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Lipgloss Gypsy
A life-like adventure from Cheeseburger Brown
Bad Traffic, a free story from Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by the author

This is the story of how I once moved to Montreal with a drug-crazed nymphomaniac Gypsy-girl, and thereby learned the True Meaning of Christmas.


High School High

In a crowd, you can always spot fate.

Trained by a billion years of death, the limbic brain easily filters the random motions of the human flotsam to bring the one person moving toward you with purpose into crystal focus.

The crowd were the denizens of Butcher-of-the-Somme Secondary School, sprawling and lolling in the springtime sun, clustered in knots under trees, along fences, on steps. Cars parked along the curb blared competing flavours of pop music. The history teacher who wore knee socks was pacing the sidewalk, thoughtfully puffing at his pipe. The backdrop, as I've mentioned before, is the broad south wall of the original 1929 building bearing the scrubbed graffito scar TEENAGE WASTELAND in giant letters.

I am chatting with my friend Red Vicious, who is strumming lazily at a guitar as he leans against a post. "Do you have any cigarettes?" he asks. I give him a DuMaurier. He sings around the lit smoke, under his breath in an airy falsetto.

The air smells like budding leaves, growing grass and burning tobacco with hints of hashish. Most of the knots of kids are smoking hashish in glass bottles, artful in their nonchalance. Pretty much everyone is high. Red's high. I'm high. I don't know what's in the history teacher's pipe, but rumours are that he might be high.

It's a beautiful day. Birds chirp.

"...New song," mumbles Red Vicious, but I'm not listening. My spidey-sense is tingling as I watch a crowd of smoking dancers part to admit a go-go booted hippie-girl making for our spot with certain purpose.

Red cranes his neck around. "Hey, isn't that that annoying pothead Gypsy nympho?"

"Er," I say.

She has arrived. She ignores Red and speaks to me directly, taking my hands and backing us into a corner by the trash. "I broke up with Skater," she declares. She looks up at me with glistening brown eyes, the long lashes brimming with tears. "You're going to be with me now, right?"

Um.

Let me back up a bit.


Blister in the Sun

I once dated a grumpy chick with a sharp, beak-like nose and a pair of breasts so gorgeous that wherever she went little boys sleeping in surrounding apartment buildings suddenly experienced startling wet-dreams in bewildering concert as the wave of psychic arousal passed them by.

...Well, that's how it seemed to an adolescent me, at any rate.

She was a drama major who would be doomed to an eternity of surly waitressing gigs. We didn't really get on well from the start. She resented her own exaggerated perception of the resources of my family, and was prone to become moody over perceived slights against her class. "I think we should break up," I 'd say.

"I think we should try harder," she'd reply.

The rub was this: I so seldom got to enjoy those delectable mammaries, because Hawky was shy and insecure and pretty much not ready for sex. She was convinced that because my previous girlfriend had "gone all the way" that she would be obliged to follow suit, and was staunchly but squeamishly trying to prepare herself for the big big occasion of cherry-pluckery.

In truth, there was no pressure for penetration. My experiences with the prior chick -- whose meter had swung all the way to lesbian by the time we were through -- had made it clear to me that a teenage girl's sexuality was a volatile thing. Also, having been trained to the bone by three years together with a hardcore feminist had made me sufficiently sensitive to recognize that a rushed virgin fuck would probably be a fairly unsatisfying lay.

Besideswhich, I was quite satisfied with the fabulous boobs and the ancillary hand- and mouth-play. I'm not greedy.

But Hawky wanted to be screwed, so she had herself prescribed a round of birth control bills. "My doctor said I have to quit smoking to take the pill," she told me. "So you have to quit, too."

The punchline: since the pill wouldn't be effective for a full menstrual cycle, she didn't want to engage in any play of any kind until the ribbon-cutting fornication event.

"I think we should break up."

"I think we can work through this."

Red Vicious and I used to climb up on top of the roofs, clamboring over the downtown backalley residential jungle of garages and additions to arrive at Hawky's bedroom. We'd surprise her after late theatre rehearsals with a bottle of wine. Hawky liked to sing, Red liked to play guitar -- together they'd go through the repertoire of the Violent Femmes while I drank.

When I'm out walking, I strut my stuff, yeah I'm so strung out;
I'm high as a kite, I just might, stop to check you out...


I don't know why it didn't dawn on me sooner that Red Vicious was in love with Hawky. All I knew was that I was nursing a springtime adolescent horn, and I felt roped into a reluctant lay with a cranky girl. I would kill for a cigarette.

Body and beats, I stain my sheets, I don't even know why
My girlfriend, she's at the end, she is starting to cry...


I resolve that when the student show Hawky is playing in has finished its short run, I will dump her as kindly as I can. More power to Red Vicious in loving her.

Let me go on, like a blister in the sun;
Let me go on, big hands I know you're the one.



Tea and Oranges

One day as I'm walking to school from the subway I decide not to go. I turn, instead, into a small parkette alongside Princess Avenue. I have a good book to read, and a packed lunch, so I figure why bother waiting to get back to my chapter? Exams loom, and classes are just review sessions.

In the parkette I find a hippie couple smooching, and excuse myself. "CheeseburgerBrown!" they say, and invite me to sit down, shoving over their bottled tea and Clementine oranges. Between them is an open hemp-woven bag presenting a yellowed bottle, a pack of cigarettes and a slice of Gold Seal hashish covered on one side in shining Arabic squiggles. "Have a hoot?" asks Skater.

"Thanks, Skater," I say, sitting down on the grass and taking off my satchel. I catch the eye of Skater's pouty-lipped girlfriend, sitting cross-legged and barefoot in a sundress, toying with a long black braid.

"Do you know Ruxanna?"

"Well, we've never really been introduced," I say, shaking her slim hand. "But I've seen your go-go boots."

"Everyone knows my boots!" grins Ruxanna, her voice husky for such a small girl, but inflected with childish false-inquisitive intonation. She giggles and begins brewing another round of smoke.

Skater wants to talk about the one-act play I wrote for the previous year's student show, directed by Ruxanna's ex-boyfriend. "I think you should do a film version, and I want to score it," says Skater. Skater is a founding member of a band called Katrocket that makes very interesting experimental music, so I am genuinely interested in Skater's proposition.

"Why don't you come up to my Dad's place in King City tonight?" invites Skater before hauling back a bottle full of hashish smoke with low whistle. "We'll jam and figure shit out. We'll order Chinese food and beer. Do you have a car? I'd drive you, but I have stuff to do at my Mom's, first."

"I'll drive him up," offers Ruxanna.

"Sounds good," I say.

"Cool," says Skater.


Royal Blue Balls

The house at King City is lush and labrynthine, panelled in oak and exotic plants, cavernous and swank, and at the mercy of drunken adolescents. We consume noodles and liquor in unhealthy quantities, interspersed with heavy blue hashish smoked from yellow-stained bottles. Our conversation about filmscores doesn't last long before Skater and his attractive blonde vocalist Starfish retreat to his Dad's east-wing recording studio to "lay down some tracks."

"They're going to be hours," says Ruxanna. "What do you wanna do?"

We wile away the dizzy hours. I don't remember what we talk about, but I do remember the point when she tries to kiss me. "...Oh, I can't do that," I mumble, gently separating us.

"It's okay," she says, pushing closer again. "Skater says it's okay. He's fooling around with Starfish right now. It's all cool." She bites my lower lip softly.

Ever had a moment like this? You know how the lust calls to you, lulling you with sweet endorphins to succumb. You know how acting rightly seems distant and insigniciant. You know how it would all be so easy to just go with the flow...

"I can't, Ruxanna, I'm sorry," I say, sitting back. "I still haven't officially broken up with Hawky yet."

Later, in the night, Ruxanna steals into the guest room where I lie half-asleep. I feel sick and drunk, and my wanting testicles feel like they've been locked in a vice. Denial of adolescent sexual arousal can come at a steep price. I feel her sit on the edge of the bed, and I turn around to see her shadow in the moonlight.

"Is it because you don't like me?" she whispers.

"No," I croak.

She brings her legs up onto the bed, sitting cross-legged. In the wan light through the window I can just see where her cotton T-shirt ends and her little bush pokes out. She shifts closer. "Why, then?" she asks.

"Make no mistake, Ruxanna," I tell her, "you are very hot. But I have been cheated on before, and I won't ever make someone else feel that way."

"But it's all cool with Skater," she protests.

"But not with me."

When morning comes we all smoke some hash together in the breakfast nook. "We'll talk more about the movie next time," promises Skater, leaving to drive Starfish back to the city in time for an afternoon class.

Ruxanna drives me to Toronto in her dented golden Dodge Charger. Nervous and insecure, she accidentally rear-ends her father's car when she stops at her house to pick-up her schoolbag. She doesn't try to kiss me at the subway, but she smiles a lot. Hungover and exhausted, I ride back to my house and collapse gratefully into my bed.


J'Accuse!

I am awakened only a couple of hours later. My bedroom has a door to the backyard, and someone is hammering on it. I peel open my eyes with my fingers and stumble over to the window. Outside: Red Vicious. I pull on a pair of pants.

"What's up?" I ask blearily as I open the door.

Red Vicious reveals Hawky waiting in the wings. They have come to confront me about taking off to King City with a girl of ill-repute. "Nothing happened," I assure Hawky, but she doesn't believe me. Neither does Red.

"I'm here to break up with you," declares Hawky.

"I'll wait in the car," says Red, his part in the mission apparently done.

"You've really hurt Skater, and you've really hurt me," she tells me. She has gained this information through a wildfire of highschool gossip. Apparently "everyone knows" that I fucked Ruxanna at King City last night.

I allow her to rattle off her speech, and then say some tender things so she won't leave in a rage. I try to appear dismayed. When she leaves, I uncork a pack of cigarettes and inhale a warm bloom of tobacco. "Fuck you and your pill," I suggest to the sky. "I am free of your busty bane."

The next day dawns dark.

At school, I am treated to the cold shoulder from people I wasn't even aware knew my name let alone tracked my comings and goings. In geography class an acquaintance explains to me that my alleged act of sluttery has deeply affected how people think about me. "They wouldn't be so mad if it were somebody else," he says. "People expect more from you."

I am incredulous. "In the name of fuck: why?"

He tells me the same thing I will be told several times over the course of the day: that my long-term relationship with a feisty pupal-phase lesbian had been viewed as the model of stability and maturity; that the grace and aplomb with which I endured the dramatic end of that relationship put me on a pedestal in some people's minds as a supremely rational and ethical operator. That I would cast away these laurels by cheating on my new girlfriend, throwing mud in the face of Skater in order to nail his Gypsy fingerpuppet, and insisting on lying about the whole thing...well -- that was a slap in the face to every busybody who had ever believed in my good character.

"You've let people down," I'm told.

"I never asked for a fan-club."

"They're not fans anymore."

When the clouds part and the sun shines outside my patience snaps, and I elect to truancy. Outside of the school I hang around with Red Vicious as he bums my cigarettes, since no one else wants to chat with me on account of the giant invisible letter A sewn into my bodice. That's when Ruxanna comes out of the crowd and steers me into the corner by the trash.

Her lower lip is quivering. "I broke up with Skater," she says, standing too close to me. Her breathing is heavy, and her perky breasts rise and fall with laboured motion. She smells like lipgloss. "You're going to be with me now, right?"

I look around. People are pretending not to watch us out of the corners of their hungry eyes. The self-satisfaction of untarnished judges wafts through the air like perfume, condemning me for a crime I strenuously avoided commiting.

I am reckless and angry. I think to myself: if I am going to be judged guilty, let me at least enjoy the fruits of my sin. If I'm to be shunned by friend and acquaintance alike, I want some bounty for my trouble.

"Let's go to my house," I say.

"Really?" she asks hopefully.

"Yeah," I tell her. "You can sleep over."


Blue Lagoon

Ruxanna has never been to my house before, so we enjoy a short tour. She is suitably impressed with my father's recording gear and guitar collection. We wander into his office, where I wake up a Macintosh Quadra and show her Netscape. "This is the World Wide Web," I explain. "If you click on an underlined word, you get taken to a new page of related information. It's cool."

Demonstrating a remarkable intuition for the medium, the first thing Ruxanna looks up is pornography. We find pictures of an ugly housewife with sagging tits and a lumpy belly. "If I looked like that I wouldn't be putting up my pictures for everyone to see," comments Ruxanna.

"You don't look anything like that," I assure her.

But she needs no assurance. "I know," she says lazily. "I'm hot."

The tour winds its way to my bedroom, where she admires my paintings and drawings with too much enthusiasm. She wants to know when my parents are coming home. "A couple of days," I tell her. She sits down at my drafting table and begins to slowly rotate, kicking her go-go booted heel against the chair's metal railing to keep herself going. "What do you want to do now?" she asks as she swivels.

"I don't know."

"I think we should pick up where we left off," she says.

"Where we left off...?" I echo.

"In King City," she says, coming to a rest and sliding off the chair. She walks over and puts her arms around me, looking up at me with her deep brown eyes, the heavy black lashes batting broadly in an almost comical way. "Remember?" she smiles, her pouting lips remaining slightly parted.

I take a deep breath and inhale the scent of her drugstore lipgloss.

Within a minute we have both somehow shed our clothes, and have dropped to the bed. With a lust and savagery to which I am wholly unaccustomed Ruxanna wrestles herself on top of me and, bracing herself with her arms against the wall above my head, proceeds to writhe and hump as if I were a midway ride. I barely have time to catch my breath before she is moaning and gasping like a pornstar, grinding her little hips into my pelvis and pushing her gravity-defying teenage breasts into my face. "Yes! Yes! Yes!" she exclaims, gripping my shoulders with her nails and digging into my flesh as her body hardens against me.

Somewhere in there I probably climaxed, but it is more or less lost amid the hullabaloo.

We slump against the wall, sliding down slowly into an unruly pile on the bed. Her face buried in my chest, her breathing begins to steady. I am shaken and a little shocked by the raw sexual power of this spritely girl. "Jesus Murphy Brown," I say with a certain kind of awe, and she explodes into giggles.

I mean, I'd had sex with a couple of girls by that point in my life, and I had always thought of the encounters as a lot of fun -- but, I had never been so decisively screwed before. I found the experience as refreshing as it was novel.

"Holy crap," I say, catching my breath. She giggles again.

And to think: all those long months I wasted pursuing girls of intelligence, character and grit -- what a waste of time! To a nineteen-year-old boy these qualities pale next to a hearty and enthusiastic poke from a willing siren. Who could dream of hand-holding a shy virgin when you've got a living porno movie hopping on your pelvis like a crazed monkey?

She squinches out her cigarette. "I wanna ride again," she declares. Before I can think to respond, my anatomy seconds the motion.

Days pass, and we neglect school. Fugitives from gossip and condemnation, we camp out in my father's house in a haze of wine, hashish and unbridled lust. We are living in a warm cocoon for two, apart from the mangy world. The springtime backyard becomes our Blue Lagoon. The telephone rings but I don't answer it.

We buy some magic mushrooms and spend a day strolling through the zoo, marvelling at the scintillating peacock tails and undulating tiger stripes. That night, we eat our final grams and make love in the dark, her every touch causing ripples of jazzing lights to pattern across my unseeing eyes.

...I am awakened hours later by a continuously ringing telephone. Outside in the drive, a car is honking insistently. Ruxanna slips out of bed and peers out the window. "It's Skater!" she gasps, and the telephone goes quiet.

"It's four o'clock in the fucking morning," I moan.

"I have to go talk to him," she says as the telephone resumes ringing.

And so she does. I roll over and light up a smoke. Time passes.

When she returns she is hoarse and teary. She has spent nearly an hour in the car with Skater while he first pleaded for the resurrection of their relationship, and then moved to on simply pleading for answers. Skater has been tragically wounded by Ruxanna's sudden switch of affection. I begin to anticipate that Ruxanna will collect her clothes and leave with him, but she says he's already gone. She snuggles back into bed with me, burying her face in my neck. "I'm not bad, am I?" she asks in a tiny little voice.

What can I say? Of course the little vixen is bad! I pat her head, and run my fingers through her hair as she cries. "No, you're not bad," I tell her.

"I feel so bad," she sobs. "I think I'm a bad person."

"No, no," I say, cradling her slim, bare shoulders. "There, there."

I find her pain tedious. The fact of the matter is, I'm not a very sympathetic person. But I can go through the motions when I see no other way out.

"There, there," I say softly. "There, there."


Summer of Love

The next week, I attend my few remaining exams. Nobody speaks to me. Red Vicious and our gang of troublemakers have seen fit to socialize and cavort without me -- word is all I'm missing is Red trying to woo Hawky with impromptu Violent Femmes duos, and a lot of people sitting around discussing my shocking moral depravity. I elect to avoid the usual haunts for a while, and continue living in my bubble of two.

We tear around town in Ruxanna's dented golden Dodge Charger. I am not allowed to touch the radio, which is Ruxanna's only rule. She drives aggressively and fast, slotting her heavy golden muscle into spaces between moving cars I'd be hesitant to parallel-park into. She smokes cigarettes constantly, dabbing her lips with moisterising lipgloss between each one. Because of this the yellow filters of her cigarettes-in-progress are shiny, scented and faintly pink.

She wears a small nosering in her right nostril, and her black hair is usually loose or drawn into a single long braid. Ruxanna is not modest: she wears her trademark knee-high go-go boots with very short, tie-dyed sundresses underwhich she brokers no brassiere to mitigate the sway and jiggle of her ample bosom (which is somewhat comically large for her small frame, lending her the impression in profile of a smutty cartoon). She is thin, and when I see the knuckles of her spine against her narrow back I look away, because she looks to me too much like a child.

Her cheeks are dimpled, her lips full. Her eyes are oversized chocolate holes, ringed in impossibly long lashes which she bats to bend men to her will. She unsheathes her flirtatiousness the way a Samurai unsheathes his sword.

We are served promptly in restaurants. When we call managers over to complain about subpar service they fall over themselves to appease us while their pupils flit to Ruxanna's chest and exposed thighs. Men invite us to cut in line at the movies. Bus-drivers chalk up unpaid fares to "a misunderstanding" and stopped car-drivers wave us through intersections even when the DON'T WALK sign flashes.

For the summer I am coaching sailing on Toronto's Algonquin Island, overseeing the training and testing of ten-year-olds for their basic levels of competence at the Queen City Yacht Club. At night when the kids go home we are joined by the other coaches and their girlfriends, shopping the harbour in a Boston Whaler for debauchery and drunken larffs. (But those are other stories, and shall be told another time.)

On a hot summer night as we sit behind my father's house smoking hashish out of grungy bottles and sipping Ruxanna's favourite drink, sangria, she tells me that between her theatre-directing boyfriend and Skater she went on a mad romp she refers to as her "Crazy Summer."

"What was so crazy about it?" I ask after exhaling a long plume of blue smoke into the humid darkness. A few yards over, a dog is barking.

"I had sex with twenty boys," explains Ruxanna.

"Jesus!" I say. "All at once?"

"No!" she says, at first confused and then laughing. "Serially."

I do some quick math in my head. "Jesus." She goes on to detail some of her encounters: around campfires, at cottages, in clubs, cars, buses, trains, trees and even plain view. She mentions boys with a splattering of names and characters: nice, sweet, funny, quiet, grumpy, rough, exciting, world-weary and virginal. And their performances? Quoth Ruxanna, "Some boys can fuck. Others can't."

I don't ask how I compare to this laundry list of brief suitors, but she volunteers the information anyway. "At this point, you're third best," she tells me. "Which is pretty good -- considering."

I'm not sure what exactly I should be considering -- some impairment of mine, or simply the count on her pussy's odometer. I laugh noncommitally and light up a cigarette. "A crazy summer indeed," I comment.

"Do you think I'm bad?" she asks in her little girl voice. "Sometimes I think I'm a bad person."

"Nah," I tell her.

Despite this apparent chagrin, she discusses her Crazy Summer with a wistful nostalgia that makes me wonder why the point has been raised in the first place. Catharsis through confession, or putting a bug in my ear?

"Jerry's birthday is coming up," she says, pouring more sangria.

"Jerry who?"

"Jerry Garcia," she says. "You know, The Grateful Dead."

"Oh, yeah. Those guys. Are they still alive?"

"Of course they're still alive! Jerry's birthday is coming up, and I want to go to some shows."

The birthday shows are happening across the border in the States. Ruxanna expresses dismay that she will likely have to go on her own, as the dates she wants to attend are before the end of my coaching contract. "That's okay," I tell her. "You have a good time without me."

Timidly, she manages to ask whether or not I will be upset with her if she "fools around" with some strange boys while she's at the shows.

"I wouldn't be upset with you," I assure her.

"Really?" she asks, trying to contain her excitement.

"Why the hell not? You want to make a few Yanks happy that I'll never have to meet -- this in no way threatens me. Fuck 'em blue, if that's your 'druthers. But be safe."

"Wow. You're so cool." I receive a big, titty hug. "Te iubesc," she says breathlessly. That's Rumanian for "I love you."

I nod and smile.


Long Strange Trip

Plans change abruptly when Ruxanna discovers that I've never seen The Grateful Dead perform. "You've never been to a show? Never?" she keeps repeating in an increasingly high-pitched and incredulous voice.

"That's right," I say wearily. "Never been."

We're riding the fat, slow ferry from the public docks because I've woken up too late and missed the private tender across the harbour. Bright white seagulls squeal and bay as we slip away from the tall spires of the core and chug toward the islands.

Ruxanna: "That's it -- you're coming with me. You're playing sick from work at the end of the week, so you'd better start coughing when you get there today."

And so we load up the Golden Charger with blankets and trinkets and snacks and come the end of the week set out for Michigan, USA. We dress nicely, and brush our hair. At the border, we tell the guards we're visiting family in Ann Arbour. Once safely Stateside we bust out the hashish and change into more casual attire. "This going to be so much fun!" Ruxanna squeals.

The carpark outside of the stadium at Auburn Hills has become a hippie village, crowded from border to border with people hawking crafts and clothes out of the backs of their cars and RVs, glassy-eyed passersby moving in slow rivers down the rows, home-made signs advertising show-tapes and multicolour bongs and balloons filled with Nitrous Oxide...

We buy T-shirts and magic mushrooms. Ruxanna dances in little pirouettes to the carnival blend of musics coming from three different directions. We trade some hashish for tickets to the next day's show from some grubby but friendly characters, and then take our prepurchased tickets for today to the box office to be admitted to the stadium. Once seated, we eat our treats and share joints with the people seated around us.

When the band begins to play Ruxanna stands up on her seat and dances, her short sundress flying this way and that. "Happy birthday Jerry!" she screams, every man and boy in our vicinity paying rapt attention. As I watch, her face swims and turns purple, then green. I'm not sure how much of this is due to the lightshow accompanying the concert or the lightshow bursting from within my own mushroomed eyes, but it doesn't really matter. The sticky process of separating the real from the non-real is not called for in this environment.

The music is inoffensive, but I find myself bored by the end. I don't know most of the songs, so I can't cheer along the way most of the crowd is. I'm looking to the stage, but my mind is elsewhere.

I take a moment to ponder why I often feel so alone at communal events like this, but I don't come up with much in the way of insight...so, instead, I think up a science-fiction movie about robots who protect humanity from a new form of mathematics which is based on a model of the universe so life-like that calculations done with it tend to have the surprising effect of manifesting themselves in the actual fabric of spacetime as real events -- a power too potent by half for a mind designed by a billion years of manifold ape-death.

Later, we park the Golden Charger in the lot of a nearby hotel. We use our clothes to cover the windows from the inside, and then hump like crazed weasels.

Morning comes and the car is a sauna. We stink, but it's okay because we're hippies. Breakfast at Denny's, followed by a return to the impromptu carnival outside of the stadium. The day plays itself out again, and I sit through another evening of meandering improvisations and vaguely familiar tunes. Boys sitting around us offer Ruxanna and I real marijuana leaf to smoke (not hashish!) and ask questions designed to elicit the nature of our relationship. Somewhere in there we smoke a joint laced with opium. Ruxanna is making out with a guy in sky-blue overalls, and I notice with clinical detachment that I have lost feeling in my thick and clumsy extremities. I look at my own hand, and consider how foreign it seems to me.

I look at Ruxanna, and consider what a foreign thing she is, too. Without constant attention and stimulation she wilts, unwilling or unable to operate without that continual affirmation. To be desired is to be valued, in Ruxanna's world. Sexuality is her only magic power, and she wields it without restraint.

Though she now sits in her seat calmly with a beatific drug-induced smile on her lips, I see no peace. Instead, in my mind's eye, she is flailing and falling, grasping at outstretched hands that want not so much to help her as to cop a feel.

She holds my arm and snuggles into my neck. "Te iubesc," she whispers. "Te iubesc."

How far will I follow her?

Lipgloss Gypsy, Nether Regions

Montreal

Ruxanna has been admitted to the concurrent education department at McGill University. She wants to teach English to highschool boys, she tells me. Since her programme begins in September and my programme at NSCAD in Halifax doesn't begin until January, she invites me to come to live with her in Montreal for the duration of the autumn. "It'll be so much fun!" she promises. "Montreal is the coolest city."

And it's true. Montreal has a character and charm most Canadians refer to as "more European." The architecture is older and grander than the reflective glassworks of Toronto's core, and the bilingual citizenry has a cosmopolitan outlook that makes even sophisticated Torontonians seem provincial by comparison. They are a fashion-conscious people with feverish political opinions, the infusion of French blood making them susceptible to both drink and beauty in roughly equal measure.

We find a small flat in the student ghetto surrounding McGill, and agree to split the dirt-cheap rent until Christmas. Unwilling to touch my funds put aside for higher education, I opt to find temporary work in Montreal. It will be my first time on my own, and I'm excited.

While I drive the rental truck containing our possessions along the TransCanada, Ruxanna sleeps in the back. Her father sits in the passenger seat beside me, making me repeatedly swear to "take care of" his daughter. He is a swarthy, balding man with sharp eyes, and he speaks with a stony seriousness. If only he knew a tenth of his daughter's uncontrollable excesses!

"I promise," I tell him.

"Okay?" he says.

"Okay," I affirm.

"Okay," he agrees.

The next day I'm pounding the pavement, looking for a job. The outlook isn't good. The uncertainty generated by the Bloc Quebecois' determination to separate from the rest of Canada has wrought dire economic consequences for the city, as the head offices of major corporations and animation studios pack up and relocate to the stability of Toronto. When I finally do get my portfolio in front of a creative director, he asks me right off: "Savez-vous les ordinateurs?"

"Computers? Sure, I can use a computer."

"Mais rien de ces dessins sont-ils numerique..."

"Digital? No. They were drawn by hand."

"Vous connez le Photoshop, et le Freehand?"

"A little. I'm a quick study, though."

"Alors, alors. Je suis desolee, mais on cherche quel-qu'un qui avez deja beaucoup d'experience avec les dessins numerique."

"Ah. Well." I collect my portfolio. "Thanks for your time."

After a few more days of similar interviews I come to the conclusion that I am going to have to take a pretty crappy job -- or possibly two of them -- in order to buy food, drink, smoke and make my rent commitment. Dropping my standards, I plow through the newspapers for openings in telephone call centres.

My first interview is at a swank-looking office billing itself by the highly dubious name of Richway International. It is run by a gamut of ill-spoken young black men in very expensive, very shiny suits. "Yo, you got a good speaking voice -- you got the job, CheeseburgerBrown."

"What are we selling?" I ask.

"Peace of mind and shit," says my guide.

What we're actually selling is an alleged "two year supply" of watered-down household cleaning products, advertised disingenuously as "environmentally friendly concentrates." This questionable package of goods is sold for an exorbitant fee after hooking clients by telling them that they've won fabulous prizes in a nonexistent contest. To qualify to claim their prize, the poor sap need only read his or her chequings account information over the telephone and agree to sample the "toxin-free and hypoallergenic" family of cleansers.

"Did you get a job?" Ruxanna asks me, pausing in her torrent of minutiae about her first days of class.

"Sort of."

"What are you doing?"

"Scamming people."

In order to balance out the bad karma, I seek out a second call-centre job with complementary hours. This job is for the Quebec Association of Wheelchair Athletes -- surely, a noble and righteous institution if ever there was one.

When I show up for work, I find a dank room over a hardware store filled with old men drinking soda-pop in chronic quantities while smoking unfiltered cigarettes. This new scam is explained to me succinctly: call people, tell them you're in a wheelchair, ask them to buy a book of coupons, and then get paid under the table in cash and Pepsi. "Where does the Pepsi come from?" I ask.

"A friend of a friend," says my boss. Then he coughs up a lung.


Odd Man Out

After a few weeks things settle into a familiar routine: we wake up in the morning and Ruxanna climbs on top of me for her morning poke; I trudge off to Richway while she studies; we meet for dinner, a smoke and a screw, and then I take the subway to the Wheelchair Athletes cancer-centre; after work, I come to meet Ruxanna and her new friends from school to drink home-brew and hang out.

Later, we will screw again before I am allowed to sleep. With repetition, the craven selfishness of her lovemaking becomes more plain, and monotonous -- I am her living vehicle of mechanical satisfaction, and I am expected to lie relatively still so that she can find her happy spot and grind herself against it. I begin to find her compulsion for copulation rhythmic, predictable and lewd.

"Congratulations! You may already have won one of four fabulous prizes from Richway International!"

The offices of Richway are depressing. Everything smells like telephone sanitizer. The best seller in the place is a seven foot tall middle-aged loser who lives with his mother -- his trick is to feign the ethnicity of whoever he is talking to. "Oh my goodness, but I am also being East Indian!" he prattles into the phone, running his hand through his long, greasy hair.

I take frequent smoke breaks in the stairwell, where I meet a friendly Greek who's also slugging the scam for Richway. "I prefer to come to work stoned, fuck," he tells me, punctuating his sentences with fuck the way denizens of Toronto might indicate a comma. It is, I am learning, a common way for lower-class Montrealers to speak. "It's the only way to get through it."

That sounds a little too self-destructive for my tastes, but I am interested in where I can acquire drugs in this city. "Go to this video arcade at St. Denis, and go to the change counter, fuck. Just tell the guy 'I want three sticks' or 'I want six sticks' or whatever."

I figure that sticks is some kind of local slang, but when I do ask for "three sticks" at the change counter from a fat, unshaven man in a stained undershirt, he slides over three grams of hashish individually wrapped in thin fingers of aluminium foil. "Turdy," he says in an undertone.

It takes me a second to decode what he's said, and then I pass him thirty dollars. The arcade is empty. No one is playing video games. "See you again, fuck," he says cheerfully.

It takes a few calls at the Wheelchair Athletes centre before I work out my story: when I was nine-years-old I fell out of an apple tree and became a parapalegic -- ten years later, thanks to funds raised by the association, I am a successful and happy captain of the wheelchair volleyball team. "I didn't even know there was such a thing as wheelchair volleyball!" say the people on the other end of the phone.

"Well, it's a challenge," I admit.

This story is not entirely false. When I was nine-years-old I did fall out of an apple tree. But I didn't break anything -- all I got for my trouble were a couple of vicious scratches across my chest from sharp branches I encountered on the way down...scratches I attempted to hide from my Jamaican nanny, lest I get in dutch for climbing the tree in the first place.

(There is, however, no such thing as wheelchair volleyball. Try as they might, athletes in wheelchairs just can't spike a ball over a volleyball net.)

The old men in the call-centre find my story hilarious, especially when mangled in French by my prairie-pronunciation and shallow vocabulary. "Ouaip, le volleyball est tellement beaucoup de fun!" The smoking old men laugh until they cough, and then cough until they clear their throats with Pepsi. My boss is impressed with my yield. "You doing good there, CheeseburgerBrun. You keep it and I give you maybe some Pepsi to take home, fuck."

I trudge uphill along Rue St. Urbain, through the heart of the old Jewish Quarter and beyond -- a second student ghetto, cheaper than ours due to the distance from McGill. Mount Royal rises to my left, a glowing crucifix attached to the rounded top like a kind of giant religious nipple. The autumn wind already has bite once you're on the hill, so I pull my jacket tighter and hunch my shoulders. After a quarter hour I reach the house where Ruxanna's new friends live, and where she can be found every day after school...

Here, I am the odd man out.

A blonde, bearded fellow called CheeseburgerLarge holds court from a tattered easy-chair. His companions in the house are two beefy country lads named Hops and Barley, a duo obsessed with little outside of home-brewing beer and playing hockey. From the start, I find making small-talk with them difficult. They are uninterested in me beyond my role as an attachment to Ruxanna's flirtatious tits, and CheeseburgerLarge seems to have decided immediately that I am, for whatever reason, beneath his contempt: his response to anything I say is a lethargic "Oh yeah?" uttered without eye contact.

"It's nice to meet another 'Cheeseburger,'" I might say.

"Oh yeah?"

I try to make Hops and Barley laugh, which seems like an easy target as they're constantly tipsy and snickering. Unfortunately, my attempts at humour are met with blank stares, and abrupt changes of subject.

The fourth housemate, Scoopowitz, is seldom around. He is a senior reporter for the university's student paper, an alumnus of our highschool and mover and shaker in the local music scene. Ruxanna asks after him frequently.

After a few nights of smoky loafing in this crew's livingroom I ask Ruxanna what she sees in the experience. "It's like a constant party!" she claims.

I wonder if I am being overly sensitive: perhaps it isn't that the fratish boys don't like me, perhaps they simply take a while to warm up to new people. I admit that after five years as a notorious art major in highschool my interpersonal skills may be a little rusty, because I haven't had to make new friends from social scratch for a pretty long time. I may have become so used to having my reputation preceed me that I'm out of sorts when starting fresh.

(I'm used to having people who introduce themselves to me already knowing my name. So much so that to this day I have the bad habit of sometimes shaking hands with strangers as I ask their name, and then forgetting to tell them mine. I'm not trying to be rude -- I'm just a creature of routine.)

"Where's Tigress? I'm horny," complains Hops with a yawn, applying a lighter to the bowl of an ornate glass pipe. The pipe chortles with water bubbles as he draws in the thick marijuana smoke.

"Who's Tigress?" I ask.

CheeseburgerLarge accepts the bong from Hops and scratches his raspy chin thoughtfully with the lighter. "I think she said she'd be back tomorrow or the next day," he offers.

"Fuckin' A," replies Hops.

Ruxanna asks, "Who's Tigress?"

"She's Hops' sex-friend," answers Barley with a slur. "She's always hanging around here. She's in Germany." In truth, Tigress is the house-slut -- she is no more attached to Hops than anyone else. She is in her late twenties, works part-time at a cafe, and spends the better part of her days laying college students and taking hobby courses.

"She sounds really cool," says Ruxanna brightly.


Tigress

I quickly become bored of snowing people into buying fake environmentally-friendly cleaning supplies. Recklessly, I stop trying to make sales at all. Instead, I telephone people in different parts of the country and ask them how the weather is out there.

"Well, a nasty wind's blowin' in from up Yellowknife way, and it smells like winter a'ready," I am told by a man in the North-West Territories. Quoth a slow-speaking Saskatchewan wheat farmer: "Days are gettin' shorter, eh? House is still a mess. I'd give you my chequing, but I ain't got my letters none to be readin' it to you."

I spend an hour talking to a housewife in Newfoundland, and, for reasons not altogether clear to me, I ask her what she thinks is the true meaning of Christmas. "Forgiveness," she tells me without hesitation. "Everyt'ing else is gravy, my dear, once you larn to let go of bad feelings for people what wronged us. That's what the Lard Jaisus taught, he did."

After work I lug a case of free Pepsi up St. Urbain to CheeseburgerLarge's den. "I come bearing gifts!" I announce as I step through the door into the murky livingroom.

"Oh yeah?" mutters CheeseburgerLarge, eyes on the television.

Ruxanna is curled up on the chesterfield with Hops and Barley, dividing up little pieces of blotter-paper soaked in lysergic acid. "We scored doses!" she announces, grinning at me. "We're all going to drop together -- it'll be so much fun!"

But it isn't.

I suck a yeasty-tasting homebrew and sit on one end of the couch while Hops, Barley and Ruxanna descend into greater depths of giggles and sniggering. They have discovered a shared joke -- or are hallucinating that they have discovered a shared joke -- whose threads apparently connect seemingly disparate commercials on TV into a coherence only they can hear.

CheeseburgerLarge sits in his throne, his eyes very far away.

Patterns and clouds of colour march through my vision, and I lose my sense of time. I withdraw into the sofa cushions. I feel very lonely sitting in the midst of this dead company, friendless among lechers, my own Gypsy nymphette seemingly uninterested in my companionship tonight. With a start, I realize that I much prefer the kind of loneliness I experience walking the streets of Montreal by myself. The answer to improving my mood is apparent: be alone.

I am not noticed when I slip out to stand on the porch, watching the cool night wind skitter fallen leaves along St. Urbain. I feel an immediate sense of relief being released from the frat-like house. I breathe deeply, and watch the patterns of light the cold air makes in my vision. Holding the corroded metal rail, I close my eyes and let the sounds of the street paint a throbbing, abstract landscape in my mind.

"Are you listening?" asks a voice, low and breathy.

"Sure." I speak into the fields of colour in my mind, and they ripple in response. My voice seems like it belongs to someone else, both in timbre and in will.

"I love the sound of the street," says the voice, a little closer now.

"The airy sound of distant traffic reminds me of the ambient noise they used to play in the background on Sesame Street," I say. "Isn't that stupid?"

"No." A pause. "Do you want to hold my hand while we listen?"

Dimly, I remember my hands. I can feel their ghosts, hapless meat on the ends of my wrists, drooping from the cold metal railing. I can taste the rust through my palms. I feel a surge of warmth in my breast, a feeling of giving in to senseless trust. "Yes," I reply.

(I really mean it, too. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if somebody doesn't hold my hand I may start to cry.)

Someone is holding my hand now, and the sensation brings me closer to reality. For the first time, I appreciate that there is a stranger standing beside me, with whom I am speaking while I stare out into St. Urbain with closed eyes. At first I brace myself for intrusive communication, but the stranger holding my hand doesn't speak for a long time. The landscape of sound repaints itself in my mind.

For the first time, it occurs to me that Ruxanna is always talking. This wordlessness is golden.

When I open my eyes the porch is dark, and the stranger remains a stranger, a fuzzy silhouette against the headlights. "Not talking communicates more than talking does," I say, my tongue made clumsy by the acid. "That sounds really stupid when I say it aloud," I add after a moment's consideration.

"The Buddha said that every man's most noble thoughts are belittled by being spoken," says the stranger thoughtfully.

"Yeah," I say. "But I bet it sounded better in his head."

The stranger giggles, and then shivers. "It's cold," she says. "You're cold too, even if you don't know it. Let's go inside."

"Okay," I say. Like a child, I follow.

"My name's Tigress," she tells me as we approach the flashing television light of the livingroom and the stoned laughter of Hops, Barley and Ruxanna. "You must be CheeseburgerBrown," she says.

Now that's more like it. "At your service," I tell her.

Little do I know that it she who will end up at my service in the end, rather than the other way around. Tigress is a more complex machine than she first appears, and divining her true function won't be easy. But the stage is set, and with the entrance of but one more player our drama is at last ready to unfold.


Scoopowitz

It is plain to me that Ruxanna's interest is waning. She now regrets her decision to invite me along to Montreal. No doubt scoring the art department's anti-hero at highschool seems less exciting while surrounded by svelt university lads who are mid-way up a social ladder I'm not even on. In Toronto she had a pet CheeseburgerBrown -- in Montreal she has a pet "Cheeseburger who?" and it's dawning on me that this matters to her.

What is for me a problem that requires recalibrating my social skills is for her a barrier to her future popularity. It is easy to read in her the desire to make an impression on the boys of McGill by sleeping with them, and equally easy to read her mounting disappointment at feeling "trapped" with me.

"Listen," I tell her; "I know you're feeling hot and bothered about Hops. I know you want to go out and play," I say. Hot and bothered is Ruxanna's term, and I borrow it with some distaste. None the less, I feel that being candid is best.

"He's really cute," she says noncommittally, searching my expression.

"All I ask is that you hold your horses until Christmas. Then I'll be in Halifax, and you can paint Montreal red."

She gives me a big hug. I am such an "understanding" guy. She throws me over and fucks me nicely, in thanks and eager anticipation, I guess. While she's baying like a stuck pig and writhing around I look out the window watch fall the last leaves of autumn. The alley behind our flat is a field of rotting red and moldy gold.

"Talk to me dirty!" she demands breathlessly.

"You're a bad girl," I tell her, because it's the first thing that pops into my mind.

"Yes!" she agrees.

"Uh..." I grope through my mind for something appropriate. "I love to look at you while we're making love...your, er...lips..."

"Use bad words!" she suggests.

"Oh," I say. "Fuck me hard!"

"Yes!" she cries.

I feel really stupid. I refuse to reproduce any more of my stilted and decidedly unhot soliloquy delivered at threatening pussy-point. Despite the clumsiness of my verbal insinuations, Ruxanna is sufficiently stimulated to ride me to her own cheap climax. She breaks for a smoke, and I get dressed for work.

At lunch, the Friendly Greek tells me I'm about to put on probation at Richway. "Starting this afternoon, all your calls are monitored, fuck," he says. "If you don't start selling again, you'll be out. But you didn't hear it from me."

So I leave off my amateur investigation into the national weather situation and try fooling people into buying the scam again. But my efforts are ineffectual, and I know that the muffled clicks and breathing I can sometimes hear in my earpiece are the sounds of the shiny-suited wardens passing judgement on my lackluster performances. At the end of the day one I'm told by one of the managers that I have a week to shape up, or ship out. He says, "We'd really hate to have to let you go and shit."

That night, Ruxanna is strange. There is no copulation before bed, and she tosses and turns until morning.

Tigress meets me for lunch. By daylight she is unattractive, yet I cannot deny that she projects an aura of potent sexuality. It is a strange combination. She is tall, red-headed and angular: her face is broad and flat, her lips thin and jaw square. She has red hair cropped short, bright blue eyes and an uncurved body. She is plain and somewhat boxy -- like a human Volvo.

"Ruxanna slept with Hops yesterday, of course," she tells me over Vietnamese noodles. She seems annoyed, and I wonder why: I have already heard ad nauseam about her belief in open, jealousy-free entanglements. Isn't there enough Hops to go around?

"Scoopowitz and I had a thing, before he went away," Tigress explains. "Being occupied with Hops was my way of showing him that's over."

"I asked her to wait until I left."

"I know."

"But instead she chose to lie. I admit I am disappointed." As we chat, I wonder whether Tigress would have passed this information along to me had Ruxanna's raging horn not threatened to upset her plans with regard to Scoopowitz. Despite her apparent sincerity, I decide that it is unlikely.

That night I say to Ruxanna, "I know you're keeping something from me. It's written all over your face. I've always been honest with you: why not just fess up?"

She confesses and cries and apologises, once cornered. She begs me not to hate her, and begs me not to leave her "all alone" in Montreal. "You have a right to be angry -- you should be angry -- but please don't go," she whines. Ruxanna solemnly promises to restrain herself until Christmas, and then attacks me sexually to seal the deal.

And maybe -- just maybe -- this delicate arrangement could have held for the short time we have left...but, though I do not yet know it, something wicked this way comes.

"Here he is now," says Tigress. "Come sit down!" she invites, making room at the table.

Scoopowitz is an engaging and affable guy. He's a sparkling conversationalist and generous listener, comfortable across many fields of discussion. He is slight of build, and not too tall. He has close-cropped dark hair and lively grey eyes. It does not dawn on me right away how much he looks -- and speaks -- very much like me.

We get on famously, Scoopowitz and I. We are like long separated twins. Tigress enjoys our banter quietly. She is a connoisseur of maleness, and she drinks in our instant comraderie. We have friends in common in this city -- like K. and Heather Steel -- friends I haven't visited yet, immersed as I've been in my self-made prison of Ruxanna and small-time telephone scammery.

"Have you seen K. yet? We went to interview Green Day last night, and he was asking after you."

"No, where is he living?"

While Scoopowitz draws a hasty map on the back of a napkin, I watch Tigress watching him. I wonder: why does she deny that she's in love with him?

If I was smart I would also have wondered: what does she have up her sleeve?


Carnal Carnival

Being fired from Richway is anticlimactic. I say good-bye to the Friendly Greek, and head back home. I call the Wheelchair Athletes, and my boss promises to fit me in for a second shift each night to help offset the loss of wages. I'm grateful to the hacking old buzzard. "Don't mention it -- you're a good worker, fuck."

Still, I'm nonplussed at losing my evenings. Because she also has little to do during the day, I wander into the neighbourhood haunts until I find Tigress in a cafe reading a book by the window. "This is great," she tells me. "Now you can give me art lessons during the day."

"Art lessons?" I echo, dumbly.

"I can pay you," she adds. "How does twenty bucks a lesson sound?"

"Overly generous."

"Then it's settled."

We go back to the flat and I bust out what limited supplies I have. Tigress has never had instruction in drawing before, so we begin at the beginning: holding up a paper viewfinder and recording simplified versions of the shapes seen through it. "This is how artists draw?" she asks.

"When you get good enough you'll just use your thumb," I tell her, holding up my hand and squinting along the knuckle. "Right now, you're learning how to see things without overinterpreting them. The secret to drawing from life is to put aside your mind's idea of what the objects are, and just draw the shapes they make instead. Trust in your vision...trust in your little paper viewfinder."

Later, Ruxanna returns home -- several hours earlier than expected. She is inexplicably dismayed by my loss of the Richway job. "You got fired?" she keeps repeating in a highly irritating fashion.

Tigress and Ruxanna and I smoke a joint. "Wanna come to a party tonight?" Tigress asks, mercifully changing the subject.

"Yeah!" chimes Ruxanna instantly.

"Okay," I agree. My double-shifting at the wheelchair call-centre doesn't start for another two days, yet.

"I'm going to change," announces Ruxanna, rooting through the closet and then disappearing into the washroom to apply make-up.

"Scoopowitz will be at the party," Tigress tells me, helping me put away the implements of art.

"Again with the Scoopowitz?"

"You don't like him?"

"I like him just fine."

"Good," she says; "I want you to like him."

Why does Tigress want me to like Scoopowitz? Let me leap ahead and tell you, in case you haven't figured it out: it is in order to impair my ability to be angry with him, later.

The apartment buzzer goes off. "Expecting someone?" asks Tigress. I shake my head.

"Oh -- I think that might be Hops," Ruxanna calls from the washroom. "I think I may have invited him over to hang out, or something."

I look at Tigress and she looks at me.

Suddenly, Ruxanna's dismay at my days being open becomes plainer: she's been secretly meeting up with Hops while I'm on the job. Tigress looks as irritated as I feel. When Hops arrives, we smile and joke and invite him down to have a smoke with us. Ruxanna comes out of the washroom and sits as far away from Hops as possible. She has a blue dress on. "Are you coming to the party?" she asks excitedly.

"What party?" he asks.

I look at Tigress, and wonder: why hasn't she invited her boy-toy to the party? She tells him: "I thought you and Barley were doing that hockey thing tonight, so I didn't bother to ask you."

"Yeah, we're playing hockey with those guys," elaborates Hops dumbly.

"Oh, poo," says Ruxanna in a sympathetic way.

When night comes so does the snow. We trudge uphill in a tight pack, braced against the wind, making for the house where Tigress rents a room she never sleeps in. It is the end of November, and the air is turning cruel.

We don't talk much on the way.

Entering the party is like walking into a teen comedy/sexploitation movie come alive. The house is crowded. The lights are coloured, and people are eating green Jell-o off of one another. The loud music is a continuous tribute to the nineteen-eighties. "It's like we're in a John Hughs movie," I comment.

"What?" shouts Ruxanna over the din.

"Hey look, there's Anthony Michael Hall."

"Who?"

The girls stop to chat with Tigress' housemates. Eyes wide shut, I wander alone through the house: around me, behind me, before me -- lust, lust, lust. This is a party where university students try hard to recreate their highschool notion of what university parties are supposed to be like. The mixed drinks are of bar quality, and the sexuality is unbridled. "What's your major?" everyone is asking everyone.

Tigress hands me a fancy drink out of nowhere and escorts me to an upstairs salon where a crew of pretty kids is playing an adult version of spin-the-bottle. Ruxanna makes out with a pierced dyke. I kiss a short Asian girl who bites my lip in a playful way. Blunts laced with coke are passed around, and the company becomes giddy and red-eyed.

"It's a constant celebration," a soft-spoken boy from Victoria tells me drunkenly but with an attitude of grave seriousness. "And do you know what we're celebrating? Being alive!"

"Sure," I agree. It seems the polite thing to do.

"Do you read poetry?"

"No."

"We're sucking the marrow of life," the boy from Victoria assures me, undeterred.

"Wasn't it Robin Williams who wrote that?"

The poor lad is confused. Nothing offends an undergrad like ignorance. "You're joking," he says, distressed.

"Yes."

The bottle spins again and I find myself obliged to kiss him. I think to myself: stubble hurts.

By degrees, I become more drunk. I have a conversation with a girl dressed entirely in fun-fur, and she tells me she "secretly" suspects that she may be a lesbian. "Everyone's a lesbian these days," I tell her. "It's all the rage." She tries to kiss me, but I deflect her. "What's your major?" I ask.

"Women's studies," she says.

"You're a lesbian."

I lose track of Ruxanna and Tigress. I forget the names of everyone I've met. There is a big line for the washroom, so I pee out of a window.

An empty glass is pulled out of my hand and replaced with a full one. I look around blearily from my spot on a couch between two pompous students arguing about having a violinist surgically attached to one's back. Tigress is smiling at me. "Having a good time?" she asks, holding my empty glass.

"When in Rome..." I say.

A blast of cold night air sharpens me. I am standing outside of the house, leaning woozily against Tigress. Other people are leaving the party, too. "Are we going home now?" I ask.

"Yes," says Tigress. "I'm going to walk you."

"Where's Ruxanna?" I ask.

"I'm right here!" she giggles with a muffled voice. I turn and see her sitting on the back of a motorcycle, struggling to contain her hair inside a helmet. "Scoopowitz is going to give me a ride!" she croons.

Scoopowitz is standing nearby. "I haven't been drinking," he assures me, adjusting the straps on his leather jacket. "How ya doing?"

"Super," I tell him, and then burp.

When I lean over to kiss Ruxanna I remind her to "be good" and say that I'll see her at home after her ride. As Tigress and I stand on the street corner, we watch them roar away into the snowy night.


Midnight Spy

I wake up on the bed, in a very black dark. I am still dressed, and my mouth tastes like rotten apples. I am experiencing a need to urinate with a kind of religious zeal. Confused about my orientation, I roll out of bed and hit the wall. Profanity ensues.

It's after I've turned on a lamp and found the washroom that it occurs to me that I'm alone. The clock reports that it is the deepest part of the small hours. Blinking myself awake by stages, I run a slow mental inventory and come to the conclusion that I'm short at least one vixen.

I smoke a cigarette and listen to the clock tick. I am no longer sleepy.

And so I head out into the night. St. Urbain is virtually abandoned. Snow falls around me lazily, pinwheeling and seesawing and seeming to faintly glow. If I look straight up, it seems as if I am rushing through outer space.

In the supernatural silence of a night world bedded in cushioning snow, I climb the fire escape of the next house over from Scoopowitz, Hops, Barley and CheeseburgerLarge. I cross a short roof to the alley within site of Scoopowitz' window, and hunker down beside an air vent.

I feel like a spy. I am having more fun than I was at the party, and I smile to myself. Why does being sneaky give me such a thrill?

I hold up the crumpled paper viewfinder I've made for Tigress, and look through it. Don't overinterpret -- trust in the shapes revealed by the viewfinder, I remind myself.

Shadows pass by the window. Muffled voices. The window is cracked open, and a front of thick marijuana smoke rolls out to disperse in the crisp night air. The voices become clearer: Scoopowitz is speaking in a low voice, punctuated by Ruxanna's giggles and flattering interjections. I am pretty sure I hear her say, "Don't worry about him -- it's all cool," and I am reminded of when Ruxanna assured me that our dalliance would have Skater's full support.

Silence for a while. I finish my cigarette and wonder what to do.

A wild and righteous wrath burbles just below the surface of my mind, awaiting a clear enough cue to be unleashed. I am very slow to anger. My internal systems like to cross-check the situational justifications before greenlighting a tantrum. I am patient. But we all have limits...

Mine is reached when the alley gives voice to an echoey version of Ruxanna's orgasmic antics. From the sound of it she is fucking Scoopowitz with abandon. Frightened pigeons scatter from the roof, and I wonder if someone will report a murder in progress.

It is never nice to hear someone you've made love to making love with someone else. My insides turn to ice and fire in alternate queasy rolls. Inexplicably, I find myself nursing a massive erection. "Stupid body," I chide.

After the climax I leave the theatre.


The Metamorphosis

"CheeseburgerBrown?"

"I know it's early -- I'm sorry," I say, standing in the musty corridor outside of K.'s apartment. "Can I come in?"

K. tightens his robe and steps back. Coffee is brewing, and he offers me a cup. In awkward silence we both light up cigarettes and take a seat in the livingroom where spots can be found among K.'s boxes of albums and books about music theory. His long face looks tired, and is still criss-crossed in half a dozen places by the slowly fading scars that have marked him since The Accident -- but that is another story, and shall be told another time.

"I heard you were shacked up with some kind of a tart," he says conversationally.

"That's true," I say. "How'd you hear?"

"Tigress told me."

"I guess I didn't appreciate just how wide her network was," I comment. "She knows everybody."

"Everybody male," corrects K.

We smoke for a moment. "Listen, I'm having a little trouble with my tart right now, K. Do you think I could crash here for a few days, while I hatch a plan?" Cognisant of K.'s characteristic misanthropy I promise to stay out of his hair.

K. is about five times as smart as anyone I've ever known, and he likes to work his smarts in the private company of music and books. I know that visitors make him nervous. So, it is a testament to our friendship that he consents to let me take the couch. "Do I need to feed you?" he asks, clearly terrified by the idea.

"No, don't worry about me. I know you prefer to eat alone."

K. relaxes a bit. "Okay," he says to himself. "Okay, okay."

While I'm taking a shower K. gets dressed and disappears. I find myself alone among his stacks of papers, magazines and discs. A motley array of albums is splayed out in some kind of geometrical arrangement around the stereo; pinned to the stereo is a hand-written note reading PLEASE DON'T TOUCH.

When the telephone rings I am shaken out of a timeless place. A rare indulgence for a student, the handset is equipped with call-display: it is Ruxanna calling. "Yellow?"

"Cheeseburger!"

"Yes. Speaking."

"I was so worried about you!"

"Indeed?"

"Why didn't you come home last night?"

"I was out fucking other girls," I reply, dead-pan. "Why didn't you come home last night?"

"What do you mean?"

"How many possible interpretations are there of that question?"

"But I did come home last night."

"That isn't true."

"What do you mean? Of course it's true. I was worried sick about you."

"Fiction," I declare.

"How would you even know when I got home if you weren't even home," she challenges, her tone suddenly aggressive and plaintive at the same time.

"This conversation will take a much better turn if you stop lying."

"I'm not lying!" she shouts. "How dare you call me a liar?" She breaks the connection abruptly. I gently put the hand-set down on the coffeetable, and wait. I light up a fresh smoke. The phone rings again within five minutes. "I spent last night with Scoopowitz," she says when I pick it up.

"I know."

"I'm so sorry, CheeseburgerBrown. You're going to leave, aren't you?" she blurts, starting to blubber through her sobs.

"Of course."

More crying. "You've been so n-nice to m-me, and I've just been so awful!"

"That's right."

"Don't say that!" she wails. This is followed by a stream of promises to reform, a litany of oaths to fidelity and truth. And more crying -- always more crying.

I hold the receiver away from my ear for the worst of it.

"Are you st-still there?" she asks.

"Sure," I tell her.

"Why aren't you saying anything?"

A pause. I gather my thoughts, dragging on my smoke. "Listen, Ruxanna: I've given you several chances to be good to your word, and you've squandered every one of them. Why should I give you another?"

More copious weeping. "Please don't leave me," she whispers. "I'll never be bad again, I promise."

I sigh. Truth be told, I have no desire to move back to Toronto, to return to living under my parents' roof and rule. I would much later cavort in Montreal, with or without the love of Ruxanna, free to smoke and drink and work and grow a little before moving to Halifax for school. And so I give in. "We still need some time apart," I say. "I'll come home tomorrow."

She wants to act as if all is healed, and tries to persuade me to come home right away. But I have hardened my heart to her, and I would prefer she wallow in guilt and upset for a while yet. I do not crave resolution with her. "I'll see you tomorrow," I tell her, and hang up.


Public Defender

In the morning, I catch breakfast at a local greasy-spoon where K. begins all of his mornings, poring over Le Monde and drinking strong coffee. K. departs for the library after a while, but I stay on. I am smoking a cigarette and looking at the passersby outside when I see Scoopowitz looming in the window's reflection. "Hey," he says. "Do you mind if I join you?"

"Sit thee doon," I invite.

He orders himself a cup of coffee, and pays too much attention to mixing in the cream and sugar. I watch him patiently. I pat my pocket and realize that I've run out of smokes. "Ever smoke a home-rolled?" asks Scoopowitz. I tell him no. "Here, I'll show you," he offers.

And so Scoopowitz draws out his pouch of Drum and a sleeve of papers, demonstrating deftly how to seal up the plug of tobacco in a neat tube with a few purposeful twitches of his fingers. I try it, and end up with a misshapen white log that looks more like a joint. "Not bad for a first time," he says brightly.

We smoke in silence.

Satisfied that we have shared a moment of connection, I can see Scoopowitz working up the gumption to broach his next piece. After two subtle false-starts he says, "You really shouldn't be mad at Ruxanna."

"Indeed?"

Scoopowitz goes on to explain how a lot of people at university -- people like himself, and Tigress, and dozens of others -- have grown beyond the confines of traditional boyfriend-girlfriend relationships. "It's a time of exploration," pontificates Scoopowitz. "I know it can be jarring to the system, but it's natural for people to want to check out more casual ways of connecting."

"You misunderstand," I reply after a pause. "The norms of coupling are not relevant here. I am angry with Ruxanna for lying to me. It doesn't matter whether the lie was about sex or about the price of tea in China."

"Try not to be too hard on her," he suggests.

"Why?"

Scoopowitz begins to elaborate on his theory of measured promiscuity, but I interrupt to remind him that he's rationalizing the wrong sin again. He persists, however, apparently convinced that the root of the problem really is my sexually provincial attitude. "It's a time of growth for a lot of people," he points out. "It's natural."

My patience expires. "Let me explain something to you, Scoopowitz: Ruxanna is a lying, self-centred slut. If you're supportive of that, more power to you. But don't presume to educate me about her motives."

"That's a rude thing to say," he says. "You're just angry. She's not a slut."

"Goodness me, Scoopowitz. Of course she's a slut. And so are you my dear boy, despite your philosophizing."

Scoopowitz is at a loss for words. He had convinced himself that he was making headway with me, and is dismayed at this abrasive turn in the conversation. "It's not about being a slut --" he begins lamely.

"Listen, Scoopy -- it is. And you are. I can accept responsibility for wronging Skater by allowing Ruxanna to steer me by my nuts -- why can't you?"

"I haven't wronged anybody," retorts Scoopowitz. "You just don't understand." He pauses expectantly. I puff at my malformed cigarette and stare him down. "I'm trying to offer an olive branch here," he says.

"H'm, yes," I say, nodding. "I appreciate your noble sentiment." I stand, and then drop a few dollars on the table. "For my part, I suggest you take that olive branch, fold it until it's all corners, and insert it in your oubliette."


Straws and Camels

With my anger freshly fanned, I am of a different mind about continuing to live with Ruxanna. As I head home, I pray that she gives me cause to rescind my offer to stay. And she will -- oh, mercy -- she will.

She has skipped class, so she is home to see me when I arrive. She has many hugs and kisses. She whispers nothings into the crook of my neck. She entices me over to the bed, where we drop. She squirms into my lap to kiss me fiercely, and I put my hands behind me for stability.

I put my hand into something wet.

Breaking the embrace I turn around. I have discovered a small pool on the bed, a stain of fresh human excreta. I withdraw my hand, and grimace at the stringiness of someone else's jissom between my fingers. "Who did you fuck this morning?" I ask quietly.

"I didn't --"

My gaze becomes sharp. "No lying, please."

She sighs, looks down, and says nothing.

"Scoopowitz or Hops?"

"Hops."

I walk to the kitchen and rinse off my hand. When I return to the bed she is crying. "I just wanted to try it out -- I didn't mean to -- I just couldn't wait to try it..." She is pointing lamely at a series of three neat, pink scars on her upper arm.

"What's that?"

"It's a new kind of birth-control," she explains. "They put these little sticks in, and they last for like four years." She coughs, and swallows. "I just got it. It's so cool I wanted to...to try it out." She looks up at me with her big brown eyes. "I'm sorry," she adds.

I slip a cigarette out of her pack, and pace the room in slow circles while I light it up. "Let me get this straight," I muse aloud. "You beg me to come home, and then get off the phone and fuck somebody else."

"I'm sorry!" she shouts. "Don't you ever get tired of making me feel bad?" she demands, eyes wide and hostile. Then she begins to cry again.

I smoke in silence a while longer. This last straw has broken the camel's back. "I'm leaving you, of course," I tell her flatly.

"But you can't leave!"

"Whyever not?"

"Because you said you'd share rent with me!"

"So? You said you wouldn't fuck around."

She begins to blubber, holding her scarred upper arm. "But you said you weren't going to leave -- so I got this -- so now I can't afford to pay rent by myself this month!" She sits on the bed, hanging her head and sobbing. "You said," she repeats, her chin quivering.

This is a great moment, because any shed of sympathy I had left for Ruxanna dissolves like an antacid tablet in the cool glass of my fury. I smile, and I even laugh, so liberated do I suddenly feel.

"Why are you laughing?" she asks, bewildered.

"Because I am free," I tell her. "You useless lump of meat."

She blinks, startled and confused. "W-what?" she asks.

"I said I'm free, you conniving twat." I laugh again. "And freedom has never felt so good. My God, the world is my oyster! I really had not appreciated how much effort it was costing me to be civil to you, hussy." I breathe deeply and mash out my cigarette on her writing-desk. "Ah yes...that's the stuff."

"Why are you calling me names?"

"Have you ever read Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan?" She shakes her head, so I continue: "In it, two characters are trapped together in a maze of underground caves on Mercury. When one of them threatens to upset the other, he's always told, 'Don't truth me, Unk, and I won't truth you.'" She stares at me blankly. "You don't want me to truth you, Ruxanna."

"Go ahead, truth me. I don't care," she challenges.

"Very well. You are a mindless bimbo who is only tolerated on account of what an easy lay you are. Your voice is abrasive, and the things you say are foolish. You are self-serving, insipid and transparent. People joke about you when you leave the room."

"No they don't..." she whispers.

"They do, Ruxanna, they do. It does not escape notice that you put your best foot forward for want of better traits -- and your best foot is nothing but a salivating camel-toe and a lack of self-respect."

More crying. Shuddering shoulder crying, now. "It's not f-fair," she manages to choke out. "You're more articulate than me and you use it to h-hurt me. I can't s-say things like that and hurt you."

"All's fair in love and war," I remind her. "Cry me a river."

"I feel so bad," she whines.

"That's normal and healthy -- you are bad. You've betrayed my trust, the same way we both betrayed Skater's."

"Why do you hate me so much?" she wants to know.

"Oh, Ruxanna, Ruxanna," I say, kneeling at her feet and taking her hands in mine. I look her in the eyes and explain: "I don't hate you, Ruxanna. I simply no longer have any regard for your feelings."

I straighten and take stock of my possessions strewn about the apartment. I tell her I'd appreciate it if she made herself scarce while I pack. "Why?" she asks plaintively.

"Because I'm in no mood to see or hear you right now," I tell her. I set to throwing my stuff together and, when I turn around again, she's gone. In just a few hours I am ready to leave for the train station. I hire a taxi and, without looking back, direct the cabbie out of the student ghetto. We stop by my work downtown, where I break the news to my boss that I'm taking off. "Shit, fuck," he says, coughing.

Before he'll let me leave I am burdened by two cases of free Pepsi.


A Hundred Smokes of Solitude

When I get off the train in Toronto I find myself at a loss. I don't have enough money for another taxi, and I can't bring myself to call my parents. For reasons I do not fully understand, I drag my luggage a few shorts blocks away from Union Station to the posh townhouse of Ruxanna's divorced mother. Maybe I'll knock on the door and say, "I've just dumped your daughter -- can I stay over?"

I do knock on the door, but there is no one home. Ruxanna's mother's friendly neighbour, with whom I've chatted before, it sweeping her stoop. "She's gone to Rumania -- her brother died," I'm told.

Feigning knowledge, I say, "Already? I thought she was leaving tomorrow."

I am struck with a wicked idea.

It doesn't take me long to find the fake rock in the garden where Ruxanna keeps her spare key. I let myself in to the townhouse. There is a note on the refrigerator with a number for a hotel in Bucharest. So I call it.

"Hey, it's CheeseburgerBrown -- calling from Montreal," I say cheerily.

"Oh CheeseburgerBrown, hello!" says Ruxanna's mom.

"Did you have a nice flight?"

"It was fine, just fine. Is Ruxanna there?"

"She's actually at her exam. She just wanted me to call you to ask how long you'd be away. I think we're going to Toronto next week, and we thought we'd stay at your place."

"My daughter doesn't even love me enough to call herself!" laments Ruxanna's mom.

"Well, she's very busy with school," I explain.

"I won't be back until Christmas, probably," she says. "You two can stay there all you like."

"Thanks. Oh, and I'm sorry to hear about your brother."

"Ah, well. Yes. Thank you."

Next, I call my father. I say Ruxanna and I have broken up. I explain to him that I'll be staying with a friend for a few weeks. I ask him not to tell my mother I'm in town, lest she worry, fret and interfere. Ever eager to keep something from his ex-wife, my dad happily settles into his role as co-conspirator. "Are you sure you're okay?" he asks.

"I'm fine. I didn't really lover her," I say.

"I feel bad that things didn't go well for you in Montreal," continues my dad. "But I know what I can do to make it a little better -- why don't I give you your Christmas present early?"

"You always want to give me my Christmas presents early, Pop."

"I can't help it," he admits. "You're going to love it," he promises. He tells me that as soon as he's off the phone he's putting my present in a taxi and sending it down to me at the townhouse. I give him the address, and wait. I am not very excited -- I can't think of any trinket that could soothe me now, raw as my feelings are.

The cabbie helps me haul the heavy box inside. I sign the chit and send him off. Then I take a kitchen knife and slice away the packing tape.

I peer inside the box.

"Wow."

My dad has bought me a used computer. A colour computer.

And so, for the first time since the reckless days of my two person universe with Ruxanna through the summer, I know the peace that comes from having everything you need right where you are. I have half a carton of smokes, five sticks of video arcade hashish, Ruxanna's mother's liquor cabinet -- and a 24-bit colour computer system, complete with a modem and a drawing tablet, and loaded up with software courtesy of my dad's friend, Murphy.

I bury myself in self-education, pawing through paint programmes and 3D software with obsessive curiosity. I vow that never again will a creative director find my portfolio insufficiently digital. I have found my new paintbrush.

It is a week before I remember that Ruxanna's car is sleeping in the townhouse complex's underground garage. The key sits on Ruxanna's bedside table. I grab it and get in. The engine is throaty and mean. The garage door opens and I pull out into the wintery world.

I decide to drive to Sudbury -- eight hours up north -- to visit my old and dear friend Marianne. If there's anyone's company that will soothe me, it is hers. But Marianne is another story, and shall be told another time.

(Suffice it to say that it is during this long, wintery drive in Ruxanna's quasi-functional Golden Charger that I first begin to think about macro-scale patterns in traffic. Hooked into the tail-lights of the car ahead, I trance out and ponder the subject of social complexity expressed through the agency of vehicles. "They are like animals," I remark aloud, my breath visible for want of a working heater.

I promise myself that if I ever take up writing again, I will one day try to render this idea as an essay. I decide then and there that I will call the essay Traffic Zoology, and that its tone will be one half explanatory, one half a prose-poetry brew of pseudo-science nomenclature.

It will be nine years before I finally manage to write the thing. But that is another story, and has already been told.)

It is the afternoon of the next day before I make it back to Toronto. After I tuck the Golden Charger back into its spot and come out of the parking garage I am surprised to see someone loitering on the porch of the townhouse.

"Tigress?"

She looks up at me and grins. "It's cold!" she says, her pale skin turned rosy by the wind. "Can I come in?"


The Plot Thins

Ruxanna's mom has a nice bottle of Caribbean rum, and I mix it liberally with free Pepsi and ice cubes. I bring two glasses into the livingroom, where Tigress is curled up on the couch smoking a cigarette and pawing experimentally at my computer. "Is this a Macintosh?" she asks.

"Yeah."

"Weird," she says. "Where'd you get this picture on the screen?"

"I made it."

"Holy shit! It looks real."

"3D is a neat medium."

We drink for a moment, sipping around our ice cubes. I light up a cigarette of my own, and the air becomes hazy between the two of us. Tigress' large knapsack rests at the foot of the couch. "I had enough of Montreal," she informs me, tracing my gaze.

"How did you find me?"

"Your dad told me where you are."

"How did you find my dad?"

"There is a finite number of Browns in the phone book -- and you told me your dad lived in Don Mills."

"Ah." A pause. "Next question: why did you find me?"

"I told you," she says simply; "I've had enough of Montreal." She yawns and stretches then, closing her eyes and settling back into the couch. "I think I need to take a nap," she announces.

"You can toss your shit in Ruxanna's room," I offer.

"Oh," she says. "...Okay."

I help her haul the bulging knapsack up to the second floor, and show her where the washroom is. "I'll be downstairs trying to figure out what the fuck a non-uniform rational B-spline deformation cage is," I say, departing with a wave. "Come down when you're rested and we'll grab some chow."

Tigress treats me to a sumptuous dinner at the Senator, where we listen to cool jazz under mediocre paintings. (We eat one floor up from the spot which will mark my humiliating failure to impress Red Green over steak dinners, a few years hence; but that is another story, and has already been told.)

We become nicely liquored up. I barely remember the cab ride back to the townhouse.

We are giddy. We collapse on the bed of the third floor master bedroom, where I've been camping out. We smoke hashish and drink Pepsi, staring up at the snow falling against the dark skylight. "You left Montreal pretty suddenly," she says.

"So did you," I say. "Did you even give notice at the cafe?"

"Oh, I don't care about that," she says. "It's not like I need the reference." It turns out that Tigress inherited a fairly massive amount of money when her father passed away, and has been blithely living off the sum ever since -- renting apartments she doesn't stay in, taking trips to Germany, buying young cheeseburgers fancy steak dinners...

"I'm sorry about your dad," I tell her.

"Don't be. I hated him."

I ask Tigress if she told Ruxanna where I am. "Of course not," she says. "Besides, she's a little too wrapped up with Hops right now to care." I ask why she sounds bitter. "Because," she groans with a roll of her blue eyes, "that wasn't the way it was supposed to happen."

Unbidden, Tigress elaborates on the social machinations of which she claims to be the engineer. Hops was her segue away from Scoopowitz, whom she had slotted to be a hand-me-down to Ruxanna. Behind the scenes, Tigress had been hard at work lining Hops up with yet another girl -- one of her housemates from Montreal whom she assures me I met at the party, but I can't recall her. "I've been managing love triangles for a long time," Tigress tells me. "I thought I had this one all worked out."

I am on the edge of asking whom she had planned as her next sexual target, but even as I open my mouth the answer is plain: it is me.

She kisses me, then. She is artful: coy, then playful, then passionate. By practised stages she attempts to wind me up to lust. She breaks the embrace for a moment, looking into my eyes. "Kissing is nice," I admit. She smiles.

I consider that Tigress' stash of thousands is not entirely unlike her stash of hypersexuality: totems to tempt any man out of his senses, a powerful force wrought carelessly and indulgently due to excess. Is there any real difference between consenting to fuck Tigress, or accepting a thousand dollar bribe?

"Goodnight," I tell her not unkindly. "Goodnight, Tigress. This cheeseburger needs to sleep."

She hesitates.

I say, "Thank you for coming to see me. It's been really nice." I touch her face tenderly, briefly. "I don't think there are pillows on Ruxanna's bed, so take one of mine." I close my eyes. When I open them, Tigress has gone.


The True Meaning of Christmas

When I wake up Tigress has already taken her stuff and left. Considering my position here no longer secure, I make ready a rapid pull-out: I clean, I gather my things, I fill a recycling bin to the top with old Pepsi cans...

I return home.

My mother has missed me. We go out to lunch and I tell her an extremely abridged version of my adventures in Quebec. She's indifferent to the details, and focuses singularly on the happy fact that I'm no longer entwined with a harlot. "She just wasn't right for you, honey," observes my mom.

That night while she's at a Christmas party I sneak a secret smoke on the back deck of my mom's Leaside home, standing in the crispy snow and looking up into an orange sky of evening cityglow. Because I am in the backyard it is a while before I discern the knocking at the front door...

It's Ruxanna, of course.

"Hi," she says. "Can I come in?"

I step back and admit her into the foyer. In a burst of nervous energy she tells me how her exams went (not as well as she'd hoped) and what fun she's had partying with Hops and Barley (who are clearly more in love with one another than anyone else). Now she is home for the Christmas holiday, and wants to know how I'm doing.

"Fine," I answer. "Just fine. I saw Tigress the other day."

"You saw Tigress? Everyone wants to know where she is!"

"I don't know where she is now. She stopped by to teach me a lesson, and then took off."

"What do you mean? What did she think she was teaching you?"

"I have no idea what she thought she was teaching me, but what she ended up teaching me was that cheap is cheap, no matter how gussied up by savoir-faire."

"What?"

"She also taught me that power corrupts, and that rationalizing said corruption is easier than shooting fish in a barrel. Especially if those fish are horny."

"I don't understand."

"It's not her fault. She hated her father."

Ruxanna gives up this line of inquiry with a sigh. "I miss you," she says. After a pause, she continues, "I feel really bad about everything that happened."

I shrug. "You couldn't help it. I don't think it's as simple as hating your father, but I'm no psychoanalyst." And it's true -- Ruxanna is helpless to do aught but feed the craven hole inside of her. "You need to be desired, I need to smoke cigarettes -- we all have our crosses to bear."

"You're not making any sense," claims Ruxanna, furrowing her brow.

Now it is my turn to sigh. She continues to look up at me with those bottomless brown eyes, the skin beneath them trembling now, broadcasting her uncertainty. Her guilt gnaws at her, and she's come to be cleansed. She doesn't wish to be troubled by the consequences of her bad behaviour any longer, and she's desperate for me to untie the burden.

She cannot understand the wrong inherent in betraying a trust: she understands only that getting caught can be messy. It is, I decide, beyond my ken to impress upon her the moral fallacy of her selfishness. Moreover, why should I care? I'm not her daddy.

What did that Newfie housewife tell me? "Everyt'ing else is gravy, my dear, once you larn to let go of bad feelings for people what wronged us." So, perhaps, I am not such an unsympathetic guy after all -- I cannot summon the requisite bitterness to remain angry at poor Ruxanna, flailing and falling and burning out...

If forgiveness is what she craves, why should I deny it her? Whether or not she learns from the experience is no longer my concern: I am not my whore's keeper.

"Listen, Ruxanna: let's just forget the whole thing. It's water under the bridge. No hard feelings. Things got tangled, but now they're fine."

She takes a deep breath, her bosom swelling. She is relieved. She allows herself to smile. "Really?" she asks.

"Sure."

It costs me so little, and makes her so happy. She is all grins, now. She comes in for a hug, and I respond in kind. I am engulfed in the smell of her dollar lipgloss.

"I'm sorry," she says, buried in my neck.

"There, there," I say, patting her head.

To my mind this embrace seals the deal, but to her mind it is but foreplay. She quickly tries to wrestle this hug into a make out session, but I break away and step back decisively. "What's wrong?" she says, her expression pained again.

"Ruxanne," I say softly. "You don't have to wear that dress tonight."

She tries to kiss me again, but I gently push her away. "I thought everything was fine now," she cries petulantly. Out of nervous habit she yanks her lipgloss out of her pocket and dabs it at her face aggressively.

"Everything is fine," I say. "I just don't want to have sex with you."

She becomes angry. She tells me I'm playing games with her. I smile and nod, all the while moving her toward the front door. She's still protesting the logic of the situation as I escort her to the porch. "Merry Christmas, Ruxanna," I say.

She stops short. "That's it? That's how you want to leave things? You're just going to stay mad at me forever?" she demands.

"I'm not mad at you. I forgive you," I say wearily, stepping back inside the house. "Go forth, and sin no more."

"Why are you being so mean to me?" she screeches, her voice shrill in the quiet night air. She's clutching her lipgloss in her outstretched hand, brandishing it like some kind of weapon.

"Goodbye, Ruxanna."

I close the door. From the shadow on the window, I can see that she is still standing there. Minutes pass. At last, she turns and shuffles down the steps. I go to the livingroom and watch the Golden Charger drive off through the slush, its throaty roar echoing down the blocks and finally fading altogether.

After standing in the livingroom for a quiet moment I wander back into the kitchen and dial the phone. "Red?"

"CheeseburgerBrown! How's life in Montreal?"

"I'm back. Let's get drunk."

"Meet you in an hour."

"Perfect."

And yes, Red Vicious is now embroiled in a painful push-and-pull love affair with Hawky; and yes, I still have plenty of infamy to live down for my romp to the dark side; and yet -- I am untroubled as I slog through the thick Christmas snow on my way to the subway.

I pause to wipe the taste of drugstore lipgloss off my mouth, and whistle a spritely tune (in fact, I whistle the first movement of Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade, which is what always pops into my head by unless I try to whistle something specific). Toronto seems warmer and homier than it ever has to me before. I feel tall and broad and in command.

...Of what, I'm not sure.

But a certain confidence is imparted when one turns away a siren, without reproach or vitriol; an authority stemming from choices made, and consequences ridden out to their full conclusion. I am like a convict released, the open world my oyster.


Epilogue

Red Vicious will never fully forgive me for my perceived transgressions, and matters only become worse when we share yet another lover in common (but that is another story, and shall be told another time). But for the time being there is peace enough to drink and laugh.

Hawky would eventually bust out and become a hyperslut in her own right, sleeping her way up one side of the restaurant business and down the other. The last I heard she is working the resort circuit down in the Caribbean, still bitter, still angry, still poor. I hear she's given up acting on stage. She takes the birth control pill and smokes cigarettes, against the advice of her physician.

Skater and I would end up collaborating on a short film in which all the injustices of a muddy Earth are rectified at the bottom of a cold can of Pepsi. The film will be terrible, but this is something for which I will be largely to blame -- Skater's musical score will be half-decent, at least.

K. will go on to become a music journalist, and will soon be too intellectual, cultured and effete for the likes of me. He'll brush me off after a dinner of stilted and awkward half-conversation. But I still enjoy reading him in print.

Tigress, Scoopowitz, Hops and Barley's fates will remain unknown to me.

Ruxanna will move out to British Columbia. She will marry, and work as a highschool English teacher. Our infrequent contact over the years will be civil, if not nostalgic. She will write to me occasionally to comment on something she's read on my website, and may in fact one day read this tale.

And me? You know my story. I just keep on keepin' on, being CheeseburgerBrown in the only way I know how -- impish, peevish, verbose and giggly. I thank you for coming along on this journey with me. Til next we meet, gentle reader, til next we meet.


Fin.


CONNECTED STORIES
The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle | Brat Punk Discordia | Traffic Zoology | Four Corners of a Box | The Wrap Party | On Enemies

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