Falling Through Doors

Nov
20

Double Tank Road

 

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I’ve only been in India for a week so far but I’m already losing touch with basic things about myself like how I talk to doctors and what I like to eat. When the doctor asks me which cereals I usually consume I’m not sure why I say none, and I don’t even think of it as a weird thing to say until he asks me why and I am unable to answer. He looks at me like I’m insolent and perhaps not very smart and so I play the part and sink down in my chair and say, “I mean, I eat bread and things like bread.”

I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing here, but I’m getting used to this feeling that has been following me for the years I’ve been traveling. I know what I’m doing in Mysore, but not necessarily the clinic. I’m here mostly because I need somewhere to stay, and this is a nice place. From my room on the second floor I can see the sun rising red, and from the common veranda I can sit and watch it in the evening, orange and slipping beneath a horizon of palm fronds and the two reservoir towers on Double Tank Road. I checked myself in yesterday and this is already my third time sitting in this office. The windows are guarded by broad leaves and so the room is dim and seems cool compared to the South Indian scorch that’s surely mounting upon the day beyond them. The doctor’s desk and the arms of the chair I’m sitting in are a dark wood with worn varnish that somehow makes the room familiar. I sit up straight again and the backs of my thighs make a squeaking sound against the vinyl seat. Yesterday he took my pulse and told me I should avoid onion, garlic, chili and hot weather. Today he takes my pulse and asks how I feel. I tell him nauseous and he smiles because that’s normal. He says they’ll bring me food when I feel hungry but not before and that he’ll see me again tomorrow morning. When I stand up to leave I stub my toe on the desk and hurry out of the room like it didn’t hurt.

I came to Mysore to stay with my brother, Michael, for a couple of weeks before travelling around India, which I will do for the next five months. He lives here with his partner, Sanjay, an Australian from the suburbs of Melbourne whom I hadn’t yet met. They moved here to study yoga, and that’s what they do each day. Before I arrived Michael told be they’d bought a small countertop oven and had put on, to an inconclusive level of success, small bake sales outside the studio where they practise. Michael and I haven’t seen much of each other over the past few years. The truth about why I’m no longer staying with them is sensitive, not because of anything embarrassing for me such as needing rehabilitation or being on the run or the fact that I’ve been travelling in search of something only to encounter a perpetual sense of being lost, as in a sense of having lost everything, as in the big things, like myself, all of which are true and not true in varying degrees. It’s sensitive because to my foreign eyes they seem to be unravelling, because my brother seems like a different person, because of a deep sadness, though at this point in time it’s not my place to say.

There are only two others staying here at the clinic. One is a skeletal middle aged man who spends most of his time in his room, or else pacing up and down the upstairs hallway moaning and out of breath. There is also belching. I take this to mean that he is nearing the end of his stay and understand that I have this to look forward to. The other is a female Swami who arrived the day before me. I am shy and have mostly been avoiding her, although we watched the sunset together last night and I have noticed that she likes to read. There is a possibility that she doesn’t like to read all that much, it’s just that the days here are long. I don’t necessarily like to watch television but I’ve been watching the tiny one mounted on the wall above my bed because what else can I do when I’m waiting to get hungry, besides read and ignore my nausea and avoid the Swami so I don’t say anything to embarrass myself, which I’ve already done each morning so far with the doctor. I also wait for Michael to visit, which he said he’ll try and do most days. So I go up to my room from the doctor’s office and sit on my bed. The ghee that I drank this morning before the idols of Hindu gods is heavy in my stomach and I can tell it wants out. The amount will increase daily for the first half of my stay here, and will then be replaced by morning massage and steam treatments, which sound so much better to me, especially because I like ghee, and there’s no way I can know at this point that after I leave here it will be years before I can even smell it again.

My shirodhara treatment is at three. I try to look forward to it because it’s meant to be relaxing, lying swaddled in a linen loin cloth on a table in a warm room, even though I know the smell of hot buttermilk running over my forehead and filling my ears for twenty minutes will make me gag. I know my hair will continue hold its sour scent and when I try to fall asleep I will smell it on my pillow and feel sickish and frustrated. Afterwards, they’ll rub me down with oil and the soles of my feet will be so slick that I will face danger when I stand. Then I will steam in a wooden box with a hole cut in the top from which my neck and head will protrude, and I’ll spend the entire thirty minutes imagining the possibly real spider crawling through the dark quarters within.

*

My first night in India was spent in Bangalore. Michael and Sanjay met me at the airport and we stayed a night in a guesthouse. I rose before dawn covered in itching, weeping welts. In the morning we were served a breakfast of rice and curries on a leaf at a communal table and the boys showed me how to do it, how to scoop with the fingers of my right hand only, to push with my thumb, to not let my fingers into my mouth in the process. We ate a pizza with paneer on it for lunch at a Pizza Hut in a shopping centre. We returned to their apartment in Mysore in a hired car, and it would turn out to be one of very few pleasant transit experiences I would have during my months backpacking around the south. In two weeks’ time I will buy two seats side-by-side on an overnight bus to Ernakulam because I’ve been told this is a good way to avoid violation, and will wake in the night to discover a man in the seat beside me, leaning over me and staring. In ten weeks’ time I will travel in a third-class sleeper car to Mumbai, curled around my backpack on a top bunk, my bag chained and locked to the railing. I will not be able to sleep, and at one point when I turn around in the night I will discover a man leering next to me, his feet on the edge of the lower bunk, his head hovering and glowing somehow in the moonlight that enters through the barred windows. He will sheen from sweat, and I too will be sweaty as I realize that he is attempting to reach up the hem of my cutoffs, and in that moment I will feel exposed and remote, not homesick but homeless, as though it’s been an immeasurable amount of time since I’ve slept somewhere where this hasn’t been a possibility.

They made their spare room for me: plumeria, fresh papaya, a six-mantra chanting box, Nag Champa, and crisp violet bedding folded taut into a pallet on the floor. They were on the second floor of a walkup and had two bedrooms, a narrow kitchen, a wet bathroom, and a large living area decorated with flowers, candles, and cushions tastefully strewn about the floor to make a kind of sitting area. Walking into their house I had the feeling I’d interrupted a long conversation. There was some tension, and my closeness with my brother seemed to drive a wedge into an already forming rift. I felt both welcome and not. I fell asleep to the muted sounds of an argument, words meeting the night with the same dull thud of a boxing glove on a bag.

My first morning with them I woke early and listened to each mantra in the chanting box before rising and going to the living room. It glowed pink from the rising sun, and the air out the window smelled of wood smoke and garbage fires. A cow ambled up the road and when it reached our building it turned toward me and approached the window. A calf hung close to its side, its high pitched moo tentative and heartwarming. The cows and I were watching each other when Michael entered. I saw a man no longer in his early twenties, baby fat given way to angles and sinew, grey hair planting flags in the turf behind his ears. I saw my age in him, too, the small streak forming at my crown, my forearms too tanned and ropey. He asked me if I wanted to feed them and showed me the way they tipped the food waste out the window, how the cow and her calf came moseying over to moo at us and eat the scraps. I asked if he was all right and he shrugged and his glassy blue eyes said he didn’t know, so I asked him to take me to the shop. We bought mangosteen, pomegranate, pineapple, yogurt, badam milk. We sang our songs from childhood. We felt, together, something like home. On the way back to the apartment, crossing Double Tank Road, Michael picked up a terrified puppy and carried it across safely, and the dog was so frightened it tremored in his hands and peed all over the place before Michael put it down again and it scampered away.

We were cutting the fruit for breakfast when Sanjay got up and came into the kitchen, which was barely big enough for two. I saw a look, saw their disappearance into the other room, heard hard whispers. Sanjay came back to the kitchen and told me it was time to go to the market, that it was an amazing market, that I could pick out some new things to try. I covered the fruit plate and put it in the fridge and we hailed a rickshaw to Devaraja. On the way all Sanjay said was, “I feel like getting fresh coconut.”

Walking under the colourful canopies of Devaraja Market I saw mountains of limes and mangoes, starbursts of plantain, spires of spices and incense. I saw hibiscus and lotus and oils and soaps, teas packaged in elegant fabrics. I saw my brother trying to placate a tight-lipped man, I saw his need to please, I saw that somehow my arrival had surfaced something. I said to Sanjay, “I see them.” There was an old man sitting under an umbrella, flanked by mounds of coconuts. When he didn’t respond I said, “Michael, remember that guy at the market in Malacca with the gnarled fingers? Sanjay, did Michael ever tell you about the man at the night market when we were in Malaysia who was trying to prove his healing serum worked by ramming his finger through coconut shells? He asked for a volunteer from the audience and Michael went up there with him and neither of us knew what he was saying and I was so frightened that Michael would have to jam his finger into the coconut, too.” Michael and I laughed, and Sanjay said, “No, he never told me about that,” and Michael said, “Yes I did,” and we all walked right past the coconut vendor and deeper into the market until we were enveloped by the spicy fermenting fug. I stopped and bought some Jasmine and held it close to my face and when Michael looked at me I smiled and held it up to his, long enough for him to take a few breaths.

*

The day after the market Sanjay drove me here to the clinic on the back of his scooter and we said goodbye at the front door. I needed to be somewhere else; it was too much to for me see my brother reduced in a way I’d never seen, to see him bend in ways that made him look like someone else completely. Before driving away, Sanjay told me that a panchakarma cleanse is a great thing to do while in India, that it’s like a rebirth. He warned me that the last day of the cleanse would be spent pacing and moaning and trying not to vomit, and then on the toilet with one of the twenty something bowel movements I’ll have that day. “I’m serious,” he told me. “You shit all day.” Good, I thought. I wondered if this meant I would go home and tell everyone I had found what I was looking for, if this was what people mean when they talk about finding themselves. Just in case, I will check into an ashram in Kerala in about a month from now, earning my room and board by cleaning the rooms and working in the kitchen and, later, tending the vegetable gardens. I will dress in white and meditate in the mornings and evenings under a mango tree. I will stay for weeks until I wake up one day and realize I feel more like a tourist than a disciple, and that the presence of the gift shop grates on my nerves, and will pack my bags, leaving only a note for my roommate, Anat, with whom I will work in the gardens, and who will teach me how most tenderly to relate to the plants. My first night there she and I will be woken by a storm, and we’ll sit up together for hours on the small balcony, sticking our feet through the railing until they are drenched and cool. I will ask why she’s here, and she will tell me she doesn’t know. Anat and I will rescue a baby owl the day before my departure. We will place the owl in a small box with water and an old towel, and leave the box outside our room. In the morning, when I leave, I will find the box is empty, and I will allow myself to feel optimistic.

My room here makes me feel not like a tourist but more like a monk, which somewhere deep down authenticates the whole experience, although the concepts of the authenticity and cultural consumerism will not become a concern I discuss with others for a few years still. The austerity and ascetic lack of comfort make me feel close to the ground and open to anything, but—as will turn out in later conversations with friends about authenticity and travel—these are not conditions that will help my future self feel any more virtuous.

There is a single bed against a single window. A plain brown curtain gathers at one side, waiting to block out the dark once night falls and envelops the coconut palm and elephant ear fronds, the curry tree with its inky gemlike berries. Even when I open the window the sounds of human life outside are obscured by the depth of the foliage and birdsong. There is a desk behind the head of the bed with a simple green desk lamp that is plugged into an outlet on the wall, where I have also plugged in my chanting box so I can listen, each morning and evening, to the gayatri mantra, which has become my favourite. The desk is also where I will begin to discover small silver pinch bowls filled with rock sugar crystals, placed there during my absences. They are for me to suck on to keep at bay the mixture of low energy and nausea that will invariably mount until late in the evenings, when, around nine o’clock, the nausea will subside and I am allowed a meal. The meal will arrive not long after I alert the staff that I am no longer feeling sick, and will consist of plain chapatti, a glass of water and a simple, nourishing dhal. I find the appearance of the crystals to be quaint until I discover how heavily I will come to rely on them.

I only watch the small television when I’m at my most nauseous and therefore in the greatest need of distraction. This applies to all nausea except that of the final day, which will prove too extreme for the television and will drive me out into the common area to pace in agony for the hours before the purge.

Attached to my room is a wet bathroom. I will continue to view it as a luxury rather than a necessity until, again, the final day. There is a toilet with a padded seat, a small basin, and a hand-held shower head hooked high on the wall. Each day two small disposable shampoo packets are replenished, and because of this, and the buttermilk hair, I use them. The shampoo is black, and each morning I wonder what it would do, if anything, to a blonde.

Out my bedroom door is the only indoor common area. There are two tables with four chairs each and an uncomfortable wooden settee with hard worn and faded upholstery up against one of the walls. In the corner near the window is a single cubicle. It is nicked and warped and oddly corporate, a hand-me-down from a local office space perhaps. The chair, too, once ergonomic, is stained and tired, and though it still spins it is stuck in its lowest position and the casters are missing. It is at this desk that I will negotiate the power outages and slow dial-up to email friends, scattered still in different countries, the messages of which will, unbeknownst to me, form the bedrock of the very memories from which I will draw when I think back to this moment, this day, this experience, and write about it.

Every day Michael walks down Double Tank Road to visit me. We sit and read aloud together, and on my last day he will show up with a new book, as if our short time together weren’t about to abruptly end in the following days, as if the time between us were as it was when we were children: endless and yawning around us, always more of it to inhabit together. The book we are reading is by Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, grown siblings learning the world over again. On my last day, though, we won’t read. He will find me upstairs walking in circles, doing my best to forget the nausea. In the morning I will have eaten a generous helping of herbal laxative paste administered by the doctor, and will be under strict instructions to keep it down, no matter how badly it wants out. Michael will stay with me all day, will help me tally my bathroom trips—twenty-two—and will be there still when I am empty and exhausted and served my final meal: plain rice gruel. After I eat we will sit in the dusk together. I will have decided by then to head south, and will say to him, “You can come. Come with me.” He will only smile and say, “You can’t leave tomorrow. You’ll still be too weak.” I will tell him I plan to leave the day after, by train, that I’ll pass back through on my way north in however many weeks it takes me to return. “I don’t want to go,” I will say. “I’m comfortable here.” And we will sit side by side, looking out at the palm fronds and the two tanks, now twin silhouettes against an inky sky.

 

Oct
23

River Mouth

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It was the shoes I saw first. It seemed that I saw the shoes even before I heard the thud, the sliding tires, the shatter, smelled the hot rubber. I watched the shoes in their slow-motion trajectory, the height, the arc, the descent, the astonishing distance from the motionless toes pointing to the centre of the sky. My heartbeat became audible in that moment and I stopped my bike. A man of about seventy was on his back in the middle of the road. A car was up on the adjacent sidewalk, its snout contorted and steaming and wrapped around a lamppost. Two black orthopaedic shoes lay on opposite sides of the intersection, and I found myself stopped and staring down at the left one. I hadn’t wanted to watch, yet I couldn’t ride away, as if I were waiting for a moment in which I could do something to help, as if a moment would come that would allow me to process what I’d just seen. Or not quite seen.

I had left for work at two-thirty in the afternoon. The sun that day was sharp and flat against the roof of the sky. The reeds along the river bank were a wheaty gold, the river itself royal and still. Our little house by the Yoshino river was half a kilometre from the river’s mouth, where it gave itself over to the ocean. Usually, when I left early enough, I would enjoy a leisurely detour along the river path, past the sports fields, the aged joggers, the gradual construction of the new bridge out of town. That day, though, I was running late, which is why I took the main road and found myself fifteen minutes later staring at a body that I was pretty sure wasn’t dead, but could have been dead.

When I heard the ambulance’s siren was when I began to pedal again slowly, the rest of the way to English Square, the private language school on the second floor of a bluish brick building in a part of town called Sako, where I worked. I spent the rest of the day in a daze. My low-intermediate students complained that I was being mean. An advanced high-school student told me I seemed distant.

*

The first of the messages came that afternoon from France. I had just finished a lesson with six-year-old Kayo on the difference between producing the voiced v versus the unvoiced f. The class had come to an end with the two of us sitting opposite each other, Kayo with one hand on her own throat, one on mine, a fine slick of saliva covering the desk between us. She wasn’t really getting it. My next class would be with a group of teenagers, their eyebrows shaved, their English intermediate, their testing of words like shit and homo, their apathy fully formed. I wiped down the table with a fistful of tissue and looked at my phone. There was a message from Winnie, an old friend from Montreal. We had not seen each other in years.

Hey. Are you ok?

I read the message several times before responding. Nice to hear from you! I’m great, thanks. And you?

*

When I had woken that morning from dreaming of spring, the remnants of temperate breezes and cherry blossoms fading with each waking breath, I found the room was cold and so stayed where I was. In March it could go either way, but when spring was ready it would happen overnight, the explosion of pink blossoms in the yard, the sunlight suddenly soft and warm and defeating the cold hardness that oppressed winter’s days. I lay in bed listening to the neighbourhood. Tokushima Elementary School was behind our house, and each morning the school greeter, a child who remained anonymous to me but whose voice I had come to detest, would stand at the school’s entrance bellowing Ohayo-gozaimasu (good morning) repeatedly for fifteen minutes before the first bell rang. I always wondered how the other children felt about him, coming to the conclusion that had he gone to my elementary school he would have been the object of relentless teasing and minor assaults.

I had been living in that house for nearly a year, which is remarkable considering that after waking there for the first time, when it was still just Aaron’s house, I looked around his room and asked him if he was squatting. (I recently rediscovered on my old computer a short video I made for a friend back in Canada, which included a guided tour of my house, me moving from room to room. About two minutes in, during an explanation of my closet, which I had DIYed with a metal pole balanced on two door frames across the hallway at the top of the stairs, I interrupt my own narration with laughter, saying aloud, What am I thinking? I can’t send you this, you’ll worry. I’m still laughing when the video cuts off.)

*

The second message came from Montreal around eight o’clock, just before I began my final lesson for the day with the mute fifteen-year-old returnee, Saori. Saori was nearly fluent, but impudent, and each week I was an intentional five minutes late for the lesson. I ate a tuna rice ball outside the classroom and read the message, this one from Gillian in Montreal.

I love you. Send me a message when you can.

I wrote back. Love you, too! Skype tomorrow? I swallowed the rice and entered the room.

“Hello Saori. How are you?”

“Did you do anything interesting this week?”

“How was your rhythmic gymnastics performance last weekend?”

“Ok, what was in the news today?”

“Sendai was in the news.”

“What happened in Sendai?”

“Sendai had an earthquake.”

“Really? Was it a big one?” I recalled the last earthquake we’d had in Tokushima, a few weeks previous. I was in a class of six junior-high girls who vacillated between dying for my approval and not giving a shit about anything that came out of my mouth. They were all smart, all wily, all banded together throughout their various tactics of dissent, and this made them my most frustrating group. They were frequently baited with the promise of Pictionary, and more frequently punished with textbook readings that were slightly above their level. I became a master of ignoring their pleas. The day of the most recent earthquake they all suddenly started shrieking and took cover beneath the table. Later I found out it had been a five-point-four, but I hadn’t felt it at the time and thus scolded the girls for misbehaving.

“I don’t know how big.”

“Okay. Anything else you want to talk about?”

“Please open to page 84.”

*

It was nine-thirty when I locked up the classrooms and the office. It was a Friday night, which meant Aaron wouldn’t be home for another hour. An avid and characteristically obsessed triathlete, he cycled forty kilometres each way to work three days a week along the river path, coming home in a sheen of spandex and sweat, the beam from his high-powered headlamp lighting up the windows as he pulled into the driveway. I didn’t like being the first one home. Without him there it felt to me like a shell, made me feel temporary. We met at a cherry blossom festival just as I had been planning to move away. Instead, a month later he asked me to move in. The rent was cheap and the house—one side of a duplex­—was in disrepair, but there was a garden out the back and all the faucets worked and I had a room to myself on the upper floor for reading and writing and binge-watching downloaded episodes of 30 Rock, as was the style at the time. I eventually learned to look past the torn paper doors, the water-marked Snoopy wallpaper in one of the upstairs rooms, the occasional centipede, the scent of humidity stored in the warped wooden walls. I had found a kind of love there, which made me feel I had found a kind of home.

Riding back, the streets were emptier than usual. There was no traffic, no groups of uniformed teenagers biking home on the sidewalks, four-abreast, from their night schools. I turned off the main road toward the river, and when I got to the river path I found it barricaded. Neon-clad officers waved glowing orange sabres at me, indicating a detour back the way I came. The night was still and wan, the river silent. I asked in Japanese if everything was okay, but the man spoke too quickly for me to understand so I thanked him, turned around, and rode home through the deserted city streets.

*

The third message was waiting when I got home. This one was a voice message from Jon, a friend from my days teaching in South Korea, who now lived in Ottawa.

Alison, hey. Please tell me you’re okay. I’m just watching the news. Call me when you can. I need to hear you’re all right.

It was just after ten o’clock when I opened my laptop. I went to the BBC and clicked on the first video link, which was titled “Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan.” A wave like a wall. Houses afloat. Screaming. Drivers stepping out of doomed vehicles in attempts to escape a crushing fate. I opened another tab and went to the Japan Meteorological Agency website. Tokushima was under extreme tsunami warning. Aftershocks were predicted. The rivers were meant to rise. I called Aaron but he didn’t answer. I tried not to worry; he often didn’t answer when he was riding. I put the kettle on and thought of him speeding through the dark beside that black strip of river, headed home to the point where it fed the ocean.

I waited for the water to boil and looked at a map. We were more than seven-hundred kilometres south of the epicentre off the coast of Miyagi prefecture. Surely, I thought, that’s far enough. I watched another video on YouTube. Homes and cars and cities swirling together like leaves in a gutter. I called Jon.

“Alison, I can not tell you how relieved I am to hear your voice.”

“Thanks for your message. I’m just watching these videos, and—”

“Are you okay?”

I told him we were really far from it all, that I didn’t even know it had happened until I got home from work just then. I told him it was crazy. Sad. Frightening.

He told me about a nuclear plant. “The news here says some reactor’s melting down. They’re talking about Chernobyl.”

I imagined ash, masks, limbless dolls, silence. I thought of Aaron and thanked Jon for calling, told him I had to go. He asked that I email him in the morning, to let him know I was still there.

I dialled Aaron again. There was still no answer. I made tea and didn’t know what to do next. The North American news coverage was sensational, depicting Japan as an island nation under threat, a speck in the blue that could be taken by the sea, toppled from below, choked by clouds of radioactivity the moment the wind changed. The Japanese news was vague and difficult for me to understand. The power was out in Tokyo, the streets gridlocked with vehicles and debris. Bicycle stores were broken into, bicycles stolen by people desperate to get home. I imagined my parents waking up on the west coast in a few hours, switching on the CBC, hearts rocketing to throats. I sent them an email.

I turned off the lights and slid open the back door. This was my favourite spot in the house, the narrow stoop that faced out over our vegetable garden, still a month at least from being planted. I could see up to the lights blinking like stars in a children’s book on top of Mount Bizan. Another high-school student of mine, Kazuya, had been telling me the week before about his emergency backpack. He kept it in his bedroom beside his desk, he told me. It had clothes, food, a multitool, a torch, and a blanket. He would seek elevation, running to the top of Bizan. He had a map with various routes demarcated for all possible contingencies. He said that was where he was most likely to survive.

I sat down on the stoop and drank my tea and listened. I breathed in. The temperature had dropped and the night was silent. I imagined myself stranded by my lack of language, left alone in our riverside suburb, even the neighbours incapable of communication. I looked over at the darkened windows next door. I remembered the day the old lady brought over a pumpkin she’d grown, and the day the old man had not swerved his car from me as I was walking up our narrow street. I’d had to jump out of the way, flattening myself against a chain link fence in order not to be hit.

I slid the door closed again and walked through the darkness, climbed the stairs, pressed my forehead against my upstairs window, rang Aaron again. Seven-hundred kilometres, I told myself, is far enough. I knew he wouldn’t answer. Looking out over the neighbourhood I could make out the boundary where the street lights ended, the strip of emptiness, watery and black. I imagined the houses coming loose from their foundations, water rushing from their first and second floor windows, and drifting towards me. Eventually the houses would collide and the water would push and push and sweep me even further. The convenience store across the street would overflow, the parking lot filling with floating bento boxes, junk food, cigarette cartons, the packaging distended and bloating. I wondered how I would feel, how long until I would leave. I thought of those people up north, huddled in the cold, their cities erased, their homes now figments of the past. I thought of my own home on the other side of the world, waiting there, physically intact. I tried to recall its parameters, its smell, the number of stairs leading up to the front door.

Oct
08

Flatmate Finders

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The rail lines have warped and everyone on the train dies a little bit. Sweat pools on the floor around my feet, which if I had more energy would make me feel gross and ashamed. Instead I concentrate on the speed at which sweat beads course down my shins. I have never seen this before; I wasn’t actually sure my shins could sweat. Now I know everything does. Each passenger is perfectly still, clothes soaked through, each face contorted and suspended in agony like we’re all stuck together in an antiquated religious painting. The Perils of the Underworld. The train is stopped just outside Brunswick station, and from the speaker above my head all I hear is static. Outside is a forty-three-degree day in January. We’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes.

I text Josephine, moving my fingers extra slowly. So sorry! Still on the train. Hopefully there in 10–15. Looking forward to meeting you. Out the windows stranded cars stretch in each direction, blocked by the train. I get a text back almost instantly: No worries. A large woman in the carriage with perfect posture and closed eyes says aloud “Fuckin’ hell” as she wipes her forehead with a defeated hand and everyone in earshot stirs. I feel a mounting urge to brush my teeth. I move my tongue around my mouth, first along the slick front surfaces of the top row, then the bottom. I press its sides into the jagged crags on the business surface of my top molars. I worry the retainer glued across the backs of my bottom four front teeth, inserted there twenty years ago by Dr Robertson, an orthodontist with coffee breath. Nick always tells me to start counting when the urge comes, and so I do.

Nick and I met at the University of Melbourne, and by the time I started my thesis I was sometimes up to seven, eight times a day. It started as strictly an oral thing. The brushing, I mean. I had quit smoking a couple years earlier, a habit that had gracefully entwined itself with my writing process, and brushing became a simulacrum for the disgusting, wonderful ritual of paragraph smoke paragraph smoke delete delete smoke. It then developed into a procrastination strategy before evolving into an anxiety management mechanism. How can you feel bad about yourself—and your lack of ideas and the fact that you’re a mere imposter not only as a writer but also as a functioning human—while you’re taking such thorough care of your pearly whites?

Nick was appalled. On days we didn’t see each other he’d call in for a count. I began complaining of gum recession and nerve sensitivity. One day after I’d told him I wouldn’t be joining him for gelato due to the pain that had begun to shiver up from my lower gums, he tracked me down in the office we shared in the graduate building and dropped his copy of Infinite Jest on the desk. He’d bookmarked the section near the end about an obsessive compulsive tooth brusher. I revisited it. There was blood. And psychosis. Lots of it.

The train suddenly grinds forward and I lose my balance.

Stepping onto the platform I discover the air feels cool. This lasts for a few seconds until a breeze comes, the same breeze that rushes up at you when you open your oven door. I turn left on Albert Street. This is my second year in Melbourne, and even though I haven’t spent much time in this part of town I keep feeling as though I recognize things. Shortly after arriving in 2012 a new friend took me to a cafe in which we ate breakfast, in which we chatted over flat whites, in which I finally realised shortly before we left that I’d been there before, several years earlier when I came to visit my brother, Michael, during the period that he called Melbourne home. The recognition yielded both comfort and a minor terror—not unlike the paranoid sense of being followed before reminding yourself you’re being a bit mad because you are in fact not being followed—and ever since that time I always wonder if I’ve ended up retracing steps I have no memory of, if that Edwardian iron lattice just looks familiar or if it actually is.

The people I pass on the street are slow moving and good looking, skinny topless men with bare feet smoking cigarettes through beards, thin women wearing nothing but oversize t-shirts and Doc Martens. They are dry-skinned and effortless and this makes me feel florid and damp. My tongue goes clockwise, then anti. I ring the doorbell at number 106.

A woman opens the door. Her sleeveless blouse billows, her cigarette crops precise and architectural, her fingernails talonesque and iridescent. She stands and looks at me blankly, the tips of her mascara-choked lashes encroaching on eyebrow territory. When she blinks I think first of monarch wings and milkweed, second of Venus fly traps.

“Can I help you?” she says, expressionless still.

“Hi, Josephine? I’m Alison. I’m so sorry I’m late.”

“Oh hi! No worries,” she says. “You know you look nothing like your photo. Your hair is a completely different colour.” She awaits my rejoinder and I am at a loss; that photo was taken a week ago, when I decided it was time to start looking. I touch a strand near the front, twist it around my index finger and look at it, searching for a difference, searching for a response. When I say nothing, she continues. “This heat! Come in come in come in!” She steps back to make space for me, holding the door open with one arm outstretched so that when I enter the doorway it’s like I’m entering an embrace. Her perfume reminds me of how Michael and I used to rub our wrists and necks with the paper perfume sample flaps found in the fashion magazines that littered ubiquitous small glass tables in the various waiting rooms of our childhood. They had always already been opened, the scent faded and degraded to a lingering sweetness. It’s a marvel our mother took us with her anywhere. Anyway, Josephine smells like one of those flaps.

She leads me into the living room, which is mercifully cool.

“I know it’s hot, but would you like a cuppa?”

The idea of hot tea makes me want to cry, so I say, “Actually a glass of water would be lovely.”

The house is fairly new and very clean, the walls an elegant grey contrasting ornate white mouldings and trim. There are fabric swatches covering a dark wood dining table with a sewing machine set up at the far end, countless spools surrounding it, standing guard. There is a small den off the front of the living room with a bay window, which is clearly a study of sorts; it brims with books, shelves, textile projects in progress and stacks of loose-leaf both free and bound. I decide Josephine is interesting and refined, an intellectual and an artist.

She brings me a glass of water. Her pearl grey blouse is nearly the same as the fabric of the sofa, so that when we sit down she and the sofa seem to become one.

“This is a very nice room,” I tell her. She thanks me and tells me she really thinks it reflects a lot about her as a person. The way she says it, though, it sounds like she’s asking me a question. “I bought it about six years ago?” she says. “It’s a two bedroom? You’d be taking Lucy’s room, which I’ll show you when we do the grand tour?”

Josephine and I were matched by an online house-hunting service called Flatmate Finders. Going through my matches each day makes me feel like I’m dating. How disappointing when they meet all your criteria while you meet none of theirs, how thrilling to find profiles that do not use phrases like I enjoy a laugh (or chat or yarn), a shared meal (or a movie or a TV binge) and a cheeky glass of champas (or wine or a pint) from time to time, but I like to do my own thing too. I had to Google champas. Now that I’m here in her living room, sitting side-by-side with her on an overstuffed grey sofa with our knees pointing vaguely toward each other, it feels even more like dating. We chat about likes, dislikes, and utilities.

“I love to sew,” she says. “I make purses. Handbags? But I never really finish them?” Her face is warm and she laughs at herself, so I laugh with her, because she is nice and I know what it’s like to sometimes not finish things. I look again at the fabric strewn on various surfaces in the room and see quite clearly now that they are bags in various stages of incompletion. My tongue finds my front teeth, just briefly.

“I love your accent,” she says suddenly. People comment on my accent frequently, and it’s taking me a while to get used to the idea that I have an accent, as well as the fact that people are so forthcoming about commenting on it. I am glad when she asks me where I’m from rather than guessing, as most people do. Most people guess wrong: Ireland, England, the States, and once, Holland.

“I’m from Canada,” I tell her. “The west coast originally.”

“I love Canadians,” she says as she sits up straight, her eyes opening a bit wider, lashes flaring. I find this claim to be both hyperbolic and unlikely, until she goes on to tell me that she used to live with a Canadian. “My first housemate here was from the west coast, too. Vancouver. She was such a good housemate. We’re still great friends.”

I tell her that I, too, know a few other Canadians here, and that my brother spent several years here as well.

“Amazing,” she says.

There is a pause as we sip our water. I can feel it warming up in here, the cool contrast from when I first stepped inside waning. I can feel a trickle of sweat running down my chest and notice the watery rings on the coffee table left behind from our glasses. Josephine settles more deeply into the sofa and folds her hands in her lap. She is thinking of something to say next. So am I. I want to ask if the house has air conditioning, but I don’t want to be rude so I just put my empty water glass on the table and stretch out my legs a little to air out the backs of my knees. I wonder if she feels she already knows enough about me, if she’s reached the necessary judgement of a complete stranger, as if it were possible to know enough about a person in fifteen minutes to be certain that they would be a good candidate to move into your home, to share your shower, to drink from the same glasses, to eat from your fridge, to possibly engage in minor reciprocal snooping.

I manage to break the silence first. “Where does your old housemate live now?”

“She married an Aussie and moved to the country and I hardly see her. It’s funny how life is, don’t you think? She comes here for the experience, meets the man of her dreams, has twins, has a destination wedding, and—” She smiles and shrugs and it means c’est la vie.

She is waiting for me to agree with her, to nod my head at her philosophizing and say something like exactly or totally, but something in me has constricted. My tongue slides back and forth between upper and lower molars. Josephine notices the tremor in my mouth but says nothing, just watches the slight shifting of my jaw.

“This might sound a little crazy,” I say. “But did your Canadian friend by any chance work in architecture?”

“Yes,” Josephine says, drawing out the word. There is caution in both her tone and facial expression. I notice a smudge of mascara now beneath her left eye. “A draftsperson.”

“Is her name Jen? And was her wedding in Hawaii?”

When Michael lived in Melbourne he had a Canadian friend, too. Her name was Jen and she was from Vancouver and worked in architecture and when I came to visit we spent quite a bit of time together. We went to see an Almodóvar film at Cinema Nova. We went for dumplings in a laneway. I even spent Christmas and New Years Eve with her. I also know that Michael, long since back in Canada, recently went to Jen’s wedding in Hawaii. I already know about her, about the Aussie hubby and twin bubs. I know her.

“Yes! Jen! Oh my god, you know her?”

I explain the connection and we look at each other, baffled by this coincidence. Then, she gasps. “Wait,” she says. “Your brother’s not Michael, is he?

I hope I am smiling, though it feels like I’m gaping. “He is.” I say words like wow and amazing and I find this to be a bizarre conversation to be having with a stranger I’ve been paired with by an algorithm.

“I love Michael! So tall and handsome. You know, now I can see the resemblance. You are very, very similar.” Josephine stares at me for a long time, and the smile drips from her face until the look she’s left giving me is perplexed and accusatory.

“We are,” I say. “People often say that.”

“But it’s not necessarily how you look,” she says, concentrating still on my face, tilting her head to the side. “It’s the way you speak, the way you move.”

It seems there is nothing left to say. I notice that Josephine is sweating. Her foundation is sliding, clearing space around her overflowing pores, exposing the greyish blue pouches under her eyes. She smiles quickly, the way strangers do when they pass on the sidewalk, open and closed with a raising of eyebrows, and I can see lipstick on her teeth. I emit a noise that is both a sigh and laugh. Just as she does the same, a key turns in the lock and the front door swings open. Butter-coloured light slices through the room, and I realise how dark and heavy the air is, how the windows are almost entirely obscured by piles of things: books with titles like Chicken Soup for the Female Entrepreneur’s Soul, uneven stacks of ragged gossip magazines, the unfinished bags with pins sticking out of them in every direction. They look violent.

“That’s Lucy,” says Josephine without turning around. “She’s the one leaving.” Lucy peers at us through the silence. Still without turning around, Josephine says, “Stay out of your room for a bit, okay? You can just wait in the hall while I show Alison around.”

Lucy drops her bag and comes to sit with us in the living room. We both say Hi. “So, you might be moving in.” She is telling, not asking. Her face is red from the heat and sullen. My tongue twitches around my mouth like an insect in a jar.

“Let’s go upstairs and I’ll give you the tour,” says Josephine. She lifts herself off the sofa with effort, coming unstuck. Her blouse now clings to her with moisture. On the grey back cushion she leaves behind a triangular wet patch, jagged as a giant arrowhead, and on the seat a love heart. I stand too and look apologetically at Lucy.

“Actually,” I say. “May I please use your bathroom first?” Josephine points and I excuse myself.

I stare in the mirror. My teeth feel too big for my mouth. There is something dark and troubling about such encounters. Again, the feeling of being followed, of a shadow—the past—lurking. I once ran into an old friend from Concordia University, whom I hadn’t seen for years, on a crowded train platform in Kyoto. It turned out we had both moved to different cities in Japan the previous month. When I first saw her I doubted my perception, and when our eyes met there was a distinct pause, a moment in which we both second-guessed the possibility of such fortuity. Because really, how is something like this possible.

I am stealthy as I open and close cabinet doors, as I move products to search behind them, careful to return them to their original positions. I find what I’m looking for in a top drawer: a small forgotten spool of floss. Waxed. Mint. It’ll do. I help myself. After all, she’s a friend of a friend.

Sep
30

Foreign Food

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The biggest reason I was able to live in a small city in Japan for as long as I did was a seventy-one-year-old woman named Tama. Despite a language barrier that ensured our deep thoughts and the complexities of our personalities would remain a mystery to one another, we got on well and saw each other weekly. She cared for me, taking me to the hospital once in summer for severe dehydration (after an ill-advised half-marathon run on a hot day with a new long-distance group), and again in winter for a torn calf muscle (after crashing over an icy mogul on a ski slope). We taught each other our languages. We went out for meals. She delivered vegetables from her garden to my door and taught me not to plant my tomatoes near my eggplants. We often cooked together. She showed me how to make Japanese dishes like tempura, agedashi tofu, and gyoza, while I taught her to make truly mundane dishes that she repeatedly requested, despite my insistence that we could do better than spaghetti bolognese, fancy sandwiches, and banana bread. (The banana bread episode was a real debacle. She had invited her friends for this particular demonstration, so I was properly on display. Her minuscule oven—it was unclear to me whether it had been bought for the occasion or unused for years—malfunctioned and the bread wouldn’t bake, so of course, due to politeness protocol, I later found myself sitting at her table surrounded by nine septuagenarians smiling and eating what was essentially warm banana batter from bowls with spoons, nodding and telling me it was delicious.) Food was a large part of our friendship.

Food was also one of the most persistent reminders that I was living somewhere foreign. One evening, my Australian friend Aaron and I decided we would finally try the little yakitori restaurant down a small alley in our neighbourhood. We had noticed it many times, and since the kanji for yakitori was one of the few I had memorized at that point, in a way our meal there seemed predestined. (For the uninitiated, yakitori translates to grilled chicken, and consists of skewered chicken pieces [and chicken parts] cooked over charcoal and seasoned, most commonly with salt or a sweet sauce. It’s really really good.) The interior was small and wooden, and there were a few stools lined up in front of a counter dotted with ceramic condiment vessels and ash trays. When a man came out from the back, he greeted us warmly. The menu was handwritten and had no photos, so I asked him to please bring us a dish of his recommendation. When he returned some time later with our meal, we were puzzled.

“Hey,” I said to Aaron. “Aren’t we in a chicken place?”

“Yes.”

“Why do you think he brought us sashimi?”

Aaron shrugged and said “Itadakimasu,” (bon appétit) and we cracked apart our chopsticks. Before us was a beautiful plating of pale pink sashimi, scattered with paper-thin garlic slices and delicate curls of chili peppers. Two small dishes of sauce perched artfully on the side. The man stood back and waited eagerly for us to taste the dish he had prepared. I put a piece in my mouth, and it wasn’t until it had been in there a while that I realized what I was eating. It was chicken. It was raw. It was confronting. It was delicious. I probably wouldn’t eat it again.

I like to eat and to cook Japanese food, and so I didn’t often miss food from home. Until suddenly I did. Acutely. I would find myself blindsided by an intense craving for nachos. My whole body wanted nachos. Gherrrrd, I needed nachos. Or garlic dill pickles. Or granola. Hummus! Brieee!! And then I didn’t—the moment would pass and I’d continue munching on my tuna rice ball. Because I couldn’t shop for those things on a regular basis, I didn’t think of them all that much. But then one day an opportunity presented itself, and I went all the way.

Nothing is less Japanese than Costco, except perhaps eating standing up, super-sized fries, road rage, and Christmas. Wholesale megastores are decidedly out of place among the other food buying options that side of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Even in the average Tokushima grocery store one would not find the shopping trolleys that come standard in North American shops, and while big supermarket chains are prevalent there, boasting long wide aisles of processed poisons, there was not a POS conveyor belt in sight. People there just don’t really buy big, which may be one reason why in Canada I’m a size M, and in Japan I’m like a double XL.

That said, there was a Costco in Amagasaki, just two hours of bridges and highways from Tokushima, and one day Tama invited Aaron and I to go there with her. We had spoken of it during a culinary discussion over dinner at Tama’s several months earlier. We told her of a place, a large and distant and brilliantly lit place boasting high ceilings and delicacies such as dill pickles, Spanish olives, Havarti cheese, chocolate by the kilogram, and granola.

“It’s cheap,” we told her. “Big and cheap.”

This is the conversation that led to her one day borrowing a friend’s Costco card, the three of us piling into her tiny square Mitsubishi, and driving the pricey highways to Hyogo prefecture.

We arrived and parked. We negotiated throngs of Sunday afternoon shoppers mindlessly pushing jumbo trolleys full of jumbo miso, jumbo mayo, jumbo nori, jumbo chocolate-covered pretzels. We jumbo shopped. Pushing past my food-mileage-related guilt, I selected some mascarpone. Giving in to homesickness, I seized tortillas and salsa. We piled high the olives and pickles and biscuits and muffins and Corn Flakes and bricks of aged cheddar and garbanzo beans and even jelly beans.

The contents of Tama’s cart were sparse: tissues, cling wrap, sliced beef, and a package of a stomach-turning product so perplexing and revolting I couldn’t keep my eyes away. Through the transparent wrapper I saw eight chubby, sausage-shaped processed meat products wrapped around bones. Actual bones. If you can somehow imagine a meat popsicle—a collection of processed animal parts wrapped around a recycled bone from some unfortunate and unidentifiable animal species—this was it. A sausage with a bone jammed up inside. Tama’s judgment had clearly been impaired by the overwhelming experience that was Costco. I hurried away from her.

After the shame-inducing checkout experience, during which we watched our gluttony gliding along before us on a rubber conveyor, we paid a visit to the grimy-floored food court. The look on Tama’s face when we ordered our 200¥ ($2) lunch combos and were handed 20oz disposable cups with foil-wrapped pizza slices inside them was one of sheer bewilderment. We apologized to her many times over the course of the afternoon, embarrassed to have this greedy, gross side of our culture revealed to her so nakedly. I realized that a place like Costco was intrinsic to the perpetuation—validation—of negative stereotypes, stereotypes I lived with each time someone’s jaw dropped when I told them that I could use chopsticks, I ate vegetables, I didn’t eat meat three times a day, and that hamburgers were not my favourite food.

Tama announced on the drive home that she would like us all to visit Costco monthly, and that she’d like to have us over for dinner the following evening.

*

When we got to Tama’s house the next day she met us in her driveway and I presented her with a box of beautifully over-packaged cookies. She disappeared into the house and returned brandishing a bag of perfect red apples, each nestled in its own protective foam netting. I tried to resist, repeatedly refusing them, but ended up bowing a thousand times and putting them in the backseat before we all went inside. I learned another of the myriad important lessons when it comes to the complex practice of gift giving in Japan: wait until the very end, literally until you are saying goodbye and getting into the car to drive home, before you present your gift to the host. Otherwise she will in return give you a gift from her personal stash, an act dictated by custom that will leave you feeling greedy and deflated—you came with a meagre box of cookies and will be leaving with a full stomach and probably all of her apples.

We followed the cooking aromas into the kitchen. Gyoza, vegetable soup, squid tempura caught that day by Tama’s husband. I could see a bowl of potato salad, a dish of gomae, and something else sizzling away in a fry pan. I elbowed Aaron and whispered, “Look on the stove,” and he did, then looked back at me, expressionless and shaken. The meat popsicles. I could feel my throat constricting as I realized that at some point very soon I would actually have to raise one of these abominations to my lips and politely eat it, even pretend to enjoy it.

While I didn’t deem such monstrosities worthy of pre-gustation discussion, and didn’t wish to seem impolite, Aaron luckily had no such qualms.

“What are those?” he said.

“What?” said Tama.

“Those things in the pan.”

Tama, who was slicing vegetables at the counter, blinked. She looked at me then back at him. She seemed worried that she was being tricked. “Frankfurters,” she said. Tama was puzzled by this question because she believed she was preparing western food for her western guests, and therefore that we should already be familiar with, and even excited to enjoy, this taste of home.

If these are enjoyed anywhere in the world, it is surely by a remote few who keep it as a shameful secret.

Aaron continued. “Is that a bone?”

“Yes.”

“From what animal?”

“Chicken. Maybe. Maybe pig.”

“Why?”

Now Tama stopped what she was doing—dressing the boneless green salad—and turned and looked at us. It was a long hard look, both accusatory and nonplussed. I smiled through the silence, stopping only when I realized my eyebrows were raised and I was grimacing a little. “Why why?” she said. Tama was clearly stunned.

This was not the only food I encountered in Japan that had been embraced and marketed as something foreign. Such delicacies could be spotted in the American Food section of a menu along with fried potato (fries) and corn soup. I once got in an argument with a ten-year-old student of mine during a discussion about our favourite foods. This took place shortly after my arrival in Japan and I had not yet encountered the family restaurant favourite known as hamburg (pronounced ham-bah-gu):

Me:                  What’s your favourite food?

Yoshitoki:        Hamburg.

Me:                  No no, your favourite food.

Yoshitoki:        Hamburg.

Me:                  You mean hamburger.

Yoshitoki:        Hamburg!

I went on to explain to little Yoshitoki that there was no such thing, that Hamburg is a city in Germany, not something to eat. I even showed him a map. I mistook his silence for concession, though realistically his English conversation abilities were insufficient to hold ground in an argument with his ignorant new teacher. Only later did I discover hamburg on a menu. I ordered it in an act of atonement. What arrived before me was a greyish ground beef patty dripping with brown sauce and accompanied by a cube of fried chicken and a limp broccoli floret.

After a few more moments of silence Aaron continued. “I mean, why a bone?”

Tama gave the only answer there could possibly be: “To hold.”

When the time came I ate the monster quickly and efficiently, and even though the processed meat itself tasted of any other hot dog, my gag reflex required that I douse the beast in the ketchup and mustard Tama had thoughtfully put on the table next to the soy sauce and matcha salt. When I got down to the recycled bone of ambiguous origin I held my breath. I was contemplating what amount of processed mystery meat would be acceptable for a person to leave on the chicken bone or pork bone or whatever it was when I noticed Tama, still shaken by our incomprehensible line of questioning, observing us. When I saw the pleasure she was taking in watching us enjoy her Frankfurters I took a breath, closed my eyes and went for it. Distracting myself with thoughts of the awaiting gyoza, I nibbled that bone-stick clean.

Aaron was offered a second and, after feigning indecision for a mere moment, he accepted. A teeny bit of my respect for him floated away. I reached for the salad, feeing triumphant in having endured my first “Frankfurter.” I hid the bone under a lettuce leaf, sipped my beer, and got on with my life.

Sep
07

Getting Hit: A Casual Cyclist’s Guide

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Photo caption: Worst pic of us in existence. Quite pleased to have found a use for it.


For those of you who didn’t get the memo: cycling in the city is dangerous! Cyclists and drivers seem to come from two different planets, and despite the fact that so many of them move regularly between the two modes, they really, very much seem to despise each other.

As a long-time bicycle commuter, car driver, flâneuse and road-use generalist, I have found myself at various levels of victimized by drivers and cyclists – and the odd pedestrian – alike. Roads the world over are not places of peace, and the way in which we use vehicles reflects more and more the way in which we – I refer chiefly to city-dwellers here – exist in society: as solitary beasts in competition with strangers, falling out of practice applying community principles such as sharing, empathy, patience, and resilience. I have been squeezed by a moving car into a row of parallel-parked cars. I have been kicked by a man in a suit who was standing on the footpath as I rode past. I have had a bottle thrown at me from the window of a moving bus. I have had drivers bump my back tire, race ahead of me only to cut me off, drive up close to me and scream suddenly in my ear, drive slowly alongside me at night for a kilometre or so, yell lewd comments, and give me the finger while hurling abuse as I rode in a wide bike lane, sopping wet and freezing, through a sudden deluge.

Cyclists can be real dills too. They can be self righteous, darting in front of cars to prove a point or acting aggressively towards other cyclists; careless, not signalling, and riding two or three abreast as traffic piles up behind them; dangerous, running lights and stop signs, and failing to warn other road users of their approach; and stupid, cycling on the wrong side of the road at night with no lights while smoking and checking Facebook with ear buds in (FYI, offenders: any one of those things alone makes you look like a real twit). Stopped at a red light one day, I tapped the cyclist in front of me to let him know that I’d noticed his back wheel was beginning to wobble. He looked at me as though I’d just slashed his tire, then rolled his eyes and rode away when the light changed.

I’ve also been hit by a car. I was lucky and escaped relatively unscathed. My position on accidents is that if you ride regularly, this – or something like it, such as being doored or run off the road by a taxi – is eventually going to happen. For your convenience, I have prepared the following ten bits of wisdom to keep in mind to prevent this from happening to you, or for dealing with it if it does.

  1. Refrain from biking downtown with your boyfriend on a Saturday afternoon because you’ve had enough of winter and you have your sights set on a queen-sized electric blanket that’s on sale at Target. In fact, just vow to stop letting your boyfriend talk you into buying blankets and electronics in general – convince yourself it was just a fluke that you ended up using that little AM/FM radio so much. Also, it’s just best not to shop at Target. Every time you go there, something – the lighting? the fat noisy children eating messy sweets? the questionable quality of the merchandise? – tells you that you should leave.
  1. Actually, if it’s not too late for you, reconsider going to university. The student life is largely to blame for the temptation to shop at discount department stores, and if you spend too much time within their fluorescent, mildly flickering white walls it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself wearing body spray, reading young adult fiction, purchasing Gone With the Wind and The da Vinci Code on Blu-ray, making arguments in defence of the film Air Bud – your mouth aggressively sweet smelling and stained red from an entire package of off-brand licorice – and buying things like queen-sized electric blankets because you can’t afford to rent a heated room. Being a student will also make it difficult to afford to repair any future damage to your bicycle, which you ride for equal parts fun factor, high-horsedness (it’s a pretty big bike because you’re quite tall), a daily excuse to ring bells, and to save money on public transportation.
  1. While riding home feeling pleased that the cube of plastic-packaged blanket fits perfectly into your rear basket, resist – and this is a big one – the urge to stop at The Drunken Poet for a drink and a chat about narratology (again, university and its hovering fug of pretentiousness bites you in the butt) with your fella. You know drinking and cycling is dumb – a lesson you learned in 2009 while biking home from Ingrid’s International Bar in the wee hours one morning with your friend Jasmine through the empty streets of Myodo, Japan, a ride during which you both managed to buckle your front wheels and stagger home after that garden wall came out of nowhere – but you also know that a single Guinness made to last over a drawn-out gush sesh about your mutual love for Michael Pemulis will not do you in. But no matter how you slice it, should a road accident occur later in the afternoon, a pint at The Drunken Poet is incriminating. It’s especially ill-advised if you’re a poet, so if this applies to you I suggest changing course immediately and taking up narrative nonfiction instead. Seriously, start a blog or something.
  1. On the way home, don’t bother riding in the bike lane, even though the road you’re using has a nice cushy wide one. In fact, don’t bother with your front and rear lights, your beloved bell, or those reflective strips on your helmet either. That Lexus coming along a side road will run the stop sign and T-bone you anyway, no matter how aware you are of the encroaching dusk, of the slight drizzle that’s beginning to gather on your eyelashes.
  1. If you find that you’re the boyfriend in this scenario, don’t ride too close behind. Keep your distance or that car will take you both out in one go. You’ll end up on the grassy median, mud ground deep into the wool of your favourite navy pea coat.
  1. Go with your inability to move. The shock will keep you there, pinned by your bicycle to the pavement and immobile, but when the urge comes to get up, I say fight it. When another cyclist casually rides past the scene of the accident and the urge comes to call him a sociopath, I say go with it. Even though you might be numb and uncertain how injured you are, don’t lock your bikes to the nearest pole and allow the driver – who in your memory looks like Al Bundy with Magnum P.I. hair, a Danny Tanner sweatshirt, and Napoleon Dynamite glasses – to drive you to emergency. In other words, don’t leave. Call the police and hold your ground, dummy! In the event that you do go with him, take his card, get checked out, take a tram home, have a whiskey, compare blossoming bruises. Don’t bother calling the driver to inform him that there are no serious injuries – despite him taking you to the hospital, he’ll soon reveal that he is not a decent guy.
  1. The next day, have your bikes assessed for damage at that bike shop near the train line run by that nice bearded hipster. When he says $400 all up for both bikes, feel good about it being a relatively low amount that you’ll be asking the driver for. The bike guy says he’ll sign a statement attesting to the type of damage to the bikes and how it was most likely incurred. Don’t bother taking him up on this – you’ll soon learn that you have few rights, and despite how much trouble you go through compiling a case, it’s the driver’s word against yours. When you report the accident with the local police, resist the urge to verbally object to the officer’s apathy and indifference.
  1. Don’t ask the driver for money, don’t expect the driver to accept responsibility, don’t bother the poor pro bono lawyer you read about on the university student services website, don’t file a claim with the transport accident commission, don’t ask for support from the local cyclist’s support network, and don’t tweet anything about the accident that the driver could consider defamatory (you will find out that this includes assuming that he was at fault, even if you’ve left his name out) – he’ll send you a letter from a ‘lawyer’. If you’ve forgotten what really happened the day of the accident, this letter will tell you. Make a promise to yourself never again stop your lightless bike in the middle of the street in a rainstorm after dark and stand there for some time trying to tie a large and cumbersome package to your rear carrier. What a dope you’ve been.
  1. Over the coming weeks as you continue to plod away at your thesis like a chump, you might find your eyes snapping open in the night from rage and discover you’re in a sweat, your electric blanket working away beneath you, your mind wandering, hatching cunning plans to exact revenge on this gutless Lexus driver. The most cunning of these may or may not include somehow trapping him into exposing a drunk driving record, and/or tracking down his car and inserting decaying barramundi fillets in the ventilation system. Allow yourselves the catharsis that such serious nighttime discussions provide, but try to get over it sooner than later. You’re starting to sound a bit crazy.
  1. Don’t worry! That d-bag has to live his whole life as a d-bag. In a few days’ time, get back on your noble steed. Speed down hills and ring your bell to your heart’s content. Spring will be here soon. As you pack away your winter things in preparation for the searing heat that will follow, fold the electric blanket as neatly as you can fold such an awkard, fitted, corded contraption. Allow yourself to admit that it did keep you warm, and by the time you pull it out next year, you’ll have forgotten that it’s the bastard to blame for causing the accident in the first place.