"This piece is a mash-up of various bits and pieces of fleeting relationships I had when I was nineteen and twenty. It started out as a long-form poem, but they way it was flowing, I felt I should rejig it and make it a short story. I think it speaks to that almost universal, confusing transitional period as we enter adulthood."
Matthew Laffrade's work has appeared in various publications including Hitherto, The Coe Review, Joypuke, Sassafras Literary Journal, Verse Wisconsin, and Wilderness House Literary Review. Matthew is the recipient of the University of Toronto's Harold Sonny Ladoo Book Prize. His previously published work is archived at matthewlaffrade.wordpress.com. He resides in a small Ontario town and can be reached at email@example.com
When we first met, with a week left in class, she said something about Twitter and the Middle East and vinyl records and revolutions per minute. It was her naïve attempt at some sort of intelligent and sophisticated pun. Her hair was tangled and she wore a brown floral print skirt and a white tank top.
"Do you understand all this Yeats business the professor is going on about?" she asked in a southern drawl that didn't match her face.
"I do. We've been studying his work for the past three weeks," I said.
"I just don't get Leda and the Swan. Do you want to study together after class?" she asked.
"I don't study much with others," I said.
"Just this once?"
After a brief review of the poem, we ended up on her canopied bed together in her rented, closet-sized abode in a rooming house on Baldwin Street. Snuffed candles stuffed into wine bottles were strewn about the room so randomly I knew they were carefully arranged. Stacks of forlorn books, spines uncracked, were piled in dusty corners. Unsure of the charade she was attempting, I left while she slept.
Streetcar voyage at sunset. Teenage angst thudding against the seat to the left of me. I missed my stop and relaxed my shoulders. With my elbow in the lip under the window, I propped my chin with my palm and gazed at the pedestrian sufferers on the street. I gazed on the storefronts with views of intoxication and abundance. I gazed at persons unknown for things unseen. I gazed at the patrons of diners, framed like cliché paintings reprinted in hotel rooms. I gazed at the bricks of masons long dead. I gazed from my window aboard the red rocket at nothing of particular importance.
When I arrived at my apartment I sat on my sofa and dreamed of the girl.
I saw her again by chance between exams in a library I had never been to before. I was dishevelled, sitting, surrounded by books laid out around me like I was searching for the cure to my malady.
"Rattray? I thought that was you. Where have you been? You never returned my calls," she said.
"I've been busy with studying. I didn't mean to blow you off. Here, have a seat," I said, moving some books to clear space beside me on the floor.
She joined me on the floor and talked of herself. I listened, unhinged, thinking of Bob Dylan. She looked at me to respond to something she said. She was smiling so I smiled back. I leaned over and we kissed, her back against the shelf immersed in the dancing dust of forgotten books.
"My fried Ayla is having a show at a gallery nearby tonight, would you care to join me?" she asked.
"I'm not one for dates," I said. "And I have all this studying to do."
"It's not a date. It's just two people enjoying each other’s company," she said.
"Then how would you define a date?" I asked.
"There would be romantic possibilities," she said.
"So that's not what you're looking for?" I asked.
"We'll worry about that when the time comes. Just live Rattray, stop worrying about your next move," she said.
Ayla's paintings were awful but the artsy folks spoke of her brilliance that evening. I looked closer and pondered each brush stroke. They were still awful, even after two glasses of wine.
"Rattray, this is Ayla," she said, introducing me to a short Australian girl with dreadlocks and a hoop in her nose. She wore army fatigues and a red t-shirt with the CBC logo and I was told that this was ironic in a way I couldn't understand.
She also introduced me to some friends of hers who were all a part of an eclectic, low-key art collective. They were a version of the Illuminati that had gone homeless and were void of all of the meaningful perks one would expect.
"I wish I could get a gallery show one day," she said.
"You paint?" I asked.
"No," she sighed.
"Then may I ask what your affiliation to all of these artists is?" I asked
"What are you accusing me of?" she asked.
"I'm, ah, nothing really. It appears to me you can’t find your place. That you float between various marginalized groups seeking some sort of affirmation that you belong.”
"I participate in the movement, therefore I am an artist."
I dropped it.
"I wish I could be with you always," she said as we walked hand-in-hand in twilight down Queen Street West.
"I enjoy our time together but I have to tell you upfront that I’m not looking to be in a relationship. Once September comes I will again be immersed in my studies and won't have time for such wanton behaviour," I said.
"Can't we just pretend, just for the summer, that this will last forever?" she asked as she stopped me on the street, on tiptoes to meet my lips.
We began to role-play this doomed relationship that had all the signs of a budding romance.
We took the ferry to Centre Island. She leaned over the edge, watching the waves.
"Would you catch me if I fell?" she asked, still following the wake.
Her faux bohemian lifestyle was giving way to the cliché dreams of a little girl trapped in romantic comedies.
I looked at the retreating city skyline, with as many cranes as there were buildings. The city was evolving while I sat idle.
We sat at the water's edge and ate a picnic she had packed. I felt youthful eating peanut butter and jam and drinking from a juice box. She fed her crusts to the meandering ducks. They were delighted. We rolled around on our blanket in the stillness of summer and I crushed my sunglasses.
"I have dreams, y'know. You may think I just live this life of a carefree artiste but I still have fantasies of a life with a husband, kids, and a white picket fence. I live the life I now live to make room for those things later," she said.
I ignored her hipsterisms and her clear allusion to a future with me and sat staring at the water.
"I wish this summer would last forever," she said when I failed to respond.
We hopped the fence at a public pool at midnight. She had no dexterity for such a task. She stripped naked and I admired her body as she sauntered over to help me undress. The warm water steamed in the cool night air and the breeze on our cold shoulders felt nice as we huddled in the shallow end by the ladder. Droplets of water danced on her slim, freckled shoulders. We were fierce in our love if love is what it was called. She called it that but only in whispers and I never responded with words. She would give me stares of longing to read my thoughts and I would respond by looking away and breaking her spell.
We recuperated from the swim in bed in the tangled sheets, her reading to me from a collection of poems she said she loved but I could tell she had never read before. I could also tell that she had incredible insight into things she cared not to think of outside my presence. Her soul was damaged but I didn’t know how, or if in fact, she had one at all.
I wanted to ask her what the act was about, why she feigned this hip attitude when it did nothing but demean us both, but I couldn't. We were not in a relationship, regardless of what she thought, and starting an argument would only solidify something I wanted to deny existed at all.
The nights became longer, and the evenings came sooner in our outings. Fall was approaching. I could smell the dampness in the leaves piled on the sides of streets abandoned of foot traffic in the early morning hours. This natural cycle of plant life was symbolic of our relationship.
"Do you think we'll make it out of this summer alive?" she asked in that cool, dark room on Baldwin.
"I have no expectations of changing the inevitable outcome, so I know I'll be fine."
"What classes are you taking? Maybe we can take some of the same ones," she said.
"Our romance is doomed by the Earth's axis," I said.
She knew this from the start, so when she turned from me in a silent fit of disgust, I did nothing to comfort her. I understood her viewpoint, however. Our relationship was expiring for no reason other than for it to be the case. I had found a solace in her that I attributed to her feigned uniqueness and I knew I would miss it.
As she sulked, I decided that it was time to go. As I dressed by the light from a sliver making its way through a small gap in her curtains, I threw on a sweatshirt and she sighed loudly. She knew I would retreat at the first sign of cold weather.
"So is this it?” she asked. “A calendar flips and that’s it? How trivial is that? You led me on all summer and expect me to just return to whatever I was doing before I met you with the flick of a finger? What the hell did you think you were doing all summer but setting me up? Like you gave a fuck? How can you walk away like it just means nothing?”
"That's just how I am," I said.
"But how can that be?" she asked but it was more of an accusation that I left uncontested.
Her eyes were wild and mischievous and I thought she would hit me but she turned and threw her hands in the air admitting defeat.
I was going to leave but approached her instead, putting my hands on her shoulders in a manner that bid farewell. She knew from his body language that our relationship—if it was even that—was over. My shoulders moved away on her advances, my glances were above her head. She had to have known. She knew that this was the last time we’d be together and she sobbed a quiet sob. I felt no need to lie because I figured that she knew my intentions from the start, since I was the only one in two decades that she had been earnest with. I felt slightly empathetic towards the creature in my clutches. I knew this woman briefly but our time was most intimate. I saw through her façade and while she pretended she had no veil covering her innermost truth she knew I had penetrated the roots of her being. I assume that she knew from how I acted, the charade I presented with purpose, to show my disinterest instead of talking about it. She was almost accepting of the notion that this was never meant to be, even if her contempt could not be shadowed by her attempt to be content. We danced a slow dance to a song shared in our minds in that crowded room that night.