The cashier produces my change: a $10 bill sutured together with six metal staples. I glance at the glowering bill. How long did he wait for me to appear? Did he watch me, through his mental scope, pumping gas into my 1995 Geo Metro, alone like a doe in a meadow, my body round and fattened for the lean months ahead?
I stuff the stapled money in my purse. The old me, the subversive me, the me who had not yet been crushed by the jackboots of life, would have told the cashier, in an enigmatic accent: “I hef pacemaker that cannot be near metals. Your monies could ke-ill me.”
There are times when I am still myself. When the cell phone company, the same obdurate pricks who refused to correct my bill, “courtesy called” three nights in a row, I was ready.
“Is Daphne Ward there?”
“Do you know when we can reach her?”
“She is in the Africa for four months doing missionary work.”
“OK. Do you have a cell phone with us?”
“I am not allowed to own a cell phone in Canada.”
Dwayne’s cell phone ringtone was a song by Gucci Mane. If you look up Dwayne in a baby name dictionary, it says that Dwayne is Irish or Gaelic in origin and means “swarthy.” Variations of Dwayne are: Dewayne, Duane, Duwain, Dwaine, and, my favourite, Dawayne. If you look up Dwayne in the real world, it says that Dwayne is a dirtbag who takes out all of his anger, all of his resentment, on girls named Amanda, Jennifer and Joy, pretty girls, nice girls just wanting to be loved.
Any woman who gets tricked by Dwayne should be selling her vintage camera to an Ebay address set up by a fourteen-year-old entrepreneur in Lagos; she should be posing nude for the “art photographer” who will make her a supermodel; she should be applying for a green card because every American sailor who comes into port is looking for a wife.
Dwayne. Dwayne. Dwayne.
The name’s popularity peaked in the 60s, a blessing.
After I leave the gas station, I drive to class, wondering what I should do with the stapled bill, which reminds me of bullets. If I pawn it off on someone else, am I as bad as the cashier? I have to stop – I tell myself – making bad choices.
I am a twenty-six-year-old woman, who, for reasons I will not explain, is enrolled in an English course surrounded by students, who are at that age trying to determine who they are, shifting, reshaping before my eyes, unable, at times, to know what is real. Lee is from Toronto. In the first week, she tells our tutorial that she is descended from Chinese warlords. She dresses in black and wears pointy cat glasses that smirk.
I hear her ask Andy if he is attending a toga party on Saturday night.
“Yeah,” says Andy, who bought four metres of Hello Kitty fabric.
“Cool.” Lee studies his face with the imperious air of someone conversant in opium and Ming dynasty poetry. “That’s cool.”
Andy is from England and plays on the university soccer team. His favourite team is Man U., he says in a low foreign voice that makes girls lean closer to pick up every word.
I do not understand what is going on in the Student Union Building, which is normally lined with tables selling woolen trinkets for a village in Peru or advertising a women’s self-defence course. Today, the table is covered with sunglasses: Oakley, Gucci, Calvin Klein, and then, in small print (“or similar to”). The man in charge is wearing a checkered fedora.
When I tell you about all the men who broke my heart – the devious men, the duplicitous men, the men so audacious that they could have patented their shtick — I have to start with Dwayne. Probably because I can never forgive myself for being played by a dirtbag named Dwayne. Dwayne was pasty and smug with the white-grey colouring of fish, a wriggling school of scales and fins. He met girls through his job as a bartender in the campus pub. He got girls because they underestimated him. How could a guy this lame be a player? His glib lines and cavalier comebacks had to be a cover for the deep emotions he really felt.
After being duped by Dwayne, you could not console yourself by recalling how glorious the whole thing had been. There was no midnight skinny-dipping in the ocean, no backstage visits with the band. With a real playboy, there was magic, false or otherwise; there were memories you could replay in your head, images you could conjure up; sweet words, however insincere, you could recall like a favourite song.
Having a thing with Dwayne was like misreading the price tag on a designer dress, and being told at the counter, by a snitty clerk, that the price was $590 not $59. It left you with the same embarrassed feeling, as though you had foolishly hoped for something you never could have.
Devnet has been missing for two weeks, but if I close my eyes, I can see him across the aisle in English class, lumpy with rowdy, reddish hair. I have to admit that I usually have a bias against people with that colour hair, but I made an exception for Devnet, who is from British Columbia and older. He carries an enormous backpack exploding with books and CDs. During the first weeks of tutorial, Devnet did most of the talking, touching on mythos, ethos and Tennessee Williams.
One day, a girl named Dahlia asked to see the prof after class.
“I feel that Devnet is oppressing the women students by dominating discussion,” said Dahlia, who spells women with a y and wears her hair up in horns.
“I don’t think that is his intent,” the prof replied.
“OK,” said Dahlia, who seemed oddly satisfied by the response.
I heard Devnet tell Andy something about a $3,000 racing bike that he might be forced to purchase for reasons I could not understand. Andy shrugged like it all made sense. When Devnet talks, his eyes race around the room like they are following thoughts and fascinating pieces of information; when Andy talks, he looks people straight in the eye, beguiling them to the point where they buy anything he says.
Last night, I drank a bottle of wine in the Public Gardens. I wore a long flowered skirt and a bow in my hair, and for a few moments, I pretended I was happy. I met a man named Earle, who has been homeless since 1999. Something had happened to Earle, but the crucial details – the ones that held his story together – were vague, too painful to contemplate, leaving Earle to focus on the peripheral.
“Every goddamn time I would see that woman,” he said, “she would start going on about her uncle Gerry, and how he had The Cancer, and how he prayed and prayed until he was cured. And then she would say, every fookin’ time, ‘some people give up you know, but not Gerry, he prayed and prayed until he was cured.’ ”
Our tutorial is in an old stone building with dusty floors and stiff portraits in the hallways. Most of the adjacent rooms are occupied by Classics professors, an obsolete crowd who flap around like bats. About two months ago, Andy and I arrived early and saw a body slumped on a desk, immobile. A backpack on the floor.
“Fuck,” Andy muttered.
The room was so still that we could hear the body breathing. Nhhhhh, nhhhhhhhhhh. I thought about saying something, but I didn’t know where to start. Andy had gone to boarding school in England so he seemed better equipped to deal with discomfiting personal dilemmas.
“What’s wrong, mate?” asked Andy in his disarming accent.
It took two minutes for Devnet to speak.
“I ran out of money and I can’t get my meds.”
He didn’t lift his head, and as the panic mounted in my chest, Andy patted Devnet’s head. Over and over again.
Dwayne blocked me on Facebook. By the time I awoke, was willing to believe that I could overlook his pasty skin and the fact that he stiffed me for the bar bill, saying he had lost his wallet, I was blocked by Dwayne. After I realized that I had been played by Dwayne, the third consecutive loser, I visited a doctor at Student Health. His name was Dr. Ahmed.
“I believe I may be suffering from a mental disorder,” I told Dr. Ahmed, who was used to dealing with students, emotions heightened and raw.
“Mmm.” Dr. Ahmed looked thoughtful, almost melancholy.
“I keep making bad decisions.”
Dr. Ahmed waited.
“Could it have been the result of auditory hallucinations connected with an abnormality in the left temporal lobe of my brain?” I paused, and added by way of explanation: “I have done some reading.”
Dr. Ahmed listened, and I had the feeling that he empathized. Anyone could be excused for falling under the spell of Matt Brinks, star of the varsity swim team, sometime underwear model, and admitted player. Two hours pressed against his rippling abs – dirty dancing under strobes — was worth, it could be argued, any heartache that might follow. Matt Brinks was an Adonis who was likely, at the apex of a thrilling night, to build a fire on the beach, peel off his clothes, and drag you into the surf, squealing.
Dr. Ahmed nodded as though he understood, as though he could imagine himself following Matt into the surf, giggling at the shock of icy water. Dr. Ahmed had a handsome face and could – if he had been six inches taller and less concerned with saving lives – have been arrogant, but Dr. Ahmed had the grace to accept his looks for what they were: a blessing.
“Just try,” Dr. Ahmed suggested, “to forget.”
Devnet was in the waiting room when I emerged. He was wearing Foakley sunglasses and the parts of his face that I could see were pale and stripped of nerves. He did not speak. A dude from the campus newspaper was pacing the room and, at just that moment, he shouted: “They only have me on 20 milligrams. If I’m this crazy, I need twice that dosage.”
Two weeks before I saw him outside Dr. Ahmed’s office, Devnet had an Incident with Professor Melissa Merrithew, which has compelled me to give my opinion on power, a subject that I have contemplated at length and is one of the few things I feel certain about in life. Every person on Earth has power over others at some point, and it is how you use that power – fleeting, delusive or heady – that measures your worth as a person.
After a lifetime of being the most boring person on Earth, Merrithew had written a novel. The Barren Earth Upon Which We Cast Our Seed was the 700-page saga of a Nova Scotia black family descended from the Maroons of Jamaica. In the book – which includes an excruciating discourse on yams — the family struggles with racism, poverty, and the lure of the pimp trade, a story that African-Canadian leaders condemned as offensive and trite. Ever since, Merrithew has been vengeful.
The Incident began when the professor instructed Devnet’s class to write a response to an article, whose authorship Devnet did not scrutinize, which is why he failed to realize that the article had been written by the professor herself, who once had a different last name. In any event, Devnet did not care for the writing:
“While the material in this article is painstakingly referenced, the writing has all of the magic of a paint-by-numbers portrait for one can see where the author has consciously plugged in the uncommon word or the deliberately common one, believing they are accents that give the writing flare. This is a failed device. The reader can also detect a flawed use of metaphors. The author compares a sonnet to being lost at sea – and then carries the metaphor through for five hundred words, beating it, and the reader, to death.”
Two weeks later, Merrithew accused Devnet of plagiarism, claiming he had purchased an entire paper on Toni Morrison from an unnamed source in Ontario. Nobody ever believes me when I tell them this story. They think that profs are above that; they think that no one gets accused of anything unless they are guilty, a belief most haughtily cling to until they are strip-searched at an Indonesian airport.
When Devnet arrived for his three-hour show trial, he was wearing a battered plaid work shirt and gum rubbers that smelled like kelp. His rowdy hair had been pulled into two horns.
“The authorship of your paper has been challenged for several reasons,” said the academic integrity officer, “including the fact that it was written by someone with advanced technical skills.”
“Thank you,” said Devnet, who removed his boots.
The academic integrity officer’s office was across the hall from Merrithew’s, which was decorated with folk art – cowboys and oxen – as well as a photo of the professor posing with a woman in an African gele.
“Have you taken extra writing classes?” he asked.
“Your writing is technically advanced.”
“Some of these words are beyond the vocabulary I would expect from a second-year student.”
“Use ‘disingenuous’ in a sentence,” the officer ordered.
“The professor was being disingenuous when she said the paper exceeded her expectations.”
“This hearing is analogous to the Salem witch trials.”
Merrithew’s basis for the plagiarism charge was twofold. Not only had Devnet’s paper “exceeded her expectations,” (How could a person that bitter have expectations other than syphilis and limnic eruptions?) but he had referenced a work that had not been covered in class, a work he would, therefore, have no knowledge of, even though The Raven was so ubiquitous that it had appeared on an episode of The Simpsons.
And it could have been funny, it could have been a farce, if it wasn’t so awful, if it hadn’t been a real person dealing with more shit than he could, at that moment, handle, if he hadn’t been a troubled kid who lay awake at night wondering why he had to be different, a harmless dude who didn’t deserve to be messed up by a nasty old woman who wished she could write. It could have been as funny as Bart Simpson saying “eat my shorts,” but it wasn’t.
And now, Devnet is missing. “You know what can happen to people with that condition . . .” Andy tells Lee, unable to finish the thought.
In the Public Gardens, I met a woman named Margaret. She was wearing a mauve-and-green track suit from the 80s. Something had happened to Margaret, something that had made her fearful, something that caused her to awake each morning with a sense of dread, but the crucial details – the ones that held her story together — were vague, too painful to contemplate, leaving Margaret to dwell upon something else.
“They can say what they want about Sherman Bungay, but I will tell you right now that that man could dance. I don’t care what those bastards say, that man could dance like Fred Astaire.”
When I came home, I watched, at 3 a.m., an interview on the religion channel. An American woman who looked like she baked peach pies and drove a Ford pickup was preaching forgiveness. In order to heal oneself, she explained, you must forgive the people who have hurt you, and once you have allowed the bitterness to be lifted, your health will improve. She had forgiven her ex-husband for his affairs with men because he was a wonderful teacher of scripture and a good father to their children.
If the anger is too great, there are techniques that can help you forgive. Picture that person as a small child needing love and protection. Something hurtful must have happened to that innocent child, she said, as though this was an irreducible truth, to make him want to hurt others.
And so I pictured Greg on his first day of school with brown eyes too old for a child. He was wearing a half-smile to disguise the fact that he was frightened. His mother had dressed him in plaid shorts, and he was pure and guileless, and that made me love him more, and none of this would have happened if Greg hadn’t left me, if he hadn’t broken my heart into one zillion pieces, rendering me so grief-stricken that I don’t know who I am, Greg, the earnest boy with dreams, the sweet boy who said, “oh dear oh dear” when anything went wrong, the devoted boy who met me at the bus stop with two carnations, one yellow, one red: our colours.
And that is the thing about Dwayne, I wanted to tell Dr. Ahmed, steadied by his handsome face and thoughtful demeanour, able, for a moment, to concede that there is no good answer to the puzzle of why someone stops loving you as abruptly as a plane falls from the sky. None of this had anything to do with Dwayne. None of this had anything to do with him at all.
The student union building has a table of counterfeit sneakers: fake Nike, Adidas and Puma. A man is contemplating the Fumas, and people are going about their business – the same people who carry metal water bottles and bike seats — like this is all okay.
I walk outside just as the sun breaks through the clouds, or maybe, I am willing to concede, I imagine it happening.
Someone has parked a VW Bug by the curb; it’s mauve, and the hubcaps are white daisy petals with yellow centres. Hard as F*ck, says a sticker on the side window. And then, on the sidewalk, I see, for the first time in weeks, Devnet talking to Andy. The knot in my chest dissolves. Devnet is wearing a Mary Maxim sweater with a pheasant hunting scene. He is telling Andy that he went to Montreal after his plagiarism hearing – which he compares to Stalin’s Trial of the Twenty-One – and spent his time inside a strip club, where he fell in love with Cecile, a beautiful waitress, who goes to McGill.
Devnet has not been back to his apartment, which is why he is carrying his luggage, a pink polypropylene Voyageur 400 cat case, which contains, among other items, a plaid shirt and orange fleece neck warmer. “It used to belong to my grandmother’s poodle.” Devnet taps the 400. “But she can’t take him anywhere anymore because he bites people – three victims in six months. For an eight-pound dog, he is extremely fucking dangerous. Nobody believes that Bambino is an actual poodle, but you can’t say that to Nana or she will start insulting your cat, saying shit like ‘Oh, there’s that nasty cat again.’”
At the end of the story, Andy shrugs like it all makes sense, and Devnet nods.
I make my way to the liquor store. I am wearing tights, a grey mini-dress and a black blazer, and pretending, for a moment, that I am hip. On the way in, I pass a panhandler who tells people he once was a pirate. I use the stapled bill to pay for my wine, and when the clerk gives me a dirty look, I tell him: “Eeef you smile at the sailors, zey vill be nice to you, especially on Friday night.”
Outside, I give the pirate my change, and he responds “Ahoy!” The sun is shining brightly now, brightly enough to cast shadows on the sidewalk – I see triangles, elongated limbs, and a shape that looks like carnations — or maybe, I concede, I imagine it.