It was winter. Always winter. We were restless between the sheets. Too cold, too hot, never the right amount of blankets. He’d turn, drop his weight on the mattress. I’d bounce. I was never awake or asleep. I was wandering the hinterlands, looking for the soft animals of wool and dreams. He was dreaming of pirate-ship real estate, at the crossroads of adventure and domesticity. What would the mortgage be on a pirate ship? he wondered. I’d wait. He’d turn. I’d bounce.
After university, I got a job telling other people’s stories because I didn’t know how to tell my own. Once, a man ran over his toddler in the driveway. We’d been taught not to use the cliché “every parent’s worst nightmare.” Strangers liked to blurt out things they shouldn’t. The middle-aged couple who lived next door weren’t sure if they should trust me. The woman appeared behind her husband in a powder-blue housecoat. Henry, she said, we agreed not to talk to reporters. Henry’s eyes were brown and soft. This girl isn’t going to hurt us, he said. I was twenty-four. I wanted to tell him she was right, I might hurt them; it happened all the time. Instead, I gave the sad smile that is appropriate after a death. The boy loved Dora the Explorer, they told me. The father drank.
My editors asked me to write a profile of a Nigerian-American woman who’d moved to Toronto and fashioned herself as spokesperson for families of murder victims. You could see her on TV, six feet tall in various wigs, sometimes talking about herself in the third person. She had a blog from the U.S., filled with photos of her with Snoop Dogg and Garth Brooks and the mom from Everybody Loves Raymond. In the course of my reporting, I discovered she’d skipped bail in Tennessee, where the sheriff had six outstanding warrants for her arrest. Turned out he didn’t watch the Canadian news. When I asked the woman to explain all this, she lied, and then she threatened me, and then she called the police. A local detective came to the newsroom. I don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, he said, keys jangling in his pockets. I just wanted you to know. The woman was extradited a few months later. The thing was, I had nothing against her personally. I hadn’t learned how to make mistakes yet, and she had made so many.
Being good at something can ruin your life. One year went by, then a second. At parties, strangers were impressed by what I did for a living. I didn’t want them to be. During the third year, my insomnia came back with a new ferocity, and I spent my nights on the couch watching the shopping channel, wondering if a vegetable slicer could make me happy. Instead, I convinced Tony we should get a cat. His name was Wasabi and he slept when I couldn’t, with his front paws tucked tight under his chest. I read on the Internet that insomnia can shave years off your life and when I looked in the mirror I saw that it was true. My face was growing gaunt, hardening around the edges.
Then, one day, it happened. What the doctors call a psychotic break. Break as in break-through or break-open? There’s a distinction. They found me by the lake. I’m not going to say if I was wearing pants. I don’t remember going down there but I do remember running out of a 24-hour grocery store, shouting. Honestly? I just needed to be alone.
The paramedic was built like a paperclip. Around his head was a faint orange light. In his work, it wasn’t possible to save everyone.
Sitting at the back of the ambulance, I leaned forward, bent my arms into jackknives, and covered my head.
“Charlotte,” said the paramedic. “Is there someone we can call for you?”
Call me maybe, I thought. Call it off. “Tony,” I said. “My boyfriend.”
“Can you look up, please?”
“Charlotte? I need to do a quick check.”
“You’re too loud.”
The paramedic lowered his voice. That wasn’t what I meant, but I appreciated the gesture. “I promise I’ll be quick.”
People were starting to gather on the side of Lakeshore Boulevard. I heard whispers, a dog panting. It was dawn on a Monday. I sat up and let the paramedic check my eyes for signs of god knows what.
What I saw in his eyes is what broke me.
There were things I wanted to say to the paramedic during our short drive to the hospital, but he’d made me very sleepy. I suspected he’d given himself the same thing he gave me because he leaned back and let his eyelids droop. I understood.
The colours in the hospital were muted. A nurse, grieving her father, pale pink. A patient who’d fallen down the stairs, robin’s egg blue. I was feeling better already.
Tony came. He’d been out playing a show and smelled like bourbon and fear.
“I called everyone looking for you,” he said. “You freaked me out.”
“Is Wasabi okay?”
Tony narrowed his eyes.
“I’m going to work from here,” I said. “As long as they can give me more of whatever they gave me earlier, I’m good.”
Nurses spoke in clipped, hushed tones. Machines beeped behind curtains. When I looked back at Tony, he was rubbing his face in his hands. “No, babe,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
They put me in psych.
I drifted in and out of sleep for a long time. Thick cloying taste of fluoride at the back of my throat. Swollen baby hands unable to make a fist. When I woke, Tony was reading a history book in the chair beside my bed. He kissed my forehead and said my parents were on their way.
“The window’s open,” I told him.
Tony looked at the window. It was closed.
I moved my hand like a speedboat darting out onto the lake.
Tony shook his head and returned to his book. He knew how to love from a safe distance.
The doctor came to see me. She was in her late fifties and gentle as a baby fox. Tony left for a coffee and she sat on the chair beside my bed the way I imagined a benevolent fairy queen would sit on a toadstool.
“What do you think is happening right now, Charlotte?” she asked.
“I’m a clairvoyant?”
She smiled. “Possibly. Probably not, though.”
“I’m crazy, then.”
“Everyone is crazy. It’s more a question of how.” The doctor smiled. She was empathy contained.
I smiled too.
“So how would you describe the last few weeks,” she asked. “Before what happened last night.”
“I was floating,” I told her.
“Like a cloud.”
“And what you would prefer to be?”
“An eagle. Or maybe a kite.”
She nodded, writing something on her clipboard with a purple pen.
“Has something been stressing you out?” she asked. “Work, maybe?”
“Work has always stressed me out,” I told her.
“And why do you think that is?”
I knew exactly why. Because my work made the unknown known. I couldn’t protect the people I wrote about from getting hurt, and their pain might as well have been mine. Only a person uncomfortable with power deserves to have it, but it’d be easier to be naïve.
“I see,” she said, although I hadn’t spoken aloud.
We sat in silence for a long time. A cart passed in the hall. An attendant called out to a nurse, something about Ativan. The doctor gazed casually around the room, a faint smile on her lips.
“Well,” she said eventually. “I know how much you want to keep your job.” It was a challenge, that statement.
I held her gaze. “Yeah,” I told her. “Isn’t that funny.”
“Hit send,” I told Tony. He was holding my smartphone. We’d drafted an email to my editor, explaining I had the flu.
I fell back asleep wondering if I could trust him to lie.
My parents arrived, my mother over-caffeinated and my father weepy.
“That apartment,” my mother said, fluffing my pillow. “It doesn’t get enough natural light, I told you.”
“She isn’t taking the supplements,” said my father. “The Ayurvedic ones. Charlotte, they don’t taste like anything.”
“Or exercising. Are you exercising? I should have enrolled you in swimming lessons, I don’t know why I listened to my mother.”
I closed my eyes. “Guys,” I said. “Chill. Please.”
My father put on a smile. “Look me up in the dictionary,” he said. “I’m the definition of chill.” He chortled until his voice cracked and he had to excuse himself to go to the bathroom.
When we were alone, I looked at my mother. “I think I’ve made a mistake,” I told her.
She brushed my hair off my face. “What mistake, honey?”
“I can’t be a journalist. I’m going to work at a coffee shop. Or at the zoo.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. You love your job.”
“Aspects of it,” I told her. “That isn’t the same thing.”
Mom fished around in her purse and offered me a piece of gum; I waved it aside.
“I forgot to tell you,” she said. “Susan Willcocks loved your piece about the school for the blind children. She even emailed me. She was wondering if they’d applied for Trillium funding.”
Mom was obsessed with Susan Willcocks. She was our member of parliament and had a daughter my age; my mom knew her from long-ago parent-teacher nights.
“I don’t know, Mom,” I said, picking at a loose thread on the bed sheet.
She put her purse under her chair, folded her hands in her lap. Breathed in sharply. “That’s inappropriate right now, I’m sorry. I’ll ask you later. Right now you need to rest.”
My dad came back and we watched the Cosby Show on the TV in my room, my parents on either side of me, my mom holding my right hand and my dad holding my left. It was the episode where Denise makes Theo a shirt.
“Did I ever tell you what you asked me when you were four?” my mom asked when the show ended. “We watched the one where Rudy starts kindergarten and you”—here my mom started blushing—“you asked what colour you’d be when you started kindergarten!”
“Oh dear,” I said.
“Yes, well, you know how white our town is.”
“She told you you could be any colour you wanted,” said my dad. “Then you were really confused!” They both cracked up.
I wanted my parents to go back to the hotel but as soon as they left, I missed them. I watched another episode of the Cosby Show but I had a funny feeling about Bill, so I turned off the TV and looked out the window. There wasn’t much to see, just the edge of a parking lot, a few crows on a roof.
I thought about those blind kids, though. I wondered what they talked about over lunch in the cafeteria. I wondered who read my story to them, and how it made them feel.
I was happiest when I was driving. I had a 1999 Toyota Camry with a dent on one side and dirt and crumbs inlayed into the upholstery. That car was loyal, like a collie or a Clydesdale; it understood me better than anyone.
Whenever I ached for a smooth straight line, I’d get on the highway, trusting I’d turn up where I needed to. I’d sing and talk to myself and listen to the rhythm of the tires pressing against seams in the asphalt. If I got tired, I’d pull onto a side road, lock the doors and nap, just a girl in a car, skin sticky in the sun. Maybe that was who I wanted to be. Contained, untouchable. Porcelain or plastic, anything but real.
Coming out of a dream, I remembered what happened in the grocery store. I say remembered but it’s possible my subconscious mind rearranged the facts. It doesn’t matter.
Our apartment was in a brick-and-concrete bunker built to withstand a nuclear holocaust, but every now and then we could still hear the neighbours upstairs. Usually fighting or fucking, and sometimes both. The night I was admitted, Tony was out at a show I hadn’t wanted to go to, and the neighbours started shouting. The woman’s voice didn’t carry very well, but I could make out some of his words. Only think about yourself…how many fucking times do I have to ask... Something about a frying pan.
I wasn’t trying to listen. I knew it was average as far as domestics go; Tony and I certainly had our moments. I turned up the TV. There was flooding in Mississippi, the streets had turned to rivers, and there was an uprising in Egypt, crowds of angry young men with flags and gas canisters. I covered my head with a red afghan knitted by my grandmother. Under the blanket, everything was musty and lugubrious, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever come out.
Eventually I decided the only thing that would fix me was an avocado. It had to be the perfect avocado, ripe, but not too ripe—that ideal creamy green where the pit pops out under the slightest pressure. My understanding was that avocados have the good kind of fat, the kind that buoys you up, giving you energy and hope. If I ate a perfect avocado I knew my heart would stop racing. I was quite close to having a heart attack at that point, and hadn’t slept for five days.
It was late so I put on my winter jacket and walked to the gas station, where the attached store had a small selection of vegetables. They lacked structural integrity. Soft potatoes sprouting limbs, celery that could wiggle. There was a burgundy light behind the counter with the attendant. I had the strong sense that he missed someone who lived on another continent. When he turned to face me, he startled. “I hope you see her soon!” I shouted as I cruised back out the door.
They say insomniacs shouldn’t drive but I believe the power of four cylinders at your feet will make anyone feel better. I sped down to the Sobeys on Dupont where I ran over a garbage bin in the parking lot.
The store was flooded with light. A bath, a baptism. As I passed the apples, the cabbage, the leafy greens, Kenny G crooning on the speakers, I realized I was on the precipice of something. Something incredible, horrible. Chemical, structural. My heart rate quickened as I found the avocados. There were so many! And with promising purple-black skin. But as soon as I picked one up, pressing its flesh tenderly between my fingers, I knew. The sticker said the avocado was ripe, but it was not ripe. It was not ripe at all. If someone cut into that avocado right now, their knife would have to fight for it, and the fruit would be acrid against their teeth. I removed the sticker, set the not-yet-ripe avocado onto the floor and squeezed another. Also not ripe, yet there it was, the same sticker. It wasn’t right. I’d had my disappointments in the past, I didn’t want anyone else to suffer. What about those people who haven’t learned how to use their sensory receptors to predict their future pleasure, or lack thereof—what then? I removed that sticker too.
There was a pile of about twenty, maybe thirty avocados at my feet when the manager came to see me. She was shaped like an avocado herself—one of the round, asymmetrical ones. Her short hair was blond with some memory of pink. She wore running shoes.
She faced me and cleared her throat.
“Hi!” I said, too brightly.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave, miss,” she said.
My face flushed. “Oh, no,” I said. “These were incorrectly labeled? I’m just tidying up for you.” I added a perfunctory “sorry.”
The manager’s eyes drifted down. “Miss, we have a ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service policy’ and pants are really implied in that.”
Oh. Well. Shorts and underwear are so similar nowadays, I was surprised she’d noticed.
“Semantics,” I muttered, continuing with my work.
She stepped closer, reaching for the avocado in my hand with a meaty claw. As soon as our fingers touched, there was a sticky alchemy, a sad, cloistered yearning, and I felt so overwhelmed that I shrieked. The last thing I heard was the manager on her walky-talky, calling security; I was running through the grocery store, hands empty, eyes moist, heart racing. “I was doing a public service!” I shouted at a group of teenagers holding bags of Ruffles before I darted out the door. They stood stunned, wondering how much time they had before things stopped being fun.
Tony used to say that I, perhaps more than anyone, needed a vice. Cigarettes, marijuana, Manhattans? Or even a baby, a helpless blob to direct my overabundance of feeling towards (poor baby). He meant all this theoretically, of course; he wasn’t offering.
I don’t want to say we were together by accident, because there was love there, but it was the kind of love a person has for a place they’ll never see again. Yet we held on for a long time, neither of us sure what, nor whom, we were supposed to carry with us into adulthood. I now know you’re supposed to find someone who thinks the broken parts of you are beautiful. Tony knew those parts, and he tried to help, but he never saw the beauty.
My last day in the hospital, the doctor came back, wearing a cream-coloured cashmere sweater that brought out the yellow in her hair. I was happy to see her. I needed her to sign off, to let me go.
“How are you feeling, Charlotte?”
“Never been better.”
She gave an all-knowing smile. Her cheekbones were peaches. “Great,” she said. “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to do a brief assessment.”
“Let’s go.” I sat up straighter in bed.
With one hand, the doctor put on her reading glasses, funky blue frames covered in stars. She flipped a few pages. “Okay. When you arrived, you told the intake nurse you were seeing colours. Are you still seeing colours, Charlotte?”
I bit my lip. The doctor was white light, nothing more.
“Okay,” she said, checking something on her clipboard. “You also reported—” here she read off her page—“hearing the feelings of others and sometimes even their thoughts. Would you say that’s still the case?”
“Not their thoughts,” I said, too quickly. “Their stories. It’s different.”
The doctor looked at me kindly.
“But no, that’s all finished,” I added. “Great drugs, doc!”
“Okay…” She smiled. “On a scale of one to ten, how optimistic do you feel about your future?”
This was a difficult question. The answer was either one or eleven. I tried to read the doctor’s mind to determine what she wanted me to say, but there was a gentle wall around her, a force field.
“Seven?” I asked.
She grinned. “Seven is good,” she said. “Seven is great.”
We decided I’d keep coming to see her, twice a week. She had things to teach me, but it would take time.
While I was getting ready to leave, I heard someone in the hall talking about eyewash. We used it all up on the kid. The paramedic. I’d thought about him all week. He carried the suffering of strangers around through the world.
I ran out of my room. The paramedic startled, stopping mid-stride.
“Hey,” he said. He looked around, like he wasn’t supposed to talk to me. Slid his hands in his pockets. “How you feeling?”
“Better,” I said. “Sorry for being difficult.”
“Ah, you weren’t.”
His face was as angular and serious as the side of a canyon. The orange light was stronger than before, and I realized it was part of him, not something he’d acquired along the way. He was the ember; there was nothing to be done about it.
“Can I ask you something?” I asked.
“Go for it.”
“Why do you do this work?”
The paramedic’s face seemed to twitch. He glanced down at his large feet, then up at me.
“Because it’s who I am,” he said, squinting. “Urgent, sensitive, ninety percent adrenaline.” He smiled. “Nobody’s asked me that before.”
“Cool,” I said. “Thanks.” I blushed.
Before walking away he bent down, his head close to mine. His breath smelled like spearmint and cigarettes. “The way I see it,” he said, “as long as you’re honest, you’ll figure it out.”
I never saw him again. That afternoon I left the hospital and discovered it was spring.
Back in the newsroom, I told my editor I didn’t believe journalism made a difference. I told my editor I hadn’t slept without heavy medication for a very long time. That was good enough for a resignation; there were dozens of young people waiting for my job. The line snaked around the building. When I left, I took a mug that changed colours when you put hot liquid in it, and my favourite pen.
As I walked to the subway, background music started playing, something funky with a big brass section. I was twenty-seven and the best years of my life were ahead of me. The hot-dog vendor gave me a thumbs up. The sun winked. In the subway car, everyone offered congratulations.
“Yeah, Charlotte!” said a kid in a trucker cap emblazoned with the word cheese. “Way to stick it to the man!” We fist-bumped.
“Congratulations, young lady,” said a man reading the newspaper standing up. “You have refused to live an accidental life.” The train shifted but he kept his footing; he’d spent many years honing his balance.
“I wish I’d had that kind of courage,” said a middle-aged woman holding a dog-earned copy of Tuesdays with Morrie. “I’ve been working in human resources for twenty-two years. I wanted to be a dancer.”
“Do you dance now?” I asked her. “For fun?”
“Never,” said the woman. “It makes me too sad.”
They all looked at me, their eyes brimming with expectation. “What will you do now?” they asked, clutching their belongings to their chest. “What will you do now that the world is yours?”
“Everything,” I told them. But I had no idea what that meant.