Messages in Bottles

to the brokenhearted

Dearest, beloved —

I won’t always exist to tell you this.  One day a man will come between us again, and all you will hear are his voice, and his silence.  He will be the source of your suffering, and he will be your salvation, and I will be the rust in the hinges of a door you no longer open.

So tonight, as you’re passing under my exit sign, let me reassure you while I have a voice: you are strength, through strength, made stronger.  There is no end to your beauty.

There is no end to your beauty.


I stagger three alarms on my phone, fifteen minutes apart.  Each time I hit snooze, it lasts for ten minutes.  If I snooze my first alarm, I have ten minutes of sleep until its snooze expires.  If I hit snooze again, it’s five minutes until my second alarm goes off.  If I snooze my second alarm, it’s five minutes until my first alarm’s second snooze expires.  If I snooze my first alarm a third time, it’s five minutes until my second alarm’s first snooze expires.  And so on and so forth.  At first this was sufficient to get me out of bed, but I eventually learned how to leap the hurdles back into sleep until I managed to once again be late for every one of my appointments.  But this morning I’m awake before my first alarm goes off.  I haven’t slept because if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to wake up.  And if I were asleep, I couldn’t be there to meet her when I promised her I would.

The sky outside is a sheet of wax paper, my bare feet are cold on the tiles of the bathroom floor, and the light bulb is taking too long to turn on.  By the square of pale morning wedged within my window, I piss into the shadows where the toilet should be.  I shower, and then I shave.  I dress.  I burn my tongue on a cup of coffee.  The toast grates like sand paper on my scalded taste buds, and the milk is best before tomorrow.

And I wonder why I’m awake, and why I haven’t slept, and why it means so much to me to mean so much to her.  I put on my shoes, and I put on my coat, and I wonder what it means that I wonder how much I mean to her.


The far end of the sky was still clear, blue, but that side of the sky was rapidly shrinking.  Before long, the gathering rain had chased the blue corner further than my eyes could follow, until everywhere I looked was part of the same flat shadow.  There was quiet, and then a lightning bolt opened the belly of the storm, and the blood of the fattened creature fell to the earth — fell onto my head — bleeding out before it could utter a single note of its swan song.  It occurred to me during that silence, wedged as it were, like a condom, between lightning and thunder, that men make it their habit to think the rain is falling for them.  The reality is that rain isn’t a response to our prayers, nor is it a reflection of our uninhabitable inner world.  Sadness is a wasteland that we suffer alone.  It’s a nuclear winter.

I continued to try and relight my cigarette, but the wind and the rain found routes around my cupped hand, sabotaging even my best attempts at suicide.

I smiled and shook my head.  If nothing else, I was a good loser.

something blue

There she was, wearing this black backless dress tailored from a dream that I had for us once, with a man on her arm I didn’t recognize, and a smile on her face that rended my heart when I realized it was for this stranger, and not for me.

I hadn’t seen Rose in the last two years.  Not once by accident at the stores we used to shop together.  Not once while drunk and on her Facebook page.  When we ended it, we made sure that was the end of it.  We cut our relationship down the length of its arm before everything was over, and I was fine with that.  We had our time.  We loved each other.

At first, I would wake up in the middle of the night, eyes wet, tears hot on my cheeks that were once warmed by her kisses.  I would dream of us, and we might be in bed, or sharing a blanket on the couch in front of the TV, but wherever we were situated, and whatever else was happening around us, one thing was always the same.  We would be talking.  It didn’t matter about what — when we were talking, we were at our best, and that’s what I remember missing.  But eventually, as most things in this world, my sadness came to its end.  I had other dreams to pursue, and so did she.

The last I’d heard about Rose was from our mutual friend, the one whose wedding we were attending when I saw her again.  Rose, she said, was engaged to be married.  The man she was with must have been her fiancé.

I considered going over to them, to embrace her, and to shake his hand, and I would have done — by then my nostalgia had settled down, as though heartburn — but I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation they were having.

something about mary

"It isn’t the same thing," I said, "but someone did to me what I didn’t want them to.  What I had no power to stop.  She was a literature student at the time, like you are now."  Mary had no discernible reaction to this.  "She ended up cheating on me.  The thing is, she didn’t just break my heart.  She nearly killed me.  Who I was, she buried him alive.  Left him for dead.  I had to claw through the coffin to get out.  And I left more of myself down there than fingernails."  At this Mary smiled.  "So, yeah," I offered to the webcam, "it isn’t the same thing.  But it’s what I think about when you tell me what happened to you."

"It isn’t the same thing," Mary said when I’d finished, but she seemed satisfied.

I met Mary when she was eighteen, about two years before she moved to New York City.  But perhaps I’m using the term a little progressively, because it wasn’t until Mary was twenty, when she’d moved into the city, that I finally met her physical person.

Strangers have the same quality as alcohol when it comes to inspiring honesty.  I think that’s part of why online dating works.  You’re far enough removed that there are no real consequences to being yourself.  You can kind of get to learn the theory behind a relationship before having to put it into practice.

But there was something about Mary that the microphone failed to transmit.  She was like a sunny October afternoon viewed from behind a window.  There were moments when that window was opened, when I could feel something of her cold, hardened bitterness in the set of her eyes displayed on screen, but it wasn’t until we met in person — when I moved to embrace her and she withered away — that I saw how right I was the first time we had spoken.  What I went through, and what Mary went through — they weren’t the same things.

tunnel vision

Our server, I think her name is Olivia, navigates the cluttered floor with an intimate understanding of the area, twisting to avoid patrons, side-stepping other staff members, all while balancing six beverages on a tray, and never once breaking stride.  When Olivia reaches our table she distributes our orders — a tall glass of ice water, four perspiring pints of beer, and a shot glass filled with tequila that’s wearing a lemon wedge for a hat.  Olivia smiles as she sets the water in front of me.  Her eyes, I notice, are blue.  She’s very pretty.

"Designated driver?" Olivia asks me, one part sympathetic, one part playful.

"Something like that," I say with a smile in Olivia’s direction.  My attention, however, is elsewhere, and my eyes, like trained hounds, chase after it.

Across the table, Elizabeth is preparing to take her shot.  Her face is red, and her eyes are small.  Her smile is humongous.  It’s been a difficult last few months for her — surviving both cancer in the breast and the death of her mother — but for the first time in what feels like a lifetime, Elizabeth seems to be entirely here.

"Thank you," Elizabeth says to Olivia before she walks away from our table.  Even drunk, she’s better with manners than I am while sober.

We sing a loud, obnoxious Happy Birthday as Elizabeth lifts her shot to her lips.

I move the water I ordered towards her before she can even make a face.

morning wood

I’ve inherited my father’s bladder.  After about six hours of sleep, I have no choice but to wake up and use the bathroom.

The process is pretty much automatic at this point.  I kick my feet over the right side of the bed, dismount onto my slippers, take three steps forward into the adjoining bathroom, and with one hand against the wall behind the toilet, I single-handedly win the day’s first battle.  It’s the same sequence with close to no light, with one of my eyes closed, when I’m hungover, hunched over, and hobbling.  When I’m finished, I don’t flush because it wakes up my wife.  The water’s barely running while I wash my hands — as I brush my teeth as quietly as I can.

From my mother, I’ve inherited this inability to fall back asleep after waking up.

Most days that means I need a coffee in the morning, another coffee after lunch, and a strong drink right before bedtime.  But there are benefits to rising early.  There are secret treasures in the silent minutes, and solitary pleasures that diminish when shared.  A moment absent thought is often an ounce of patience when needed most, so the hour spent without my wife in my arms is worth the hour of sleep that she gains without me.

The sun bleeds red into the sky, and the night shrinks until it can hide behind our furniture, pooled into shadows, like they’re puddles of water.  I seat myself on the chair in the corner, and the dog comes to lay at my feet.

real talk

We sat opposite each other at the kitchen table, silently stirring our coffees, mine black — so having no need to be stirred — and hers with two sugars, and two creams.

People who don’t use their hands when they’re speaking have a hard time grasping this, but sometimes the desire to be truly understood, comprehended as lucidly as one’s own idea of colours, is so powerful that it requires more than words.  It commands a second form of animation.  She didn’t talk with her hands, but after eighteen years of married life — seventeen of which included our daughter — she knew that my having to fidget meant something important was about to be said.

"I know you think I should be more upset," I began, each word deliberate, sent out like a lifeboat, "but at least the condoms mean she’s being safe."

beating the odds

Panting, hunched over my knees, I held my cell phone to my face, and checked the time.  I wasn’t going to make it.

Chris is my gay older brother.  Being the idiot he is, Chris said I wouldn’t be able to run from our apartment to the movie theatre in time to catch the trailers.  Being the idiot I am, I told him that I could.

You might think I would know better by now, especially because Chris and I have a lifelong history of posing proposition bets on just about everything we’ve ever disagreed about.  We must have exchanged thousands of dollars like that over the years, failing to do what we claimed to be able to.  Though, to be fair, that we can both still afford our share of the rent probably means neither of us is netting much.

But as it were, even if I had thought things out and realized that I was being corralled into a no-win situation — the best case scenario being a few extra dollars at the expense of a soaked shirt — it didn’t do anything to change the fact that Julianna was there, watching silently from the corner.  So, really, what else could I have done but shake Chris’ hand?

I could blame my not making it on having rolled my ankle the other day.  Chris was there, he saw it happen, so after he’d finished failing to suppress that smug, sarcastic, I-told-you-so smile of his, when I’d paid him his money, he’d have no choice but to eventually admit that I wasn’t making things up.  It was, after all, his unkept dildo I’d stepped on.  Even so, I know when I’m wrong, and this was one of those times.  If I hadn’t rolled my ankle, it was still too great a distance for me to cover in so short a time.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t mind being proven wrong.  Saying you can do something doesn’t cost you anything, but having something on the line to lose when someone tells you to prove it makes you push yourself harder.  I’m alright paying money to know my limits.  I think that knowledge is a good investment, worth more to me in the end.  That’s why, when I say I’m alright with having lost the bet, I’m telling the honest truth.  What bothered me while I was walking — there was no more reason for me to run — what didn’t sit well with me as I took my time on the sidewalk, was losing in front of Julianna.

Would she try to balm my embarrassment by saying no one could have run that distance?  Certainly, she’d think to herself it was childish of me to even entertain such a wager, but almost as certainly she wouldn’t say anything about that.

I was so engulfed in my thoughts that it wasn’t possible the honking nearby could be meant for me.  Julianna had to make a u-turn, step out of her car, and call my name to get my attention.

"I wouldn’t have made it that far," she said when I’d gotten into the passenger seat.

"You’re wearing flip flops," I retorted with a smile.

At the end of the night, after Julianna had dropped me and Chris back at our apartment, before we had taken five steps in the lobby, Chris put his hand on my shoulder to stop me.

"I have no idea why she likes you," he said, and took out his wallet.

"Neither do I," I replied, and took the money that he handed me.

Like me, Chris knows when he’s wrong.

And I also know when I’ve just gotten lucky.

the quartet crooners - henry

It wasn’t until Lisa broke up with me that I committed fully to the camping trip.  After that, it didn’t seem like there was really much of a decision to be made — it was down to either a final drunken weekend of summer vacation with the rest of The Quartet Crooners, or continuing to stare into an empty apartment that, among other things, meant I would no longer be able to afford it.

Like I said, it wasn’t a hard choice, but when Henry came knocking around the night before we planned to leave—equipped with his most empathetic voice, prepared to let me unburden myself if that was required of him—he was still relieved to hear me say that he should pick me up at eight the next morning immediately after we had greeted each other.

Henry and I were once two of the four members in The Quartet Crooners: an all male a capella group comprised of students from the University of Toronto in Mississauga.  It’s the smallest of the three university campuses, but having taken courses at each location, and despite my graduation from the more esteemed downtown Toronto institution, my Mississauga campus experience constituted, for me, the difference in what would have amounted to a disappointing college career.

Let me clarify.  It wasn’t the quality of teaching that had me wanting more from my university campaign.  At any prestigious institution—and I dare say that in those days, the University of Toronto’s global reputation was more impressive than it ever had been—there exists a very real danger of taking oneself too seriously.  At the downtown campus, regardless of what program you were in, everyone in the same classroom was seen to be your competition.  Engineering students sitting in a Shakespeare study were to be made examples of by the art historians.  Social psychologists would be damned if the future dentists were to continue unchallenged as they proposed that the key to morality was genetically encoded.

Stand-offs were imminent and occurred often.  If you weren’t taking part in the discussion, attempting to pry away whatever purchase a classmate had gained with their argument, it was only because you were too busy taking notes.  Two hours of class was never long enough to understand another’s position, especially when so much of that time was spent formulating, testing, and bolstering a defense against them.

I remember one instance after an ethics class, this guy and this girl who had disagreed about something were looking at each other, seeming as though they wanted to continue debating while everyone else proceeded to pack up.  They struck me like they were on opposite ends of a deep chasm, each wanting to build a bridge to the other, but neither knowing how.  So instead of trying, instead of inviting the other to carry on over a coffee, they both collected their belongings, because it required less effort than asking.

It was during my final year of study when I took my first course at the smaller, more secluded Mississauga establishment, so by then I had accepted that my remaining time would be in keeping with the time already passed.  It was a law course I was admitted into late, so I found myself a week behind on what was only the seventh day of classes.  That’s why when Henry insisted on sharing with me a book I hadn’t purchased yet, it made such an impression.

It’s been nearly a decade since then, and Henry has continued to be a generous friend.  But let’s be honest, he deserved that punch I threw while we were sitting around the fire, drunk beneath the night sky.  When he told me he was sorry, and that he was seeing Lisa.