The maid café had just opened and from across the street it looked like the woman standing by the entrance was beckoning me to come inside.
But I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Once I had crossed Dundas I saw her welcome in its correct proportion, saw that she was overtired and reluctant to meet my eyes. That she probably hadn’t even seen me before or maybe hadn’t wanted to.
“I’d like to dine in,” I said.
The dining room looked like a cafeteria or the common area in a college residence, haphazard, unplanned. Metal tables and chairs, exposed brick wall, a ramp that rose inexplicably (it was on the second floor and there was no elevator) from the sunken dining section to a platform where there was a little stage and, behind that, a bathroom. There were women in maid costumes running around and taking everyone’s orders. And the man at the cash looked me in the eyes and said arigato after I finally paid for my meal.
But that was later. I sat down at a space by a window, near a giant plastic fern that would soon look just as tired and wary as the woman downstairs. I thought about calling Robin and pulled out my phone.
“You’ll never guess where I am,” I said, when she answered.
By then a huge piece of the cheesecake they sold was sitting in front of me, like a puff ball mushroom or piece of vanilla styrofoam.
“I don’t care,” she said, after a while.
“I’m in the maid café.”
We had talked about it when it first opened.There was another long pause and I considered putting a fork in the cake while I waited for her to think of something to say next. A woman I wanted to see desperately had cancelled on me for the second week in a row and instead of seeking comfort elsewhere I had spent the night wandering back and forth through the city, marvelling at how it had changed over the last twelve years.
The night before I had been talking to someone about the time she had spent working in a Vietnam casino. Hired for her whiteness, as decoration, pacing the floor with a barren clipboard for the obscene amount of two thousand dollars a month. Which in Vietnam, she said, was like being royalty.Vaguely.
I’d never left the city, which sometimes bothered me. Tonight I had thought about how much the city had changed in the time that I lived there, about the women I had loved and the many different kinds of lives I had lived. The city had changed a great deal, money was entering it from every direction and the buildings just kept getting higher and higher. They had a kind of soft glow to them, like seashells held in front of a harsh light. People were walking back and forth in the street, ascending like angels or ghosts through plate glass windows where money and cocktails and sex were exchanged.
I discovered Robin had hung up on me, and I reluctantly put down my phone.
I was getting older and it scared me, not because I was going to die, but because I didn’t like looking back and seeing all the different lives I had lived. I felt like I was stepping over the bodies of all of my living friends, friends and former lovers I hadn’t seen in months or years.
Robin and I had separated because I hadn’t wanted to tell her that I loved her. I wasn’t sure I did. But I was afraid that if nobody loved me I wouldn’t exist. And that if I loved them back I wouldn’t exist.
The city was a kind of god, inflating and taking on definition. A mass of concrete and steel accreting slowly, acquiring personality, consciousness.
What was I doing with my life, living there all alone?
I imagined my friend in the casino, standing with her colleagues and occasionally taking meaningless tallies on her clipboard as she manuevered between tables full of Chinese businessman drinking tall glasses of milk or tea and throwing away their new money.
All money was new. A waitress came by to refresh my water and asked if I was done with my cake. I had about a mouthful left, smeared against my fork. I looked up at her with what felt to me like a ravening hunger and she visibly startled.
“Not yet,” I said.
She nodded and moved onto another table. Her English wasn’t very good. I wondered what I was doing in there. In fifteen minutes the lights would dim slightly and all of the maids would get on the little raised stage at the far end of the room and do a kind of performance. They’d sing to the health and success of the proprietor of the café, who was a bald man with round glasses who lived, I’d heard, somewhere in Taiwan. There were cartoons of him everywhere, caricatures which showed him with manic, glinting eyes.
Then I would rise from my seat and push through the crowd and demand my bill at the counter.As the lights circled and twinkled and the three maids moved in clumsy sync on stage.
For now I pushed my smear of cheesecake around and looked up, dimly, at the rest of the room, which bled and ran in the fluorescence. People, most of them it looked like either students or making the trip out from the suburbs, talked idly amongst themselves, their jaws working carnivorously around glinting silver tines. My limbs felt dull and heavy, and I didn’t want to move. I wasn’t hungry anymore and I didn’t understand why.
The city was seeping into the room, a liquid something like oil. Not wet. Claustrophobic. I pulled out my phone again and stared blankly at the screen. My reflection left a grimy trace in the glass.
It seemed to me heaven to be on the other side of the world.Among jungle palms. Wading through cigarette smoke in murky blackness, through harsh or cruel laughter. A light in the distance, mosquitos. I knew it wasn’t like that. Or maybe it was. There were about eight of these casinos clustered together near the Chinese-Vietnam border, my friend explained. And otherwise there was nothing.
I was uptown when I got the message cancelling our date, in a meeting with a client in a back room at their practice. My client was just outside the door, speaking with a clerk who had just come to tell her something urgent. That didn’t augur well. I didn’t make it a habit to check my messages when I was in a sales meeting, even when I was waiting, even when I knew it would be a failure. When I got outside I willed myself to look down at my phone. I stood, dazed, in the crystalline light.
I didn’t have any more appointments that day.
I had recently read that the Byzantine emperor Leo the Wise had devised a kind of concrete toad that roamed the streets of Constantinople at night; for the past five weeks I had dreamt of it slowly persuing me through dim stone alleys, its eyes stoic and blank.
They weren’t nightmares—there was something I liked about the way it deliberately picked its way after me. I told my therapist that sometimes I thought of moving to Istanbul and living in an apartment by myself, and she asked me first why, and then what was stopping me.
I didn’t have a satisfactory answer to either question. It seemed easier, somehow, is I guess what I told her.
“What seems easier about it?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Couldn’t you live that way here?”
I shrugged. I knew that I could not.
I started walking uptown, through neighbourhoods of multi-million dollar homes: similar to others in the city but diligently kept up, like a fairy tale or a theme park version in their neat uncanniness. I watched a man rush from his front door to his car, on his way leaving three empty wine bottles on the sidewalk for scavengers to take. I imagined the bottles being picked up and gathered into a working concrete mouth, turned into fine particles, a glinting soupy paste, and swallowed.
Did I really want love? I watched the man fumble with something in his back seat, his back bent under the fibreglass. He seemed an average sort of man. I wanted his car to suck in his body and fold into itself, like a transforming robot, to sprout two legs and stalk away with him, mangled, inside.
I picked up one of the bottles and threw it down his driveway, where it shattered with an unsatisfying pop. The man pulled himself out of the car to look, startled, first at the puddle of glass, then at me standing at the foot of his driveway. “What the fuck?” he shouted. His face was turning red but his eyes were wide and expressive, like he was still processing what had happened.
“Fuck you,” I said.
It took him seconds to respond. He pointed to the mess.
“Clean it up!”
“Pay me,” I said, holding out my hand.
I didn’t need the money but at one time I had.
He pulled out his phone. Then pointed back. Then looked at me again. “I’m calling the police,” he said.
“Pay me,” I said.
“You’ll be paying me.”
“Fuck you,” I said.“Fuck you.”
I started walking away.
“I’m dialling now.”
“Go ahead,” I said.“Fuck you.”
He followed me for about a block or so with the phone held up to his ear, ecstactic I think to have someone to pour his frustration out onto. He said all kinds of nasty things. But he gave up when someone finally came on the other end of the line, visibly deflating as he identified himself and described the scene.
I walked home and showered and lay in bed with the lights turned off and the windows open and the fan working overhead. I didn’t know when I’d become so fragile. I had given away something or left something behind. I imagined pieces of me peeling off as I left the shower, ragged strips that curled up like pillbox beetles as they hit the ground.
I called Robin, for the first time in at least a month. Her voice on the other end was shy and hesitant but there was also an eagerness I thought that she was careful to guard. God, it felt so good to hear her speak on the other side. I wanted to tell her about the man and the bottles but I didn’t think I could.
“Are you going to say anything?” she asked.
I stared up at the ceiling.
“Listen,” I said. I let that hang in the air. As if I could vibrate some truth to her. So much had happened in the meantime that I knew the call was doomed. She sighed audibly.
“Please don’t waste my time,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You probably should be.”
“Okay,” I said, standing up from the bed. “I think I have to go now.”
“Okay,” she said.“Bye, I guess.”
But I didn’t hang up on her. I waited until the static air on the other side of the call hesitantly clicked off. Then I got out of bed and put on my clothes and sat by the window and called her again.
“I just didn’t want it,” I said.
“You’ve made that abundantly clear.”
“I don’t know why.”
There was more silence.
“Listen,” she said. “This is hard for me.”
I knew that and didn’t care that it was, or I could care but somehow that didn’t mean anything. I was still as confused as ever, struggling to find some way to click onto the track that would shoot my little car as far as I wanted it to go.
My little car made of glass. I don’t know what that means. “I’m angry,” I said.“I guess.”
“That’s not something you should be telling me.”
“You’re right,” I said, after a long pause.
“Please don’t call me again today.” She said goodbye and hung up.
I pushed the final bite of cheesecake around, spreading it so that it evenly coated the little centre of blank porcelain in the middle of the plate. I gathered the cake up in my fork and put it in my mouth: it was warm and slimy but it dissolved quickly against my tongue.
I resolved then to go home.
I passed puddles of vomit, smashed bottles, and women hopping into taxis with their shoes in their arms. Then a group of men and women leaning crouched over a slumped friend in the glare of an empty clothing store. There was something about the light washing over them from behind, the light coming out over the silent merchandise and hitting everyone like halos.
It made me hungry, like I could take the scene and put it in myself.
I pulled out my phone and centred the group in the viewfinder and started taking pictures, but none of them were as good as I imagined they would be.
“Hey,” said one of the men. He was average height, heavyset, wearing a jean jacket over a flannel button-up. “What are you doing?”
I tried to explain the profound effect the scene had made on me. “Well, we don’t appreciate that,” he said.
“I just wanted to take some photos,” I said.
“My friend doesn’t want you to.”
I looked over at his friend, eyes closed and head tilted, muttering something that I was sure was incomprehensible to someone trying to feed him water.
“How do you know?”
“I know. He doesn’t want that,” he growled.
“Okay. I’m sorry,” I said. I tried to leave, but he put a hand out to stop me, placing it square in the middle of my chest. He was at least eight years younger than me and his moustache was just a few dark oily hairs arranged on either side of his mouth, like he was an otter who had crawled up out of the lake ready to fight.
“What do you want me to do?” I said.
I felt small and cowed.
“I want you to delete the photos,” he said.
He still had his hand on my chest, and he was looking at me intently with vacant eyes that made it clear he’d had almost as much to drink as his friend. “But I didn’t take any.”
He pushed me back and I stumbled for a moment before regaining my footing. Before I had the chance to do anything he advanced and put his hand back on my chest.
“Delete the photos,” he said.
In the café I thought about an opera I had heard on the radio earlier that morning. The announcer explained that in the opera an aristocrat from an ancient Mesopotamian city leaves a palace, where he has a family and where he serves as a bureaucrat, and escapes to a town famous for its brothels. There he falls in love with a beautiful courtesan. For a while he feels like he’s in heaven, or a version of it. But he runs out of money, and he’s forced out of necessity to become a highwayman in order to support himself and his new mistress. Eventually he makes a careless mistake, is captured, brought to trial, and condemned to be executed.
The selection they played from the opera mostly concerns the moment when the protagonist is waiting to be killed. His mistress convinces his captors to let her see him, one final time, and during this meeting she secrets him a knife which he uses to break free from his bonds. One or two guards are killed in the ensuing struggle, but more come and soon the couple is surrounded. They’re restrained and taken to be executed together.
The music was incredibly powerful—the violence, regret, and passion of the condemned man rendered with moving highs and lows. But after the final clash, when I thought the music should be getting dark and sorrowful to reflect the man’s execution, or to remain violent to reflect his madly beating heart, the music slowly, softly, rises on what seems to be a pastoral scene, birds chirping in the violins and brass. In fact, the music becomes almost deafening, although it eventually restrains itself to allow the protagonist to sing a few bars. The voice of his mistress is heard, from a distance, as if calling him. He sings an exclamation, and the music concludes, rising one final time before dissipating.
When the selection finished playing the announcer came back on and explained that after finally being captured, the protagonist wakes in the gardens of the brothel, where he has been sleeping under a lush canopy of palms. The capture, the escape, the execution—perhaps even his turn as a highwayman, on that point it was unclear—had just been a dream. This is very different from stories you find in the West, the announcer explained, which usually end the opposite way, with a dream of freedom interrupted by a real execution.
The second time the man pushed me on the sidewalk I stumbled backwards and into the street, where I cracked my knee against the pavement. By that time his friends had noticed and I was able to make my escape while they restrained him as he shouted curses at my back.
“Thanks,” I said, waving curtly. “Thanks.”
I realized I wanted to be in the midst of them, to be pressing my body backwards against my drunk friend, to prevent him from causing real harm. I wanted that small drama. I wanted to look him in his black eyes and feel his blood and flesh pulsing underneath my hands. To lean into him and whisper something in his ear which might calm him down. Even if it didn’t.
To limp home with the certainty that there was something waiting for me. Either in the city or in myself.
André Babyn’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Little Brother, Maisonneuve, Hobart,