn’t it? His mouth curled. “You just another ’ichy girl.”
My jaw dropped as I mirrored his sneer. I wasn’t sure if he’d called me richy or bitchy and which was worse. I should have snubbed him like all the other times, kept right on walking and left that doughnut for the pigeons and rats to fight over. It’s what any sensible person would do. But, as Kiki liked to point out, I’d never been big on sensible.
I white-knuckled my cup, threatening to crumple it in my grip. My brain stumbled over several plausible comebacks and somehow settled on “Excuse me?” in a screechy tires sort of way.
He rested his head back as if bored of the conversation. “Gimme some change or go the fuck ’way, ’ichy girl.” He tsked. “You blockin’ my sun.”
Excellent advice, my brain shouted. You’re blocking the disgusting wino’s sun!
My body had other ideas. It wanted to pitch coffee at his head. Smash chocolate glaze into his smug face. “You know nothing about me.”
That seemed to perk him up. He sat forward and squinted at my face as if he were trying to solve one of life’s great riddles. I was backlit. I stepped to his opposite side so the sun wasn’t in his eyes and he could get a better look. Again. No commonsense.
His gaze fell to my mouth. “I know you like them sweets.” He swept his tongue across his front teeth. I shrugged my shoulder to my ear to stifle a shiver. His lips were chapped, sore-red like mine. He glanced at my tote bag next, maybe to check for a logo. A wallet. An easy mark to lift. I tightened my grip on my sac’s handles.
He cocked his chin. “Where you goin’?”
A back-alley dumpster. “Nowhere.”
“You from that dance house?”
Yes. “No. None of your business.”
“Shuh. Do look the type. Wanna dance for me, ’ichy girl? Could use a—”
He sucked air through his teeth. “Damn, ’ichy girl got bite. I like that.” He smiled, transforming his face into a canvas of pleats and edges. The lines made him old, weathered beyond his years. He may have been handsome in another life—one that afforded him a bar of soap.
“If you were really hungry, you’d take the doughnut.”
I looked him straight in the eye, lifted my cup, and took a sip. The end of my tongue scalded. It was worth it.
As I walked away, his garbled laughter scratched the back of my neck.
He wasn’t there when I headed home later that evening, but his sign was. Edited. I narrowed my eyes as I drew nearer.
NEED MONEY FOR
FOOD LAP DANCE.
I was still sweating from hours of barre work and hadn’t yet bothered to zip up my coat. I grew hotter beneath my layers, anger clouding my thoughts with nonsensical retorts involving doughnuts. I expected to see the waxed bag and its chocolaty insides squashed amid the road. But neither was anywhere in sight.
Crossing my arms, I did a quick scan of the street in case he was hidden somewhere, waiting for my reaction. Ridiculous. Why would he be watching? Why would he care? He was probably passed out somewhere, steps from a liquor store or squatting inside a crack house.
A woman walking her Labradoodle steered around me. The crosswalk light blinked. A cab whizzed by, splattering slush onto my calves. I recoiled and muttered beneath my breath. As usual, the world turned, oblivious to my presence.
Till this day I wonder: what made me do it?
The outer cold. The inner heat. The shared bite of neglect.
Before I could change my mind, I dug around the bottom of my tote bag for a pen. Crouching low, I scribbled my response and left in haste.
Tuesday morning, the sign was gone. Likely the wind had blown it away. In many ways I was relieved to be done with the confrontation. And yet I’d be lying if I said some part of me wasn’t disappointed. Did he even get my message? Is that why he wasn’t back?
I didn’t see him again during my lunch break and dismissed the incident. Well, not entirely. It just wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. I had less than ten days of rehearsals remaining before the company director premiered his latest work: an existentialist piece that commented on links between the migration of birds and patterns in human respiration. At least that’s what it said in the brochure set to print. In truth, my body felt flockless on stage, adrift with no inner compass to guide me. It was too close to my daily reality of wandering through life unsupported by my dad—a reminder I neither wanted nor needed. Worse yet, I had a nine-minute solo. My first. That was enough to contend with. Forget the rumor of a critic or two attending on opening night.
The fear of judgment, of failure, of being sent back home with nothing but the blisters on my taped toes as evidence I’d done something—anything—made a ripple no matter how feather-light—it was all the incentive I needed to stay clear of any more doughnuts.
I’d skipped breakfast, limiting my calorie intake to soot-black coffee. It was my usual regime, (assuming I could find the discipline to keep away from cheap pastry). Lunch entailed a side portion of leafy salad, sans dressing; and dinner, half a can of water-packed tuna. The night before last, I dreamt I was growing scales on the roof of my mouth and woke up gagging. Someone should have fired kale-Gayle.
“See ya tomorrow.” Jude flashed me a well-practiced smile of seduction—one sure to pull a girl or two to his bed come Saturday night—then jammed his fists into his pockets and loped away to catch the subway uptown. I paused, watching the lines on his plaid coat converge into darkness. I was destined to return alone to my cluttered studio apartment. Or was I? All it would take was one word released from my throat and Jude would turn. His smile would reappear.
The lines on his coat vanished.
Though it was blocks away, my building’s fetid odor of boiled cabbage haunted my nose. Next to my mattress, the tiny window—tracked with pigeon shit and overlooking brick a foot away—flashed before me. I should’ve jumped at Jude’s invitation to hang out for dinner. But that would’ve entailed eating. Possibly getting naked. I was human after all.
I dragged a long breath, the cold in my lungs sobering, and finally resumed walking. I didn’t even like Jude. Not really. I stared at my boots as they crushed freshly fallen flakes.
“Genny got a penny?” His voice was familiar no matter our brief encounter.
I stopped in my tracks—my back stiffened. The only people who called me Genny were from high school. For an awful heartbeat I was transported back: braces, zits, the world unjust. The first two torments may have passed but the third proved permanent. “Don’t call me that.”
I lifted my gaze. Wrists resting on drawn-up knees, he was in the same spot where I’d last seen him. No beggar’s sign tonight.
He cocked his brow followed by one side of his mouth as if to goad me. I dared not move and lose the battle. By this point, I was fighting for some elusive principle. Dignity. Pride. Sidewalk space. I crossed my arms.
Stupid girl, Kiki’s whine warned in my head. Don’t talk to weirdos from the city.
“You prefer”—he took a drag of his cigarette, its tip flaring in the encroaching shadows—“Geneviève?” He pronounced it with a fluent French accent. Just like my father. My brother. My lover. Like he’d found me and named me in a crowd of strangers. Smoke flushed from his nostrils.
“How do you know my…?” I couldn’t finish. My entire sense of control had been spent keeping my tone steady. I edged my chin forward, struggling to see him better without shifting closer.
He wasn’t wearing his tuque. His hair was long, dark. His eyes, presuming. Was he from back home? Not possible.
He tilted and pulled a section of newspaper out from beneath him. “Fame’s gotta price, ’ichy girl.”
Hearing his original, offensive address was no better than my proper name. I willed myself to be still. Years of dance had trained me to hide it. Fright. Loneliness. Vomit.
He tossed the paper at my feet: a town crier, folded inside-out to an article.
The arts section. Of course. I’d overheard the marketing coordinator bragging about the premiere being featured on local news blogs. And in print apparently.
I blinked at it: a black and white image of me winged, head thrown back, soaring above Jude’s flexed arms. Was that what I really looked like? Sinew and bone? Floating on imaginary parts?
“That your boyfriend, then. Jude Christensen?” Tiny captions credited our giant egos. He made it sound dirty. Nothing like my musical Geneviève.
I’d almost forgotten him there, studying me with unbridled curiosity. Even by night I must have been entertaining, never entirely out of costume. I shook my head, unsure why I was answering such a personal question.
“Saw you walking together.”
I shrugged and met his glassy, belligerent stare with my own. Now more than ever, I wished I’d left with Jude. A clawing began in my belly, a fury building, beating through my veins. The reasons were too irrational, too abstract for my mind to metabolize. “What do you want from me, huh?”
Instead of answering, he flicked ash and scratched his lip with his thumb.
Without intending to, I had stepped closer. “A thrill? A handout? I already told you.” His sign. I’d written him a fucking response. “Wasn’t it enough for you to read it?”
His jaw jerked left like I’d slapped him. Unknowingly I’d hit a trigger. Bang. Point Genny got a penny. He raised his hands flush against the brick wall, palms-forward like he was under arrest.
Wait. My forehead knit. “What are you doing?”
He blew out his cheeks, his knee jittering. “You got that look.”
“Shuh.” He grimaced. “Like you ’bout to stick me, Joy.” Above his head, his cigarette trembled in his grimy fingertips.
“What? I’m not—my name’s Genevieve. Are you”—I swallowed—“are you scared of me or something?” More like he’s freezing from cold, I scolded myself. Shaking outside. Inside. Like you. Welcome to subzero hell.
“Know who you are.” It was a growl, bass notes reverberating deep inside his chest. “Read your note.”
I took another step, uncaring that he reeked, that he was mentally imbalanced—willing him to look at me. He didn’t. He wouldn’t.
“I see—I see you,” he said ironically. “Gen-Geneviève.” This time, I was the one to flinch. “I ain’t the only kicked dog with dreams,” he continued, shaking his head, arguing with some invisible force. “I ain’t the only one with fleas, ’ichy girl.”
And it occurred to me. He’d never cursed me as a bitch. Or as rich. He’d seen me as I was: wanting. Itchy.
The backs of my eyelids burned. In that instant, I was anything but clothed. Twenty-two years worth of fringes, feathers, sequins—they swirled and spilled like the snow nipping my ankles. This stranger—this filthy and broken man—he understood. Beneath our grime and sweat, maybe we weren’t so different. “I—”
And I almost told him then. I almost confessed the last proper meal I’d eaten was nine years ago; how I constantly felt empty; how just the other night I’d forgotten the face of my biological mother and had cried myself to sleep and now this performance coming up was my ticket out—the only way to purge the pain.
But more than anything, I almost said I’m sorry. Sorry for not giving you money. Sorry for pretending you didn’t exist or belong or matter. I knew how it stung and wanted to take it all back. But that’s the thing about craving a connection in a world full of repeated lies and disappointments. When the time came, you failed. I failed. I was no better than Kiki or my dad.
Instead, I stuffed my hand into my bag and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. One good thing about starving yourself, you saved on grocery money. In a burst of movement, I crumpled the cash into his knuckles and took off without waiting for his reaction.
An hour later, hidden in the hole of my apartment, the fire of his palm continued to scald my own where I’d touched him.
I had my eyes closed with my iPod blasting, drowning out all sight and sound. Unfortunately nothing I did could kill the cocktail of muscle relaxant cream and ammonia that hung in the theatre’s greenroom. Or the nerves that ran amuck in my stomach. I’d already retched twice since the dry-run this morning. I was determined to keep down the energy bar I’d inhaled forty minutes earlier. Someone tapped my shoulder.
Sara, the assistant stage manager, signaled ten fingers and pantomimed for me to remove my earbuds. “From Andrew.” She passed me a note with my rehearsal director’s familiar chicken scratch: Martha from the Star is sitting stage left. Break a leg. –A.
“Thanks,” I mumbled and made a mental note to throw up stage right.
Sara offered a sympathetic smile. “It’s a full house. You’re going to—”
Her eyes shifted in distraction as her smile melted. She angled toward the microphone on her headset. “What?” She checked her watch. “Where the hell’s Derek? It’s not my job to—” Irritation crimped her features as she listened to the response through her radio. “What about the ushers? Are they standing around, fanning themselves with the goddamn programs?” Something between a scoff and a moan escaped her mouth.
I tucked my iPod inside my hoodie’s pocket. “What’s wrong?”
Sara waved for me to wait. “How’d he get a ticket?”
“What happened?” I tried again.
She rolled her eyes in reaction to the conversation only she could hear. “Try to calm them. I’m coming.” She shifted her mic and blew out a sigh. “Gotta go kick out some bum from the audience.”
“Wait, what?” My anxiety must have been written on my face because she slowed while back-stepping to the door.
It had been a week since I’d seen him—since I’d given him the money and run.
“It’s nothing. Some patrons are complaining about the stink coming off this guy. Keeps it interesting.” She spun and rushed out from the greenroom before I could ask another question. But it wasn’t necessary. I already knew the details.
Pacing the little greenroom, I tried to push it out from my mind. I had problems of my own. Big ones. Like Martha from the Star. I had to regroup, refocus. I tried. But my worry was unrelenting.
They would throw him out, ticket or no ticket. He’d make a scene, slur his words, draw attention from the box office girls and passersby. Derek or Sara would call the police.
Nausea stirred. I couldn’t just pretend he was nothing—worthless. I couldn’t be like my dad. The last time I’d phoned home, Kiki had said he was busy with work. My father didn’t like to travel in the winter—too hard to justify the time off. He had yet to see me dance. Well fuck him. Fuck Kiki. And fuck Martha from the Star.
Without thinking I bolted for the emergency exit. The crash bar stung my palms. No time to waste. A fragmented, distant part of me ordered I stop—control myself. I was due on stage in mere minutes. This was past spontaneous, irresponsible even by my own standards.
Someone called after me. It was all in the background. In the foreground, only I existed. Only he did. My body rushed to save us both—how and from what though, I couldn’t articulate. Disbelief looped in my mind. He’d come to watch. He’d used the cash—not for drugs, not for booze or cigarettes—but for this.
I followed his trail of reek—the only audience who mattered—across the lobby, past the latecomers and dwindl