When I was six, there was a pop pop pop coming from a parked car outside a school, and six weeks later I was awake again. The left side of my head still had an ear and an eye. They didn’t work anymore. They were ornamental. Growing up deaf is growing up underwater, watching the bubbles coming out of people’s mouths, hearing the hiss and spit and static.
Growing up Jewish was strange because I was different enough to feel it, but not to grasp it. In the changerooms of elementary school, another boy screamed at me, voices high and full of glee, because he’d seen my circumcised penis, and thought it was funny.
Being queer made things hard too – because I was the kind of queer it was harder to realize. The first time I came out to a friend, he asked if I’d like to suck his cock. The first time I explained being bisexual at a party, somebody booed me. I’d thought it’d be safe among the rainbow hair dye and the glass dildo window ornaments. Seventeen years later I can swish their words around in my mouth like toothpaste, thick and lingering.
– That’s not a thing.
– Pick a side.
– You don’t fit.
I took a cab back to my dorm room that night, drunk and upset and coming down from my first ten-minute salvia trip. My mouth tasted like sandpaper and cat piss. I curled in my bed that night and did my best not to vomit. My roommate had flown to Bengaluru for the holidays. I was alone, and when I shouted to myself, nobody came.
You don’t fit, you don’t fit, you don’t fit.
At nineteen, Maybe I moved out too soon, but I couldn’t take the flicker back and forth from house to house. There were things my mother wasn’t ready to know about me yet. I thought I wanted the chance to explore and fuck up and live. Now I don’t think I was built to be by myself at night. It’s too easy for big black dogs to find me in the night when I’m alone. I could feel it in the motels. I could feel it less in the hostels, where there is always movement, and chatter and life-sounds drip through the walls.
When I started high school, my father had fallen in love with an alcoholic, who would scream at night, and attack him with anything sharp she could find. I thought it was better to be alone than to be like that.
I remember my hand on his shoulder the first time the police came for her. I should have been staring at the units that had arrived at the front door. I should have been making a note of the kinds of shines they had, of the blank nothingness hidden beneath their hats and the flatness of their recited words: Everything will be alright, calm down now, come with us please, go back inside sir, go back inside, go back inside. They were such dead words. They were corpses coming for their own.
Afterwards, we sat together in the kitchen. His shirt was torn, and I remember thinking the little blood drops that rested just along his collar looked like ketchup stains, and I felt ashamed of myself for being so absent-minded and abstract.
“I don’t know what to do,” my father said to me.
“I know,” I said.
He said my name.
“It’s okay,” I said.
He said nothing more.
I’d never seen my father cry before, I’d never seen him as so human, as more than a machine that worked, that cooked, that scolded me, that couldn’t understand my math homework. I was fifteen. It felt like stepping out into the shock of cold rain.
I was twenty when she died. It was a December like this one. They’d separated by then, but he was still her emergency contact. Her family wouldn’t come. Any friends she’d claimed wouldn’t call her friend anymore. It was just us.
And I wanted to laugh when they told us she’d been sober six months. And I wanted to shout when they told us it wasn’t an alcohol overdose, but Tylenol, which she’d chugged, and chugged. And I hated myself for wanting to laugh and wanted to be thrown out the window. But booze didn’t get off scot-free, it was the reason she wasn’t eligible for an organ transplant, six months sober or not. I remember standing in that hospital room while my father went down the hall for coffees and apple juice. She was awake. She knew what was happening.
“Hey,” I said.
She moved her lips, but if anything came out, I didn’t hear it. My hearing aid was out for repairs that week, and whispers were hard over the beeps and snuffles of machines.
“It’s okay,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. When I was sixteen, I hated her for myself. When I was twenty, I hated her for my little brother, for the way he flinched at sounds, for the way he kept secrets. In the hospital room, I didn’t hate anymore.
She mumbled some more before my father came back. He talked to her, casual and light. I wondered if somewhere he was still in love with her. I don’t think so. I think he just felt some kind of duty. I think he felt like he’d killed her by leaving. At a poetry slam in Kensington market that October, a woman had said to me: Jewish Men never look young and hadn’t understood why it upset me. I didn’t understand either. But I kept thinking about it. I was thinking about it then, watching how tired my father had become.
An hour later, her liver died, and then she died.
For a while, I thought that’s what love was. Screaming, ketchup blood stains, hospitals rooms. Not knowing what to do.
It was a Saturday night, and I stayed over because it felt wrong to leave. I didn’t have my own room anymore. We didn’t talk very much. I lay in the dark in my brother’s small room, not knowing how to feel, not knowing if I was mourning or celebrating. Not knowing what to do with the empty feeling stretching in my stomach. I wondered if that made me evil.
You don’t fit, you don’t fit, you don’t fit.
I was afraid to die.
New Year’s was only ten days after that. But my feelings were a stain. They hung, they weren’t fading. It was cold. It seemed to snow every half-hour, and everything glittered. I had a sleepwalking morning. I ate. I watched cartoons. I masturbated without feeling – staring up at the drippy tiles of my bedroom ceiling.
I showered at four in the afternoon. I had a date that night – hours ahead. Getting ready too early was like a nervous tick I couldn’t yet shake. I was worried that she would think I was dirty. I was concerned my breath would smell, and she’d be able to trace all the gross, wet parts of me with her eyes.
I let the hot water burn and drip and scald until my body turned bright pink. The showerhead was that detachable kind, and it became a long and shiny snake that slipped through my hands as I brought it down from the wall.
I’d turned the water off but hadn’t moved. I felt like I was supposed to do something with that shiny serpent in my fingers. My heart beat very fast in my chest. I felt like I had to pee. Something about the world still smelled like the inside of the hospital. I wondered what would happen if I squeezed into a knot around me. If the girl would wait for me by the station, if she would go home hurt, who might come to find me if it would hurt.
My copy of Gabriel García Márquez’s No One Writes to the Colonel, which had been left dogeared and bookmarked on the edge of the sink, fell to the floor with a thump that made me start and yelp. I dropped the showerhead, worried the pages would get wet where water had splashed onto the floor from the tub. I remember that from the outside. I remember the hairs of my back and the ridges there as I curved down. Maybe I could see myself in the mirror. I don’t know.
I used to think, that if someone were to paint my life, into something big and long to be stretched out on a wall, they would place this in the middle. Me: crouched and naked and dripping onto the bathmat like something wild and lost, rifling through the yellowed pages of a creased pocket-sized paperback.
My hair stuck up in funny places as I let it dry, already curling into the same shape as my mother’s, and it made me look hurried, and unclear. I was holding my phone in my hands. There was a gaudy plastic pair of sunglasses that spelled out 2016 with googly eyes and exclamation marks on the dresser. I’d paid six dollars for them.
I was thinking of saying we should cancel. I was thinking of saying I was feeling sick, or I was out of money. Everything just felt like too much too fast, and I was worried about what I might do or say. Buzz! Buzz! I looked down:
S: I’m at Bathurst
T: I’ll be right there!
A previous tenant in that apartment had left a long, person-sized mirror nailed to the inside of the front door. It made me watch myself as I struggled with boots and hats and scarves. I stood there holding the door handle, staring at the embossed yellow-lined white letters on my baby blue T-shirt that said: I have seen the future!
It was a ten-minute walk to the main street, and I made it in big stomps and leaps. She was standing outside the doors, the only adult with a bright pink hat and big fluffy earmuffs. Her lips were a deep shade of red, and I realized that I’d never seen her in makeup before.
Snowflakes landed on her nose as we said hello, and they made her blink and go cross-eyed. I’d booked a fancy restaurant downtown that I secretly couldn’t afford because we were still getting to know each other, and there were stupid things I thought I had to do for a girl, that I didn’t have to do for boys.
– You look so silly!
– I’m sorry
– No, don’t be sorry. Aren’t you cold?
– I’m fine like this.
– There are icicles in your hair.
– Hope you like snowmen.
I felt stupid. I tried to play it off as cute. She stopped as I tried walking back into the station, holding my hand and whipping me back into the snow. I felt like a tetherball.
– You know what?
– I don’t want to go that far.
– Oh, sorry. I should have, yeah. I should have thought of that.
She was very close to me. There was an eyelash hanging on her cheek, too dark to be hers, and I realized I’d left it there. I wondered if I could brush it off without saying anything about it.
– How far is it to your place?
– A couple minutes. I don’t have any food there though.
– We can get food later.
– Just not hungry?
– You’re so dumb.
I miss queues sometimes. I didn’t figure it out until she asked me to go get her a glass of water and came back to find her again.
“You’re pretty,” I said in the evening, as we walked through leaves and snow and the damp wood. It was later than I’d imagined she’d stay out with me. We were going to make it past midnight, and I was happy. There was a party in Mirvish Village, in the three-story bar and club where I’d first gotten drunk enough to send gibberish texts and wake up the next morning with mixed memories and my boots still on.
“No,” she said. “It’s just snowing.”
“You’re pretty when it snows,” I said.
It took hours to leave my apartment again, and we’d both stepped out a little unsteady and pleased with ourselves and with each other. That was our first time together, and time hurts the memory, makes it softer. That was fourteen years ago. The future was still coming.
We’d been sharing strips of grilled meat and spicy beans and drinking margaritas from a Mexican restaurant in Baldwin Village, and I can see the salt that glints on her lip and between her forefinger and thumb. I was happy and bold and full of tequila.
“Everything is pretty when it snows,” she said.
I thought maybe I hadn’t made her happy the way I was pleased, and that thought filled me with a kind of resentment and longing I wasn’t mature enough to understand. It didn’t fade until we were climbing up onto the roof of The Central, with cheap poetry books and van Gogh murals and 1980s X-Men arcade games to our backs and cheap Irish whiskey in our mouths.
Someone had suggested we sneak up there for midnight. We could see the skyline popping out in front of us beyond Honest Ed’s low-hanging roof.
It was cold on that fire escape, and I could feel her shivering next to me. “I’m sorry,” I said. I was always saying it. It was my tic. The bullet holes of my being leaked guilt.
– Why are you sorry?
– I just am.
– You didn’t make me cold.
– I know.
– I am cold though.
– You want to go back in?
– But then we’d miss the fireworks.
– I can go get your coat.
– But then I’d be up here all alone.
I swayed. I could tell she was waiting for me to do something. The babble of the party inside was more bubbles, more shouting. I thought maybe some people had started chanting, though my watch still put us at five minutes to midnight, and their sounds didn’t come out as a countdown, but as you don’t fit, you don’t fit, you don’t fit.
“What should I do?” I asked.
She slipped her arms around my waist, and fingers tickled my back as they made tracks up and down my spine.
“You’re so dumb,” she said.
My arms came up around her, and we kissed as the pop of fireworks from the distant city hall burned the clouds. I could still taste the salt of margaritas on her lips, and I couldn’t hear the chanting anymore. I think she pushed all those cruel voices over to the right, to shout only on my broken ear. I still can’t hear them.
Something like an hour later she kissed me again, to say goodbye back at the edge of Bathurst, and she kissed the tip of my nose, and my nose and lips continued to burn even after she’d gone.
I made it a challenge not to rub my nose or lick my lips on the long stumbling walk back to my apartment, but I failed in a sneeze, and the salt of her was gone.
I didn’t make it home that night. A friend called me, and said they didn’t know where they were, and that they couldn’t move. I found them without their shoes in Christie Pits Park, and I carried them home, learning things I hadn’t wanted to know.
– I want to die.
– I know.
– I want to die.
– It’s okay.
– I’m sorry.
– It’s okay.
I don’t remember which of us was saying what.
They told me they were crazy. I told them I was crazy too. But I knew it wasn’t the same.
They told me something terrible about themselves. I was so tired. I didn’t know what to say to that. I was worried about their bare feet. I felt needed, and that felt good and felt guilty for feeling good for feeling needed.
F: I’m home and clean
H: I’m glad
F: I wish I were still with you
H: Me too
F: I love you, dummy.
It took me a whole five minutes to send the same words back, freezing them in text and silence forever.
I slept on the uncomfortable couch of my friend’s basement apartment, so if they needed me, I’d be there. I was cold and wet and still wearing all my clothes, and my feet dangled off the armrest, pressing up against the wall. Standing in the shower felt like it had been hundreds of years ago. Sitting in Sunnybrook Hospital felt like something somebody else had done.
I wished I could see myself in a mirror. I wanted to see if I looked as young as my father.
I fell asleep running my tongue across my lips, searching for any lingering salt there, finding nothing, while my hands traced the words on my shirt, fingers spelling out the letters: I have seen the future!
Ben Berman Ghan is a Jewish-Settler, writer, editor, and disabled academic based in Tkaronto/Toronto, site of Treaty 13 and the Williams Treaty territory. His novel What We See in the Smoke was published in 2019 with Crowsnest Books, and his novella Visitation Seeds is forthcoming with 845 Press. He has served as fiction editor of The Spectatorial, associate editor of The Goose, The Hart House Review, prose editor of TERSE., and poetry editor of White Wall Review. He is the author of many short stories, essays, and a few poems, and is completing his MA in English literature at Ryerson University’s Literature of Modernity program. You can find him at @inkstainedwreck and https://inkstainedwreck.ca.