There is little negative that can be said of Toronto. It is clean and friendly and everyone seems to possess a marked amount of self-control with regard to sexuality. Perhaps the only trash you’ll ever see on the ground is a paper cup with the Tim Hortons logo on it. I was unaware of who Tim Horton was before setting foot on Canadian soil, but was soon informed that he was a hockey player who retired and started his own franchise. It smacked of George Foreman folklore. And, upon catching myself comparing something Canadian to something American, I felt guilty. Being in their country and listening to their opinions of denizens of the United States, I realized, more than ever, that I was susceptible to that uniquely American trait of tunnel vision when it comes to acknowledging anything outside of the country—from politics to sports heroes.
Ambling down Dundas Street near Trinity Bellwoods Park, I was struck by the seeming simplicity of life here. Surely there had to be something wrong with this city. But no one acted like there was. Everywhere, there were people with dogs instead of children and an air of calm instead of one more closely resembling misery. Was life that grand in the country of Canada, or were people simply contented—like grazing bulls until provoked with the red flag of half their income being taken for taxes? In the United States, citizens have a tendency to be hyperbolic when it comes to complaining about how the government takes half of what they earn. In Canada, this is literal. That’s, in part, why everyone is so happy–because the taxes make so many things government-subsidized–yet it’s the sort of happiness that is contentment, a word equating with lacking a need to strive for anything beyond the bare minimum.
It’s not to say that a lazy approach to life is ill-advised—indeed, that’s why Toronto is one of the most exultant places in North America. But it is so anathema to everything the United States is conditioned toward. We’re told that one should always be making more money, amassing more possessions, all while constantly trying to get to “the top,” that elusive term that means so little once you get there. When I first came to Toronto for my sojourn, I was out of steam. A six-year tour of New York City careerism had left me with nothing, emotionally or financially. Perhaps one of the most ironic things about New York is that you spend all your time working, yet never manage to save any of the money you make. It all goes toward rent and alcohol.
I decided to go to Toronto because I could transfer there via the ad agency I had been toiling away for, and I had one friend named Adelaide, who I’d met while we were both in a study abroad program for writing in France, to stay with while I figured out a more permanent living situation. She was the type of kind soul who might let me stay on her couch for years before she actually suggested I get my shit together. When we first met, she was meek–practically catatonic. One might say that’s the female Canadian way. No wonder the straight men there are so non-confrontational. There’s absolutely zero allure for them to pursue a woman who makes herself come across generally as melba toast.
Adelaide eventually came out of her shell over a few glasses of absinthe at La Fée Verte, where she confessed to me that she came to Paris to get more in touch with her French roots, which came from her mother’s side. Fabienne Charmain emigrated to Montreal when she was in her 20s. It was 1981 and François Mitterrand had just taken office. Fabienne was instantly averse to his extreme socialist politics–even though he would go on to be the longest serving president of the country. Moreover, Canada was not as fiscally liberating as she thought it would be–though she would never admit that perhaps she should have gone to the United States if it was money she was after. The second best thing, she found, was Toronto, where her hard-nosed ways, business acumen and natural culinary talent prompted her to open Bon Goût, a French restaurant specializing in Alsatian cuisine, the region where she was originally from.
Fabienne had never intended to get married, and she never did. But this didn’t stop her from the occasional dalliance, one of which led to Adelaide’s birth in 1987. Adelaide would never know her father, who gave her nothing except Canadian heritage. But alas, she would never get along with her mother, who couldn’t help but view Adelaide as a scourge, a hindrance to her prosperity as a restaurateur (she was never able to expand the way she had intended because of her financial responsibilities to her daughter). So, trying her best to make her mother proud in any way she could, Adelaide excelled educationally, gaining acceptance to Columbia University with a full-ride scholarship to major in English. I, on the other hand, was a CUNY student–nonetheless, we found ourselves in the same study abroad program (proving, yet again, that private universities are a scam).
The catalyst for Adelaide to come to Paris was her mother’s death six months prior. It was a freak accident. She was washing dishes while one of her employees was out sick, slipped on some water and landed chest first into the open dishwasher door, where she had just placed a fresh batch of upward-facing knives to dry. Adelaide chose to sell the restaurant thereafter, knowing that, although Fabienne would be heartbroken over its closure, she could never do it the same amount of justice. With the money, Adelaide bought an apartment on Montrose Avenue near the corner of College Street, prime Little Italy territory. This is where I was now residing, commuting to the office of Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners near the Distillery District, about a thirty minute commute on public transportation.
I didn’t know, at this point, if what they said was true: that changing your city can change your life. I felt essentially the same, and maybe no amount of newness could distract me from my search for meaning in a world that required you to make money, no matter what the politics of the country or how psychologically damaging it was to you. Sitting at my desk trying to come up with catchphrases for a product that served no real purpose was, in part, my problem. But I couldn’t just quit because I needed the work visa.
Around 5:30, I left, heading for that most cliche of Toronto chains, Mill Street Brewery. It is, indeed, a great pleasure of mine to experience the popular franchises of other cities. There is comfort in knowing the U.S. isn’t the only peddler of corporate slop. Tim Horton was plainly the most shameless, like some mashup of Dunkin’ Donuts in terms of quality and Starbucks in terms of pervasiveness. Second in the running was, appropriately, Second Cup, which served coffee that was just as mediocre, but with marketing that was just a bit classier. Enjoying a beer flight to myself, I studied the passersby. Each one looked satisfied with their existence. They didn’t have the glazed over look that many Americans have, but they didn’t have the vivacity of, say, a South American.
“Jacqueline?” a voice interrupted my thoughts.
I turned behind me to see Landon D’Alfonso, a guy who was 1950s dashing that I had met in a class called Hawthorne & Shame back in college. He dropped out of school around the time I conceded to have sex with him in the filth of the room I was renting on Avenue D. I hadn’t seen him since.
“Fancy seeing you here,” I said, trying my hand at aloofness but instead sounding contrived and wooden.
He grinned. “I knew it had to be you.”
Landon rose from his chair, sauntered over and sat in the seat across from me.
“How long have you been here?”
“I just came for an after-work drink,” I returned.
He smiled. “I meant in Toronto.”
“Right. Of course. Um, just a couple weeks… You?”
“Ever since I dropped out. I’ve been wanting to apologize to you for leaving without a word that morning. It’s just that an epiphany had struck me. I couldn’t stay in the U.S. anymore. Canada’s been like my starter kit for Europe, I’m heading there next month. To London.”
“I’m no stranger to a one-night stand,” I stated, again trying to sound like a cool, collected broad, yet somehow just channeling a used-up prostitute.
“Well then, I’m glad to know I didn’t break your heart, as I had hoped.”
“Why would you hope for that?”
“Because it would mean you cared about me, my actions,” he replied.
I said nothing, opting to drink the last glass from the beer flight.
He filled the silence with, “Would you mind if I took you out before I leave the city?”
I refrained from choking on the jalapeño-infused beer. “Um, sure. That’d be great.”
Before he left, I gave him my number, resuscitating the corpse of our long-dead romance. It helped his cause that he paid for the check.
Back at Adelaide’s, I sat on the couch reading Mad Shadows by Marie-Claire Blais–Adelaide’s library was stocked solely with Canadian authors. My eyes fell on the line: “…behind his pale forehead was the deep stupor of an inactive mind, the lethargy of a dead brain.” It was as though Blais was simply describing an American. Adelaide entered the room before I could read further.
“Hey Jacque, how was your day?”
Adelaide was the only person who called me Jacque. I quite liked it.
“I ran into an old flame. Landon D’Alfonso.”
“Interesting name. Where’s he from?”
“Ah. So are you going to see him again?”
“Yeah. But he’s moving to London soon, so it’s almost like, why bother?”
Adelaide shrugged. “Maybe you’ll fall in love and move with him. Doesn’t your company also have an office there?”
The next morning, I couldn’t go to work. I simply could not will my body to do it. So I stayed indoors all day, finishing Mad Shadows. As I was getting to the last page, Landon called me. It seemed he, too, had the day free, what with being unemployed until his departure. He asked if I wanted to go to Pizzeria Libretto, perhaps remembering my overt weakness for pizza from back when we were in New York.
Amid the minimalist industrial decor of the restaurant, I felt briefly transported back to NYC. The menu clinched my leanings toward nostalgia. Toppings like duck confit and sausage and arugula took me back to the likes of Roberta’s and Paulie Gee’s, the two most profoundly delicious pizza establishments in the city.
Sensing that I might melt to the floor from the reverie of joy and indecision, Landon asked, “Do you want me to order?”
“Yes,” I assented immediately. He went with the classic, a Libretto Margherita.
“You can always tell the goodness of a Neapolitan pizza place by its margherita,” he insisted. And he was right. Taking that first bite, I almost forgot that I was on a date with Landon and not the slice.
Controlling my inner desire to act like a pig at the trough, I reined it in and acted more like a courtier at the banquet table.
“So, what are you planning to do for work in London?” I asked civilly.
“I’ve landed the gig of all gigs, Jacqueline: a writer for NME. Granted, writer just means blogger these days, but it’s semi-patrician in the world of music-related jobs.”
“That sounds wonderful. Maybe dropping out wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.”
“No. It was what needed to be done. It’s just another way America is trying to sell you a dream–the dream of education and all the money it can make you with the right degree. Jesus. What a sham.”
I nodded in thoughtful agreement. “You think school in general is a sham, or only in the U.S.?”
“A little bit of both. Maybe it just depends on the type of person you are. And I am the type of person who learns by experience.”
“That’s fair,” I concluded, taking a wannabe dainty bite from my pizza.
“What about you? Are you planning to stay here for awhile? Because I’d love it if you came with me.”
Again, he caused me to nearly choke on something I was consuming. “Huh?” I said incredulously, thinking about how Adelaide might be more prophetic than she had imagined.
“I’ve thought about you still, after all these years. That has to mean something, don’t you think?”
“Maybe it just means you feel guilty,” I offered.
“No, it’s more than that.”
Seeing the panic in my eyes, he toned down his proposal. “Look, I’m not saying you should come with me right away, but, you know, in the future…when you’re ready to change cities again.”
“It’s something to think about,” I said with as much political correctness as I could muster. The truth was, I didn’t want to surrender to the temptation he was presenting. I knew how it would all play out in the end. We’d live together right away and, after about a few months of enjoying the novelty of one another, we would realize what a terrible mistake had been made. I wouldn’t be able to deal with the crushing disappointment of that.
At the end of the meal, Landon and I wandered aimlessly, ending up at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. It’s a small space made to feel big by all the innovative and absurd exhibits. The final room we went into was devoted to a short movie called Elmgreen & Dragset: Drama Queens. It showed famous twentieth century sculptures on a stage together interacting, confused by the look and personality of the other pieces. When it was over, we went outside. In a moment of quiet, he asked me back to his apartment, which was over on Dovecourt Road.
Somehow, he lived alone. I always admire that in people. It’s so hard to do in a world this expensive. He offered to make us coffee, delaying what was inevitably going to happen. I sipped it slowly, wishing he hadn’t made it so I wouldn’t feel this alert. When he bussed the cups away, I began to disrobe. By the time he turned back around, I was naked. Unfazed, he took me by the hand and led me to the bedroom. When it was over, I was in love. Not because it was good or because of the pheromones seeping into my olfactory memory, but because there was a familiarity between us. One that I was vulnerable to after not being touched in an intimate way for so long.
I spent the night at his apartment, and the next day, I “worked from home,” insisting the contagiousness of my sickness was not yet fully gone. I felt imprisoned by the need for a visa, wanting simply to terminate my employment and be done with it–but returning to New York was not an option. I explained my worry to Landon, who said that we could marry and I would then be allowed to stay in London with him. Landon in London. It didn’t have the same ring to it if I was in the picture.
At the end of the week, I went back to work. I didn’t hear from Landon for days. When I finally swallowed my pride and decided to call him, an automated message informed me his number was out of service. Fearing the worst, like maybe he had been in a freak accident just as Fabienne, I went to his apartment and pounded on the door for minutes before a neighbor finally emerged and told me he was gone, left earlier than anticipated for the UK.
He had done it to me again. I should have expected this from such a desultory wanderer. But, once again, I didn’t. I was blinded by the promise he held, the glimmer of hope he represented in a quest for continual escape. I stood outside of his building dumbly. Toronto was New York now. A Tim Hortons cup rolled past me on the sidewalk. For a brief moment, I imagined it was a Dunkin’ Donuts one.
by Genna Rivieccio