The Life You Want
You live behind a window in six floors of windows. There’s a Vietnamese restaurant on the street level of your building. You’ll bring a girl there for pho and then upstairs to meet your white walls you’re for some reason reluctant to occlude. The food will go on the kitchen counter and you’ll play impatient for contact. Afterward she’ll stand at your bedroom window and comment on the view and go out to the hallway to take a phone call. She’ll leave on her phone with a little wave, looking at the wall above your head. In the morning her soggy chopsticks will seem sad in a way you’ve always resisted. If you’re written about it might be implied you’re a slut or a shit. You will be able to live off your art. You will forget almost everything that has ever happened to you. You will not speak to your parents. There will be no one point in time when it will feel like you should fully care.
You will find yourself in a city you idealized as a child in your room poring over a page of National Geographic dotted with cereal milk, but now it’s not life or death but a set of keys and three different schedules, daily habits you try always to break or improve. Your life is here. Is it “empty”? Everyone you know is here. People know who you are. The kind of person who would leave a wet towel on a bed all day. A day pivots around a pop song or an email reread from a friend you don’t talk to, starred, unresponded-to. Soulful and rare. Details of a life. Major topics. How should a person be? Don’t feel bad. Almost no one is dying. People begin to marry. People go to Montreal to marry, people marry in the church at Bloor and Huron, at the Palais Royale, people marry in the country, in the summer, people marry people you don’t know, people you’ve never heard of. People marry people they’ve been with for ten years and more, some since they were teenagers. People simply go off with each other, somewhere. It’s as simple as deciding one day to do it.
Single women your age are cool as cucumbers despite everything we all hear and how they’re portrayed in movies and television. They drink, you drink, it doesn’t matter. Everyone can handle sex sober now, though people still like weed. No one is surprised to be asked out and hardly anyone is cruel or volatile. Every single person your age has had absolutely every weird edge smoothed off their personality. No one is crazy like in the old days. People work out, find new ways to work out, make videos about new ways they’ve found to work out. People talk about the world as if they don’t understand it. People talk about their jobs, get self-conscious talking about their jobs. “Girl” or “woman”? People often don’t sleep over. Once in a while someone won’t respond to a text but in general almost everyone is fantastic about communication. No one seems to judge anyone on whether you pay for whatever. Maybe they’re torn internally. Romantic comedies seem profoundly hollow in a way that makes it seem like a lot more work to be honest. A prostitute will get arrested on the sidewalk at night and scream “What did I DO?” You’ll know pretty much everyone you see in three or four separate neighbourhoods around the city. You’ll see them every day. You will be so good with people. You will have little money. Your confidence about your musical tastes will be shot. You will have this one thing you know about. A song will come on in a restaurant and you will light up inside, every dormant republic of your personality will tingle. The waitress will approach. You will order breakfast. Like an old man in a movie in a country that doesn’t exist, you will have a thick, dry New York Times. You won’t read it. You’ll read a book about a group of artists in another century who changed the face of things they cared about. You will have no one to turn to when you feel as though every single day you’ve lived you’ve wasted. You will earn $250 for a true story you mostly invented. You will dream endlessly on bathroom tiles, after a shower, of old lovers and what ever became of their lives. Whatever they’re doing, whatever choices they made to get to where they are now, you want to be there too, in that sun-algaed room or expanse where their person is, gently.
To be loved. You would become a cook or an architect. You would become a bureaucrat for the city’s health department. You would shovel snow in the cold in a suburb of a town you’ve never heard of.
A middle-aged man coming into the No Frills pedestrian tunnel will be mid-dance, and you will smile at him, and he will stop dancing and turn away, and this will be the highlight of your day. Some days human relations will be easy for you, you’ll be able to charm a room, three rooms, rooms all night long because after all what else is your skill. Other days you’ll be a wreck. A podcast will more or less prevent you from suicide. You’ll shirk plans, you’ll cancel at the last minute, you’ll realize you’re becoming that most alien type you never understood when you were first coming into this: a flake. You’ll stay inside your apartment all day, two days, three days; you’ll turn off your phone. Your sense of well-being and self-esteem will be increasingly fragile. You will have no ‘rock’. You will hear someone say, not to you, “You get used to living alone.” People will play internet poker in cafés. An old man will smoke a cigarette on the sidewalk. Fashions will change. Style of any kind will begin to seem contingent. A beautiful girl will sit across from you in a bar. Now you’re kissing on the sidewalk, now you’re in bed, now you’re exchanging first impressions. You are smooth and she is skeptical. Who was scared to talk to who. Things you’ve both shoplifted, people you’ve known, experiences you’ve had. A twenty-year-old alone in a field in Guelph with twenty thousand dollars, no radio communication. The Gmail chats of a divorcing father with another woman, seen. A rinky-dink academic conference on the Gulf Coast of Alabama. A Tamil boy in a bar in Fredericton plugging a slot machine who thinks he’s James Bond, who’s never been drunk, who feels like the next man he sees he will fight, and the next woman who comes through the door he will fall clean in love with.
Going out with different people, falling in love with them, breaking up with them, how you feel in that moment of breakup. It’s as simple as deciding one day to do it. You will wake up and read her two poems by the man whose room you are in, from small journals he has on a shelf beside his bed. Drinking Gatorade from wine glasses, you will tell her about his marriage to a Moroccan girl. In the morning the bridge you built at night will be harder to make out. She’ll come out of the bathroom in a towel and you’ll be answering a text.
All surface all the time, all pursuit. You will look at alleys. The headlights of a car at an intersection will blind you. A guy with a ponytail rides by, a white girl crossing the street on her phone looks up and meets your eyes. You will not have fully developed ways. The white chevrons in the bike lanes. The smell of two or more fuels combined. You will flinch at a man coming around a corner, at a car turning in front of you. The threat of physical violence seems more consequential. You will have been assaulted at least once. You will know you’re dying. You will not know and know and not know what to live for. Things will gain and lose and momentarily, provisionally, complicatedly attain meaning. People’s throwaways on a front lawn: a cableknit purse, a boxy old computer, a clean white towel, folded neatly. Whole large families walking together in conversation. Even basic things. Jazz. A night out. Old friends. Public transportation transfer slips. Overthick condoms. The years on old pennies. A boy walking his dog. A wa-wa peddle. How you talk. The actual pitch and timbre of the tones coming up from your throat, around and not around people. The night will not really end. Coming home to the apartment alone, all your belongings in the places you last left them. One bunch of grapes, two apples, one bottle of vodka, a thing of ground pepper, not fresh. You will stop feeling your heart sink, you will just kind of know it. You won’t be able to really do anything, you will only be able to wait it out. You can’t even read. You can’t watch TV. The internet isn’t working. You can’t call anyone. You’ve been alone for half an hour and you can’t remember if you have any friends.
And someone is pretty much always out on the sidewalk screaming in extreme pain in a painfully hoarse voice.
She sits at the table under the fan, you sit on the bed. You have vodka, she doesn’t want a drink, she’s drank “overmuch” this weekend. You say, “Come.” She comes over and sits down beside you, but you say, “I was hoping you would come sit like this,” and you bring her around to straddle you. You stand up from the bed with her wrapped around you and deposit her on the bed with yourself on top. She laughs, says are you a heartbreaker. “Statistically or by design?” “You would be a heartbreaker if you got me to fall in love with you and then left me.” “That’s not the plan.” Your hands under her dress. You have to stand up to take off your jeans. “Too fitted?” she says. She calls you a sixteen-year-old boy and cannily mocks you for fishing for a compliment. “You’re not easy on a man.” She says she tends to leave ex-boyfriends in a better place than before they met. You tease her mercilessly for this, she is thrilled. She imagines you far away, in a room like this one. You tell her you have fewer books. You’re swimming in each other. The sheets are soaked. The fan is hardwired to the light overhead; both are off. Cunnilingus comes with a strange perspective. In the morning, you roll her onto her stomach. Blond hair, parents from out east. Quoting Wikipedia at each other. She reminisces about the first night outside the Communist’s Daughter: the way your hands gripped her bare back. Your hand squeezing her thigh when she says that.
When she leaves, you feel kind of differently about various conversations you’ve had over the past week. Walking along the western frontier of College Street to meet friends with a song from the 1960s on repeat may be the happiest you’ve ever been. Everyone coming at you in the bike lane sweating and the sight of their drenched necks. Newly poured concrete sunbright. A tractor getting towed. Cyclist signaling with his elbow. Black girl with headphones in a pose. Or is that just life. Your list: dish scrubber, decent condoms, beef. At brunch someone asks “Who was your date?” “She seems like California, from Woody Allen,” you say. “Woody Allen is all in New York!” “When he goes there in Annie Hall I mean.” A couple passing on the street looks good together. Another guy walks by like he never learned how to use his legs. “That guy was beautiful, what are you talking about.” “He did this weird walk.” “I thought he was very beautiful. Does he live in my neighbourhood?”
A fan overhead, a keyboard, an apartment on loan. A school across the street, a Vietnamese woman and child in the apartment across the hall. Sitting at your friend’s desk; a window onto a life. To live alone. Is this what you want? Sleeping in, emails. “I was on my way to Ireland and I got discombobulated.” “Please forgive me. Grants are due tomorrow.” “I’m trying not to drink too much beer.” “Miss you buddy. Everyone here either teaches at Columbia, Stanford or Yale or they go there.” Emails and books, authors and opinions. Do you find it hard to concentrate? You take down a magazine from this shelf that’s not yours. National Geographic, June 1979: Lost Settlement, 4-H Exchange, Long-Necked Women, Michigan, Society Is. Diatoms. Something true, even if trivial, is soothing. You read something and you become more who you are. And you will need these things you read because things can be hard and seem scattered and because of no rock. You were in the park, looking at her profile pictures, going all the way back to the beginning and then starting over again. And just then she texted you, and you never responded. Relax though, flake. Think of something easy, something you’ve loved. Preparing dinner, cleaning your apartment, listening to a podcast, alone. It’s not hard to live. You’ve loved far more than you think.
It’s a Saturday in July. It’s raining outside. Everyone you saw today. Remember? Naomi, Sasha, Evan. You like all these people. And when you talk on the phone with someone from the past. A phone call out of the blue lasts a long time. Relax. You’re in the city where your life has happened. When you look back on what you’ve loved. When you look back on what’s been important to you. You want me to describe my life? I remember. My leg hair proliferated. I was teenage-proud of my Jenny Holzer walls. It’s easy to look back. It’s harder to ask for what you need. Eggs, toast, butter, Eatmore, caffeine pills. Outside, it’s raining. Everyone is beautiful. Hardly anyone is ugly. People find each other, somehow. And it’s funny when they match, when they seem to go together. Matching outfits. That doesn’t just happen, you know. It’s as simple as deciding one day to do it.
Stephen Thomas lives in Toronto and his website is stephenthomaswriter.com.