Aaron followed her partway across the city of Toronto, even though he was concentrating deeply, finally focussing on the sketches and drawings for his revolutionary Canadian winter parka. He could not believe his own actions, since he had never followed a woman anywhere. When he first noticed her in The Perky Barista, he had been arguing with his sister, who abruptly hung up her cellphone. He resumed sketching the functional durable comfortable parka he dreamed would disrupt the entire winterwear industry. He also just filled out a job application form for the Perky Barista, hoping to land a position before his employment benefits were exhausted and terminated.
Aaron was smitten by what he believed was instant attraction, love at first sight. Standing in line for a coffee behind her, he noticed how horribly mangled her foot appeared. He wondered how she was able to walk normally, or relatively ordinarily, with a foot and ankle twisted in such a bizarre fashion. Then, as she ordered her latte, he felt preoccupied with her figure, her physical beauty. As she haltingly uttered her words to the barista, he noticed she spoke with a severe stutter. He gazed closely at her hands and saw none of her fingers bore rings. She carried a thick heavy textbook on abnormal psychology. If his memory was functioning sharply, he would have noticed the textbook was a later edition of the same text he used in the course he took in abnormal psychology as an elective at Ryerson University when he was a fashion design student.
After she took her latte and walked out of the café, he asked the barista to hurry with his coffee. When she said she needed to brew a fresh pot of coffee, to ensure quality and freshness, he told her not to worry. He walked out of the café without his wallet, which he left open on the counter. He also left behind at his table his sketches, his backpack, with his groceries, tofu, yoghurt, almonds, whole grain bread, honey, a new short sleeve shirt he bought at a thrift shop, his fabric samples, and his prescription medication. He simply carried his smartphone, which he purchased used from a server in The Perky Barista several weeks ago.
He followed the woman out of the café onto Yonge Street, busy with pedestrian and motor vehicle traffic. Then he walked behind her onto Queen Street at the streetcar stop, but she did not notice him. The long snaking streetcar arrived at the intersection of Yonge and Queen Street downtown, where she waited. She boarded at the front of the streetcar where she paid with her transit pass. Aaron boarded in the middle of the articulated streetcar, where, having noticed he had forgotten his wallet with his transit pass, he did not pay the fare. He rode the streetcar east along Queen Street, but he stood near the back of the streetcar, amidst the crowd of commuters and passengers, with a clear view of her, where she seemingly failed to notice him since she sat intently reading her textbook. Uncertain of his destination, he knew he needed to follow this young woman. Jogging his memory as he tried to recall the last time he had taken such rash and unexpected action, he could recall no such occasion.
The crowd in the streetcar thinned out, as commuters disembarked for their homes, apartments, condominium units, pubs, bars, and shops and stores along Queen Street East. When the streetcar stopped at Woodbine Park, she disembarked, but he noticed too late. Even though he protested to the streetcar driver over the intercom system, he was unable to disembark until the next stop. In fact, the streetcar operator warned him he was calling transit enforcement; he knew Aaron had not paid his fare and did not like his belligerent behaviour, his excited attitude, and shouting. Aaron quickly told the streetcar driver he could not think of the last time he had not paid his fare. Despite the thousands of trips he had taken on the Toronto Transit Commission, he had always paid his fare in full—for countless commutes on buses, streetcars, and subway trains throughout Toronto. He ran back down Queen Street and caught a glimpse of her walking, limping, down Northern Dancer Boulevard towards Ashbridges Bay and Woodbine Beach. In all the time he lived in Toronto he had never visited the beach, even though he had aspirations to design swimwear; he disliked the sand, dirt, and grit he associated with the beaches and dreaded the prospect of the potentially polluted lake water and the sun that burned his pale skin. Now he was trailing a woman he considered the most beautiful he had ever encountered in his life, with a limp because of a mangled foot and twisted ankle.
The broad expansive beach on a hot summer day seemed a naturally ideal place for such an encounter. Seeing she was walking, limping, in the distance, he slowed his pace and followed her down the boulevard and then on the pathway across the park. He followed behind her on the worn, weathered boardwalk past the washrooms and changerooms and then on the sandy venue of beach volleyball nets. Across the broad expanse of beach, he walked behind her from a short distance. Ostensibly, she failed to notice him since she seemed to be reading another book, a small light pocketbook, literally as she strolled across the beach. He could not help but admire her more, her focus and concentration, and even love her, for her devotion to books alone. She came to rest several meters from the shoreline where she removed a beach blanket and towel from her canvas handbag and neatly unfolded and laid them on the sand. She took off her tight summer dress to reveal a slender shapely figure highlighted by a red bikini, which fit her voluptuous form perfectly.
He settled down on the beach behind her. Deciding he needed to play the role of the average beachgoer, he took off his shoes, socks, pants, and his short sleeve shirt. He stretched and crouched down on the sand in his boxer shorts, despite his awkwardness, self-consciousness, and discomfort with his surroundings and the gritty outdoor environment. He watched as she continued to read intently from her textbook.
Even as the sun burned his skin, he, monitoring her, continued to languish in the background of the beach, which grew crowded. Then a cool wind blew off the cold waters of Lake Ontario, a vast inland freshwater sea, which stretched as far as the horizon. Despite the fact he felt compelled to join most beachgoers, as they abandoned the beach, he stayed on the lakeshore, deliberately behind the woman, whom he judged to be his age, as the wind blew cool air off Lake Ontario.
When droplets of rain fell, many beach goers abandoned the crowded beach. Even though Aaron, sunburnt, chilled, felt full force an onslaught of elements, strong winds and cool air, and then the dampness of the brief light rain, he stayed on the beach. When she went for a brief swim, he admired her in total, seeing her for the first time without her sunglasses, her top, a natural beauty limping beneath the filtered rays of the sun. He decided he should swim as well. He stepped into Lake Ontario, which surprised him with its cold water.
Still, Aaron felt emboldened by her presence, and the hope she might be watching him. He dove into chilly waters in his first attempt to swim in Lake Ontario. During his cold immersion in the lake water, he never experienced such a shock. Despite the fact he shivered and shook from the brisk wind and his immersion in the cold water, he decided to stay at the beach, as she, oblivious to the weather and elements, continued to glare intently at her book, to study her text, to read.
A few hours later, as the skies cleared again and the temperature grew warmer, and evening approached, she shook the sand from her beach blanket and towel, as she prepared to leave. He marvelled at her seeming immunity to the cool air and inclement weather. Then Aaron followed her back across the beach and the fine dark sand, across the worn boardwalk, back across the neatly mown lawns and dirt pathways and cement sidewalks of the park to the boulevard. He followed her up the sidewalks of the boulevard to Queen Street East and the streetcar stop outside a convenience store, where there was a lineup for lottery tickets, and a coffee shop, where a few retirees glared at his mascara and eyeliner through the pane glass.
Aaron boarded the streetcar from the back doors as she boarded at the front. As the streetcar clunked and clattered along the seemingly endless kilometres of Queen Street, shops, storefronts, cafes, bars, churches, parks, he did not notice the scenery—he did not visually absorb the street view—as he would have under usual circumstances. Instead, he could not resist scrutinizing her hair, thick full tresses, neatly brushed and gleaming. When she disembarked at the streetcar stop with Yonge Street, Aaron followed her down the heavy well-travelled stairs into the subway station. Although normally he considered himself a law-abiding commuter, he managed to evade the transit enforcement officer, as he again jumped fare, passing unnoticed through the automated turnstiles, to enter Queen subway station. He followed her onto the northbound platform for the subway train that ran north under Yonge Street. He sat several rows behind her as she continued to read from the textbook of abnormal psychology. Such determination and intensity, he thought, and could not help admiring this young woman, with her sharp focus, her fierce expression, her furrowed brow, her intense concentration, as the train travelled swiftly north beneath Yonge Street. He assumed that she still had not noticed him. When she disembarked at the end of the subway line, the last station, beneath Finch Street at the intersection with Yonge Street, he followed behind her as she, limping, dragging her foot, avoided the humming rising escalator, which was fully operational, and purposefully and confidently strode up several flights of stairs and along the industrial corridor in which they both found themselves alone.
The tiles reflected the artificial fluorescent light from the low ceiling of the tunnel and the natural shafts of filtered light that found a path underground. Outside, the waning sun of Golden Hour illuminated the office and condominium towers that lined Yonge Street in the burgeoning suburbs of the capital city. As she approached the exit to Yonge Street, she turned around. Initially, she seemed calm and unflappable, despite her stammering speech, as she observed, “You’ve been following me.”
“I am sorry,” Aaron said.
“Why are you following me?” she demanded, her stutter worsening.
“Because I think you’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.”
“I don’t want you following me,” she said, with starts and stops, as she stuttered more than usual. “You’re an ableist.” Then she gasped, sighed, and took a deep breath, as the sudden blistering intensity of her rising emotion and anger overtook her faculties, until then mostly calm. “And I don’t want to ever see you again,” she said, her speech less discernible, a stammer he found distinctive and incalculably attractive.
“I’m sorry. Truly, I’m sorry.”
She hobbled up the concrete stairs to Yonge Street at Finch. “Whatever you think about me is wrong. You’re an ableist.”
Aaron repeated her last word to him, as he attempted to comprehend, and felt defeated. Dejected by rejection, he turned around and walked back down the corridors and hallways, down the escalators and stairways to Finch subway station. Paralyzed by a fear he would throw himself in front of a subway train speeding into Finch, the last station on the Yonge Street underground line, he sat crushed on the bench in the middle of the subway platform. He had not spoken to his mother in a relatively long time, three or four years since he first revealed to her and his father he was gay and intended to study fashion design at Ryerson, instead of commerce at the University of Toronto. His bank manager mother and gold mining company executive father wanted him to become a business administration major and a corporate careerist.
As he crouched and languished in existential defeat on the bench in the middle of the station platform, paralyzed with fear, a transit security officer eyed him suspiciously. He found he still had his smartphone, which he had bought second-hand for several hundred dollars, but the battery was dead, so he tossed the device into the wastebasket.
Somehow, he managed to get up to the payphone, after he discovered he had also forgotten or misplaced his smartphone, and called his mother. Evening had turned into late night, as Aaron slouched on the bench in the middle of the subway platform, feeling aggrieved and bereft, fearing he may have suffered a heart attack. His mother, who had not heard from Aaron for a few years, drove her Honda Civic to the subway station, in the north end of Toronto, not far from the high-rise building where she lived in an apartment in North York, as soon as she heard his mumbled and whispered words of fear and desperation. He dreaded the prospect of death and feared he was having a heart attack—the chest pains were oppressive. His mother feared he was intoxicated from excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages—when usually he never drank, since alcohol and intoxication he thoroughly despised.
Another scenario she considered and dreaded: he was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, with which he considered experimenting for therapeutic purposes. Still, she drove to Finch subway station. With the help of the large security guard, she managed to transport and convey Aaron into her car, which she left idling on Yonge outside the street entrance to the subway station.
“What’s going on, honeybunch?” Aaron’s mother asked. “Your sister told me you broke up with Kevin. You’ve been with Kevin for four years, haven’t you?—and, before him, you went with Marco. What’s going on, honeybunch, you’ve never been with women before—why the sudden change?”
Having initially confessed, Aaron went mute. The following day his catatonia and concern about chest pains caused her to worry about his heart. She, too, feared he was suffering a heart attack. She brought him to the emergency department of Toronto general hospital. The emergency department physician ordered an electrocardiogram and blood tests. After she examined him again and interviewed him, she discharged him with a prescription of sublingual lorazepam. Aaron stayed at his mother’s apartment for weeks, in the bedroom she had reserved for him, when she was a student, but he never left the bed. Aaron went mute again, and he began to lose weight.
His mother demanded to know whatever had become of his dream to design and manufacture a functional, well-designed, and comfortable parka, better than a Canada Goose parka, but he could say nothing, even though he had left drawings and cloth and fabric samples in the backpack he had misplaced, forgotten, abandoned, with his unrequited love, in The Perky Barista.
Days passed and turned into weeks as he languished. When he started to reach what she considered a dangerously low weight, his mother started to try to force feed him. When he started sobbing about a young woman with a limp, a stutter, and a disfigured foot, when he said she was gone, out of his life, she brought home a mature friend, a retired social worker, to whom he had lost his virginity when he was a teenager, but he refused to speak with her. She managed to persuade a psychologist from the hospital on University Avenue, to visit him in her apartment in North York, when he continued to lose weight, and she could see his ribs protruding and his hair falling out and growing wispy. For weeks, he stonewalled his mother, a new social worker friend, and then the psychologist.
He managed to find his way into her cleaning and maintenance closet and swallowed a blue liquid, clearly marked with poison and flammable warning symbols. She seized him, like a disobedient child, and dragged him to the washroom. With her fingers and the handle for a wooden spoon, she managed to induce vomiting. When she was satisfied he had regurgitated most of the substance, she sat him on the edge of the bathtub in the washroom. She went to the liquor cabinet, returned with a bottle of expensive Scotch she had been saving for a special occasion, and opened the aged liquor. She started forcing him to drink straight Scotch as an antidote. Then she summoned the paramedics and an ambulance on her cellphone. In the emergency department, the doctors said his mother’s quick thinking and fast actions saved his life.
When he was discharged from the psychiatric ward of the hospital, she complained to the head doctor the hospital was discharging him prematurely. She bitched and griped, accusing them of abandoning him, forcing him to leave supervised care in the hospital far too soon for his safety and well-being and that of the family. He was leaving far too abruptly for her liking, when he was potentially still a danger to himself. She argued ferociously with the nursing supervisors, and then the doctors, and then the psychiatrist, all of whom complained about a shortage of funding, staff, and acute and chronic patient beds. Discharged from the hospital, walking with a cane and dark sunglasses, to protect his eyes from the bright light of cold winter and the reflected sunlight from the frozen snow, he, dazed, emaciated, was driven by his mother back to her apartment.
After she drove him home, she continued to argue for hours long distance with his father, first on her smartphone. When the battery died on her cellphone, she resorted to her cordless landline, which she put on speakerphone. Aaron’s mother continued to wage verbal warfare with her father, who complained he was in the middle of a corporate merger, while she cooked and tried to feed him medications and make him eat and drink. She decided to wipe and clean her hands of him.
In a snowstorm, a blizzard, which slowed and ensnarled traffic and commuters and gridlocked streets and traffic arteries throughout the city, with extreme cold and wind chill, she insisted on driving a few kilometres per hour southwards, downtown. The windshield wipers were working overtime, waving mechanically, swiping, swishing, squeaking, brushing clean the ice, snow, fog, and sleet in their smooth repetitive back and forth motion. But the windshield wiper fluid leaked from its container, so his mother was constantly forced to stop in the middle of the road, stricken by a snowstorm, and refill the windshield wiper fluid mechanism and tank with the bottle of blue liquid she had in the trunk, safely locked away. Every time she refilled the windshield wiper fluid, she looked at him warily and wearily through the front windshield, covered in snow, ice, and fog.
Finally, after countless starts and stops and help from a mechanic, along the road, after they were stuck in the snow several times, and the tires spun, skidded, slipped, and the car fishtailed, as they drove and travelled slowly, they reached downtown and the Hudson’s Bay department store at Queen and Yonge. She did not even look for a parking space and stopped her idling car outside the landmark department store building in the middle of Yonge Street, deluged with snow and traffic brought to a start and stop crawl. Aaron’s mother bought him a bright red Canada Goose parka. Meanwhile, she also bought him a one-way airline ticket on the evening Air Canada flight to Vancouver. She drove him to Pearson Airport, driving on the expressway past factories, manufacturing plants, squat office buildings, and chain link fences around industrial parks, coated by fresh snow, which would melt within a few days from road salt, icy rain, sleet, and sunshine. Having missed the flight, they lounged overnight in the airport, while she kept feeding him Ativan and buying him coffee and whole grain bagels with peanut butter and strawberry jam. He, in turn, kept visiting the public washrooms, where he vomited in the stalls.
Aaron’s mother sent him on the first redeye Air Canada flight to Vancouver, to allow her former husband the opportunity to deal with him, even though he had not spoken with his father since he revealed to him the truth which he refused to accept.
John Tavares’ short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines, alternative publications, literary journals, quarterlies, chapbooks, and anthologies, online and in print. (These publications include, in roughly chronological order, Blood and Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone, Broken Pencil, Tessera, Windsor Review, Paperplates, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, The Writing Disorder, Gertrude, Turk’s Head Review, Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine, Bareback Magazine, Rampike, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, The Round Up Writer’s Zine, The Acentos Review, Gravel, Brasilia Review, Sediments Literary Arts-Journals, The Gambler, Red Cedar Review, Writing Raw, Treehouse Arts, The Remembered Arts Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, Mgversion2>Datura, Riverhawk, Quail Bell, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Grey Border’s Magazine, Free Lit Magazine, Montreal Writes, Yarnswoggle, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Westview, New Reader Magazine, Event Horizon, IO literary Journal, Fishbowl Press, Otherwise Engaged Journal, Mobius, New Texas, Qwerty, Oddball Magazine, BlazeVOX, Celestal Review, Bombay Review, Nude Bruce, The Account, The Elixir Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, Nonconformist, Writer’s Egg Magazine, Aerogramme’s The Mobile Library.